Meanwhile, Peri found solace in literature. Short stories, novels, poems, plays…she devoured whatever she could lay her hands on at the limited library at school. When there was nothing else to be found, she read encyclopedias. Devouring everything from Aardvark to Zombie, she came to know about things that, though of no current use in her life, might someday come in handy, she hoped. But if there were never to have a function, she would still keep reading, propelled by her hunger for learning. -Elif Shafak (Three Daughters of Eve)
On the eve of each and every new year, while some people sketch out healthy eating plans and others plan on getting fit, I make lists, endless, extensive lists of all the books I want to read in the next 365 days. The only problem with these lists is that I often underestimate not only my own capabilities, but also the reality of time. It was one thing when I was in college or the early days of graduate school, living in a room the size of a shoe box and with responsibilities that could fit easily into my pockets, but now, as an adult, to find the kind of time that it takes to read and lose oneself in a sprawling nineteenth-century novel is rare. And even though I know and confront this shortage of time a daily basis, I am still always amazed at how quickly the days give way to the the demands and pleasures of work, cooking, the beagle, the husband, the laundry, the mail, exercise, email, and friends, leaving only 20-30 minutes to devote to the book at the very tiptop of the eternally towering stack on my nightstand.
Of course, I also recognize that I am often the architect of my own disappointment because, if I didn’t care so much about eating good food and making jam and occasionally escaping into the “mindless mindfulness” of yoga, I would have more time to read. But perhaps this may constitute only half of the problem. I know I could also create more reasonable goals, rather than always feeling like I am racing against the clock and falling short. After all, is not the whole point of reading to enjoy the suspension of time and reality and not to feel (sidenote for linguist friends: I am so in the Pittsburghese mindset right now that, instead of typing feel, I wrote fill. 😳 Further proof that time at home with family is equivalent to the suspension of reality) like you are attempting to fill quotas or cross titles off lists?
While the answer to that question is more than obvious to both me and you, it doesn’t mean that a feeling of satisfaction is absent when you finally cross a book off the list that you had long wanted to read or when you realize that, for yet another year, you had failed to read a book that you once eagerly purchased. The problem, as is so often the case in our modern times, may ultimately stem from an excess of options–the colorful spines on the groaning and packed shelves that could just as easily transport you to India as they could into the mind of a spurned lover or a murderous madman–as well as from an active publishing industry that is always hinting at the Next Great Book That Must Be Read (my own susceptibility to these promises may also be to blame). But, considering that I will always be a spendthrift when it comes to books–in fact, this may just the major vice of my life– I’m not sure I would ultimately have it any other way. Options are essential for not just the imagination, but also the acquisition of knowledge–and the possibility of escape. In these dark, dreary, and turbulent times, books are more essential than ever, and it’s important to go wherever your readerly inclinations take you–whether on a list or not.
My reading year started off on a promising note, as I eagerly devoured the latest and, in my opinion, best of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad mysteries, The Trespasser. The book was equal parts gritty and brilliant, with interrogation scenes that could rival those in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; plus, although mystery and suspense novels are often considered a bit of a lesser genre–as if the pleasure readers derive from them is not at racing pulse of the book industry–French’s prose is as elegant as her characters are complex and well crafted. But after what amounted to a few days in my pajamas, sleeping, eating and breathing French’s novel, I hit a lull. Or, rather, I should say, the inauguration happened and, well, the rest is history.
From that point until early May, my reading was sporadic, interrupted by political scandals, a visit from my in-laws, and enough work to spill into my evenings. I was still reading, but very little; to mirror the strangeness of the year, the books I read ranged from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Oryx and Crake to Han King’s surrealist triptych of a novel, The Vegetarian. After these two novels, which were disturbing, but poignant in their portraits of isolation, I was a bit unmoored, unable to concentrate, perhaps even more obsessed with politics than, in hindsight, I would like to admit. I did manage to read Emma Donaghue’s The Wonder during this time, which attests more to her power of crafting a readable and smart narrative about the power (and failure) of faith than it does to my powers of concentration.
