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An American Marriage


2020: My year in books

Lament for live events

In January I began a new volunteer gig writing a weekly roundup of literary events in the Bay Area, “Notable San Francisco,” for The Rumpus. It was more research than actual writing, but I happily engaged in this act of literary citizenship with the city where I had been living for only a year. What an ideal way to get better acquainted.

Despite San Francisco’s reputation as a bookish city, every weekend as I researched the column I was astounded at the depth and breadth of literary life in the area—from drag-queen story time at the library to lecture-hall events with marquee names to tiny bookstore author-tour stops, complete with warm white wine in paper cups. I wrote up and attended as many as I could before the pandemic brought a halt to in-person events and the column went on hiatus. One of the more memorable was seeing poet Robert Hass read from his new collection of poems, Summer Snow, as part of the Cal Berkeley lunch poems series. Hass was avuncular, the setting—the wood-paneled, couch-filled Morrison Library—seemed custom made for the occasion, and Rebecca Solnit was in the seat next to mine.

In conversation

Live events may have gone, but we still had books. Early on in the first shutdown I placed an online order to help support a favorite San Francisco bookstore, the food-themed Omnivore Books, which is how I ended up with food matriarch Ruth Reichl’s latest memoir, Save Me the Plums, about her editorship at the now defunct Gourmet magazine. I had just read Anna Weiner’s excellent memoir, Uncanny Valley, about her transition from the east coast publishing industry to the west coast tech industry, and it was one of those serendipitous moments where you read two books that seem to be in unwitting but useful conversation with each other. Reichl captured the end of an era in publishing while Wiener picks up with a logical, if depressing, progression of what happened to a smart Millennial woman in publishing (hint: she falls for the lure of tech only to get disillusioned and, thankfully for us readers, then write about it beautifully).

The pandemic also took me to artist Jenny Odell’s nonfiction manifesto How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Odell is the same generation as Wiener and lives, like Wiener, in the Bay Area, which may be part of the reason I saw Odell’s book as being in conversation with Wiener’s. Her Uncanny Valley ends on the bleak eve of the 2016 election, and Odell’s picks up with a guide to how breaking free from tech and paying attention to your local natural environment (something we all had a lot more time to do during lockdown) is a radically political act. I immediately downloaded a plant identification app and became very annoying to take a walk with, stopping every five feet to try and identify every blooming weed on the side of the road. I’m still working on the activism side of things, but I can spot a Peruvian pepper tree from a mile away.

Shelf life

Sometime in the spring I also read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. You don’t need to hear it’s good from me seeing as it won the Pulitzer Prize and all (and the famous PowerPoint chapter really is *chef’s kiss*), but I mention it here solely as evidence that I will get around to reading things eventually. I am sure I’ve had the book since at least 2012 because I remember it being on the bedside table of the house I lived in that year.

In other words, there is hope for all those books I bought to help support bookstores in the pandemic but have no hope in hell of finishing this year. I’m looking at you Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory, Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation, Maria Gainza’s Optic Nerve, Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through, Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather, Catherine Lacey’s Pew, Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’s Sleepovers, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Fish Out of Water, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man. For now, talk amongst yourselves on my shelves.

Year of the series

In my end-of-year blog post for 2019, I declared 2020 the year of the series and my intention to finish reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s five-book Cazalet Chronicle, and Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, among others. 2020 may feel like a lost year, but this was one commitment I pulled off with pleasure.

I had started reading the Neapolitan Novels and Cazalet Chronicle in 2019 and had three books to go in each, which I alternated between as I progressed. You won’t be surprised to hear that I found these books worked well in conversation with one another, offering alternate views of the lives of their subjects—the Cazalet family in southern England and two Italian women, Elena and Lila—over overlapping spans of the twentieth century. I even found a thread between book three of the Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, when Lila transitions from a grim life working in a sausage factory to being an assistant at IBM, the start of what will be her lucrative entrepreneurial career in tech. Turns out women moving into tech for economic reasons isn’t just a twenty-first century Silicon Valley story.

I am not the first person to wax lyrical about the Cazalet Chronicle (see also Gayle Lazda and Sarah Miller on the subject), but allow me to say that when you read these books you will tear your hair out that you ever wasted your time reading a Julian Fellowes novel and wonder why this hasn’t been made into a TV series. Then you will Google and find out it was made into a TV series that aired in 2001 starring none other than—wait for it—Hugh Bonneville (of Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey) as one of the lead characters. Then you will tear out what’s left of your hair wondering why the BBC won’t have mercy on us all and make it available on Netflix. Maybe Britain’s Channel 5, who rebooted All Creatures Great and Small to great success in this pandemic year, can have a go at the Cazalets, too.

