Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Elizabeth Minkel

By posted at 6:00 pm on December 5, 2015 10

Winter
My friends ask me if I am happy to be back in New York City. I am not.

My U.K. visa expires in January, but I fly home a week before Christmas, frustrated and anxious about rebuilding a life in New York. In the new year I take a short-term sublet a few blocks from a Superfund site in northeast Brooklyn, across from a tow impound lot and next to an enormous industrial complex. I can’t figure out which industry exactly. I spend much of the month working from the apartment, which belongs to a puppet artist, hunkering down because when it’s not snowing, it’s staggeringly cold, the temperature hovering somewhere near zero. I watch snow pile up on the rusted-out old cars that line the edge of the industrial lot; I count a dozen cats, maybe more, slipping in and out between the tires. I am trapped, physically and metaphorically.

covercoverAt some point the year prior, I’d struck up an online friendship with the writer Katie Coyle. It began with little mutual hearts across the Internet; soon it was a series of emails that snowballed in length, the sort that took us both months to reply to. I bought her debut novel, Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, and its sequel, Vivian Versus America, at a convention in the height of the English summer, one of those rare days of unbroken blue sky. I’m bad with friends’ books: I psych myself out, worried I will be called upon to give constructive feedback, or worried I will give constructive feedback when it’s not called for. So I avoided Vivian for six months, placing her carefully on the shelf. In December, I packed her up in a huge shoddy box, held together by an entire roll of packing tape and hopeful desperation, and mailed her back across the Atlantic.

Holed up during my month of icy stagnation, I devour both Vivian books. They were published as Vivan Apple at the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle in the U.S., some worry about readers’ apocalypse fatigue, I guess. The first one begins the day before the rapture, as predicted by a Christian cult gone mainstream, and tells the story of Vivian and her best friend, Harp, who drive across the country kicking ass as they try to figure out what’s really happened — and how to survive. The books make me cry a little and laugh a lot; they’re perfect. The winter drags on and I still find myself restless and boxed in, but for a few days, Vivian sets me free.

Spring
coverThe ice takes an extraordinarily long time to melt. I take a job that very quickly doesn’t work out, so by April I find myself holed up working again, this time in my new apartment, a fifth floor walk-up with high ceilings and a skylight. When I’m not hauling cat litter up those four flights, and when the light hits the right way, I feel like I’m living up in the clouds. I am assigned Kate Atkinson’s new novel, A God Among Ruins, an intertextual sequel of sorts to Life After Life, which I have not read. They’re only paying me to review one book, but I decide to read the two, and Life After Life is miraculous, not least if publishers think we have apocalypse fatigue, I certainly have Blitz fatigue. Atkinson brings the period into the sharpest focus I can remember encountering in a while. A God Among Ruins is harder, full of characters you want to shake by the shoulders, and poor Teddy, once peripheral and now fully fleshed out, the quiet tragedy of his life made plain. I read them both sitting out on the Promenade, even though it’s still a little too chilly when the wind picks up, and I watch the Staten Island Ferry trundling across the bay.

coverBut the book that sticks with me most in the spring is Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, which I begin reading when ice is still collecting on the East River. I worked with Mary for five years at The New Yorker, deciphering her handwriting on proofs at all hours during my interminable years on the night shift. I find the same quiet brilliance and wry humor in the pages of her book, as well as a strange, almost unwanted nostalgia for my years spent making the magazine, as she describes her own decades there.

And then, somehow, I start working for The New Yorker again. Just projects this time, mostly in the archives, spared from the grind of the weekly magazine. It’s more than a little strange to be back at the magazine. The World Trade Center is sterile and foreign and people seem confused about where I’ve been for the past few years. I don’t tell them about all the things I’ve learned, or about how my entire worldview has shifted. I complain about restrictive British visa laws, or how Brooklyn rents skyrocketed in my absence; my small talk shrinks even smaller. Other freelance work starts to trickle in — and then out of nowhere, it’s a flood. I take every project that comes my way, and the bills get paid. My mother says it seems like I’m struggling to stay afloat, which I strenuously deny, but on a deep level I know that she’s right. I’m treading water, as quickly as I can manage.

