A Year in Reading: Carolyn Quimby


When the world began falling apart, I decided to apply for grad school. I had been hemming and hawing for years about what to go back for. A PhD in English Lit? No for various (though mainly) job-related reasons. An MFA in creative nonfiction? Uh…maybe later. An MLIS? Yes then no; yes then no. I knew I wanted to go back eventually, but I talked myself in circles for years. Then 2020 happened.

I started my MLIS program this summer. My first class involved learning the basics of coding. I read about HTML, CSS, Javascript, MySQL, FTPs, VPNs, and a whole host of other acronyms. It was a far cry from the literary fiction I tend to read—though I found myself enjoying coding more than I thought I would. I felt nostalgia for the baby coding I would do on my secret Xanga as a pre-teen. This fall I’m taking a class all about human information behavior, which requires me to read anywhere from 60 to 120 pages of theory per week. While the class is super interesting, it’s a huge reason why I can’t find the proper brain space for novels. The other reason is that my brain (and attention span) seems to be irreparably broken from the onslaught of the last couple of years, but I digress. My program has been great so far but I’d be lying if I wasn’t looking forward to my breaks during which I plan to inhale as many books as possible.

While I read less for pleasure than ever before, I wasn’t always distracted and the reading wasn’t always bad. I read and reviewed Jo Ann Beard’s Festival Days, and I was reminded why she’s one of the greatest writers working today. As spring bloomed around me, I made my way through Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which was beautifully written and totally engrossing. On the eve of my 30th birthday, I devoured Lily King’s Writers & Lovers and I felt so seen. As 2021 comes to a close, I’m slowly making my way through a few books: Sequoia Nagamatsu’s forthcoming novel, How High We Go in the Dark; Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House; and Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot.

I also leaned heavily on audiobooks this year to squeeze in reading whenever I could. In no particular order, here are some books I listened to and enjoyed this year: Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close; Hilarie Burton’s The Rural Diaries; Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and Sutton Foster’s Hooked. They kept me company as I took my daily walks, ran errands, cleaned the apartment, and took long post-vaccine road trips to visit friends and family. While I can’t listen to all kinds of books (i.e., literary fiction or anything heavily plotted are no gos), I am grateful for audiobooks and their ever-increasing presence in my reading life.

In many ways, 2021 seemed just as strange and unmoored as 2020. Of course, I wish I had read more—though that’s the case even during my most prolific reading years. There’s simply never enough time to read everything we want. In 2022, I vow to put down the books I’m not enjoying and make my way through the unread books I already own. If the last two years have shown us anything, there’s no guarantees or certainty in life, so read the book or don’t; apply to grad school or don’t; take the road trip or don’t. And when all else fails, try an audiobook.

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

June Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)


We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor: In this series of linked stories, young creative people in the Midwest navigate loneliness, intimacy, and violence. In many ways, the book is a continuation of Taylor’s highly acclaimed debut novel, Real Life, which follows Wallace, a Black queer biochemistry PhD student in the Midwest, as he explores failure, grief, and confusing straight men. In other ways, it is a departure — and offers a glimpse into Taylor’s true literary love, the short story form. (Jacqueline)

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella is the only Black woman at her publishing company until another Black woman is hired and quickly becomes a favorite in the office–just as Nella starts receiving threatening notes at work. Attica Locke raves, “Zakiya Dalila Harris has pulled back the curtain on the publishing industry, but in doing so, she has also perfectly captured a social dynamic that exists in job cultures as varied as tech, finance, academia, or hell, even retail and fast food. Oh, beware of the “OBGs”—Other Black Girls—y’all. As we should all be aware of the psychic cost to Black women of making ourselves palatable to institutions that use our cultural cache for their own ends while disregarding any part of our hearts and minds that they either can’t or won’t understand.” (Lydia)
Bewilderness by Karen Tucker: The stress of Covid-19 has, according to the CDC, escalated opioid usage, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl continue to drive OD fatalities, which are 10% higher than 12 months ago. In her debut novel, Bewilderness, Karen Tucker puts a human face on this ongoing public health catastrophe, as she tells the story of Irene and Luce, pill-addicts and best friends. More than merely evoking the desperation of opioid abuse, Bewilderness provides a funny and touching story of female friendship—as Rufi Thorpe says, “Karen Tucker has the chaotic truth-telling energy of a sage and a lack of sentimentality that would give Hunter S. Thompson stomach cramps. This is the novel the opiate epidemic needs.” (Adam Price)

Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nkweti: In her genre-bending debut story collection, the Cameroonian-American writer and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Nana Nkweti mixes realism with clever inversions of numerous genres, including horror, mystery, myth, young adult, and science fiction. You’ll meet linguistic anthropologists, comic book enthusiasts, a PR pro trying to spin a zombie outbreak in West Africa, a graphic novelist, a pregnant pastor’s wife, a mermaid. This dazzler of a debut shines a spotlight on lives that bridge the divide between the cultures of Cameroon and America. Nkweti has said she hopes her stories entertain readers while also offering them a counterpoint to prevalent “heart of darkness” writing that too often depicts a singular African experience. (Bill)
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen: For the title alone, I’m in, no matter who wrote it. But then it’s also Rivka Galchen? Trying her hand at historical fiction? I’m hitting preorder. Based in 1618 Germany at the start of the 30 Years War it tells the story of Katherina Kepler, an illiterate woman known for her herbal remedies. When a neighbor accuses Katherina of poisoning her, Katherina’s brilliant son, an Imperial Mathematician, must defend her. Galchen, known for her fiction and journalism, drew on real historical documents to write her tale of a family threatened by superstitious fears. (Hannah)
Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn: A little knowledge, they say, can be a dangerous thing. But is there such a thing as too much knowledge? Of the world we live in? Of the people we live with? In St. Aubyn’s seventh novel the sacred and the profane, the rough and the refined are set against each other as the passionate and the rational play out in the lives of three close friends. No one comes out unscathed, or unenlightened. (Il’ja)

All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques: Life is change, and nowhere is that more potently illustrated than in a life confronted by its past. When Daniel Henriquez travels from New York to his old stomping grounds in the American South for the funeral of a girl he once loved, he is confronted by the tension, the true challenge, of owning our identities and owning up to them with those who know us well. On friendship, love, and the rough bite of life on the margins. (Il’ja)

The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee: The publisher has laid some tripwires in describing this latest novel from the author of High Dive: “New York…turn of the twentieth century…fortune…murder.” A private man deeply invested in the public welfare of one of the world’s great cities has his privacy shredded even as his life is ended, in a novel Katy Simpson Smith compares to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and John Williams’ Stoner. (Il’ja)

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung: Following the death of her father, a young woman is haunted by the unspoken history of her family and looks to put a voice to it. A daunting task “if your family doesn’t talk about feelings.” A valuable addition to the growing canon of work providing fresh views on the North American immigrant experience. (Il’ja)

Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford: In this memoir, writer, podcaster, and educator Ashley Ford tells the story of her upbringing. Amid struggles with poverty, rape, and her father’s incarceration, Ford describes the process through which she ultimately came to better understand herself, her surroundings, and her family. Glennon Doyle writes, “The gravity and urgency of Somebody’s Daughter anchored me to my chair and slowed my heartbeat—like no book has since Toni Morrison‘s The Bluest Eye.” (Jacqueline)
Revival Season by Monica West: A spectacular coming-of-age novel. Miriam’s father, one of the most famous preachers in the South, uses his healing powers to cure people of their diseases. But one summer, the fifteen-year-old Miriam starts to doubt her father’s powers and her faith after witnessing an incident. In the following year and through her painful exploration, Miriam has to confront and resolve the tension between feminism and faith. Revival Season is not only an inner journey of the becoming of a young lady in the South, but also a precise geological picture of the Bible Belt and how faith shapes the community and the family. (Jianan Qian)
How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith: The power of an itinerant narrator—Smith journeys to Monticello, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and downtown Manhattan—is that it reveals slavery’s expansive, geographical legacy. Smith tells his stories with the soul of a poet and the heart of an educator. Smith’s ambitious book is fueled by a humble sense of duty: he sought the wisdom of those who tell of slavery’s legacy “outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks”; public historians who “have dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others.” Smith channels the spirit of Toni Morrison here; the writer as one to pass on the word so that it is never forgotten. (Nick R.)
Last Comes the Raven by Italo Calvino (translated by Ann Goldstein): Calvino’s early stories shine here, as with the titular tale, originally published in The Paris Review in 1954: “The stream was a net of limpid, delicate ripples, with the water running through the mesh. From time to time, like a fluttering of silver wings, the dorsum of a trout flashed on the surface, the fish at once plunging zigzag down into the water.” Readers of Calvino know his mercurial ability to move from mimesis to mystery, his syntax full of glorious surprises. (Nick R.)
Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James: I’m a sucker for both “late-blooming” life stories and plucky protagonists. Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s official bio tells us that she “was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer” before sitting down to write, and her jacket copy describes the Millennial protagonist of her debut novel as “the sort who says exactly the right thing at absolutely the wrong moments, seeing the world through a cynic’s eyes.” Also she’s been both a Pushcart and Glimmer Train story nominee, which to my mind is still mad cred. I’m sold. (Sonya)

Animal by Lisa Taddeo: Following her bestselling Three Women, Lisa Taddeo has written a story of female rage, a novel that illustrates one woman’s evolution from prey to predator. When Joan, the protagonist, sees a man commit violence in front of her, she flees her New York City home, searching for the only person who can help her understand her past. As she unravels the traumatic events of her childhood that shaped her adult life, she starts developing the power to exact revenge. (Thom)

