I began 2018 with the earthquake room by Davey Davis, and inadvertently set the tone for the rest of the year. Immutable dread permeates the novel, which tells the story of a disintegrating queer relationship against the backdrop of a very-near-future Oakland in which the threat of devastating natural disaster looms. Yet amidst the pre-apocalypse, life—aka dyke drama—must go on. The novel’s unfortunate prescience struck me this week, as I hid in my apartment from the Most Unhealthy Air Quality in the World, perusing an Instagram feed that alternated between respiratory mask selfies and personal ads (“NON-TOXIC MASC 4 RADICAL TENDERNESS”). I couldn’t help feeling as though Davis’s vision of the very-near-future had in fact already arrived.
Anne Garréta’s Not One Day followed, an archive of desire and liaisons that deserves to be remembered for more than this line, but it was the one that stuck with me, perhaps because the banality of death felt more tangible this year: “Life is too short to resign ourselves to reading poorly written books and sleeping with women we don’t love.” Then, After Delores, Sarah Schulman’s first book, a pulp murder mystery about a jilted waitress nursing her broken heart in dimly lit bars, which I happened to read while nursing a broken heart in a dimly lit bar.
In the spring, I read A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes, though it was probably the wrong time. By then my broken heart had healed into a cold, callous thing, and Barthes’s obsessive lamentations, however brilliant, left me unmoved. A note I wrote in my phone from that time reads: “writing toward The Other / but what about / The Other’s / discourse / The Other didn’t ask / to be watched like this.” I dipped into Carmen Maria Machado’s collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and was most compelled by her story “Inventory,” which felt like the offspring of Davis’s and Garréta’s books, as it was also an archive of sexual encounters, set in another near-future apocalypse. Apparently it is a truth universally acknowledged that not even the end of the world will quench our libidos. I finished Estrangement Principle by Ariel Goldberg, which had been lingering half-read on my shelf since 2017 (the inscription on the inside cover, written by an ex-lover: “In case having one nonbinary masc white Jewish person constantly musing about what it means to call art ‘queer’ hanging around wasn’t enough for you, here’s a whole book of that same thing! Xox, ———”).
I got coffee with a friend who recommended José Esteban Munoz’s Disidentifications, after I admitted to him that I generally read too many books by white women. I immediately ordered a copy and blasted through the first hundred pages, finally finding language for the many cross-identifications I’d been practicing all my life. But then, summer came. Summer seems on the surface to offer myriad opportunities for uninterrupted reading; international flights; camping trips by the river; lazy Saturday mornings tanning in the backyard hammock. But who can actually find time to read when parties—and their attendant hangovers—beckon? I took a trip in June to Toronto, where I discovered a wonderful bookstore (Glad Day Bookshop), but read neither the books I brought nor the ones I bought. In keeping with the season, I did find myself at a pride event, drunk on vodka cranberries, crying in the basement of a college campus that looked like Hogwarts; queer culture is nothing if not a second/perpetual adolescence.
Autumn brought better conditions for reading: crisp air, etc., etc., hot cups of tea, etc., etc., and most important, fewer social distractions. I purchased on eBay, of all places, I Go to Some Hollow by Amina Cain; I had been searching for it in used book shops since 2015, after I read Cain’s stunning, ethereal collection, Creature. I had even emailed the publisher (Les Figues), to no avail. Cain’s highly internal, experimental short short fictions are brief blinks at relationships, which, in her signature style, are as uneventful as they are quietly devastating. I followed it with an appropriate seasonal choice—White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, a haunted-house-story-cum-bildungsroman published in 2009 that remains relevant as ever in 2018. The ghosts, as it turned out, were (spoiler alert!) a metaphor for anti-Black racism and xenophobia against refugees.
And then, cooped up in my home this week with my roommate’s air filter on blast, I read The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam. A particular refrain is repeated throughout the book, a quote from Quentin Crisp, which I think could appropriately grace a motivational poster embodying the spirit of 2018: “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.”
1933 Was a Bad Year by John Fante. My favorite of all his books, maybe my favorite book ever. (And a book that reminds me in good and bad ways about my father.)
Creature by Amina Cain. I still don’t know how to describe what this book does to me. Not only does it place me in the world she creates, but also at the same time in the places she leaves out. If that makes any sense. (So excited that her next book is on its way from FSG!)
The Collected Poetry by Aimé Césaire. The greatest there ever was for me. (Although this year I didn’t have my copy of the book so I just ended up reading Notebook of a Return to the Native Land online.)
Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing by Charif Shanahan was a collection that I was most excited to read and when I finally did, it killed me in all the good ways.
blud by Rachel McKibbens. Speaking of killing me, I had already stopped breathing by page 10.
Bone Confetti by Muriel Leung. She’s amazing. This book is amazing. (And new work she’s been working on is goddamn amazing.)
In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson. Met her and heard her read for the first time in Iowa City. So lyrical I forgot how hard it was punching me. (And she lives literally a block from us!)
What’s Hanging on the Hush by Lauren Russell. So happy I got to meet her (at Jenny Johnson’s birthday party!) just a couple of weeks before her book release. A unique and beautiful book and the pieces about the cat had me sobbing.
