As my relationship to reading has changed and deepened these past few years, so too has my ability to devour books as voraciously as I once did, when I read mainly for pleasure rather than parsing technique. The pleasure is still there, of course, but now there’s an additional layer of wonder, of anxiety, of “How the hell did you do this?” and “Can I make this magic work for me?” Add this to selling and editing my first book, facilitating my first graduate-level workshop, the absolute shit-fire of our country’s white supremacist agenda, and you have a recipe ripe for not reading as much as you wanted. But I did read, and in the spirit of learning to be kinder to myself and not measuring my productivity by the productivity of others, I’m glad to put together what I’m calling my “Past, Present, and Future” list of books by favorite, new, and new-to-me authors.
2019 has been a year of rereading for me, of taking refuge in the pages of books that have already won my heart. I do this with television and films, too. Rewatch and dissect rather than hopping into anything new. Between us, my husband and I have four streaming services and yet I’ve watched Mad Men thrice in its entirety; I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve mouthed lines along with Crooklyn. Sometimes I wonder if I’m afraid to fall in love, to be vulnerable to or invest in new characters, new worlds. There’s something about the feeling of sinking down into a life for the first time, wondering if you’ll understand the rules by which the author set the game. I both love and resist it. I reread A Visit from the Goon Squad for its form and the devastating ending of “Safari,” and We the Animals for another lesson on brevity and beauty. The Color Purple, which teaches me so much about our ideologies on God and power, is a book I will read for the rest of my life. I dove back into Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story to help me structure lessons I wanted to impart in my classrooms, and as a reminder that, in this life, I want to remain a student myself. Maybe my resistance isn’t about fear of the new, so much as the appeal of a knowledge that seems fixed, but never really is.
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter made me think more seriously about white space in novels; Bryan Washington’s Lot opened me to the possibility of endings; the entire collection of Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater was so stunning that, at times, I was almost offended. And I read both Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks and Sigred Nunez’s The Friend so quickly, so needfully, it reminded me that I can still allow myself to be wonderfully overcome. I read Nella Larson’s Passing and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names; I wish I’d read them sooner. I’ve been so grateful to the spate of stories allowing women to be human, to be unsexy and imperfect and absolutely radiant in that imperfection: so thank you to Chemistry by Weike Wang, Come to Me by Amy Bloom, Goodnight Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. I am indebted to Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. This one straddles the line between present and future, but the language in C. Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold kindled a spark in me, and I got to walk around the whole day after finishing it feeling permeable to inspiration.
My TBR pile judges me (or I continue to project judgement upon myself), especially for my tendency to add to it before I’ve finished others waiting. But I’m looking forward to reading so many more books, monumental to myself, maybe even before the year is through. Here are just a few on my list: Aria Arber’s Hard Damage; Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress; Michael Lee’s The Only Worlds We Know, because poetry is at the raw heart of language; Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart and Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s The Trojan War Museum because fiction is at mine; and Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard because of her timelessness, her wisdom, her place in the shaping of my past, present, future. Because it is necessary, and I am not yet ready to let the Queen go.
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I tend to like and lean towards creative things made by womenfolk—perhaps it has to do with being handed a Cibo Matto mixtape at a crucial point of adolescence or deciding to major in post-1945 yonic-ceramic-art-history in college (yes! I really did this!); yellow-wallpapered observations are always my default reads. But this year, I found myself reading almost exclusively female writers–and more specifically, their collections of short stories. As Lorrie Moore puts it (best, always best), I have entered “that awful stage of life between twenty-six to and thirty-seven known as stupidity,” and the best way I’ve found to navigate—or at least subsist within—it are these compact little morsels of ladywriting, with beginnings, middles, and ends. I blame the Internet and Saturn’s return.
My favorite discovery this year was Canadian bookseller Deborah Willis, whose debut collection Vanishing and Other Stories really floored me. Willis has this airy, almost giggly writing voice that sounds like a Valley Girl gifted with an Oxford education (example: “What I did understand, later but still way before Claudia did, was that it was impossible. That we could never break free. No matter what we did, we could never separate them from us. Our bodies were built by the lentils and flax they’d fed us. Their bone structure lingered in our faces.”) The title story in her collection is told by a woman whose neurotic author father mysteriously left his attic office one day and just never returned—the narrator is still stunned by it after so many years, this spectral longing, this losing a person due to the fact that they simply do not wish to be found. If you have time to read one more short story this year, consider making that one it.
Willis’ work reminded me a bit, but not too much, of Aimee Bender’s wonderful, casual magical realism, which I am (utterly, blushingly) ashamed to say was a 2010 revelation. Her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake–about people who eat their feelings in every literal way–was one of my favorite long reads this year, but I found myself gravitating more often in quiet moments to her debut story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which contains one of the best descriptions of losing love I’ve found. A woman’s lover experiences “reverse evolution,” becoming a monkey, then a salamander-like primitive creature that she must let out to sea. “Sometimes I think he’ll wash up on shore,” she writes. “A naked man with a startled look. Who has been to history and back.” And isn’t that what we all want from past loves? Bewilderment and a sudden return to our stoop. Point: Bender.
Last cold front, I dove headfirst in the Mary Gaitskill oeuvre after seeing her read at the Center for Fiction early in the year, gobbling down Don’t Cry and Bad Behavior (again, deep shame of not getting there sooner). I also found and courted and decided to settle in with Amy Bloom, particularly Come to Me—which was the winner in the “story openings I wish I’d written” category: “I wasn’t surprised to find myself in the back of Mr. Klein’s store, wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable.”
The last woman-penned story collection I read was Michele Latiolais’ forthcoming Widow, which is weird and sad and compulsive and continues to stick to my ribs. Latiolais writes about grief in such a raw way—she joins the general pantheon of No-More-Husband literature (high priestess: J-Did), but her style is so unique as to be another genre altogether.
And also! Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which nails so much in so little space.