A Year in Reading: Jen Gann

December 19, 2018 | 15 books mentioned 8 min read

Toward the end of 2017, a woman emailed me with an offer to buy my 1-year-old son. She could tell I didn’t want to be a mother based on an essay I’d written, and she believed my son deserved someone more like herself. She would meet me anywhere in the country, with an amount of money that was up to me, she wrote, then referenced the park a few blocks from where my family and I lived. Two weeks later, we moved across the country. The move was planned, but because of this email and other messages like it, I tried to stay quiet about our location in public, internet spaces. That woman and her kind are welcome to think I still live near that park in Brooklyn.

Here, our books live in shelving far from where I usually read. This house has an upstairs and a downstairs. The garage—which holds two strollers and a couple of bikes—doesn’t have a car, but occasionally we borrow one and park it in the driveway. Every weekday, I leash up the dog and walk the two blocks between this rented house and my son’s preschool. Often, I don’t say more than a few words to anyone besides my family. My companions are books and podcasts, single-sided relationships with other people’s words.

One of the reasons we moved has to do with our son, who was born with a progressive genetic disease. We had read scientific papers stating the value of the ocean for people with compromised lungs like his; we had scrutinized the lung-function data on patients in the area. Immediately after we moved, his new doctor increased the amount and intensity of his treatments and medications. Part of this was age: He newly qualified for certain medications; he’d finally grown big enough to wear the medical vest that shakes up the persistent mucus forming in his lungs.

When my son’s at his healthiest, he needs about two hours of treatment a day. His father does the mornings while I hide in the bedroom with headphones on and work. I do the evenings. The other day our son told me, “Daddy does the sun, and you do the moon.” Sometimes I catch myself looking forward to this time of day, when work is over and my son is watching TV in my lap and I have a book in one hand and his nebulizer in the other, and I’m overcome with shame.

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Early in the year, as the compressor hummed and the medical vest vibrated, I read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which you don’t need me to tell you is searing and incredible, and then I read Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. I read all of Ruth Ware’s books, then the two Tana French ones I hadn’t read. I read Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and found it chilling and indicting in a way I think went largely unobserved, and then I tried and failed to write effectively about whatever it is I mean by that.

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My son caught colds and needed more treatments. It was so tempting to be angry when we were told to increase treatment time to four hours, as if those doctors and nurses were punishing my son instead of trying to keep him out of the hospital. One or two times, maybe more, I couldn’t stop myself and brattily asked how any parent who works is supposed to keep up with this level of treatment. Somewhere in there, I tried reading memoirs, by Emily Rapp and Tara Westover, and worried I would never be able to figure out memoirs.

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In the spring, I read what I believe are three essential Mom Books: The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which is the experiential novel of early motherhood any baby-curious person who cares about the West—any person, really—should read. I reread Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything when it arrived to me in its beautiful hardcover form with just as much greed as I did the first time around, when I squinted into a strangely formatted PDF that I made Meaghan send me. If Lydia’s book is experiential, then Meaghan’s book is an analysis of the motherhood experience—a balance of description and examination, of humor and emotion. I also read Angela Garbes’s Like a Mother, the very human look at the science of pregnancy, childbirth, and early motherhood. Angela is a dream teacher and writer for someone like me, who loves a story but isn’t an experienced reader of science.

(I want to note that I am very biased and have edited work by all three of these women. But I will also note that I have commissioned and assigned pieces by them for the exact reason that they are very good writers.)   

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One of the only books by a man I read this year was Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. I needed to reread Solomon’s book before writing about the documentary of the same name, which is a mash-up of Solomon’s story and the stories of families with children who are profoundly different from their parents. I have complicated, mixed feelings about Solomon’s work, partially because I think it’s incorrectly heralded as a tribute to the beauty of humanity. The book has its beautiful parts, as does the film, but I think what his work is truly about is the stubborn and at times ugly persistence it takes to love and care for any child, no matter that child’s level of difference.

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The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner wore me to the bone, the first book I picked up this year where I was not expecting to encounter so much female pain. It’s written in one long ache of mother anguish, and it’s a San Francisco book, but almost unrecognizably so. Today, the western side of the city feels haunted—during the time Kushner’s writing about, those ghosts are alive and walking the streets. I didn’t read very many collections of short stories this year, but I did read Curtis Sittenfeld’s new collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, and each story was just as funny and sad and acutely observed as her novels are.

