Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, Kristin Hersh’s chronicle of her long and complicated friendship with the musician Vic Chesnutt, was the first book I picked up this year, and little did I know then that its title would set the tone for what was to come in the following weeks and months. “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” is a pact Hersh and Chesnutt made, with regard to their music, with regard to their lives, and through her book Hersh attempts to come to terms with the loss of her cranky, tender, and at times cantankerous friend who died from an overdose on Christmas 2009.
But 2016 followed much in suit, full of broken promises, full of much sucking and dying, heralding the loss of visionaries David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen, whose lyrics and music provided a soundtrack for my coming-to. I can’t help but think their absence has set us further off-kilter as we stumble into a future aligned with Cohen’s dystopian vision:
“the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul.”
Books like Fanny Howe’s Indivisible offered refuge. When reading Howe, I sense the necessity of writing as if breathing, of seeking the sacred alongside the profane. “Snow is a pattern in this story,” she writes, and it is; she follows the singularity of experience against an awareness of the multiplicity, community. Protagonist Henny resists complacency; an act that causes her discomfort tells her she’s doing something right: “I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me.”
With depth and melancholy and bitter humor, Jacob Wren’s Rich and Poor pits narratives of a greedy billionaire CEO against an impoverished laborer focused on one goal — killing the CEO. The apathy of the wealthy and those in power, their ability to act with impunity, without conscience, and with cruelty towards laborers and those on strike resonates too deeply with the times.
And now, rereading Rich and Poor in light of Donald Trump’s election brings a different clarity. The mechanisms at play have been in place, and will continue, or not, depending:
The roulette wheel spins and the numbers that come up are the ones that win. If you were a left wing activist in Germany in the twenties or thirties there would be little you could do to stop Hitler. And yet it’s important to believe there is always something you can do, to lie to yourself a little, because at least then you have a shot.
This may be couched from the CEO’s perspective, but the question stands: how does one reconcile the impossibility of making a difference in the world while attempting to live as if you still can?
Fantasies, or rather, delusions and the way these delusions imposed upon others can have deleterious results, even a kind of violence, is what intrigued me most about Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea. I read this book while staying at my aunt’s house beside the ocean for two weeks, and I could deeply understand Arrowby’s desire to retreat from his hectic theater life to a refuge where he could reflect and write. But in doing so he fools himself into thinking what he lacks is what he desires, and he goes to great lengths wrecking havoc on other’s lives with his hapless grasping.
I also read Brandon Shimoda’s Evening Oracle while staying by the sea. The ocean is filled with water and whale and fish and ships and detritus, and together they comprise its vastness, even if when we think ocean, we think body of water or perhaps its outline on a map. Evening Oracle is a collection of poems that contains the sea and herons and plums and crossing vast distances; it also features other poet’s poems and excerpts from many email messages exchanged. The plurality of voices together remain spare, taken together form a patchwork quilt of a document.
Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers is a book I carried with me for much of the year. Opening its pages is like entering a portal to elsewhere, dipping in sloughed sleep from my head, or rather maybe pushed me further in. Mommy is such a tender term and yet here it’s slippery and laced with contempt: mommy is caretaker, mommy is authoritarian, and with her swarm her body multiplies. Mothers eat moons, rats devour rabbits and pigs, rats crawl through corpses, flesh is rotting, it’s a garden of earthly delights as all hell breaks loose.
Perhaps this masochism and curiosity with messy and failing bodies explains too why I go to Adam Phillips for insight into human desire, motivation, fantasies, and our (at times) delightfully misguided ways. This year it seems we’re no closer to knowing what we desire, in fact as a plurality we seem to be drifting even further away. The Beast in the Nursery and Terrors and Experts go hand in hand, pitting the capacity of knowing against the ability to be absorbed, investigating what we’re avoiding with the thriving business of distraction, the tantrums we throw when we feel deprived, the curiosity that drives our inquiry into the unknown, the unrelenting desire for power and control.
Lynne Tillman’s story “Madame Realism’s Conscience” is a good place to start, when thinking about power and the presidency:
Those who ran for president, presumably, hungered for power, to rule over others, like others might want sex, a Jaguar, or a baby. Winning drives winners, and maybe losers, too, Madame Realism considered. Power, that’s what it’s all about, everyone always remarked. But why did some want to lead armies and others wanted to lead a Girl Scout troop, or nothing much at all? With power, you get your way all the time.
