Best fiction I read in 2020

It seems that I read less and less fiction every year, but I still love it and crave it in particular seasons. This was a year of tackling books that I had long owned and needed to get to (and was surprised to find that I loved) as well as discovering some (new to me) authors.

The Collected Stories

1. The Collected Stories, Grace Paley

What a thrill! I feel almost resentful that no one urged me to read Grace Paley before now. I can’t believe it took me so long to encounter her brilliant, febrile, wholly unusual fiction. Every story is wrapped with a radiant, wry humor, suffused with the diction of Brooklyn, and packed with tiny surprises. Let me now be the one to urge you: Your life will be a little brighter for having read Grace Paley. (Get a copy)

The Golovlovs

2. The Golovlovs, Mikhail Saltkov-Shchedrin

A profound (and at times darkly comic) parable of generational misery. Just brilliant: I am astonished that it is not better known or more widely read. I somehow ended up with this old 75-cent mass market paperback copy, and it gathered dust on my shelf for the better part of a decade. I always put it off, because I had never heard anyone mention it. But I am so glad that the pandemic urged me to read all of these forgotten books I own, because wow: This novel stings and dazzles. Arina Petrovna, the conniving matriarch of the Golovlov family, centers the story (and reminds one often of a Russian Lucille Bluth, particularly in her relations with her worthless sons), set when serfdom is overturned, leaving many hapless estates to languish and decay. As time rolls on for this deeply unhappy family, the story shifts to her son Porfiry, who becomes exclusively known as Judas the Bloodsucker, for reasons that become apparent, and his niece, the orphaned erstwhile actress Anninka. I was captivated, from beginning to end, despite it being a story with almost no redemption, no forgiveness, no hope. It is a strange, cold country, Mother Russia, and its people have suffered for many generations. (Get a copy)

Don Quixote

3. Don Quixote, Miguel de Saavedra Cervantes (translation by Edith Grossman)

Totally delightful! I should not have put it off for 10 years. (It only took being locked inside during a pandemic to get me to finally read it.) A sprawling and essential novel, and most of it is laugh-out-loud funny. A thoroughly fun escape. (Get a copy)

The Lying Life of Adults

4. The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante

“What happened, in other words, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?”

A searing novel of adolescence from the inimitable, unflinching Elena Ferrante. All of the elements that made the Neapolitan Novels so transfixing are present here but reconfigured to focus on a different angle from the violent country of young womanhood: one’s fractured relationship with adults (specifically, parents and a persuasive, fearsome aunt), the attending breakdown in trust and authority, and the search for self amid the pressures of sex. Brava! (Get a copy)

5. My Struggle, Book 6, Karl Ove Knausgaard

“No matter how broken a person might be, no matter how disturbed the soul, that person remains a person always, with the freedom to choose. It is choice that makes us human. Only choice gives meaning to the concept of guilt.”

A daring ending to a daring series. Knausgaard reckons with what he has written and wrought in this final installment, which I read hungrily, from start to the finish of its 1,230 pages. His long exploration of young Hitler, Nazism, and the dangers of collective identity (more or less) is also impressive, along with his typical blend of no-holds-barred self-loathing, domestic living, and rumination. It is an accomplishment. (Get a copy)

Sweet Days of Discipline

6. Sweet Days of Discipline, Fleur Jaeggy

“So there I was, with my beret and the initials, on the other side of the world, on that side where one is protected and watched over. I foresaw the pain, the desertion, with an acute sense of joy. I greeted the train, the carriages, the compartments, all split up, the burnished alcoves, the velvet, the porcelain passengers, those strangers, those obscure companions. Joy over pain is malicious, there’s poison in it. It’s a vendetta. It is not so angelic as pain. I stood a while on the platform of a squalid station. The wind wrinkled the dark lake and my thoughts as it swept on the clouds, chopped them up with its hatchet; between them you could just glimpse the Last Judgment, finding each of us guilty of nothing.”

Absolutely savage. A thrilling, gorgeous novella on the psychosexual machinations of teen girls. (Get a copy)

Mortals

7. Mortals, Norman Rush

A marriage novel that becomes an adventure novel and then a marriage novel again. It was just the right thing to get lost in, during quarantine, and I admit that I may have liked it less if I had read it at a different time and place, but Norman Rush’s energetic and wide-ranging vocabulary was a sustaining delight. His deep pleasure in words and in using them animates this fat novel, set in Botswana and concerned with the life of Ray Finch and his wife, Iris. A perfect distraction. (Get a copy)

Dept. of Speculation

8. Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

“There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.”

This was just the thing; I am glad I reattempted this tiny book after abandoning it some years ago. It is a “novel” in the sense that Lydia Davis books are “novels,” but that is just what I love about it. Fragmentary, brilliantly spare. (Get a copy)

A Breath of Life

9. A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector

“I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own. Life is a kind of madness that death makes. Long live the dead because we live in them.”