With Teeth by Kristen Arnett: In the follow-up to her best-selling debut, Mostly Dead Things, Arnett explores a queer family that is struggling to hold itself together. Sammie Lucas spends her days feeling resentful and removed from her wife Monika, and worrying over her son Samson. As Samson grows and becomes increasingly hostile, all their lives begin to implode. “With Teeth is a wonderfully sticky novel about motherhood, partnership, sex, and love,” writes Emma Straud. “Kristen Arnett lets her characters have the run of the place, and it’s delicious fun to watch them do, say, and think things they’ll regret.” (Carolyn)

God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney: In journalist McKinney’s debut novel, sisters Abigail and Caroline uncover a lifechanging secret about their father—the head pastor at the local evangelical megachurch. When their world splits open, the sisters flee to the ranch handed down to them by their grandmother, where they will have to take stock of who or what mattters—and who or what is worth saving. With praise from Rumaan Alam, Lynn Steger Strong, Esmé Weijun Wang, R.O. Kwon, among others, this coming-of-age debut about sisterhood, faith, community, and Evangelical Christianity is sure to delight. (Carolyn)

To Write as If Already Dead by Kate Zambreno: In her formally ambitious and genre blurring new book, Guggenheim Fellow Zambreno writes about trying (and failing) to write a critical study of Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life—as well as ruminating on themes like friendship, morality, literature, time, and memory. Moyra Davey says, “This book is a tour de force. I was completely awestruck by the way Zambreno enacts the concept of the title, and by the way she writes the body, hers and Guibert’s. It is a moving performative act, a document of our time from the trenches, and a brilliant critical study.” (Carolyn)

Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin: Set in 1976 New York, Pru Steiner arrives in the city and falls headlong into a marriage with Spence Robin, her Shakespeare professor. When Spence is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers, Pru must grapple with the grief, loneliness, and pain of caretaking. Amidst the heartache, two unlikely men enter her life—one brings the potential of romance; the other is Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage—and provide a bit of hope. Sigrid Nunuz writes, “[Morningside Heights’] greatest achievement is to make us feel that we are in the presence of real people, living out their joys and sorrows and making their way in the real world.” (Carolyn)

The Portrait of a Mirror by A. Natasha Joukovsky: In her funny, sharp debut, Joukovsky reimagines the muth of Narcissus in the form of two beautiful, wealthy, and well-intentioned (but selfish) couples: one in New York, one in Philadelphia. When their paths cross and their lives becomes increasingly emeshed, they fall prey to each other and their own outsized desires. Emily Temple raves, “The Portrait of a Mirror is an absolute delight: an intellectually dazzling, deliciously wicked novel about love, art, illusion, and modernity—not to mention a pitch-perfect satire of New York’s beautiful people. (Carolyn)

The Confession of Copeland Cane by Keenan Norris: Set in the near future in East Oakland, California, eighteen-year-old Copeland Cane is a normal Black teenager living in an dystopian police state where brutality is televised and a deadly pandemic is raging. When he attends a protest that turns violent, Copeland becomes a fugitive of the state. Nayomi Munaweera writes: “This book is praise song, love letter, and requiem for Black and Brown bodies caught up in California’s post-pandemic, private-police ruled near future. A powerfully voiced, page-turning novel and required reading for anyone attempting to understand the struggle for racial justice.” (Carolyn)

What Makes You Think You’re Awake? by Maegan Poland: Whether its a honeymoon trip that takes a turn for the worst or a woman who must choose how she uses her time-freezing backyard shed, Poland’s short story collection explores the human condition in all its messy glory. Winner of the 2020 Bakwin Award, judge Carmen Maria Machado calls the short stories “a wonderful debut; a collection of frank, funny, and heartbreaking stories that delve into the mire of human loneliness.” (Carolyn)

Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi: In their epistolary memoir, Emezi—the award-winning, genre-shifting author of Freshwater, Pet, and The Death of Vivek Oji—explores their life, creativity, gender, relationships, and sense of self. “A remarkable memoir by a writer who doesn’t shy away from sharing their ambitions or their vulnerabilities,” says Booklist. (Carolyn)

A Year in Reading: Carolyn Quimby


Has there ever been a year I wanted to catalog less than the past one? With its relentless onslaught of bad news, pain, and longing, my attention and availability has been stretched thinner than ever. And, based on what I’ve heard from friends and gleaned from Twitter, I’m not alone. While I never stopped reading, I was never able to fully lose myself in books. There was always something tugging at the edges of my mind: Politics; the pandemic; my to-do list; our dirty apartment; loneliness; the pull of doomscrolling.

As I looked back on what I read this year, I noticed a few things: (1) I read very little backlist, (2) I read mostly women and non-binary writers, and (3) I read way more debuts than normal. All of these trends were unconscious but I found myself preoccupied with the third point. Given how strange this year has been, I started thinking about the debut writers of 2020—and the prospect (and then reality) of publishing during a pandemic. I imagine that many debuts didn’t get proper time in the spotlight so I decided to highlight the best ones I read this year. In no particular order:

Ann Lewinson’s debut novella, Still Life with Meredith, further solidified the fact that I absolutely love reading about women who are total disasters. Wish fulfillment in reverse, I guess. Lewinson’s debut follows an unnamed writer who spends her days waiting for her roommate to return to their storefront-turned-apartment. The book is also about Dutch still life paintings, gender, history, genital mutilation, and Marie Bonaparte’s sex life (among so many other things). Funny, curious, and strange, this slim book totally upends what a novel can be.

