A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

December 19, 2021 | 15 books mentioned 8 min read

The first morning of the weekend that it would be 116 degrees in Portland, Ore., I was up early watering the dirt around my plants to see if it would help them survive and listening to Volume 1 of Carbon Ideologies, William Vollmann’s very long effort to make people care about catastrophic climate change.  I became interested in plants during the pandemic, first uncertainly and haphazardly, then with a frenzy that has led to credit card debt and the kind of conversations with a spouse I imagine are similar to other conversations with spouses where one of the spouses is trying to hide something. From the first time I saw a plant make something out of nothing, the first time I could feel the cool aura of a plant in a hot corner of the yard, the first time I ate something that we grew, the first time I read the (probably inaccurate) statement that the plants I planted could offset my carbon footprint for the year, the project of planting things seemed to develop some hideous urgency, so much that I was willing to spend money I didn’t have to put things into the ground. 

That morning I listened to Vollmann’s introduction, where he explains that his publisher had only agreed to publish the book if he would break it into two volumes, and the opening pages about waste and the unthinking use of energy and resources. It was already too hot, and I was moving around the yard with manic anxiety, sweating and feeling bad and listening to Vollmann who is both Quixote and Cassandra until I pulled out my headphones. I did not need urgent wake-up calls that morning. I was awake, had woken up already too hot that morning in bed. I have been hot before, but I have not been hot in a way that felt so uncanny and wrong, nights that wouldn’t cool, baking heat in the cool green northwest. The news had been making dire forecasts about the heat dome for a week. There were going to be deaths, countless people warned. In the end 116 people died in Oregon alone, and hundreds more in Washington and Canada.

My husband and children had gone camping somewhere up high where it was cooler, but I had an idea that I would stay home and work, and if not work I would help, even if that help also looked quixotic and insufficient, pulling water around in a wagon for people, putting ice in a bowl for birds. After watering the plants and abandoning Vollmann I cleaned my daughters’ room in my underwear in the dark with the fan blowing, Sex and the City playing on the iPad. I picked Sex and the City because carbon ideologies do not intentionally intrude in Sex and the City, but when the power blinked out and then, almost audibly, effortfully, blinked back on, they intruded again into life. I felt deranged. In the course of the weekend I did some helpful things in my community but I also ate 10 Nestle Drumstick icecreams and watched dozens of episodes of Sex and the City on my kitchen floor, the only place there the air conditioning worked and where even then the butter melted into a pool of oil on the counter. The birds on the wires above our house panted and if you put water out they drank it all and pecked at the ice cubes. I never ended up finishing Volume 1 of Carbon Ideologies even though I checked it out about a hundred times this year (as I mentioned it’s very long).

coverThis was my year of audiobooks. The pandemic changed a lot of things about my reading habits. I read books a few pages at a time, and now a lot of the time I listen to them. Audiobooks are ideal for harried people because you can listen to them while doing something else. This was crucial during and after the seven months of online kindergarten where every day I was in a room with between 2 and 3 children, one of whom was having a very hard time, when it seemed I would never make up work time but also just brain time, quiet time, reading time. One of the most affecting books I listened to this year was The Great Derangement. I listened to Ghosh’s book in the evenings while outside doing things with my plants, and Ghosh’s indictment of the narrowness of fiction’s scope had me wondering why the majority of entities thinking creatively about geologic time are oil companies, and not artists. When the school year ended and summer camp started and I finally had a solid 5-6 hours of the day to work with no children present I felt high and ethereal but also amazed at how quickly the time still went. For four weeks I listened to Ramona’s World and Ramona Quimby Age Eight on the way to summer camp and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments on the way back, a 30 minute drive with the brilliance of Saidiya Hartman, her reading between the lines of written history filling my empty car, and the conscience of William Vollmann riding shotgun as I added my choking exhaust to the billion other cars on the planet. I listened to Wave and cried. I listed to The Remains of the Day and cried. I have read it before but hearing it read I really felt how perfect it is as a constructed work of fiction. I listened to it while I looked over my plants, worrying over the ones that scorched all to hell and noticing which ones came back and which couldn’t.

coverI listened to a lot of books that I defined as research even though it was unclear what the research was really for or how it could be useful. I listened to The Firm, about the founding of McKinsey consulting company, while going on errands or doing long, boring household tasks. I listened to The Prize, which seems quaint now, embodying carbon ideologies without interrogating them, while driving to Washington state for a short writing residency. I listened to the first half of Fossil Capital, which has one of the best introductions to a complicated topic that I’ve ever read. I listened to books about the U.S. intelligence apparatus while sorting a mountain of clothing donations for houseless people, a quixotic project because the donations are endless, the need perpetual, the intentions of people who persist in donating stained and torn clothing unhelpfully recurring. I got into CIA memoirs (See No Evil, The Perfect Kill, The Unexpected Spy, Life Undercover) marveling at their variant but related forms of personal mythmaking and narrative choices, reluctant and raffish, hawkish or credulous. Never apologize, never explain. I imagine the CIA encourages these memoirs. I read Confessions of an Enron Executive on paper but I wished it could have been an audiobook the way I wish some meetings could be emails. 

