Cool for You: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Beatrice Kilat


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.

A Year in Reading: Marta Bausells


Looking back at this hectic old year, I am reminded of that Nora Ephron quote: “Whenever I read a book I love, I start to remember all the other books that have sent me into rapture, and I can remember where I was living and the couch I was sitting on when I read them.”

Not many books sent me into rapture this year. About a year ago I became an official book recommender, and with the absolutely immense privilege of reading for work sometimes comes the frustration of not always being able to give books all the time you’d like to, as well as the danger of reading as obligation, which can occasionally lead to burnout. I had to find a way to keep up with the current releases while I was simultaneously working on my own writing and attempting to gravitate towards my own personal reading list (which isn’t all, you know, books that came out this year)—all the while dozens of books started arriving through the door every single day, threatening to take over the small apartment in which I live. Let’s say it took some adjustment.

I do remember some random moments of pure peace, like being immersed in Fire Sermon in Berlin, last winter, and reading it all on a leather armchair which sat under an old GDR poster of the life cycle of the malaria mosquito. The city was raging with life and plans, but it was winter and the weather was brutal—and the book was pulling me in harder than the possibility of all the raves in the world. Or like the weeks in spring that I spent on a Cheryl Strayed binge—I finally caught up with her books and, combined with her podcast, putting myself in her orbit for a while felt like healing.

The following felt like cheating, and I enjoyed these books so: reading The Folded Clocks on a solitary week on the beach; reading Cool for You this fall, as the days got abruptly shorter in London; rereading Too Much and Not the Mood on a writing residency in the summer as the rain just would not stop pouring, and underlying almost every sentence.

I read some splendid debut novels: Freshwater, Ponti, America Is Not the Heart, Pretend I’m Dead. And second novels: Normal People (even if its extreme hype can feel a bit exhausting) and Circe are stunning.

I read some breathtaking (literally—I remember gasping at several points during all of them) story collections: Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Mothers by Chris Power (which, like Normal People, isn’t out in the U.S. yet and American readers are in for a treat).

I found solace and channels for my rage in Heather Havrilesky’s What If This Were Enough? and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad. I found permission and awe in Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I laughed with and felt endless tenderness and admiration for Caca Dolce by Chelsea Martin, and recently finished How to Murder Your Life which left me broken and wishing I could hug Cat Marnell.

This year was also full of fantastic fiction and nonfiction by some faves (Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Deborah Levy, Rachel Kushner, Melissa Broder) but that, as they say, is not news by this point.

I ended the year listening to the audiobook of Becoming, which meant more than 19 hours of Michelle Obama reading me her life story, which did GOOD things to me and I recommend.

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A Year in Reading: Jordy Rosenberg


Sometime early in 2018, one morning of the long “bomb cyclone” in New York City—the kind of day where the dawn doesn’t break, but mizzles down through the wind and fog, pearling the air to a flat winter white for a few short hours until Night tips her inkwell and dark bleeds out again—I finally opened Félix Guattari’s The Anti-Oedipus Papers, a book that had sat undisturbed on my shelf for three years.  

I was finishing a novel at the time, so I wasn’t reading other novels.  Anti-Oedipus Papers are Guattari’s notes to his collaborator, Gilles Deleuze, in preparation for their opus, Anti-Oedipus.  But what madness these notes are: raw philosophy as dream diary, griping and sniping about the Parisian intelligentsia, particularly Jacques Lacan, Guattari’s mentor (but not for long), and quite a bit of agonizing about various love affairs.  Out of this chaotic stew, they created Anti-Oedipus.  I’d like to say that you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were very much in love, but that would not be simple enough of a claim.  Rather, you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were the very kind of desiring-machine of which they once wrote. Guattari excreted, Deleuze plugged into the orifice, metabolized the ooze, and a book was born.

Or perhaps Guattari mizzled his light into the undifferentiated night, created an enveloping blankness, and it was into this air that Deleuze tipped his inkwell.

In any case, I needed language that would scramble the omnipresent crush of narrative logic that had subsumed my writing life.  And I needed, too, a book that would unsettle my too-closely held presumptions about sex, desire, and the psyche.  If I couldn’t have my own presumptions unsettled, then neither could my characters.  And consequently, neither could my (projected) reader.  I needed to read a book out of order.  And so I opened The Anti-Oedipus Papers to page 343 to find: “Something about love makes me not be this thing that is at an impasse. Two monads produce a third.  A new taste for the world. . .Analysis is about making the impossible out of the déjà vu.”  The point of analysis (and, I thought to myself then, of writing?) was not to affirm the return of the repressed, but to make the old narratives illegible—and thus to create an opening where there had not been one before.

Speaking of machines, Kay Gabriel’s poetry is something else I read in 2018 when I was studiously avoiding novels.  I feel quite sure that her chapbook, Elegy Department Spring: Candy Sonnets, and her poems in Salvage Quarterly (which, in full disclosure, I was lucky to conduct an interview with her about) are poem-machines, nano-surgeons of the synapses.  My brain was altered in the reading of them, and my understanding of transsexuality will never be the same.  These are the poems I need—not so much to understand my condition as a trans person, but to un-understand the too-easy narratives about it.  It’s not pretty.  I don’t want it to be.  Why should we/why should poetry always have to be pretty?  Gabriel’s poetry gives us the body and desire plowed through with the particulars of late-capitalist logistics and the omnipresence of Amazon-driven transport systems.

