A Year in Reading: Venita Blackburn


I almost had a tarot reading this year (or last, my memory is not great). I have a special relationship with magic of that kind; it’s forbidden. I had a deep-woods old-school church kind of perspective programmed in me that said Ouija boards and tarot cards and conjure-woman mumbo jumbo were conduits of dark spirts. Don’t play with dark spirts. Once you let them in, you might not be able to let them out. Starting a new book for me feels like sitting down to a tarot reading. Before the deck is cut and the cards are dealt there is a promise looming, something that could be condemnation or a salve. There is still time to change my mind, to say no thank you, Ms. Magic Lady, your curtains are weird and I’m going to go grab a snack. Getting to the end of a book is the real flip of the card, when I can’t say no thank you to the spell, I can’t say my future is my own, I am compelled to grip the chair, press on to see and be changed. I read a lot of effing books this year, but so far these are the ones that I experienced from beginning to end and once complete turned them over again and again in my hands to shake one more word of destiny from the paper.

The Novels

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is the kind of book that is more of an experience than a read. It isn’t hyperbolic or dazzling the way some highly stylized narratives can be, a sort of smelly circus that alarms as well as entertains. This novel is quiet and hilarious, every word is the thing you need to hear when the end of the world happens. I think I planned to write this novel or live this novel years ago. That is how it leaves you.

We the Animals by Justin Torres is another tiny novel with epic, crushing force. I love narrators that exist as a collective consciousness. I write them often. This one explores the violence of boyhood with such accuracy we should set clocks to it.

Finally, the novel that I did not expect that has changed my whole brain is This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It is weird, a sci-fi fantasy epic romance with all the creaking machinery I demand of science fiction but also the heart-breaking poeticism I demand of all good literature. Swoon.

The Comics

Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda is gorgeous, full of incredible art and seriously sexy heroes and villains all of which are interchangeable, mostly women and may or may not be possessed by ancient gods. You’re welcome.

The Poetry

Lately, I’ve been trying to
understand what the word deserve means as in “I deserve” or “you deserve” or
“they deserve” anything. We offer these judgments as if they are real and slide
people easily into the category of deserving or undeserving with thoughtless habitual
conviction despite all manner of suffering that blooms from our lips.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine came out years ago, won pretty much all the awards in some capacity, and I never knew about it until this year. Where was I? I don’t know. But I have now arrived. The poems are mirrors that show how our collective psyche continues to unravel in this nation on a micro and macro level.

The Stories

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: The stories are brooding, black, violent, calm, and masculine—though not the typically canonized version of masculinity (racist/sexist/narcissistic). In this collection, another masculinity flexes, strong, patient, and ferocious with characters that feel like they will live on beyond the page whether we want them to or not for their own good or ours. This book put sad and frightful people in my mind forever, and I am grateful.

The other collection I encountered this year with stunning language and haunting environments was Florida by Lauren Groff. The prose is lovely and controlled. I’m always excited when I read women authors that not only know what they’re doing, but they know they know what they’re doing and that you know it too. Reading her work is like watching a 1940s black-and-white film of a glamorous woman smoking a cigarette, and it’s so perfect that the plot, the cameras, the wars, the taxes, and the whole quaking world doesn’t matter.