A Year in Reading: Janet Potter


The two most memorable things I read in 2017 were text messages. One came in early February, and told me that my sister-in-law had cancer. I read it on the red line on my way home from work. The second came two weeks later, and told me that my dad had kidney disease. I read it when I was at lunch with coworkers, and pulled my phone out to see how long we’d been gone.

In the months since then, I’ve read far less than I usually do. I’ve done far less of everything, it seems. Fun things feel pointless, and intellectually engaging things are too hard, leaving me to fill my time with celebrity gossip, HGTV, and red wine.

I haven’t felt like myself, essentially, in nine months. I feel walled off from the people around me by my own preoccupation. As updates come in on the twin emergencies in our family, I’m unable to shake off a feeling of constant tension. I would feel guilty if I did.

The only book I loved this year was A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry. Although I’d been meaning to read his fiction for years, I started this book (according to my Goodreads activity) the day after my sister’s diagnosis. I had some idea that reading about a small farming community in Kentucky, written by the octogenarian poet-farmer-essayist-novelist Berry, would be comforting. I had no idea how deeply I’d identify with the character of a 60-year-old tobacco farmer.

All of Berry’s fiction—a smattering of novels, novellas, and short stories—take place in the same fictional town of Port William, Ky., which is based on Berry’s own hometown. It’s a small town, and each work focuses on a different family or generation or set of friends, so that reading them as a whole brings the entire interconnected community to life.

If there’s a main character in the books, or a character who comes closest to being Berry’s mouthpiece, it’s Mat Feltner. Mat comes from a long line of Port Williams farmers, and that line continues after him. He is hard-working, wise, and kind. A Place on Earth takes place in 1945, and Mat’s son, Virgil, is off fighting the war. Early in the book, Mat and his wife receive a letter that says Virgil is missing in action.

Mat, his wife, and their daughter-in-law enter that state of waiting and worrying that was instantly recognizable to me. It’s dread—when the worst case scenario looms over you, and seems likely, but you hold it at bay until absolutely necessary, and in the meantime you have to live your normal life. Midway through the book, Burley Coulter, one of the Feltners’ neighbors, writes a letter to his nephew Nathan, who is also fighting in the war. He talks about how badly the community feels for the Feltner family, how distant Mat has been, but how he doesn’t know how to act or help. People know how to support a grieving family, but not a family living in dread.

The Feltners were my closest companions in that time. Looking for bucolic escape, I had found fellow travelers through a long, foggy night. As I continue to read through Berry’s fiction, the Feltner family’s grief is present but not prevalent. They endured hardship and kept going. My family’s health concerns, while still ongoing, are not currently critical. But for the moment in time that they were, and A Place on Earth came to me, Mat Feltner will always be my favorite Port William character, and one of my favorite characters in all of literature. We went through something together.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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We’re Not Going Anywhere: The Millions Interviews Attica Locke


Attica Locke is the award-winning author of Pleasantville, winner of the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, Black Water Rising, and The Cutting Season, and worked as a writer and producer on Fox’s Empire. She is also a native of Texas, and descends from two long lines of Texans. It’s that history of the black community in rural Texas that she set out to write about in her new novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, about Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. She spoke to The Millions about race, crime, and all the “weird shit” you see on Highway 59.

The Millions: I saw you speak about this book at BookExpo this year, and you said you want to write a book that expressed the complexity of the black experience in Texas—that black Texans face prejudice, but also love being there and think of it as their home. Your previous books have also been set in Texas, but is this book different as far as what you’re trying to convey about that experience?

Attica Locke: It’s one thing to talk about urban black folks in Houston living a relatively cosmopolitan life. But it has always been true of black folks anywhere in the South—the towns and the rural areas are infinitely more lawless and terrifying than Atlanta or Dallas or Houston. It’s when you get out into the rural areas with a small town sheriff and their version of law enforcement. In the black psyche it’s like, that’s where shit can go wrong. You get pulled over somewhere in the middle of Podunk wherever and nobody ever hears from you again. I do think that writing about the rural area makes this book series different. I also think it speaks to the idea of people who set down agrarian roots, and that was very much my family. My family never left Texas during the great migration. Part of that is class; we owned land, and the sense that you would give that up to move to an apartment building in Chicago was crazy. We hear so much about stand your ground in the lens of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, but the flip side of stand your ground is black folks saying you know what, we built this, we’re not going anywhere. We built this place, we are a huge part of it, and the worst of this state do not get to define the entire state. And I meant for Texas to be a stand-in for the country. I do not believe white nationalists in Charlottesville get to define what America is. They are a very loud and very visible symptom of a big-ass problem, but they’re not the whole of what we are.

TM: Randie, the widow of the murdered black man, voices that attitude that you mentioned when she says, why did he come to rural Texas? Of course something horrible was going to happen. And Darren tells her that that’s exactly why he stays. He says being a Texas ranger is a calling, and calls the Jasper murder his 9/11—the moment he decided to stand up and say no, this is our land too, and you can’t make us leave. When I read that I thought, this sounds like what Attica said. Was there a similar moment for you, where you said okay I want to tell this story, we need to speak against this?

AL: I will say that there’s a supreme irony that I wrote this book before Donald Trump was elected. After the election I thought, oh my god, my book just changed. I didn’t change a single word, it was already written, but suddenly there was a kind of urgency behind it that I had not necessarily intended. What changed is that now all of a sudden you don’t have to dig down to find these stories, people are walking in the middle of the street wearing their white nationalist pride. I don’t know that there was a specific incident that led me to it. It’s just a lot of things coalesced at once. I’ve thought for a while about why my family never left Texas, and that made me think about what it means to stay and fight.

I remember when I realized I wanted to write about a ranger. I knew I wanted the series to go up and down highway 59 and it was my agent who said I think you need a main character to take you through this. And when I thought about the types of characters that could move with that kind of freedom, a Texas Ranger came up. I’d always said my whole career I’d never write about a cop, and then here I was thinking about writing about a cop and remembering having read Ghettoside by Jill Leovy and having read that the flip side of our current conversation about the over-policing of black life is a conversation we need to have about the under-policing of black life. There’s a statistic that in all kinds of crimes, when the victim is black, that is where the prosecutorial system falls apart. That’s when people serve less time. It doesn’t matter if a white person or black person did it—when people of color are victims of crimes, they are least likely to get justice. So that’s the flipside of over-policing, and that was kind of an epiphany, to take a law enforcement officer—a black law enforcement officer—and ask these larger philosophical questions of what are we as black folks to do? When is it safe for us to follow the rules?

TM: In the past few years the policing of black lives has become a predominant conversation, at what point during those events were you writing the book, and did that affect it at all? It’s like the book becomes an explainer without meaning to be.

