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.
I’ve spent this year second-guessing myself. Every decision inspired fear. My emotions were out of control. I despised (yet yearned) for change. My astrology-inclined friends tell me this is my “Saturn return,” which is when Saturn returns to the position it was in during your birth. Saturn return tends to be a period of time rife with change, intensity, and questioning. And, despite being skeptical of cosmic predictions, I can’t help but feel like I’m in the midst of something larger than myself. And, like my thoughts and emotions, my reading has been all over the place.
I kicked off the new year by reading Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State poolside in the Sunshine State. Its willingness to explore the mundane (and maddening) minutiae of motherhood with a thoughtfulness usually reserved for Very Serious Topics™ felt revolutionary. I’ve never read anything like it (in the best possible way). In addition to reading and reviewing for work, I read a few books for fun including Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I listened to the audiobook and I would argue it’s the best (perhaps only?) way to read the book. Without realizing it, I started The Plot Against America (my first Philip Roth book) on a train to Newark. Disturbing in its own right, the alternate history of America post-WWII has far too many parallels to today’s political climate. I also read, and enjoyed, a little book no one’s ever heard of: Normal People by Sally Rooney. Rooney manages to capture the feeling of being young and desperate for belonging with honesty.
Summer was bookmarked by queer novels: Carolina De Robertis’s Cantoras—a luscious and heartbreaking story about revolution in 1970s Uruguay—and Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things—a novel about a grief-stricken family, taxidermy, and obligation. In between those books, I read some incredible books: And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell, which made me cringe, laugh, and cry all at the same time; What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate, which is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in years; Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game, a beautiful memoir about toxic mother-daughter relationships; The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, a quiet, deliberate masterpiece; Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, a creepy, queer YA dystopia; and Lauren Groff’s Florida, a short story collection further proving Groff is one of the best. The New Me by Halle Butler was feverishly inhaled over the course of one afternoon. Butler’s office novel hit too close to home and it sent me reeling. I also worked my way through Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn, which I had been (unknowingly) waiting for since I read The Empathy Exams in 2016. No one writes an essay like Jamison, and I’m already awaiting her next collection.
As a freelancer, I mostly review fiction so I gravitated toward nonfiction in my free time. I read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the late Michelle McNamara’s haunting book about the Golden State Killer (her nickname). What a sadness that she couldn’t finish what she started but, man, what she left behind was incredible. In a move that shocked no one, I tore my way through Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, which was informative and hilarious in equal measure. John Glynn’s Out East warmed my cold Long Island heart with its sun-kissed honesty. Furious Hours by Casey Cep was the perfect combination of true crime and literary history. I was horrified and enthralled by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said about breaking the Harvey Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement. I’ve always loved books and movies about journalism, and this is journalism at its finest. For the aspiring writer in your life: Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal (out January 2020) is an invaluable resource.
And then there were my two favorite books of the year: the ones I sat with the longest, that inspired me to write, and that I’ll revisit over and over again. Read over the course of a weekend, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls left me speechless, devastated, and hopeful. I cannot remember the last time I filled a book with so many annotations, asterisks, and exclamation points. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise totally and completely blew my mind. I said it then and I’ll say it now: I would take a whole course dedicated to studying the structure and form of Choi’s novel. Trust Exercise left me unmoored and it took weeks to find my next book. It’s without a doubt the best novel I read all year.2019 was bad in many ways but the reading was good. If anything, that’s what I’ll take into 2020. More books and writing. Less indecision and trepidation. Stars be damned.
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