Our Year in Reading 2018

Christian Kracht, The Dead
All I need: green tea, GF donut, riveting book.

What a lame blogger I’ve become! This is literally my only post for the year. But I had my reasons, chief of which was a breast cancer diagnosis this spring that proceeded to derail the entire year. I hope to write about the experience so won’t go into any detail here, but know that I’ve recovered pretty well from surgery and have gotten a clean bill of health for now. I share this, however, as it did affect some of my reading choices for the year.

The other thing that influenced my reading choices was my work with the Ashland University lo-res MFA program, where I started this summer. This fall semester I asked each of my students to choose one book for us to read together, with the marvelous result that I read four novels I’d never read before and had had no particular plans to read.

Reading our lists now right before I press “publish,” I’m dismayed by two things: First, I read no short story collections this year. What the hell? That was an oversight. Second, Dan has actually written that he read Daphne du Maurier’s classis Rebecca “waiting for something to happen.” Again: what the hell? Have I actually spent 31 years married to a man who finds Rebecca boring? Sigh.

As with our previous lists: All the books are novels unless otherwise noted, Dan’s reading list follows my own, we’ve included brief reading notes, and I’ve included links for the writers who are also friends. Dan and I read just one book in common this year, Swiss writer Christian Kracht’s novel The Dead, which has just come out in English and which we both agree is altogether excellent. Phew. Marriage saved!

Naomi’s list:

  • William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale: Read in order to read Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, part of Hogarth’s series of Shakespeare novelizations. But then I never did get around to reading the Winterson.
  • Tyehimba Jess, Olio (poetry). Remarkable, inventive collection that takes as its subject early African-American musicians.
  • Janine Kovac, Spinning: Choreography for Coming Home (non-fiction). Wonderful memoir about author’s experience of having twin micro preemies.
  • Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere. Very engaging.
  • Nayomi Munaweera, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. I learned so much about the Sri Lankan Civil War in this haunting, beautiful novel.
  • Andy Jones, In the Almond Orchard: Coming Home from War (poetry). An excellent collection meditating on the experience of veterans.
  • Kristi Abbot, Pop Goes the Murder. Escapist cozy mystery fun, with popcorn recipes.
  • W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn. Lyrically stretches what fiction can be and do. Also made me want to take my own walking tour in England.
  • Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Slave, Ona Judge (non-fiction). One of those books that feels like a very good article stretched beyond its proper size.
  • Christian Kiefer, Phantoms (galley). Coming in April! Here’s my blurb for the book:Phantoms blurb
  • Sandra McPherson, Quicksilver, Cougars, and Quartz (poetry, galley). A wry, elegiac collection that I hope is out very soon.
  • Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Reread in order to teach it at UC Davis. God, what a great, creepy, wonderful tale.
  • Rob Davidson, What Some Would Call Lies (galley). Just out! I blurbed this one too, as follows: Rob Davidson blurb
  • Rebecca Makkai, The Hundred-Year House. I read this with so much enjoyment over the summer that I assigned it to my Ashland students this fall.
  • China Mieville, The City and the City. Another book I assigned at Ashland. My second-favorite detective novel of the year.
  • Toni Morrison, A Mercy. A student choice book. Compelling story set in Colonial America. Highly recommend.
  • Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think (NF). I thought reading this might help me negotiate the horror that was dealing with the medical profession. It didn’t, really, but was still an interesting, worthwhile read.
  • Imogen Binnie, Nevada. Another student choice book. By turns hilarious & sad, the novel follows a trans woman trying to figure out life, the universe, and everything.
  • Susan Love, Susan Love’s Breast Book (NF). I hope never to have to refer to this book again, but it’s sort of the Bible for breast problems.
  • Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts. Another student choice book. I really wanted to love this sci-fi novel set aboard a generation ship that’s preserved old racial hierarchies from Earth. Impressive, but needed better & more editing, IMO.
  • Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders. Nope, this was not my favorite detective novel of the year. But its story-within-story structure was pretty fun.
  • Katherine J. Chen, Mary B. This novel attempts to give poor, put-upon, unloved Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice her due, but does so in a somewhat ham-fisted & unlovely way. Much better, IMO: Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon’s stage play “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.”
  • Gene Luen Yang, Saints (graphic novel). I now know more about the Boxer Rebellion than I used to & need to read the companion book, Boxers.
  • Christian Kracht, The Dead. A compact zinger of a novel that features Toraichi Kono, Charlie Chaplin’s chauffeur, a real-life figure I also fictionalized in one of my first short stories.The_Daughter_of_Time_-_Josephine_Tey
  • Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time. This was my favorite detective novel of the year. A reexamination of the case against Richard III. The whole thing takes place as a series of conversations with a bedridden detective. Brilliant and fun.

