I really tanked it with my book blogging this year. I’d like to say I was too busy writing fiction to be writing about other people’s fiction, but that’s not true. Luckily, even though I haven’t written about anything since The Beautiful Bureaucrats by Helen Phillips, it doesn’t mean I have read anything since then.
A huge part of my reading year was comprised of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels. So many essays and articles have been written about them that I don’t have a lot of original thoughts to add, but writing about them, as always, helps me process them. After a friend at work mentioned that he was having a little trouble getting into the series, I wrote him an impassioned argument for persevering, an argument I basically wrote into being. (And which totally missed that he was midway through the second book at the time I was extolling the virtues of the first.) The gist of the treatise had to do with the experiential aspect of the novels. Part of the first one was a slog to read because it was a slog for Elena, the protagonist, to live. The reader aches for more intellectual fulfillment right along with the character who is earning that interminable series of school marks. What becomes exciting or terrifying or frustrating for her is the same for the reader. It is a visceral text. What the books illuminate about feminism, politics, power, class, motherhood, the lives of artists and much more has been elucidated elsewhere; I’ll leave that to others since this is a year end post rather than a Ferrante post. I should have written one of those in September.
Another big reading revelation of my year this year was Dylan Landis; another literary regret is not picking up her two works when my editor first told me about them more than a year ago. He mentioned the novel Rainey Royal–a novel in stories, really. Luckily, I went completist from the start and read her earlier collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, first. It opens with a story about Rainey Royal as a magnetic preteen, then follows one of the girls trapped in her orbit, Leah Levinson, while also delving in to the life of Leah’s mother, Helen. It is a book I wish I had written, an adult writing incisive, difficult, beautiful stories about teenagers and their mothers–my beat exactly. Landis’s second book picks up where the first leaves off, moving more fully into Rainey’s world, spiraling out from her appearance in the first book. Leah is a part of this one, too, as is Tina, Rainey’s best friend. We learn Tina’s secrets in Rainey Royal and, just as Leah’s book started with Rainey, Rainey’s book ends with Tina. These were bold choices I don’t understand quite yet, but they both felt right and I’ll try to decipher why in their re-reads. I really, really loved these books.
Because I loved Landis’s books so much, and because they are so close to what I want to write myself, I needed a very different book to follow them up. I landed on Patti Smith’s newest memoir, M Train. In her first memoir, Just Kids, Smith narrowed her focus to her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their evolution as young artists; this book was about loneliness as much as anything else. The concerns of M Train, Smith’s obsessions–Cafe Ino, brown bread and olive oil, detective shows, Rockaway Beach–all seemed to be born out of a desire for comfort following the death of her husband, Fred. Twice during the book I gasped from the sharp, sudden sadness she allowed into the text. Mostly, the sorrow was an undercurrent; when it surfaced, it was stark and painful. I got to hear Smith read from it during a recent performance to memorialize Jean Genet and it was beautiful in her voice.
Writing about M Train makes me remember that I read another music memoir this fall: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein. I am a longtime Sleater-Kinney fan and could never separate my love for the band and their work from my love for its members and their stories. Anything by or about Carrie, Corin or Janet has my undying devotion. That said, what I really wanted at the end of this book was a memoir from Corin Tucker. Carrie (see? I just realized that I have been calling them by their first names like I know them.) was pretty balanced, I thought, in the telling of Sleater-Kinney’s inception, admitting honestly and often to bratty behavior on her part and writing generously and thoughtfully about her bandmates, but I couldn’t help wanting to hear how Corin would tell some of these same stories. I don’t want any of that more than I wanted to go see them play at Market Hotel two weeks ago, though. I saw them in a much bigger venue a few days before and it was wonderful, but seeing them in a little room in Bushwick–that would have been something!
Another recent read was Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. This was a deeply strange book. I think if I wrote it, I wouldn’t want to hear my criticism that I wish it had been a pure character study rather than a novel with a plot. Eileen was such a particular character–I’ve never read about someone quite like her–and she put herself across in such a bold, intense, honest way that I could have read bizarre details about her forever. Eileen was unadorned except for persistent applications of lipstick because her natural lip color was too similar to that of her nipples. The only bodily pleasure she took came from handfuls of laxatives. From the very beginning, Eileen, telling her story retrospectively, let the reader know a change in her circumstances was imminent, which was enough narrative momentum for me. When a plot twist came in about four fifths through the book, I didn’t not like it–it was interesting–but it tipped more towards surprising-surprising than what is at least my ideal, surprising but inevitable.
Currently, I’m toggling between two nonfiction reads and have a pile of fiction I can’t wait to get into. I am pretty sure that I’ve missed writing about a few books in here, which is what happens when I don’t write posts about books just as soon as I finish reading them. Hopefully before the year really ends, I can go stand in front of my bookshelf, take a good look and see what I missed.