In Memorial Drive, U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Natasha Trethewey writes about the moment that cleaved her life into before and after: the day her mother was murdered by her abusive husband and Trethewey’s stepfather. In her debut memoir, she explores her childhood growing up biracial in the deep south, the lead-up (and aftermath) of her mother’s death, and how that trauma informed the rest of her life. Lyrical, generous, and honest, Trethewey’s remarkable writing repeatedly moved me to tears. It’s a must-read.

Melissa Faliveno’s debut essay collection Tomboyland completely knocked me sideways. Whether she’s writing about queerness, tornados, or gun culture, Faliveno’s careful and moving writing spirited me along. Usually collections have an essay or two that fall short of the others, but Tomboyland is strong from start to finish. My favorite essay “Motherland” is about the push and pull of motherhood. In that essay, she writes about the things her mother gave up in order to raise her. She writes: “As I got older, I began to understand that my mother made a choice. And with that choice came certain joys, but also grief—for the life that could have been, for all the lives that preceded her life as a mother. It took me a long time to understand that all choices are a sacrifice.” The last line took my breath away then and it still does now.

True Story by Kate Reed Petty is one of the most unique novels I’ve ever read. In the genre-blurring debut, Alice Lovett—a 30-something ghostwriter—tries to make sense of a traumatic event in high school that completely upended her life. The novel shifts genre and point-of-view as Petty plays with storytelling, truth, and expectations. While there are clues littered throughout the book, the twist comes right at the end—and it’s very satisfying. It’s a book that demands to be reread and, more importantly, rewards it.

And if I had to choose one book I read this year that didn’t get enough attention overall it would be Nicola Maye Goldberg’s Nothing Can Hurt You. Less a novel than a set of interconnected stories, the debut opens with the body of Sara Morgan, a young college student, being found in the woods. Each chapter is told from different character’s point of view; their lives overlapping or intersecting with Sara in varying ways. Smart, funny, and thoughtful, Goldberg’s book explores the ways the world has become accustomed to violence against women—and how that violence ripples out and affects us all.

And, because it’s been an awful year, I’m ignoring the premise of my own entry and including a few of my favorite non-debut titles of the year. Some standouts include Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible, Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine, Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, and John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood. And, finally, Want by Lynn Steger Strong, which was my favorite reading experience of the year. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve thought about that novel nearly every day since I finished it. I feel lucky to have read it—and that’s about as good as it gets these days.

April Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)


We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang: Zhang’s debut novel is a smart, beautiful, and intimate legend, not only of an immigrant family, but also of an expanding empire. One day, a pair of teenage siblings wake up to the sudden death of their father, a former prospector and coal miner. In the afterglow of the American gold rush, the two girls find themselves orphaned and vulnerable, and their very existence as immigrants is denied by this seemingly promising land. Carrying a stolen horse, their father’s body, and a pistol, they set off on their journey to give their father a proper burial. In their adventure, they witness the extermination of giant buffalos, encounter the ghosts of ruined nature, and discover family memories. How Much of These Hills Is Gold ambitiously examines the nation’s long neglected racialized past and, more importantly, brings those individuals to life again on the page, with their desire and anger, longing and frustration. (Jianan Qian)

Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell: With his Wellcome-Prize winning To Be a Machine, The Millions’ own Mark O’Connell established himself as a poet laureate of human frailty, quixotism, and creativity as they manifest in the technologic age. Now, O’Connell travels across the world to tour bunkers and silos and interview all manner of people who are living as though the end of the world is upon us. Kirkus called it “A contribution to the doom-and-gloom genre that might actually cheer you up.” Long-time McConnell fans know it will be gloriously funny, incredibly alarming, empathetic, insightful, and beautifully written. (Lydia)

Mothers Before​ by ​Edan Lepucki, ed.​: Who was your mother before she became a mother? Lepucki, the New York Times-bestselling novelist of California and Woman No. 17 and indispensable contributing editor at The Millions, asks this question. She and her contributors offer answers in more than 60 essays and photographs, including work by Brit Bennett, Jennifer Egan, Jia Tolentino, Lisa See, and many others. The book builds on the popular Instagram account @mothersbefore. (Claire)

Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould: In her second novel, Gould tells the story of Laura, who comes to New York City in the early 2000s, fresh from Columbus, Ohio, with big plans to record an album and live out her dreams. Things don’t go as planned: Love (or lust) gets in the way. In this “sharply observant” (Publishers Weekly) novel by the author of Friendship, we get not only a bygone New York, but also: music, sex, motherhood, and ambition. Stephanie Danler says it’s an “intoxicating blend of music, love, and family from one of the essential writers of the internet generation.” P.S. there’s a great description of a penis. (Edan)

