Books I read and listened to in 2022, with commentary
Welcome to my second annual review of my year in reading! Like last year, I divide my books into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, but I don’t rank them in any particular order within those categories. If numbers are your thing, I read 22 novels, 21 books of nonfiction, and 2 poetry collections. I am only able to keep track of the books I read, and what I thought about each book, because of various insane reading practices I’ve committed to over the years, all of which I describe here.
This list only includes books that I finished, which means quite a few books that I started in 2022 did not make the list. As I get older, I am more comfortable with putting a book down after a few chapters. Life is too short and there are too many books out there to read something that doesn’t appeal. I keep some of those unfinished books around, which is why the stacks on my side of the bed are so high. For me, books are like food — sometimes I’m not in the mood for a spinach omelet or a Hawaiian pizza, but tomorrow it might be exactly what I crave.
Read to the end of this list for my reading goals in 2023.
Every now and then I finish a novel and think, “That was absolutely perfect.” This is not to say that perfect novels are my favorites or even my preference. Actually, I am quite fond of the ambitious-but-flawed novel genre. But it feels special when I come across a book where not a single word, character, or plot development feels out of place. This year, I was lucky to read five books that I found perfect.
The first was Someone (Alice McDermott, 2014), which my husband, Adam, discovered in the New York Times’ list of the 25 most significant New York novels of the last 100 years. I have often recommended books to Adam, and he usually reads them, which is one reason we’re still married. Someone was the first book that traveled from his nightstand to my nightstand instead of the other way around. (Another book from the list, Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies (2020), was the second book to make the cross-bed journey, and I’m still reading it.) The Times’ critics described Someone as a “quiet novel” about the “daily life of Irish Americans in Brooklyn.” I would add that McDermott’s carefully woven plot is also a master class in how a relatively short book can take the entire measure of a human life.
My second perfect read of 2022 was Amy and Isabelle (Elizabeth Strout, 1998). This novel about a mother and daughter in small-town Maine centers around an abuse of sexual power that some readers may find uncomfortable. But Strout’s story is, sadly, not unusual, and her depiction of a claustrophobic mother-daughter relationship quaking in the aftershock of the abuse was fascinating to me. From a craft perspective, I also enjoyed how each chapter tracks the progress of time and each character’s unique arc, including the people that make up Amy and Isabelle’s community. There’s no such thing as a minor character in Strout’s world.
My biggest surprise of the year was Five Decembers (James Kestrel, 2021), a crime novel set in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Had it not been assigned by my book club, I would not have read this perfect novel. For one thing, I think of books about World War II mainly as Father’s Day presents. From the picture of a muscle-bound, shirtless man and a vaguely Asian-looking naked woman on the dust jacket, you might think that the novel is a celebration white-male-centric hardboiled crime fiction. But Five Decembers turned out to be an homage to the hardboiled genre’s whittled-down prose without any of its more dated qualities. (The first sentence: “Joe McGrady was looking at a whiskey.”) My book club, all women, unanimously loved this book, a rare occurrence. We had a lively discussion about whether the author was, in fact, a woman. James Kestrel just has to be a pseudonym, right? It was fun to speculate, but I don’t really care about Kestrel’s gender: the point is, this person can write. By the way, I loaned this book to my dad and husband and they both loved it.
The Book of Form and Emptiness (Ruth Ozeki, 2021) was also a perfect novel — the kind that I stayed up late reading over a series of nights, until I got close to the end and had to force myself to slow down. The main characters, a single mother and her sensitive son, reminded me a little of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, one of my all-time favorites. But there is a lot more than a mother-son relationship going on in this novel, which includes a badass librarian, mental illness, jazz, hoarding, and a gender-neutral pet ferret. As a lover of public libraries in cities, I appreciate Ozeki’s attention to unhoused library patrons. Apparently, she was inspired by the Vancouver Public Library. I was not surprised to find a lot of big ideas and profound questions in The Book of Form and Emptiness. After all, Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest as well as a novelist shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013. But I did not know that she would be so funny! This line made my favorite sentence bank: “It was the longest pee in the universe.”
