A Year in Reading: Dan Kois

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I began the year 2021 reading ambitiously, tearing through galleys and ARCs. I had visions of buckling down and being a critic again: writing a review or two each month, making a best-of list at the end of the year that didn’t seem like a weak cousin to Laura’s much better, more authoritative list. I read Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (two very good books stitched together a little awkwardly) and Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child (an extremely good book that sticks the ending like nothing I’ve read recently). I read Mark Harris’s Mike Nichols biography and Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard biography and, since I was reviewing the latter, the half-dozen or so Stoppard plays I’d never gotten around to. I read Anna North’s fun Outlawed and Hannah Kirshner’s warm Water, Wood, and Wild Things and Claire Thomas’s rigorous The Performance. I edited a piece about Deesha Philyaw and read her delightful, longlist-crashing collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. I read the New Zealand novelist Rachel Kerr’s delicious Victory Park, about a council estate that welcomes, as a new tenant, the wife of a disgraced Ponzi schemer. I read Isabel Yap’s imaginative collection Never Have I Ever and J. Robert Lennon’s creepy novella Subdivision and the new Ishiguro, which I didn’t really like.

You’ll notice I’m not linking to reviews of most of those. That’s because at some point my year transformed, when at long last I sold a novel, titled Vintage Contemporaries. The advance I received for it, plus savings accrued while never going anywhere fun in 2020, was enough to buy six months off of my job at Slate to do nothing but write fiction. I’m in the middle of the leave now. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. Never in my life has my only job been to write creatively—not even during my MFA, throughout which I worked full-time, because I foolishly went to a non-funded program. (Are you considering an MFA? Don’t do what I did.) The combination of the freedom, each day, to just write the thing I want to write, and the flexibility to deal with the kids and the house and the food has been absolutely intoxicating. I’ve even had time to apply for grants, all of which have rejected me, making me feel even more like a real novelist.

The point is, when it became clear that, starting in the summer, I would be living an entirely different kind of life, I abandoned all thought of reading new books. I can be a critic later! My reading choices became very specifically targeted toward maximizing the pleasure and productivity of this shocking gift of time. While I was revising the novel, much of which is set in the 1990s, I read a whole bunch of trade paperback originals from the era. My favorite of the bunch was a pitch-black yet cozy comedy by John Bowen, The Girls, written in a why, omniscient voice that I now want to swipe for my own. 

But my goal for the leave wasn’t only to revise the first novel—it was to write as much as I could of a second one. The first took six years to write, mostly because I could never garner the necessary momentum writing at 10:45 p.m. three nights a month. I don’t want the second novel, if there is a second novel, to take that long. I’m old! So my notion was to spend six weeks writing a bunch of different ideas, pick the one that seemed most fun, and then go full throttle on it so that when I go back to work I will have a head of steam.

While I was exploring new settings and inventing characters and working out the next thing, I read, almost exclusively, mass market paperbacks. I find this mode of story delivery to perfectly spur my own enthusiasm for coming up with ideas: They’re propulsive and imaginative, I suppose, is why it is. And they’re less intimidating than a new $28 hardcover. Reading a mass-market novel, I rarely feel the despair that tinges my readings of even the best novels by my most friendly contemporaries. I’m not trying to write Rubyfruit Jungle or Freaky Deaky, so I can just enjoy the hell out of them and use their energy to keep my idea-center chugging along.

During my mass-market binge, I learned that Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Stephen King’s Misery really hold up, and that Judy Blume’s Wifey really does not. I discovered new SFF writers like John Scalzi, whose Old Man’s War series I devoured like popcorn, or Sheri Tepper, whose knotty gender puzzle The Gate to Women’s Country wowed me. I crossed two more novels off my rapidly dwindling list of unread Le Guin, both masterpieces: The Eye of the Heron and Four Ways to Forgiveness. I cackled aloud at Michael Dibdin’s positively amoral Dirty Tricks. And I absolutely loved John Jerome’s 1977 Truck, a cranky and wise meditation on the mechanical in which Jerome rebuilds a 1950 Dodge pickup from the ground up. 

Finally, as I settled into a groove on the thing I’m actually spending the rest of my leave writing, I was able to return to the present, and even the future. Two books by friends and colleagues, both coming in 2022, are both exceptional: Isaac Butler’s The Method, a biography of the idea that transformed theater and film, and Michelle Herman’s Close-Up, a richly funny novel about magic, parenthood, literature, and disappointment. Last month I read Crossroads, which was predictably great, and Harlem Shuffle, which was predictably even greater. Less predictable was Tamara Shopsin’s clever Laserwriter II, which I picked up just for the intense emotional response its Adobe PageMaker-style graphics produced in me. This plus Truck really made me want to search out my own defunct technology to resuscitate. I think I just may have found the thing—another idea, maybe, for another book somewhere down the line.