The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan: If there were an ancestry of influences in writing, Scanlan’s would be charted as the love child of Gary Lutz and Diane Williams. She shares their linguistic obsessions, including an “outrageous attention to sound and structure that approaches the devotional.” Scanlan’s first book was the unexpected and heralded Aug 9—Fog, which she developed from a found text, a journal written by an elderly woman, which Scanlan then edited and rearranged into its current state. Of her forthcoming book of short stories, The Dominant Animal, Gary Lutz says, “Kathryn Scanlan comes to us as an oracle when we have never before been so desperately in need.” (Anne)

Godshot by Chelsea Bieker: Bieker’s debut novel, Godshot, takes her readers to the fertile fields of California, where divinities are seemingly as much of a bumper crop as avocados, except for adolescent Lacey May there’s lots of the former and little of the latter (or any other crop for that matter). The California of Godshot is in the midst of a brutal drought, and for the cult that Lacey May lives with, the faith of the indoctrinated turns towards their leader Pastor Vern who claims that he can once again make the rain come. What Lacey May brutally learns are the depths to which men can sink, the pain that they’re willing to inflict on women, and the promise of solidarity that can be approached as she goes on a road trip to find her exiled mother. A gothic phantasmagoria, Bieker’s book explores the ways in which cultish devotion in times of ecological catastrophe can seemingly push groups of people towards a social apocalypse—a novel eerily pertinent in 2020. (Ed S.)

The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle: Few fantasy writers had as indelible an influence on a certain tribe of bookish, introverted, curious children during the 20th century as the great L’Engle. Her classic A Wrinkle in Time, and the series of books that she wrote about the Wallace siblings and their journeys through time and space, remain not just classics of children’s literature, but an indelible exploration of authoritarianism as well. Now, like one of her characters who is able to transcend the fourth dimension, a collection of previously unpublished work written between her time in college and the publication from her first novel is being posthumously published as The Moment of Tenderness, after its rediscovery by her granddaughter. Some stories are clear drafts of later writing, and others are completely original, but for fans of L’Engle, they allow us a window into her process of writing fantasy, which she called the “one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.” (Ed S.)

What Is Grass by Mark Doty: In the visionary 1855 poem “Song of Myself” from Walt Whitman’s prophetic collection Leaves of Grass, the good, grey poet imagines a child approaching the narrator of the verse (a variable “I” often conflated with the author) and asking “What is the Grass?” That line has been borrowed for the title of poet Mark Doty’s new reflection What Is Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. Whitman is simultaneously the most singular and the most universal of poets, the most subjective and most objective, both “Walt” and a very “Kosmos.” It’s been said that no American poet can entirely ignore Whitman, and Doty is a reverential penitent before the greatest American poet, giving an account of how his own subjective experience intersects with that of the singer of “Song of Myself.” Both men are lovers of men; both men are New Yorkers; both men are poets. What Doty most shares with Whitman, however, is a heretic’s faith in language, both its promise and its failures. As Doty wrote of “he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it, /so enchanted by what had first compelled him/ – for him the word settled nothing at all.” (Ed S.)

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: In poet Thammavongsa’s fiction debut, Lao immigrants and refugees write letters, experience new desires, and struggle to build lives in unfamiliar territory. Described by Publishers Weekly as “sharp and elegant,” the collection is a visceral and tender exploration of what it means to make a living. David Chariandy calls How to Pronounce Knife “a book of rarest beauty and power…one of the great story collections of our time.” (Jacqueline)

Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima: After a failed suicide attempt, salaryman Hanio Yamada places an ad in a Tokyo newspaper offering to sell his life. Soon, he is contacted by a few interested buyers: an old man who wants to punish his adulterous wife, a librarian looking for a guinea pig for a drug testing, and a son in need of a volunteer for his vampiric mother. Different from Mishima’s other works, Life for Sale is a wildly funny pulp fiction. The novel grapples with the grave topic of humanity’s instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction, but you’ll find yourself laughing through instead of agonizing over it. (Jianan Qian)

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe: The third novel from Thorpe, The Knockout Queen follows Bunny Lambert, a beautiful, desperate 6’3″ blonde, and Michael, the boy next door who’s trying to understand his sexuality, as they become strange friends. All too soon, though, that friendship is marked by a dangerous mix of first love, brutal gossip, and violence. Our own Edan Lepucki says Thorpe’s “one-of-a-kind narrator is funny, vulnerable, brilliant, and brimming with longing, and the story he tells distills the pain and beauty of a life-changing friendship like nothing else I’ve read before. This book’s got guts and heart, and wisdom for days.” (Kaulie)

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: A horror story about four men from the Blackfeet Nation who are being hunted for something they did in the past. Paul Tremblay calls this novel “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, yet warm and heartbreaking in the best way, Stephen Graham Jones has written a horror novel about injustice and, ultimately, about hope. Not a false, sentimental hope, but the real one, the one that some of us survive and keeps the rest of us going.” (Lydia)