Swallow the Fish by Gabrielle Civil. I feel fortunate to have had my book come out at the same time as this book, both of them from CCM. Read it and if you ever have the chance to see Gabrielle perform, do so. Then read it again. There is nobody like her.
Silk Flowers by Meghan Lamb. When I open the pages, my brain says “stories.” Afterward, my memory tells me “poetry.” I guess it doesn’t matter because I don’t even know what that means. All this to say that her writing finds its way into that layer beneath your skin.
My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn. I am not done with it yet because she just gave me an uncorrected proof of it a couple of weeks ago but I am loving it.
This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins. Halfway through. Damn.
Attendance by Rachel McLeod Kaminer & Rocío Carlos. Just announced by The OS, I’ve been fortunate not only to have read the manuscript, but to have published excerpts from it over at Cultural Weekly.
Mass by Jo Scott-Coe. A powerful book that explores patriarchy, the church, and gun violence by a writer who has examined these topics for years. It was a book that we (Writ Large Press) were supposed to have published but I ended up dropping the ball badly for various reasons. Glad that it has found a home that it deserves and will be out in the world soon.
There are also all the manuscripts of books still searching for the right publisher or that have just most recently found homes that I have been fortunate enough to read.
I can’t tell whether reading amazing books has made the historically shitty year less shitty or if reading these books has made me realize how shitty 2017 really has been. Either way, it was a shitty year and there were amazing books and ultimately, reading them has always helped me remember I am alive.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s a writer’s rite of passage and also her curse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez admitted to copping from Kafka when he began writing short stories. Zadie Smith borrowed the structure of On Beauty from Forster’s Howard’s End. Most writers try on the voices of writers they admire, at least until they carve out their own. William Faulkner famously said that a novelist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.” While it seems that Faulkner was speaking of a writer’s resources, this also applies to the work on the page — stealing material from other sources, be it books, writers, lives.
This year, as I embarked on a novel, I became a kind of kleptomaniac, with all of the ghosts and voices and ideas from the books I’d just read haunting my attempts to put words on the page. Adoring a book meant that some aspect of it either influenced or turned up in my own writing, often catabolized and not in flattering ways. And I learned that while I’m good at stealing, I’m not very good at covering my tracks.
That being said, what follows is a list of the books that occupied my mental space this year, a list that I borrowed from mindfully or unconsciously, and a few that I’d still like to steal from (but will try to withhold from), a list beginning with books by two Brazilian female authors who were also friends, Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst. Both Lispector’s Passion According to G.H. and Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D are intense, sprawling fictions whose action, paradoxically, is extremely limited. In Lispector’s book, G.H. crosses the room to kill a cockroach and in Hilst’s, a dead husband sits atop the stairs while speaking with his wife, hidden below. This physical stillness opens an intimacy and interiority that lets them transcend time, and leads to an interrogation of the nature of the big questions, identity, existence, language, death, and life.
I reread and recommend Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners, and I specifically adore one story, “The Faery Handbag.” It’s an incredible mash-up of fairytale and conventional story of love and loss, with a speculative element and other disparate items jammed in, too, including and most importantly, a grandmother’s lost handbag that literally contains a village. Herta Müller’s The Passport sits on this list for its haunting imagery and simple beauty that builds an ominous village landscape, with flies buzzing and a tree that eats its own apples. Even cutting a melon is a menacing act. Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups is all sex and sharp edges. She borrowed from William Burroughs’s cut-up method, taking scissors to her erotic poetry and laying them out in lusty and violent (re)configurations Joanna Ruocco’s stories in Man’s Companions are concise gems, playful and linguistically surprising, evoking a synesthesia of ideas. Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s The Sad Passions is told in six distinct voices that reveal facets of a shared family history — a mother’s mental illness, a sister sent away, and another born very late. Blood connects the characters but the cities they inhabit are also organisms, spaces where each person becomes “a cell within its system.” Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers won me over with its intricate plotting, exquisite language, and fantastical premise (its protagonist Julia Severn is enrolled at an institute for parapsychology). I would likely be smitten with any book that connects elements of parapsychology, experimental French film, performance art, and characters who wear the guise of another. The stories in Amina Cain’s Creatures are intricate structures, with sentences like lattice work that create open spaces that breathe and become like living organisms themselves. Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie is a mélange of manifesto, memoir, novel, and social critique — a book that actively attacks divisions of genre and gender as the genderhacking author documents her experiments with testosterone gel. Matias Viegener reappropriates the status update in his 2500 Random Things About Me Too. Originally published piecemeal on Facebook, the collected lists tuck online voyeurism into a book that’s just as addictive and binge-worthy and beautiful. It’s also charming, gossipy, thoughtful, and intelligent — a memoir distilled to its essence. Agnes Denes’s Book of Dust is another book of lists that ends this list. Denes is a land artist with a poetic sensibility. In Book of Dust she uses dust as a metaphor for human life in order to explore the scope of the universe, including the powders that give life and the ones that kill (meteoric, radioactive, and happy dusts included); it begins with the birth of the universe and stretches to speculate on potential catastrophic futures that seem relevant today, despite having been written over 40 years ago. Denes said of an earlier artwork, a time capsule that she made and buried, “It was about communication with the earth and communicating with the future.” The same intent and preoccupation applies here.
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