The Omicron surge brought me back to those unhurried, unscheduled weekends of 2020. It feels like we spent most of the month staying home in anticipation of an indoor social gathering, or waiting for test results after the indoor social gathering. I didn’t complain. After being apart for the holidays, I was happy to hunker down on the couch with Ben and Toby and to chip away at some long-awaited reads. January’s short days gave us long nights, nights where, in addition to reading, we binged The Chestnut Man (creepy!!! gripping!! Danish!!) and the first few seasons of Search Party (an extremely watchable millennial dramedy that we somehow missed till now). I also appreciated (“enjoyed” feels like the wrong word), Maggie Gyllenhal’s film adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God.
As promised on Instagram, below are some thoughts on what I read this past month:
The Life of the Mind (Christine Smallwood) - One of the many unforeseen perks of my relationship with Ben is that his father has an uncanny grasp on my literary tastes. Credit is due to my seventy-something future father-in-law for being so hip to contemporary female writers and their anxieties (feminist, environmental, artistic) and for knowing exactly what new releases to send me from his local bookshop, Village Well. Smallwood’s debut novel appeared in the mail one day in December. I had not heard of Smallwood or her novel — but have you ever started a book and felt like it was the literary equivalent of Hogwarts’ Room of Requirement, a book designed to respond to exactly your tastes and needs? The Life of the Mind is a realist contemporary campus novel, but you don’t need to be in academia to understand the narrator Dorothy’s grim professional prospects as an adjunct professor in literature in New York. Dorothy’s voice is wry and intelligent as she grapples with being not where-she-thought-she’d-be in her 30s. Many of her problems are satirical white woman problems—she starts seeing an expensive new therapist to work through her desire to break up with her other therapist—but the pain of miscarriage, feeling distant from old friends, and being in Vegas are not as mockable. For fans of Jenny Offill, Miranda Popkey, Patricia Lockwood, Lauren Oyler, and Jia Tolentino.
Pure Flame (Michelle Orange) - I picked this memoir up at the bookstore close to a year ago and hesitated to read, because it threatened to be exactly the sort of book that I would want to write one day; I didn’t want it to make me feel like my book about motherhood and daughterhood had already been written. Instead, it made my own desire for a book seem viable. Orange blends cultural criticism and theory with the stories of her grandmother and mother, as she travels back and forth between New York and Toronto to care for her ailing mother and navigates her own surprise pregnancy. There is Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, and Susan Faludi. Crying in H Mart meets The Argonauts.
A Lonely Man (Chris Power) - This novel arrived in the same package as The Life of the Mind and was addressed to both Ben and me. We both devoured in quick succession. On the one hand this is a novelist’s novel that plays with the ethics of taking and telling other people’s stories. A struggling writer has a serendipitous run-in with a stranger, who seems to have an interesting story. The story inspires the writer to write … which then gets him into trouble, making this novel also somewhat of a thriller. Plus it is set in Berlin, which means it is extra creepy. For fans of Paul Auster and John Le Carre, maybe? Or anyone interested in questions of authorship and ownership or who is looking for a book to read in one sitting on a plane?
The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive (Philippe Sands) - I raved about East West Street in my 2021 round-up and Sands has done it again with his most recent tome. As the subtitle alone suggests, Sands’ latest nonfiction pageturner is more gripping than most Netflix docuseries, as Sands investigated the disappearance of a Wanted Nazi/beloved father in the wake of World War II. It is impeccably researched, thoughtfully told, and made me long for the time to sink my teeth into an archival research project of my own. Ben and I listened to the BBC’s radio adaptation of the book on our drive back from the Grand Canyon last fall and I still devoured the book a year later. For fans of World War II history, tales of moral ambiguity (though Sands and I both conclude that this tale is not as ambiguous as the son of a Nazi might think), and Erik Larsen.
The Chronology of Water (Lidia Yuknavitch) - This memoir has appeared on the recommended reading list for every writing class that I have taken. In my last class, we read a gutting excerpt in which Yuknavitch grieves a stillborn birth. I steeled myself and finally read the whole thing last week. Yuknavitch’s prose is unlike anything I have ever encountered. It is so alive that it makes every other writer’s writing look dead. “When I was 13 I confessed my father secrets in the black box of catholic to another father in the house of our father who told me I should not tell lies.” “One night he put a blanket on the floor and told me to wait and when he came back he was a big 10 years younger than me beautiful man carrying a cello. ‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘You play cello?’ He played Bach. The sixth suite. I cried. Possibly the puniest sentence I have ever written.” The Chronology of Water is not for the faint of heart. There is addiction, there is child abuse, there is sex and grief and miscarriage. Yuknavitch has had a difficult life but in this memoir she creates something beautiful out of it. For fans of Cheryl Strayed, Rachel Kushner, Michelle Tea and the art of the memoir genre.
Real Estate (Deborah Levy) - Levy is a award-winning British writer. This is her third “working autobiography,” written on the cusp of 60. She is divorced, her daughters are leaving home, and she is grappling with where she wants to call home, having grown sick of the dismal flat she moved into with her daughters after her divorce. Running through the book are her real estate fantasies— her “unreal” estate as she calls them. Having achieved the bulk of her professional success later in life, after raising her daughters, Levy is in a sort of dialogue with Woolf’s A Room of her Own as grapples with the identity of woman artist as she looks for a place that will give her room to write the kind of woman characters that interest her. For fans of Rachel Cusk, Virginia Woolf, Jenny Offill, and Olivia Laing.
Thanks for reading and as always, interested to discuss any of the above!
If you enjoy Turtleneck Season, please consider reposting or sharing with a friend!
Wowza, this is one amazing list. I just finished two of Deborah Levy's books on plane and especially enjoy her references to Marguerite Duras, among others, whom I have not read enough of-have you?