This year I didn’t read anything obscure and I didn’t read any beloved classics either (Sorry, David Copperfield, let’s try for 2016). I read what everyone else was reading or had recently read because I kept getting seduced by everyone else’s enthusiasm. Not that I minded. I don’t care about your Hamilton (that’s a musical, right?), or your Gilmore Girls reboot (that’s a TV show, right?), but I can get down with some passionate book-love.
At the beginning of the year I read The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which was a 2013 National Book Award winner. It’s a big, serious nonfiction book, and I try to read at least one big, serious nonfiction book a year so that I can perform better at dinner parties and also win arguments with people’s dads. I’ve always enjoyed Packer’s writing for The New Yorker, but I wasn’t prepared for how moving and informative his book would be. It follows a diverse cross-section of Americans, from a lobbyist in Washington D.C. to a community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio, to crazy-ass Peter Thiel of Twitter (guys, he wants to live forever and is seriously researching his options!) Packer synthesizes these personal, particular narratives into a larger story about our changing, wounded country in the wake of the 2008 recession, and traces how we got here, beholden to lobbyists, big money, and Wall Street. This book slew me. Despite that fact that it’s nearly all narrative, with little analysis, for a few weeks after finishing it, I had a hard time returning to fiction — oh silly dialogue! oh fake people! (I remember the same thing happened after I finished Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo a couple of years earlier.)
And then I got pregnant, which brought me back to the indelible fact of my body: its hormones, its capacity to feel nauseated and tired and to cry through every interview on Fresh Air. I needed certain books (specifically novels) for this state of affairs. Such as: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This wasn’t my favorite book of the year, but it did me in like no other. It made me sob next to my husband and son on a cross country flight until I had a headache, and it reminded me that fiction devastates in a way that nonfiction does not, because it’s only the imagined world that’s able to get inside an inner life. And burrow there.
A Little Life is also the only novel in recent memory that I both loved and hated; I agree with everyone who calls it a masterpiece, and I also agree with fellow staff writer Lydia Kiesling, who in her review calls it a “self-important sort of melodrama.” Regarding the novel’s structure, Lydia remarks: “Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.” I concur. And yet. A novel that puzzles me this much is truly worthy.
In my second trimester, I read and reviewed Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling.
In my third trimester, I read and loved The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, the last (and, in my mind, the strongest) of her Neopolitan novels. Midway through the book, I thought, These books are so…female. I feel like…I’m sucking on a tampon. I realize this probably isn’t the most enticing endorsement, but it’s true: never before have I read a series of books that captures so vividly the lived experience of being a woman. Ferrante writes fiction that feels as real as the body I’m in, as real as my family who needs me, as real as my ambitions and my failures. It’s passionate and messy and necessary.
In the final days of my pregnancy, I struggled to find books that complemented my scattered state of mind. The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits’s deceptively artful diary, the entries of which are rearranged so as not to be chronological, reflected and validated my days of anticipation and boredom. The diary’s breezy tone belies the craft of each entry; a few reminded me of Lydia Davis’s best stories, where the profundity sneaks up on you in the final line, having secretly gathered energy by a series of previous associations and matter-of-fact details. One entry, for instance, ends with Julavits recounting what she calls an “irksome” situation where she had to soothe her crying son when she’d rather be doing something else:
I must remember to do this when I am seventy. I must remember to find a rock that feels exactly like my son’s four-year-old back. I must remember to close my eyes and imagine that I am me again, a tired mother trying to teach herself how to miss what is not gone.
My son is also four. I’ve had this same thought. I was so grateful to have it articulated here, by a talented writer. Sometimes that’s all we require: to see ourselves reflected on the page.
The day after I finished this book, I gave birth to my daughter. May my next year bring as many gifts as this year has.
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