I haven’t posted on this blog in over a year. Initially, in fall 2019, it was because I’d gotten behind on my reading recaps. Then 2020 happened. I didn’t stop reading—though it’s been very fits-and-starts—but all my spare energy has been given to teaching, working on my novel, or caulking the cracks in my personal wall against the flood of this-year-induced-anxiety.
I’m never going to be able to catch up with my one-sentence reviews, but I did still want to post a record of my reading since September 2019, and give a sentence or two to those books I’d particularly recommend. That list follows below, in rough chronological order (though if I read several books by the same author, these appear together rather than in the order I read them). Starred entries are books I think are worth picking up (ie, most of them). Double-starred entries are books I adored. I’ve also included a mini-ranking of all six Sarah Waters novels, which I read (and loved) for the first time in 2019-20.
Miriam Toews, Women Talking (2018)**
A novel like a platonic dialogue, based on the true, brutal story of a series of rapes in a small religious community.
Tessa Hadley, The Past (2015)*
Prater Violet (1945)
The Memorial (1932)*
R. F. Kuang
The Poppy War (2018)*
The Dragon Republic (2019)**
R.F. Kuang’s fantasy series, loosely based on late 19th/early 20th-century Chinese history, is breathless, plot-driven escapism. Yet the books are also extremely grim, tackling genocide, colonialism, extreme poverty, and trauma. While I enjoyed the ride, I sometimes felt that the snappy pace outran the serious subject matter, asking readers to relish it as emotional windowdressing rather than think about it. This series would be fantastic for anyone looking to teach a class on the ethics of pleasure.
George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859)*
Colm Tóibín, The Master (2004)**
As dense in its psychological nuance as James himself, but with better sentences.
Vernon Lee, Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales (1890)*
Karen Havelin, Please Read This Leaflet Carefully (2019)*
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019)**
Vuong’s theme is purportedly his relationship with his mother, but early on the memoir’s emotional focus gets redirected to examining his first love, who died of opiate addiction. This book made me ugly-cry on a plane.
Eduardo C. Corral, Slow Lightning (2012)*
Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead (2012)**
Danez Smith’s poems are comprised entirely of lines that other poets would, having completed, tuck carefully away to reserve for openers or closers. Smith has a bottomless store of these zingers, and they spend them lavishly.
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012)**
Blood Dazzler (2008)**
Patricia Smith has one of the best ears in contemporary anglophone poetry, and I only say “one of” because I don’t read enough poetry. Everything she writes is worth reading.
Daniel M. Lavery, Something That May Shock and Discredit You (2020)**
As funny and insightful a memoir as you’d expect from the guy who brought us The Toast. Lavery marries pop-culture savvy to a deeply-felt, and beautifully-written, conversation with the Bible. And he manages to do it without ever competitively flaunting his coolness (which can be an occasional and unfortunate side-affect of this flavor of transmasc pop-saturated personal writing).
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (2016)*
Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Sabrina & Corina (2019)*
The Night Watch (2006)**
The Paying Guests (2014)**
Tipping the Velvet (1998)*
The Little Stranger (2009)*
One way I got through Jan-Oct 2020 was by reading all of Sarah Waters’s novels. The list above is in order of my favorites:
- The Night Watch is Waters’s most complex character study, and her most formally ambitious book. We meet its four couples at the latest date in their relationships, before working backwards to learn how they got there. The narrative tension is not about what will happen but what has happened; the novel feels like paring back the layers of a broken heart. Also the quotient of hot butches is higher than in all of Waters’s other novels (yes, even Tipping the Velvet).
- Fingersmith is pure pleasure, a Dickensian romp with a plot so gripping you’ll hover over your partner when they read it, asking with jiggling eyebrows, “so what’s happening noooow?” It’s ganache in book form, completely satisfying. (I actually read Fingersmith earlier in 2019, but include it here for completion’s sake).
- The Paying Guests is Waters’s second-best character study and historical evocation. Like The Night Watch, it’s also structurally experimental: what seems like one sort of novel becomes, halfway through, something entirely different. To say more would be to spoil it, and it’s a book that’s worth not-spoiling.
- Tipping the Velvet is sexy picaresque, tongue firmly in cheek (and everywhere else). An enormously cozy read, it draws you along through anticipation of what fun new sex its MC gets to have, without any anxiety about her ultimate fate—which is, like any good romance, a solid happy-ever-after.
- Like Fingersmith, Affinity is a booklong tease, though less satisfying because its vaguely ghosty bondagey scenario never really resolves.
- The point of The Little Stranger is that “the patriarchy was the villain all along!” This is rarely not true, of course, but if you are reading a Sarah Waters novel you already know that, so the revelation is not much of one, when it comes.
Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (2019)**
Evaristo is a master of character, creating a breathing, believable person in a few careful strokes. There were at least twenty perspectival characters in this novel and, months later, I can still recall many of them, even if I only met them for ten pages.
