I keep meaning to write a series of short essays discussing my favorite books of the past year, but I am such a slow writer, this concept remains a concept. A list seems like a more efficient way of getting it all down.
I’ve gathered, here, a list of the books that captivated, intrigued, or otherwise preoccupied me during the Covid19 pandemic. I’ve tried to focus on books published in the last five years, with a few exceptions, and I’ve also left off anything related to my research and writing (though some of these books might appear in future essays, most of them came into my life as vehicles of pleasure, not work). The titles are sorted by year, and appear in no particular order.
I don’t remember very much about what I read in 2020. It was a hard time in New York, especially the spring–paralyzing, really. I remember fragments of that time, a sense of things slamming shut. One of the last cheerful things I did in early 2020 was purchase a copy of a guidebook to Paris. I was supposed to meet some friends there for a short visit. Not long after I got my guidebook, I received an email from the hotel in Paris–they were shutting down. Most of the books listed below were books that I read in the first quarter of 2020. Of the summer, I can only recall reading Patience Gray, and revisiting The Leopard, and Christ Stopped at Eboli, reading the English translations along with the originals. In late 2020, I seem to have pivoted to reading Dante’s Paradiso.
Jane Mead, To the Wren: Collected and New Poems. Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2019.
Carolyn Forché, What You Have Heard Is True. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.
Louise Gluck, Poems: 1962-2012. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.
Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. New York: Henry Holt, 2020.
Patience Gray, Honey From a Weed. London: Prospect Books, 1986.
Rachel Cusk, Second Place. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021.
After reading several of Cusk’s novels (the Outline trilogy, Second Place), I became curious about her nonfiction writing. I picked up Coventry, and then decided I needed to get a sense of who Cusk was, before. So I read The Last Supper, Cusk’s account of her family’s travels in Italy–and a book that got her sued for libel. It was interesting to get a sense of Cusk’s evolution as a writer and thinker. I like the current version of Cusk better.
Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.
I read this book when I was just surfacing from being ill with Covid. I liked it. I tried to make it a Book Club selection for Ars Longa, before realizing that, at least in early 2021, a Zoom Book Club was the last thing anyone wanted. I read it during that time when I had anosmia, and the entire world smelled to me like a cold Alpine morning, which is to say, it smelled of nothing at all. Coffee smelled to me like a gust of cold mountain wind, so did kimchi, and the ubiquitous trash piles on every street corner. I should probably read the book again. My Amazon account also informed me that I purchased two copies of Hamnet, and I do not recall doing this. As far as I know, we only have one copy lying around the house. I suppose parts of 2021 will always be a mystery to me.
Clarice Lispector, An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures. New York: New Directions, 2021. Trans. by Stefan Tobler.
I bought this book because the Pencil Store in my neighborhood chose it for a book club selection, and I wanted to get out of the house/go to a book club/meet some new people. But when it came time to go to the book club, I found that I was still too weak from Covid to do it. I told myself that I would go to another book club meeting instead, and then the pencil store closed down. Moral of this story: Do not wait. Do the thing now.
Deborah Levy, Real Estate. New York: Bloomsbury, 2021.
At first I low-key did not like this book. And then I read it again, and liked it, and read it again and decided that I have an entire essay’s worth of things to say about the themes that Levy raised in Real Estate, the final volume in her living autobiography trilogy. Until I finish that essay, you should go and read the other 2 volumes of the trilogy, and also listen to Levy’s Desert Island Disks episode. Her voice — husky, seduction, a little theatrical — is itself a force of nature. I’d listen to her read a phone book out loud, or at least a take-out menu.
Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd. New York: Scribner, 2021.
I admit that after reading the one about the motorcycle race in Baja, I turned to the two essays about San Francisco and read those first. They reminded me of home, and of my teens and early 20s. Some quotes from those essays appear in one of mine, “Craft” — and I suspect bits and pieces of Kushner’s essays might surface in future essays.
Joan Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. New York: Knopf, 2021.
This was the last collection of Didion’s essays that was published before her death. There are two pieces, in particular, that are sort of writer’s writer pieces, where she discusses her sense of the craft. If you only had time to read one of those two, make it the essay on Hemingway, “Last Words.”
Toby Ferris, Short Life in a Strange World: Life to Death in 42 Panels. New York: Harper, 2020.
Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police. Translated by Stephen Snyder. New York: Patheon, 2019.
Camille Fourmont and Kate Leahy, La Buvette: Recipes and Wine Notes from Paris. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2020.
Cookbooks provided a necessary means of escape in early 2021, when I was housebound and recovering from Covid. As I waited — somewhat impatiently– for my senses of taste and smell to return, I paged through this book. I read it along with Aldo Sohm’s Wine Simple (which I mentioned in a earlier post), constructing lush dreamscapes of tastes and smells–promises of things to come.