I didn’t sleep at the beginning of 2019. I had woken up in the new year, wide-eyed with shock and dragging grief with me over the figurative threshold separating then from now. I was delirious and awake and surrounded by incongruously colorful blinking Christmas lights, which would remain up until sometime at the beginning of February.
During that time of not sleeping, I was also not reading, or, rather, I don’t remember exactly what I read.
It’s likely that I re-read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I am sure I opened The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, flipping directly to the short stories where death exists somewhere just off the page. I know I reread “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” and “The Most Girl Part of You.”
But mostly, I didn’t read. Which is dramatic and true but
really only half-true because I read for a living.
In 2019, I read literary reviews and magazines. I read manila folders full of “For your consideration…” writing portfolios. I read poetry, not-quite poetry, and the back alleys and thoroughfares of the Internet. I read dozens and dozens of pieces every week and, on the recommendation of a group of high schoolers and Edan Lepucki, whittled all that reading down into the trim little collection that is The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019. I read that.
But to start, I didn’t read. I didn’t read until just enough
time had passed for me to feel like a drowning woman, desperate and gasping for
life—my life!—which had continued, impossibly, somewhere in the real world,
yes, but also somewhere on the page and in the particular pages of a few good
I read Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early and made my days holy explorations. I was in Blackwater Woods and could hear the rippling water. The black snake was dancing his way across the lake and I was a witness. I adored it. I adored the poetry of being alive and being here, which could be anywhere, and which was suddenly everywhere.
Break the Mirror, a collection of Nanao Sakaki’s poetry which had been on my shelf, unread for many years, was finally ripe for the reading this year. Sakaki, who had been drafted into the Japanese navy during World War II and whose life had been saved by a decree from the emperor after the country’s surrender, writes like a man alive. By that I mean that he’s a little practical and a little dreamy, a little horny and a little precious, which is just how I like a person.
Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament follows a woman, Bergljot, who is exactly that kind of person. There’s a secret motivating her to action for the majority of the story and it could have felt claustrophobic reading through that trauma but she’s so alive you don’t mind walking alongside her.
I read Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, followed by Bitch Planet, Volume 1: Extraordinary Machine, a collection of the first five issues of the dystopian comic about “non-compliant” women shipped off to a prison planet. It was an exceedingly perfect pairing and both stories served as reminders that on the other side of revelation is action. Revolution can happen anywhere.
I finally read Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, which was angrier than I expected and that was nice. It was full of art and grief and the duplicity of being alive. We go on and we exist alongside and on top of and behind and in front of everything that has ever and will ever exist, which gives the world and this story its richness.
Maira and Alex Kalman celebrated the particular richness of their mother’s individual story in Sara Berman’s Closet, an illustrated family memoir about their mother’s life, her deliberate way of being and the art in that. They call it a small and monumental story. I would add that it’s beautiful, too.
I read Eileen Myles’s Cool for You for the first time this year. I wish I had read it when I was a teenager and was just learning the bad and limiting idea of how a person was allowed to be. I have this idea that I could have saved myself a lot of heartbreak and a lot of time if I had read it then, but I think in reality I would have just been terrified of all that possibility. At any rate, I loved getting to carry it around as an adult who knows what Eileen knows. There’s a whole lot of world out there.
“All day I do my loving, and all of my feelings are colors,” writes Jenny Slate in Little Weirds. It’s a funny and sad collection of stories but her blues tend toward purples which bloom into magenta, suggesting that there’s light coming in from somewhere. Isn’t that nice that this can happen? Isn’t it wild that little changes, little weirds, can catapult you to so many somewheres? Reading this felt like taking a long walk in a dense wood which suddenly opens up to sunlight. That felt nice, that felt like my year.
It has been a difficult year in reading for me, mainly because the late winter and spring required too much reading from me — for contests, applications, submissions — and left little time for me to read what I wanted when I wanted. And because I have found myself increasingly drawn to reading snippets of news from my phone instead of books and when that becomes too much for me to handle mentally or emotionally, escaping into cheesy super-hero television shows on the CW. So here is what might seem like an abbreviated list, but which is in fact mostly the list of books I’ve read since the beginning of 2016.
I don’t collect comic books anymore, mainly because there are so many titles I would love to keep up with that I would put my family into hock if I were to try, but I did pick up Bitch Planet, Volume 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick, after listening to the author talk about the series on some public radio manifestation. If you haven’t heard about it yet — I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, but in case — the story takes place in a (too) near future, where independent and free-thinking women, whenever they are perceived to rage against the patriarchy, are shipped off to a penal planet known commonly as Bitch Planet, and there trained gladiator style to play a vicious version of rugby, subjected at every turn to misogyny, humiliation, and fear of physical and emotional suffering. Not once does Kelly Sue DeConnick pull any punches. But she injects the work with action and humor and compelling characters, too, and right now, I’m waiting for Volume 2, waiting to see how the women of Bitch Planet will (fingers crossed) undermine their patriarchal overlords through noncompliance — though now I’m maybe reading it as a manual, not a fiction.
It’s been, overall, a tense and unsettling year — the Year of the Monkey, y’all — full of uncertainty and instability, at home, abroad, politically, socially — and weirdly I found the tension of Hannah Pittard’s road trip novel, Listen to Me, not so much a soothing balm to the fears and tension plaguing me, but maybe the kind of bolstering affirmation of my own worries I wanted — a novel version of your friend who says to you, “Oh yeah, everything’s going to hell and we’re all going to die sooner than anyone thought.” It’s comforting when you find that friend, just as it was comforting charging through this slim but evocative novel. Pittard’s writing is funny and dark and she captures a marriage at crossroads with unsettling precision, and at the end, I had a good cry.
Speaking of good cries, this year I taught creative writing to a lecture class of almost 100 students — most of them freshman — and when approaching poetry, immediately turned to the new-ish collection Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón, many of which I read aloud to my class with the hope of making them cry (not just her poems, but also the poems from Natalie Diaz’s stellar collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec). The poems in this collection are — again — dark and wicked and at times frightening and personal, and it’s the close, personal, exposed glimpse of her own life that Limón offers the reader that makes this collection as moving as it is. Limón collects the pieces of herself and stitches them together in these poems and draws us into the fabric of her pain and pride and sadness and badassery and success and failure and by the end of it, we are ourselves exposed and undone, and this year, nothing feels more satisfying than that raw feeling.
Seeking more of that raw feeling — and hoping to impart it to more students — I recently revisited with my graduate students Ramona Ausubel’s luminous collection, A Guide to Being Born, published three years ago, and found the stories contained here as relevant as before, if not, in fact, more so. Time and again, Ausubel navigates her readers through a version of our world full of fantastical conceits that are frightening (there seems to be a theme here) and outlandish — a society that grows extra appendages, love-arms, any time they experience true, deep love, and a group of grandmothers on an ocean liner that carries them into the after-life (maybe?), and the one grandmother who jumps overboard — but told with such aplomb and with gorgeous prose that by the end of the collection, it was our world — our current frightening saddened disturbing uncertain world — that felt outlandish when compared to the landscapes of Ausubel’s stories.
I read other beautiful novels and stories and poems this year, I know, but these are the ones that have kept with me, the ones I keep picking back up, then, after reading the first few pages, realizing, “Oh, I just finished this, I should find something else,” but without fail, I bring them with me back to bed, or to the couch, and I find myself caught up all over again.
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