But there came a point when I simply couldn’t focus on every little political happening, and, with this freedom, I found myself again actively reading. This wasn’t just a personal reading renaissance, either, as it was also the period when I read the three novels that I would consider my favorite reads of the year: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo; Ali Smith’s Autumn; and Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. The first two shared the common ground of being in dialogue with modern times, as Lincoln has been touted as the “first essential novel of the Donald Trump era” and Smith’s novel, the first in a planned a “quartet”, was called the “first great Brexit novel.” In light of this, it made sense to read one after the other, especially given their preoccupation with the circularity of time and the weight of grief, although they are stylistically as different as night and day. Strout’s novel, however, is very much the antithesis of a political novel, focusing instead on the story of one woman’s life and her relationship with her mother. It is no less arresting for its lack of immediate political relevance and, in fact, this detail may ultimately make it all the more compelling. Though spare as far as novels go, it is quiet and moving in the way it invites you into the fraught bonds of this woman’s life.
For any other novel to have topped these, which I perhaps read during my happiest and most relaxed moments, is impossible, although Yaa Ghasi’s Homegoing came pretty close. In reading this book, the tale of two half-sisters whose lives take very different paths after one marries a British slave trader and the other is taken prisoner and sold into slavery in the United States, I learned a lot about the horrors of the slave trade in Ghana, as well as different aspects of American history both before and after the Civil War. It is a beautiful and, at times, harrowing book that shows, like Americanah, what life has been and continues to be in the United States for blacks–African Americans and African émigrés alike. Its only flaw is that, after the first two chapters involving the two half-sisters, certain historical epochs appear to be mentioned only out of temporal necessity (the novel moves from the late eighteenth century to the present); the fact that some chapters, characters, and time periods are more fleshed out than others breaks the narrative flow and allows the novel to feel, at different points, more like a collection of short stories than a novel.
Although many novels that had been on the list went unread–Swing Time, Purity, The Alice Network, The Kitchens of the Midwest–and even several that I went to the trouble of getting out of the library were returned without having been so much as opened–Batuman’s The Idiot and Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark–as I veered into unexpected waters (chief example: a book of personal essays on the strangeness of the state of Florida, one of which brilliantly dissected Amway, the company that made the DeVos family billionaires, which, as did most things this year, naturally connected to politics), I did get to cross Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and George Elito’s Daniel Deronda off the list, which felt like an achievement. I had started reading both at different points in 2016, but initially found the tone of Groff’s novel to be too dark and the prose too demanding, so I set it aside. Coming back to it more than a year later, I fell under its clever spell easily, enjoying its Nabokovian asides more than any self-proclaimed Nabokov naysayer should and wondering how I had failed to appreciate the narrative’s layering and sheer linguistic momentum the last time around. As for Eliot, it wasn’t so much that I was put off by Daniel Deronda, but more that I found myself captivated by one plot (Gwendolen’s) and less interested in the other (Daniel’s, Mordecai’s, Mirah’s)–that is, until I began to grasp how it all fit together. While there was a section that dragged miserably about midway through the novel, it more than redeemed itself in the final half–at least after the philosophical discussions with Mordecai came to an end (main topic of discussion: nationalism vs. the melting pot, which again reminded me of…the ever-inescapable 2017).
I also read a handful of new authors, mainly female, which is simply how I roll these days. The best of this bunch of new voices was Jessica Shattuck (that said, if I were already done with Elif Shafak’s recently translated Three Daughters of Eve, I might feel differently; I haven’t felt this drawn in by a voice since I first read Elena Ferrante back in 2013), whose The Women in the Castle explores the lives of several German women whose husbands had plotted to murder Hitler in the immediate post-war period. The plot itself could be somewhat predictable–the major secret that is revealed by one of the characters isn’t quite as dramatic or surprising as one would have hoped–but the questions the characters grappled with about conscience and how to atone for their past sins were complex and engaging. The final scene too is possibly the best ending I encountered all year.
Given the rather literary nature of a lot of the books I read this year, can I say that I am ever so slightly ashamed that the one that I potentially found the most readable and could absolutely not put down was Gillian Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects? Truly, it was creepy and compelling in all the right ways; I read it while the Greek was in Minneapolis in a span of two days during which I did nothing in any spare moment but read and stayed up well beyond my bedtime. In my defense, Gillian Flynn really does know how to create suspense–and, given that HBO has turned the novel into a miniseries with Amy Adams and Chris Messina, I think it’s safe to say that the juggernaut of television (or non-television, as, in the words of the ads, “it’s not TV, it’s HBO”) agrees with me.
I already have my list for 2018, but, given my inability to stick to the list, who knows what this list will look like next year? I’ll be back tomorrow with my 2017 cookbook roundup, which I promise will be a lot shorter. Maybe my ability to write so many words about the books I’ve read this past year means “Dining with Dostoevsky” should focus as much on the literature as on the food throughout the year? Let us see what the new year shall bring.