The end of the year is typically the point at which I do a quick count of books read for the year and make a kind of pie chart for myself showing how my reading was spread out. That fell through this year, because what was supposed to be a three week visit back to Alabama was 2020ed into a nine month separation from my home base, including my computer and the file on which I keep records of my reading; by the time I thought to make a new file, too much time had passed and so I contented myself with posting (sometimes) brief reviews and star-rankings on Goodreads (Incidentally, the lack of a half-star ranking is one of many reasons Goodreads is infinitely inferior to its movie-oriented counterpart Letterboxd).
Anyway, I'm basically without a convenient way to do much of anything in terms of a summary, so instead I'm going to try and name a few books I read this year that I liked, in no particular order. These aren't all 2020 releases; I think I read maybe three books released in 2020, and only two of them are on this first list. But they're all worth your time.
1. Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
One book from 2020 that I did read was Garth Greenwell's Cleanness. Greenwell is also the author of What Belongs to You, which sits unread on my Kindle. I'll get to it. Anyway, Cleanness is special; Greenwell's prose has been discussed at length here, so I'll let just leave the link there.
Perhaps it's because I read the novel while in America, desperate to get back to my job overseas, but Cleanness really hit home for me. There's all the shmaltzy stuff I could say about humans desperately seeking connection, but more than that I think Greenwell conveys the sense of in-betweenness that I, at least, feel as an American abroad: not quite home in the adopted country, but not not home, if that makes sense. Anyway, Greenwell writes beautifully and that's as good a reason as any to check this one out.
2. Reaganland by Rick Perlstein
Perlstein's whole quadrilogy of books about the evolution of the Right in America should be mandatory reading for anyone who even thinks about opining on contemporary politics. This final (?) book in the set charts the rise and, um, rise of Ronald Reagan--a figure who as recently as the Obama era was popularly thought of as a "great" president, but who was (as Perlstein shows) more or less the preliminary tremors of what would be the Trump era. Pair this with Matt Tyrnauer's The Reagans.
3. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
One of the tasks I set myself this year was to finally read some of James Baldwin's fiction, having long been a fan of his in other capacities and especially of his famous debate with William F. Buckley I wound up reading three: If Beale Street Could Talk, Go Tell it on the Mountain, and this one. Of the three, this was my favorite--in part for some of the reasons Greenwell's book also struck home (this is another novel about queer expatriates, which seems to be a genre unto itself). I'm also taken by how lifelike Baldwin's scenes are. Now, this is going to need some unpacking.
You know how, occasionally, you watch a movie and realize with a shock that the actors are doing something different? You expect actors to be lifelike in a certain way and when they're lifelike in another way there's a delightful kind of thrill (the last couple times I experienced this was watching Twelve Angry Men and then, much later, Jack Dylan Grazer's performance in We Are Who We Are). It's not that you've never seen a good performance, but it's been a while since you've seen one this good in this particular way.
Well. That's Baldwin for me. I think I can modestly say that I read a decent amount of fiction and that some of it is actually good. But very little of it feels natural in the way that, for instance, the first meeting with Giovanni is natural. This is a very special book.
4. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Up to now, my experience with Wharton has been limited to a handful of short stories and Ethan Frome, which I read (but didn't particularly enjoy) as part of my prep for writing my dissertation (which became my book). After the upteenth Martin Scorsese Twitter outrage, I decided that, first, I should watch his adaptation of The Age of Innocence but that, second, I should probably read the novel first.
It's good, y'all. The preliminary stuff I heard about it made me think it would be one of those swoony stories of adulterous love--which, kinda?--but it's more than that. It's savagely funny, for one thing (we forget too often, I think, that 19th-and-early-20th C people had sense of humor). It's also meticulously observed and wise.
5. The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal
I could have put any of the Vidal novels I've read this year; I started out in January with Washington, D.C. and have been working through the Narratives of Empire in order of publication. Vidal is more praised as an essayist than as a novelist, but I think his novels (even his less-successful ones like Myron or Live from Golgotha) more than repay attention. This one is an early effort and one that made him notorious as opposed to merely famous. He revised it substantially later in his career, so the version we have today isn't the one the New York Times refused to review, but it's still very good. To be read in conjunction with Baldwin and Greenwell.
Five more that deserve paragraphs of their own
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Tales of Nevèrÿon by Samuel R. Delany
Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s by George Hutchinson
The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, and the Debate over Race in America by Nicholas Buccola
Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser
Five that would probably one of these lists except I haven't finished them
The Gallery by John Horne Burns
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941-1942 by William K. Klingaman
The Bright Book of Life by Harold Bloom
Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed
Five authors I've neglected but plan to read in the coming year:
One book I may never finish but still keep dipping into and loving:
Hónglóumèng [The Dream of the Red Chamber] by Cao Xueqin
In translation, naturally. I'm picking up the Penguin edition translated by David Hawkes--the plan is to finish a volume and buy the next one until I've done all five. I've worked at it for two years and just finished volume one. This isn't because the book is particularly difficult to read, at least in this translation; Hawkes' prose is deft and funny and keeps things moving at a decent pace. My tardiness is more down to distractions professional and personal (i.e. working on another book/writing articles/reading more in my field, etc and sometimes wanting to have a private life as well). So my pattern has become to lay the book aside for a while and then pick it up and read a couple of chapters. Since the plot proceeds in a fairly loose manner, this isn't an obstacle to understanding what's going on at a given time.
"It was indeed like a medieval plague, transmitted from person to person, but precisely why some were susceptible and others not was no more understood than why at this particular time in history the plague should occur. The Judgement of God was suspected by some; the German high command by others. Many believed that German scientists had poisoned the reservoirs of the western world. The fact that the influenza had surfaced most virulently in Germany was put down either to carelessness or, again, to God's inscrutable judgement. Alarmists declared that many millions would die before the plague had run its course. Even greater alarmists suggested that the plague would end when the last of the human race had expired, burned first by fever, then drowned in pneumonia's tidal wave. All this, and a world war--and in an election year."
I have been--for pleasure and also potentially for scholarship--reading through Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire series. I hope at some point to have enough thoughts to make an essay out of, but for now here's some assorted thoughts:
1. Reading these books in conjunction with finally seeing Veep is an interesting experience; I suspect that there is not so much of a distance between the view of politicians in either work, in spite of one being a [purportedly] serious series of novels and the other being a television comedy. It takes little imagination, for instance, to see Vidal's pudgy, jumpy Theodore Roosevelt interacting with Selina Meyer.
2. I bracketed "purportedly" up there because I'm not convinced these novels are altogether serious. Hollywood opens with William Randolph Hearst breaking a chair and falling to the ground. Empire has Theodore Roosevelt as a comic relief character. Burr suggests that George Washington was somewhat dim. And so on.
3. I liked Lincoln less than most people seem to and I'm liking Hollywood somewhat more than ditto.
4. I like none of them as much as Myra Breckinridge, which I read twice in a row and wrote a [forthcoming] article about.
5. I won't bother trying to rank them right now, but Burr and 1876 are probably going to wind up in my numbers 1 and 2 spots. I also really liked Washington, D.C., which is a weird fit for the series. That said, I've really enjoyed all of them so far (we'll see how The Golden Age goes).
6. It's funny that some people seem to think this series is showing the slow fall away from the ideals of the Republic and the development of American Imperialism (I don't have citations to hand, so perhaps I'm mistaken but it's my impression). If anything, I think the series shows that the purported ideals of the Republic were never very deep to begin with and the leaders were planning empire even from the days of the founders.