American Royals

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A Year in Reading: Jon Mooallem


The first book I finished this year was also one of my favorite things I read: Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, a novel that felt so vivid that I still occasionally flashback to moments in the story, as though they are memories of my actual life. (Lydia is the person at The Millions who asked me to write this, so this is awkward, but true.)


Toward the end of January, I started reading The Living, Annie Dillard’s novel about the lives of early white settlers in the cold, dank, horrible forests of Washington State, where I live. But I brought The Living on a family vacation to Hawaii, which felt climatologically wrong, so eventually I put it down and started reading the book my daughter brought on vacation instead: American Royals, a YA romance novel that imagines modern-day teen monarchs descended from George Washington, all gossiping, feeling insecure and making out. I liked American Royals—I really did, though maybe just as an expression of love for my daughter. Alexis Coe’s excellent biography of George Washington, You Never Forget Your First, was about to be published, and I told Alexis about American Royals, and she read it too.        

The pandemic happened. After that, reading-wise, it’s an unruly blur. This was the year I decided to write down every book I read in a day-glo yellow notebook, along with a list of everything I fixed around the house, because I chronically feel like I’m not reading or fixing nearly enough, and figured it would be nice to have a clear ledger of those accomplishments. But I lost track of the notebook sometime in February or March, and didn’t find it again until a few weeks ago, just before I was asked to write up my Year in Reading.        

I know that in late March I read White Fragility. I’d borrowed it from the library around Christmas and never touched it, then forgot to return it. But now, the library was suddenly shut down and the book was still sitting there, marooned indefinitely on a bench by my front door. I’ve seen somewhat of a backlash to this book, but I still think it was important for me to read. It also meant that, later in the year, after George Floyd was murdered, I didn’t have to be one of the white people racing to read White Fragility and instead was one of the white people racing to read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. And The Warmth of Other Suns is probably the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read.

I read two amazing new novels in that first phase of the pandemic: The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel and The Cactus League by Emily Nemens. And in June, I read Stoner, by John Williams, which many people told me is a masterpiece, but which I’d always balked at reading primarily because the cover looked so old-fashioned and dull. But now someone I respected had just read Stoner, and told me that it was the best thing he’d ever read (he meant literally, the best.) That probably still wouldn’t have been enough to make me read it, but then this person also confessed that, for years, he’d resisted people’s emphatic recommendations to read Stoner simply because the cover looked so old-fashioned and dull. So, I read Stoner. It shook me. I felt it all deeply. I sobbed at the end.

I read Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), because one morning, on a long walk, I listened to a conversation between Tweedy and George Saunders on a podcast, and it was such good company and I wanted the feeling to last. I loved the book! After that, I tried to read other musician memoirs and biographies, partly because I was working on a music-related project, but mainly just looking for the same ease and connection I’d felt with the Tweedy book, but nothing sparked. I think the only one I finished was Myself When I Am Real, a pretty good biography of Charles Mingus. I also read Matthew McConaughey’s memoir. (I went to the bookstore looking for Black Leopard, Red Wolf but it was out of stock, and somehow I walked out with that!) It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. It was alright, alright, alright.

The memoir I’m most grateful I read was Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, which my wife, a psychologist who works often with survivors of sexual assault, had read and was adamant that I should read, too. It’s such a special book. It’s important. Chanel Miller is a supremely talented writer. I cried reading this, too—at a little passage describing her bond with her sister, of all places. It snuck up on me.


As pandemic life slogged on, I got obsessed—and I mean that in a genuine, mildly pathological way, not in a breezy, millennial way—with Washington State history, and more specifically with the local history of my little town, and even more specifically with the hyper-local history of a bustling, turn-of-the-century mill town that was once built up at the harbor near my house but has long since been dismantled and erased by giant trees. (This summer, after it was clear that I was more of a stay-at-home parent than a writer for the time being, I’d take my daughters to that harbor several times a week, so they could swim and paddle and scream about jellyfish.) I read a series of progressively more obscure books and other artifacts about that history, including The Forested Land, by Robert E. Ficken and West Coast Journeys, 1865-1879 by Caroline C. Leighton. The Japanese millworkers who’d once lived on the hillside, the town doctor, the blind industrialist who built the whole thing—I thought about these people all the time. They became my imaginary friends.

Early in the year, I read Charlie Kaufman’s novel Antkind because I was writing a magazine profile of him. I read it twice, basically back-to-back. I would read lots of good novels in the remainder of the year: Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell, Biloxi by Mary Miller, Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam, The Phantom Twin, a graphic novel by Lisa Brown; novels are most of what I read. But thinking so hard about the making of one particular novel—Kaufman’s novel—slightly changed the way I read them. I paid attention to how these books worked, whereas before I tended to absorb a good novel (or be absorbed by it.)

Eventually I started to wonder if I should try to write fiction myself one day—if I could. The problem is, while I might concoct some decent characters, I doubted my ability to make up a plot. For a stretch of time this summer, I randomly fixated on the movie Cocoon as an exemplary model of strong, economical plotting. (I don’t know why; this was before Wilfred Brimley died, even.) One day, I read some articles about the making of Cocoon, and considered reading the novel it was based on too, but never did. Then I watched Cocoon and, as the movie played, I typed out a log of everything that was happening on screen, so I could study how the story rose and resolved. (“Aliens renting estate.” “Don Ameche has a boner.” )

That was as far as I got, in terms of writing fiction, in the year 2020.

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