I’m not a full-fledged book critic, but I did review two books this year and provided a blurb for another. They are therefore disqualified (and indicated in italics) from my top ten. So, with the downtime I had at my disposal, and reading in periodicals, and listening to podcasts excluded, here are the books:
When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanith (N)
Breath – James Nestor (N)
300 Years of Long Island City History – Vincent F. Seyfried (N)
The Winthrop Woman – Anya Seton (F)
Insubordinate Spirit – Missy Wolfe (N)
The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell (N)
Asthma: A Biography – Mark Jackson (N)
Damnation Island – by Stacy Horn (N)
The Other Islands of New York City – Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller (N)
Fever – Mary Beth Keane (F)
Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health – Judith Walzer Leavitt (N)
The two ongoing projects here are an essay on breathing and other people’s attitudes towards a person unable to breathe, and a memoir/local history/I don’t know about the little area in Astoria where I live, the dog cafe which I began to frequent as soon as I felt it was safe to mingle again, and the history of the islands around Hallett’s Cove. The Winthrop Woman is a fictional account of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, a well-connected Puritan woman whose marriage to William Hallett, scandalous in its day (1650 ish), necessitated the “founding” of Astoria, which meant that a Dutch governor gave an English newcomer Lenape land to farm. Insubordinate Spirit is historian Missy Wolfe’s excellent nonfiction account of the same events, with a larger cast of characters and less romance. Similarly, Fever and Typhoid Mary are fictional and factual accounts of the life of Mary Mallon.
Wish me luck as we wave 2021 goodbye on making meaningful progress on these projects.
Actress – Anne Enright
Euphoria – Lily King
The Heavens – Sandra Newman
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
The Cold Millions – Jess Walter
Better Luck Next Time – Julia Claiborne Johnson
Meet Me in Another Life – Catriona Silvey
Humane – Anna Marie Sewell
V is for Victory – Lissa Evans
We Run the Tides – Vendela Vida
Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford
Interesting Women – Andrea Lee
Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell
A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes
A Snake in the Raspberry Patch – Joanne Jackson
This Must Be the Place – Maggie O’Farrell
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell
We Want What We Want – Alix Olin
Matrix – Lauren Groff
All’s Well – Mona Awad
Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr
The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki
Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead
The Hand that First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell
The Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead
Self-Care – Leigh Stein
The Plot – Jean Hanff Korelitz
I read Hamnet in the food court at LaGuardia Airport, where I arrived at 6 a.m. to learn that my flight on the Fourth of July weekend had been delayed twelve hours. Even the association of reading that book with the every-fifteen-minutes rendition of “New York, New York” played to the performing water fountain, and the tears I shed over Hamnet while wearing a mask could not diminish the experience. I made it a mission to read everything else Maggie O’Farrell has written. The only reason her other novels are not bold-faced is that they sort of cancel each other out, like Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actor, and besides, her memoir is bolded as well (see below).
The other bold-facers are the familiar names of the year, with the exception perhaps of my Stonehouse sister-novelist Anna Marie Sewell, who somehow blends a tale of a First Nations detective hunting down missing women with a lycanthropic romance, and Lissa Evans’s V is for Victory because it is the third in a charming trilogy of an unlikely found family during WWII.
Ghostbread – Sonja Livingston
Ladies Night at the Dreamland – Sonja Livingston
Recollections of My Nonexistence – Rebecca Solnit
I Am I Am I Am – Maggie O’Farrell
The Good Poetric Mother – Irene Hoge Smith
I had hoped to do a workshop with Sonja Livingston at VCFA, but when the confeence went virtual, I folded like bad origami at the thought of doing another Zoom workshop. I had already done a novel workshop, and am part of a program called New Directions which blends psychoanalysis and writing, introduced to me by Irene Hoge Smith, the daughter and author of The Good Poetic Mother. New Directions streams for three intensive long weekends three times a year.
I loved I loved I loved I Am I Am I Am, a unique and compelling structure for a memoir.
The Celeste Holm Syndrome – David Lazar
The Unreality of Memory – Elissa Gabbert
Pain Studies – Lisa Olstein
Letters on Cezanne – Rainer Maria Rilke
A Poetry Handbook – Mary Oliver
I decided to re-read Rilke’s thoughts on Cezanne ahead of the exhibit on Cezanne at MOMA.