coverI listened Excellent Women, but I never finished it even though I liked it. Right now I’m in the middle of How Beautiful We Were. I listened to Lonesome Dove here and there, running out of time before it got returned to the library and then checking out again occasionally whenever a copy was available, just like Carbon Ideologies. I listened to it with bittersweet feelings because it was one of my formative teenage books and as a work of storytelling and characterization and adventure it ages beautifully but it is also carrying a lot of water for our foundational myths and problems. I’m on a road trip right now and listened to most of Killers of the Flower Moon which is a good corrective to Lonesome Dove. I notice the things that overlap and the things that exceed the novel’s cosmology. 

coverI still read books on paper. The last weekend of the disastrous school year, we picked up our kindergarten graduate and our preschooler and drove to a campsite in a lush green forest where everyone completely fell apart and had a horrible time and it poured rain but when it cleared I sat by the embers of the campfire and read The Great Fire and was stunned by how crystalline the prose was and immediately bought a copy of The Transit of Venus. When the heat wave started a couple of weeks later, I was torn by the twin impulse to hunker down in preparation and to go out and have a beer because my family was out of town. I tried to read a few pages of The Transit of Venus while drinking the beer in an outdoor patio and immediately got so fried by the afternoon sun that my head swam and I had to go home and take ibuprofen and eat ice cream before I woke up and listened to Carbon Ideologies that awful morning. I thought for a while I had a problem with The Transit of Venus but then I tried again at the end of the summer when we came home a long trip and all got food poisoning and I lay next to a barfing child rubbing her back and putting cloths on her head and feverishly reading and it was as glorious as that situation can be. What a beautiful novel. Next I’m going to read The Bay of Noon.

coverWhenever I could this year I ran away from home to try and work on my book. One weekend I rented an RV parked in someone’s farm for two nights and froze in its mildew-scented air while drinking wine and reading the forthcoming Search, which is filled with delicious foods and complex interpersonal situations. When it was done I started Something New Under the Sun, which is about the results of carbon ideologies, but didn’t finish it while I was in the RV and now I read a few pages every night, disjointed but luxuriously. It is probably the longest I have ever taken to read a single book but this is a new way, too, of pandemic reading, and I make my peace with it.

coverEven though a lot of things about this year were bad it felt better to me than last year did, for my own personal logistical reasons. I read for pleasure and enjoyment and work. I read What Strange Paradise and Crossroads and Long Live the Post Horn! and The Argonauts and The Bookshop and Fight Night and Things We Lost to the Water and Detransition, Baby! I read The Great Offshore Grounds and loved it so much it drove me nuts that it didn’t have a million reviews. I read New York, My Village, which is a novel that is joyful and generous but also sad and enraging. I read The Lost Daughter for the best assignment of my life, and thought about my three weekends this year of running off to RVs and cabins with composting toilets, seeing that urge to flee on the page taken to its extreme. I read I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness on my couch, homebound but in the mood for flight. My younger child is four now and I feel like I am finally out of what can be called the postpartum period and it is so good to read anything that is frank and expansive about the psychic torments of that time.

covercoverThe pandemic seems to be on a fucked-up upswing yet again and I am dreading what this might bring for the new year. There are books to look forward to at least. In the last few weeks I read Essential Labor, which isn’t out yet, and which is a loving and revolutionary book about how caregiving is foundational to life and how so much of why the last couple of years were so shitty is a consequence of how it is consistently undervalued in America. I read Easy Beauty, which also isn’t out yet, which blew me away, the clarity of its prose and its ideas. 

coverIn the winter you have to work to remember the summer. It’s snowing in Portland right now and it’s hard to conjure that feeling of inexorable, intensifying heat in June. Likewise that weekend of the heat it was hard to remember that in February the streets had filled with snow and ice, most things shut down. I was supposed to leave that weekend to work on my book and was first irritated and inconvenienced and then awestruck by how quickly the city was completely overwhelmed by the weather. I walked through the city at night and saw massive trees down and laying quietly in the snow. Sometime around this snowstorm I read White Girls in a single evening and marveled by how much a single essay could travel before coming back around. 

The last day of the heatwave was the day that it got the hottest. I drove around offering rides and ice and the temperature gage in my car said 115. The heat peaked in the late afternoon, the heat had weight and mass, you could feel it in your mouth and pressing down on your body, but then that evening something meteorological happened and the neighbors texted each other “go outside” and it was astonishing to step out and feel suddenly a cool wind blowing through, chasing the heat away. As a reader and writer you want to assign symbolic power to a cool wind like this. But the weather is beyond metaphor and allegory even while it feels like metaphor itself. The cool wind was both unearthly, heaven-sent and entirely mundane, earthly, ecological. It meant nothing except that the heat was gone and that we still aren’t ready for anything. It knocked me down a peg. 

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is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at www.lydiakiesling.com.