Madame Realism, Tillman’s alter ego, is a divining rod to offset the cartoonish post-factual state, and so I consider the newly released Complete Madame Realism as part of the antidote. And, I remind myself, with the end of this year, a new one begins. Will I read differently? Yes, I’m certain. I will start the new year with a more auspicious title, or one that’s better equipped for what’s at stake — perhaps Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, or Patty Yumi Cottrell’s forthcoming Sorry to Disrupt the Peace.
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We typically schedule the essays and reviews and lists we run at The Millions a week or two in advance. Before the U.S. election, I looked at what we had in the hopper and tried to arrange the posts for timeliness. This was basically a symbolic gesture since The Millions is a total literary miscellany, and mostly contributor-driven — we don’t have the budget to commission much work (see publisher Max Magee’s call for support here). Max and I conferred about what to run on election day itself; we agreed that a lovely, calm installment of Hannah Gersen’s Proust Diary was the thing. I asked him what we should run if Donald Trump won. “SHUT IT ALL DOWN,” he wrote, sort of joking.
It’s obvious now that our disbelief was a luxury — there were plenty of people who knew it could happen. But the shock was real, and so too was the subsequent urge to shut it down. It was unclear, in the days immediately following the election, how a literary site could possibly matter when Donald Trump was the President of the United States, when it felt that all efforts should henceforth be directed at subverting the new regime. (It’s still unclear.)
But then the Year in Reading entries started coming in, from more than 70 writers. This is the 13th year of the series, and it feels like the most necessary yet. The entries have a measure of fear and grief, yes. They are about reckoning with the past, and preparing for the future. They are also full of beauty, full of sensitivity, full of intelligence, full of curiosity and care. They are about dissolving in someone else’s consciousness. About sharing suffering. About taking a break. About falling in love.
Based on the entries this year, I can confirm that readers are still very into Elena Ferrante. But there are many other names to discover in this series — exciting debuts and forgotten classics and authors whose names were on the tip of your tongue. There are hundreds of books: novels, essays, works of nonfiction, and poems.
As in prior years, the names of our 2016 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come.
There are difficult weeks and years ahead, but we hope you’ll be momentarily refreshed and heartened as you hear from an array of prodigious readers and writers. At the very least, you’ll find something good to read.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Chigozie Obioma, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Fishermen.
Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories.
Claire-Louise Bennett, author of Pond.
Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens.
Caille Millner, author of The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification.
Edan Lepucki, contributing editor at The Millions and author of California.
Matt Seidel, staff writer at The Millions.
Sonya Chung, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Loved Ones.
Nick Moran, special projects editor at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor at The Millions.
Tana French, author of The Trespasser.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, author of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.
Esmé Weijun Wang, author of The Border of Paradise.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun.
Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls.
Annie Proulx, author of Barkskins.
Teddy Wayne, author of Loner.
Brandon Shimoda, author of Evening Oracle.
Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue.
Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers.
Yuri Herrera, author of Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Sally Rooney, author of Conversations with Friends.
Bich Minh Nguyen, author of Pioneer Girl.
Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming.
Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me.
Mauro Javier Cardenas, author of The Revolutionaries Try Again.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer at The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Zoë Ruiz, staff writer at The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer at The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, staff writer at The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer at The Millions and author of Home Field.
Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer at The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer at The Millions and author of The Last Neanderthal.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer at The Millions.
Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division.
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest.
Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes.
Natashia Deón, author of Grace.
Bridgett M. Davis, author of Into the Go-Slow.
Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Leila Aboulela, author of The Kindness of Enemies.
Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers.
Dimitry Elias Leger, author of God Loves Haiti.
Chloe Caldwell, author of I’ll Tell You in Person.
Natalie Baszile, author of Queen Sugar.
Danielle Dutton, author of Margaret the First.
Dan Chaon, author of Ill Will.
Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation.
Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Anuradha Roy, author of Sleeping on Jupiter.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions and author of Somebody’s Daughter.
Janet Potter, staff writer at The Millions.
Ismail Muhammad, staff writer at The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, editor of The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer at The Millions.
Adam Boretz, web editor of The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor at The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions, author of To Be a Machine.
Kevin Nguyen, digital deputy editor for GQ.
Nadja Spiegelman, author of I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This.
Chris Bachelder, author of The Throwback Special.
Álvaro Enrigue, author of Sudden Death.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Lucky Fish.
Sylvia Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
Mensah Demary, editor for Catapult.
Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World.
Manuel Gonzales, author of The Regional Office is Under Attack!.
Hamilton Leithauser, rock star.
Lilliam Rivera, author of The Education of Margot Sanchez.
Jane Hu, writer; grad student; Canadian.
Chris McCormick, author of Desert Boys.
Michelle Dean, author of Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having an Opinion.
A Year in Reading: Outro