John Crowley, And Go Like This (2019)**
Crowley is the William Maxwell of speculative fiction: warm and generous, with enough wry self-consciousness to compensate for an earnest white Americanness that might otherwise get irritating.
Another Country (1962)**
Going to Meet the Man (1965)**
Another Country is so good it gave me a panic attack. Baldwin remains one of the best psychological novelists the US has ever produced. He maps the grooves systemic crises leave in individual minds (grooves, patterns of thought so rehearsed they seem native), while never forgetting that selfhood is a fathomless place where we all stand, at some level, alone. He’s also a flawless prose stylist. I’m not sure what more I can say without sounding stupid; it’s the year of our Lord Garbagefire 2020, and if you’re reading this, you hopefully don’t need me to tell you to go read James Baldwin.
Jeanette Winterson, Why be Happy When You Can Be Normal? (2011)**
A powerful defense of literature disguised as a powerful memoir.
Ayşegül Savaş, Walking on the Ceiling (2019)*
They Came Like Swallows (1937)*
All the Days and Nights (1995)**
The Folded Leaf (1945)*
William Maxwell writes the sort of graceful prose to which I aspire. He’s usually a realist, but the end of All the Days and Nights contains a series of flash-length “fairy tales” that are some of the best I’ve ever read.
W. G. Sebald
The Rings of Saturn (1995)*
The Emigrants (1992)*
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009)
Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies (2010)*
Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore (1979)**
Other writers would take 300 pages to do what Fitzgerald does in 130, and they wouldn’t be as funny about it, either.
Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922)*
Michael Prior, Burning Province (2020)**
Elegant, formally-controlled poems with a vivid sense of place, both lived and remembered.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner that Held Them (1948)*
Kai Cheng Thom, I Hope We Choose Love (2019)**
Thom’s essays offer the most astute diagnosis I’ve read of how lefty communities can hurt themselves, as well as a heartfelt set of prescriptions on how to do better. It’s worth noting that at no point do her solutions concede to neocon whining about “cancel culture.” She also runs a fantastic advice column at the Daily Xtra, one of three I read regularly (the others are John Paul Brammer’s ¡Hola Papi! and Captain Awkward).
Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor (2014)**
This is a cozy weighted blanket of a fantasy with an earnest-yet-not-annoying MC who readers are shamelessly invited to root for.
Garous Abdolmalekian, Lean Against This Late Hour (2020)**
All Abdolmalekian’s poems, even the shortest, are narratives; reading them is like glimpsing a deep well through a chink in the stone. Their pivot points are often single, riveting images: children turning into cages; the body as an emptied trunk.
Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist (2019)*
Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017)*
Zeyn Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars (2018)
Lou Sullivan, And We Both Laughed in Pleasure (ed. Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma) (2019)**
Lou Sullivan was the gay trans uncle everyone deserves. And he was from Milwaukee! Well, ok, Tosa.
Julian K. Jarboe, Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel (2020)**
Smart and occasionally smartypants, these short stories are bitter in a particularly New-England-working-class sort of way. Jarboe’s become internet-famous for a quotation from a flash piece in this collection; I hope they get famous for its title story, which is a masterful look at who the digital revolution continues to leave behind.
Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (2020)**
If Borges had built one of his short stories into a novel, it would look like this. Clarke gives just enough scaffolding to sustain her conceit, and doesn’t overstay her welcome.
Robert Aickman, Compulsory Games (2018)
Colin Dickey, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016)
Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw (1994)*
Ellen Bryan Voigt, Headwaters (2013)*
Torrey Peters, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones (2016)*
Federico García Lorca, Selected Verse (Revised Bilingual Ed), ed. Christopher Maurer (2018)**
I read this collection backwards, starting with Lorca’s late poems (the lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, the Galician poems) and ending with his Gypsy Ballads. My favorite are his New York poems, which anchor his free-floating images to a particular place to create a visceral (literally: there are lots of entrails) portrait of NYC in 1929.
Mary Renault, The Praise Singer (1978)*
Samuel Delany, Triton (1976)**
Supposedly Delany’s answer to LeGuin’s Dispossessed, this novel asks a lot of good questions, including one I’m not sure I wanted answered: “what if an incel transitioned?”
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic (2020)
Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (1983)*
Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic (2019)**
A spare, powerful collection of dramatic monologues narrating a fascist coup and its resistance in an eastern European country. Kaminsky uses deafness as a metaphor, but never in a simplistic way.
Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach (2000)**
A dark, stark story of a Haisla teenager’s search for her lost brother; a meditation on the things that can’t be lived through, yet why living is sometimes worth it anyway.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)** (reread)
My favorite Hainish novel shifts every time I reread Left Hand or The Dispossessed; currently it’s Left Hand. Le Guin’s worlds always feel rich and lived-in—not only because she puts in the work, but because her worldbuilding understands the spiritual threads that link a culture together.
Andrea Long Chu, Females (2019)**
One of the smartest reflections on desire (and gender) I’ve read in a long time.
That’s it! Hopefully I won’t wait another year before posting here again.