Loved this book, about the fates of four siblings who chance upon a fortune teller. Still thinking about this quote.
I read more in 2014 than I have in the past few years, but I didn’t read as attentively as usual. It’s been a year of tremendous change for me and the family, and that has perhaps not lent itself to deep introspection. Nonetheless, it’s worthwhile to pause now and think about what I liked, what I didn’t, and what it meant as I enter a new year of words on the page.
The best of the bunch
My favorite reads were a bit of a hodge-podge this year. Several were united by the theme of travel: Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines blended fact and fiction to perfection, meditating on rhythm, movement, and nomadism. Wildmen, Wobblies, and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest (ed. Brian Booth) was a rollicking reintroduction to the lore of the Northwest, an apt pick upon our relocation to Seattle. West with the Night, by Beryl Markham, is a memoir that focuses on the pilot’s exploits, and yet she grows remarkably contemplative by turns: "You can always rediscover an old path and wander over it, but the best you can do then is to say, 'A, yes, I know this turning!' -- or remind yourself that, while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you." And though slightly less literal, Anne Carson’s dazzling prose-poetry masterpiece Autobiography of Red often touches on growth, change, and how one is transported: “How does distance look?' is a simple direct question. It extends from a spaceless/within to the edge/of what can be loved. It depends on light."
I, like many others, write more often when I travel, and so my fondness for an exploration of diary culture was not surprising. A Book of One’s One, by Thomas Mallon, inspired me to greater vigilance in keeping my own notebooks, paltry and thin as they may be.
Another important thread was tied to family, relationships, and changing dynamics within them. Elizabeth Smart’s words continued to haunt me in her story of a love affair, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, though admittedly I should have read this book before I read its sequel, The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, not after. In Department of Speculation, Jenny Offil’s economy of language makes the feats of her storytelling even more amazing, packing a tale of motherhood and a fractured relationship into a slim, masterful work. And Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar offered characters -- friends so close as to feel like family -- that were incredibly well drawn and yet still puzzling, in ways, to the last page, resisting easy answers and thus reflecting the very problem of being human.
I continued to be drawn to older works, those that have fallen into obscurity to some degree. In Women Against Men, I was enraptured by Storm Jameson’s solitary characters. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes “[showed scorn for] pretending life’s a safe business.” I spent a good deal of time with Tove Jansson and want to revisit The True Deceiver, her enigmatic novel of a Scandinavian winter. I dined on several MFK Fisher books, including Serve It Forth, relishing the flavors of her writing on food, travel, and love. Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s was darker, and more wonderful, than I could have hoped. Around Halloween, I read Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, entranced by the ghostly mystery. And The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, upended gender roles at a time when they were fairly conscribed, and this book is a delight in its pragmatism and lack of sentimentality about what people can achieve when they’re working toward ends that suit their personalities.
Fact not fiction
Although I was drawn primarily to fiction this year, there were some highlights in the nonfiction pile as well. A character like Patricia Highsmith would be nearly unbelievable if imagined in a novel; Joan Schenkar’s biography of the fabled writer fleshed out her life in gruesome detail. As an editor, I make a habit of reading style guides of many stripes, and I particularly enjoyed Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Sense of Style, which laid out a philosophy of broad-mindedness rather than rote application of rules that may not hold water; style, he suggests, should be used “to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.” Finally, in a taut essay collection, Leslie Jamison’s excellent The Empathy Exams looked at the emotion as a point of inquiry, emphasizing the importance of extending our horizons to better connect with those around us.
Just passing the time
Finally, some other immensely enjoyable pleasures that I took in quickly, greedily, and with great glee. I was late to the party on Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers, but the quiet, slim novel resonated with me as another searcher, a collector of cast-offs. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was difficult to put down. Several Rainbow Rowell books -- Eleanor and Park, Landline, and Fangirl -- offer charming characters and quick-moving plots. Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater, is a strange vacation from reality for one little boy. Helen Oyeyemi crafts another world, familiar and yet remote, in Boy, Snow, Bird. Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven gives a glimpse of the world after collapse, dark and yet lit with shards of art that glitter amid the decay. Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes, is a fast-moving and unnerving thriller. A. S. King cautions us against drinking potables made from a dead bat in Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future. Another solitary searcher takes center stage in Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist. Jincy Willett’s Amy Falls Down is a funny ode to the underdog, a tribute to second acts. Lydia Davis’s bite-size stories in Can’t and Won’t are polished gems. Oh, I could go on and on; there are more, so many more, in the full run-down of my 2014 book diet. Read heartily, read often, read on!
How did 2014 stack up with previous years? Check it out:
Oh, how the stories of a place are captured or distorted over the years: is the house doomed, or does it doom? Makkai's book meditates on identity, belonging and isolation, and the tide of a century. "We aren't haunted by the dead," she writes, "but by the impossible reach of history. By how unknowable these others are to us, how unfathomable we'd be to them."