Cozy old things and mysteries
The Enchanted April – Elisabeth von Arnheim
Pretty as a Picture – Elizabeth Little
The House on Vesper Sands – Paraic O’Donnell
Dear Daughter – Elizabeth Little
High Rising – Angela Thirkell
Before Lunch – Angela Thirkell
The Women in Black – Madeline St. John
In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer Fleming
All the Devils Are Here – Louise Penny
Death at Greenway – Lori Radnor-Day
Castle Bran – Laurie R. King
Clark and Division – Naomi Hirahara
And there you have it. I will close out the year with Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses, which I find slow-going because I often have to close the book in envy and contemplation and reconsider my life choices.
I have a smallish stack of friends’ books I have not yet been able to read, and they are moving from the pile to the list in the coming year. I recognize the utter lack of poetry books, except for the one craft book, on my list, because I tend to read poems as individuals and not as part of a collection, but I am happy to take recommendations.
I am also still looking for literature which takes place in or contains scenes which occur in Queens, so if you have any thoughts on those, send them my way.
The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was cancelled on July 21 and 22 because a production member had tested positive for the coronavirus. The Friday performance was cancelled, according to The New York Times, “to support the artistic and logistical efforts required to restart performances.” What that meant to us at the Delacorte Theater on Saturday night was that audience would watch a performance which called upon the resources of six understudies. The associate artistic director warned us this from the stage. Some of the actors may call for a line. Some may be holding a script. But New York is back, amirite? Live theater! Woo! The show must go on! Woo-hoo.
Six understudies in a cast of fifteen, but the show must go on. Woo-hoo indeed. The boisterous production, set in a merry community in a Harlem, with prominent Black Lives Matter graffiti and the script vigorously updated, was nonstop energy and fun. I knew nothing of the play beyond the fact that it recycled characters like Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and other tavern denizens from The Henriad, due to popular demand among Elizabethan audiences to see those characters onstage again, and that it was a farce.
I don’t own a copy of the play, except in my tiny-fonted Complete Works, and it was one of the handful of plays outstanding on my bucket list to see every play performed live before I die.
I looked through my books. Tina Packer, in Women of Will, mentions it only in passing, as does Marjorie Garber in Shakespeare and Modern Culture. Auden in his Lectures on Shakespeare calls it “a very dull play indeed,” adding that its only use, as far as he was concerned, was that it inspired Verdi’s opera Falstaff. “I have nothing to say about Shakespeare’s play,” he told him class, “so let’s hear Verdi.” He then played a dropped a needle onto a record of Verdi’s Falstaff and listened to it along with his students.
I am enthralled by the mere existence of Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, so bear with me: they are a collection of the notes taken by the students, and by Auden himself, at his class on Shakespeare which took place at the New School in 1946. No formal manuscripts of the lectures exist, and the book Lectures on Shakespeare was reconstructed from all the notes editor Arthur Kirsch was able to get his hands on, from Auden and from Kirsch’s dedicated combing through archives as well as his general cry for help, to which so many former students responded.
At the New School, Auden covered the plays in chronological order, and the class was reported to be tremendously popular, with tickets sold at the door to those not matriculating. He sometimes spoke to classes as large as 500. I loved the idea of Auden lecturing to a Greenwich Village crowd, bobby-socked and footloose, fueled by caffeine and ideology, bristling with impatience to get on with a life interrupted and devastated by war. Auden spoke to a class partly comprised of former soldiers attending the New School on the GI Bill. I loved this idea so much that I began a chapter of an unfinished companion novel to my novel Censorettes in which two of my characters, newly wed, are living in on Commerce Street in the West Village, brimming with appetite for their education, their part-time jobs and their new marriage. One Friday night, the wife meets her husband, just returned from a lecture he has given at the Naval Academy on wartime maneuvers. She finds him at the former West Village speakeasy Chumley’s already sharing a drink with Auden. “Auden was famously fond of a sailor,” the wife observes.
This unfinished piece of writing bore similar theme to this particular production of Merry Wives – the famished embrace of culture, the sympathetic crowd, the theater – after a long denial of it. From the energetic call-and-response of the pre-show drummer to the exuberant climatic masked ball, which was five times more crackling than any masked ball I have ever seen in a Shakespeare production, this production was two hours of embracing joy.
“More crackling than any masked ball,” might seem like faint praise, but you must remember (pray you love, remember) that Shakespeare is replete with masked balls – they are in at least Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, and the coy posturing of a hand raising an eye mask to the face never convinced me that characters who had known one another since childhood would suddenly be beguiled by this thin piece of fabric and fancy.
We all know what masks are now We all know what masks are for. But onstage at the Delacorte, they meant no danger at all.