Summer
I have learned my lesson from past New York summers. This year, when given the opportunity, I leave. I work a few weekends up at the racetrack, slow Saturday afternoons on a $50 window. I sit next to a joyful woman one day who tells me a customer recently gave her the perfect line: “Put a hundred dollar bill in the toilet and flush,” he told her. “If you reach for it, you’re not ready for the racetrack.” This was a new one, and a delight, because I’ve been taking bets so long that most lines feel scripted. “Good luck,” I say, and they smile ruefully and reply, “I need it.”

coverBut I am a fan culture journalist now, and summer is “con season.” I am invited to be on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, so I fly across the country in early July. En route I read The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs, billed as “A Handbook for Girl Geeks,” which is equal parts charming and empowering. I needlessly packed another three books for San Diego, as I do for every trip, and they remain buried under clothes and toiletries as I spend four long SDCC days confused and eager and oscillating between caffeinated and intoxicated. One night I crash a Playboy party, replete with half-assed nods to science (beakers and test tubes!) and mostly-naked women dropping from ropes on the ceiling; another night I trek across the length of San Diego to see the band that played the theme song to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, maybe two dozen of us waving foam glow sticks as they launch into the familiar guitar riff for the third time.

coverAs the racing season comes to a close, I get my hands on a copy of Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), and a guy assigned to the window next to me tries to fake-geek-girl me by proxy, with a line of weirdly aggressive questions about what exactly Felicia Day had done beyond a gaming series he’s seen on YouTube — essentially, whether she was even qualified to write a memoir. This only makes me like the book more. And leaves me a little disheartened — the racetrack has always been my place for sexism from the past, sort of a “Nice tits, babydoll” kind of clientele, and now I’m stuck here defending Felicia Day’s right to be into video games.

The world has changed — and my world has changed. American Pharoah loses the big race and the town deflates, and I head back down the Hudson. This year has been an exercise in putting off the big projects until fall, which is fast approaching. I’ve got an essay to write, a proposal to rework, a life to stabilize. Spoiler alert: a change in season doesn’t make this stuff any easier.

Fall
coverIn the last week of September, my copy of Carry On arrives in the mail. It is thick and beautiful and I clutch it to my chest the way I can only really remember doing with Harry Potter books in the past. It is a similar size and shape, and similarly magical. In the following weeks, I will go on to spill a ton of pixels about the nature of Rainbow Rowell’s newest book, and the seminal point, in my friend Connor’s words, that intertextuality ≠ fanfiction. But before all that, on the first chilly weekend of the year, I light a fire and curl up and read in a way I rarely do these days, the kind of reading where you look up and realize 200 pages have gone by, and the fire’s down to a few smoldering embers, and you can’t imagine this book ending. Of course, it will.

coverI decide to spend October with Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, partly because it’s interesting and beautifully written, and partly because I’m trying to understand why certain texts grab us and drag us under. I read other books this year, books I won’t name because I thought they failed in some way, or in certain cases, many ways, but it’s the stuff that works — more than works, the stuff that you want to slow down for fear of finishing too soon — that intrigues me. I write about fans, after all.

After Thanksgiving, I put neat bows on my projects through the end of the year, and I start to pack to go back across the ocean. It’s just for a few weeks, not a few years, and I have a tall stack of books to be read, maybe to be packed and remain buried under clothes and toiletries. The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt, or the copy of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird I borrowed from a coworker, or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which I should’ve read a year ago, or When We Are No More, by Abby Smith Rumsey, out in the early months of next year, about one of my favorite topics, cultural memory in the age of digital technologies. But this trip to England is not about the realities of living there, but the pleasure of visiting, so a friend and I will take a trip up to the Peak District, to see Chatsworth and presumably cross paths with Mr. Darcy. I’ve read it before but I can read it again: without a second thought, I toss Pride and Prejudice into my suitcase.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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

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10 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Elizabeth Minkel”

  1. Robert
    at 11:52 pm on December 5, 2015

    Lovely writing and terrible books. What a wasted year. You didn’t re-read Hardy? You didn’t try a significant work of non-fiction? Where is poetry? Where is significance? As beautifully as you yourself write, this is not good, it’d be a terrible path for someone else, anyone else to follow.

  2. David Huberman
    at 3:22 am on December 6, 2015

    I have the same question about Felecia Day as your coworker. But it doesn’t stem from any sort of sexism. It’s a rant against a popular culture trend that sensationalizes celebrity without substance. Kardashian, for example.

  3. John
    at 3:40 am on December 6, 2015

    I feel like Hardy became irrelevant when we invented birth control.

