The Year in Books

N: To the world at large, 2016 was a lot of things, most of them fairly awful. Much ink has already been spilled on all that. But on a personal level, if not a political one, it wasn’t so bad. I got married in 2016. I moved to New York. And I took a big turn towards writing. Coinciding with that was a happy return to reading, a favorite pastime of mine for as long as I’ve known how. It’s not so much that I had stopped, but I definitely wasn’t treating it as a priority. Had you asked me about it a year ago, I probably would have said I was too busy to read very many books. What a ridiculous notion. Reading books – and writing them ­– is practically all I want to do these days. 

When Mary Cate and I first moved into our Manhattan shoebox apartment, we liked to joke that we had as many books as we had square feet. That ratio is now dangerously inching towards 2:1. We moved through the year as only a pair of bookworms could, taking inordinate delight in our favorite independent stores and lining up in the rain to hear our favorite authors speak. By 11:59 on December 31st, each of us will have read 52 books this year – a clip of one per week. Here, then, are a few of my favorites.

M: The glanciest glance at 2016’s index tells you that it was a crap year in nearly every respect. Reading, always a favorite, life-giving pastime, became a necessary relief. But relief-seeking isn’t quite how I ended up reading books at a 1:1 ratio with the year’s weeks. That round, smile-inducing 52 wasn’t even a glimmer in my mind ‘til some time in September. Noah, who was surveying the list of books he’d read since January the first, looked up in delight and announced that with this trajectory, he wouldn’t be surprised if he was able to finish 52 books by year’s end. I snatched up my phone and checked my own record. Me, too.

From that moment, 52 became our goal. We were giddy about it, but by that late in the year, it was no challenge. We’d already established a word-munching routine that averaged a book a week. That felt wonderful, especially for someone who hadn’t managed to consume this many self-assigned pages since middle school.

Always at my bedside, they were always on my mind, and as I took in more books, I developed further interest in their authors, their publishers, and the shops from which they were purchased. My love of reading silently grew into a holistic reverence for the undervalued ecosystem from which books spring. I’m greatly anticipating adventuring down new pages and into new shops next year. But for now, it is right to pause and turn back a bit, because the list of 52 deserves a smile, the authors and publishers and bookshops deserve a thank-you, and my favorite journeys deserve a few reflective sentences.

My Dog Tulip by JR Ackerley, purchased at Westsider Books

Nothing grabbed me quite the way My Dog Tulip did. Written by JR Ackerley in the 1950s, it’s the true story of an elderly gay Englishman and his German shepherd. The book is, by turns, funny, heartbreaking, and faintly disgusting, a close look at the life of a dog that sometimes teeters a touch too close for comfort. If Ackerley wasn’t the best pet owner of the last century, it’s safe to say he was the most devoted. His connection to and affection for Tulip is both unconditional and unknowable. She’s a dog; he’s a human being. At the end of the day, that barrier can never be entirely cleared. But Ackerley revels in Tulip’s animal instincts, perhaps even lives vicariously through them. It’s the best love story I’ve read in a long time.


The Haunting of Hill House
 and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, respectively purchased at Three Lives & Company and BookPeople

Shirley Jackson is experiencing a much-deserved rediscovery. Her books play in your head like movies, and Jackson is an expert director, narrating and pacing her stories to a terrifying fever pitch. With its feminist undertones, fascinating play with sexuality, and slowly-revealed dysfunctional family relationships, The Haunting of Hill House was one of my favorite books of the year. We Have Always Lived in the Castle won’t be leaving my memory any time soon, not least thanks to Jackson’s expertly rendered first-person protagonist. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the way Jackson reveals Merricat to the reader is maddeningly intriguing. It also doesn’t hurt that she shares my name.


Fraud
, Half Empty, and Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff

N: I finally picked up Don’t Get Too Comfortable this year. I was a fool to wait as long as I did. David Rakoff’s writing inspires my own. His prose dances on the corner of crabby and courtly. He is effortlessly intelligent without ever being self-congratulatory, and his essays move with ease between side-splitting and wry. There’s always a twinge of melancholy running beneath the surface, too, born of his own “defensive pessimism” and amplified by his early death. Here in late 2016, this is perhaps most evident in the book’s very first essay. “Complete strangers are talking to one another, almost giddy at the prospect,” he writes of Manhattan on Election Day morning, 2004. “That was before everything turned brown.” He would have hated 2016’s repugnant shade of orange. But I would have loved to read about why.