A Complicated Kindness (Miriam Toews, 2016) was the fifth perfect novel I read in 2022, and if I had the privilege of handing out an award for Voice of the Year, it would go to Nomi Nickel, the 16-year-old Mennonite narrator of Toews’ third novel. Take, for example, Nomi’s description of her mother: “There was something seething away inside of her, something fierce and unpredictable, like a saw in a birthday cake.” Or this gem: “Somehow I managed to find the time to wander aimlessly around town and stare at stuff with a new expression I’d been working on that suggested a complex combination of hostility and hopelessness mingled with sad longing and redemptive love.” I have an enduring love of Holden Caulfield in A Catcher in the Rye, to the point that his gripey adolescent voice lives in a part of my brain that I call the Holden channel. (Jane Eyre’s in there too.) I am always looking for other first person adolescent narrators that fit in that part of my brain, and Nomi is the latest addition.
I got interested in reading The Middlesteins (Jami Attenburg, 2012) when I heard Attenberg say on Brad Listi’s Otherppl podcast that the book’s structure was inspired by Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Like Strout’s book, The Middlesteins uses linked stories to bring to life food-obsessed Edie Middlestein, her estranged husband (a pharmacist, like Henry Kitteridge), and their world in the suburbs of Chicago. I read The Middlesteins in the spring, and in the summer I attended a writing conference where Attenberg was the keynote speaker. I stood in line to meet her after her speech, not so much to get an autograph but because I wanted to tell her how much I admired a chapter in The Middlesteins written in the third person plural voice of the assembled Middlestein family friends at a b’nei mitzvah. She said she’d had to fight to keep that chapter in. It was worth it!
Another book that I discovered because of Brad Listi was Revenge of the Scapegoat (Caren Beilen, 2022). What a wild novel. I did not love it unconditionally, but I loved it. On paper, Beilen’s novel is about Iris, an adjunct writing professor, who receives from her father a package of letters that he wrote to her when she was a teenager, accusing her of destroying their family. But that’s really just the starting place from which the plot jumps off into all kinds of weird places. Every description of the book that I’ve read compares it to something by Rabelais, which may tell you all you need to know, but if that doesn’t make sense to you, just know that things get trippy. For example, Iris’s arthritic feet speak to her, and to each other, like the titular characters of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pecuchet. There are also Nazi cows, and a maddeningly long scene at an artist’s retreat that I might have enjoyed more if I had had the opportunity to grow cynical about artist’s retreats. Revenge of the Scapegoat doesn’t necessarily make sense, but its absurdity feels earned. How else to write about severe bodily pain and family trauma? Several of Beilen’s lines made it into my favorite sentence bank, like this one about driving to Vermont (“A woman alone in a car with a tape is pretty good.”) If none of this convinces you that Revenge of the Scapegoat is worth reading, read it simply to live vicariously through Iris’s mental response to the random guy who walks up to her in the park and asks, “Can I ask a question?”
I learned about America Is Not the Heart (Elaine Castillo, 2018) on a different literary podcast, Between the Covers with David Naimon. America Is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo’s first novel, tells the story of Hero De Vera, a Filipina woman who immigrates to the Bay Area to live with her aunt and uncle after spending two years enduring torture in a prison camp because of her involvement in the New People’s Army. Hero is arguably the main character, but this book, which begins with a chapter written in the second person about Hero’s aunt’s upbringing in the Philippines and immigration to the U.S., is just as much about the multiethnic, multilingual Philippines and the multiethnic, multilingual Bay Area as it is about any one character. Whether young or old, Castillo’s characters are beautifully rendered, and the plot, while sprawling, never veers out of control. This book was challenging to read because Castillo writes dialogue in English plus three different languages spoken in the Philippines. In the audiobook, Filipina-American actress Donabella Mortel makes it easy to keep track of who was speaking and the meaning was always clear, even when I couldn’t understand the words. When my loan on the library audiobook expired halfway through the novel and I started to read a used copy that I found at Half-Price Books, I missed Mortel’s voice, but I didn’t love the book any less, which is a credit to Castillo’s writing. I’m excited to read her second book, How to Read Now, an essay collection about “the politics and ethics of reading.”
You might be surprised to see Memoirs of a Beatnik (Diane di Prima, 1969) included in the fiction category. If it were written today, this autobiographical novel about di Prima’s youth in New York in the 1950s would be called autofiction. This book was so inspiring that I wrote a whole essay about it.
