Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Claire Vaye Watkins

By posted at 11:00 am on December 3, 2015 4

We like to go on about why we read, the power of literature, etc. Literature can transform indifference into empathy, we insist, transubstantiate ink on bleached papyrus into flesh and blood. It’s all very “Kumbayah” and, coming from writers, a tad grandiose. A little defensive, even. “It may look like I’m diddling unwashed in my pajamas in a room by myself — but no! I’m weaving an immortal thread on the great tapestry of the human experience!”

Delusions of grandeur are comfy, but this year they’ve forsaken me. This year I’ve picked up lots of books and found not the transcendent but the smug, the affected, the dull. It started to feel like “the power of literature” was a product I’d been sold, which I was now employed in schilling. Teaching will do this.

coverBut then came Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. What I found in Bynum’s second novel was not the Power of Literature™ but something less leaden, more meringue. As I read, an old feeling came to me from back before I treated Literature like medicine or a communion wafer. It was joy! And the best kind of sadness! Plus heaps and heaps of laughter! I read with the same studious fervor with which my sister and I once stayed up late listening to the radio, teaching ourselves the freaky subspecialties of punk and metal — a memory Bynum’s “Creep” excavated for me. Her chapters (stories? who cares!) kept doing this, dredging up parts of myself I’d completely forgotten. So I deem Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles the best book I read this year, for reminding me of my favorite reason to read: pure joy.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

The Millions' future depends on your support. Become a member today!

Share this article

More from the Millions

4 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Claire Vaye Watkins”

  1. Alison
    at 11:48 am on December 3, 2015

    I read this books several years ago, and I loved it! It really was such a delightful book!

  2. C B
    at 12:02 am on December 6, 2015

    Requested a copy on Paperbackswap as soon as I read this… though I’ve had Ms. Hempel on my radar for a while. (I’m also #1 on the wish list for Gold Fame Citrus — can’t wait to read that one!)

  3. Jane Rawson
    at 3:24 pm on December 7, 2015

    Sounds great: bought it for my Kindle without thinking twice.

  4. Lisa Peet
    at 7:30 am on January 5, 2016

    I love seeing this book pop up every so often on people’s radar. It’s one of my favorites from years back—Ms. Hempel lives!

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.

NEW COMMENTING RULE: Comments may be held for moderation and/or deleted. Whitelisted commenters will see their comments appear immediately. Don't be a jerk. We reserve the right to delete your comment or revoke commenting privileges for any reason we want.