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A Year in Reading: The Best of 134 Titles From an Omnivorous Reader
A culture vulture explains her idiosyncratic reading life and creates seven themed lists for gift givers looking for that perfect, handpicked book / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 15th, 2023
When several friends gave me perfectly chosen birthday books this year, I was reminded how good it made me feel to be seen. I loved assembling this week’s holiday gift book lists, because I think handpicked books make the best thoughtful gifts. Hopefully, sharing my personal year in reading habits will similarly inspire a few ideal presents.
One of the pleasures of keeping track of my reading all year long – to date, I’ve read 134 books, with two weeks left to go – is that I can glance at the list in my Notes app for an instant snapshot. Since I’m a film critic, it’s also a watch list. July’s entries, for instance, remind me that the summer box-office phenomenon known as Barbenheimer prompted me to rewatch Todd Haynes’s early experimental film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which led me to Lead Sister, Lucy O’Brien’s book about the performer who tragically died at 32. The sensitive new biography frames Carpenter’s painful and complicated life in the context of being a pioneering woman in the male-dominated recording industry.
Book Lovers Anonymous
Anytime there was a long weekend, my book-list numbers swelled. In contrast, October was largely blank, because I was away from work (and reading) much of the month, in part for an extended personal trip to England. But, as any bibliovore knows, just because you’re not reading books doesn’t mean you’re not buying books. My travels turned into an indie bookstore tour, and I came home with about 20. Soon after my return, I read The Book at War by Andrew Pettegree, a history of how reading and books were shaped by conflict (and vice versa), which includes many stories about pillaged libraries. Ava DuVernay’s new movie Origin, based on Isabel Wilkerson’s landmark 2020 non-fiction book Caste, similarly recreates a Nazi book-burning in chilling detail. So while The Book At War also celebrates the solace and resilience found in books during wartime, its topicality, given ongoing book bans in the United States and the wars abroad, made me appreciate how fortunate we are to have so much choice – and access.
For Art’s Sake
“With everything going on in the world,” is the catch-all understatement of the year and, not uncoincidentally, I’ve read a lot about the consolation of art. It’s the same impulse that made Partrick Bringley’s All the Beauty in the World: A Museum Guard’s Adventures in Life, Loss and Art an underdog hit. Aside from that and The Upside-Down World by Benjamin Moser – meditations on Dutch masters paintings by a Pulitzer Prize winner better known for his literary biographies – my list focused on art by, and about, women. I just finished British art critic Laura Cumming’s riveting, deeply researched Thunderclap, about an explosion at a Dutch gunpowder shop that killed The Goldfinch painter Carel Fabritius, and almost killed Vermeer. Other notable books on my list were Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art and Joanna Moorhead’s Surreal Spaces, a biography of her cousin, British writer and artist Leonora Carrington.
Biographies and social histories that excavate unjustly neglected women or uncredited women’s stories is a thriving category. When I’m feeling especially glib, there’s an adjacent one I’ve taken to calling “women without men,” which examine women’s creativity, real or imagined, and their rightful place in history, had the patriarchy not existed: Without Children: The Long History of Not Becoming a Mother; Mrs. Van Gogh; Lives of the Wives; Wifedom; Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons; even Birds of the World: The Art of Elizabeth Gould and Sandra Newman’s Julia, a novel that recasts George Orwell’s 1984 from a woman’s point of view.
The books I’ll remember for years to come include the bracing Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead and James McBride’s The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store and Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes.
By turns pointed and tender, Sharpe’s 248 short entries – about what it means to be Black in a world dominated by whiteness – have an echoing effect that is cumulative. It garnered profiles in the New Yorker and New York Times Magazine, was nominated for the National Book Award, and now tops many year-end Best lists.
In November a friend invited me to an intimate evening with Sharpe, the Toronto-based Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University, and partner of Canadian poet Dionne Brand. The scholar was clear she wrote the book, first, for other Black women, then Black people and then everyone else. I was grateful my first pass through Ordinary Notes back in the spring had been deepened by subsequent re-readings, especially as I watched advance screenings of Origin and the new musical version of The Color Purple movie, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 book by Alice Walker.
From Page to Screen
My book tally always drops off a cliff in November and early December, when, as a voting member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, I spend hours screening awards contenders. Culture journalism requires me to make connections across mediums, and I cover many, many streaming series and movies – like Lessons in Chemistry – adapted from books. That’s when patterns begin to emerge about what preoccupies society and how our interests coalesce.
For example, there’s been a spate of projects about book publishing and how the sausage is made, for example, with novels like Yellowface by R. F. Kuang and the movie American Fiction – based on virtuoso writer Percival Everett’s prescient 2002 novel, Erasure – satirizing the writing industry, questioning whose stories get to be told and critiquing book culture at large.
The films also inspire me to return to the texts, and now that Otessa Mosfegh’s novel Eileen has been turned into a subversive femme fatale noir starring Anne Hathaway, I refreshed my memory by reading her 2015 debut novel. Although the American author co-wrote the screenplay, I still prefer the book, which is differently framed. The film adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 feminist satire Poor Things, starring Emma Stone, then spurred many – including me – to check out the eccentric Scottish writer’s work.