M: I wanted to make the omelettes. Noah was already very good at it, I was still learning to cook, and if I didn’t order him out of the kitchen I’d simply never learn. But instead of flicking through the news, Noah announced that he wanted to read to me. He took David Rakoff’s Fraud from its shelf, sat down at our little card table, and commenced reading in a voice that could only come from years of listening to NPR. From that morning, it became a bit of a tradition: Noah read a Rakoff essay while I practiced perfect omelette folding.

I loved it. David Rakoff is laugh-out-loud funny. He is also enviably witty, biting, relatable, and utterly tragic. Noah and I often stopped halfway through an essay to trade thoughts on whatever David was writing about, remarking on everything from his fascinating, sad relationship with himself to his wonderful speaking voice. David Rakoff inspires writing.


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty
, purchased at Westsider Books

I hadn’t ever heard of Caitlin Doughty before Noah stuck her book in my face on a springtime trip to Westsider Books. It was our first visit to the higgledy-piggledy Upper West Side shop, and we were having fun rummaging through the confused shelves. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes sounded strange, and we enthusiastically added it to the short stack of books we’d be taking home to tiny flat.

Not just for its subject is Caitlin Doughty’s memoir striking. I was absolutely fascinated by her commentary on death, dead human bodies, and living humans’ relationship with the two. But I was equally energized by her interest in the subjects. Her enthusiasm for funeral home work and the sociology of death inspired me to more fearlessly explore my own interests. Her book also armed me with some important truths and challenged me to consider death and bodies in a new way.


The Post-Office Girl
by Stefan Zweig
, purchased at Malvern Books

Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl was written in the 1930s, but left unpublished until 1982. Today it lives on as part of New York Review Books’ line of classics. It is a dazzling, sweeping novel. The first act is a whirl of candy-colored bounce and wonder, rendered with an almost breathless exuberance. That world crashes down with spectacular force halfway through, plunging the reader instead into a muddied pool of anxiety and despair. Just as the muck threatens to suck you in for good, Zweig plants a glimmer of hope. And then the damn thing ends, leaving the reader agitated, curious, and wanting more. We bought five more Stefan Zweigs in the months after we read it.


This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Commonwealth,
 and The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
, the first two respectively purchased at Westsider Books and on Ms. Patchett’s book tour.

By some strange, happy, probably-all-in-our-heads quirk, Ann Patchett became a bit of a spirit guide for Noah and me this year. More than her fiction, her nonfiction lodged itself in my brain and got me thinking about everything from the process of becoming successful to marriage to bookstore ownership. Noah and I had grand discussions inspired by her essays in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and we just about died of delight when we heard her speak at the launch of Commonwealth in September. Whenever I feel a bit discouraged about my future, I remind myself that before she wrote her first book, Ann worked at TGIFriday’s, and I feel like everything will be okay.
Quickly, three more for the reader experiencing a crisis of politics. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad will fill you with compassion, disgust, and fury. Let them be the kinds of feelings that spur productive action. Shrill, by Lindy West, introduces a powerfully funny voice, equally committed to laughter and brimstone. Between chuckles, let it remind you that the conversation around bodies and beauty is in need of a serious overhaul. See this complementary episode of This American Life for further thought provoking, brave, wonderful stories on the subject. Finally, All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister, charts the indefatigable march towards gender equality. Let it remind you that progress can never be stopped. (Indeed, Ms. Traister inspired me to engage with my thoughts on marriage in an informed way. The essay I wrote can be found here on the feminist wedding blog, Offbeat Bride.)

Finally, we give you our lists:

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2 thoughts on “The Year in Books

  1. Hi you two, I am ashamed to say, “I have not read a single one” on your list. However, I love book recommendations and I’m excited to pick a few off the list. Three of my favorite books are: Devil in the White City-Erik Larsen, Orphan Train-Christina Kline, Pope Joan-Donna Woolfolk Cross with the last one recommended by my brother, Mike Nofz. In fact, reading about how you two accomplished a such an aggressive feat reminds me (Noah) of your mom and dad in their early days as a couple. They would come visit grandma and make it a point to head to their favorite book store in Oak Brook, IL to stock up on books! Is the love of reading genetic? Hmmmm. Stay warm, Love, aunt Lynn

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  2. Just started a book, “Ghostland” by Colin Dickey. It is nonfiction and about haunted places and what they say about our own sense of history. His introduction is an anatomy of a haunting – specifically, the Merchant’s House Museum (and Gertrude Tredwell), which you two visited some time back. Will need to definitely read “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

    Also remember the “Pope Joan” book I recommended to Lynn. I recall an appendix of historical information suggesting that a female imposter pope may not have been such a far-fetched possibility.

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