My reading during the first five months of the year falls pretty neatly into two columns: Pre-COVID and COVID Phase 1, with vastly different types of books in each. I will keep my comments brief.
Pre- COVID (Jan. 1 to ~ mid March)
Highly Recommended Fiction:
Inland, by Téa Obreht (2019): Obreht’s second novel (after The Tiger’s Wife in 2011) weaves together two stories set in 1893 Arizona Territory, one taking place over 24 hours, the other over decades. Both eventually collide. The novel is spell-binding yet rooted in the reality of the Western expansion and the time that the post-Civil War military tried to use camels as pack animals in the Southwest. (The attempt was ultimately unsuccessful.)
Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson (2019): Wilson, a favorite writer of Ann Patchett’s, broke through to critical acclaim with his fourth novel, The Family Fang, in 2012. This one is even better. Down-on-her-luck Lillian takes on the job of babysitter to the stepchildren of former school friend Madison, now married to a wealthy politician. The catch is that the children have a tendency to spontaneously combust under certain circumstances. The book is laugh out loud funny while also deftly exploring issues of class, friendship, accountability, and just what makes a family.
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (2014): When Jenny Offill’s third novel Weather came out in February of this year, the book reviewers were ecstatic. And I felt pretty dumb, as I had never heard of her. So I decided to start with this novel, her second. A prosaic description of its subject would be “an exploration of the marriage of two 30-something academics with a young child who are going through a rough patch.” But it is so much more, and the writing is so original and entrancing that I have to yield to the Boston Globe for a more articulate description than I can give it: “ Slender, quietly smashing…A book so radiant with sunlight and sorrow that it almost makes a person gasp.”
Highly Recommended Nonfiction:
Boom Town, by Sam Anderson (2018): In December of last year, I read Sam Anderson’s piece in the New York Times Magazine (12.8.19 issue) about his experience regularly watching Jeopardy with his father as his father was fighting a losing battle with cancer. At a key point in the story, Anderson’s first book, Boom Town, actually shows up as one of the “answers” in the Daily Double. The piece was written with charm and love and wonder, and I had to get a tissue at the end. So I decided to read Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis. I had no interest at all in Oklahoma City or basketball, but Anderson’s writing is so engaging, so wry, so much fun that it was one of the most entertaining books I have read. I couldn’t put it down. (If you’re not willing to risk the book, at least read the “Jeopardy” story here.)
There There, a novel by Tommy Orange (2018): This is an important work, and it certainly took me into the gritty world of urban Native Americans. I found, though, that the voices of the twelve characters were not distinct, and they became just figures being moved around on a big game board.
Live a Little, a novel by Howard Jacobson (2019): British author Jacobson is primarily known for comic novels, and I’ve enjoyed a couple earlier ones. This one is more poignant than comic, as the cast members are quite advanced in years and spend the novel working through a lifetime of difficult memories. My complaint, though, is that Jacobson doesn’t bring the two main characters, Beryl Dusinbery (90 something) and Shimi Carmelli (80 something), together until the last 60 of nearly 300 pages. At that point the story takes off and is a delight. I just didn’t think the run-up was worth the effort.
Ordinary Light, a memoir by Tracy K. Smith (2015): Tracy Smith has published four collections of poetry, served two terms as Poet Laureate, has won a Pulitzer, and is the chair of Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. This memoir was a finalist for the National Book Award. So I was expecting the prose of Ordinary Light to be lyrical, extraordinary. But it wasn’t. It was just…ordinary.
COVID – PHASE 1 (mid March to the end of May)
As soon as it was clear we were in for a terrible mess, my brain decided to check out. I know I was not the only one in that state, but it was still maddening that during more than two months, with no editing projects and with my calendar cleared of appointments, lunches, and concerts as though they had been written in disappearing ink, I couldn’t read anything that was even mildly challenging. I started books by Julian Barnes, Lydia Davis, Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith – and they all still sit on the table behind me with their yellow Post-It bookmarks sticking up around page 25. Here are the novels I read instead:
The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard: Howard, a popular English novelist who was the second wife of Kingsley Amis (for almost twenty years), wrote twelve novels, including the five (!) volumes of the Chronicles (four published between 1990 and 1995, with the fifth one tacked on in 2013, a year before Howard’s death). The Chronicles follow generations of the wealthy Cazalet family from the late 1930s and the height of their good fortune (which was in the lumber business) to the mid 1950s. And in a 2016 Guardian article, Hilary Mantel had described Howard as undervalued and Austen-esque. So it all sounded promising as a distraction. I found them, though, more Forsyte Saga than Austen. The first two volumes were entertaining, but as each successive book got longer, the writing got more pedestrian and repetitive. Howard’s efforts to make sure that details of daily life placed each book in its time period were workmanlike, and many of the characters grew tiresome. The 400-page fifth volume was 100 pages too long and dragged as the family falls apart in various ways, some quite forced, with the swinging ’60s on the horizon.
Writers & Lovers, by Lily King (2020)
Red Head by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler (2020)
Both books were a lovely change from the Howard novels and made a good transition into more normal reading patterns starting in June.
Writers & Lovers is a smart romantic comedy with a sympathetic 31-year-old protagonist who is trying to get her first novel written and published while she is also dealing with a nearly overwhelming number of changes in her life. I also appreciated all the literary jokes and allusions, and liked that King assumed her readers were intelligent. Far closer to Austen than the Howard was.
Red Head… is just a classic Anne Tyler, a familiar comfort in strange, jarring times. This protagonist (Micah) is one of Tyler’s stock Baltimore residents, a befuddled male who ultimately is set straight by a perfectly ordinary woman. Yet at 180 pages it is a small gem of character study. I marveled at Tyler’s ability to capture each of the individuals, even the more minor players, through distinctive dialogue and setting. When I finished the book, I felt as though I would recognize each one if I ran into them on the street.