  4. priskill
    at 10:26 am on December 6, 2015

    One can never regret re-re-re-reading Austen. Enjoyed this piece!

  5. Anna
    at 10:56 am on December 6, 2015

    I… sigh. Upon posting about buying Felicia’s book on Twitter I had a similar reaction from a few people – and I just literally, I exploded. There are still pieces of me all over my computer.

    Questioning Felicia Day’s relevance nowadays just… literally people – we have the entirety of the internet at our fingertips, it takes less than 30 seconds to find this: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1260407/ or to find out about Geek & Sundry, or to see that she was a majorly loved character on a wildly popular television show. There is literally no shortage of information about her – or what she’s done for women in gaming, or content creation on the internet in general.

    (This comment obviously doesn’t apply to you, Elizabeth..) If you’re going to question the relevance of such an important and fantastic woman, who at this point you literally have to be living under a rock not to know about, at least do some research so you don’t look AS stupid as you’re about to make yourself look.

  6. roane
    at 12:03 pm on December 6, 2015

    Never forget, Elizabeth. Men’s opinions on what is Worthy to Be Read are vitally important. It’s good that you can write such a piece so that the men can provide you with adequate guidance for what you might read in 2016.

    Thank you men, for guiding our reading choices. I will endeavor to put down a fashion magazine and pick up something written by someone undeniably male and Important.

  7. Tom B.
    at 12:16 pm on December 6, 2015

    Hmmm, the Coyles and Day’s memoir interest me. I guess I should turn in my man card.

  8. Maureen Murphy/Moe Murph
    at 2:13 pm on December 7, 2015

    Loved the piece, and the intriguing suggestions Ms. Minkel. As noted below, have already read and enjoyed Ms. Norris’ book very much. I hope this winter is mild and perhaps you will return to the U.K. Cornwall sounds lovely.

    But in proceeding to the very first (Why is this particular genus of comment always the very first?) comment in the section here, I am inspired to paraphrase Mr. Whitman:

    “I sound my barbaric HARUMPHHHH on the pages of The Millions.”

    Yes, “Harumphy” is the only term I can think of. The dust of old libraries, and the rattle of copies of The Times in 100 gentlemen’s clubs. The inert and stolid pronouncement falling to the floor with a thud.

    I am in no position to pronounce judgment on books I have not yet read, but my nerdy soul CRIED OUT to hear the death sentence of “terrible” pronounced on the memoirs of Mary Norris. The Queen of Commas? A waste? NEVER, Sir! I consign the utterer of this calumny against grammar to an eternity spent in a hot, stuffy, 3rd grade classroom, smelling of old socks and bologna sandwiches. It is one minute before the bell on the last day of school, and a mediocre grammar teacher with a screechy voice repeats the lesson over and over and over and….

    Finally, I must recommend, for their somewhat horrid fascination, a similar selection of Harumphy comments (including “dull” and “pedestrian”) in an earlier Millions piece on Elena Ferrante: http://www.themillions.com/2015/10/elena-ferrante-names-the-devil-and-slays-the-minotaur.html

  9. C B
    at 12:56 am on December 12, 2015

    I’d like to think that Felicia Day has done a little bit more to distance herself from the Kardashians. In Anna’s comment: “or to see that she was a majorly loved character on a wildly popular television show” I was wondering which of Felicia’s many characters Anna might mean… there are many of them to choose from. That’s just one aspect of Felicia Day. Ack. But really, hasn’t anyone brought more to the table than the Kardashians? I’ve wasted enough time in my lifetime talking about them just in this post. It offends me that I’m even talking about this. I highly recommend The Guild to anyone (watchtheguild.com).

    And to say that everything someone read in a year wasn’t worth reading… that can’t be serious. I think there are far worse books to be reading out there… or it would be far worse to be reading nothing at all.

    Elizabeth – I feel your pain on winter last year – it was the roughest one.

  10. Maureen Murphy/Moe Murph
    at 5:15 pm on December 12, 2015

    @CB et al

    My wonderful friends and I have made a solemn oath to read every author cited here and discuss vigorously over stimulating beverages.

    Also, I am shamelessly cribbing from a hilarious tweet, but we may also occasionally roam the more hip bookstores and coffee shops here in our hometown of Washington DC, buttonhole readers, and demand to know why they are NOT reading Hardy.

    Moe Murph
    Proceeding Down A Terrible Path Of No Significance

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