Last year I wrote that I had been reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels for “approximately forever.” This was the year that I finished the series with The Story of the Lost Child (Elena Ferrante, 2014). These novels tell the story of two women who grow up together in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. Ferrante follows their friendship, rivalry, loves, and careers with a radically intimate attention to the psychic tensions between them. Ferrante gets in the weeds — not only does she painstakingly detail the ins and outs of a complicated, decades-long friendship, she’s also guiding the reader through Italian politics, class warfare, academic rivalries, and local disputes that originated three books ago. But there is nothing tedious about these books; I often find my heart racing when I read Ferrante, as in the scene in The Story of the Lost Child when Lila and Elena must save themselves and their children from an earthquake. Ditto the scene in which Elena has to march her fussy children down a sidewalk while furious at her lover. In Ferrante’s world, the domestic is epic. In this conversation between two of my favorite authors, Ferrante told Elizabeth Strout:
“I like narratives that include the story of the effort of writing, along with the problems that writing involves. Whenever in the vast literary production of today, especially by women, I find a novel with that particular feature I underline the passages that interest me and then put the book on a separate shelf of my bookcase with the intention of returning to it. My Name Is Lucy Barton is there, and I’m happy to make use of it now, during this conversation.”
That is how I feel about all four books that make up the Neapolitan novels, and why I keep them in a special place on my shelves.
It’s hard to classify the genre of Let There Be Light: the Real Story of Her Creation (Liana Fincke, 2022), but let’s say it’s a graphic, Biblically-inspired novel. Fincke’s retelling of Genesis, in which God is a woman, is delightful in every way and thought-provoking in all the ways you might imagine plus some. She’s also fun on Instagram.
I read two books by Lily King in 2022: Writers and Lovers (2020) and Five Tuesdays in Winter (2022). The first book is a novel about a young writer who is working as a waitress in Boston while she ignores her college debt and attempts to finish and sell her first novel. I don’t know if it’s based on King’s life, but it sure feels like it. I loved Writers and Lovers for its depiction of the writing life, its cringily realistic restaurant scenes, and the best miniature golf scene in literature. Five Tuesdays in Winter is a collection of short stories that I read with my book club. We all agreed on the perfection of “When in the Dordogne,” a story about a WASP-y young man whose parents leave him alone with two college students for the summer. I’ll probably never forget the final story in the collection, “The Man at the Door,” which makes the idea of the internal male critic horrifyingly literal.
For years, a good friend has been telling me to read Grace Paley, the author of short stories and poetry whom Philip Roth once called “splendidly comic and unladylike.” In 2022, I finally finished reading Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Grace Paley, 1974). I had dipped into Paley’s writing in the past, but for some reason it didn’t take. I think I needed to know more about myself as a writer, a mother, and a person to fully appreciate her work. My favorite Paley stories are about families, marriages, children, and friendships among women who live on the same block in Greenwich Village. They gossip over coffee at each other’s breakfast tables, watch each other’s kids play at Washington Square Park, and occasionally go out and raise hell for peace. I found myself skimming a story in which Paley voices a Black character, but in the best of these stories she’s writing from the perspective that feels based on her life as a wife, mother, daughter, New Yorker, and activist. Fantastically voicey and wonderfully weird.
The Comfort of Monsters (Willa Richards, 2021) was another book club pick. Set in Milwaukee in 1991, when Jeffrey Dahmer made every headline, this novel seemed like it wanted to be a thriller in the tradition of Girl on a Train, Gone Girl, and other books featuring unreliable female narrators. Richards does a masterful job of setting up a creepy atmosphere, but at the end I felt like it hadn’t added up to much. My book club had an interesting discussion about why the end felt unsatisfying. I left with the conviction that a reader can end a book asking, “what the hell did that mean?” But a book should not leave a reader asking, “what the hell just happened?”
Sometimes I fall in love with a writer’s voice and try to read as many books by them as I can. In 2022, I read more books by Elizabeth Strout than any other author, and that’s not even counting her books that I reread. It started with Amy and Isabelle, which, as I mentioned above, is a perfect novel. Next, I read The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout, 2013). As a lawyer and writer myself, I was delighted to find that my favorite lawyer-author wrote a book about lawyers. In a plot that centers around racial tension in small-town Maine, some readers may feel that Strout overstepped by voicing a Somali immigrant character. I don’t think that character was the strongest part of The Burgess Boys, but I appreciate Strout for writing about race, and particularly her white character’s evolving feelings and attitudes about their whiteness, topics which she has never shied away from both here and in her other novels.
