#2: Last Year's Books, pt. 1

Lightning book criticism, some thoughts on writing about a new medium, and eleven songs.

Hello! Thanks for coming back to I Keep a Diary, I’m glad you’re here. Today’s newsletter is about books, but here are eleven songs before we get started: 

One of the reasons why I’m so excited I’m starting this newsletter is that, in this space, I’ll have the chance to write about topics and mediums that I haven’t gotten the chance to really dig into in a long time. I love writing about music, probably more than I love writing about anything else (I actually think I might like writing about music more than I like actually doing anything else, which maybe is not healthy), but, you know, I have a lot of interests (ok, some other interests) about which I have vested positions and opinions that I really don’t have another outlet for.

I have been wanting to do more book criticism for a long time, but I’ve had trouble figuring out the logistics of actually joining that conversation. In music journalism, it has always seemed especially important that coverage stay at least relatively timely. At the end of the day, the window for formally writing about an artist or record is somewhat small—it seems essential that your review or profile get published in conjunction with the record release. The reasons for this are valid and understandable, although it does leave little space for slowly evolving perspectives on releases, including re-evaluations of albums that have already been written about, for better or worse, but that’s a different topic. 

With music, it’s usually not so hard to stay within that window of relevance, especially if you have access to advances and press materials and all of that, but the point stands even if you’re listening for the first time on release day. It usually takes around 45 minutes to listen to a record and it can often be a passive activity. You can form a coherent opinion of a lot of things within a few days (although there are exceptions—the most difficult album I had to review last year was definitely Sufjan Stevens’s The Ascension. I wish I had a few more days with that one, as time passed my opinion became somewhat less lukewarm and a lot more negative, unfortunately).

It’s a different story with books. The last couple of years, I’ve read at a relatively steady clip, but I still don’t feel like I can read quite fast enough to keep up with that press cycle, especially without access to pre-release materials. By the time I get a newly released book and get around to finishing it, it usually feels like the time for a formal piece has already passed. Maybe this isn’t the right way to look at it, but it is how I feel and it has stopped me from really writing much on this front.

The way I see it, the best way to do this particular thing is just to go ahead and start doing it, so that’s what I’m going to do. I have pasted below the first half of my reading list from 2020. For each book I read last year, I’m going to do a round of lightning criticism. Just a few sentences about how I liked the book and whatever else I thought about it. Note that this list is arranged in the order that I read these books, so some of these might be a little loopy because I’ve forgotten a lot of last year already, especially everything that happened before March. If some details are wrong, I’m not liable. Also, just because it’s here, doesn’t mean I liked it or recommend it. It just means I read it! Okay, let’s dive on in, folks. 

Last Year’s Books, part 1

Téa Obreht — Inland

I picked this book up and put it down so many times at Shakespeare and Company and Joseph Fox in 2019. I read a number of amazing things about it when it came out, and the cover is that beautiful purple sunset that’s very attractive on a shelf. When I finally did end up with a copy, I was very excited to start the year off reading it. The book is a take on a western novel with some supernatural/ghost story elements thrown in for good measure. There’s a lot to love here—some very interesting dynamics established between the main family members and the surrounding players, a storytelling frame that builds a lot of tension, two complex and beautifully sketched narrators. Ultimately, though, these endearing elements wore a little thin in the middle of the novel, leading to a solid, plodding 150-page stretch where everything seemed to be repeating itself. It ended up in an interesting place, but Inland felt like a novel that reached for an epic but failed to fully justify its scope. 

Toni Morrison — Sula

Before I read Sula, I had only read two other Toni Morrison novels, Beloved and Song of Solomon. In comparison to those two, I was struck by Sula’s relative smallness, the power that it has in its economy. Beloved, in particular, is a heavy and brilliant book that takes astonishing leaps in terms of structure and language. Sula is a little more straightforward at face value, but the ways in which the relationship between the two main characters plays out, changes, and evolves, make this novel feel major, voluminous even in its relative brevity. 

Ursula K. Le Guin — The Left Hand of Darkness

I don’t read a ton of hard fantasy or science fiction (as this list will show you), so when I do, I always have a lot of trouble sinking into the way these stories are told. There’s a certain density to fantasy novels that has never really connected with me. The Left Hand of Darkness is the first Le Guin book that I’ve read, and while it was slow going and there was a certain stylistic barrier I had to get over, I did end up loving it. I would normally expect to be turned off by Left Hand’s lengthy middle section, in which two characters are isolated together on a grueling but rote journey, but the section succeeded in bringing the novel’s complex ideas about politics, gender, and culture to a more intimate setting, which made the whole book land for me. 

