As we enter 2023, The Masters Review would like to celebrate the terrific year of reading behind us and wish everyone an even better year ahead. Here’s to 2023!
In 2022, I finished my MFA, which meant finishing my story collection, which meant hours and weeks and months of reading, and writing, and editing. And stress. (Everything worked out, in the end.) But what it lead to was a months-long period in which I was grateful, outside of work, to just… not read (or write). Outside of work, over the summer, I read less than I have since probably high school. And honestly, it was nice. But it was even better once I picked up a book again and sank back into what I love the most. Of my standouts this year, I’d put Stuart Dybek’s lovely The Coast of Chicago, Dan Chaon’s Among the Missing and Where You’ll Find Me and Other Stories by Ann Beattie at the top. I also revisited The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and read Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana” like five times. I also want to give a special shoutout to This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond, which is the perfect little guidebook to craft and helped me immensely throughout the MFA experience.
I’ve been keeping track of the books I read (in a notebook, handwritten, old-school) for the past couple of years and in 2022 I read one hundred books! I have no idea if I’ve ever done that before and I didn’t know I’d done it until I counted at the end of December, so it wasn’t like a goal I achieved, but I’ll still take it. My favorites this year: Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens, The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gundy, Young Mungo by Douglas Stewart. I don’t usually love a ghost story, but Briefly, A Delicious Life is so much more than that. It’s breathtaking. The Rabbit Hutch is weird in all the right ways and I personally liked Young Mungo even better than Shuggie Bain, but it’s also more heartbreaking. I recently started a short story group (like a book group, but we read short stories instead) at my library and the first one I assigned was Elizabeth McCracken’s “Property” and I was reminded about how it is, in my opinion, a perfect story.
Books that are both compulsively readable and thought provoking hit a sweet spot for me. Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins Valdez met the mark on both counts. At the beginning of the story, Civil Townsend starts a nursing job at a family planning clinic in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1970s. Civil, excited to make a difference in her African American community, is surprised that her first patients are just eleven and thirteen. Based on true events, the novel exposes a dark episode of forced sterilization in American history, but the issues of women’s reproductive rights and how healthcare is administered to the most vulnerable among us is no less relevant today.
I also read two books toward the end of the year that were bleakly comic in the best way. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is the story of a forty-year-old Londonite as she comes to terms with her mental illness. The narrator in We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman must cope with the impending death of a close friend. Both books also explore relationships, motherhood, and middle age. They made me laugh and cry in equal measure and had me reading paragraphs out loud to my husband and texting pictures of pages to my friends.
This past year was a year of finally. I finished The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, wading cautiously into his ocean of mathematics and abstraction. This author recreated the universe in virtual format, asking the god-mode player to continually correct and re-correct the game until they got it right. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, the author also made a pitch for saving our environmentally-challenged world, interspersing scientific essays with fiction in hopes of reaching presidents and world leaders. Note that he was successful on both counts. As the last few years have brought California waves of fires and floods as well as COVID-19, I’m listening along with them. And lo and behold, I have finished The Overstory, by Richard Powers. The book made me want to talk to trees. Okay, I actually did. This year, my aunt, the career librarian, passed away. At her funeral, I read a poem I composed about her life as a tree, from the sapling planted on her parents’ lawn to her lifelong work with books. She was our family’s library, storing genealogy and legend, and I will miss her.
Recently, on the streets of Brighton, UK, I passed galleries selling and exhibiting photographic art from the sixties and seventies. Brighton youth were dressed, generally speaking, in either post punk attire or whatever Instagram was telling them. Where had the revolution gone?
Emmanuelle Pagano has three novels translated from French into English. In 2022 I read two of them. One Day I’ll Tell You Everything, which won the European Prize for Literature, tells a tale of modern rural France, set on a remote high frozen plateau in the Ardeche. Adele is the school bus driver, picking up kids from isolated homes and taking them to school along empty icy roads. She was born on the plateau as a boy and is now a woman, except when she returns no one recognizes her. This novel of place and identity, brilliantly translated by Penny Hueston, weaves a tale, modern as it is ancient. “When I was a little boy, I would often pretend to be dead. I wanted people to weep over me. I wept for myself, usually near a tree, under it or up inside it, just like I’m crying today, a woman weeping in my weeping birch tree..’
The other book, Trysting, is an extraordinary collection of very short pieces, sometimes just a paragraph, of liaisons, relationships, want, regret and ruthless betrayal. Pagano’s characters are sometimes men, sometimes women, sometimes both, neither, everything and nothing. I had to look up the word tryst, as it is a word I have never used, and this is what this book is: a series of ordinary trysts, where sometimes little happens, but it is written in the most extraordinary way.
Where’s the revolution? Here, sublime, amongst Pagano’s words.
I read primarily short stories in 2022, but of the few books I read, Eugene Marten’s, In the Blind, stuck with me the most. I’ve read most of his work and have loved all of it, but In the Blind is so clinical in its prose that it made me constantly distracted with how well-crafted it was. The book follows a recently released inmate as he takes on and immerses himself in the world of locksmithing/picking. Without spoiling anything, the sparse nature of Marten’s prose and the focus on the act of picking locks, creates this deeper nebula of self-searching for where it went wrong and what do in the aftermath of it. I can’t recommend this book enough, and don’t be put off by the slow start either!
