Susan Straight read more than 500 novels this year. But her favorite is a memoir.

Susan Straight
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Critic at Large

You might not believe it. I read or re-read more than 500 novels this year, to make an epic interactive map of our literary nation with regional fiction. There are 737 novels on that map, which I made for Granta. In choosing specific locations for each novel, I often stayed up all night re-reading a favorite book, or finding a new treasure. I drove across the country, re-reading books in the places where they were set: Stephen King’s “Carrie” in Maine, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Marya: A Life” in upstate New York, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” in Lorain, Ohio, Mary O’Hara’s “My Friend Flicka” in Wyoming, Vu Tran’s “Dragonfish” in Las Vegas. The last novel I added to the map was among my favorites of 2017: “Woman No. 17,” by Edan Lepucki, so precise and laser-like in depictions of women in wider Los Angeles, from the Hollywood Hills to the Valley.

But the book that entranced me, one I carried around the country and recommended to people in every state, was a slim memoir not set in America, but Colombia. “The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir,” translated by Daniel Alarcon, consists of 23 letters written to set down Reyes’ early life: on a garbage heap in Bogota she and other children attempt magic; her truly evil mother transports her children to country towns Guateque and Fusagasugá, where disaster ensues; finally she abandons her daughters, 7 and 6, at a train station. Reyes spends fifteen years at a Catholic orphanage in Bogota, where she works like a small animal. Whether watching fireworks and bulls destroy a village, or lying on her back for six hours a day, inches from an ornate altar cloth where she receives a needle threaded with gold and makes a tiny new hole for the next stitch, Reyes’ voice is wondrous.