The most extraordinary book I read this year is Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929. A peculiar fantasia on the nearly impenetrable and certainly alien world of childhood, the novel is at once highly lyrical and poetic fable and an implicit critique of pat moral systems and the blindnesses of colonialism. It functions almost as a trompe l’oeil, inviting you to see the landscape around you one way, then another. In his excavations of the subterranean shifts in perspective that are so much of anyone’s childhood, Hughes also reminds us of the virtues of whimsy: One of the best passages consists of the author’s attempt to differentiate the inner life of a baby from the inner life of a child – and involves a fabulous encounter with an octopus. What isn’t here is the explanatory language of psychology; what is here is an eccentric vision of humanity so particularized as to be really convincing – almost a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups who didn’t like the original all that much.
In 2015, I simultaneously managed to read more and less than I have in the past decade. I ran a Twitter project called Short Story of the Day where I scoured literary journals and shared hundreds of short stories by underrepresented writers. I squeezed in a few novels and nonfiction books in an effort to stay balanced. I inhaled Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, which rested at the intersection of grief and obsession while I grappled with my own. At the start of the year I read Carola Dibbell’s novel The Only Ones; if one book has stayed with me through the year’s constant zagging, it is hers. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and grew and learned and seethed and saw myself reflected and was all the better for it. I hunted for black voices reading black words. I downloaded the audiobook of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man because someone had the good idea to ask Joe Morton to narrate it. I discovered, somewhat late, that Toni Morrison reads all of her own audiobooks; I enjoyed a tremendous two weeks with God.
The rest was mostly comics, many on Image, almost all of them featuring people of color saving my mental health. Material, Bitch Planet, and Ms. Marvel continued to create incredible fissures in the parts of my life I thought had been permanently caulked with resignation and despair. I read Injection, Trees, ODY-C, and Descender and found air while otherwise floating in the vacuum of the internet.
The final batch of books I read this year was in preparation for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt next March. They had sexy titles such as Fixing Your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes, Underfoot: A Geologic Guide to the Appalachian Trail, and Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters. I am trying my hardest to minimize failure and death this coming year. I look forward to being a voracious reader again in 2017 in whatever remains of the country.
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Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US. He is a contributing writer and editor at A Public Space literary journal and Adbusters magazine, and a columnist at Japan’s Daily Yomiuri. He is also the editorial director of Anime Masterpieces, a screening and lecture series, and a professor at the University of Tokyo and Sophia University. His work appears in numerous publications in the US and Japan, and his forthcoming novel is called Access. He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.Just before I left Tokyo for another round of book tour events in the US this past summer, my friend Yuko handed me a copy of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Ostensibly a memoir, it’s one of those books I had subconsciously avoided in the past for reasons I suspect are entirely personal. I knew it had been critically lauded, and I’d even glanced at a few pages in a bookstore aisle, finding the prose fresh, arresting.I also knew that Flynn was chronicling in its pages a life of muted disappointment – and the deeper pain that comes with a trail of persistent bruises as opposed to a knockout punch. I knew the father was an alcoholic, a failed writer, and like most pretenders, increasingly pathetic. And I knew the son was shadow-boxing, cowering in an effort to find strength, and a self.I think I was afraid of reading it for the risk of recognition.But I finally did, thanks to Yuko. I read the book on planes, in hotel rooms, in taxis to and from airports. Each time I opened its pages, I did so with the admixture of helpless hunger and foreboding that is the condition of the addict. Flynn’s writing somehow captures the low-lidded wariness, the willful half-seeing yet all-knowing suspicion of a soul perpetually on the verge of tragedy, dangling from its ledge even, but never having the luxury of the fall’s full embrace.I finished the book with a queer sense of awe and trepidation. I was not comforted, but I felt like I’d survived. Even now, it’s hard for me to return to its pages.More from A Year in Reading 2008