Our Year in Reading 2017

Can’t lie: I love my Kindle

For the eighth consecutive December 31, I’m seeing out the old year by reporting what my husband Dan and I read over the past year.

A few comments about this year’s lists:

One big change to my reading habits: I started reading on a Kindle. Dan gave me one before my big round-the-world trip, and wow, was I ever glad to have it. I still love and buy and read paper books. But now I read more because of my Kindle. Please admire the pretty orange case.

Unusually, Dan didn’t read more than one book by anyone this year. The only author I read more than once was my friend Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Her novel, A Thin Bright Line, was the first book I finished in 2017, and then I had the entertaining privilege of reading a galley copy of her forthcoming novel, The Evolution of Love.

As always, I’m impressed by how much Dan reads in translation. I tried to read more this year that was both not originally in English and not The Tale of Genji. This year’s list includes translator credits for the first time.

Marie Darrieussecq books

Dan and I read three books in common: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s searing Between the World and Me; Geoff Dyer’s Zona; and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. We both discovered the French author Marie Darrieussecq, who was at a Freeman’s reading we attended in Paris this summer. But Dan read her novel Pig Tales, while I read Being Here, her very literary biography of the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Naomi’s list (novels unless otherwise indicated):

  • Lucy Jane Bledsoe, A Thin Bright Line. Poignant, entertaining novel about closeted but not-at-all somber urban lesbians during the Cold War.
  • Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (short stories). My second or third time through this hypnotic collection of fairy tale retellings, of which I read many this year.
  • John Berger, Ways of Seeing (non-fiction). Re-read in memoriam.
  • Paulette Jiles, News of the World. A Western with a difference.
  • Robert Coover, Pricksongs and Descants (short stories). Some of this is wildly wonderful, some wildly annoying for its casual sexism.
  • Michael Cunningham, A Wild Swan and Other Tales (short stories). Beautiful fairy tale retellings accompanied by lovely illustrations.

    Michael Cunningham, A Wild Swan, cover & illo
  • Sara Nović, Girl at War. Sara is a friend, and this book about the Yugoslav civil war is wrenching and memorable.
  • Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning (short stories). Also part of fairy tales reading project. Some terrific, some a bit “phoned-in.”
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout. Hilarious and disturbing.
  • Kelly Link, Get in Trouble (short stories). More fairy-tale-ish reading. Love the first story, “Summer People.” Mixed feelings about the rest.
  • Edward Thomas, The Works of Edward Thomas (poetry). My favorite is “The Gallows.”
  • David Greene, Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia (non-fiction). A good read while I rode the Trans-Siberian this summer.
  • Shion Miura, The Great Passage (tr. from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter). Engaging enough novel about dictionary editors.
  • Rachel Corbett, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin (non-fiction). Related to new novel research. I had never been particularly interested in Rilke before I read this, and now I am.
  • Virginia Johnson, Honeysuckle Drift. A novel about 1950s Birmingham, Alabama, by my friend Ginny Johnson.
  • Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker (non-fiction, tr. from French by Penny Hueston). Wonderful biography of early 20th-c. painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, a friend of Rilke’s.
  • Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird. Luminous and distinctly odd, in a good way.
  • Rob Davidson, Spectators (short stories). A great collection of short-shorts.
  • Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen. Also distinctly odd. And quite compellingly so.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (non-fiction). Should be assigned reading in American high schools.
  • Adrian Tomine, Shortcomings (graphic novel). A serendipitous find in a used book store.
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (non-fiction). Finally read this must-read for writers who love Paris.
  • Christian Wolmar, To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World’s Greatest Railroad (non-fiction). Exhaustively researched & well-written history of the Trans-Sib. The footnotes gave me an idea for what might be another novel one day.
  • Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (tr. from Polish by Celina Wieniewska). Haunting and haunted. One of my favorite opening lines in any book anywhere:

In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.