AL: This book is so pointedly contemporary. In all of my books it really matters to me that from page one the readers know where they are in space and time. The first book was 1981, The Cutting Season took place three or four years before it was published. This book seems like so right now, there was a sense of having to stay really clear about what you want to say and not letting the news change how a chapter plays out. Where I’ve gotten nervous—I think I put it in the voice of his uncles when they talk about the different approaches to protecting black life. One uncle, who was a ranger himself, believes that the badge in the right hands could be the thing that saves black lives, and protect it. And his identical twin brother, who was a criminal defense attorney, said the law is a thing that black people need protection from. In my writing I said both of these men were holding on to their own creed that held black life as holy and worthy of continuance. It is the most naked statement that I’ve ever made about the fact that black lives matter. It is no surprise that I believe that black lives matter, that I am about that movement. It’s no surprise that I have a problem with “all lives matter.” But it is something to put that down on paper. It was something when I wrote one little bit where Darren nakedly says “I’m here for Michael.” Missy, the other [white] victim, I can get 20 people here for her in about an hour. I can get Dateline here for her. I can get 20/20. But this man needs my help. That’s a bold to write and sometimes uncomfortable.

TM: A lot of characters in the book are loosely based on your family. The roadside café is similar to one your great-grandmother ran, the locations are close to where your family lived, and you have twin great uncles. Was writing about an area that is so closely tied to your family, and writing in some ways about your family, at all constricting?

AL: No, not at all. I think I felt that more with my first book Black Water Rising because Jay Porter is very clearly a sketch of my father. I think the way in which I’m borrowing my family’s history here is more generalized—the idea of setting down roots, the idea of black women who catered to black travelers on the highway who had nowhere else to go. It isn’t so much that Geneva in the book has the same personality as my great grandmother, it’s just I just grew up with all of this stuff as cultural wallpaper, and so I was just pulling from the familiar. But I didn’t necessarily feel that I owed a representation of my family.

TM: Did you know your great grandmother?

AL: Oh, yes. She passed when I was maybe 10 or 11, so I spent a lot of time with her. The café was gone, it was just stories and old pictures.

TM: I was looking at photos of Corrigan, Texas, on Google Maps when I learned that that’s where your great grandmother’s café was, and I assumed it was a town similar to Lark in the book. Just looking through those photos I was like, oh yeah, this is where the book takes place. I almost wish I had looked through those before I read the book.

AL: I’m glad you did that, because the other thing about this book is that it is a window of Texas that is not the classic southwestern big sky country. East Texas is nothing like that. It is nearer to Louisiana—I call it Louisiana’s fraternal twin. They are connected in some way. It’s lush and filled with forests of pine trees, lots of bayous and creeks, it’s not like the arid southwest. Even my editor, when I started sending pictures to give her an idea for the cover, said, oh you know I’ve never been to east Texas and now I get it. The idea that people would be introduced to the very particular bluesy culture of east Texas is amazing to me.

TM: The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) play a big role in the book. When I read it, I thought, she could not have known that her book was going to come out a month after an enormous white supremacist rally. The portrait of the ABT, especially Keith (Missy’s widower, a man connected to the ABT), ends up being at least empathetic, if not sympathetic, but there are a few moments where you understand Keith and the pain that he was in. How did you approach writing about a group, and even in a few chapters writing from the perspective of Keith, when they have views that are antithetical to your life and characters’ lives and your family’s life going back generations?

AL: A couple of things. One—as a writer I believe that villains and villainy have to be complex. I also think it’s important that in Charlottesville what you saw was a bunch of young guys in polo shirts—you need to understand that that is what it looks like. I think writing from that point of view for a chapter is to say this is actually still a human being. He’s not a monster. He’s actually still a fucking human being. I think that for me I’m always interested in getting at the psychological wounds around racism–be they the wounds of the victims of racism, or be they the psychological wounds of the perpetrators of racism–because I firmly believe the unconscious is at play in all of this. Without giving too much away about the ending, I think there is a realization that it’s people’s confused feelings about the other that create this thing that we are mistaking for hate, but that deep down should be called something different. It could be called envy, it could be called love, it could be called fear. I’m always looking to somehow find out what’s going on at the level of the psyche. Yes there are sociopaths or people who are off the rails crazy. But people come in clean, out of the womb, and there are life experiences that begin to shape your thinking about things. I don’t know that human beings’ first fundamental impulse is hate. It doesn’t mean that you don’t circle around and get there, but what I’m interested in is how the fuck did you get there? And maybe in that investigation there’s a way to get to the core of this sickness that has been a part of our nation for so long. For me it’s just deeper than straight hate. I think that at the level of the subconscious there’s a realization for some white folks that you didn’t really do anything by yourself. There’s almost an infantile way that you participated in the birth of the country. You weren’t out there doing the real shit. You could not have survived a new land, swampy conditions in the south, land that you were trying to tame, you could not have done that by yourself. The level of dependence that you had on black bodies makes people’s heads explode. I think people can’t tolerate the fact that that is how we’re connected so deeply, the realization that what you present to the world as a superior race that ran everything is not really true. You could not have done it without black labor, without black bodies, in so many ways. I think that level of dependence, and that unconscious knowledge that you’re not as great at all this as you thought you were makes you black out.

TM: Again, without giving too much away, the book explores how what initially appears to be a strictly segregated town is infinitely more complicated than that.

AL: I think that for some of the current racists that we’re seeing out and about in the world, racism came from the question, how come I’m falling behind? A lot of it is your own inadequacy. If you tell a certain group of people that there’s such a thing as white privilege, and they don’t seem to benefitting from it at all, and then here’s Barack Obama who went to Harvard, it can make you feel inadequate, and then it morphs into a feeling of hate or the other, but it’s really some shit going on within you.

TM: Even though the series will be about Darren, there are three incredible female characters in this book that are so different, and each of them is a version of a familiar black female character. Geneva is a wise matriarch, Bell was an uneducated teen mother who now depends on her adult son for support, and Randie is a beautiful jet-setter in a cashmere coat. But each of these women push back against that character type. Was that intentional?

AL: I did mean that for Geneva. I wanted for her to convey—don’t be fooled by this tableau of black maternal warmth and I’m cooking this, I’m baking that. She keeps Darren at arm’s length until he earns her respect. I meant that on purpose, definitely.

Bell, I don’t know where she came from, I literally have no idea. I knew his mother didn’t raise him, and I knew I wanted there to be a class element to it, but it wasn’t until I wrote a scene where she was chipping nail polish off of her toe with a beer, that’s when I knew her instantly. And then I just kind of went with it.

TM: The richest guy in Lark owns a house that’s a scale model of Monticello, and his dog lives in a scale model of the White House. Is that based on anything?

AL: The only thing that it’s based on is that you see weird shit like this up and down highway 59. You see all kinds of crazy, I don’t understand what the culture of it is except showing off. I have pictures of people who have a huge pistol in their yard—when I say huge pistol I mean they built an iron 32-foot pistol that just sits in the front yard. You just see all kinds of crazy stuff. It just came from the quirkiness of some of these small towns.

