Let’s start with milk. I saw it everywhere. Last winter and a decade late, I read J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence. I paused to open my phone’s Notes app, and add to something: my list of book details that deserve more context, or perhaps books of their own. This tidbit was early on. It described the fine construction of a hotel, whose “ceiling beams had been soaked in milk for a year to harden them.” Beg your pardon. The story moved past this line quickly; this detail was inconsequential.
Milk piqued my interest because at the time my daughter was five months old. When people notice one blue car on the road, they see every blue car on the road. When I opened my fridge every few hours, I primed myself for distraction.
Still this doesn’t explain the amount of milk I saw, and what I saw it doing. I read John Fante’s Ask the Dust, a classic about wanting the satisfaction of creation without the agony of creating, and a character repaid a loan in milk. (“I can’t give you any hard cash, kid. But I’ll see that you get all the milk you need.”) In the end, the protagonist walks alone into the desert with a bottle of the stuff.
Next I read Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, a jewel of a novel in which a shoemaker, or “an engineer of human feet,” holds court at a bar or a brothel with a breathless soliloquy. He regales those poor women with a cursed detail: “When I went to Doctor Karafiát for my tapeworm, he put me on a diet and prescribed milk baths.” It’s not that I saw milk everywhere. It’s what I saw it doing. Anyway, what’s milk do to ceiling beams that it doesn’t do to men?
We proceed with pasteurized particulars. I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which wraps up when Dr. Montague’s wife demands glass after glass of milk. I read Thomas Tryon’s sterling psychological horror The Other, the best book I read all year, and underlined a scene about someone blanketing a bowl of crackers and dried beef with sugar. “‘That’s the way Father used to do,’ [another character] asserted, reaching for the milk pitcher.” I read Jess Williard’s blessed poem in DIAGRAM about “the dreaming, milk-breathed boy I once was.” Hrabal came back to me with Too Loud a Solitude, which condensed milk into so tight a space that it… Nevermind. In Too Loud…, a character learns that his mother is dying, so he drinks milk to ease his mind. Someone drinks milk for two days and gets drunk off the stuff. Paul Celan gave Hrabal a run for his milk money. In Breathturn into Timestead, Pierre Joris’s translation of Celan’s later poetry, the poet uses the words “milk-close” and “milksister.” In Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, Joris’s translation of the earlier work, Celan goes deep into “black milk.”
Milk spilled. I saw it on screen. Baltimore has an honest to god video rental store. After they reopened four months into the pandemic, I rented Bigger Than Life, and watched a man melt down over a pitcher of milk. I rented Nights of Cabiria and one character said, “What she needs is brandy.” Another replied, “What she needs is milk.” I watched Barton Fink and the guy who sipped milk before brown liquor reminded me of the investigator and his Pepto Bismol in Cape Fear.
When I think about the year, I think about milk. It was constant. It’s been company. But when I interrogate the thought I see also how the pandemic dilated time, how what felt like years ago feels like yesterday but was actually last March, when time broke. For nine months I’ve worked remote for my day job, pulling 12 hour days across two shifts—one loosely 9-5, the other loosely 8-11. I’ve done so from my windowless basement. I wake, I parent, I feed, I cook, I work, I shop, I cook, I parent, I partner, I work, I read, I sleep, I repeat the steps and shower if I remember. I have done countless dishes and laundry; I have poured preposterous amounts of milk. Time has passed but it hasn’t always felt that way. In the basement, there are no windows. Events have passed without me and it’s felt awful each time. I am indefensibly fortunate to be in the position I’m in but I am incandescently angry at the policymakers who hold the keys to making things better, and I am boundlessly sad for the people who have it worse as a result of legislators’ inaction. I am, as of this writing, hopeful about the future. I am also, as of this writing, astounded that my daughter is now 16 months old, and another year has passed.
In that year I read a lot, somehow. That’s the thing about the dilation of time, and about incremental progress. Ten pages each day in the pandemic, when each day feels the same, feels like nothing in real time. But over enough time, it adds up to a novel or fifty.
Looking at my list tonight, time accordions. Moments I couldn’t remember expand until I live them again. There I am in the sun, recognizing the YouTube video referenced in Kimberly Quiogue Andrew’s A Brief History of Fruit. There I am in the shade, gasping at something in Christian Wiman’s Survival is a Style. Before tonight, if you came up to me in person and asked for the five best books I read this year, I’d tell you to step back six feet, and I’d struggle. Armed with my actual Goodreads list, however, it all returns. So I did read Justin Torres’s We the Animals on the bus to work. So I did read Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine on the bus back home. So that season really did pass, and it really did feel differently from now. Time was not always a milky blur. This is why we take pictures.