Olive Kitteridge was the character that catapulted Strout into the stratosphere of literary fame, but I am a bigger fan of the books that I think of as “the Lucyverse,” meaning the four books that feature Lucy Barton, a character who grew up in poverty in Amgash, Illinois, and is now a successful writer in New York. Last year, my favorite book was Anything Is Possible, a collection of stories set in Amgash in which Lucy makes a brief appearance. In 2022, I listened to Oh, William! (Elizabeth Strout, 2021) in preparation for Lucy By The Sea (Elizabeth Strout, 2022), the latest installment in the series. (Can we talk about the genius of certain audiobook narrators? Kimberly Farr, who as far as I can tell narrates all of Strout’s novels, has a way of voicing Lucy that really gets in my head. Each new book feels like a conversation with an old friend.) As depictions of long loves and aging — two subjects that don’t get written about enough — both Oh, William! and Lucy By the Sea were exciting. The latter book, which takes place as Lucy and her ex-husband William wait out the pandemic on the coast of Maine, also made me feel perversely excited about writing about the pandemic. In this New York Times Magazine interview, Strout said of the spring and summer of 2020, when Lucy By the Sea is set:
“It’s like time just imploded. The sense of a day was strange and the sense of a week was even stranger, because what was a week? I wanted to get that down on the page somehow.”
I was struggling with the same challenge in my own writing, and I suspect this is true for other writers. Could we be in the same literary movement as Strout? Well, why not? After all, anything is possible.
Closer to home, I read Olympus, Texas (Stacey Swann, 2021), a novel set in East Texas based on characters from Greek mythology. Olympus, Texas got a lot of critical attention for its insightful character portraits and interesting structure. I admire how Swann introduces her character’s origin stories with cheeky chapter titles like “The Origin of Vera’s Broken Heart” and “The Origin of March’s Rage.” But my favorite parts of the novel were its glimpses of small-town Texas life. (The doomed gastropub where they serve banana hefeweizen!) I was delighted to cross paths with Swann at a writing conference last summer, and she was lovely. I look forward to her next book.
I read Squad (Maggie Tokuda-Hall, 2021), at my daughter’s request. Squad is about a pack of teenage feminist werewolves who kill and devour sexual predators. I was a little concerned about whether it was too mature for my 11-year-old daughter, but I love the werewolf/menstruation metaphor. (See also the Netflix series Wednesday, in which “wolfing out” stands in for growing up and expressing a sexual identity.) When I was growing up, the only novel in which menstruation was a plot point was Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, which I refer to in my journal as AYTGIMM. Sharing books with my kids is the best part of parenting. (When I read this paragraph to my daughter, she added that “it’s the best part of kidding, too.”)
At first, I was resistant to Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (Gabrielle Zevin, 2022) because I thought I couldn’t fall in love with a novel about video games. I was so wrong! The plot of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow centers around a friendship between two game designers, but at its heart this is a novel about storytelling. Excellent characters, clever writing chock-full of literary Easter eggs, and I loved how Zevin portrays LA. in all its weird glory. Zevin reminds me of Michael Chabon at his best. After Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, I read Young Jane Young (Gabrielle Zevin, 2018), a novel based on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I love Zevin’s Jewish grandmothers and the fact that she works “bubbe meise” into both novels I’ve read by her. For writers, Young Jane Young is great example of how to fictionalize a real event without creating an alternate universe.
I was excited to read Vagabonds (Eloghosa Osunde, 2022), a debut novel, because I’d read a short story by Osunde in the Paris Review. I also came to Vagabonds right after putting down a romance novel that I’d attempted to read because I’d heard the author was good at dialogue. After reading a few chapters of a novel narrated by a straight, white, American woman — i.e., a narrator too close to my own identity, it felt bracing, in a good way, to enter Osunde’s world of queer characters and their supernatural benefactors in modern-day Lagos, Nigeria. Few of the characters in this book, which is really more of a collection of linked stories than a traditional novel, grabbed my attention with as much force as the narrator of the Paris Review story that I’d originally read by Osunde. Still, she is clearly a writer of tremendous talent and originality, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.
Books about writing and memoir took up a lot of space in my 2022 nonfiction reading list.
In the first category goes The Writing Life (Annie Dillard, 1989). Dillard’s lovely prose might seem too elliptical to give practical advice, but over the course of this short book of essays the reader is offered a glimpse into the life of a professional crafter of sentences. Somewhere I have read that Dillard has repudiated the entire book except for the last chapter, a character sketch of a stunt pilot who took her up on his plane before he died performing a trick for King Hussein of Jordan. I prefer the parts about bugs, children, and chopping wood. Go figure.