St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon: Hershon’s last novel, A Dual Inheritance, published seven years ago, was a riveting intergenerational saga covering decades in the lives of two families. In St. Ivo, Hershon narrows the aperture to focus on two couples over the course of a long weekend spent together upstate. “Hershon explores with moving simplicity the complexities friendships and a marriage that has frayed but not yet died,” says Publishers Weekly in an early review. (Michael)

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: The bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents returns with a novel focused on Antonia Vega, a recently retired English professor and writer whose husband unexpectedly dies and whose sister disappears. Soon after these losses, an undocumented and pregnant teen arrives at her door. Luis Alberto Urrea says that Afterlife is “the exact novel we need in this fraught era. A powerful testament of witness and written with audacity and authority.” (Zoë)

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles: Following up on her National Book Award finalist News of the World, Jiles returns to post-Civil War Texas with the tale of Simon Boudlin, a 23-year-old fiddle player, and Doris Mary Dillion, the indentured Irish girl he meets as the war comes to an end. The novel follows Simon and Doris as they follow their own post-war paths—and the lengths he will go to reunite with the woman he loves. Kirkus’ starred review calls Jiles a “master storyteller” and the novel “vividly evocative and steeped in American folkways.” (Carolyn)

What You Become in Flight by Ellen O’Connell Whittet: When an injury during rehearsal derails Whittet’s promising ballet career, the 19-year-old turns to writing to work through the loss of the future she’d always envisioned; the years of physical and emotional trauma she suffered (inflicted by herself and others); and the journey she took to heal herself. About the memoir, author Melissa Febos writes: “An elegant and compelling künstlerroman that begins in the body and ends on the page.” (Carolyn)

Everything Is Under Control by Phyllis Grant: Grant’s debut memoir is a pinch of personal, poetic vignettes and a dash of her favorite recipes. The chef and food writer explores her journey from being a dancer at Julliard and working in high-end kitchens in New York City, to marrying her husband and relocating to California after 9/11. Writer Dani Shapiro says, “With raw candor and discipline, Phyllis Grant peels back the layers of her innermost experience and gives us a memoir as rich and nuanced, as delicate as life itself.” (Carolyn)

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Following her acclaimed debut, Harmless Like You, Buchanan’s second novel follows Mina and Oscar, a married couple who relocate to London after a foiled tragedy. Suffering from mental health issues, Mina finds comfort—and something more—in a woman named Phoebe. Kirkus’ starred review calls the novel “poetic and understated” and “complex and resonant.” (Carolyn)

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: In her fourth novel, Kidd—the acclaimed author of The Secret Life of Bees—imagines the life of Ana, a young woman who defies her arranged marriage to marry Jesus of Nazareth. Rebellious and intellectually curious, Ana finds her purpose in recording the secret narratives of silenced women—a pursuit that puts her in danger. A starred review in Publishers Weekly called the novel “a vibrant portrait of a woman striving to preserve and celebrate women’s stories—her own and countless others.” (Carolyn)

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry: The newest novel from two-time Booker Prize finalist Barry focuses on Winona Cole, the Native American adopted daughter of John Cole and Thomas McNulty—whose lives were explored in his previous novel Days Without End. Set in Reconstruction-era Tennessee, a brutal act of violence sends Winona on a journey—toward healing and connection with her Lakota ancestors. The Guardian’s review says Barry’s “work reminds us how much we need these rare gifts of the natural storyteller, for reckoning with our past and present.” (Carolyn)

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige: In Gaige’s fourth novel, a married couple and their two young children take to the sea on a search for adventure and fulfillment. Instead, they find their marriage and lives thrown irreparably and dangerously off course. Claire Messud says, “Taut as a thriller, emotionally precise yet threaded with lyricism, Sea Wife is at once the compelling story of a family’s glorious, misbegotten seafaring adventure and an allegory for life itself.” (Carolyn)

Missed Translations by Sopan Deb: Deb, a New York Times writer and comedian, explores his immigrant roots in this debut memoir. Growing up in suburban (read: white) New Jersey, Deb yearned for a connection to his culture but was ultimately unable to find one after his parent’s marriage imploded and his father returned to India alone. As an adult, he travels to India to reunite with his father, spend time with extended family, and uncover secrets that would otherwise have stayed buried. Booklist says Deb’s writing is “breezy and witty” and that “his earnestness will sweep readers up into this charmer of a memoir.” (Carolyn)

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good: Winner of the 2018 HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, Good’s debut novel is told from the alternating perspectives of Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie, and Maisie—who are survivors of a church-run residential school. As their lives intersect over the decades, the then teens (now adults) attempt to overcome the trauma inflicted on them and not only survive, but thrive, in downtown Vancouver. (Carolyn)

A Year in Reading: Carolyn Quimby


I’ve spent this year second-guessing myself. Every decision inspired fear. My emotions were out of control. I despised (yet yearned) for change. My astrology-inclined friends tell me this is my “Saturn return,” which is when Saturn returns to the position it was in during your birth. Saturn return tends to be a period of time rife with change, intensity, and questioning. And, despite being skeptical of cosmic predictions, I can’t help but feel like I’m in the midst of something larger than myself. And, like my thoughts and emotions, my reading has been all over the place. 