The Masks We Wear: The Millions Interviews Edan Lepucki

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Edan Lepucki’s Woman No. 17 is the story of Lady, a mother of two recently separated from her husband, Karl. She hires a nanny named S to watch her toddler son while she works on a memoir about raising her teenage son, Seth, who can’t speak. S, who until recently went by Esther, has decided to start acting as she thinks her impulsive, hard-drinking mother would, as an act of performance art. As Lady feels the growing distance from her sons, she becomes close to S, who herself is warming to her put-on personality and finding a friend in Seth. Got that?

Lepucki and I are both staff writers for The Millions. We have collaborated before on pieces about Gillian Flynn and Tana French (both of whom come up in this interview) and casting a Goldfinch movie. I was thrilled to read her insightful, funny, sometimes unsettling book, and get to ask her about it.

We talked about eyebrows and makeup, performing gender and trying to control one’s narrative, secret online lives, and characters with dual identities.

The Millions: It seems to me like in the last few years beauty rituals have come out of the closet. Rather than just taking orders from women’s magazines, we’re all talking about what we do to ourselves to look the way we do. I know you and I are both big fans of the “Beauty Uniform” column on Cup of Jo, and I noticed in the book a lot of the characters describing their beauty rituals, or noticing other people’s. Why do you think we’ve become so upfront about it, and why did you want that in the book?

Edan Lepucki: I like that this is the first question. Well I’ll say first I’ve always been really open about that kind of stuff in my life. It’s easy for me to be naked with people and talk about my body. I think the human body’s really funny. I’ve always gravitated to the other girls and women who are also like that. I’ve always been kind of shocked when someone doesn’t want to communicate about that kind of stuff. I personally find it really fun to share — I color my hair, get my eyebrows down — I think it’s fun to talk about that.

In my book, it’s not like I set out to do that, but I also really wanted to write a book that felt exceptionally contemporary. There’s one point when Lady on Twitter talks about getting a Brazilian. When I thought of it I was so pleased by it but also really embarrassed. It’s so private and ridiculous, but if I put it in the book it feels courageous in this absurd way. One way to make the book feel contemporary was to talk about those things that are super private that are becoming more and more public. The whole book, too, is about representation and the masks we wear and the performance of our identity in all these ways, and obviously that includes gender and the ways that we put on ourselves and put on our femininity, and I wanted to show that.

TM: I sort of think women got to the point where they thought, if I’m gonna go through all this and spend 20 minutes on makeup every morning and have all these expensive appointments, I want you to know why I’m doing it, or that I’m making intelligent decisions about it. People love explaining to you why their products work for them, and by talking about it we’re refusing to let it be trivialized. There’s a line in the book where you say being a woman is a lifelong education, and it’s like it takes so long to get good at this stuff, that once you have a handle on what your beauty identity is going to be, you’re so proud of it.

EL: I think it is a badge of honor. I also think that when I document any beauty rituals I’m saying I’m aware that I’m spending three hours to work on my hair, and the awareness of that oppression sort of liberates me. I’m comfortable with the burdens of my gender.

TM: Lady is also frequently giving spontaneous advice to S about grooming, and thinking about the advice her mom gave her. Like talking about beauty rituals is an intimate form of female communication.

EL: I think one of the main qualities of Lady is that she is carrying a lot of resentment towards her mother. She believes her mother damaged her, and she’s carrying that damage into all her other relationships. She’s sort of playing out the same relationship with S that she had with her mother, so I was really interested in how she’s repeating those cycles. It’s sort of the only way she knows how to be. She’s totally barred, she won’t really let anyone in, and at the same time she’s critical of everyone else. It’s especially heightened with other women, because she lived with a mother who criticized.

TM: The main reason I’m obsessed with the performative femininity in the book is that Lady and S and Kit (Lady’s sister-in-law) all ostensibly have artistic projects that they’re focused on, and this is what they would tell you is their work, but in Lady and S’s cases it’s faltering. Meanwhile how they’re performing their womanhood is speaking so much more loudly. They’re trying to express themselves through these specific projects, but they’re really expressing themselves so much more clearly through the roles they play.

EL: I think you’re right. Lady in particular — her artistic project is a story of her motherhood, and it’s a story of connection and triumph, and it’s not the narrative that is true. It makes sense that the way that she’s actually coming through is not through that story, but through every day you see in the novel. Her story is really everything she’s trying to avoid.

S is interesting because the question for me while I was writing was “who is S?” She’s so young and it allows her to be really reckless in what she does and she’s not fully formed, she’s like a ball of clay. At the beginning of the book she talks about how she’s a girly girl, but you never see that in the novel. She’s very ordered in her life, and then she tries to enact her mother’s version of motherhood, which, besides being drunk all the time, means that she doesn’t wear make up and doesn’t care what people think. As I was writing I realized that there were a lot of ways in which S wanted to be like her mother — these qualities that she did not have herself — and by becoming her mother she was able to become this different kind of woman, one who can say what she means, the first thing on her mind, and I think she gets a thrill from that. I don’t know if the disconnect between who she is and who she’s playing is causing a tension in her.

TM: This is something I also ask authors who have a character who’s very secretive or is hiding something. With S, most of the time she’s a person pretending to be a different kind of person. It’s like in movies where somebody is acting like they’re a bad actor. As the author, how well do you have to know Esther, S’s “natural self,” before you can layer S on top of her?

EL: It’s a similar question to how do you write a repressed character — how do you write a character who is unable to think certain things when you as the author know what’s motivating them. Esther to me was really slippery, as she is in the book. I have a real sort of love for her. Her core for me is a real longing — firstly, for her to have something with her mother that she doesn’t have. Immediately I could feel that from her. And secondly her heartbreak — what really sets her off on this whole thing is that she’s getting over her dumb boyfriend. Describing her boyfriend Everett’s art projects, I could feel S — even if she was writing them off — I could tell that she really admired Everett. That also felt very true to her. And her relationship to her father — every time she was talking to her dad, immediately I could lock in to S. But at other moments I was like, there isn’t a real S. I did reread The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is a book I love, because I wanted to read those moments when Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf, and those moments when he locks into the next persona. I love those descriptions and I used them as a model. There is a blankness to S, but part of me thinks that’s just because she’s so young. Is part of that because her parents are divorced and don’t communicate and are so different that she’s had to be two different people already? That’s something that I identify with personally. My parents divorced before I was 5 and I went from one house to the next and they never spoke to each other, and I really did have two different lives with them, so I wonder what part of that slipperiness or blankness of her will always be there. I do think there’s a vulnerability to her that I sort of get, and maybe that makes me more compassionate to her than other people.

TM: The characters in the book are frequently expressing themselves in different modes. With Seth it’s so literal because speech is a form of expression that’s cut off from him, and so he gets so good at communicating with facial expressions or condensing a conversation into three sentences. Do you feel like everybody in the book is doing that in their own way? Nobody else has an avenue cut off from them in such a literal way, but they’re finding ways around what they’re unable to communicate.

EL: When you’re writing a book, you don’t know what you’re doing. I personally try to avoid any understanding of the themes of the book until I’m done, but then you stop and go, oh I see, the whole book is about communication and representation, feinting and dodging. Seth is such a literal version of that, he cannot speak so he has to express himself in these very specific ways. He can’t communicate and yet he’s so adept at communicating, whereas other people can talk and talk and not say anything that’s really true.

