At Least 2020 Was Good for Something

2020, for all its faults—and they are legion—provided a sly benefit to introverts and others who are always secretly looking for an excuse to stay home. For me, it offered ample opportunity to write, but also a lot of time to settle in with a book—particularly catching up on a number of classics that have been sitting on my bucket list for too long.

I started the year with War and Peace and am ending it with Don Quixote—tragedy and madness literally and appropriately bookending a year like no other. Here are some of the books, old and new, that offered some solace from the pandemic, murderous cops, a nail-biting election, wildfires, murder hornets, and all the rest.

War and Peace. I’d put this off for years, in part because I was so disappointed by the self-righteous spirituality and sexphobia that dominated Anna Karenina, but it was well worth the wait. Once again, Tolstoy has a bit of trouble with women characters (giving the immature Natasha too much sympathy, whereas the passionate Anna got far too little), but War and Peace seamlessly merges the public and the private into a profoundly moving brew. An indisputable masterpiece.

To get some historical perspective on pandemics, I dipped into another classic, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), for a glimpse into the Great Plague of London in 1665. And, flashing forward, William Maxwell’s exquisitely moving They Came Like Swallows (1938), examines the 1918 influenza pandemic and its devastating effects on one family.

My disgust at the fates of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others drove me to learn more about systemic and insidious racism in America. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (2018) offers a clear and disturbing history of redlining, and Carol Anderson’s White Rage (2017) expands the lens to explore the systematic march of racial injustice from Reconstruction to the present.

Not coincidentally, I got a craving for James Baldwin over the past year. I’ve read a few of his novels over the years, but in 2020 I added two more: the moving If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), his psychologically complex and gorgeously written first novel.

For contemporary fiction, I finally embarked upon Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, with the first two volumes in the quartet: My Brilliant Friend (2011) and The Story of a New Name (2012). My grandfather was from Naples, which I’ve never visited, so Ferrante’s masterful portrait of that world sucked me in with its story of two gifted women whose individual struggles to overcome their surroundings yield very different results. I’m eager to finish the series in the new year (before HBO beats me to the punch).

I buy so many books each year that I end up reading only a few in the year they’re published. Three such books jumped to the top of the list in 2020. Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Downfall, 1939­–1945 concludes his two-volume biography with a detailed history of the war years and a satisfying depiction of the psychological decay and suffering of the madman at the center of it all. As in the first volume, Ullrich reminds us of history’s tendency to repeat itself: Hitler’s increasing desperation in the war has haunting echoes in his American protégé’s hysteria over the 2020 election.

For an enlightening explanation of how we got here, I turned to Kurt Andersen’s Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, which recounts how the greed and bigotry of the Reagan 80s led, in systematic fashion, to the antidemocracy and open racism unleashed by his orange heir.

My favorite fiction of the year was Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Lyrical and heartbreaking, this novel lays bare the difficulties of expressing one’s identity and the tragic consequences of denying it.

Other highlights of the year’s reading include:

  • Karl Ove Knausgaard’s impressionistic Autumn (2019), so different from his mammoth My Struggle, but infused with the same enlightenment about the human condition. I plan to read the rest of the volumes in the series as their titular seasons tick down on the 2021 calendar.
  • Emmanuel Carrère’s complex and disturbing memoir My Life as a Russian Novel (2007), which directly confronts the troubling nature of a genre that invites narcissism—but this time, examining its consequences.
  • Peter Dubé’s haunting fable The Headless Man (2020), which, through a series of lyrical prose poems, paints a surrealist picture of existential crisis.
  • Psychologist Walt Odets’s Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives (2020),which illuminates the differing effects of the AIDS crisis on three generations of the community.

These are just a few of the books that had a powerful impact on me last year, and 2021 is shaping up to be just as satisfying. Now, back to Don Quixote—only 600 pages to go!

Pandemic Literature, Part 1

Like many people, I’ve become obsessed of late with learning about how previous generations survived pandemics and other events that threatened to change the world. I’ve compiled a reading list on the subject, because for me, novels are the best way to understand a culture and a way of life.

I recently watched a 1998 PBS special on the Spanish flu. One of the people they interviewed talked about losing his mother when he was 10 years old. The man was remarkably articulate, with a gentle voice, his language full of imagery and wisdom. I knew instantly that he was a writer, and probably a very good one.

The man was William Maxwell, who I subsequently learned had spent 40 years as fiction editor of the New Yorker and published several books, including an autobiographical novel, They Came Like Swallows, about losing his mother in the epidemic. I bought it immediately.

Maxwell writes beautifully and insightfully. The book is divided in three sections, from the perspectives of two brothers and their father. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more convincing and engaging narrative from a child’s point of view. Ordinarily, such things come across as too cute or inarticulate, but Maxwell manages it with subtlety and grace. His structure is one of increasing understanding—from the young boy devoted to his mother; to his older brother, who watches the crisis happen; to the father, struggling to deal with his grief.

It’s a portrait of a particular time and place—a small town in the Midwest in 1918—but at its core, it’s a story of family. Bunny, the sensitive child, is pampered by his mother and afraid of his father’s gruffness. Robert, who lost part of a leg in an accident, now finds himself feeling responsible for his mother’s death. And James, the father, realizes how much his life was determined by his wife, how clueless he is about how to go on.

There’s an elegiac tone throughout—not just for the mother’s death (which feels inevitable from the start, before anyone gets sick), but for a way of life, the innocence of youth. The prose itself carries the emotion along, the beauty of language going hand in hand with the tragic content, such that I felt an urge to weep on nearly every page.

How wonderful, in this age of the underambitious and the overrated, to discover another master from not that long ago.