Don DeLillo — Point Omega

Not his best. Some interesting passages that deal with classic DeLillo ideas about media consumption (the scenes in the museum, outside of the main plot, are the best part of the novel), but the main plot felt a little too routine for him, and I’m really rubbed the wrong way by his treatment of the main female character, which makes the 100-page Point Omega feel like a microcosm of some of DeLillo’s worst tendencies.

Lucy Ellmann — Ducks, Newburyport

I was so fascinated and intimidated by the marquee information about Ducks, Newburyport— 1000 pages, composed mostly of one continuous sentence, each clause in that sentence starting with “the fact that.” I was sure that I would find it insufferable, that the repetition would make me queasy, that I’d never finish it. But I couldn’t accept that the concept was just not for me. So I put myself on a waiting list at the Free Library and three months later, I found out that Ducks, Newburyport is surprisingly accessible. I was amazed at how quickly I could read “the fact that” as punctuation rather than ringing annoyance, at how enticing the internal monologue of the main character was as she went about her days, at how much more of a plot there was than the reviews had led me to believe. The cyclical nature of the language in this book ended up being more soothing than anything—there’s something centering, calming about slipping into this novel’s slowly moving river of endless thought. I missed it when I was done with it.

Jenny Slate — Little Weirds

A lot of comedians write books and I’m sure a lot of them are not very good. I read a good amount of them and usually I just like them as an extension of the comedian’s schtick, an afterthought to their stand-up specials or whatever. But not every comedian has an affinity for Clarice Lispector like Jenny Slate clearly does, and honestly Slate’s wonderful staccato vignettes feel significant of their own accord. 

Shea Serrano — Where Do You Think We Are? Ten Illustrated Essays About Scrubs

I’ve loved Scrubs since I was 12 years old, so sue me! Where Do You Think You Are is a quick, fun read that doesn’t really get into the many, many valid criticisms of the show (I’m rewatching it now and woof do a lot of these episodes have big problems). Serrano is a really engaging and creative entertainment writer and Where Do You Think We Are is like candy for people who grew up watching the show. Also, the illustrations by Arturo Torres are beautiful and funny, worth the asking price on their own.

Joan Didion — Play It as It Lays

In 2019, I read Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album, and The Year of Magical Thinking all in the course of like two weeks, and it was a blast. I think I want to marathon them again some day. Play It as It Lays is the first work of fiction I’ve read from her, a slight and quietly devastating story with a lot of beautiful passages about driving around Southern California. I didn’t think there was much hope that Didion’s fiction would live up to the standard I have set in my head for her essays, but this was a swift and enjoyable read that turns a lot of the tenants of her nonfiction inward.

Matt Colquhoun — Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher

I picked this up after reading the Music Journalism Insider interview with Colquhoun. This was the first time in a while that I had gotten into some more theoretical reading, and I think this was a good place to jump back in. Colquhoun weaves his cultural criticism through a number of personal experiences, including the loss of his mentor Mark Fisher. I was especially struck by his thoughts on the ways small communities (often around music) can come together and dissolve so quickly. I wrote a little more about this one when I reviewed the I’m Glad It’s You album, which also dealt a lot with how to move forward through profound grief. 

Luke O'Neil — Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil and I are at odds. O’Neil hates commas and eschews their use wherever possible. I love commas (clearly), and for some reason would do anything if I could just add a few commas to any sentence that I write, even if it’s not right to do so, even if you would rather that I didn’t, even if you don’t agree with me that every sentence should just go on forever. Despite our differences, I love Welcome to Hell World in newsletter form, and this anthology was an excellent way to quickly get up to date on some of his most significant columns. O’Neil is very talented at centering the humanity that suffers at the hands of the unnecessarily wealthy and power-obsessed, and his reporting is some of most essential reading out there right now. I’m looking forward to reading his second collection Lockdown in Hell World, whenever it comes in the mail, probably after it sits on my shelf for a few days, maybe after it gets a few stains on the cover from the bottom of a coffee cup, the one I stupidly put on top of it, okay sorry about this, I’ll stop.

Carmen Maria Machado — In The Dream House

Phoebe Bridgers had a lot of cultural power in 2020, and apparently that power’s impact reached my reading list. I had been meaning to read In The Dream House after my roommate recommended it earlier in the year, and when I read Machado’s wonderful bio of Bridgers, I knew the time was right to finally pick this up. In The Dream House is one of the most interesting memoirs I’ve read, especially in terms of form, each chapter playing with the tenants of a different genre in order to build a many-roomed story of a psychologically abusive relationship. It’s a heavy book, but Machado swerves so deftly between styles and tones that reading In The Dream House is an experience of constantly wondering what she’s going to do next.

