The Millions Top Ten: June 2020

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Glass Hotel
4 months

2.
2.

The City We Became
4 months

3.
4.

Night Boat to Tangier
6 months

4.
5.

Interior Chinatown

5 months

5.
7.

The Resisters
5 months

6.
6.

Tell It Slant

2 months

7.
9.

All My Mother’s Lovers
2 months

8.


Death in Her Hands
1 month

9.
8.

The Mirror & the Light
4 months

10.


Sharks in the Time of Saviors
1 month

As expected, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror capped off a solid six months on our list with ascension into our site’s Hall of Fame. This freed up one spot on our list, but another was opened by Madeleine L’Engle’s The Moment of Tenderness moving from the 10th position last month to off the list entirely now. What has 2020 been if not divided?

Filling those spots are Ottessa Moshfegh, whose latest novel, Death in Her Hands ,debuts in the eighth position, and Kawai Strong Washburn, whose Sharks in the Time of Saviors moves up from last month’s “Near Misses” into the varsity line-up of the Top Ten.

In our Great First-Half 2020 Book Preview, published last January, which feels approximately seven decades ago, our own Il’ja Rákoš described Moshfegh’s latest as an “atmospheric, darkly comic tale of a pathologically lonely widow and the thrills lurking in her sylvan retreat.” Now that we’ve all basically been homebound, that sounds relatable—although that “sylvan” descriptor might be aspirational for most.

Washburn’s rise meanwhile could, if I were to toot my own horn, be ascribed to the way I wrote about his novel in the May edition of our Millions member newsletter:
I’ve worked 18-hour days nonstop since February because of my day job at a certain university with a very popular pandemic tracking map, so I’ve had precious few opportunities to read books. I also have a nine-month-old, so ditto. But people are right when they say life finds a way, and in pre-dawn hours while standing at the kitchen counter, or late night as I linger a moment or two longer than I should in my workspace, I’ve snatched bleary-eyed bits of Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, and its viscerally rendered Hawaiian setting, interwoven with themes of new and old traditions, has been exactly the jolt I’ve needed. I’m not done yet but when I do finish, when the world settles, when the pandemic subsides, I’ll be thinking about it still.
Now that I’ve finished it, I can confirm: I’ve thought about this book almost daily since then. Now that we’re in July, I can also confirm: the virus is still here. Wear a mask.

Among the near misses we must highlight Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, which has become ubiquitous on reading lists the past few months. Although the circumstances of the book’s growing popularity are tragic, the fact that a book is newly popular makes it no less essential, and that new readers are interested in it should be celebrated—even if many of them are coming to it later than one would like, and even if the act of reading a book (or any number of books) alone will not make right what is wrong. Still, we ought to see the good where it is: this is a start for many people, even if it is overdue. Let’s all get to work.

This month’s near misses included: Disappearing Earth, A Luminous Republic, How to Be an Antiracist, and Fleishman Is in Trouble. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2020

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Glass Hotel
3 months

2.
3.

The City We Became
3 months

3.
5.

Trick Mirror
6 months

4.
4.

Night Boat to Tangier

5 months

5.
9.

Interior Chinatown
4 months

6.


Tell It Slant

1 month

7.
6.

The Resisters
4 months

8.
7.

The Mirror & the Light
3 months

9.


All My Mother’s Lovers
1 month

10.


The Moment of Tenderness
1 month

Rejoice, Millions faithful! Our own Adam O’Fallon Price has reached our site’s Hall of Fame thanks to six strong monthly showings for The Hotel Neversink. O’Fallon Price is now the fifth Millions staffer to reach the Hall—he joins site founder C. Max Magee (The Late American Novel), along with Mark O’Connell (Epic Fail), Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), and Garth Risk Hallberg (City on Fire). It also looks like St. John Mandel may become the first Millions staffer to reach the Hall twice, as she notches yet another month atop our Top Ten with her latest novel, The Glass Hotel.

At the same time, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous both dropped out of the running this month, continuing the on-again, off-again trend they’ve maintained for a couple months.

Combined, these departures made way for three arrivals.