Somebody who read the book pointed out that everybody is using either art of the Internet to either hide or emerge. Lady is definitely hiding in her memoir, yet weirdly with @muffinbuffin41 (her Twitter handle) she’s kind of emerging. There’s this sneaky self of hers that’s true that’s online. Esther is literally hiding behind S, but there are moments when she doesn’t know if it’s S or Esther who’s feeling something, so the attraction to Seth is really fraught because she knows she’s crossing a boundary, but she knows her mother would be really into it. Everyone is either jumping right into something — whether a photograph or the Internet — or they’re completely using that to shield themselves. The trick is to figure out when they’re being real and when they aren’t.

TM: As soon as she decided to have a secret Twitter account, I was like, oh no that never works.

EL: [Laughs.] Do you speak from experience, Janet?

TM: Not personally, but in college we found a teammate’s secret LiveJournal, which she used to talk about all of us. A secret Twitter account is like a gun in the first act, somebody’s reading it by the end of the book. But what was Lady’s motivation to start a secret Twitter — is it as simple as being lonely?

EL: When I was done writing California, I was like, the next book I write is going to have technology. I want to have technology be a part of not only the everyday life of the characters, but be thematically important. My goal was to have it be part of the plot. If I was going to have Twitter in the novel, things had to be revealed in Twitter. There’s so many novels that take place in the ’90s because nobody wants to deal with the Internet issue. It’s hard to write anticipation and romance and spontaneity with the Internet. I thought, I need to put this into my novel and use it to the benefit, like how does the Internet amplify all our issues, and make things more suspenseful? And one of those ways is making your Internet presence a secret.

TM: Seth is diagnosed with selective mutism. Is that a common condition?

EL: It’s not a perfect diagnosis. I once read Gillian Flynn or Tana French talking about doing research with homicide detectives, and she said, I don’t need this to be common, it just has to be plausible. That’s sort of how I thought about Seth’s disability. In my story he just doesn’t speak, that’s the end of it. The way he has it, I don’t know if it’s possible. I wanted to emphasize his humanity in all ways while also emphasizing that there is something he cannot do and that affects his life. I didn’t want to be like it’s not a big deal, and I also didn’t want to make him only his disability. As he tells S, he’s not a metaphor. I wanted to make him a full human character. That was one of the biggest struggles of the book: how do you write Seth? How do you write a scene with someone who doesn’t speak, how do you write dialogue with someone who doesn’t speak? How do you look head on at disability and also recognize that its not his story, it’s two people who don’t have his disability talking about his disability? So they’re going to get things wrong, they’re not going to represent him properly, they’re not going to see him full at all points. The failures of that was what I was interested in.

TM: Your first book was titled California, but this book is also definitely a California novel.

EL: It was such a relief to be able to describe the world as it is now. I had not been able to do that for years when I was working on California (a post-apocalyptic novel). It was almost as if I had been writing a sestina for a long time and then suddenly I got to write free verse again. I didn’t feel constrained, there was no speculation going on. I just got to look outside and describe what I see.

A Year in Reading: Janet Potter

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My Dream Book: I feel the only proper way to start this Year in Reading is by telling you that last night I dreamt about meeting Curtis Sittenfeld. As I recall, we were both in a small group conversing politely, but not directly to one another, and at one point I threw caution to the wind, grabbed her by the elbow, and said, “I just have to tell you that I loooooved Eligible,” and then enumerated the reasons for a few minutes.

I did meet Curtis Sittenfeld about 10 years ago, and told her one of my top tier anecdotes, which she seemed to enjoy. I also professed my love of Eligible on Twitter earlier this year, which she acknowledged, so perhaps I feel we have a certain connection — a connection my subconscious spun into a dream. Even so, I read Eligible in February, so why I was dreaming about it and its author nine months later is a mystery.

Allow me to reiterate, however, in the cold light of day, that I did love Eligible, Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. My favorite thing about it is how she modernized the stakes. It’s easy to read the original, or watch the BBC version, and find it all quite charming. Your sister danced too flirtatiously at a local dance? How terribly cute. Your estate might be entailed away? How quaintly sad. You’re not married at 20? Quelle horreur. Sittenfeld translates these conflicts into a modern-day setting so that the Bennetts’ trials, embarrassments, and love lives are legitimately worrisome (until everything works out). See you in my dreams, Curtis!

Best One-Day Reading Experience: I put off watching the least season of Justified for over a year, because I knew how despondent I’d be once it was over, which was exactly what happened. To ease the blow, I bought a copy of Fire in the Hole, a book of short stories by Elmore Leonard, the titular story of which is the basis for the series. On a Sunday afternoon I poured myself a glass of whisky, sat down, and read the book cover to cover. It was perfect. See you in my dreams, Boyd Crowder!

Favorite Sentence of the Year: Bilgewater by Jane Gardam is a coming-of-age story about a smart, awkward teenage girl in 1970s England, although in the way of most awkward girl novels, it turns out plenty of people are in love with her. She finds herself in an amorous situation with one of them, and notes: “I was quite enchanted with myself. I had always thought I had very strong views on sexual morality. I found I had nothing of the kind.”

Book I Loved Despite Not Being Able to Tell You What Happened: Long Division by Kiese Laymon happened to me. It’s very funny, there’s time travel, a book-within-a-book, young love, and an excellent young protagonist/narrator with an excellent grandmother. I was glued to every page, and am not confident I know how it ended. Please read it and contact me. While you’re at it, read Kiese Laymon’s essay about Outkast. It was in the 2015 music issue of the Oxford American. It was also anthologized in The Fire This Time. It’s ostensibly about music, but it’s about — wait for it — so much else. You’ll recognize the grandmother.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Killed B: The Millions Interviews Tana French

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The Trespasser is the sixth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, each of which focuses on a different detective. The Trespasser brings back detectives Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway from The Secret Place to investigate the murder of a young woman who appears to have been killed while preparing for a date.

I’ve read all of French’s books, and long after I’ve forgotten the guilty party (and sometimes the crime) in each, I remember the detectives. French writes intricate portraits of differently broken people who see the role of murder detective as less of a job than a calling. I wanted to talk to French about what she, and her characters, find so enthralling about the job. I was also dying to ask her about her interrogations scenes. Her detectives are cerebral, and as such her books always climax in the interrogation room

The Millions: The daily lives of the detectives in that murder squad room feel so natural and lived-in. Does your portrayal of life as a detective come from experience or research?

Tana French: I have a lovely friendly detective who answers all kinds of questions for me. He’s retired now but he was a detective with the Irish police. For the more forensic stuff I have books and do a lot of online research. But a lot of it is this guy. Most of the time I don’t know what questions to ask and he’ll just tell me stories and talk to me. That’s where you get things like the atmosphere of the squad room and the atmosphere of a case that’s not going well. The moment when it all breaks and it all comes together, and all of this energy that you pumped into the case suddenly rushes back at you like a flood. I wouldn’t have even known how to ask about that but he tells the stories and I pick up bits here and there.

