A Year in Reading: Cecilia Rabess


In January, temporarily, I moved to the mountains, where there was space between people and places, and where the air smelled like cold smoke and sawdust, and where I learned how to brake in icy conditions, how to hide my trash from bears, and how to use a snow blower, sort of. I read a stack of cozy mysteries that I bought at the grocery store. Some classics by Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express, Sparkling CyanideA Pocket Full of Rye; the Sassy Cat Mysteries by Jennifer J. Chow; and, because why not, a couple of old Boxcar Children Mysteries I found in the bargain bin. All of these books provided a form of very gentle mental exercise—whodunnit!—and all of these books had satisfying endings and all of these books made me want to drink hot spiked coffee and light wood burning fires.

In February, I sold my first novel. It happened so fast it felt like a scam. I was extra careful with my social security number for a while, but eventually let myself celebrate. I felt like the protagonist of Writers & Lovers by Lily King, a book about a writer with a—spoiler alert—happy ending. This was a book that had been recommended to me many times, but which I had never read, for no good reason at all. Everyone promised me I would like it. But I didn’t like it—I loved it. It was funny, it was sad, it was smart and sentimental: it was everything you want a book about writers (and lovers) to be. I also read Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, which was everything you want a book about lovers (but not necessarily writers) to be: tender and heartbreaking and emotionally true.

In March, my boyfriend and I fought about dinner. There was a viral TikTok recipe going around, so I bought a block of feta and tried it. And then I tried the next one and the next one. The deeper I let the algorithm carry me, the more deranged the recipes became: mayonnaise pie, chocolate salami, something called a “garbage plate.” All of the food tasted terrible, but, the Internet, amirite? I read just a fraction of the Internet and Internet-adjacent novels that have been published in recent years: New Waves by Kevin Nguyen, which was smart and a bit of a trip, and absolutely underrated, and No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, which was also smart and also a bit of a trip, but absolutely not underrated, in the sense that it was nominated for the Man Booker Award. And I read Lauren Oyler’s Twitter feed and also her novel Fake Accounts, both of which were cutting and cryptic and precisely targeted.

In April, the most wonderful surprise: I discovered that I was pregnant. I stopped eating hot dogs and soft cheeses and driving over the speed limit. I was tempted to, but didn’t, read books by Benjamin Spock or Emily Oster. Instead I picked up Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, which was not at all a tactical or practical guide to parenting so much as it was an existential meditation on personhood and parenthood that spoke not only to the experience of raising kids, but also to the ineluctable beauty and suffering of being alive.

In May, even as vaccination rates in my area soared, I saw a man in public pull down his face mask, for the express purpose of sneezing, and the early spring light was such that I could see each individual mucus and saliva particle and also the general blast radius, which was considerable (six feet! ha!) and this disgusted me and also made me worry a little bit for the fate of humanity. I read Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, which also, in its way, is an expression of concern for the fate of humanity, although it’s possible I read too much into it.

In June, I celebrated Juneteenth with an elaborate, carefully crafted, culturally astute (according to me) Instagram post that no one liked. Then, I went to the selfie museum, inside the mall, and posted a photo of myself—looking perfectly basic in leopard print and Fake Social Media Face—and it was my most popular post, ever, of course. I read Assembly by Natasha Brown, a book about a Black woman navigating the land mines of Britain’s racial landscape, and it knocked my socks off. It was the kind of book that, as a writer, made me want to put down my pen slash close my laptop forever because she’d said all the things and said them beautifully, so what exactly did I have to add? Another book about a Black woman navigating white spaces: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris tackled the complicated seesaw of fitting in and standing out, of race and resentment, and the delicate dance of code-switching, placating, and pacifying, and the tiresome work of absorbing aggression, in forms micro and macro, but also…was impossible not to read in one sitting.

In July, things seemed like they were almost back to normal, or at least a version of normal that approximated the pre-Covid world. In San Francisco, where I live, people started getting weird again. On Nextdoor, my neighbors argued about an entire jamon iberico that had been left, no note, on someone’s doorstep. Promise or threat? Two weird books that I loved: Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, which the flap copy says is about children who randomly burst into flames, which is true but also, somehow, misleading, because it’s really about family and belonging and forgiveness. And Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, which was spooky and seafood-y and profound and page-turning.

In August, for summer vacation, I traveled to Utqiagvik, Alaska, high above the Arctic Circle. It was freezing, literally, and the sun didn’t set until midnight. I walked a mile against the wind from my hotel to the spot where Google Maps promised there was a Krispy Kreme, only there wasn’t, and then I felt like a fool and a tourist, in a bad way. I spent an afternoon at the Iñupiat Heritage Center and then I felt like a tourist, in a good way. Being in the tundra called to mind a book I’d read earlier in the year, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, which was absolutely phenomenal, a book that perfectly captured the small joys and sorrows of the human experience and also brilliantly rendered place, in this case the cold expanse of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Read it!

In September nothing happened.

In October, in the middle of the night, two things happened at once. One: a tree just outside my doorstep, separated from its roots and crashed into the street, across four lanes of traffic, a terrific cacophony that made me 100 percent certain that, yes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it for sure make a deafening sound. And two: my water broke. I was only six months pregnant; it was too soon. I was admitted to the hospital, where they pumped medication through my veins that made me hot and nauseated and delirious, and where they assured me that if I could just stay pregnant a little bit longer, everything might be okay. I tried to stay pregnant a little bit longer, though it was, in fact, harder than it sounded. So I lay in my hospital bed losing the mental battle, and thought of all the books I wished I hadn’t read already. Books that I wished I could read for the first time again, to provide comfort and warmth. Some old favorites and some new: On Beauty by Zadie Smith, Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong, Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, The Idiot by Elif Batuman. To my stomach, to my baby, I read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, which I had purposely avoided reading previously due to a vague personal aversion to “creatures.” But he loved it, and so did I.

In November, after thirty hours of labor and an emergency C-section (which I will remind him of whenever he is naughty), I delivered my son. He was a heart-wrenching three and a half pounds, but also he looked good! He is growing now and so is his (our) TBR pile. As a kid I loved books by R.L. Stine, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Jerry Spinelli, and maybe he will too, or maybe something similar, or maybe not at all. TBD. In the meantime, in December, next up for us is the new Franzen, which we’ve (I’ve) been eagerly anticipating since his last.

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