Tell It Slant, a ubiquitous craft mainstay, which had most recently been referenced on our site in a 2018 piece by Vivian Wagner, burst up to the sixth position on our list after a month or two among our “near misses.” Likewise, The Moment of Tenderness moved from the same group into our 10th spot. Then, All My Mother’s Lovers, which was featured recently in a Tuesday New Release Day post, made it into the ninth position.

See y’all next month as Jia Tolentino jettisons into our Hall of Fame, and who knows what else happens.

This month’s near misses included: A Luminous Republic, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, and Sharks in the Time of Saviors. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2020

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
5.

The Glass Hotel
2 months

2.
3.

The Hotel Neversink
6 months

3.
9.

The City We Became
2 months

4.
6.

Night Boat to Tangier

4 months

5.
4.

Trick Mirror
5 months

6.
8.

The Resisters

3 months

7.
7.

The Mirror & the Light
2 months

8.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
3 months

9.
10.

Interior Chinatown
3 months

10.


Fleishman Is in Trouble
2 months

Two Millions staffers top this month’s list, while a third narrowly missed out on inclusion. Perhaps this achievement amidst a global pandemic is what Charles Dickens meant by “the best of times…the worst of times.”

Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel rose to first place this month; the book “explores what Mandel calls ‘the kingdom of money,'” wrote Adam O’Fallon Price in our March Book Preview. Meanwhile Price’s novel The Hotel Neversink rose to second place on this month’s list. Mandel didn’t preview Neversink for our March Book Preview, even though that would have been a nice bit of symmetry, but Bill Morris did call it a “rambunctious, ambitious, decades- and generations-jumping tale” in our Great Book Preview, and that’s probably better. Regardless, the facts are irrefutable: Millions readers love Millions staffers who write books with “Hotel” in their titles.

Elsewhere, two books rejoin the list after spending some time off of it. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous rejoined for the first time since February, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble came back after debuting that same month. Their spots were opened up when The Topeka School and Ducks, Newburyport graduated to our Hall of Fame—a first-time distinction for both Ben Lerner and Lucy Ellmann.

Next month we look poised to open up at least one spot for a newcomer, and there’s only one place where you can find out which book it will be.

This month’s near misses included: The Moment of Tenderness, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, Tell It Slant, and Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in American Fiction. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2020

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Topeka School
6 months

2.
2.

Ducks, Newburyport
6 months

3.
4.

The Hotel Neversink
5 months

4.
3.

Trick Mirror

4 months

5.


The Glass Hotel
1 month

6.
7.

Night Boat to Tangier

3 months

7.


The Mirror & the Light
1 month

8.
5.

The Resisters
2 months

9.


The City We Became
1 month

10.
9.

Interior Chinatown
2 months

This month J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand leaves us for the Hall of Fame, and it’s easy to be jealous. As the pandemic rages, exposing the failures of our health systems and laying bare the craven selfishness of many leaders and neighbors alike, it’s easy to wish you, too, were leaving everything behind, bound instead of the bliss of an Internet culture site’s Valhalla. On another, less dramatic level it’s easy as well to be jealous of people who are simply in positions to buy and enjoy books at a time like this, a time unlike any other. It’s been said by others in better language than mine, but the point remains: in dark and lonely times, remember the arts you turn toward.

In that spirit, we find reasons for joy. This is a banner month for Millions staffers, as a full fifth of the books on this month’s list was authored by our staffers. Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, The Glass Hotel, debuts in the fifth spot, and that’s the kind of strong showing in a pandemic you’d expect from the author of Station Eleven. Meanwhile Adam O’Fallon Price’s The Hotel Neversink has been a mainstay on the list for a while, but this month it edged ahead of Jia Tolentino’s acclaimed collection Trick Mirror, which is the publishing equivalent of a song from your favorite hometown band overtaking a pop star’s summer single on the Billboard list.