TM: Many of your lead characters are young detectives who are still enamored of the job. When you have older characters, the talk about how glamorous they found the job when they were starting out. What is it about the job of murder detective that they, or you, find so enticing?

TF: They’re dealing with the highest stakes possible: life and death, truth and lies, justice. And they’re dealing with it all when what’s on the line is people’s lives, and justice for victims and for families. It doesn’t get much farther from my life. I was an actor, now I’m a writer. So much of what I deal with is imagination, empathy, it’s not concrete. It’s not solid and real and demanding of you. If a detective has a bad day, somebody could get killed. The common thread, on very different levels, is the search for truth. If you’re an actor or writer, what you’re aiming for is to tell the truth from someone else’s perspective. You’re always digging for truth to give to your audience. The detectives in a much more concrete and immediate way are searching for truth. A lot of the times the truth in a murder inquiry is very complex. The core truth may be objective — A killed B — but the circumstances around that are shades of gray, they’re complicated, sometimes the result you want isn’t necessarily the result you’re supposed to be chasing.

What do you do when you’re in this vise grip where either you’re going to break some rules or something isn’t going to get done? They’re caught in the complications in what seems from the outside to be a very simple question; who killed this person? I find it fascinating that they’re digging for an objective truth that in the middle of all this chaos and complication they can hold up to the country at large and say, “Yes this is the truth.”

TM: You describe the murder squad room as an old boys’ club, populated by jaded middle-aged men. Frequently the lead character is outside of that type, finding a way to mold their own strengths to the role of detective. You might not say that Stephen or Antoinette would objectively make a great detective, but they find a way to play to their own strengths. What draws you to these anti-detective types?

TF: In a kind of elite, tight knit group, the semi-outsider is always going to be the most interesting, because they’re going to have the most nuanced viewpoint on what’s actually going on in there. People who take for granted the shared culture aren’t as interesting because they don’t have any insight into it. It’s always most interesting to have a narrator whose position is halfway between that tight-knit group and the reader. The pull to belong would be very strong, but would also sharpen the sense of not belonging. It ups the stakes for the character.

TM: In my opinion, one of your trademarks is when the book’s investigation culminates in one long interrogation scene. They’re 20-40 pages long and so fully realized — every emotion, facial expression, and change of body language or tone of voice is catalogued, because they’re all tools the detectives are using, or clues they’re picking up on. I always get excited when I realize I’ve gotten to this scene in each of your books. Do you relish writing them as much as you seem to?

TF: No! They’re the hardest to write by far. If you think about it, they’ve got limitations right from the outset. You can’t digress. If you’re writing an ordinary scene it can go off in different directions. In an interrogation scene there’s no leeway for that. You’re there for one purpose and one purpose only. There isn’t the give and take you’d have in a normal scene,  with one or two or three characters pulling against each other. The detectives are driving this interrogation, end of story. That limits your options.

The big one though is if you’re writing a non interrogation scene, the character’s objectives can be part of the mystery. In an interrogation scene the character’s objectives are obvious with the territory — the detectives are trying to find out some information, the person being interviewed is trying to keep it away. The only interesting thing left is the actual information involved.

I’m glad you said fully realized — the big danger is that it will become purely functional. The narrator at that moment is all about getting that piece of information. You have to make sure that the emotional connection to the narrator is in place without letting it drag down the scene.

SPOILER ALERT: The rest of the interview concerns the final scenes of The Trespasser. Go read it and then come back.

TM: That’s what makes the scene where Stephen and Antoinette are interrogating McCann, their fellow detective, so interesting. They all know what information they have, and what information the other people have, and what’s in their best interest, and yet there’s still the possibility that someone’s going to slip up. And the only tools they have in that moment are their conversational wiles.

TF: They don’t actually get him to admit the murder, mind you. That was a tough one. I was writing the interrogation scene and I suddenly realized that there was not a chance in hell he was going to confess to this murder. Because he just wouldn’t, not to them, he just would not do it. Now they’ve got their big grenade of information, the truth of Aislinn’s agenda, and it’s certainly going to shift the dynamic, but he’s still not going to come out and admit that he killed her, because he’s a detective, he knows how this works. There’s not a chance these two rookies are going to erode 20 years of experience.

My husband is my first reader. I told him, “I have a major problem here, can we go out to lunch and discuss it?” I was laying out the problem for him and like a shot he said, “Oh, O’Kelly makes him confess.” It’s funny, so much of a book takes place in your subconscious. I had seeded O’Kelly throughout the book, he was there as this ambivalent figure who may or not be on Antoinette’s side. And of course it was obvious that he was the only person who could make McCann confess, and that that would be a revelation not just about McCann but about O’Kelly as well. All I knew was that this interrogation scene could not be a winner for Antoinette and Stephen.

TM: And yet they do get under his skin. He agrees to let them interrogate him, and he does slip up a few times. What is it that you think makes people incriminate themselves

TF: A ridiculous percentage of people talk to lawyers without a lawyer present. It’s something like 70%. They figure if I’m just helpful, they’ll realize that I’m a good guy. Of course the cops play to that. It’s very tempting to see the police being on your side. For McCann it’s the urge to make sure that he has some control over the story that’s out there. That the story he believes in his head isn’t completely suppressed in favor of the alternate narrative that’s coming out.

TM: Right, and that’s how they needle him. They persist in presenting a different version of him and he can’t not refute it.

TF: The interview room is a great place to set a scene. What you say in here matters, it will define your life forever. And so for McCann in particular, to him the interview room is an even more charged room, what he says and does there matters enormously. It’s not an environment in which he can just refuse to talk and let a completely false story of him and Aislinn find footing.

TM: Was two detectives interrogating another detective harder or easier to write than a detective interrogating a civilian?

TF: It’s like watching two top-level martial arts experts face off. Every single kick or strike that one of them tries, the other has known the block for for years. It did make it harder to move the scene forward, at the same time it was very very interesting to write. What tactics are they going to try next and how does he block it? Rather than being an interrogation scene with a civilian where the civilian is coming in naive, without any practice, and will deny everything or try to lie. Denial and lying are amateurs’ weapons. Here, both sides had professionals’ weapons, and that made it very interesting to write.

Martin Seay’s ‘The Mirror Thief’ as Explained by Martin Seay

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I finished The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay with as many questions as answers. The 600-page multi-storyline novel has drawn comparisons to the work of David Mitchell and Thomas Pynchon. I would compare it to watching Game of Thrones of my laptop — there are just some scenes that are too dark for me to see, no matter how expertly I angle the screen or how hard I squint.

So when I recognized Martin Seay from across the room at a party a few weeks ago, I was just tipsy enough to go over and say, “I’m Janet, did you write The Mirror Thief?” My first questions was, “When you meet people who’ve read your book, do they just pepper you with clarifying questions?” He conceded that yes, his book is very confusing, sometimes intentionally so, and offered to clear some things up. I emailed him the next day and he very generously responded with the authoritative guide to what the hell is going on in The Mirror Thief, which he also graciously permitted us to run on this site.

