Convenience Store Woman

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A Year in Reading: Kate Gavino

At the time of writing this, I’ve read 83 books this year. Of those 83 books, 60 were audiobooks, 12 were e-books, and 14 were physical books. I read 45 works of fiction, 27 works of non-fiction and/or memoirs, seven YA books, and five graphic novels. Twenty-three and a half books I read this year involved a love affair ruining someone’s life. (The .5 comes from Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, in which the main character thankfully comes to her senses at the very end.)

I know all of these stats because I keep a
detailed spreadsheet of my reading habits. At first, I only recorded titles and
authors. Then I branched out to include genre and book format. In 2017 I
noticed I was reading a fair amount of books in which people were having
illicit affairs and ruining their lives, so I added a column for this arbitrary
category. I enjoy this nerdy, slightly narcissistic hobby because each time I
add a book to the spreadsheet, I take a moment to think about the stories that
have kept me company over the past year.

A partial screencap of the Spreadsheet

The Spreadsheet, however, doesn’t tell the whole story of my year in reading. Last winter I moved to Paris, France, from New York City, and along with the shift in culture, a major shift in my reading habits occurred as well. I used to work for the Brooklyn Public Library, a job that meant I took home stacks upon stacks of physical books every week. Now, I am a full-time freelancer. As an illustrator, I find myself obsessively listening to audiobooks while I ink and sketch. I’ve passed days engrossed while listening to books like Know My Name by Chanel Miller, A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams.

On weekday mornings, I am also (if I do say so myself) a sought-after dogwalker in the 6th arrondissement. Like illustrating, dog-walking is another ideal activity for audiobooks. I remember a particular memorable walk with Lola, the half-schnauzer, half-water dog, as we walked from the Tuileries to Gare de Lyon, listening to Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy.

I’ve listened to so many audiobooks this year that certain streets and train lines bring to mind a specific book. I cried on the RER A while listening to Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The 95 bus makes me think of all the what-the-fuckery in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. Walking up to Montmartre past Opera reminds me of the piercing stories in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina.

Next year I’ll probably add a column to keep track of the books I’ve been reading in French. This list is nonexistent so far, as I read French at a glacial pace. The three books I’m currently slogging through are Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and the first installment of the Hunger Games series.

My move to France also meant that I had to find a home for the sprawling library I had amassed over a decade in New York. I donated more than one thousand books, gave away hundreds, and stored a few dozen at my parents’ house in Houston. I moved to Paris with what I decided were my 10 favorite books (a stack that included Colette, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ann M. Martin, and Victor Hugo, among others.) But living in an apartment without books depresses me, and I’ve been trying to re-build my library here, despite the size constraints of a 30 square meter apartment.

I found myself regularly attending a bi-monthly book swap, where a group of women meet in a cafe to exchange books and talk about them. That was how I ended up acquiring and loving Nina Lacour’s We Are Okay and Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose. On occasional trips to the States, I’d come back with a suitcase full of books that included Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing, Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream, and Bryan Washington’s Lot. These books, along with my “Original Ten,” formed the base of what I hope will someday become my sprawling library in France.

Despite no longer working at the Library, I borrow more books than ever before thanks to my Overdrive app and the online collections of the Brooklyn and Houston Public Libraries. I’ve always kept my e-reader on my bedside. In the hazy minutes before falling asleep, I read Juliet Escoria’s Juliet the Maniac, Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick.

All of these books are dutifully recorded in the Spreadsheet, but I know the act of reading these books will most likely fade over time. I may always be able to recount the story of The Remains of the Day, but will I eventually forget that I read the novel on the hottest day in Paris history, when it got so scorching in my un-air-conditioned apartment that I had to check into a cheap hotel?

I’ll leave that question up to my own memory,
but there is one book in my 2019 spreadsheet that brings with it a reading
experience I never want to forget.

I took a quick trip to Amsterdam in September, my first time in the city. Rain drizzled, and my fingers were frozen. Earlier that day I had purchased a paperback copy of Anita Brookner’s Incidents on Rue Laugier in a used bookshop. To escape the cold, I went inside the American Book Center, a large, cozy bookstore in the middle of town. I found an armchair in the corner and proceeded to read the Anita Brookner from cover to cover in one sitting. When I finally looked up from the book, I was slightly disoriented, not completely remembering where I was. For the rest of the day, I thought about this all-encompassing experience, relieved that such a thing could still happen to me after decades of reading. That was the 61st book I read that year. 