Currently reading, not yet done:

Dan’s list:

  • Naomi Alderman, The Power: Kind of predictable.
  • Brandy Colbert, Little & Lion: Covered all the bases for a YA novel
  • Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing: Way too much vomiting
  • Jane Austen, Emma: I think I should have just watched Clueless again
  • William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Read to better understand Infinite Jest. It didn’t really add that much, but it was worth reading anyway—actually, enjoyed it more than watching the play.
  • Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (non-fiction): Author had one point—that the folks who ran the transcontinental railroads were bad at their jobs—and made it many times.
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout: Got that he was making jokes; just didn’t think they were funny.
  • Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca: Kept waiting for something to happen.
  • Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion: Super bad—all the characters were cardboard, and none of the emotions were earned.
  • Mikael Colville-Andersen, Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism (non-fiction): Inspirational.
  • Neil de Grasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (non-fiction): In the middle ground between a fun survey and an in-depth treatment. Attempts at humor were pretty weak.
  • Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (non-fiction): As good as everyone says.
  • Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad: Not quite as good as everyone says. As an escape narrative, it worked well, but the sf conceit was unnecessary and underdeveloped.
  • Samantha Hunt, The Dark Dark (short stories): Mostly entertaining short stories
  • James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (non-fiction): Long past time I read some Baldwin.NotesOfANativeSon
  • Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: Pretty good YA, but would have worked better as a short story or longer novel.
  • Marc Silver, Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond: Pretty heteronormative (I mean, look at the title), but useful if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of needing this kind of advice.
  • Christian Kracht, The Dead: Brilliant
  • Manuel Pastor, State of resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future (non-fiction): As with a lot of non-fiction books, would have made (and probably was at some point) a pretty good magazine article.
  • Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint (short stories): Can’t quite figure out if Eugenides is a misogynist or just a misanthrope. Maybe both?
  • Katherine Dunn, Geek Love: Started strong, but kind of petered out at the end.
  • David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (IV). Some parts are better on re-reading, some worse, but I still plan to do it again in a couple of years. [Naomi’s note: Dan insists I label this with that parenthetical Roman numeral IV. It is apparently an inside joke. Hope someone out there gets it.]
  • Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth: Complex, beautiful/terrifying novel
  • C. Sellar & R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That (humor): The classic
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita: Laugh-out-loud funny at times, but also a little horrifying considering it’s a satire of Stalinism.

Currently reading, not yet done:

  • Magda Szabo, The Door

Wishing everyone a happy new year and a 2019 filled with good books!

 

 

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 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

And the Nobel goes to…

Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016
Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016

When the Swedish Academy announced this morning that Bob Dylan was their choice for this year’s Literature Prize, people went crazy in exactly the ways you’d expect: his die-hard fans were jubilant; many writers and literature-lovers expressed open dismay; and others jumped into the fray to defend the award and call out the naysayers for snobbery and narrow-mindedness.

I think one can be nonplussed or even disappointed by this decision and remain innocent of elitism or parochialism or of suggesting Dylan is anything less than awesome. Sure, song lyrics are poetry, which makes it literature. Still, I don’t think the expectation that the award go to people who’ve spent their lives making, you know, books, as their principal occupation, is necessarily misplaced or snobby. Continue reading

On Writering

Writering it up, One Story Debutante Ball, May 2016 (Photo Dan Fuchs)
Writering it up, One Story Debutante Ball, May 2016 (Photo Dan Fuchs)

See the end of this post for details about the Landfalls audiobook giveaway. It ends July 14, 2016.
[This giveaway has ended. Congratulations to Sandra G. of Woodland, CA, for winning an audiobook!]

Before my book came out, I was a writer who spent a lot of time writing. Now I’m a published author, and I spend a lot of time doing things connected to writing or to my life as a writer but that don’t involve actual writing. If I wanted to, I could easily spend all of my time doing writerly stuff instead of writing. I call it “writering.” Continue reading

On Sleepiness and Writing

Naomi falling asleep over keyboardAm I the only writer out there who regularly falls asleep over her keyboard? Please tell me I’m not.

It goes like this: I’ve carved out a precious hour or two to write, but as soon as I hit a point where I need to stop and think for a moment, which is often very early on because I’m an incredibly painstaking writer and slow thinker, I start nodding off. I may stave off the drowsiness for a while, but eventually I flop face-down on my bed or couch and conk out. Continue reading