It should go without saying, at this point, that the following contains massive, massive spoilers.

Janet Potter: The main thing I felt I was missing was what Crivano felt so bad about on the boat. Was he to blame for his friend’s death? Did they switch identities afterwards? It turns out that Crivano is the Lark, but what does that mean?

Martin Seay: Probably best to begin at the beginning. Back in Cyprus we have a couple of best friends: Gabriel Glissenti, who’s from a noble family, and Vettor Crivano, a citizen of the Venetian Republic and the son of one of Gabriel’s dad’s trusted retainers. Gabriel is quiet, depressive, and a little sneaky; Vettor is outgoing, well-liked, and has a great singing voice, which leads to him being nicknamed the Lark. The Lark, in fact, is the only thing Gabriel ever calls him.

At this time it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Ottomans are going to retake Cyprus from Venice, and the Glissenti family holdings are sooner or later going to be lost. Gabriel’s dad decides to send him and the Lark to Padua to train as physicians in order to provide them with some kind of future.

They get as far as Venice, where they pick up letters of matriculation that will allow them to travel to Padua and enroll in classes there (such letters being one of the only forms of official written identification that existed at the time). But before they can hit the road to Padua, they get the news that their hometown in Cyprus, Nicosia, has fallen to the Turks. They decide to chuck the whole going-to-Padua plan — because teenage boys are dumb — and find a galley that will let them sign on to go fight the Ottomans.

Flash forward to the Battle of Lepanto, where the boys have the very poor fortune to find themselves aboard the only galley to be captured by the Turks in what was otherwise an overwhelming Christian victory. The Lark — the charming young man born Vettor Crivano — gets blown to pieces by a cannonball. The galley’s captain, realizing that his ship is about to be taken, gives Gabriel a “match” (today we’d probably call this a “fuse”) and tells him to light the powder magazine and blow up the ship. Gabriel — who is a little weirdo under the best of circumstances and also in shock at the death of his friend — can’t get it together; he wanders down to his and the Lark’s bunks instead as the Turks are coming aboard. There he comes partly to his senses, realizes what’s about to happen, realizes that he’s just screwed up, and in a moment of anguish, sorrow, and panic, has an idea: he’ll take the Lark’s certificate of matriculation and burn his own, thereby assuming the Lark’s identity. He does this primarily because he expects all the nobles on board the galley to be ransomed, and because of his guilt and grief he doesn’t WANT to be ransomed: he wants whatever’s going to happen to the rest of the crew to happen to him, too. (He’s also tired of the burden of being a nobleman and shouldering the family expectations that come with it, particularly now that he’s almost certainly the man of the family, his father and brothers being dead or imprisoned. Plus he’s always wanted to be the Lark, because the Lark was awesome.)

Except — curveball — Gabriel has underestimated how pissed the Turks are: instead of ransoming the nobles, they kill them all…so stealing the Lark’s identity has actually saved his life. Whoops! Gabriel — who is now Crivano — then gets enslaved by the Ottomans; since he’s young and fairly well-educated, they make him a janissary instead of chaining him to the oars, and his long and bloody adventures in the East begin. For something like 15 years he has no more European identity at all; then the haseki sultan hatches her plan to send him back to Europe as a deep-cover agent and “restores” him to his “original” identity — which of course is NOT his original identity, but by then everyone who’d know that is dead.

So that’s Crivano’s deal in a nutshell, most of which I’m guessing you got, or got the rough outlines of, anyway. (Because the protagonist in the 1592 sections — Vettor Crivano né Gabriel Glissenti — never actually uses the original Crivano’s given name, the switch is hidden from the reader. I have reasons for doing this that are not merely sneaky; they’re analogous to the fact that the narration of Curtis’s sections never explicitly describes his missing eye until it becomes an issue for him.)

JP: Mike (Schaub) thinks that Welles is Satan, but I was thinking that Welles took Crivano’s story and read too much into it, thinking that somehow with mirrors he could cross over into another plane, hence the weird mirror sex room. And Stanley was somehow more gifted than Welles, and did figure out how to use mirrors to travel through space/time, so he’ll live in the mirrors forever? Am I close?

MS: Regarding Welles and the mirrors…here we’re in territory where I left a few things open, though not in an irresponsible way, I hope. Mike’s not wrong: Welles could be some sort of demonic entity. Stanley is just about convinced of that — although he later has that infected-leg hallucination where he modifies this suspicion and starts to think that there are TWO Welleses: one who’s a sort of pretentious blowhard who doesn’t really know anything, and another one that actually controls the dark magic that Stanley wants access to. The evidence of strange goings-on in Cynthia’s room may be evidence of mirror-conjuring that Welles has extrapolated from a misreading of the Crivano material; it could also just be evidence of statutory rape being committed on a runaway by a dirty old man. Stanley believes both of these things at various times, and to my way of thinking the book is at some level ABOUT this effort to insist on magical, outlandish explanations when simple, sordid explanations are probably more plausible.

It’s very difficult to say that one or the other readings of Welles is the CORRECT interpretation — both for the usual postmodern blah blah blah reasons, and for the specific reason that the whole book, including the Curtis and Crivano sections, is in the second-person POV of the dying Stanley. (All of the ostensibly close-third sections break into second person at least once, often in the imperative mood: “Picture him there…”) We’re never NOT in Stanley’s head. At the end of the book, Stanley is pretty damn confident that he’s about to escape from time and corporeal existence into a deathless mirror-world. Is he? Has he REALLY been able to show himself to Curtis and Albedo through mirrors, or is he making all this up? (Some of the last chapter switches to the future tense, describing what’s ABOUT to happen; these predicted events include Stanley making calls to Curtis and Veronica, but the narration later tells us that he never actually has time to make those calls. Does anything else that it predicts also fail to happen?) Anyway, I tried to write it to support both readings, but to not be definitely decidable in favor of either. Is that obnoxious? Am I the worst?

Places That Fall Into Ruin: The Millions Interviews Geoff Dyer


The arrival of a new Geoff Dyer book is an occasion for which I drop everything. He’s known for the variety of his work — he’s written about jazz, photography, World War I, an aircraft carrier, Venice, and film — and for never really letting on when he’s taking liberties (some of his books are purely fiction and some are purely non-fiction, but many of them live somewhere in the middle.) His agility at handling diverse subject matter is masterful, and the appeal of his work — to me — is being in the company of Geoff Dyer. Whether he’s touring an aircraft carrier, imagining a mid-century jazz club in New York, or having a boring time in Tahiti, he’s witty, insightful, casually brilliant, and frequently profound.

White Sands is a collection of travel writing, in which Dyer visits the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Lightning Field in New Mexico, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, the northern lights in Svalbard, the Spiral Jetty in Utah, a philosopher’s house, and Tahiti. We recently spoke on the phone about the shifting meaning of a place, how expectations affect travel, and, perhaps inevitably, D.H. Lawrence.