Strange to consider a book quiet when one of its central plot points is a woman being eaten by a lion, and yet Rowland's Transcriptionist felt contemplative, meditative. The narrator wrestles with life, death, and her own unlikely obsessions, struggling to make sense of an unlikely act and how a chance encounter informs her own day to day. The writing is measured, and some of the imagery simply haunting:
She puts the book back on the shelf and stares at the row of spines. For the first time, she thinks of bookshelves as plots in a vast potter's field, except these dead can be claimed and known each time someone selects them from the shelf.
I may never look at my library the same way again.
I enjoyed The Shining Girls and decided to give Broken Monsters a try as well. It's another enjoyable page-turner, set amid the depression of Detroit and its art scene. There's a certain bleakness that's rather compelling. "Keep your options open, his parents told him," one passage reflects, "but they didn't tell him the growing older is about your options shutting down, one by one." And yet in spite of our bleak prospects, we keep going, finding ways to work within those constraints ...
A man crafting his memoirs grows increasingly obsessed with his past, which more and more is his present. It was a hard read, and yet hard to look away, with reflections like this:
Can one change oneself? I doubt it. Or if there is any change it must be measured as the millionth part of a millimetre. When the poor ghosts have gone, what remains are ordinary obligations and ordinary interests. One can live quietly and try to do tiny good things and harm no one. I cannot think of any tiny good thing to do at the moment, but perhaps I shall think of one tomorrow.
This is the second Fisher book I've read, and I was just as absorbed in it as I was in The Deepening Stream. First published in 1924, The Home-Maker explores the bounds of Tradition and what happens when men and women test unorthodox roles.
Here, we meet Evangeline, a dutiful housewife perpetually scrubbing grease stains from floors, and Lester, her husband, a thwarted store clerk unhappy with his lot. They have three children, and though Eva loves her family, she isn't sure she likes them or the life they've built:
What was her life? A hateful round of housework, which, hurry as she might, was never done. How she loathed housework! The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screaming out. And what else did she have? Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, grey days, one after another, full of drudgery.
A profound depression came upon her. These were the moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you ... How solitary it made you feel!
They plod along with a sense of suffocating dissatisfaction ... until Lester meets with an accident and breaks his back. Desperate to make ends meet, Eva enters the workforce, becoming a shopgirl at the store where Lester can no longer work, and he stays home to mind the house in her absence.
There, he comes into his own, embracing tasks like peeling potatoes and spending time with the children, and in this space, he finds he again has time for the things he used to love -- the aimless cogitating which had served him so ill in the office. Lester realizes, "For years he had been shutting into the cage of silence all the winged beautiful words which came flying into his mind! And beautiful words which you do not pronounce aloud are like children always forced to 'be quiet' and 'sit still.' They droop and languish."
Of course, the transition of Lester into house-husband isn't well received by everyone in the community. A neighbor visits and is shocked to see the state of affairs:
'The idea of your darning stockings! It's dreadful enough your having to do the housework!'
'Eva darned them a good many years,' he said, with some warmth, 'and did the housework. Why shouldn't I?' He looked at her hard and went on, 'Do you know what you are saying to me, Mattie Farnham? You are telling me that you really think that home-making is a poor, mean, cheap job beneath the dignity of anybody who can do anything else.'
Mattie Farnham was for a moment helpless with shock over his attack. ... She brought out a formula again, but this time with heartfelt personal conviction, 'Home-making is the noblest work anybody can do!'
'Why pity me then,' asked Lester with a grin, drawing his needle in and out of the little stocking.
Eva, in the meantime, thrives in a professional setting and is quickly promoted; this, in turn, allows her to be freer and happier in her home life, as well. It's all rather subversive for the era -- and refreshing. Still, as Karen Knox notes in the preface to the Persephone Books' edition, Canfield didn't consider herself a feminist. In that respect, it's interesting to see how she works counter to that label while still embracing the ethos, ultimately elevating the work of the domestic while adamantly arguing that it need not be a woman's destiny to attend to this arena.
Hale's memoir is a charming tribute to her parents, artists in New England as the 19th century turned to the 20th. As she clears out their studios following their deaths, she meditates on what remains and how to protect what's good. A rumination on trying to keep up with her mother's gardening was particularly touching:
The garden casts a hush in early morning, as if some old forgotten secret were being silently exposed once more. ... The white maple a neighbor predicted would die has doubled its size in three years, and waves large, silver-green leaves in the little breeze. Instinct says, Do nothing; stay perfectly still; barely breathe.
But there is danger everywhere. At any moment, something can filter through the green wall of leaves, or the blue wall towards the sea -- aphis, green worms that drop by a thread, earwigs, a driving rain to penetrate the windowsills, the ivy under the threshold. At every portal, fortify with shears and secateur, with spray gun and worn-out Turkish towels, to hedge around -- set free? -- what's trapped within this place.
