A Year in Reading: Maggie Nelson

December 22, 2015 | 3 books mentioned 2 min read

covercovercoverI was captivated this past reading year by a trio of books about, among other things, hard living: Straight Life by Art and Laurie Pepper, Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles, and Like Being Killed by Ellen Miller. Myles’s Chelsea Girls meant everything to me when it came out in 1994, so it took me by surprise, in reading it anew (it was re-released by Ecco this past year) to find it even better than I remembered, a true miracle. Re-subtitled “a novel,” it is a work of kinetic, ecstatic, muscular, hilarious, sorrowful, valiant, original, necessary, and timeless genius. Straight Life (also from 1994) and Like Being Killed (1998) were new revelations. Straight Life, which is the 500-page, dope-soaked story of jazz musician Art Pepper, is a fascinating and repugnant read, made all the more so by the backstory of how the book came into being (it’s largely an oral history told to his wife Laurie — see “The Tale of the Tape: The Miracle of Straight Life” in the September 2014 issue of Harper’s, for more on that story). The novel Like Being Killed is also a junkie’s tale, along with a story of friendship, the Lower East Side, Jewishness, AIDS, the fraughtness of being fat, being female, and more. I was so taken with its erudition, abjection, and opulence that I immediately looked for anything else Miller had written, and was crestfallen to discover that she’d died in 2008 at age 41, leaving this novel her only offering. It’s out of print, which is a howling pity — but so was Myles’s Chelsea Girls, until this year. Hope springs eternal.

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is the author of nine books of poetry and prose. Her nonfiction titles include the New York Times bestseller The Argonauts, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Bluets, The Red Parts: A Memoir, and Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions; her poetry titles include Something Bright, Then Holes, and Jane: A Murder. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction, an NEA in Poetry, a Literature Fellowship from Creative Capital, and an Arts Writers Fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation. Since 2005 she has been on the faculty of the School of Critical Studies at CalArts, where she is currently the Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program. She lives in Los Angeles.

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