When I returned to novels, I did so by way of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man–a novel that tells in inexorable, prismatic, impossible prose the pursuit of an enslaved man–a “mineral of motionless patiences…[h]is eyes are neither shining nor dull but dense, like certain backwaters struck by lightning”–by a slaveholder and his mastiff, “black, gleaming into a lunar blue…its muscles bulged like lava bubbles; the pitiless face, unbaptized.” Never have I read a book that so miraculously combines propulsive forward motion with such crystalline, heart-stopping language at the level of the sentence.  Usually the latter–if overfull–overwhelms the former.  Not so here.  Not even close to so.  That Chamoiseau manages to combine these two, moreover, with a metafictive aspect is to my mind nothing short of total alchemy and brilliance.  The reading of this book is an event, and it deserves to be ritualized.  This ritual does not have to be luxurious or expensive, but it should be undertaken with seriousness.  You do not need to go far.  You do not need to go to Europe or even to a cabin in the woods.  Go into a closet with some pillows and read.

Actually, on this question of metafiction: I believe it is a mistake to detail the rise of contemporary metafiction (if you prefer, “literary postmodernity”) like settling a bank account, and yet we have so many scholarly books dedicated to just this approach.  Perhaps an actuarial account of literature is all our hellish world deserves, but we could also read–or reread–the section on “The Solar System” in Eileen Myles’s Cool for You, as I did in 2018, for a more organic view.  For some of us, the love of science fiction means we cannot bear to conduct a forensics on the genre; we do not want to know its molecular secrets, and for this reason we do not write in that genre.  This diversion from the forensic results, instead, is a particular kind of metafiction that has not yet been properly analyzed in academic accounts.  Metafiction as a form of desire. A paean.  Is there such a thing as celestial ekphrastics?  Yes there is: “Pluto is holding a bowl of ideas that were formerly tropical, like ice cream and fruit.”

We cannot talk about science fiction without discussing the long history of racism in science fiction.  In 2018, the great author Samuel Delany republished his 1998 essay, “Racism and Science Fiction”–which conducts a number of crucial arguments (which have only become both more salient and more complex) regarding the perceived split in the field between Afro-Futurism and subgenres such as cyberpunk–alongside a new novella, The Atheist in the Attic.  I had been eagerly awaiting this novella since Delany had made reference to it on a panel at NYU in 2017.  The novella would concern cannibals and Spinoza, he said.  Cannibals and Spinoza??  I could hardly wait.

The Atheist is wonderful.  It, like all of Delany’s work, is dense with significance and extraordinary in its prose.  It, like all of Delany’s work, constellates questions of embodiment (indeed, excrement) and high philosophy.  In my opinion it returns Spinoza and those figures of what has been termed the “radical Enlightenment” to their rightful context: the odiferous living world of the pulse, the body, and the socius.

In 2018 I finally read N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.  I had been putting this off.  I believe now that this resistance had to do with a fear of falling in love.  But now I have fallen in love and I am a lunatic proselytizer for this book which does not need another proselytizer, least of all me.  Still, I will say that this book is joy, absorption and technical mastery incarnate.  It gave me one of the very best weekends I had in 2018, just me and it.  And without producing any spoilers I will say that once I arrived at the last third of the book, I found myself inhabiting the single best rendition of utopian longing and the fleshly, compromised, and deeply joyful flashes of affect associated with it that I have ever read.  I did weep.

The book that I adorned with the greatest number of bookmarks and post-it notes in 2018 is Dionne Brand’s Theory.  In structure, a tripartite story of three love affairs conducted by a PhD student trying to finish her dissertation.  The book is an exacting, detail-obsessed limning of the contours of these lovers, and of the interior textures of relationships from the perspective of someone who (sound familiar?) is hamstrung by a preponderance of abstract thought. The book is a non-dialectical progression through the three sections, a series of repetitions-with-a-difference of the Oedipal and supra-Oedipal arcs of love.  It maintains an unflinching gaze on the limitations of its narrator, who withholds beloved bedtime poetry readings from a girlfriend simply due to the ordinary, relatable experience of forgetfulness, postponement, and indeed the creeping pettiness of love.  “We are all,” proclaims the narrator, following a citational litany of the very poems she could not read to her lover (which, in litanizing, she in fact “reads” to us, her anonymous audience) “small people in relationships.”

Theory, it turns out, is not only the title of the book, but the pet name of the narrator given to her by an ex-lover: “’Theoria. . .’ that is what Odalys called me.  ‘Teoria, you are too much in your head.  Before you can do something you think it out of existence. . .You lack an anchor; you lack a thing that you love.’”  And this is because theorizing something is not the same as loving it.  Just as writing about a lover is not the same thing as loving her.

One could say that Teoria is stuck; even she believes this: “My lovers never change.  It is as if I’ve loved the same person all these years.”  But then there is a secret, fourth love story sequestered in Theory.  A love story that isn’t written as a narrative arc, as are the first three, but as citations interspersed throughout the text.  “It has become necessary to locate social memory outside the body,” muses a pair of what might be characters/editors/authors, cited in a footnote as “C. Sharpe/Teoria.”  Why is relocating social memory necessary?  To unfreight the body of the histories it bears.  This, too–to recall the weep-worthy moments in Jemisin–is a utopian horizon: “[b]y relocating memory outside the body rather than insistently stigmatizing the body through the reproduction of particular historical moments,” we open out to something else.  This relocation is the site of the sequestered fourth love story: non-narrative, metafictional, citational, collective.  Love, after all, is not writing the lover, but thinking together with her.

I read many books in 2018, and especially after having been freed of writing my own novel, I experienced an intense appreciation for and awe of the sweat and labor of other writers.  I returned renewed to reading this year, and I loved all these books deeply.  But of all the books I read in 2018, Dionne Brand’s Theory is the book that read me.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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

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