I’m still about a hundred pages from the end of the last book, Friends and Heroes, of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, and so far it’s served as a counterpoint to the experiences of a moneyed English family (the world’s favored import of British culture) in the Cazalet Chronicle. Set during World War II and revolving around the life of a newly British married couple as they live in Bucharest and Athens as part of the husband, Guy’s, work for the British legation (a diplomatic arm lower level than the embassy), the Balkan Trilogy novels paint a picture of life during the war for an educated but unmoneyed class of Brits. Its protagonist, Harriet, is smart and frustrated and relatable and reminds me that what links all three of these series of books is that they excel at telling women’s stories of the twentieth century.

Book tech

No, I’m not going to talk more about Uncanny Valley or the Neapolitan Novels unlikely plot point involving IBM, but rather my three favorite book-related app/site discoveries of the year. First up is The Storygraph, which even in beta is everything I ever hoped for (but long ago gave up on) for Goodreads. I’ve moved all my reading tracking into their mobile app—you can import all your books from Goodreads—and am really enjoying watching the founder and CEO, Nadia Odunayo, develop and grow the site (her engagement with the site’s audience on social media is like a masterclass in product management). Highly recommend.

Next up is libro.fm, a site and companion app for audio books (à la carte and monthly memberships). The beauty is that when you buy books here, you choose your favorite bookstore to benefit from your purchase. It’s a great way to support our lovely local bookstores that are suffering so much during this pandemic.

I downloaded my first book from libro.fm over the summer when I had to take a long car journey, and I’ve since gotten a monthly membership for one book per month. I’ve found I choose things I probably wouldn’t buy in print, so it’s opened up my reading in a bunch of different directions. By far my favorite listen of the year was Kevin Wilson’s hilarious novel about children who catch on fire spontaneously, Nothing to See Here. If children who catch on fire spontaneously (don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt them) doesn’t sound like a rip-roaring read to you, please go and read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s review of it, which itself is a thing of beauty.

Other books I enjoyed listening to were:

  • Tayari Jones’s lauded An American Marriage, much of which is epistolary, a format that’s well suited to an audio book.
  • Lady Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown which, yes, I know, falls into that category of Americans lapping up British posh toss, but my god this lady really did have an extraordinary life and her friendship with Princess Margaret is the least of it.
  • Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel which truth be told I think my brain might be better suited to reading on the page than listening to, but I was happy nonetheless to have finally put a toe into her oeuvre, which also includes A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians.
  • Chef and restauranteur (Momofuko, etc.) David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach, which is currently my companion to the jogging habit I’ve revived in 2020 as way to stave off the pandemic pounds. If I can’t eat the food he describes, listening to it is a nice alternative.

Finally, I heartily recommend buying books online from the launched-in-2020 Bookshop.org. Like libro.fm, you can select which real-life bookshop you want to support with each purchase. While it’s still best to order online direct from your favorite bookshop when you can, Bookshop.org is the next best thing.

Hooray for Hollywood

All year long I’ve been dipping in and out of I Used to be Charming, a collection of mostly previously published articles spanning the career of journalist and novelist Eve Babitz. She is smart and hilarious and excellent at skewering the bold and beautiful of music and movies while also being their best friends. To wit: one article lays out her theory of Jim Morrison as fundamentally a fat kid while at the same time explaining how she bedded him. Many of the pieces are set in Los Angeles, where I lived for my young adulthood, and San Francisco, where I’ve been living of late, and even though there’s not too much overlap in the time period (the most recent of the articles were published in the nineties) it’s been a joy experiencing those cities through her eyes.

Babitz has had a revival in recent years, rightly being recognized as the more fun peer of Joan Didion who somehow never got quite the same acclaim. She suffered a terrible accident in 1997 that left the lower half of her body badly burned, and she now reportedly lives a reclusive life that includes being a MAGA supporter, a piece of information I find hard to square with the whip-smart woman that’s on every page of this collection.

On that note, I’ll look with optimism to 2021 and having a president back in the White House who reads books and brings culture back to political life. May your 2021 be full of both!