I didn’t sleep at the beginning of 2019. I had woken up in the new year, wide-eyed with shock and dragging grief with me over the figurative threshold separating then from now. I was delirious and awake and surrounded by incongruously colorful blinking Christmas lights, which would remain up until sometime at the beginning of February.
During that time of not sleeping, I was also not reading, or, rather, I don’t remember exactly what I read.
It’s likely that I re-read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I am sure I opened The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, flipping directly to the short stories where death exists somewhere just off the page. I know I reread “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” and “The Most Girl Part of You.”
But mostly, I didn’t read. Which is dramatic and true but really only half-true because I read for a living.
In 2019, I read literary reviews and magazines. I read manila folders full of “For your consideration…” writing portfolios. I read poetry, not-quite poetry, and the back alleys and thoroughfares of the Internet. I read dozens and dozens of pieces every week and, on the recommendation of a group of high schoolers and Edan Lepucki, whittled all that reading down into the trim little collection that is The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019. I read that.
But to start, I didn’t read. I didn’t read until just enough time had passed for me to feel like a drowning woman, desperate and gasping for life—my life!—which had continued, impossibly, somewhere in the real world, yes, but also somewhere on the page and in the particular pages of a few good books.
I read Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early and made my days holy explorations. I was in Blackwater Woods and could hear the rippling water. The black snake was dancing his way across the lake and I was a witness. I adored it. I adored the poetry of being alive and being here, which could be anywhere, and which was suddenly everywhere.
Break the Mirror, a collection of Nanao Sakaki’s poetry which had been on my shelf, unread for many years, was finally ripe for the reading this year. Sakaki, who had been drafted into the Japanese navy during World War II and whose life had been saved by a decree from the emperor after the country’s surrender, writes like a man alive. By that I mean that he’s a little practical and a little dreamy, a little horny and a little precious, which is just how I like a person.
Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament follows a woman, Bergljot, who is exactly that kind of person. There’s a secret motivating her to action for the majority of the story and it could have felt claustrophobic reading through that trauma but she’s so alive you don’t mind walking alongside her.
I read Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, followed by Bitch Planet, Volume 1: Extraordinary Machine, a collection of the first five issues of the dystopian comic about “non-compliant” women shipped off to a prison planet. It was an exceedingly perfect pairing and both stories served as reminders that on the other side of revelation is action. Revolution can happen anywhere.
I finally read Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, which was angrier than I expected and that was nice. It was full of art and grief and the duplicity of being alive. We go on and we exist alongside and on top of and behind and in front of everything that has ever and will ever exist, which gives the world and this story its richness.
Maira and Alex Kalman celebrated the particular richness of their mother’s individual story in Sara Berman’s Closet, an illustrated family memoir about their mother’s life, her deliberate way of being and the art in that. They call it a small and monumental story. I would add that it’s beautiful, too.
I read Eileen Myles’s Cool for You for the first time this year. I wish I had read it when I was a teenager and was just learning the bad and limiting idea of how a person was allowed to be. I have this idea that I could have saved myself a lot of heartbreak and a lot of time if I had read it then, but I think in reality I would have just been terrified of all that possibility. At any rate, I loved getting to carry it around as an adult who knows what Eileen knows. There’s a whole lot of world out there.
“All day I do my loving, and all of my feelings are colors,” writes Jenny Slate in Little Weirds. It’s a funny and sad collection of stories but her blues tend toward purples which bloom into magenta, suggesting that there’s light coming in from somewhere. Isn’t that nice that this can happen? Isn’t it wild that little changes, little weirds, can catapult you to so many somewheres? Reading this felt like taking a long walk in a dense wood which suddenly opens up to sunlight. That felt nice, that felt like my year.
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