The Millions: How would you describe the common theme of the pieces in this book?

Geoff Dyer: I think there are several ongoing concerns. The way that disappointment gives way to its opposite, perhaps. The way that places have some kind of almost special energy to them. And I guess the relationship between places that don’t change, that have stayed the same for a while, and the stuff that’s sort of changing in and around them — and what that tends to be is the people, the various human dramas that are enacted within certain spaces or arenas.

TM: Your earlier book, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, was also a travel memoir, but a self-deprecating one, in which you frequently highlight that you’re not a model tourist. In this book you seem to be more focused on the sites you’re visiting. Do you think you have loftier expectations for travel than you used to?

GD: I’m glad I’m capable of disappointment because that shows I still have high hopes for the world. This book recalls a whole load of excited, optimistic feelings about going to places. I’ve always found certain aspects of traveling a bit of a bore, as everybody does. But I would hope that in both books that it’s not just me moaning and groaning and being disappointed. I would hope that in different ways nearly every pieces in this new book ends with me affirming that I’m glad I came, even if the thing that made the trip worthwhile isn’t necessarily the thing I went thinking was going to be great. That’s why the Gauguin piece goes first [“Where? What? Where?”, in which Dyer visits Tahiti, a place that inspired Gauguin, and is unimpressed]. It really was a worthwhile trip even though Gauguin-wise it really didn’t deliver at all.

TM: Do you think there’s a different kind of value in visiting a place and not having the feeling you’re supposed to feel?

GD: What I do feel absolutely is that you can’t fake it. You go to a place and you either have the great experience or you don’t. And I’ve been to a number of places where it just didn’t happen for me, and it’s very difficult to write convincingly about the experience of a place if you really haven’t had it.

I guess the single most disappointing place was Svalbard, where we were hoping to see the Northern Lights, and that just doesn’t happen [“Northern Dark”]. That’s probably the most purely comic piece. So that would be a piece where the only redeeming quality the trip had was that it generated a piece of writing.

TM: Both Yoga and White Sands explore both sides of travel — some experiences are transcendent, others deeply unsatisfying. What do you think the tipping point is? What is it that can make or break an experience like that. Is it completely unpredictable?

GD: Stonehenge is a place that seems so great, but the reality of it has been so consistently disappointing for so many people, compared with the great scenes that happen there in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, for example, or the painting by Turner. That’s partly the fault of the English tourism board, the way they’ve built a road sort of right next to it, and have done everything they can to shrink the place, dilute it of the great primal power it should have. So some places have a lengthy history of disappointment, other times it can be subjective. But I think that’s one of the interesting things about the best travel writing — it’s that intersection of the sensibility of the person with the place. You get it over and over again in Lawrence, who’s such a big figure for me. Sometimes Lawrence is offering you an account of a place and it almost seems to have no objective value as an assessment of that place, it’s so obviously a projection of whatever Lawrence has going on in his head at the time. Other times he seems to just really intuit something that is going on there in the place, in the landscape, like the amazing essay called “A Letter from Germany” from the early 1920s. You can feel he gets this premonition, this feeling, of what would be the eventual rise of Nazism. He just feels it, not through any political observation at the time, just through something like the trembling of the leaves of the black forest. The key is the relationship between an entirely unreliable subjective response, a response which might actually be a projection, and something which is more susceptible to what the place has actually got going on — I think that’s the fertile area, that meeting between a sensibility and a place.

TM: A lot of the places you visit in this book have been built in the last 100 years. Do you think places like that are more likely to produce a spontaneous response because they don’t have as many centuries as connotation attached to them?

GD: I guess the ultimate example of that would be Venice. Mary McCarthy famously said of Venice, “It’s impossible to say anything about Venice that’s not been said before…including this remark.” Venice is so steeped in its own history. You don’t just see the place, you see it through the accretion of various layers of response to it, but then that also gives you something to write about. You can talk about how the image of Venice is mediated. I wouldn’t say that I’d come down on either the utterly familiar or utterly unfamiliar side of things, it’s just that individuals respond to certain places powerfully, others not, but I don’t feel it’s determined by how well known they are.

TM: Whereas when you visited Gauguin’s Tahiti, it seems like it had lost layers, it was a less interesting and magical place than it had been for him.

GD: At various stages of their development, place acquire and lose a kind of magic. Of course it would have been great to be with Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda on the French riviera back in the day, but now it’s been finished, I can’t imagine having a great experience there. Places are subject to history, they can lose their power.

TM: As a writer, your life’s work has been creative, but I can’t go visit it. Do you think that’s part of what attracts you to these singular, physical works?

GD: Not really. I just like the idea of site-specific art, of going to a place and having an experience that is unique to a certain place, as opposed to works of art that you can see in various museums around the world.

I think it certainly interests me about places when people have these designs for it be one thing and then it becomes another, and I’m particularly interested in places that fall into ruin and how it is that they maintain or acquire a different charge than the one they originally had, the way that, for example, a Christian church when it falls into ruin seems to have its air of detachment extended in some ways.

TM: That reminds me of what you wrote about the Watts Towers in “The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison,” that their “capacity to create legends about themselves was self-generating and inexhaustible.”

GD: Right. I think in that particular case I was referring to [the Towers’] status as not being quite respectable art pieces, and there’s so much potentially unreliable information on them. I think it’s because they weren’t properly catalogued and studied in a way that serous art pieces were, they were so ripe for myths to grow up around them. But they certainly lend themselves very well to all sorts of large readings. I guess they’re emblematic in another way that we’re not quite sure how to read them. For me it’s always been an important that part of the fun of my books is that there’s some uncertainty as to what they are and how they are to be read, because what exactly are they? What kind of books are they?

Year in Reading Outro

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Year in Reading reminds me of that cinematic device where the camera slowly backs away from the characters we’ve been following until it’s looking at them from outside their window, and then back farther still until you see into their neighbors’ windows as well, and farther still to show a whole building of occupied windows, and then a whole city, until you are looking at hundreds of little scenes in hundreds of little windows. And you think, if I contain multitudes, and there are multitudes of people, then there are multitudes upon multitudes, and your brain starts to spin. What I’m trying to say is that over the last few weeks, 78 writers have written about close to 500 books, and following the posts as they roll out is as intimidating and overwhelming one day as it is invigorating the next.

Of those books, nearly half were fiction, the most popular genre by far, followed by biography and memoir, making up roughly 15% of the recommendations. Another 15% was taken up by traditional non-fiction — books I categorized as either “history,” “essays,” or “events.” And our contributors recommended 55 books of poetry during the series, a healthy list for anyone who is definitely, no take-backs, going to read more poetry in 2016.

Surprising no one, Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’s Between the World and Me and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet were the twin titans of this year’s series, each being cited by 12 of our contributors. Close behind, A Little Life and The Argonauts were each mentioned eight times. What is surprising, and a little delightful, is that two contributors read Colette’s Claudine at School this year, and two more read Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. I’ve added Eileen Myles to my reading list for next year based on that, and because Chelsea Girls wasn’t even her only book to be recommended this year. I’ve also added Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings based on Sandra Cisneros’s recommendation, and the line she quoted, and its awesome title. I also added Vivian Gornick, especially The Odd Woman and the City, because Hannah says it’s “about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve ‘come into your own.’”