 

  • Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (non-fiction). Dan & I sat through all three pointless hours of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Dyer’s book about the film is very engaging and light years better than the movie. See below for Dan’s take; he also read Roadside Picnic, the novel that supposedly inspired Stalker.
  • K. M. Peyton, Flambards. Lovely to revisit this favorite from my adolescence, but struck by how easy Peyton is on the Russell men, who were jackasses. Sometimes even my teenage fictional crush Will.
  • Denis Johnson, Train Dreams. Read in memoriam.
  • Anne Sexton, Transformation (poetry). More fairy tale retellings, these in verse. Occasional distressing casual racism, but many of the poems are amazing.
  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo. I admired this book but did not love it. So sue me.
  • Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (poetry). Wow. Did not understand a lot of this, but mesmerized all the same.
  • Richard Lloyd Parry, Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone (non-fiction). Read this in one four-hour sitting in the middle of the night.
  • Kate Bernheimer, ed. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: 40 New Fairy Tales (short stories). A must-have for fairy tale aficionados.
  • Susanna J. Mishler, Termination Dust (poetry). Susanna is a friend, but even if she weren’t, this would have been my favorite poetry collection of the year.
  • Antonio Muñiz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow (tr. from Spanish by Camilo A. Ramirez). Really inventive novel that juxtaposes what reads like memoir with account of James Earl Ray’s flight after assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (poetry). Read the Nook version on my phone. Deserves to be read on real page, I think.
  • H. Auden, Poems (poetry). Auden astonishes over & over & over.
  • Lucy Jane Bledsoe, The Evolution of Love. Lucky me—I got to read the galley proof! The rest of you can read this page-turner when it comes out in May.
  • Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad. Totally deserving of hype & accolades.
  • Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (non-fiction). A must-read—if you’re into Heian-period Japanese literature.
  • Kimiko Hahn, Toxic Flora (poetry). Appreciated the juxtaposition of science & the personal, but generally enjoyed the science more than the personal.
  • Shanthi Sekaran, Lucky Boy. A taut, intense tale about immigration and belonging that’s very relevant today.
  • Naomi Alderman, The Power. While not bowled over by the prose, really glad I read this dark vision of world where women are stronger than men.
Other Slavery, Andres Resendez; Susanna J. Mishler, Termination Dust
Two totally different great books that also just look really nice next to each other

Dan’s list:

  • Michael Krasny, Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means. The jokes were funny enough, but the annotations were kind of superfluous.
  • Lucia Berlin, Angels Laundromat (short stories). Lovely, small collection of some of her early work.
  • Nuruddin Farah, Hiding in Plain Sight. Who knew a novel about Somalis could be alienating because the characters are too wealthy.
  • Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (non-fiction). Fascinating, well-written look at the title subject.
  • Lyndsay Faye, Jane Steele. Not particularly good, but reasonably fun, reimagining of Jane Eyre as a serial killer.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (non-fiction). Almost as brilliant as everyone says.
  • Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (non-fiction). Worth re-reading every five years or so, especially for a water lawyer.
  • Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity. Decent YA spy thriller.
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (SF). Disappointing Lovecraft pastiche.
  • Yukio Mishima (tr. from Japanese by Ivan Morris), The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. A classic for a reason.
  • Laszlo Bock, Work Rules, Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. (NF). Still not clear why I read this self-congratulatory business book.
  • Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (non-fiction). One of the best books I read in college, and still amazing on re-reading.
  • Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky (SF). Loved the first 2/3.
  • Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (tr. from Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky). Read all 1000+ pages on my phone. The whole thing is a satire, right?
  • Marie Darrieusecq, Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation (tr. from French by Linda Coverdale). Brilliant short novel with some fantastical elements.
  • Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (non-fiction). Goes some distance toward explaining how we got where we are today. A bit too detailed, especially toward the end.
  • Jonathan Sun (aka “Jomny Sun”), everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too. Hippy-happy coloring book from the Twitter sensation.
  • Saladin Ahmed, Engraved on the Eye (SF short stories). Wishing he would finally write that sequel to Throne of the Crescent Moon.
  • Fred Block and Margaret R. Somers, The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique (non-fiction). Interesting analysis/lionization of The Great Transformation.
  • Terry Bisson, Fire on the Mountain (SF). Somewhat disappointing alternative history—really three novels in one, so none of the three was adequately developed.
  • Nina Federoff and Nancy Marie Brown, Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods (non-fiction). Rational, scientific approach to the debate.
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (SF, tr. from Russian by Olena Bormashenko). Re-read this classic, then watched the Tarkovsky adaptation, then read the Dyer book about the movie inspired by this book. This was the best of the three.
  • Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Searing polyphonic Booker-prize winner.
  • Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (non-fiction). See above.
  • Monica Hesse, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land (non-fiction). Started as a newspaper article, and probably could have stayed that way.
  • Krasznahorkai, Herman and The Last Wolf
    Cool book you flip over to go from one story to other