Elsewhere on the list, The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel’s finale to the Wolf Hall series, enters in seventh position, and The City We Became, the first installment of N.K. Jemisin’s Great Cities trilogy, enters in ninth. In our Great First-Half 2020 Book Preview, Lydia Kiesling called the release of Mantel’s latest “one of the literary events of the young millennium,” and Jacqueline Krass said she “can’t wait” for Jemisin’s. In an interview for our site, John Maher asked Mantel, “What one fundamental aspect of history do you wish readers, or the culture at large, knew that you now know after years of researching the period you’ve fictionalized?”

“The past has to be respected and valued for its own sake,” she replied. “It is not a rehearsal for the present, and its people are not us in a primitive form.”

In the days ahead, remember that corollary: we didn’t rehearse what we’re going through now.

This month’s near misses included: The Testaments, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, and Tell It Slant. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2020

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Topeka School
5 months

2.
4.

Ducks, Newburyport
5 months

3.
7.

Trick Mirror
3 months

4.
6.

The Hotel Neversink

4 months

5.


The Resisters
1 month

6.
7.

Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories

6 months

7.
9.

Night Boat to Tangier
2 months

8.
10.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
2 months

9.


Interior Chinatown
1 month

10.


Fleishman Is in Trouble
1 month

To celebrate the ascension of Ducks, Newburyport to the second spot on this month’s Top Ten, this write-up will consist of a single sentence—in spite of the fact that Lucy Ellmann’s 1,000-page novel actually consists of eight—because, frankly, as the world of online books and culture has evolved, or more accurately contracted and rigidified, it remains the case that The Millions is a place where, although some might disagree, there is still room for playful displays of fanatical literary bombast (as, of course, evidenced by the fact that Ducks, Newburyport’s un-diagrammable heft was purchased by so many readers last month that it’s now been listed second only to Ben Lerner’s latest), and so with us agreed that this place can be fun, and funny and most of all filled with celebration, we must tip our hats to Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, and Inland by Téa Obreht, a trio of novels bound for our site’s hallowed Hall of Fame, and we must tip those very same hats—or, if you prefer, we can tip a new set of hats, because few things are more excessive and celebratory than spare hats, reserved specifically for fresh tipping—to The Resisters by Gish Jen, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, and Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the trio of novels filling the vacated spaces on the list this month, which advances us from February into March, a time of new beginnings and, in the mid-Atlantic, unseasonably warm temperatures, but that’s beside the point, which is of course that these three newcomers on our list are superb, the first two of which earning praise in the most recent installment of our annual Book Preview for being “a comprehensive yet disturbing picture of how totalitarianism speeds back to the center stage of human history,” and a “wrenching, hilarious, sharp, surreal, and, above all, original [novel],” respectively, while not to be outdone is Taffy’s debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, which has been discussed the most on our site—earning two spots in our Year in Reading series courtesy of Hannah Gersen and Devin Lee Booker—and was mentioned most recently just three weeks ago when Anna Sims referred to it as “a book that offers a sharp critique of the lie fueling modern feminism and is brilliantly disguised as a book about a man,” before continuing on to describe it as not just a “very funny book,” but also a “very tired book,” which is a sentiment that, by now, the writer of this piece—to say nothing of the myriad readers of this piece—can completely understand.

This month’s near misses included: A Long Petal of the Sea, The Testaments, How to Be an Antiracist, Quichotte, and The Lost Book of Adana Moreau. See Also: Last month’s list.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading: Ben Lerner
A Year in Reading: Adam O’Fallon Price
The Best Book You’ve Never Read: ‘Pieces for the Left Hand’
Shifting Anxieties: On J. Robert Lennon’s ‘See You in Paradise
You Can’t Lie in Fiction: An Interview with Kevin Barry
I’m a Stained-Glass Guy: The Millions Interviews Kevin Barry
A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry
Memory Can Be a Second Chance: Ocean Vuong’s ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’
Modern Feminism’s Big Lie: On ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’

The Millions Top Ten: January 2020

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
6 months

2.
2.

The Memory Police
6 months

3.
3.

The Topeka School
4 months

4.
5.

Ducks, Newburyport

4 months

5.
4.

Inland
6 months

6.
7.

The Hotel Neversink

3 months

7.
9.

Trick Mirror
2 months

8.
6.

Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories
5 months

9.


Night Boat to Tangier
1 month

10.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
1 month

The new year brings slight change to the top-half of our Top Ten. The books in fourth and fifth position swapped places, bumping Ducks, Newburyport up a spot, but otherwise 2020 begins just as 2019 ended: with Olga Tokarczuk in first place.

Elsewhere on the list, things get more interesting. Both Jia Tolentino and Adam O’Fallon Price saw their works rise a couple spots: Trick Mirror from ninth to seventh; The Hotel Neversink from seventh to sixth. Bravo, both.

Speaking of cheers, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys, capped off six straight appearances on our Top Ten by ascending to our Hall of Fame. It’s the second time Whitehead has reached the Hall. The Underground Railroad made it in 2017. On the other hand, The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, dropped out of our list.

Filling the two free spots are Ocean Vuong and Kevin Barry, as On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous moves from perennial placement in our “Near Misses” to 10th position, and Night Boat to Tangier rides two mentions from our Year in Reading series into the ninth spot. Both Daniel Levin Becker and our own Bill Morris sung its praises. It “wrap[s] inventive thickets of idiom and fragment around affecting tales of parenthood and loss” wrote Becker. “It provides all the pleasures his fans have come to expect, including pyrotechnical language, a delicious stew of high lit and low slang, lovable bunged-up characters, rapturous storytelling, and a fair bit of the old U(ltra) V(iolence)” wrote Morris.

This month’s near misses included: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, A Long Petal of the SeaHow to Be an Antiracist, and Quichotte. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
5 months

2.
2.

The Memory Police
5 months

3.
3.

The Topeka School
3 months

4.
4.

Inland

5 months

5.
6.

Ducks, Newburyport
3 months

6.
5.

Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories

4 months

7.
9.

The Hotel Neversink
2 months

8.
7.

The Nickel Boys
6 months

9.


Trick Mirror
1 month

10.
8.

The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
4 months

It’s an exciting month for Millions staffer Adam O’Fallon Price, whose novel The Hotel Neversink rose two spots in our Top Ten, and now ranks higher than Margaret Atwood’s latest novel on the list. Clearly, interests were piqued by Price’s entry in our Year in Reading series. (You can explore the entire series here.)

Meanwhile, the top half of this month’s list held steady month-over-month. Ducks, Newburyport cracked the top-5, displacing J. Robert Lennon’s short story collection, which moves to sixth place. For now, long sentences get the upper hand over the left.

Our lone newcomer this month is Jia Tolentino’s hugely popular essay collection, Trick Mirror. Tolentino’s book was named in no fewer than eight of this year’s Year in Reading entries, so its appearance on the list comes as no surprise. Millions readers can thank Mike Isaac, Kaulie Lewis, C Pam Zhang, Kate Gavino, Garth Risk Hallberg, Lauren Michele Jackson, Shea Serrano, and yours truly for the recommendations.

Speaking of recommendations, it seems that either Barack Obama is a devout Millions reader or Millions readers take their cues from him. It’s a bit of a chicken-egg situation. Either way, a full five of the books on this month’s Top Ten (and among the “Near Misses”) appeared on Obama’s year-end list of his favorite books—a Venn diagram overlap representing 36% of our total. Uncanny is another word for suspicious. Obama, since you’re clearly reading this, we invite you to share a Year in Reading entry in 2020.

This month’s near misses included: Night Boat to Tangier, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Trust Exercise, and How to Be an Antiracist. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
4 months

2.
3.

The Memory Police
4 months

3.
6.

The Topeka School
2 months

4.
5.

Inland

4 months

5.
4.

Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories
3 months

6.


Ducks, Newburyport

2 months

7.
9.

The Nickel Boys
5 months

8.
10.

The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
3 months

9.


The Hotel Neversink
1 month

10.


