My name is Mateo Askaripour, and I am a reader. I guess it goes without saying that everyone here is, but it’s important that I get that off my chest. It all started when I was three, with Clifford. I couldn’t get enough of that big red dog. Then I moved on to Doctor De Soto, a mouse who was also a dentist. And before long, I was past Franklin and Frog and Toad and hooked on the hard stuff.
I guess that’s why this was such a strange year of reading for me. Because, in addition to being a reader, I’m a writer––a writer whose debut novel, Black Buck, came out this year. A year when book tours were restricted to dancing pixels and glitchy waves of sound. The pro of it all is that I was able to do more events, connect with more readers, and give more interviews than I would have if the world were open. The con of it all is that I had less time for reading. At least, reading for pure pleasure.
You see, this year, I became acquainted with the blurb. I know, it sounds like some gelatinous creature lurking in the sewers, waiting to snatch unsuspecting children and feed on their soft organs. Either that, or a Christmas dessert that people pick at to be polite before promptly excusing themselves to spit it out. The blurb is neither of these. It is the handful of words that grace a book’s front and back covers, inside flaps, or first few pages. Words often, but not always, gifted to an author by another.
When a book gets a little buzz, the requests for that author’s co-sign are nonstop. I received my first three days after Black Buck was published. Given the fact that I had reached out to literary friends and strangers only months prior, asking for a few words of their own to adorn the dust jacket of my debut––provided that they liked it, of course––I said yes. This was for How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina. Other blurbs would follow throughout the year, in addition to reviews I wrote for the likes of The New York Times and Goodreads. This, reading in service of others, or something beyond reading for pleasure and/or knowledge, was new to me, but also exciting. I was honored that people would ask me to read their books and contribute a couple kind and honest sentences in hopes of boosting sales, but I also had to become better at tempering expectations and avoiding burnout.
I know, you didn’t ask for all of this background, but like a pair of holiday socks your Aunt Peggy gifts you for [insert an occasion when you’d receive a gift from said Aunt Peggy], you get what you get. But fine, it’s time I tell you some of the books I blurbed, as well as give you a snippet from each attempt to articulate how and what they made me feel.
There was My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, which I described as follows: “A collection where hope serves as the connective tissue, My Monticello reaffirms our deepest desires for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while examining the soil of our nation and the fruit it bears.” Then I read The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin. “An ode to all that which makes us human.” Damn, that was a lot, but I meant it. Following Maurice’s book was What the Fireflies Knew by Kai Harris. I called it “A luminous reminder that sometimes the only true path to healing is through facing our painful histories, and that we don’t have to do it alone.” The last two books I blurbed this year were The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola––“A necessary invitation to scream when we feel like screaming, cry when we feel like crying, and prioritize our own often-neglected needs for love.”––and The Odyssey (an audacious title!), by Lara Williams. With respect to the latter, I said, among other things, that “I have never read anything like this.” Maybe you’ll enjoy some of these, too.
On top of the blurbs, I had joint events with other authors who had published in 2021, which meant that, while juggling interviews and my own events, I was racing to shovel their pages down my literary esophagus so that I would come correct. Fortunately, every single book was worth it. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. was one of these books. Robert and I published our debuts on the same day––Jan. 5, 2021––and became fast friends. Brothers, really. Having the support of someone who I could talk to throughout this whirlwind of an experience was, and continues to be, a gift. And his book was good as hell. It took me a while to get through, because every sentence was packed with so much meaning, and I didn’t want to miss any of it, even though I’m sure I did.
Zakiya Dalila Harris, author of The Other Black Girl, was an author with whom I had more than a couple of events. We’d connected long before our books came out, agreeing that they were “book siblings,” which became even more apparent when I read TOBG. If you haven’t read it yet, go get it. That ending!
The final event homie I’ll mention is Jason Mott. Like Zakiya, we had about three events together––one for my book, another for his, and then one for both of ours. His novel, Hell of a Book, was, indeed, a hell of a book before it won the National Book Award for Fiction, but that doesn’t hurt. And Jason is also another author I’ve come to call a genuine friend. In this industry, as I’m sure is the case with all creative fields, it’s hard to know who’s who and what’s what. Jason, without a doubt, is the real deal. And his book is a reminder that great things can happen when you say “Fuck it,” and write the book that you want to write.
But despite how much time I’ve spent discussing blurbs and events, I did get down with some books that weren’t connected to anything other than my own enjoyment. The Man Who Fell to the Earth, published by Walter Tevis in 1963, was even better than anticipated. For the past few years, I’ve become more interested in alien life and questions around their visits to our own planet (Have they already been here? Please answer in the comments). This novel is an extremely realistic depiction of just that: a being, from a planet called Anthea, who comes to Earth with a goal in mind and will do anything to realize it.
Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water was a masterpiece. Before I opened it, I assumed it was going to be a quiet, even relaxing book that depicts modern love between two young folks in England, but it raged with intensity, underscored by how gentle the language is, which readers often describe as “poetic.” I can’t recommend it enough.
Assembly by Natasha Brown is another debut out of the U..K that I became a fan of. Like Open Water, it’s a slim novel of epic proportions. The way Brown rendered the internal life of her character––juxtaposed with her workplace and her relationship with her boyfriend and his family––made her book feel like one of the truest works I’ve read all year.
A few other books that affected me deeply include: The Marathon Don’t Stop: The Life and Times of Nipsey Hussle, Yes, Daddy, and The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Nipsey Hussle is a big inspiration of mine, so being able to reconnect with him, through Rob Kenner’s words in The Marathon Don’t Stop, was soothing, especially because some days I still wake up and can’t believe he’s gone. Parts of Yes, Daddy actually made me ill––a testament to Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s skill. And The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was so damn engaging, original, and fun. Deesha went in!
Looking back on it now, 2021 was a year that I learned what it meant to not just be a reader, or a writer, but also a literary citizen. Or, rather, that I began to learn more about how these three identities intersect, and the balance that needs to be struck in order to be in service to others, while also not losing a sense of self and sight of what matters most: the work.
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