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.
It is not merely community that we miss, but spontaneous community, the casual hang, the chace encounter which, as my WordPress legend has it, I am champion of, or used to be, when chance encounters were not a public health threat. “Don’t be so friendly to strangers,” a former friend once admonished me. “It’s weird.”
She said it in this very park, where I sit and write this, the park I came to visit, Socrates Sculpture Park, five acres by the waterfront, reclaimed some decades ago from industrial landfill. In addition to large outdoor sculpture, it hosts, in the summer, all manner of exercise class and artistic offerings: cinema nights, concerts, dance performances and Shakespeare al fresco. It was at the latter, when I was picnicking and offered the group at the adjoining blanket part of our nosh that my friend chided me:
“Don’t do that, don’t talk to people all the time,” she said. “It makes you look desperate.”
Desperate to get back to normal, desperate to venture beyond our walls, desperate to transcend social distancing for human connections outside our “pods.” Desperate to shed our masks (if only to then don the social ones we used to wear: “a face to meet the faces that we meet.”). Or is that a desperate reach for a metaphor?
Perhaps I am desperate. Perhaps we all are.
I know that this park, on a chilly Sunday afternoon one week before daylight savings time comes to alleviate at least a small fraction of our darkness, is full of my neighbors (or, if you prefer, “strangers”) in masks and down coats, attempting to hasten spring by behaving as though it is already here.
I came to the park today to photograph the sculpture “Proposal for a Monument (Two)” by Fontaine Capel. I attended a Zoom talk by the sculptors in the new installation, and Fontaine Capel said that “Proposal for a Monument (Two)” represented the stoop of brownstones, which are being displaced by the glass-and-chrome building erected by real estate developers. We are not losing merely brownstones and stoops, but a place to sit and hang out with neighbors.
Neighbors hanging out in common places form what used to be known as community. When we lose community – the casual, sometimes vexing, occasionally inspiring presence of the familiar – what else do we lose?
After a year without it, we know what we have lost. And we are desperate to have it back.