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A Year in Reading: Omar El Akkad

All that follows is the product of serendipity. Almost every book I read this year came to me through some unexpected channel—blurb requests, books picked up at random in literary festivals. Every year I set out with a plan, a list of upcoming releases to look out for, classics to catch up on. And every year, thankfully, I fail.

Here is the best of the accidental rabbit holes into which I
climbed this year, the accidental lives I briefly lived. 

The book I’ve thought about the most this year is a novel called A Luminous Republic by Andrés Barba. It takes place in a small city called San Cristóbal, where one day a group of 32 children, seemingly feral and speaking their own secret language, arrive. Slowly they begin to sow terror among the residents, and the municipal government goes to greater and greater lengths to hunt them down. If Lord of the Flies charted the ugliness that follows societal collapse, A Luminous Republic charts the chaos of societal tyranny, what happens when human beings abdicate their humanity.

A few months ago, a publisher sent me a copy of a novel called They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears, by Johannes Anyuru. Upon reading the synopsis—amidst a terror attack, one of the Islamic extremists has a change of heart—I was prepared to hate it. I’ve read a lot of “reluctant terrorist” novels and almost all of them descend into lazy, often racist cliché. But this is something else entirely—a mind-bending thing, wandering across alternate futures and playing with time and space in ways I didn’t expect at all. It’s much more a novel about belonging and nativism than terrorism, and is the most original piece of writing I read this year.

A few people recommended to me the tiny Japanese novel Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, describing it as a kind of comic gem. It’s the story of a woman who works in a convenience store because, well, the routine is a welcome respite from the machinations of the rest of the social world, a world she doesn’t understand or want any part of. But upon reading it, I was left with the same sensation I had after reading A Confederacy of Dunces—this novel billed as a laugh riot is in reality a story about a deep and crushing loneliness, about the ways in which the world is a supremely difficult place for many of us to navigate. It’s a marvelous story, but what’s comic about it masks something much darker.

Two of the best novels I read this year were debuts. Little Gods by Meng Jin opens with a woman giving birth in a Beijing hospital on the night of the Tiananmen Square massacre. What follows is a slow-burn unveiling of what happened to the woman, her husband, and her child in the years that followed. It is a masterfully crafted story about the gravity of the past, that unceasing pull toward a thing at once hidden and all encompassing. Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn opens with a 7-year-old boy falling off a cruise ship and into the shark-infested waters below, only for the sharks to carry him to safety. It is the first sign of the strange magic that lives within Nainoa Flores, the magic with which he and his family will have to contend. Washburn’s novel is an exceptional meditation on otherness, belonging, the ravages of poverty, and the many meanings of family. Both of these books come out early next year and both deserve all the attention I suspect they’ll soon be getting.

I read a lot of marvelous poetry this year, beginning with Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. It’s a book about war, and I’ve read a lot of books about war, but few as capable of mining that gray space where resistance and cowardice intersect. In Kaminsky’s work there is, amidst the violent oppression of wartime, room for love, lust, self-interest, self-sabotage—room for so much humanness, so much life. Quarrels by Eve Joseph is a stunning piece of literary beauty and whimsy—it begins with a train coming to a stop too suddenly, and all the babies lifting out of their carriages and into the arms of strangers. Every vignette moves in entirely unexpected directions, every page in this way reading like a strange and wonderful secret. I Become a Delight to My Enemies by Sara Peters—which cannot be described as either poetry or prose, but rather an experimental thing somewhere in between—is something like a dark mirror of Joseph’s work. Told in vignettes, the story takes place in an unnamed town where the women residents are subjected to grotesque and surreal cruelty. Much like Quarrels, it’s a book that has gotten almost no attention in the United States, and really should have. Finally, there is Invasive Species by Marwa Helal, a collection largely concerned with what it means to exist between cultures, between nations, a hyphenated American, and contains one of the most memorable lines I read this year: “they will say: show, don’t tell / but that assumes most people can see.”

A few weeks ago, a galley of Garth Greenwell’s new short story collection, Cleanness, arrived at my door, and I inhaled it. Greenwell is, pound for pound, my favorite writer working in the English language right now, and his debut novel, What Belongs to You, is my pick for novel of the decade. The stories in Cleanness are each a masterpiece. There is no pretension here, no dishonesty—be the subject matter sex or joy or vulnerability or the many meanings and consequences of human proximity. It’s difficult to explain just how much depth there is to Greenwell’s writing; suffice it to say there are things he accomplishes, emotional destinations he reaches in the course of a sentence that many other writers can’t get to over the course of a whole novel.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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