I kicked off the new year by reading Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State poolside in the Sunshine State. Its willingness to explore the mundane (and maddening) minutiae of motherhood with a thoughtfulness usually reserved for Very Serious Topics™ felt revolutionary. I’ve never read anything like it (in the best possible way). In addition to reading and reviewing for work, I read a few books for fun including Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I listened to the audiobook and I would argue it’s the best (perhaps only?) way to read the book. Without realizing it, I started The Plot Against America (my first Philip Roth book) on a train to Newark. Disturbing in its own right, the alternate history of America post-WWII has far too many parallels to today’s political climate. I also read, and enjoyed, a little book no one’s ever heard of: Normal People by Sally Rooney. Rooney manages to capture the feeling of being young and desperate for belonging with honesty.

Summer was bookmarked by queer novels: Carolina De Robertis’s Cantoras—a luscious and heartbreaking story about revolution in 1970s Uruguay—and Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things—a novel about a grief-stricken family, taxidermy, and obligation. In between those books, I read some incredible books: And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell, which made me cringe, laugh, and cry all at the same time; What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate, which is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in years; Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game, a beautiful memoir about toxic mother-daughter relationships; The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, a quiet, deliberate masterpiece; Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, a creepy, queer YA dystopia; and Lauren Groff’s Florida, a short story collection further proving Groff is one of the best. The New Me by Halle Butler was feverishly inhaled over the course of one afternoon. Butler’s office novel hit too close to home and it sent me reeling. I also worked my way through Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn, which I had been (unknowingly) waiting for since I read The Empathy Exams in 2016. No one writes an essay like Jamison, and I’m already awaiting her next collection. 

As a freelancer, I mostly review fiction so I gravitated toward nonfiction in my free time. I read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the late Michelle McNamara’s haunting book about the Golden State Killer (her nickname). What a sadness that she couldn’t finish what she started but, man, what she left behind was incredible. In a move that shocked no one, I tore my way through Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, which was informative and hilarious in equal measure. John Glynn’s Out East warmed my cold Long Island heart with its sun-kissed honesty. Furious Hours by Casey Cep was the perfect combination of true crime and literary history. I was horrified and enthralled by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said about breaking the Harvey Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement. I’ve always loved books and movies about journalism, and this is journalism at its finest. For the aspiring writer in your life: Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal (out January 2020) is an invaluable resource. 

And then there were my two favorite books of the year: the ones I sat with the longest, that inspired me to write, and that I’ll revisit over and over again. Read over the course of a weekend, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls left me speechless, devastated, and hopeful. I cannot remember the last time I filled a book with so many annotations, asterisks, and exclamation points. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise totally and completely blew my mind. I said it then and I’ll say it now: I would take a whole course dedicated to studying the structure and form of Choi’s novel. Trust Exercise left me unmoored and it took weeks to find my next book. It’s without a doubt the best novel I read all year.2019 was bad in many ways but the reading was good. If anything, that’s what I’ll take into 2020. More books and writing. Less indecision and trepidation. Stars be damned. 

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

National Book Awards Names 2019 Winners


The 2019 National Book Award winners were announced in New York City tonight. The big prize for fiction went to Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. (Bonus: Read our 2019 interview with Choi).

 In his opening remarks for the 70th annual ceremony, host Levar Burton spoke about the power of books personally and politically.

During his speech, Burton—television’s most beloved bibliophile—credited his mother with instilling him with a lifelong love of literature, and went on to wax poetic about the power of literacy: “Literature is the birthright of every one of us—if you can read in at least one language, you are in my definition, free. No one can pull the wool over your eyes.”

As for the awards, they went as follows:

The award in the Young People’s Literature category went to 1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler.

The award for translated literature went to Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai; translated by Ottilie Mulzet. (Bonus: Read our review).

The poetry award went to Arthur Sze for Sight Lines.

The nonfiction award went to The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom.

 Bonus Links: Earlier in the year, we dove into both the shortlist and the longlist to share excerpts and reviews where available.

Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo Win 2019 Booker Prize


In a stunning turn of events (and perhaps even taking a page out of the Nobel’s playbook), the 2019 Booker Prize has been awarded to two books: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. The two winners will share the £50,000 prize.

Peter Florence, the chair of the 2019 judges, said: “This ten month process has been a wild adventure. In the room today we talked for five hours about books we love. Two novels we cannot compromise on. They are both phenomenal books that will delight readers and will resonate for ages to come.”

A few fun facts about this years prize:

The Booker Prize has been awarded to two works twice before, but this is the first joint-winner since 1993—when the rules were changed to allow only one author to win the prize at a time.
Evaristo is the first black woman to have ever won the Booker Prize.
This is Atwood’s second win (she won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin), and she has been shortlisted four times: The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Cat’s Eye (1989), Alias Grace (1996), and Oryx and Crake (2003). 

