Did I read less this year? Well, yes, unfortunately. But did I write an entire novel this year? Absolutely yes!
According to my end-of-the-year accounting, I’m going to believe that my novel success counterbalances my reading shortcoming.
Some favorite books of the year: I continued my Orhan Pamuk streak with Istanbul, The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence. He impresses me with his range — each book traverses vastly new territory in terms of genre, structure, and concept.
Both George Saunder’s Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove deserve your attention. I also read Russell’s Swamplandia, which perplexed me. It’s an enjoyable, masterfully written book, but for a magical realism writer this is an anti-magical realism book. All of the strands of the story which verge on magic end up being pulled back into strictly realistic storylines, as if to tease the reader with the potential of magic just before reaffirming the world as non-magical.
After being disappointed by some of Paul Auster‘s current work, I finally read his New York Trilogy, and it more than lived up to expectations. I loved the playfulness, the genius of his moves.
Some nonfiction suggestions: If you’re interested in the way your city constructs public space, I would recommend Walkable City by Jeff Speck, a wonderful exploration into how tiny elements like lane width, sidewalk construction, and parking availability can either estrange us from our neighbors or shape strong communities. The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver about the science of predictions will make you reexamine the predictions you hear on daily basis as well as make you reconsider your personal predictions. The Outsourced Self by Arlie Russell Hochschild looks at the drawbacks of outsourcing so many private parts of our life. It’s the type of book that you know is right but is hard to live by.
This year I also read all 1800-or-so pages of the four collected Paris Review Interviews. The overlap between what authors say is just as instructive as the differences. When you read all of them at once, themes emerge, such as the near universal agreement that professional critics are not helpful to their artistic journey.
I read Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas and re-read 2666. I’m glad New Directions pumped out another dozen or so of his titles, because it means I can read a few a year and have more to look forward to.
Mating by Norman Rush is the book that has lingered the most in my memory. Such a powerful depiction of desire and the lack of desire in Botswana. But I resisted reading Subtle Bodies, his novel which came out this year, because of Michiko Kakutani’s review in the NYTBR. In that review she nails exactly what irritated me in Mating — his characters fight about such trivial things. It makes me wonder if Rush’s famously good marriage has sabotaged his ability to write about truly fractured relationships.
Lastly, the most talked about book of the year: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Is it as good as everyone claims? Well, the simple answer is yes. It is impressive. You should read it.