In the Margins: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing (Elena Ferrante, 2022) was the perfect short book for an airplane ride home after I’d finished all the books I brought with me on our summer vacation. Someday I’ll read Dante and come back to Ferrante’s essays on translation.
I kept hearing other writers mention Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative (Jane Alison, 2019). Alison’s argument that plots shouldn’t have to all be linear or based on the hero’s journey gets quite technical in places, but I never found it too complicated to follow, partly because she punctuates her analysis with charming passages from books and stories that she cites as examples of nontraditional narrative patterns. Basically, she’s arguing that plots don’t all have to follow the same shape:
For centuries there’s been one path through fiction we’re most likely to travel — one we’re actually told to follow — and that’s the dramatic arc: a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides. Teachers bid young writers to follow the arc (or triangle or pyramid). If you ask Google how to structure a story, your face will be hammered with pictures of arcs. And it is an elegant shape, especially when I translate arc to its natural form, a wave. Its rise and fall traces a motion we know in heartbeats, breaking surf, the sun passing overhead. There’s power in a wave, its sense of beginning, midpoint, and end: no wonder we fall into it in stories. But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no? So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life. Why not draw on them, too?
I loved Alison’s analysis of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a book I’ve read, but she also highlighted several authors I’d never read before and look forward to reading in full. Meander, Spiral, Explode is not necessarily intended to teach nonlinear writing so much to describe it so that readers and writers might recognize diverse ways in which an engaging story can unfold. I will definitely trying to imagine different narrative patterns. Alison’s argument can be applied in lots of interesting ways, like this personal essay by a pregnant trans man about finding new metaphors for pregnancy.
Another book that it seemed like everyone was talking about this year was Bodywork: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative (Melissa Febos, 2022), a collection of essays by the author of Whip Smart and Girlhood about the joys and pitfalls of writing memoir. I’d read some of the essays in Bodywork online, but it was good to have them in one place and read them on paper. Febos does not have to convince me that personal writing is valuable, healing, and a political act. But she puts words to thoughts that I haven’t bothered to articulate and I appreciate that.
In 2022, I also read Febos’s second memoir, Abandon Me (Melissa Febos, 2017). The book is described as a memoir in essays, but one relationship/breakup looms over the whole book, which makes it feel at times more like a failed memoir. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I am a fan of making art out of genre failures.) Melissa Febos is doing amazing work, and any of her books would make a wonderful gift for anyone who is doing the hard work of writing the truth about their life.
The other memoirs I read in 2022 are:
- I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home (Jamie Attenberg, 2022), a meandering and engaging narrative about the author’s journey to a successful writing career and adulthood;
- Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me (Ada Calhoun, 2022), an unflinching memoir about the author’s relationship with her father, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and their separate failures to complete a biography of Frank O’Hara. Also a Poet was my favorite of three books by Calhoun that I read in 2022. St. Mark’s Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street (2015), about the neighborhood where Calhoun grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, provided an interesting pre-pandemic companion piece to Feral City, mentioned below. I didn’t think I needed to read Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis (2020) when it first came out. I’m still prickly about the notion of Gen X (which I realize is a very Gen X stance), but I appreciated Calhoun putting together in one book both an intelligent diagnosis of what ails the women of our generation and a recipe for the cure.
- Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy (Rachel Krantz, 2021), a book that I started reading not for tips on open marriage but because I was interested in Krantz’s technique of “reported memoir,” which blends the practice of memoir with more journalistic methods. Polyamory sounds exhausting to me, but this book offers a very comprehensive look at the topic for anyone who is interested. I ended up skimming over the parts about sex and relationships because I wanted to read more of some of Krantz’s other insights, e.g. about eating issues that were exacerbated in her relationship with a domineering and manipulative man.
- Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (Ann Patchett, 2004). This memoir of the author’s close friendship with writer Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face (1994), is both truthful and beautiful. I read parts of it out loud to my daughter when we shared a bed on our summer trip to Washington D.C., New York, and Philadelphia. She enjoyed the scenes of young Ann and Lucy as roommates at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but I was grateful that she lost interest before we reached Grealy’s tragic end. I would like to read more memoirs about friendships, please.