The Need
2 months

After six months of smashing success on our list, The Practicing Stoic surely becomes the first philosopher’s resource to grace our Hall of Fame. (Although maybe you could make a case for Marie Kondo’s book, which made it in 2015.) This is the second time author Ward Farnsworth has reached the Hall: in October 2011, he did so with Classical English Rhetoric. Don’t call it a comeback.
Joining Farnsworth in the Hall of Fame are two novels: Halle Butler’s The New Me and Sally Rooney’s Ordinary People. It’s the first appearance for each author.
Filling two of those spaces is a pair of books that had been on our list previously, but fell off between then and now. These ones, you can call comebacks. Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport made the list in September after being shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize. It’s back in sixth position this month. Likewise, Helen Phillips’s The Need returns to our list after taking a two-month hiatus among the “near misses.”

Meanwhile a Millions staffer joins our list as this month’s true newcomer. Adam O’Fallon Price’s novel The Hotel Neversink holds ninth position. Fellow Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling called Price’s book “a gripping, atmospheric, heart-breaking, almost-ghost story,” and added that, “Not since Stephen King’s Overlook has a hotel hiding a secret been brought to such vivid life.”

Next month, after our Year in Reading concludes, we’ll likely see a whole batch of new books on this list. Budget accordingly.

This month’s near misses included: The Golden State, The Water DancerHow to Be an Antiracist, Quichotte: A Novel, and The Dutch House. See Also: Last month’s list.

A Year in Reading: Nick Moran

I love references, how they operate like conversational shorthand. When I describe the main character of The Invitation as “a store-brand Chris Stapleton,” I feel clever and efficient. If brevity is the soul of wit, then references are the bees of conversation, pollinating subjects by imbuing them with meaning from someplace else. Of course, the trouble with references is how they rely on a shared cultural vocabulary, and what’s double is that often my most apt referents are obscure. For better and more often worse, I forge ahead. (Oh, to hell with universality!) I watch Raising Arizona and ask my wife, “is that John C. Reilly on a motorcycle?” She thinks I’m serious. I say my 4-month-old daughter’s flailing arms remind me of Joe Cocker and my friend humors me with a closed lip smile, but I doubt his familiarity with “Space Captain.” After reading a profile in the New Yorker, I tell my coworker that Poo-Pourri’s founder seems like “a cross between Tony Robbins and Aldous Huxley,” and from her expression I know I’ve failed.
“Sick reference, bro,” says Jonah Hill in This Is the End, just before high-fiving Jay Baruchel. “Your references are out of control; everyone knows that.” (Oh, to always hit the mark!) Yet how deceptively difficult: to connect two far-flung details takes skill, but to correctly guess beforehand that both details are known by your peers…Reader, that’s genius. All year, I’ve drawn parallels and blasted them out like buckshot, unsure if most will stick. I’ve bridged gaps ignorant of whether people know what lies on the other side. I say things like, “Tolstoy is to Sunset Boulevard as Dostoevsky is to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” and I want people to understand not only the antic madness of the latter, but also that I obviously prefer Dostoevsky. Alas, when I’ve done so in person, I’ve mostly misfired. When I’ve done so on Twitter, I’ve earned modest faves. Maybe here I’ll do better.
In the recognition of patterns, the world is enriched. In the recognition of too many, things get weird. One of my neighborhood’s dividing lines is Falls Road. To the east lies a hip neighborhood filled with artists and yuppies. To the west is what my realtor calls “little West Virginia.” Farther outside of Baltimore is a place called Dundalk, which some say is lousy with “waterbillies.” How uncanny, then, to sit on my porch reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s superb Say Nothing, in which Falls Road bisects the Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast, and in which gun runners go on the lam in nearby Dundalk, County Louth.
Native Baltimorean Adrienne Rich wrote of “that estranged intensity / where [man’s] mind forages alone,” and I think of that when my references don’t work. I also thought of it when, midway through her Selected Poems: 1950-2012, I read “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” set in the American southwest—chiefly because it reminded me of another book, the best one I read all year. “This is the desert where missiles are planted like corns,” Rich wrote of an area near New Mexico, and voila, there I was, foraging alone in my recollection of Joshua Wheeler’s Acid West.
Maybe I like Wheeler’s essays so much because they, too, are stuffed with references. His essays position New Mexico as the spoke of the weirdest wheel on earth, just as Sam Anderson’s Boom Town positioned Oklahoma City as the country’s microcosmic center. Both books demonstrate there’s no such thing as insignificant detail; all seeds blossom in time. “When you encounter something seemingly meaningless, you can accept the numbness of it or ache for profundity,” Wheeler wrote. “I tend toward the ache.” (Hear hear.) Wheeler’s book has the additional allure of dwelling on one of my fascinations: maudlin drinking. (His acknowledgements page shouts out four different dive bars.) “I don’t want her money,” Wheeler wrote about his grandmother, who tried to offer him some. “I’d only waste it at the bar, trying to drink myself into the future.” That line sounds straight out of The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing’s spectacular noir novel, which like Wheeler’s book punctuates many of its drunken asides with the phrase, “Well, all right.”

