imaginary outfit: jólabókaflóð 2019 (and a haphazard collection of wish-listed books)

Resplendent in corduroys, turban, and bobble sweater, the intrepid reader curls up on the divan and tucks her cashmere-coddled feet under a soft merino throw. Heavy vintage rings clink together softly as she languidly turns deckle-edged pages, peering at images of artworks fantastical and strange by the quavering light of a twisted candle. Beside her, a plate of Triscuits, olive-stuffed celery, and a mini glass bottle of Coca-Cola perch atop a teetering tower of books to read. For a handful of hours, grim news and heart-aching care fade as she gets lost in words and pictures and the questions they spark in her wondering, wandering mind. Time to celebrate jólabókaflóð, the Icelandic tradition of exchanging books on Christmas Eve and spending the rest of the night reading.

Like a bobble sweater, the list of books that caught my eye in 2019 to read in 2020 is fanciful and particular, with funny patterns and an appealing bumpiness. 

If you, like me, would like to rifle through an 18th-century Dutch apothecary's cabinet with 55 secret drawers, The Collector's Cabinet and Miniature Pharmacy is a literal dream come true. There are vellum overlays and geological specimens and tiny footnotes galore.

I'm also coveting Jochen Raiß's collection of found polar bear photographs, a new volume of the painter Lesley Vance's work (I saw an exhibit of her paintings in 2012—something like colorful blurry ghosts of still objects—and wish wish wish I could have bought one), and The Pillar by Stephen Gill, a collection of photographs capturing various birds moving through the same specific place as the seasons change. It has text by Karl Ove Knausgård:
We see the same landscape in spring and summer, in autumn and winter, we see it in sunshine and rain, in snow and wind. Yet there is not the slightest monotony about these pictures, for in almost every one there is a bird, and each of these birds opens up a unique moment in time.
I'd buy this Ann Craven book for the title alone: Shadows Moons and Abstract Lies. I'd also love a copy of the exhibition catalog for Endless Enigma, one of the most interesting shows I saw in 2019. Bellaire, Ohio: An All-American Town, a collection of photographs made by high school students, offers a different perspective on living in the sorts of places coastal reporters breeze through to sum up people they don't understand.

Moving away from picture books, my friend Jess mentioned the radical power of reading Franco Berardi, who offers strategies for living in the apocalypse. I was hunting up essays related to The Odd Women by George Gissing and found this Vivian Gornick piece in Dissent which made me want to read it, as well as the two "great novels of the revolution" she mentions at the close: Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? and Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World.

Granta's "Best Books" are a trove of reading inspiration. Because I love Barabara Comyns, I plan to hunt up a copy of A Touch of Mistletoe for its "alluring boy-painters and bull terriers, a Pre-Raphaelite brightness and a moreish Dickensian atmosphere."

Margaret Cavendish's cosmic earrings sparked my curiosity; the NYRB publishes a collection of her poems, and writes:
Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was a groundbreaking writer—a utopian visionary, a scientist, a science-fiction pioneer. She moved in philosophical circles that included Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, and she produced startlingly modern poems unlike anything published in the seventeenth century or since, at once scientific and visionary, full of feminist passion and deep sympathy with the nonhuman world.
So, that's filed under a 2020 must-read, alongside Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao, translated by Mike Fu. At The Paris Review, Tash Aw described it as 'a hypnotic meditation on love and loneliness in a foreign place.'

I was also captivated by a 1981 review of G.B. Edwards's The Book of Ebenezer Le Page about an 80-year-old man who lives a quiet life of subtle profundity. Guy Davenport writes, "I know of no description of happiness in modern literature equal to the one that ends this novel."

This Lucy Scholes essay on The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble makes the case that this 1977 book is a Brexit novel, and quotes this passage:
All over the nation, families who had listened to the news looked at one another and said ‘Goodness me’ or ‘Whatever next’ or ‘I give up’ or ‘Well, fuck that’, before embarking on an evening’s viewing of colour television, or a large hot meal, or a trip to the pub, or a choral society evening. All over the country, people blamed other people for all the things that were going wrong—the trade unions, the present government, the miners, the car workers, the seamen, the Arabs, the Irish, their own husbands, their own wives, their own idle good-for-nothing offspring, comprehensive education. Nobody knew whose fault it really was, but most people managed to complain fairly forcefully about somebody: only a few were stunned into honourable silence.

(Gossipy sidebar: Drabble's sister is the writer A.S. Byatt, and they apparently fell out over a tea set.)

Two windy books caught my eye: Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind by Lyall Watson and Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt. Alexandra Harris's Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies is also on my nightstand; I loved her book Romantic Moderns

Hugh loves hearing chapter books read aloud, and I am thinking it might be time to try The Little Grey Men, a story about the last gnomes left in England. Even escapist reading doesn't offer much escape: last gnomes and fickle winds feel tied to the unraveling climate.

There's a stack of thick books waiting for me on my shelves: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman—"a single, sinuous sentence tracking a middle-aged Ohio woman's perambulations of thought"; Horizon by Barry Lopez—"a grave, sorrowful, beautiful book" about the ways we've damaged the world; and Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson (a gift from last year's list).

Always too many books to read; the best problem to have.

Merry everything, friends.


I was watching Christmas in Connecticut (a madcap 1945 rom-com about an influencer forced to live in her scam illusion of womanhood), and Barbara Stanwyck wears the most delightful and preposterous clothes pretending to be a model housewife. Her awful fiancé calls one of her outfits "a little ultra," and my new 2020 resolution is to wear more "ultra" clothes around the house. And anyway, my house is always chilly. I usually wear a ski cap indoors all the time, so a turban is maybe ... practical? (Ha ha.)