- It’s not really a memoir, but I’ll include here Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days: Essays (2021). I read this right after Truth and Beauty, and the combination left me feeling almost uncomfortably inside Patchett’s head. In the most talked-about essay in the collection, Patchett describes an intense friendship that she and her husband formed with Tom Hanks’ personal assistant, who was unexpectedly stranded with the Patchetts due to travel complications during the pandemic. That essay was very good and should be included someday in a literary anthology of the pandemic. But the essays that stuck with me were all about reading and writing. In one essay she describes waiting tables while imagining the plot of her first novel. In others, she enthusiastically praises Charles Schultz’s Peanuts and Kate DiCamillo. I like Ann Patchett’s fiction, but I like her nonfiction more, because she writes like someone who really loves to read.
- Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York (Jeremiah Moss, 2022) has not always been described as a memoir, but that is how I read it. Like a lot of great memoirists, Moss is also a poet, and it shows in sentences like this description of a cop in riot gear: “His young face, wide-eyed inside its helmet, reminds me of a soft mollusk tucked inside a shell, as emotionless and blank as a quahog.” In most ways, my pandemic years in suburban North Austin could not have been more different from what Moss experienced in the East Village. And yet, in parts I felt that I was reading a reflection of my own psychic experience. I felt comforted knowing that I wasn’t alone in finding liberation during this weird and painful period.
A friend gave me Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. (Lily Anolik, 2019) when the book first came out, and this year I finally read it after hearing Anolik interviewed on the Otherppl podcast. Anolik’s breathless writing is grating in some places, but in others her voice feels perfectly suited for the subject of Eve Babitz as a young woman caught up in a scene. I’m hoping that Anolik’s next book is a dual biography of Eve Babitz and Joan Didion.
Speaking of biographies, the first book that I finished in 2022 was the longest book I’ve ever read: Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Heather Clark, 2021). (With the endnotes, it’s longer than War and Peace!) I had heard this book described as a page-turner, and while that seemed unlikely, I did actually race through it and stay up late reading until I’d finished. Even though I knew what would happen in the end, I couldn’t wait to find out how Clark was going to tell the story. Like most brainy, ambitious girls, I’ve got a Sylvia Plath thing. I knew the outlines of Plath’s life as a cautionary tale and a symbol. But I did not know the half of her relevance. In Red Comet, Clark takes pains to reveal Plath’s lifelong belief that she should not have to choose between her ambitions to write great poetry and to be a great wife and mother. I also found myself fascinated by Plath’s journals, in which young Sylvia built herself up as an author and narrated her own life to herself in terms that, Clark’s research reveals, do not always match up with what actually happened. I will be thinking about Red Comet for a long, long time. I am super excited for Clark’s next book, a biography of Anne Sexton.
The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Body Problem (Julie Phillips, 2022) plucked a lot of the same nerves as Red Comet. I love this book so much. It was both inspiring and soothing to read Phillips’ biographical vignettes about artists and writers coping with motherhood. I encountered some writers here that I’d like to read more of, like Karen Jay Fowler, author of Jane Austen spinoff novels, whose book of essays and short stories, The Science of Herself (2013) I found at a used bookstore and read in one afternoon on the couch. I wish I’d had The Baby on the Fire Escape when I was a new mother. It would not have helped the disorientation, but at least it would have confirmed my suspicion that I was undergoing a massive identity crisis. I had dinner with a friend from Seattle recently and gave her my copy with all my notes. Now she’s reading it and putting her notes in the margins next to mine before sending it back to me. In the meantime, I’ve ordered another copy to give away. Thrillingly, Phillips is now working on a biography of Ursula K. Le Guin.
Since I don’t use hairspray, and my tolerance for queso and Dr. Pepper has changed since I was a kid in Austin, I was relieved to learn in A Love Letter to Texas Women (Sarah Bird, 2016) that “it takes a heck of a lot more than queso, Dr. Pepper, and hairspray to make a real Texas woman.” I wish I’d read this fun little book when it first came out. It hurt my heart to read Bird state confidently that “[o]nly now, as Hillary Clinton is poised to become the first woman with a shot at the presidency, can we truly assess Ann [Richard]’s significance.” If someone reading this knows Sarah Bird, please tell her that, after Senate Bill 8 and Dobbs v. Mississippi, Texas women really need her to write an updated edition of this book. (I’m already coming up with a list: how about Wendy Davis, Rochelle Garza, Beyoncé, Megan Thee Stallion and her mom?)