Virginia Woolf — To The Lighthouse

I am typically pretty averse to “classic” British literature of this kind. This sounds pretty broad and dismissive but it’s true that while I can see the appeal and importance of Great Expectations or Frankenstein, I really don’t get a ton of enjoyment out of reading them. Virginia Woolf is the exception here, and I really loved To The Lighthouse, which I picked up because of a couple references in Welcome to Hell World. The way Woolf can explode a scene into an avalanche of perspectives and slippery memories is just bonkers, and To The Lighthouse is worth all of the effort it takes to keep your feet firmly planted in the moment at hand. 

James Baldwin — One Day When I Was Lost

This is kind of an odd Baldwin book. One Day When I Was Lost is actually a screenplay that the author wrote as an adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a fairly quick and poetic take on the subject material that functions as a nice overview of the major events of Malcolm X’s life. I’m really interested about the origins of this project—I couldn’t really find any information about why Baldwin wrote this or whether there were any plans to produce the film, but I feel like there’s an interesting story there. Also, shoutout to Philly’s anarchist bookstore Wooden Shoe, where I picked this up. 

Angie Cruz — Dominicana

This has an interesting story—about a young girl from the Dominican Republic who is pressured by her family to move to New York and get married in the 1960s—and an insightful perspective, but it kind of drags after about 100 pages. 

Brit Bennett — The Vanishing Half

This might be my favorite book that I read last year. It was also probably my most anticipated new release, after I blew through Bennet’s excellent debut The Mothers in 2019. The Vanishing Half increases the scope of her first novel to great success, telling the story of two identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who grow up in a very small town in 1940s Louisiana before running off to New Orleans together. Eventually, Desiree returns with a daughter, but Stella essentially disappears into a new life in which she passes as white. With elements of mystery novels and historical fiction, The Vanishing Half remains engrossing and propulsive while putting forth layered and thoughtful ideas about identity, racism, and family. Side note: I ordered this from Harriett’s Bookshop, a really cool Fishtown store I can’t wait to actually visit in person again some day.

Angela Davis — Are Prisons Obsolete?

A tour de force argument if you want to know your shit about prison abolition. A quick, essential read that swiftly breaks down the systematic racism and abuse perpetrated by the prison-industrial complex. 

Alex S. Vitale — The End of Policing

Verso Books was giving out free ebook copies of The End of Policing over the summer. I don’t often read ebooks, but when I do I have way too much fun with the highlighter function. Vitale’s book is a straightforward discussion of the many failures of the police, going all the way back to the founding of the modern police system in America. This is a good resource for developing a well-informed language for talking about police abolition—a ton of important information well worth highlighting for later reference.

William Shakespeare — Richard II

I read along to The Public’s radio performance of Richard II that the theater did to replace the annual Shakespeare in the Park event. They released episodes over four days, and all week I found myself counting down the hours until I could log off of my work computer and sit outside with my dog and an iced coffee and listen in. I don’t think I’ve ever read or seen any of Shakespeare’s histories before, and to tell you the truth I was a little turned off by the idea of them, but the podcast that the theater released alongside the production did a great job of contextualizing the play and keeping me engrossed throughout the production.

Gayl Jones — Mosquito

Mosquito is a monster of a novel, a stream-of-consciousness tome that follows the perspective of a truck driver who ends up being a key player in helping refugees cross the border into the United States. Jones’s main character feels like one of the all-time greats, her mind going in 40 different directions all at once, with all of them exposed here for us to wade through. It was a difficult read at times, but always felt worth it. Gayl Jones’s story is heartbreaking and uncertain, and I was just lamenting that she seemed to have disappeared completely when, over the summer, this article appeared to announce the publication of her new novel this year. I’m excited to read that and I hope that Mosquito gets a little more attention as well.

James Baldwin — The Fire Next Time

I have yet to read two Baldwin books of the same form—in 2019 I read his novel Giovanni’s Room, then there was the screenplay that appears earlier on this list, and now this collection of two essays—but everything I’ve read by him feels significant. The Fire Next Time seems like it might be his most famous book, and it’s definitely the most forceful and pointed of his works that I’ve read. You probably don’t need me to tell you that this is an extremely powerful book about injustice and racism, but I will and it is. 

And that’s it for part one. Look out for part two in the next few weeks. Have thoughts? Need recommendations? Feel free to leave a comment or reply to the email, let’s talk about it.

Thanks for reading I Keep A Diary. 

My name is Jordy Walsh, and I’m a writer based in Philadelphia. I write about music for The Alternative and Slant Magazine. I Keep a Diary is a newsletter about music, books, writing, and probably a lot of vague emotions. You can follow me on Twitter for more thoughts on all that stuff and also a lot of pictures of my dog. Thanks for joining me.