Some other books I really enjoyed as well were Hiroko Oyamada’s, The Hole, and Agustina Bazterrica’s, Tender is the Flesh. Both I finished in one sitting and both kept me reading for their surreal landscapes as well as their commentary on gender roles. Hiroko Oyamada also has another book, The Factory, that I’ve heard is similar to The Hole in its writing style, so that is where I’ll be starting 2023 at.
In 2022, I was intrigued with the plot and usage of craft in The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka. It explores the story of a group of swimmers who swim at the University pool regularly to find respite from their mundane lives. When the pool shuts down for safety reasons, it disrupts their lives, particularly Alice, who is showing early signs of dementia. The author shifts points of view by using the first-person plural as the voice of the group of swimmers. Then it shifts to the second person, the institutionalized voice addressing Alice, and to the first person, narrated from the perspective of Alice’s daughter. What fascinated me was how the shifting point of view lends well to a typical swimming pool structure. The first-person plural denotes the shallow end of the pool, the institutionalized voice goes a little deeper, and the first person depicts the actual depth of the pool. The Swimmers struck a chord on many levels as a swimmer and triathlete.
This year brought me two books that I’ve been trying to foist on everyone I meet just so I can have an informed audience for my gushing. The first is Devotion by Hannah Kent, a fusion of historical fiction and magical realism. Ostensibly about the 1836 immigration of Lutheran Christians from Prussia to Australia, this is really a love story between two women, a love so encompassing that it extends into the landscapes around them—from German forests to the Australian bush. The second is a collection of essays from brilliant culture writer and one of the Internet’s favorite lesbians Jill Gutowitz, titled Girls Can Kiss Now. I was anticipating hundreds of pages of Jill’s humor and pop culture observations, which it fully delivered on, but I also found an unflinching vulnerability and an earnest portrayal of uniquely queer experiences that left me crying as often as I was laughing.
2022 has been an excellent year for me in books—I read some truly unforgettable things this year. First of all, I was introduced to the magical world of Jennifer Egan when I read The Candy House (2022). Egan is a master of narration, seamlessly blending chapters with entirely different narrators into one novel exploring a technological invention that allows people to access every memory they’ve ever had. If this subject sounds disturbing to you, I promise that Egan’s style of writing is anything but dark—her prose is filled with humor and wit throughout, to the point where I was laughing aloud during some parts of this book. After thoroughly enjoying Middlemarch, I decided to sink my teeth into The Mill on the Floss (1860). This is a long novel, but I promise it will not disappoint. The Mill on the Floss is a coming-of-age narrative about a young intellectual girl who struggles to conform to her small, conservative hometown’s expectations of her. Eliot is incredibly gifted at exploring the difference between expectations and reality, with an astounding level of emotional complexity. Whereas Austen will give you a page with the happy marriage ending you were waiting for, Eliot will show you what happens when that happy marriage falls apart. For this reason, I find her a rare breed among Victorian novelists. Coming back to recently published works, Pig Years (2022) by Ellyn Gaydos was a pleasure to read. A memoir about life as a farmhand in Upstate New York and Vermont, Pig Years is a chronicle of the cycles of life and embracing all the joy, beauty, ugliness and tragedy that comes along with that. Gaydos’s prose is so melodic and rich that it often reads like poetry, making every aspect of her experiences come to life in stunning detail.
Dur e Aziz Amna’s novel American Fever is a deeply subversive and compulsively readable coming-of-age story. It’s about Hira, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl who is dying to escape her constrained life in Pakistan, and is accepted into an exchange program to study in the U.S. for a year. Hira is briefly in Rawalpindi at the beginning of the book before journeying to rural Oregon where she lives with a white single mother and her daughter. In the U.S., she attends high school, goes to church, makes friends, has her first kiss, faces racism and Islamophobia, and is eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis and put into quarantine before returning to Pakistan. These experiences might seem predictable (other than the tuberculosis bit) but Hira is a deceptively complex protagonist. On every page, her sassy and brash observations about the environment resist familiar themes of alienation and assimilation we’ve come to expect from American immigrant novels. Soon after her arrival, she says: “There’s a strain of story this could fall into. The foreigner trying to fit in, hindered by accent and Fahrenheit and the Imperial system…The outsider on the periphery of America. The entranced documenter of America. The truth—I was bloody bored…Within weeks, I went from homesick, to curious about America, to realizing how elementary my curiosities were, such clichés within themselves that I lost any desire to entertain them.” Hira captures the sullen certainty of being a teenager, as well as the exhilaration and confusion of leaving home at a young age. Her sudden distance from Pakistan also gives her a new perspective on home, and complicates her growing consciousness of who she is and where she belongs, and whether it’s even possible to know these things. American Fever is poignant, unflinching, and flat-out hilarious, and easily the best book I read in 2022.