    Laszlo Krasznahorkai, The Last Wolf and Herman (tr. from Hungarian by John Batki and George Szirtes). Three novellas by the modern Hungarian writer of despair. Brilliant and amazing as always.

  • N. K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky (SF). Finale of the multiple-award-winning Broken Earth trilogy. She’s just so good.
  • Henry James, Daisy Miller. Embarrassed to admit I’ve never read any James before, and this novella seems like a good entrée.
  • Eka Kurniawan, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (tr. from Indonesian by Annie Tucker). Quite liked this glimpse into Indonesia’s gangster underworld.
  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo. Long-time Saunders fan. Though this one was pretty good too, it wasn’t quite up to his short-fiction standard.
  • Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (non-fiction). Wow. Hard to say how many different ways this book was impressive.
  • Annalee Newitz, Autonomous (SF). Classic SF in the sense that potentially interesting ideas were handled less adroitly than they could have been.
  • Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage. This classic narrating the early life of club-footed Philip Carey left me wondering what all the fuss was about.

So that was our year in reading. How was yours?

A Trip Around the World, Part 6

Fontainebleau
Chateau de Fontainebleau

On the morning of Friday, July 7, the Moscow-Paris Express pulled into Gare de l’Est, and the long train journey that had begun in Vladivostok eleven days before was over.

Pretty Parisian courtyard. We were on the 6th floor (or, as we say in the U.S., the 7th floor). No elevator!

I was thrilled to be in Paris. And delighted to be reunited with my husband, who flew into Paris that morning to meet me. And happy to be back on terra firma and in a proper apartment, one with a kitchen and a bathroom not shared with strangers.

But I was also a little sad to leave the train. Life on the rails had entailed a kind of directed simplicity that I came to appreciate.

Without television or radio, newspapers (that I could read, anyway), or, for much of the time, Internet access, I felt less distracted than I had in ages. All I could do was look out the window, eat, sleep, talk to my friend Chris, chat with other passengers, read, write, and think.

And yet without any effort on our part, we continued to roll inexorably along, getting closer and closer to our destination.

I might have come as close as I’ve ever come to that attitude of “non-striving” much talked of among mindfulness and meditation practitioners.

It was a bit shocking to leave that and thrust myself back into the world of people and news and traffic and daily, hourly decisions about how to spend my time. And now I’ve been home for three weeks, during which I haven’t even managed to update this blog, so manifold and urgent have seemed all the distractions.

Anyway. I think I accomplished a lot during my ten days in Paris. I say “think” because people keep asking me how the trip has influenced the book I’m working on, and honestly: I have no idea.

rue Victor Masse
Building where Akiko & Hiroshi stayed in Paris in 1912

I mean, Dan and I went to and saw a lot of the places that Akiko and her husband Hiroshi went to and saw while they were in Paris. The building on rue Victor-Massé where they stayed for four months. The neighborhoods they explored on foot. The Chateau de Fontainebleau, about which Akiko wrote twenty tanka.

We visited both locales of the Musée Rodin—both the crowded Hôtel Biron site in Paris and the much quieter site in Meudon, just southwest of Paris, where Rodin lived for many years with Rose Beuret.

Villa des Brillants, Meudon, Musée Rodin
At the Villa des Brillants, Rodin’s house in Meudon

Akiko and Hiroshi and an artist friend of theirs had visited both sites as well—arriving first at the Villa des Brillants in Meudon, letter of introduction in hand, in hopes of meeting the great master, only to learn that he was at his workshop in the city. Beuret apparently lent them the use of her carriage and coachman so they could hurry back to the city. [1] Rodin received them quite courteously, and Akiko would report that she presented him with the first two volumes of her modern-Japanese translation of The Tale of Genji.[2]

It was wonderful to be able to walk about these places and think about these events.