The delicate emotional logic of Andrew Scott’s central performance in All of Us Strangers, a dreamlike film about loneliness, grief and loss (in theatres Jan. 5), mesmerized and shattered me in equal measure, and is perhaps my top movie of 2023. It prompted me to seek out the Japanese source, a magical ghost story called Strangers by Taichi Yamada. But it also piqued my interest in reading Alone, the new translation of Daniel Schreiber’s surprise German bestseller that muses on the joys and challenges of solitude and the limits of friendship. It’s a natural companion to Sheila Liming’s Hanging Out, which I read for a Zoomer essay about reclaiming one’s life from work; of the three books I covered in “It’s About Time,” it’s the one I’ve returned to on my own time and extolled to friends.
The Substance of Style
For many years I was a style editor and fashion critic, and while my interests in the subject have narrowed, I love books like Real Clothes, Real Lives, which catalogued 200 years of what women really wore every day (hint: it wasn’t from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar), and the lively oral history of 1970s style, Behind the Gloss. (I also selected a few others in the spring and this fall.
I knew Hannah Carlson’s social history Pockets would resonate with me (either women’s clothes don’t have them, or they aren’t large enough), but when I got an advance copy of Booze, Babe & the Little Black Dress, in which Jason Voiovich traces the 1920s consumer revolution, I wasn’t expecting to become fully engrossed and find so many connections to the present capitalist moment. (It’s a lot like Palo Alto by Malcolm Harris, but for the legacy of Jazz Age innovations instead of Silicon Valley). Similarly, Lucy Moyse Ferreira’s Danger in the Path of Chic, which examines the proliferation of violence and graphic horror in fashion during the interwar years, sheds light on why severed heads and Schiaparelli’s skeletons are back in vogue now that we live in a similar time.
Food for Thought
Books sometimes answer questions we didn’t even know we had. With grocery and restaurant prices on the rise, for example, Andrew Friedman’s deconstruction of the costs and human labour behind one plate of food in The Dish was illuminating, as were books that traced identity and belonging through culinary memoir or cultural investigations, like Colorful Palate by Raj Tawney and Invitation to a Banquet by Fuchsia Dunlop. I also dipped in and out of Canadian Literary Fare by Nathalie Cooke and Shelley Boyd, based on the eponymous blog project, for its savoury scholarly insights into CanLit and how food expresses cultural and regional identity, with deep dives into menu items in texts by Mordecai Richler, Rabindranath Maharaj and Tomson Highway.
Hurray for Hollywood
The most recent entry on my running list was a gift from writer friends who feed my abiding interest in pre-Code and Hollywood history – an experimental novel called Arabian Nights of 1934 by Geoffrey O’Brien. Really, the only way to describe it is as an impressionistic, elliptical novel, told in short passages, about the experience of moviegoing in the early 1930s. Staying with that theme, Blood of the Virgin, Sammy Harkham’s graphic novel about a Jewish American screenwriter’s attempt to make a low-budget horror movie, is a remarkable evocation of 1970s Hollywood. My noir of the year, as I predicted when it came out in January, is still Jordan Harper’s sprawling L.A. crime story, Everybody Knows.
Crime of the Century
Crime, it turns out, pays. After years of reading and admiring their work, for example, I talked to Mike Herron about his sly origin-story novel, The Secret Hours, which inspired the hit British TV series about second-rate MI5 agents, Slow Horses, and Colson Whitehead on the inspiration gleaned from 1970s New York for Crook Manifesto, his latest novel about the life and crimes of a Black furniture salesman. Other highlights in the genre were Hot Springs Drive by Lindsay Hunter, Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent , S.A. Cosby’s Virginia-set procedural, All the Sinners Bleed, and Deepti Kapoor’s organized-crime saga, Age of Vice. Several entries remind me that I watched Prime Video’s Tasmanian feminist noir murder comedy Deadloch (three times, to date). That binge reflects my taste for humorous and seriously smart mystery novels, which there aren’t enough of, for my liking. Besides Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series, the other hits were The Spy Coast by Tess Gerritson and The Sunset Years of Agnes Sharp by Leonie Swan. For more suggestions on lighter fare, take a look at my list, Murder, She Laughed, or curl up with the latest Christmas-themed reads, some of which feature ho-ho homicide!
It didn’t help my reading life when my beloved Toronto Public Library was the victim of a serious ransomware attack. I’m fortunate not to depend on TPL for a computer or internet access the way many households do; beyond lending books and other cultural products, libraries provide a measure of economic, social and tech equity.
There’s simply no better means for indulging one’s omnivorous curiosity – free of charge! – than through the public library. And in my line of work? As one of the largest urban library systems in the world, the TPL is deeply stocked on the many hard-to-find, out-of-print and backlist titles, which are essential for background research. I also really miss borrowing cute books I would never buy, like Agatha Whisky by Colleen Mullaney and Jack Deutsch, a kitschy book of cocktails inspired by you-know-who. (I’m not above a gimmick).
Now my Notes app has another growing list of books to borrow in January, when the collections database should be back online. It includes Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (a philosophical inquiry from 2008 into the importance of makers to society) as well as Chili Crisp by James Park, a new cookbook composed entirely of recipes for new trendy condiment, and The House of Dolls, the final 1989 novel by the great Barbara Comyns, “a very funny book about some elderly classy ladies supplementing their incomes by turning their lodging house into a brothel for aged gentry.”
That idiosyncratic list is a testament to just how much books – and libraries – enable us to follow our curiosity, wherever it may lead. In my case, once I reserve all 31 old and new titles on my 2024 list, hopefully it won’t crash the system.
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