Annette Gordon-Reed, the author of On Juneteenth (2021), would also be a great candidate for Sarah Bird’s next Love Letter to Texas Women. On Juneteenth won the Pulitzer Prize, so you probably already know that it is a meditation on the meaning of the holiday celebrated on June 19th to mark the end of legalized slavery in Texas, which is now a federal holiday. When I was growing up in Austin, I learned about Juneteenth in Texas history, which we have to take twice, in 4th and 7th grades. But almost everyone I knew was white, which explains why I didn’t know anyone who actually celebrated Juneteenth. Gordon-Reed, a professor of history at Harvard University, is closer to my father’s age than mine, and she grew up celebrating Juneteenth with her African-American family. But despite our different perspectives, I could relate to Gordon-Reed’s feelings about Juneteenth as a uniquely Texan celebration, as well as her ambivalence about calling Texas home.
I read Who Killed These Girls? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders (Beverly Lowry, 2016) because I was interested in the Austin yogurt shop murders, an unsolved crime that scandalized my hometown when I was 15, around the same age as the victims. Lowry’s book is a well-researched, granular example of the true crime genre. It is hard to write about the murder of four teenage girls without sentimentality. Lowry does an admirable job of writing with clear-eyed compassion about everyone involved in the saga of the murders and their investigation, including not only the victims and their families but also the young men who were wrongfully convicted of the murder based on confessions that were later determined to be coerced.
Speaking of true crime, I read Jane: A Murder (Maggie Nelson, 2005) while riding trains and staying in AirBnBs on our summer vacation in the Northeast. I have read two other books by Nelson, so knew I would love Jane, a book that straddles memoir and true crime as it tells the story of Nelson’s reckoning with her aunt’s murder by a serial killer. I did not know, however, that Nelson would use her aunt’s journals to bring her character to life. This places Jane in a special category, for me, of books about women and writing, and women and journals. Maggie Nelson is a genius, and I hope anyone who is writing anything involving violence against a woman takes the time to read this short book.
Poetry & Miscellany
The Life (Carrie Fountain, 2021). I really enjoyed this collection. Fountain is exploring a topic close to my heart — the liminal space between “life” and “work.” I especially love the title poem, in which Fountain tries to fix a broken toilet and listens to her children talk about heaven: “a place where you can/ do whatever you want, eat/ ice cream for dinner, play/ video games with a God who will/ drive you to CVS — yes, right now,/ put on your shoes — for a new box/ of Lucky Charms, a God/ who will give you full possession/ of his Apple ID.” I have come to think of this genre of poetry as the spiritual domestic (or domestic spiritual), and it reminds me of Anne Sexton, who wrote: “I want to kiss God on His nose and watch Him sneeze/ and so do you.”
The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (Marie Howe, 2008). I love Howe’s style of extremely compressed meaning. Her poetry feels less cryptic when I read a whole collection rather than isolated poems on the internet. Writing this now, I realize that there are some similar themes in the two collections of poetry that I read this year — motherhood, housework, grocery shopping, and occasional glimpses of the divine.
The Peanuts Treasury (Charles M. Schultz, 1959–1968). Many thanks to Ann Patchett for inspiring me to spend some time with Snoopy and the Peanuts kids! I had forgotten that Snoopy was a writer, but one of the essays in Patchett’s These Precious Days reminded me. I read the entire Treasury on Yom Kippur, while not eating. It felt like a good way to spend the longest day of the year.
I loved this essay by Darryl Pinckney about his friendship with Elizabeth Hardwick. He reminded me how much I have enjoyed reading Hardwick’s literary criticism, which I discovered when I was working in a used bookstore. I’m looking forward to reading Pinckney’s memoir in 2023.
And finally, this short story by Matthew Klam about life with teenagers is, as my teenage son would say, fire.
My big goal for reading 2023 is diversity in all things: author, genre, era, language. Last year I read too many books by authors that resemble me, at least demographically. In 2023, I want to “seek out the genuine pleasure of decentering” myself, as described by Jia Tolentino in this interview. I also want to read more in translation, which is why I’m following Rebecca Makkai’s 84 Books Project. I plan to get acquainted with Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing. And perhaps 2023 is the year when I will finally, finally finish Middlemarch, a novel which I have been both reading and listening to in somehow-frequently-interrupted bursts of enthusiasm for several years.
Thanks for reading this, and happy new year!