Speaking of alcohol, Hamm’s had a big year with me. There it was in Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, which I wish the Coen Brothers would adapt. There it was again in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, being sold cheaper in an Arizona bar than at the Crest Cafe from A Woman Under the Influence. While watching the latter film I thought, I’ve read Lucia Berlin before.
Frank Bidart wrote, “there is a beast within you // that can drink till it is // sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.” In Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban’s protagonist says, “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.” To thirst endlessly and to flirt with oblivion: these are the impulses pulling men together in Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, the second-best book I read this year. (Those themes also power Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, which I read last year but need to shout out again.)
Sometimes I observe superficial patterns, and other times I observe something deeper. Reading Jia Tolentino’s “Ecstasy” essay in Trick Mirror, which is about church, that eponymous drug, Houston, and DJ Screw, I wished I was back in school so I could write about it being “in conversation with” the first story in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, which is about church, that same drug again, Miami, and Celia Cruz. Reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science, which was sublime, I thought a lot about the android personae in Janelle Monae’s first album, which was as well. Reading Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” in Orange World, the third-best book I read this year, I thought not only of its inspiration, a photograph by Andrew Moore, but also of how that fondness for twisters is echoed by lines in “Tornado Season” from Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana: “I wanted to be carried— / green sky, sudden hail—with everything / I knew: blue spruce, white pine, the grey- / shingled bars of Whitley County, face / of the barber and his sharpened razor, / Marie at the Waffle House, Beau / Tucker over mufflers in his shop.” Come to think of it, 80% of the reason I bought Colette Arrand’s chapbook The Future is Here and Everything Must be Destroyed was because its cover referenced Waffle House. I’m glad I did it, and you should do the same.
Other times I observe patterns that are thematic. I think the moss hunter in Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory belongs in the canon of workplace weirdos alongside the levitating accountant in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the psychotic closet-dwelling scientist in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the dude with the “bee-beard” in that story from Ryan Boudinot’s The Littlest Hitler, the obvious scammers skulking about Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, and frankly everybody in Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods. From now on, when I mention this specific sub-canon, you’ll get the reference.
Elsewhere constellations were mapped by sheer happenstance. It was serendipity that my daughter, born about a week ahead of schedule, arrived one day after I watched Eraserhead, the world’s worst movie to view in those circumstances. Not two weeks prior, I’d finished Ironweed, which bears the same mantle among books. Fortunately, before both I’d read three books that, in their open dealings with its associated anxiousness, actually braced me for the realities of parenthood. Many reviewers have remarked on the titular story in Karen Russell’s Orange World being a parable of motherhood, but similar themes actually coarse through the entire book. In fact, the most affecting treatment of fatherhood I’ve ever read was in the tornado story I just referenced above. Also, while I enjoyed Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything enormously when I read them months before, it was not until those first weeks home with my new daughter that their powers were revealed. This is why I tell people now: whether you’re expecting or not, these books are outstanding. They will whisper to you down the road.
Most of the references that occur to me elude easy explanation, making them impossible to drop in casual conversation. Suffice it to say that, in one story in particular, Taeko Kōno’s Toddler-Hunting gives off big Takashi Miike vibes. Suffice it to say that the best sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men would rival the best sections of John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country were it not for Agee’s leering horniness. Suffice it to say that the narrator in Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known reminds me of Sideshow Bob in a good way. (Writing to Selma Bouvier from prison: “Your latest letter caused a riot in the maximum security wing of my heart.”). Suffice it to say that when I read Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, I was struck by the line, “A bore at home, he transformed in the city. // What’s yours at home is a wolf in my city” because it made me think about how in life most men are Kevin Finnerty while in their minds most men are Tony Soprano in Las Vegas. Suffice it to say, suffice it to say, suffice it to say…
“No one ever came to my door in searching – / for you, no one, except for you -,” wrote Canisia Lubrin in Voodoo Hypothesis. There’s a recursive desire to move inward, to burrow, to coil like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. When I tell you this line haunts me as much as the one on the second page of Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, I mean it, and I want you to know them both automatically; I don’t want to explain them further. “Some people say history moves in a spiral,” wrote Ocean Vuong in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a novel which deliberately lacks conflict. Of all these forms, Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode has much to say, because Alison’s book is one that identifies patterns, that draws upon references to do so. It was the fourth-best book I read this year. In college, she read us a story about the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Every day I wonder about the threshold of commonality required to make casual references, because every day I read references to supposedly canonical things I fail to grasp. These can be low-brow: if you’ve ever referred to Saved by the Bell, you’ve lost me, because I’ve never seen it. Ditto pro wrestling. These can also be high-brow: Few allusions to Greek philosophers work on me; I don’t know enough Shakespeare to get most mentions of him. Still, I possess references you cannot possibly know. Before beating USC, Vince Young said he warmed up to a chopped and screwed version of T.I.’s “Tha King.” That’s stuck with me since tenth grade. It’s been my warm-up song since—for everything, even pumpkin picking. There are some things we never lose. You might say Twitter is a project of crowdsourced reference-making: the most basic and universal observations go viral because they are the most widely understood, while deeper cultural in-jokes amuse only niche audiences—if that—even when their connections work much better. All of us are in our own orbits with the world, each viewing but one face of the cultural sphere. The one I see will always be different from yours, but damned if I won’t try to show it to you.
At the local brewery some months ago, I sat next to a guy in a Mississippi State quarter-zip while he waited to fill his Mississippi State-branded growler. (We were nowhere near Mississippi.) The speakers played Vampire Weekend. I put down The Last Whalers because I got distracted by reality: my coworker is the sister of Mississippi State’s basketball coach, and Ezra Koenig quoted my stepbrother in our high school yearbook. (Life’s rich pageant!) Who could read about Lamalerans at a time like that? As always, who can think of anything but that line from Brian Phillips’s outstanding collection Impossible Owls, the fifth-best book of my year: “What overwhelms is not the meaninglessness of the universe but the coexistence of an apparent meaninglessness with the astonishing interconnectedness of everything.”

