A Year in Reading: Aja Gabel

- | 1
I wanted 2021 to be the year I opened up. I started the year preparing to give birth by reading Britta Bushnell’s Transformed by Birth: Cultivating Openness, Strength, and Resilience for the Life-Changing Journey from Pregnancy to Parenthood because I saw it on Mandy Moore’s Instagram. I copied down mantras from the pages and put them on index cards and tucked them in my hospital bag. I liked how she wrote about giving birth as descending into the wilderness of oneself, and how you must stay in that dark wood for as long as it takes. That you are transforming into something new. I took my last pregnant bath with my belly sticking out over the water like an island while reading Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina. I related very much to the mixed Japanese-American experience described in the memoir, and wondered how my baby, who would only be a quarter Japanese, would experience it. In February, when I gave birth at the hospital, I didn’t take out the mantra cards, but I did open up and descend into the wilderness.  And then, I found myself to be too open, an exposed wound, a live wire, lost in those woods. In the hospital, I dashed off an email birth announcement to some friends, and the responses came immediately pouring in, but I couldn’t bring myself to read the responses. Now I was opened up, but I didn’t want to be touched. When we got home from the hospital, the wonderful Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House had been delivered. The jacket copy described it as being about a young woman academic in the throes of postpartum who, while caring for her baby, encounters none other than long-dead author Margaret Wise Brown in a stowaway closet above her apartment. I took a picture of the cover and posted it to Instagram—“appropriate!”—but I couldn’t read it. Not yet, not while I was crying hormone-crash tears every day and wondering how something that was inside of me could now be outside of me. It seemed like magic or horror or both. And the book, too close.   Four weeks after I gave birth, I unexpectedly started a brief but intense writing job that required me to read a few books before starting. So as I nursed my jaundiced newborn in the middle of the night, I listened to the audiobook of Diane Fanning’s nonfiction account of the supposed murder of Kathleen Peterson (purportedly her husband, Michael Peterson) called Written in Blood. As the baby drained me, we listened to a detailed account of blood stain patterns on the stairwell in the home where Kathleen was found. I wondered if this information was somehow scarring his nascent brain cells, but I had to work.  My first real baby-free outing was in March, a 20-minute drive to Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena to pick up my pre-ordered copy of Notes from the Bathroom Line, a book of essays and humor pieces from some of the funniest women in Hollywood. I perused it on the couch with my baby and found it to be exactly what I needed at that moment. I showed my baby the drawings in the book and he grunted. And then, for a while, I didn’t read much. As a new mother, whose body and brain and constitution were being pulled in every direction, I didn’t want to be seen. What the best books do is see you, meet you where you are. I couldn’t do that, not yet.  One day—I mean after many failures and tears—I found some childcare help, and the brief job ended, and my brain cleared enough to read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. There is a tremendous distance in the narration of that book, which I think normally would turn me off, but as I inched back towards being seen by books, I thought this was a good bridge. I got another job and reread Raven Leilani’s fantastically sharp Luster as research. Rereads, even of books that cut through me like that, felt safe. Then, as the job began, I read more nonfiction for research. Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future was the first one, and then Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Francesc Miralles and Hector Garcia, which had me consider what pastimes of mine made me enter a state of meditative “flow.” One of them: reading books. Then parts of The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values by Brian Christian, which was honestly a bit over my head. And I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter, which was more my speed. Actually, it was extremely my speed. At first I borrowed this book, but then I bought it for myself to reread the part where he talks about the death of his wife, and how we might live on—both scientifically and abstractly—in the cells of loved ones after we die.  It was around August or September, six or seven months after giving birth, that I felt like maybe I could start to try to be my old self again. Six or seven  months! So, take that, politicians who think two weeks (or no weeks) of paid parental leave is good. Anyway, around this time was when two important reading things happened in my life. First was that the illustrious agent Sarah Bowlin reminded me about a book she’d sent that had just been sitting on my nightstand under a breast pump. The book was Amelia Morris’s forthcoming Wildcat, about, you guessed it, a writer with a young baby just trying to make sense of the demands of new motherhood in a world that expects mothers to suffer glamorously. I was scared to read it, because maybe I would relate too hard, but I loved it. There were so many feelings in it I recognized: feeling alienated from other Los Angeles mothers, feeling too undervalued, feeling too fortunate, feeling afraid of never writing novels again, feeling rage and wonder and exhaustion and elation, sometimes all at the same time. Most of all, feeling.  After I finished that, the second major reading event happened in my life. My dear friend Jean Chen Ho, a lifeboat in a rocky sea, sent a galley of her forthcoming novel in stories, Fiona and Jane. I recently saw Charles Yu describe this book as “spiky,” and I agree, it is spiky, but in that way where you want it to poke all over your skin. Like a massage ball. It’s full of life cracking open in every line. It is life, describing the constantly healing wound of being a woman, alive and growing and failing and thriving in the world. This was in the fall, and thanks to those books reopening my reading vein, I suddenly felt like I could devour anything again. I reread Bryan Washington’s Memorial, because, duh. I read Colorful by Eto Mori and guessed the twist in the first 10 pages, but it was still wonderful. I read Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot and didn’t guess the twist until it happened, at which point I gasped out loud and my husband asked what was wrong. I read How to Wrestle a Girl by Venita Blackburn and was reminded how short stories can do absolutely anything. I read Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid really quickly and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney really (like really) slowly.  I read an LA Times profile of Claire Vaye Watkins at her home out past Joshua Tree, and she spoke of how she rejected the box motherhood put her in, and so I immediately bought and read I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. I furiously underlined and dog-eared. I read it fast like someone was going to catch me reading it. I didn’t recommend it to many people because I was sort of scared of it, but I loved it, which I think is a reaction Claire would enjoy.  And then I remembered Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House. I was brave now! I could read about postpartum. I’d done it a couple times already. I pulled it from the shelf, and opened a page just to see, and then ended up reading 50 pages late into the night. There’s so much that Julia gets right in the book, so much about the way you sometimes have to leave your physical self as a mother and imagine your brain into a world where you don’t have to explain anything, all your contradicting emotions and actions. In short, it was a salve. It would have broken me if I’d read it in those early postpartum days. I don’t know when one technically leaves the postpartum phase, because in some ways I feel like I’ll always be wandering in this wilderness I’ve descended into. But I don’t feel as lost and scared. These books helped me open my eyes to the dark.Now I’m reading Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zautner, which I should have read earlier, but which I did not because I was also nervous about how close to the bone it would feel. How it might make me think about my dead father or my dead brother. And sometimes I read it in the bath and I do cry, but that’s okay. I read the book, feel that vulnerable openness, and see it: look, there I am.  More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab) Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_email]