It’s been a privilege for Lydia and I to edit the series this year. We hope you’ve found a few things you’d like to read, a few writers who share your tastes, and a few who don’t. Year in Reading is like drinking from a firehose of literary wonders. It always helps me start off my new year itching to get into the books I’ll write about at the end of it. See you then.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Janet Potter

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Books I Read in One Day (or in One or Two Multi-Hundred Page Chunks)

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt
Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
The Martian by Andy Weir
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Best Depiction of Rural Indiana

Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno
Joe Meno’s latest novel is an incredible modern myth involving horses, a dying agrarian economy, and the idea of American masculinity, and it also happens to be the most spot-on depiction of north central Indiana in the mid-’90s I’ve ever read. See, I myself grew up in north central Indiana in the mid-’90s, and it’s not like I’ve spent the intervening years clamoring for its place in literature. “Will no one plumb the depths of Steuben County during the Clinton years?” was never the cry of my heart. But when I found it in the pages of this book, I was surprised by how deeply it affected me. Is this how New Yorkers feel every day of their lives? I met Joe Meno at a reading and we talked about Indiana, found out where the other person was from, and then said nice things to each other for five minutes because Hoosiers are raised to be pleasant.

Favorite Learned Tidbit of Presidential History

Woodrow Wilson had chronic digestive problems, which he referred to as “trouble in Central America.”

Convincing Proof that I’m the Center of the Universe

Sarah Vowell and David Mitchell are my two favorite living authors. Guns N’ Roses are my favorite band. Both Vowell and Mitchell published new books in October 2015. Both of those books mention Guns N’ Roses.

Annual Reminder that Geoff Dyer Is a Genius

It’s no secret around these parts that I love Geoff Dyer. Here’s a passage from But Beautiful that provided my most breathless two minutes of reading in 2015:

The city quiet as a beach, the noise of traffic like a tide. Neon sleeping in puddles. Places shutting and staying open. People saying goodbye outside bars, walking home alone. Work till going on, the city repairing itself.

At some time all cities have this feel: in London it’s at five or six on a winter evening. Paris has it too, late, when the cafes are closing up. In New York it can happen anytime: early in the morning as the light climbs over the canyon streets and the avenues stretch so far into the distance that it seems the whole world is city; or now, as the chimes of midnight hang in the rain and all the city’s longings acquire the clarity and certainty of sudden understanding. The day coming to an end and people unable to evade any longer the nagging sense of futility that has been growing stronger through the day, knowing that they will feel better when they wake up and it is daylight again but knowing also that each day leads to this sense of quiet isolation.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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How to Title Every Book You Ever Write

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You’ve decided on a life of letters. You’ve got that manuscript you workshopped getting your MFA, an agent, and a publisher. Congratulations! You’re well on your way to being a critical darling. Now all you need is a catchy title. Lucky for you, this handy guide will help you title your book, and every book you write in your illustrious career.

The first novel you write will be highly autobiographical and small in scope. You’ll be afraid it’s too short, but don’t worry, people will just call it “slim.” It will follow one character from precocious childhood right on to an adulthood of unrequited love, and the sibling characters will be the most fun to write.

The Promising Debut Novel
Title: (Scent of your deodorant or shampoo) on (street you grew up on)
Example: Almonds on High Street

(If neither your deodorant or shampoo have a named scent, substitute the word “Mornings.”)

Now on to the second novel. Hailed as a new literary talent and tired of being asked if your first book’s main character was based on yourself, you’ll set your next book very slightly in the past (like the ’80s or ’90s, don’t get carried away) and it will center around a family secret. You have two title options, depending on whether your protagonist is male or female.

The Disappointing Sophomore Effort
Title: The (your father’s profession)’s Daughter
Example: The Locksmith’s Daughter

Title: Get out your favorite album. Rank the tracks in order of how much you like them. Take the fourth song. Print out the lyrics to that song and black out any that are well known. From the remaining lyrics, choose either the first or second half of a complete thought. Note: It must be meaningless and out of context.
Example: Funny How It Never Felt So Good

Your second novel disappointed a lot of people. You felt pressured to finish it quickly after the success of your first novel and in hindsight it wasn’t ready. Sure it was named a Book to Read this Month by a fashion magazine but that just emphasized how few high-brow publications paid attention to it. Jennifer Weiner tweeted that she read it on a plane. So next you’re going to publish a collection of short stories.

The Reputation-Rescuing Collection of Stories
Title: The (if you could have any animal in the world as a pet, what would it be?) (which of the following was your favorite school field trip: museum, zoo, symphony, circus, farm, cruise, senate, theater)
Example: Owl Circus

Well that worked nicely. Reviewers love pointing out which story in a collection is the best, because it makes them look smart, and that makes the book sound good. And it gave you time to really hone your third novel, which is about a group of adult friends. Some of them are married, there is at least one affair going on, someone else is terminally ill, and one person hasn’t lived up to their potential professionally.

The Legacy-Building Important Literary Novel
Title: The (your first job title)s
Example: The Carhops

(If your first job title isn’t that evocative, like “event planner” or “clerk,” add the county in which you live. Example: The Event Planners of Cook County.)

Wow! Look at those awards roll in! That novel “established you as one of the most important writers of our age,” they all say! Have a little fun with the next one. The advance is big enough that you can hire a research assistant! Set parts of it in places you’ve never been! Give your protagonist a strange and metaphorical hobby, like falconry or watchmaking!

Another Literary Novel to Prove the Last One Wasn’t a Fluke
Title: (your birth month)(third most populous city in the first foreign country you ever visited)
Example: December in Marseille

Your career is really humming along nicely now. Your book tours are only five cities long and you’re called upon to review young authors writing in the style of Almonds on High Street. Time to publish a collection of all those essays you wrote for Harpers and the Paris Review.

Your Agent Pointed Out That You Could Make Some Money Without Writing Anything New
Title: You’ll need a purse or briefcase or, if you don’t have either, open your messiest desk drawer. Close your eyes, reach in and grab whatever is in the very bottom or back. Add “The Wisdom of” before that item.
Example: The Wisdom of Eyeglasses

Time for a final bow. You don’t publish as frequently anymore what with your semesters spent as a Distinguished Writer in Residence and writing introductions to re-issued classics. But you’ve got time for one last book in which nothing happens and you can sneak in your ruminations on mortality. The plot is non-existent and the title is impossible to remember but you’re a household name now so people will just search by that.

The Final, Contemplative Novel
Title: (Your favorite season)(you’re told that someone left a rotten egg in your house; is your first questions who, what, why, where, or how?)
Example: Autumnwhere

Previously: “The ___’s Daughter” by Emily St. John Mandel and “Literary Fiction is a Genre” by Edan Lepucki.

Image Credit: Flickr/Jo Naylor.