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Millions Top Ten: October 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
6 months

2.
2.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
3 months

3.
4.

The Memory Police
3 months

4.
3.

Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories

3 months

5.
6.

Inland

3 months

6.


The Topeka School

1 month

7.
7.

The New Me
6 months

8.
5.

Normal People
6 months

9.
8.

The Nickel Boys
4 months

10.
9.

The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
2 months

This month Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which appeared on our list amidst a dark horse run toward the Man Booker Prize, is replaced on our list by Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, which will doubtless make some prize runs of its own. As Hannah Gersen noted in her capsule for our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview, “The pre-pub blurbs for Lerner’s third novel are ecstatic, with his publisher calling it a breakthrough and Claudia Rankine describing it as ‘a powerful allegory of our troubled present.'” Clearly, many Millions readers are tantalized.

Elsewhere on our list, titles jockeyed for slight changes in position. Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winning novel The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, slid to 10th. September’s eighth book moved to ninth. The third swapped places with the fourth. You get the picture. Next month, three slots will open as three books are bound for our Hall of Fame. Any guesses on what will fill their places? Keep in mind: Year in Reading is around the corner. Start budgeting now.

This month’s near misses included: The Golden State, The Lightest Object in the Universe, The Hotel Neversink, and How to Be an Antiracist. See Also: Last month’s list.