In which Clarice Lispector, herself dying of cancer, imagines a metaphysical dialogue between an author and a character, called Angela Pralini. Beautiful and aphoristic, unfinished and raw. (Get a copy)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

10. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk

A Polish murder mystery for vegans! It’s fun. The voice of the narrator is delightful and unique. Tokarczuk has many pretty turns of phrase, I presume, as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. An enjoyable end-of-winter book with a great title and a memorable narrator. (Get a copy)

Honorable Mentions

  1. Every Day Is for the Thief, Teju Cole
  2. Weather, Jenny Offill
  3. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
  4. Independence Day, Richard Ford

Intimations of spring

Year-old orchid rebloomed this week
My year-old orchid, recently reblooming, recently alluded to.

Pre-spring thoughts:

  • This morning over breakfast, I made a list in a notebook of behavioral improvements for the dogs. Eden’s list is notably longer than Pyrrha’s. But Eden has far less emotional and psychological baggage. So, we’ll see how this goes.
  • My hair has gotten very long, and I am interested in lobbing it off. A lot of it, anyway. Curly-headed women have somewhat limited options with haircuts, which I patiently acknowledge, but I am itching for a change, along with the weather.
  • I am reading Gogol’s Dead Souls for the first time and I am so delighted to rediscover how deeply funny he is. His pitch-perfect social sarcasm is thrilling to me.
  • I dreamed last night that I had a baby in a bassinet by my bedside and I kept having to wake up to tend to it. As I did, I was humming a song with the chorus, Motherhood is especially unfair, motherhood is especially unfair… This is perhaps one of the most presciently and grimly realistic dreams I’ve ever had. (Not to mention how plainly revealing of my current lack of desire to procreate.)
  • I watch the iris shoots in the front yard with bated breath, desperately hoping for resurrection. They make me feel like I should reread Louise Glück.
  • It is a blessing to live in a town like this. And also to have found Guion when I did.

And a quote, to kick off the weekend:

Can’t anything be innate? he wanted to know, objecting to my probing into his childhood yet again. Does everything have to be an exfoliation from the minutiae of our miserable childhoods? I happen to love silence, he said. Why do we have to be swamped in narrative? Our lives are consumed in narrative. We daydream and it’s narrative. We fall asleep and dream and more narrative! Every human being we encounter has a story to tell us. So what did I think was so wrong with the pursuit of some occasional surcease of narrative?

Mating, Norman Rush

Words learned recently (or, I’m finally looking things up, Mom)

Odd plants

One of my mental aspirations for 2015 is to improve my vocabulary, especially my spoken vocabulary. The nonsense of English grammar is easy to denigrate, but the joy of being a native English speaker is that we have this immensely rich and expansive vocabulary at our disposal! And we use just the barest fraction of it. At least, I know that’s my tendency.

Reading Norman Rush’s sesquipedalian novel Mating was the primary inspiration for undertaking this challenge. I read quite a bit, but I tend to gloss over words that are visually familiar to me, (falsely) assuming that I know what they mean. For example, I’ve seen the word truculent many times, but I always thought it meant sweet or even unctuous. On the contrary! I finally looked it up, only to discover that I’ve been very wrong; a truculent person is someone who is openly hostile or belligerent. So. There you go. I’m trying to follow my mother’s oft-repeated charge to us when we were question-filled children: Go look it up. That’s what I’m going to be doing, Mom. Looking it up.

Side Observation 1: App + Audio. I’ve found the Merriam-Webster app very helpful in this process, and I keep it near me now when I read. One of the oddities of English is our unregulated, unpredictable pronunciation. (In Japanese, for instance, there is never any confusion about pronunciation. If you can get down to the basic kana level of spelling, you always know how to pronounce it. No such ease in English. God have mercy on nonnative English speakers; I have tremendous respect for anyone who learns English as a second language.) In the past, I would learn a definition of a new word, but I would often be shy about using it, for fear of committing solecism* (*one of the new words I’ve learned). The simplicity of the audio feature of the dictionary is breathtakingly comforting to me.

Side Observation 2: Latin + French. First, I wish I had stuck with Latin. I learned a smattering of it in middle school, but what a useful thing to know. Again, sorry that I doubted you, Mom. Second, my enthusiasm to pick up French as my third language has been greatly augmented. An estimated one-third of English words are some variant (or bastardization, whichever you prefer) of Old French, and I’m learning that there’s this dazzling French history behind so many of the common words we use.

That said, here are a bunch of words I’ve learned lately (many from Mating) that I’d like to start using.

  • abeyance
  • abreaction
  • agon
  • albumen (*appropriate word to throw about in our domestic parlance, now that we have chickens)
  • bibelot
  • calumny
  • claustral
  • echt
  • factotum
  • febrile (*particular favorite)
  • fustian
  • inchoate (*always thought it meant “sad;” it doesn’t)
  • inter alia
  • legerdermain
  • metanoia
  • midden
  • noumenon
  • oleaginous
  • onanistic
  • pleonasm
  • postprandial
  • sacerdotal

Any words you’ve learned lately? Care to share?