A Nail the Evening Hangs On

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A Year in Reading: Jean Chen Ho

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I started this year with a re-reading of Jazz by Toni Morrison. I’d landed back in LA at 6:30am on December 31 after a three-week trip to visit family in Taiwan. Jetlagged to hell, I woke up again at 3am and couldn’t fall back asleep so I drove to the Astro Diner down the street from me in Los Feliz. It’s one of those 24-hour joints with mauve swivel stools and walnut formica counters, Heinz ketchup and Tapatío next to the salt and pepper, tufted vinyl booths under large windows with snowflake decals stuck on the glass. I ordered chicken and waffles, a cup of hot water with lemon, and I read Jazz—“Sth, I know that woman” one of the greatest opening lines in a novel—meeting Violet and Joe Trace again, and Dorcas, the eighteen year old girl Joe falls in love with, and who he kills. The flock of birds in the Lenox Avenue apartment, one who replies, “I love you.” Behind the counter I heard the waiter laughing with someone I couldn’t see; he asked her a question in Spanish, and received an answer. All of it as if a shibboleth for my psychic return home.

Late last year I sold my first book, Fiona and Jane, a short story collection. In January I signed the contract, and then I read Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal, which I’d recommend to anyone who’s interested in publishing a book (a completely different thing from the work of writing a book). I sincerely appreciated Maum’s narrative voice, which is very warm, kind, and self-assured, in that reasonable-friend-who-talks-you-down-from-the-ledge way.

The last in-person reading I went to this year before the pandemic hit was for Brandon Taylor’s debut novel Real Life at Skylight Books. I’d bought the book a couple days before the event and devoured it. There’s a scene near the beginning that lives rent free in my head: the novel’s protagonist, Wallace, slowly pouring a carton of milk into his friend/crush Miller’s red, irritated eyes over a public bathroom sink. It’s an ordinary act of care written with exceptional tenderness, attended by such erotic longing that reading it made me think “pouring milk into eyes” should be its own Pornhub subcategory.

I read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu back to back, which were both master classes in experimental novel structure and pacing. (Maybe that’s a very boring, writerly thing to say.) Both of these novels were so pleasurable from beginning to end, and it was just my luck to have encountered them, one after the other, early on in the pandemic before I totally lost the ability to read novels.

The murder of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis sparked civil uprisings throughout the country, and in fact around the world, even as the Coronavirus raged on. On a hot Saturday morning in June I painted a sign, donned my mask and demonstrated in West Hollywood, chanted Breonna Taylor’s name with the marching crowd. Pulling out of a parking lot onto Third Street later that afternoon I heard a goofy voice I recognized in the next lane. It was Michael Rapaport, the actor. From his car, he called out “What’s up man, how ya doin” to the National Guard officer who stood on the sidewalk in fatigues, an assault rifle held in his hands. Behind the Guardsman, an armored vehicle the size of a tiny home blocked the entrance to Nordstrom.

I stewed in my apartment, donated to bail bond funds, to Charles Booker’s campaign to unseat Mitch McConnell. I read All Heathens by Marianne Chan, A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok, Hard Damage by Aria Aber. I tried to write. Words came slowly. Everyone I knew was having a hard time, coping with carbs, liquor, edibles, online shopping, adopting a kitten, hours and hours of reality TV. I read Lot by Bryan Washington and If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel and Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok. I broke up with the man who’d been stuttering in and out of my life for the last year and a half. I revisited trusted old friends: Going to Meet the Man. Diving Into the Wreck. Lost in the City. Jesus’ Son.

Summer passed into fall. In September I picked up These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card and found my attention span for reading novels had returned. It’s a sweeping tale of inheritance and revenge, race and class, immigration and assimilation, told through multiple members of a diasporic Jamaican American family. I finished the book in two or three sittings, thoroughly captivated. I followed up with two other fantastic 2020 debuts: Lakewood by Megan Giddings (just the perfect mix of uncanny spookiness, fraught relationships, and deadpan humor) and Luster by Raven Leilani (sublime horniness, and prose to make you sit up and say, Damn…!).

The last book I finished was Bestiary by K-Ming Chang, an energetic novel about queer and matriarchal lineage in a Taiwanese American family. This week, I’ve just started reading Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country, out in February 2021, a novel that begins with Talia, a determined fifteen-year-old girl, orchestrating an escape from her all-girl prison/reform school in Colombia.

My favorite book of 2020 was Minor Feelings, an essay collection by the poet Cathy Park Hong. Discussing it with another Asian American writer, she said it felt “like Cathy was holding a knife to my neck the whole time, my God.” (Doesn’t it seem like poets are always trying to kill you, a little? And thus reminding you of your vulnerability, your aliveness.) There is such urgency, emotional precision, and sideways hilarity in this brilliant book. Koreans, man. They do not fuck around, I’m telling you.

This time of year—November fading into December—people wear strange ensembles in LA: beanies and puffy coats on top paired with basketball shorts and Birkenstocks below. It makes me smile to see these transitional weather outfits, signaling “winter” in the city. I walked to Skylight Books this afternoon and bought Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections. On the way home a woman jogged past in her black sports bra and bike shorts, making me feel ridiculous in my Margot Tenenbaum coat. We were both wearing our masks. Another shelter-in-place order was issued by the mayor this week. The tables and chairs which had been set up on the sidewalk outside the neighborhood restaurants in the months before had all been removed, the ban on outdoor dining triggered by the latest surge in Coronavirus cases in LA County. A year ago today, I might’ve been packing my suitcase for the trip to visit my family in Taiwan. I haven’t been back to the Astro Diner, ever since that early morning in January. What a melancholy year it’s been. I’m grateful for books, as ever.

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