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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Each year begins with a post-midnight call from my parents. I expect such a call this coming year, but it will be sans one parent. Perhaps when my father calls, my grieving mind will play one of those mean tricks it’s been playing since March, and for a hopeful half-second I’ll wait for Mom to come on the line with her buoyant voice full of new year’s wishes.
Last January, she wished that all my hopes and dreams surrounding my forthcoming short story collection would become real for me. She knew that my hopes and dreams—the ones that don’t involve my family members alive and prospering—are all tied up in the books I’m writing. This also means, by extension, all my hopes and dreams are tied to the books I’m reading. And what greater signifier of our eventual end is there than a TBR pile? How it mocks and taunts. How its very existence is a reminder that reading all the books one desires to read is a project no human can even possibly come close to completing.
When I think of the books I read this year, I can’t help but think of the books my mother never got a chance to read. I think of the shifting stack of books on her nightstand. I believe they are still there as if in memorial to her reading life. My mother loved the prolific romance novelist, Beverly Jenkins. Surely there were many of her novels my mother missed. I’ve never read a romance novel, know little of the genre, but after my mother passed, I took a Beverly Jenkins novel from my parents’ basement shelf, to read, but also as something tangible of her to hold since I can no longer hold her hand, but I have yet to open it.
For Christmas last year, my father bought my mother Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, but in her illness, I don’t believe she ever got a chance to read it. And there is my own book that I taunted her with in galley form. Look it exists! Hold it, but please don’t read! I didn’t want her to see the typos of the galley, to have to turn the inferior flimsy paper. The pictures are blurry in the galley and would, I knew, look better in the finished copy. I was in the midst of making small, but consequential sentence-level changes. My child had put on his clothes, but he had not yet washed his face nor combed his hair.
The final version, I told her, would be here in a few weeks. She didn’t have a few weeks. Yes, Ma, many good things did happen with my book, many of those dreams did become true, but because you are not here it all means less. I wonder if she would have enjoyed my book. She would have complained about the profanity. She would have smirked, and shaken her head at the book’s fantastical conceits and said, I don’t know where you get this wild imagination. It’s not so wild though. I want an imagination so wild it conjures her at will. That’s the sort of fantasy life afforded only to the characters in the stories we tell.
Speaking of the stories we tell, I’ve been telling myself and others that I was reading Ocean Vuong’s excellent novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous before and after my mother passed. In my recollection, as my mother faded I was comforted by the relationship between Little Dog, the main character, and his mother. I have strong memories of sitting on my bed the morning after my mother’s passing using the poetry of the prose to heal my grief-scarred mind. That memory can’t possibly be true. I picked up Vuong’s book at the AWP conference more than a week after my mother died. What’s true though is how beautifully at peace the novel made me feel when I had little but the tumult of sadness.
I don’t keep a log of my reading and haven’t for many years; though I did in the years I tried and failed to read one hundred books. I will forget some. Others, possibly belong to the previous year. My TBR pile grows. But I’m ending the year as I began it, with Maurice Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow. I read it out of excitement and anticipation early in the year and now, I read it as a professor eager to share a good book with his students. I bought my niece a copy of Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams so we could read together. And we traded e-mails about the plot twists, the characters and the general joys of the narrative. Similarly, my son and I read Jason Reynolds’s Look Both Ways and found ourselves lost in laughter. Alongside my wife, I ready Kiese Laymon’s Heavy—honesty in black, carefully laid.
Because short stories make my world go around: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man (begun in 2018, I believe); Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories; Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls; Bryan Washington’s Lot; Mickey Hess’s The Novelist and the Rapper (also his A Guest in the House of Hip-Hop) and ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Poetry likewise makes my world revolve, but in the opposite direction: Kwame Dawes’s City of Bones; Jericho Brown’s world-shaking The Tradition; Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast; Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon and his earlier Bastards of the Reagan Era (the cover of Felon is white and Bastards is black, and the books are like that, night and day; read them together and watch a whole world build around you). I read the autobiographies of William Wells Brown, a formerly enslaved man who went on to write several slave narratives, and I wept for the pressure white supremacy and the peculiar institution put on an individual, the way it made him write his tragedies as comedy to entertain indifferent white people. Jess Row’s White Flights redefined many of my assumptions about how race works in white fiction.
I served as a judge for the Tournament of Books and read Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages, Lydia Kiesling’s Golden State, Michael Odaajte’s Warlight and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s (hilarious) My Sister the Serial Killer. When Toni Morrison passed in the summer, I was reading her essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, and like nearly each time I’ve read a work by Morrison, I left elevated by the intellect of the author. This time though I also left with a great sadness—my mother was gone and the woman who is a literary mother to so many of us had likewise left the earth.