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A Year in Reading: Dan Kois

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My year in books was, uh, bookended by two very different volumes — one that I devoured on New Year’s Day, and one that I polished off yesterday. It’s hard to imagine two books with less in common, but I found them both transporting.

Stan Sakai’s comics epic Usagi Yojimbo is more than a carefully researched samurai saga set in Edo-era Japan. It’s a carefully researched samurai saga set in Edo-era Japan starring a rabbit with his ears tied in a topknot. Sakai’s been writing and drawing these clever, sweeping tales for more than 25 years, and the two-volume Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition collects the first decade of Usagi’s story. For someone like me who had somehow never gotten around to reading Sakai, the collection is eye-opening: Sakai is a fluid, thoughtful adventure writer, and his artwork is sharp-edged and impeccably balanced, like the honorable warrior it depicts.

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson’s slim story first published in the Paris Review, is but 116 pages, but in its way it’s as sweeping a tale as Usagi’s. By capturing the life of Robert Grainier, a railroad worker in the early 20th-century Pacific Northwest, Johnson also paints a picture of the last pre-modern world in America, a place of wildfires and wolves, Model Ts and silent movies, lives lived alone and families lost forever. It’s a small masterpiece, funny and sad, and though I read it in under an hour I feel it might stay with me forever.

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A Year in Reading: Dan Kois

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Goddammit, I’m choosing Freedom.

Oh, how I wish I could be talking about some other book! A book that’s weirder or fringier or cooler. A book that didn’t get on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, or if it did get on the cover, it wasn’t also chosen by Oprah. Maybe even, for Christ’s sake, a book that’s not by a dude.

But as much as I loved the books I read this year by Jennifer Egan and Belle Boggs and Tim Hensley and David Mitchell and Vanessa Davis and Ian Frazier and Paul Murray and John Waters and Daniel Clowes and Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Moto Hagio and Matthew Gallaway and Dyna Moe, I loved Freedom more. Believe me: I’m not proud of myself. I feel like a real douche.

But I loved Freedom in May, when I was so wrapped up in the novel on a family trip to Carolina Beach that I shamefully abandoned my family to hide in a locked bedroom and read it in half-hour chunks, only emerging when the screams of my bored children made it impossible to continue. I loved it when I finished it and didn’t know anyone else who had read it and I wanted to talk about it so much. I loved it when I sent it to a friend in film who really wanted the summer’s status galley. I loved it when I got a first unexpected glimpse of Tanenhaus’s review. I loved it when debate broke out about whether it was worth all the attention paid to it, and I loved when wealthy female pop-fiction writers whined about the attention they didn’t get from the Times, and I loved when Meghan O’Rourke reminded us of the real gender gap in literary fiction. I loved defending Freedom in comment threads from people who hadn’t read it yet. I loved it when B.R. Myers wrote that review, and when Garth Hallberg took the occasion to rip B.R. Myers a new one. I loved it when friends tweeted their rage about Patty’s behavior, or their wicked delight with Joey’s shit-sifting, or their mockery of Jonathan Franzen’s hilarious notions of how viral videos work. I loved talking about it for most of a coffee date in which we were ostensibly supposed to be talking about business. I loved it when Oprah shouted, “FrrrrrrrrrrrEEEDooooooooommmmmmm!!!!!!!!!!!!!” And I loved it when my wife read it in September and started mysteriously disappearing into the basement for half an hour at a time.

I loved Freedom. But I also loved that everyone else loved (or hated, or poo-poohed, or was enraged by) Freedom. So I guess I’m glad that this overhyped, overwritten, overrated, too-popular doorstop by yet another old white guy with glasses was my favorite book of the year.

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A Year in Reading: Dan Kois

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As usual, my reading life in 2009 was split into comics, which I read voraciously and with a eye toward timeliness, and everything else, which I read haphazardly and with an eye toward pleasure. Start with the everything else.

Plans to review the Broadway production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests sent me to my old copy of the plays, still battered from when, in college, I tried to convince a theater company to let me direct a cast of undergrads in a farcical British trilogy starring a middle-aged British sexaholic. Thankfully for everyone, I was turned down, but re-reading the plays again was a pleasure. In performance, Ayckbourn’s dialogue and construction seem effortless, but on the page, you can tease out the keen sense of narrative that makes these plays so satisfying.

My first real job was at the Bull’s Head Bookshop in Chapel Hill, just after I graduated from that college, and my boss — Erica Eisdorfer, still to this day the best boss I’ve ever had — released her first novel this year, The Wet Nurse’s Tale. I am happy to report that it is great: funny and rousing and just a little bit sexy, despite all that nursing going on. Susan Rose, the novel’s earthy, determined heroine, sets herself apart from other costume-drama heroines with her first words, bellowed out while delivering her first baby: “It’s like shitting a pumpkin, it is!”