It turns out I read Blood on the Forge on my porch this year, and underlined the line about how “sometimes corn whisky could wash the lump out a guy’s throat and make his fears things to be handled with his fists.” I did that while my new neighbor Dave was moving in. It turns out I read Black Wings Has My Angel, the second best book I read this year, and I double underlined the line of the pandemic: “Most of living is waiting to live.”
I read Emily Nemens’ The Cactus League and learned what “teddies” are in her fantastic chapter about baseball players’ wives. I can’t remember where I did that, though. I read Black Candies: The Eighties, an anthology of horror stories, and treasured Ryan Hicks’s story about INXS, Aaron Burch’s with the ants, and Meghan Phillips’s version of “Bloody Mary” told from Mary’s perspective. (Now I remember why INXS is on my Spotify year-end list.) This was around the time I read Paige Lewis’s terrific collection Space Struck, which I know because I used one of her lines (“Oh, we are boring and superstitious / in my city. We believe tides are caused by millions of oysters / gasping in unison.”) for an Instagram picture I posted from my local oyster bar on March 7th, the last night I went out before the lockdown.
Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place set the tone for a noir kick I began but will never end. Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley satisfied my curiosity about what it’s like in Silicon Valley, so I don’t need anything more. I cherished Danez Smith’s Homie and Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound Is a World when I read them back-to-back predawn before anyone else in the house was awake. This is when things got hazy. I read Kinky Friedman’s Elvis, Jesus, and Coca-Cola because a friend recommended it, and I’m glad he did. I read Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here because the internet recommended it, and I’m glad it did.
The first book I read under lockdown was Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors because as soon as I learned we wouldn’t be leaving our houses, I was like, “I need to leave my house.” Transporting to Hawaii felt urgent. Next I read Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse because as soon as it hit me that we really wouldn’t be leaving our houses, I was like, “the world’s ending.” It turns out that it is, but not for that reason. The third book I read under lockdown was Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, which hypnotized me until I snapped out of it all. What a treasure, that book. I cannot wait for her next one.
During the busiest period of my professional life, I read Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle. I needed to escape the absurdity of my days into something equally absurd but in a different way. I read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic because I needed to calm down. I read every page of Frank Herbert’s Dune because the movie was coming out and I needed something on the other end of the pandemic to look forward to—the movie, which was soon after pushed back due to the pandemic. That’s a lesson.
In the summer, we went to the beach, and I read Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot, the most mind-bending book I’ve read in years. It’s a 650-page novel that somehow feels bigger than it is, and it was exactly what I needed on the Delaware coast. I followed it with John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, which was slight but satisfying. I followed that with The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, which was enormous and satisfying.
At some point I began a second document in my phone’s Notes app. This time instead of logging details in need of expansion, I logged lines I wanted to read in bars I couldn’t visit. Jamaal May had a good one in Hum: “A swallow of whiskey won’t drown my questions. / Another shot won’t take me out of my head.” William Attaway had a good one in Blood…: “Mat had been drinking. There was the look about him of a man traveling on whisky instead of muscle.” This sentiment was more or less echoed by Patrick White in Riders…: “Stauffer was slightly drunk. It made him look like a man of action, or at least an amateur of sabotage.” And then there’s sam sax’s line in “New God of an Antique War”: “you can’t drink a glass / without becoming / something else.”
I miss bars, as you might have guessed. Early in the pandemic, I got a slight kick out of going to the liquor store every two weeks for a curbside pick-up. I called ahead to place orders and an associate dutifully jotted them down. I had an actual “tab” for the first time in my life. Each call, I felt like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Then, on each visit to the store, I felt like I was readying my wagon for a continental journey. When I bought so much beer that it set off the passenger side “fasten seatbelt” alarm on the drive home, I felt like Robert Grainier in Train Dreams, loading up on provisions so I could winter in my cabin. Which, yeah.
All of this faded. The yearning doubled back. I miss the anonymity and escape of reading in a place that isn’t the same place I live. I miss sitting among strangers, together but apart. (As opposed to our pandemic present, where we’re each on our own, together.) When I read Joy Williams’s Taking Care, I logged in my Notes app the most Florida Man description of all time: someone named “Johnny Dakota” is “into heroin and intangible property.” I want nothing more than to be sitting in a dimly lit dive, sizing up a would-be Dakotas among the regulars. I think often of the great line in Jesus’ Son: “What I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.” For now we settle for Frank Stanford’s pandemic-approved alternative at the start of What About This: “We’re sitting on the porch, / Drinking and spitting, lying.”
Months ago I began John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, and it broke time again. I’m comforted whenever I open it. On a geologic scale, last March was yesterday or it might as well be tomorrow—the span matters so little. There’s a lesson there, too. Let’s promise to get together once we’re vaccinated. Milk or bourbon, we’ll lie about the time in between and what we remember, or when. It’ll be beautiful, I’m sure.
More from A Year in Reading 2020
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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005