It was summertime by then, though summer does not exist in any physical way where I happen to live. I don’t remember what I was reading the day this happened, but I know we were spending the weekend an hour south at our friends’ house. It was me, my husband, a couple he’s known since college, our son, their daughter. The kids are about 10 months apart and get along—the last fight they had was about the speed at which a song should be sung (my son thought fast, she thought slow). Usually, if we’re all together, she sits with my son during treatment, recognizing a free opportunity to watch an hour’s worth of TV. But that day he refused to watch the show she wanted (Peppa) and treatment is a time when we let my son have his way, since treatment is a blunt manifestation of how much has not gone and will not go his way. After she got up and ran out to the deck, my son turned his attention to what I think was a show about trucks, and I read whatever it was on my Kindle.

Maybe 10 minutes in, we heard knocking—my husband and our friends’ daughter were at the window, grinning and motioning for our attention. My son looked away from his screen and stood up, saying something—it’s hard to understand someone who’s both 2 and wearing silicone—and clawing at the nebulizer mask I was holding over his face. He managed to get it off and I turned off the compressor as his voice unmuffled and I understood what he was repeating: no more no more no more no more. I froze and then unfroze and shook my head at my husband to try to get them to go away, to make him realize what it was doing to our son, seeing that healthy child playing on the other side of the glass. Finally I mouthed stop in a way that reached him, and the expression on his face collapsed, and he and our friends’ daughter and their freedom moved out of sight. I sat my son back down and turned the compressor back on and we both turned back inward, to our screens filled with other people’s words.

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My favorite book is Irma Voth by Miriam Toews; if you were taken by Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, read this—it’s even better. So many people I know love Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, and I do too, but Irma Voth is the best depiction of impossible, unquenchable female pain I’ve ever read. I don’t remember how I eventually got a galley of her newest, Women Talking, but once I finally got it I was uncharacteristically prim about starting it. A few weeks went by before I finally did. Somehow I hadn’t realized it was narrated by a man and at first I was mildly disappointed, and then I was selfishly thankful, because I think the amount of female pain in Women Talking might flatten the person who reads it without the buffer of a narrator one step removed.

The year felt like it might already be over when the Camp Fire started. Suddenly, everyone had become fluent in the air quality index, and for once, our child wasn’t the only one who couldn’t play outside. But our homes were fine; unlike the people in Paradise, our possessions and everyday lives had not gone up in flames. At first, maybe one in three of our neighbors wore a mask to walk their dogs through the thick-crisp air. We still took our son preschool, trying to shuttle from indoors to indoors as quickly as possible. Then our son’s nose ran with thick snot, and he began to cough. The city closed all the schools, the office workers were told to stay home. Our son’s cough worsened. The only recommendation you could get from anyone was to stay inside and wear a mask, but my husband desperated his way through a Target and came home with the store’s last $400 air purifier. The now-familiar guilt bloomed after we used it to measure the air quality inside the room where our son sleeps. He and I got on a plane to my parents’ house the next day.

Those few weeks require a long, complicated explanation. They cost hours of phone calls, thousands of dollars, and two weeks away from my son. My husband didn’t see him for nearly three. At one point, our son’s blood oxygen level was the lowest I’d ever seen it—when I updated our tough-as-nails nurse from the small-town doctors’ office near my parents’ house, it was the first time I’d ever heard her sound worried. I left him with my parents in the hopes that level would go up and went to New York for work and thank god, it did. For a few days it seemed like he was getting better. I was sitting at a desk in the office I used to go to every day when my mom called to say he’d spiked a fever and the small-town doctor was certain he had the flu and—well, we all knew what that could mean for him. If there’s any skill I’ve gained from dedicated reading, it’s whatever mettle is necessary to cry quietly while writing a few emails.

In the end, he did not have the flu. We still don’t know what that sudden fever was about. He seemed to feel terrible, then a bit better. Just like that, reality turned back into something I could face without first pulling a security grate down over my mind.

The past few days I’ve been reading Heavy by Kiese Laymon because Heather Havrilesky wrote that it’s overflowing with a brutal honesty, and whose own new book, What If This Were Enough?, is just as overfull with sometimes painful truth. There is so much I hope for my son, and one hope is that he finds something that gives him what reading gives to me: a way to rest from the kind of violence it takes to endure regular life, which I think he might need more than I do—since it must take even more violence to endure regular life when your body is actively trying to end it for you. I could say that I hope 2019 will be different, but I suspect it will be more of the same, requiring many books and lots of ugly persistence and all the stubborn love we can live with.

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is an editor at New York Magazine's the Cut.

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