The Toast also recently published a piece on Hale's fiction, which has fallen more or less into obscurity -- a couple titles to add to the reading list!
Pinker's accessible guide suggests that there are some writing "rules" that are made to be broken. Rather than obsessing over split infinitives and the like, Pinker counsels readers to take an approach that recognizes the broader view: "... for all the vitriol brought out by matters of correct usage, they are the smallest part of good writing. They pale in importance behind coherence, classic style, and overcoming the curse of knowledge, to say nothing of standards of intellectual conscientiousness."
It's a worthy contribution to the near-endless literature on the subject, and one that I suspect I'll return to again. And in the ongoing fight for clear, effective writing, what can we do? Well, he says:
We can share our advice on how to write well without treating the people in need of it with contempt. We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.
In this enjoyable collection, Jamison's essays hop with ease from stories of medical actors to a Morgellons convention to the Barkley Marathon. She ties them all together under the umbrella of shared feeling, compassion, interior insight:
Empathy isn't just listening, it's asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see ...
This untraditional biography traces the life and loves of Patricia Highsmith, writer of such classics as The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train, and The Price of Salt. Characterized by one editor as "the most unloving and unlovable person I've ever known ... a really terrible human being," it's nonetheless hard to look away from these fleeting glimpses of an eccentric. I'd read it again for the disquieting anecdotes alone: at various points, we see Pat smuggling snails into France by concealing them under her breasts, toting tortoises along to parties, spooking house guests by jumping out at them from behind a tree, flinging dead rats through open windows, leaning over a burning candle at a dinner party to set her hair on fire, scrawling love notes for her mistress on her mirrors with red lipstick, and posing "with terrifying hostility" amid a wall "hung with her saws and hammers."
A fascinating, if rather long, exploration of a woman who perhaps remains unknowable in her strange genius.
A searing, lyrical book of prose poetry on love found and then lost. Although I preferred the more contemplative, "what now?" take of the book's "sequel," The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, I nonetheless was in thrall to By Grand Central Station, finishing it in a single sitting.
Oh, to be wrapped up again in those early days of an affair:
How can I find bird-relief in the nest-building of day-to-day? Necessity supplies no velvet wing with which to escape. I am indeed and mortally pierced with the seeds of love.
On observation and revelation:
Seeing yourself through somebody else's eyes is like taking a guest through your long-unvisited apartment. The bits of your personality that you've come to take for granted are like the souvenirs of a life you are already bored of remembering.
This quick-moving tale about a disgraced artist conscripted to copy a looted Degas would be a good complement to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. Both work in themes of authenticity, artifice, guilt, innocence, but where Goldfinch meditates more on grief and solitude, The Art Forger goes for page-turning twists; an enjoyable read nonetheless.
Are there things (or people) we should only admire from a distance? Perhaps, perhaps:
[I]t's better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.
This quick read is good for the literary -- a children's librarian accidentally, well, borrows one of her patrons, a 10-year-old she fears is at risk of having his spirit crushed by his family. Although lighter in tone, it called to mind two other recent books that touch on kidnappings: Schroder, by Amity Gaige, and Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam.
There are a lot of great little moments in Dept. of Speculation; take, for example, this scene:
A few nights later, I secretly hope that I might be a genius. Why else can no amount of sleeping pills fell my brain? But in the morning my daughter asks me what a cloud is and I cannot say.
Sometimes, writers focus so much on these little set pieces that they sacrifice the larger story, and Offill resists this. It's the story of a courtship, a marriage, a family, but it's so, so much more than that.
I've been on another Fisher binge, and though I didn't like Serve so much as her other books (like, say, A Cordiall Water), I greatly enjoyed her writing for its blend of history and telling anecdote. This one, about Frederick the Great's preferred cup, made me giggle (and contemplate re-creating the concoction, just to pass the time and see how it really tastes):
Frederick the Great used to make his own coffee, with much to-do and fuss. For water he used champagne. Then, to make the flavour stronger, he stirred in powdered mustard. Now to me it seems improbably that Frederick truly liked this brew. I suspect him of bravado. Or perhaps he was taste-blind.
It's still early days in our new city, and Calvino offers much food for thought:
You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.
Just as I enjoyed Jansson's The True Deceiver, I greatly delighted in this book, a series of vignettes from the lives of artists Mari and Jonna. The exploration of the line between work and life, and of the creative process, was one of the most intriguing aspects. In particular, Jansson devotes a good deal of time to the idea that one must be able to toil artistically in long, solitary stretches.
On abiding silences:
There are empty spaces that must be respected -- those often long periods when a person can't see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.
Why do we need this?:
After all, a period of creative grace can be short. Suddenly, and without warning, the pictures disappear, or they're chased away by some interference -- someone or something that irretrievably cuts off the fragile desire to capture an observation, an insight.
And a final reminder of the necessity -- the vitality -- of this kind of aloneness:
A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love.