Over the course of my reading in 2021, I’ve often wanted to grab a stool at the bar (or restaurant or café) frequented by the characters in the book and shamelessly eavesdrop for an hour or three. Here are five of the mostly fictional establishments I’d like to visit:
The Corkscrew, favorite gathering spot of the wine-swilling barristers of London’s Lincoln’s Inn that features in Sarah Caudwell’s quartet of mystery novels: Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder, and The Sybil in Her Grave. The group, who have an unlikely penchant for getting tangled up in murder given they practice tax law, are forever ordering another bottle of Nierstein. Since the author was a barrister in London, I suspect the Corkscrew is based on a real wine bar—any tips on its identity are welcome.
TheCosy Corner from Ivan Turgenev’s short story, The Singers, which details a wild singing competition in a rural pub—a nineteenth-century version of Russian Idol if you will. I read the story in George Saunders’s collection of great Russian short stories, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which is enriched by Saunders’s essays following each story and was one of my favorite books of 2021.
Girls & Women, Deborah Levy’s imaginary café from the third and final installment of her excellent “living autobiography,” Real Estate. The menu features an entrée of vodka and cigarettes; guava ice cream is also up for consideration on the bill of fare. I have half a mind to start a crowd-funding appeal to encourage Levy to open it IRL.
El Faro from Jessica B. Harris’s memoir, My Soul Looks Back, in which she reflects on running in the same social circles as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. Harris is best known as a food writer, and this year’s excellent Netflix documentary, High on the Hog, was based on her book of the same name. My Soul Looks Back isn’t a food book per se, but she writes especially evocatively of the bustling scene—and shrimp in green sauce—from this late, historic West Village Spanish restaurant.
Giacomino’s Café from Sapienza Goliarda’s novel, Meeting in Positano, written in the 1980’s but released in an English translation only earlier this year. Here on the Amalfi coast, our protagonist orders “rum babas in abundance and cappuccinos by the gallon,” a breakfast of champions if ever there was one. Goliarda lived a life as large as that breakfast, and my cultural wish for 2022 is for someone to make a film about her.
For a long time, I’ve resisted the idea of reading books that are part of a series. With so many good books out there, it seemed risky to devote too much of my precious reading time to a single author, much less a single series by a single author. I was suffering from the reader’s version of FOMO.
It hasn’t always been this way. As a child I had no problem devoting myself to the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Ramona Quimby; to chronicles of both Narnia and Sweet Valley High. But not until Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the first of which came out in 2014, was my impasse with reading a series of books broken for me as an adult. The thing is, there was so much else going on with Cusk’s books—ripping up the conventions of fiction and such—I almost didn’t notice I had become a serial book reader again. It took another author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, to make me fall in love with the multi-volume form again. (Hat tip to Sarah Miller, whose essay about Howard and The Cazalet Chronicle is what got me started on them.)
As I write this, I am lingering in the last pages of the second volume, Marking Time, of Howards’ Cazalet Chronicle, an English family saga that starts on the brink of the Second World War and excels in its depiction of women and children. The third, Confusion, was purchased in a secondhand bookstore in Chicago earlier this year before I had even started on the second—that’s how sure I was I wanted to continue reading these books. My enjoyment of the Cazalet Chronicle has prompted me to plan a year of reading books in series for 2020. This means starting a few new ones as well as returning to some I’ve already begun, often in the middle. Here’s what’s on my list.
First up is returning to Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I read and loved the first, My Brilliant Friend, which has in common with Howard the strength of its depiction of girls and women in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. The Story of a New Name’s patient wait on my bookshelf is over.
Next I plan to tackle Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which a friend recommended during a random conversation in which I professed my adoration of Alan Bennett, who starred in a 1980’s television adaptation. This led me to pick up Manning’s bewitching The Rain Forest, which I read and loved this year. A foreword from a reissue of The BalkanTrilogy that appeared in Rachel Cusk’s 2019 essay collection, Coventry, pushed the series near the top of my 2020 reading list.
Also featured in Coventry is an essay about D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and its sequel Women in Love. I’ve read neither, and if I get an itch for expanding my repertoire of classics, I will turn to these.
I will seek mirth from Nina Stibbe’s Reasons to Be Cheerful, the third in a series I started in the middle in 2018 with the sweet, funny Paradise Lodge. Featuring the adventures of teenager-into-young-adult Lizzie Vogel (I’m sensing a theme here in my tastes), it’s nice to have someone to cheer for. Continuing my theme of six degrees of separation from Alan Bennett, Stibbe also wrote a book, Love, Nina, about the time she spent as the nanny for the editor of the London Review of Books, who happened to be Bennett’s close friend, sometimes publisher, and neighbor.
The podcast of Bennett’s 2019 diary reminded me that Scottish used-bookstore-owner Shaun Bythell has a sequel to his curmudgeonly delightful Diary of a Bookseller. The follow-up, Confessions of a Bookseller is something I’ll save up for when I need some comic relief in 2020 (I’m guessing around election time in November).
Sticking with memoir, I also want to read the first in a planned trio by Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing, which is a response to George Orwell’s Why I Write. The second book of this series, The Cost of Living, was one of my favorite books of 2018. Here’s hoping the third of the series comes to fruition in 2020, although if not, I’m also keen to read her 2019 novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, not least because it’s partially set in Berlin.
Back to fiction, I finally plan to take the plunge with Ben Lerner and his 2019 TheTopeka School. In the last month Lerner has been interviewed on most the culture podcasts I enjoy, so I guess the marketing has worked. It’s the third of a series, but a prequel of sorts to the first two, so I don’t feel too bad about starting at the end.
Finally, I’m bad at sticking to plans and there are a few things on my horizon that don’t fall into the category of a book that’s part of a series, including Nell Zink’s 2019 novel, Doxology, Ottessa Moshfegh’s forthcoming novel Death in Her Hands, and Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 Booker Prize nominated Ducks, Newburyport, which at over 1,000 pages may as well be a multi-volume series, albeit written largely as a single sentence.
It’s the time of year for resolutions, but before I go, here’s a quick look back at my favorite books read in 2019 and published in the last decade. Happy new year, and may your 2020 year in reading be filled with new favorites!