All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir

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A Year in Reading: Julia Phillips

This year for me seemed sure to be defined by the publication, in May, of my first book, which disrupted absolutely everything around it, like a bowling ball dropped onto a spring mattress in one of those 1990s commercials. In this metaphor, the mattress is my life. The bowling ball is a bowling ball. It crashed down. I quit my day job; I lost my mind; I obsessed for months over how to most effectively present as an author; I changed writing and eating and travel habits; I met a thousand people I’d never met before. Reading, too, was altered.

Going on tour gave me hours in transit to spend with books. On airplanes, I read Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, which was laser-focused, jaw-dropping, exquisite, and Normal People by Sally Rooney, which was so sexy and engaging I wanted to scream. (Reading Conversations with Friends at home afterward, I felt the exact same way.) On trains, I read The Affairs of the Falcóns, Melissa Rivero’s claustrophobic, pitch-perfect debut novel, and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe’s deep dive into the IRA. I read The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden in a hotel room and then had strange, vivid dreams about magicians all night. I finished Women Talking by Miriam Toews on the subway and wept so hard that my face lotion ran into my eyes and made them burn.

I read books to review and books to blurb. I read books I’d avoided while writing my debut (Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which turned out wider, wilder, and more experimental than I’d dreamed) and books I hope might inform future work (The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon). I even read a book about books: Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum, which was the invaluable publishing guide I wish I’d had in 2018 or in 2017, or had been issued to me in the hospital when I was born.

In the midst of real-life challenges—political horrors, personal reckonings—books gave solace. They contained and named our daily pains; they showed how hard it can be to be alive, and how beautiful, too, how precious, how strange. Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, shared the most tender and aching truths about family. Sarah DeLappe’s play, The Wolves, captured the raw, vicious experience of girlhood and of growing up. Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, with its vomiting, shitting, and completely captivating narrator, exposed the brutality of the body. Ling Ma’s novel, Severance, shed new light on late capitalism. Two romance series I gobbled up this year, Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals and Melonie Johnson’s Sometimes in Love, advanced visions of a better, fairer, and sexier world, where everyone might find their happily ever after.

Finally, I read Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet, because I got pregnant in 2019. The year then redefined itself, making a fetus, a heartbeat, and folic acid supplements the most disruptive things in my life by far. A first baby—nothing to stress or obsess about there, right? No bowling-ball-like upheaval? And I can anticipate that 2020, with an infant, will offer plenty of time for more reading? How wonderful.

A Year in Reading: Lauren Michele Jackson

At the risk of being obnoxious, I checked some majors off the list this year: job, Ph.D., book—in that order. What all that mostly indicates is a joyful change in reading habit and frequency, from the skittish chapter-hopping of the scholar put to market to the languid page-turning of a person who puts pleasure first. And so I must begin with the romances: first, the friends and lovers (and friends turned lovers, naturally) of Jasmine Guillory as entwined in The Wedding DateThe Proposal, and The Wedding Party. I read Casey McQuiston’s delicious Red, White & Royal Blue and wouldn’t stop talking about it. I returned to Lisa Kleypas, whose historical romances I first discovered in my Nana’s basement and devoured in secret in my preteen bedroom, catching up with the gentry’s next generation in Cold-Hearted Rake. I went back to another fave, Donna Fletcher, in reading The Irish Devil and Irish Hope, books that animate all the feminist talking points on the problem of romance novels (in which “No” means “Take me, I’m yours!”).

Most exciting was the gift of getting to read titles while talk still swirled around them, from the justifiably hyped Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado to small, sharp entrances by Eric Thurm (Avidly Reads: Board Games) and Andrea Long Chu (Females). I felt belated to some books that became instant classics in my hands and on my shelf: Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang (I like to joke that I crossed the Atlantic just to get my hands on the quietly gorgeous U.K. edition), How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Severence by Ling Ma, What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell, and Her Body and Other Parties, also by Machado.

Coming from literary studies, I am rather hard on sociology but I read more in that genre this year than I ever have. Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan M. Metzl expertly evades sentimentality; Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom won’t stop, quit, or compromise; and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo let me know what the fuss was about.

I attended an event that introduced me to the tender words of Briallen Hopper, whose essay collection Hard to Love I immediately purchased and sank into. No less tender is Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, whose tiny experiments with memoir I much appreciated.

Setting the mood for now and forever are two masterpieces by black women I read for the first time in 2019: Corregidora by Gayl Jones (edited by thee Toni Morrison) and Rebel Yell by Alice Randall. Because the page, the text, language, and all the movement, all that shit, fucking matters.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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