The years I was living in Chapel Hill were the peak of the indie-rock bumrush the local music scene received in the wake of the town being declared “the next Seattle.” (I remained mostly unaware of the frenzy, happily reading books and putting on plays.) But Our Noise:The Story of Merge Records, a big, lively, comprehensive oral history by John Cook, Mac McCaughan, and Laura Ballance, tells the story of how one small local record company managed to withstand the tidal wave of big-label attention and focus for twenty years on what it did best: 1) Putting out albums by great bands like Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, and the Magnetic Fields, and 2) Not being assholes.

Our four-year-old has very specific tastes in books, and each night picks a title out of a rotation of maybe ten, total, that we read over and over and over. A lot of the books do not hold up to rereading if you are not four: Purplicious, for example, is no Pinkalicious. But a hand-me-down from my old bookshelf, Richard Scarry’s Favorite Storybook Ever, is so packed with detail and charm that it never gets old, and for that I’m grateful to Scarry and his anthropomorphic animals (and their bananamobiles).

Now, comics. For anyone who reads and writes about graphic novels, the year’s big dog was Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli’s long-awaited story of a New York architect whose buildings have never been made and his desperate journey into Middle America. And it was as good as advertised: intricate, funny, lovely to look at, and as carefully assembled a comic as I’ve ever seen. I hope Mazzucchelli doesn’t take ten years to make his next book, but I’m grateful that the ten years it took him to create this one were well-spent.

An autumn trip to Montreal led me to a number of the city’s great comics stores, where awesome Francophone bandes desinées line the shelves, making me wish I still remembered my AP French. At Librarie Drawn + Quarterly in Mile End — the bookshop run by Montreal’s terrific art-comics publisher — I picked up the one of Michel Rabagliati’s series of autobiographical comics that I hadn’t yet read, Paul Has a Summer Job, and devoured it that night in our hotel room. Like all of Rabagliati’s books, it takes the quotidian details of life — in this case, a summer spent as an underqualified counselor at a Quebec camp for underprivileged kids — and transforms them into lovely, perfect stories. Bonus points for the most touching ending I’ve read in years.

Although it was nominated for an LA Times Book Prize, Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole flew under the radar a little bit; it was officially published by Top Shelf last year but (due to shipping problems) not actually in stores until the winter. It’s a wildly imaginative and thoughtful story of two stepsiblings linked by affection and incipient schizophrenia, pushing against the doctors and loved ones who only want to help them. Powell vividly draws swarms of cicadas, talking elves, and grumpy pills with teeth, but at the heart of this gorgeous story are two teenagers trying to work out when everything will finally get better — just like we all felt once. It was my favorite book of the year.

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A Year in Reading: Dan Kois

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Dan Kois was a founding editor of Vulture, New York magazine’s culture and entertainment blog, and is now a contributing writer to Vulture and to New York. He’s also writing a 33 1/3 book, which will not be as good as Carl Wilson’s.In a year during which I was, at least theoretically, writing my own book for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of music criticism books on individual albums, to read Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book on Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, was to be both inspired and filled with despair. Inspired because Wilson’s philosophical inquiry into love and hate, authenticity and poseurdom, stretched the boundaries of what a simple book of music criticism could do, making me passionately interested in the work and world of a singer I previously didn’t care about in the slightest. Filled with despair because no matter how hard I work, my 33 1/3 book will never be as good as Carl Wilson’s is.Using Dion’s most popular album – you know, the one with that song from Titanic on it, the one with the Celtic pipes or whatever – as a lens, Wilson investigates why he loves the music he does, and tries to learn to love (or at least appreciate) music he’s previously hated. Wilson raises, and thoughtfully addresses, a host of questions about fandom, hipsterhood, and sheer, unabashed love by interviewing Dion fans, taking in a Dion concert, and listening over and over again to her music. It’s the best kind of criticism: Funny, creative, and willing to take a good hard look not only at the work in question but at the critic himself.More from A Year in Reading 2008

A Year in Reading: Dan Kois

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Dan Kois edits Vulture, New York magazine’s arts and culture blog.Like many people who work in publishing, feed off of publishing, or report on publishing, I’m constantly reading months or even years ahead. So my 2007 reading experience was unlike that of many of your correspondents; rarely could I find time to dip into the past. When I did, it was to re-read works that had given me great pleasure: the funny and sad novels of Tom Drury, for a profile I still swear to God I will eventually write; Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, in preparation for the final volume of the former and the film of the latter. I read comics systematically and comprehensively this year for the first time, and loved dozens and dozens of them, sometimes feeling like a reading cheater in my ability to rip through an entire satisfying story in an hour or less. But the best book I read all this year is a book that isn’t even coming out until next year: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, a thriller set in the darkest days of Stalinist Russia, one of the finest intersections of historical setting and propulsive plot I’ve read in a long time. It’s a book that transcends the serial killer genre and becomes a difficult, complicated work of art in its own right.More from A Year in Reading 2007