This year I thought I’d buy myself a reading chair. My sofa is inhospitable to a reading position because there are no arms to nestle into and reading in bed is basically impossible since I find naps attractive. Pre-pandemic I read on my commute; I liked to get two things done at once. Before I started getting wash-and-fold, I read in the laundromat. Now, for the most part, I work at my desk and the only commute is from one room to another. The setup for my reading corner had to be perfect. The fuzzy, light pink chair I acquired allows me to sit in various positions. I often sit in a U-shape with my head on the armrest and my legs up or sit straight with my legs crossed while my cat lays on a nearby ledge. There is a soft light that is the perfect brightness to avoid straining the eyes. I achieved what I set out to do, whether I can sit still to read is another story…
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a re-reader. Often, I’ll pore over the same handful of books with a different aim each time. When I find something I really love, I like to read it over and over until I understand its mechanics. The same goes for films, though I tend to watch more films than read new novels. I’ll read contemporary works occasionally, but my reading is stubbornly centered on works by women in the 20th century. Whenever I tell someone what I’m reading, no one seems to know what I’m talking about. It’s a tendency of mine to find novels that were thrown to the wayside, usually because of their humorous tone.
Some books I’m interested in are usually out of print, or hard to find so I end up searching for them on eBay. This was the case for Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent and Dead Glamorous by Carole Morin, off-kilter books with dark humor, but worth rediscovering for those who enjoy a comical nihilism like Otessa Mosfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Gail Parent’s book was made into a 1975 film starring a charming 26-year-old Jeannie Berlin.
There are some books I re-read to reinvigorate my life; one is Allure by Diana Vreeland. I have a first edition with an inscription that says,
11/24/80Happy Birthday, To a girl who has “it” – Phyllis
It is obviously one of my prized possessions. Beside the elegant quips from Vreeland, mostly I shed a tear looking at all the photos of Maria Callas, Elsa Maxwell, and other women who had strong noses. I miss a strong profile; it seems nonexistent in Hollywood now. I have to watch something like a Desplechin film to get my fill. Speaking of the French, there’s also the Treatise on Elegant Living by Balzac that I will thumb through to refresh my senses. A pivotal text for dandyism, but also a bit strange in its political positioning. The aphorisms abound, “Anyone who does not frequently visit Paris will never be elegant,” or “The impolite man is the leper of the fashionable world.” It’s a text many stylish people should read.
I do not cook, or at least I only cook when I’m forced to. I don’t enjoy it mainly because I live alone and the constant reminder that I must nourish myself every few hours is not very enchanting—it just reminds me that I am a cog in a wheel that must keep turning! However, I do like food and thinking about food and celebration and eating with people you love. Consider the Oyster by M.F.K. Fisher is a joy, simply because she knows how to describe taste so beautifully and elevates even oyster stew to something divine. Between recipes Fisher peppers in devastating lines like, “oysters, like all men, are somewhat weaker after they have done their best at reproducing.” I feel like these books are novels that happen to have recipes, like The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book by Alice B. Toklas. Of course I want to know about the “fine striped bass” she served Picasso and recipes sent by Mary Oliver or Carl van Vechten. There’s a feeling that knowing what these genius people would have been eating might be the key…to something or other. Both Fisher and Toklas knew that food was one thing, but entertaining flavors the entire night.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe is a novel that I return to because of its structure. It seems almost impossible to write a novel that features several characters whose perspectives we go in and out of, but Jaffe does it successfully. Of course, I love any novel about young women striving in the city and this one focuses on five women who start out working at a publishing house in New York. My favorite work by Jaffe is the titular short story in her collection called Mr. Right Is Dead, I wish I had read it when writing my novel because it feels so akin. Another novel I revisited was Quicksand by Nella Larsen. I hadn’t read it since university, but I remember being deeply moved by it. Since the film version of Passing came out this year, I wanted to return to Larsen’s world. The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy surprised me as I felt it was so different tonally from Dud Avocado. I loved its sense of vindictiveness and calculation, so rare in a woman protagonist. From the outset there was no way of knowing what Dundy had in store for me.
I did read a few books that came out this year…even some that are yet to be released (One of the perks of being a novelist). Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters stood out to me as one of my favorites of the year, alongside Rachel Cusk’s Second Place. I received a galley of Sheila Heti’s new novel Pure Colour set to be released in February 2022 and cried more than half the time reading it. I picked up Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer, but as I am something of a Capote sleuth, I already knew much of what was in the book from reading the memoirs of Capote’s exclusive group of friends, which he called his “swans.”
Finally, as I have never been to Journalism School, I like to handpick profiles, essays, reportage that have an inimitable style. I feel so novice in this kind of writing and it does wonders for me to print out these works and keep them in a pile for reference. Luckily, some of the time, your favorite writers compile it all for you. I managed to track down The Most by Nora Ephron, which has all of her work in one large tome, even her screenplays. Nora Ephron is one of those writers that I admire because she wrote so distinctly as herself. You knew she was implicating herself with her subject and that made it more authentic, real. Most journalism has bias and at least Ephron was honest about it. I would never want to mimic her style, but reading her work is instructional on how to carve out your own; it’s important to be unmistakably you!
Now looking back at the entire year, can you believe I read all of that from the comfort of my reading chair? No, that’s probably a lie, I did read a little at the local cocktail bar.
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