A Year in Reading: Arianna Rebolini

December 17, 2021 | 8 books mentioned 5 min read

To reflect on this past year, in terms of reading but also in terms of surviving, I have to start in the middle. I had a (long overdue) nervous breakdown in June, took a work leave in July, decided in August that that leave would be permanent, and over the course of those three months, through slow and subtle shifts, my life became something entirely distinct from what it was when the year began. I owe much of that transformation to The Moon Book by Sarah Faith Gottesdiener. There was a time, earlier this year even, when I’d have needed to couch this fact in self-deprecating jokes—and yes, fine, maybe this caveat is just another version of a self-deprecating joke—but I’m standing firm when I say this book about aligning with the moon’s phases gave me the push to change my life and the support to help me survive the transition. The Moon Book became my bible; I opened it every day. I took notes. I downloaded multiple (!) moon calendar apps. I journaled; I meditated; I built an altar and did spells. I made goals; I started reaching them. It was magic but also a system. I needed both.  

covercoverThis didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve long been wooed by anything woo, and when I talked to my therapist about taking a leave we set two goals: I’d dive back into the book proposal I’d abandoned three years ago, and I’d rekindle some kind of active spiritual practice. Both have been invigorating and fulfilling. But whitewashing is a very real problem in, well, everything, but especially witchy wellness spheres, and it’s been important for me to navigate thoughtfully—supporting and learning from BIPOC writers and practitioners without glomming onto traditions and histories I have no claim to. Two books became key references in this pursuit: Juliet Diaz’s Plant Witchery and Mary-Grace Fahrun’s Italian Folk Magic, the latter particularly fortifying in that it’s allowed me to reconnect to traditions and folk remedies I know my grandmothers, both gone now, believed in and lived by.

coverWhen I tweeted a joke (“joke”) about timing my book proposal to a certain full moon, someone recommended I read Monica Huerta’s Magical Habits, an intimate, academic, genre-bending study of race, history, and heritage grounded in Huerta’s experience growing up in her family’s Mexican restaurants. I’m glad I listened, and not only because Huerta validates moon-based writing timelines—it was a much-needed reminder that there are countless ways to tell a story, and that a book can be whatever you want it to be.    

covercovercoverThere were a few books in the first half of the year that floored me—Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child had me ruminating on martyrdom, motherhood, and Catholicism for weeks, and the fact that it wasn’t on more end of year lists is, in my opinion, a surprising oversight. Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch was so supremely weird and maybe the most fun I had reading all year. And in The Atmospherians, Alex McElroy pulls off the rare magic of building a world and story that actually feels new. But my reading didn’t get really exciting until I quit my job, for a number of reasons. First, I simply had more time. I also had more freedom to read outside of the strict publishing calendar. Most significantly, I was able to read more openly, with more generosity, because I’d returned to my own writing, too. I’m a better reader when I’m writing because it allows me to appreciate others’ work without resentment or panic. My jealousy of other writers, especially my peers, doesn’t disappear—I know it won’t!—but it shifts into something warm and generative, like a mobilizing admiration.

covercoverThere were two books I couldn’t shut up about, so much so that I fear the authors are like, Okay… calm down: Marlowe Granados’s Happy Hour and Lincoln Michel’s The Body Scout.

Happy Hour is such a sharp and vibrant defense of the girly girl; I ate it up. The 21-year-old protagonist, Isa, is in New York for the summer with her best friend—a hot, fun, ambitious duo scraping by on charm and odd jobs. Isa’s youth, beauty, and enthusiasm are constantly read by the men around her as naivety, but she’s undeterred. She knows how the world interprets her—especially as a woman of color—and she uses this to make calculated decisions about how much of herself to give or hide in any situation. She knows who she is. It’s hilarious and sharp and immensely readable, but there was a bittersweetness, too, perhaps because it made me think about how much my 22-year-old self—a Long Island girl freshly transferred from a state school to a private Pacific Northwest college whose campus didn’t lend itself well to heels—could’ve used a character like Isa.

The Body Scout, a sci-fi noir about a cyborg trying to solve his brother’s murder in dystopian-future New York City, was the perfect read at the perfect time. I used to read a lot more sci-fi and fantasy when I was a kid and this one gave me that same kind of escapist glee I don’t experience as much these days. I was so happy to pick it up every time I got the chance to do so.

covercovercoverIn November, my friend and former co-author Katie Heaney published The Year I Stopped Trying, a book so good it drives me nuts. It follows a high school overachiever who starts to question her motivation for virtuousness and decides to, for a while, just to do the bare minimum. The effects of this decision ripple through her friendships, love life, shitty job, and family. It’s a recalibration of identity and meaning, and I’ve described it as both a Judy Blume–style classic YA and My Year of Rest and Relaxation about teens. It’s the only book of the year that I actually couldn’t put down; I read the second half of the book in bed from midnight to 4 a.m., cried over the ending, and then reread the last 10 or so pages because I wasn’t ready to be done with it.

I wish I was the kind of cool girl who makes zines, but I make up for my lack by diligently seeking out and patronizing cool girls who make zines. Some standouts I read this year include Rose Lewis’s handmade Hell Realm, a dreamy exploration of the underworld and the seven sins that’ll take you there; Molly Young’s Sleepy Hollow Motor Inn, a multimedia investigation into a 1992 murder; and L.K. James’s Easy Cakes for Hard Times, a short illustrated collection of recipes developed in grief. In James’s own words, these are “little kitchen incantations I wrote so that we might conjure and commune with one another” and that is exactly how I received them in a year with plenty of turmoil. (The banana blueberry breakfast cake is a Rebolini household favorite.)

covercoverI’d say half of the books I read this year were via audiobooks; at any given moment I’m in the middle of at least five. (Shout out to Libro.fm!) I wish I could pinpoint some kind of rule for what makes a great audiobook—I’d have far fewer abandoned files taking up space on my phone—but it feels quite elusive. I volunteered to drive to New Jersey to pick up a Facebook marketplace desk just because I knew it would give me solo time to listen to Mateo Askaripour’s hilarious, scathing white capitalist takedown, Black Buck. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain radicalized me. And when I tell you the last chapter of Jackie Polzin’s Brood had me sobbing, I mean sobbing.

I find myself unsure how to finish this, and I think it’s because I know I’m missing an entire category of books I spent the year with—books I read for the book I’m writing—but I’m simply too superstitious to talk about those just yet. Sending good vibes into 2022 and her many moons, hoping I’ll have reason to keep reading.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

is a writer and editor from New York, formerly the books editor at BuzzFeed News. In addition to BuzzFeed, her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Esquire, TIME, The Cut, Vulture, O Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, Public Relations (Grand Central Publishing), co-authored with Katie Heaney, is out now.