But did I gain indispensable or even useful insights about Akiko and her trip that I could not have gained otherwise? I don’t know yet. Do I now have a clear (or even clearer) direction for the project? Not really. I have a lot of swirly ideas swirling about in my head as swirls are wont to do.

Rodin, Musée Rodin, Paris
Maybe Rodin received Akiko in this parlor at the Hôtel Biron, now home to the Musée Rodin in Paris

And maybe that’s fine, as far as it goes. For now, anyway. I’m hoping that in the relatively near future, this “swirliness” will settle into something more coherent.

In truth, I learned more about myself during this trip than about Akiko. Maybe most trips are like that—you set out to encounter something other than yourself, but end up contending with that most persistent of travel companions, your own person, with all its baggage and preconceived notions and unmet yearnings.

Those lessons would require another post, so I won’t divulge any of them here.

Meanwhile, however, I have a book to write. A book for which to strive.

 

Notes:

[1] Matsudaira Meiko, “Akiko no Pari 1912 nen” (Akiko’s Paris 1912), Part 9, Tanka kenkyū, March 2001, p. 149.

[2] G. G. Rowley, Yosano Akiko and the Tale of Genji, Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2000, p. 72.

A Trip Around the World, Part 5

IMG_3517
Yaroslavsky Station, Moscow

Tomorrow morning, if all goes well, my friend Chris and I arrive in Paris, and our long train journey from Vladivostok will be over.

We’ve been pretty fortunate on this trip: almost everything has gone well. We’ve stayed healthy; Chris and I are still fast friends after being together night and day for 11 days and over 8300 miles; and even the weather has cooperated, gifting us with mild temperatures and pretty skies whenever we actually had to be outdoors.

But yesterday we were in Moscow, and it was without a doubt the low point of our trip. Continue reading

A Trip Around the World, Part 4

Writing on train. (Photo by Chris)

It’s Sunday, July 2, as I begin this new entry, and my friend Chris and I are back on the Trans-Siberian Railway, having traveled from Vladivostok to Irkutsk and spent a day and a half in the town of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal.

It seems like we’ve been traveling for days, yet we’re not even halfway between Vladivostok and Moscow. We’ll pass that milestone sometime this afternoon.

Akiko didn’t write that many poems about her train trip from Vladivostok to Moscow. But we do know about her Trans-Siberian journey from her account Pari made [パリまで、To Paris], which was published in four installments in the Asahi shimbun newspaper.*

And I’m really struck by the differences between our two journeys. Continue reading

Around the World in 35 Days, Part 3

Sea of Japan at dawn, seen from ferry window

I’ve started composing this installment of my travel report aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, late at night, someplace between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.

I hope in a few days to be able to post something entertaining about this train trip, but tonight I’m going to tell you about the two-day/two-night ferry trip between Japan and Russia. This was the segment that occasioned the most anxiety for me before I set off from landlocked Davis, California. Continue reading

Around the World in 35 Days, Part 2

Yosano Akiko birthplace, Sakai, Japan

By the time you read this, I will likely already be in Russia. But I started drafting this post in Japan, on the shinkansen (bullet train) after leaving Osaka on Thursday, June 22, to wend my way north and west toward the port town of Sakaiminato.

I included Osaka on my itinerary because Yosano Akiko, the subject of my next novel, was from the nearby city of Sakai. The house where she was born in 1878 is no longer there, but there’s a site on one of the main thoroughfares in the city that indicates where it used to be. I paid my respects on a rainy afternoon. Continue reading

Around the World in 35 Days, Part 1

Yosano Akiko

The subject of my next novel, another historical project about an epic journey, is the Japanese poet and feminist Yosano Akiko (1878-1942).

In 1912, at the age of 33, Akiko left her home in Tokyo and traveled by herself to Paris. This alone was unusual enough. Ever since the 1880s, a stream of Japanese artists and intellectuals had been making their way to the West, some to Europe, some to the U.S., but very few of those travelers were women. And fewer yet traveled alone.  Continue reading