Here are the authors that made this year’s short and long lists.

Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke Win Nobel Prizes in Literature


This morning’s Nobel Prize in Literature announcement marked a first in the award’s 118-year history: two awards will be bestowed—one for 2018 and one for 2019.

Shortly after Kazuo Ishiguro won the prize in 2017, the Academy was rocked by a multi-faceted scandal: Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of Katarina Frostenson, an academy member, was accused (and later convicted) of sexual abuse, exploitation, and rape, The husband and wife are also accused of misusing academy funding. In the wake of those crises and multiple resignations, the 2018 prize and ceremony were cancelled.

This morning, however, Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as the its 9m Swedish krona purse ($910,000+) prize.

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 prize for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

Tokarczuk is no stranger to awards. For her novel Flights, she won the 2008 Nike Award—Poland’s most prestigious literary prize—and the English translation by Jennifer Croft would go on to win the 2019 Man Booker International award. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarczuk’s second novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award in Translated Literature.

She also recently cracked into The Millions Top Ten as well—which may be the most exciting feat of all (depending on who you’re asking, I guess). To learn more about Tokarczuk, The Millions has a fantastic review of her novel Flights, as well as an astute profile of the author by Gabe Habash.

Austrian author Peter Handke won the 2019 prize for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” The Millions predicted Handke’s chances to win in 2009. Handke is a controversial figure that even called for the Nobel Prize to be abolished in 2014 in an Austrian newspaper. 

Center for Fiction Names 2019 First Novel Prize Shortlist


The Center for Fiction named its 2019 First Novel Prize shortlist over at LitHub this morning. The award is given to the “best debut novel published between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of the award year,” and the prize-winning author receives $10,000.

This year’s judges—Maaza Mengiste, Claire Messud, Emma Straub,  Monique Truong, and Tommy Orange (last year’s winner)—whittled the 27-title longlist down to just seven titles.

Here’s the 2019 shortlist, with bonus links when applicable:

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (Read Wilkinson’s 2018 Year in Reading)

Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad (Read Sudbanthad’s 2018 Year in Reading)

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (Recently longlisted for the National Book Award in Fiction)

Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins

In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow (Featured in our June Preview)

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Featured in two Year in Reading posts)

The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin (Featured in Julia Phillips’s list of eight books set in the middle of nowhere)

The winner will be announced at The Center for Fiction’s annual Benefit and Awards Dinner on December 10.

National Book Awards Names 2019 Longlists


Award season is back in full swing!

The National Book Foundation spent the week slowly revealing the National Book Award longlists. Established in 1950, the NBAs seek to “celebrate the best writing in America.” Starting on Monday, the 10-title longlists in nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature, and translated literature were released on The New Yorker‘s Page Turner blog.

Here’s some fun facts about this year’s nominees:

The fiction list includes one previous winner, Colson Whitehead (2016), and one previous NBA judge, Laila Lalami (2018).
The nonfiction list includes three debut titles and one previous NBA finalist, Greg Grandin.
Olga Tokarczuk is a two-time nominee in the translated literature category, following last year’s inaugural award.
The Young Adult list includes one “5 Under 35” nominee, Akwaeke Emezi; one previous NBA winner, Cynthia Kadohata (2013); and four previous NBA nominees: Jason Reynolds (2016, 2017); Laura Ruby (2015); and Laurie Halse Anderson (1999, 2008, 2014).

Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories, with bonus links where applicable:


Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Featured in our June preview)
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (Read our 2019 interview with Choi)
Sabrina & Corinas by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Read a profile about James)
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Read Lalami’s 2018 Year in Reading entry)
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons (Read our 2019 interview with Parsons)
The Need by Helen Phillips (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Read our review of Vuong’s debut)
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)


Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib (A 2016 Year in Reading alum)
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer
The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America by Greg Grandin
Burn the Place: A Memoir by Iliana Regan
Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Solitary by Albert Woodfox with Leslie George


Variations on Dawn and Dusk by Dan Beachy-Quick
The Tradition by Jericho Brown (Read an excerpt from Brown’s collection)
“I”: New and Selected Poems by Toi Derricotte (Read our 2019 interview with Derricotte)

Build Yourself a Boat by Camonghne Felix
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Featured in March’s Must-Read Poetry roundup)
A Sand Book by Ariana Reines
Dunce by Mary Ruefle
Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith (Read an excerpt from Smith’s collection)
Sight Lines by Arthur Sze
Doomstead Days by Brian Teare

Translated Literature

When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book
by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman
The Collector of Leftover Souls by Eliane Brum, translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (Read our review]
The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Crossing by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Read Gabe Habash’s profile of Tokarczuk)

Young People’s Literature:

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander; illustrations by Kadir Nelson
Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata; illustrations by Julia Kuo
Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby
1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler
Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve
Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable; illustrations by Ellen T. Crenshaw

The five-title shortlists will be announced on October 8, and the awards will be revealed in New York City on November 20.