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A Year in Reading: Venita Blackburn

I almost had a tarot reading this year (or last, my memory is not great). I have a special relationship with magic of that kind; it’s forbidden. I had a deep-woods old-school church kind of perspective programmed in me that said Ouija boards and tarot cards and conjure-woman mumbo jumbo were conduits of dark spirts. Don’t play with dark spirts. Once you let them in, you might not be able to let them out. Starting a new book for me feels like sitting down to a tarot reading. Before the deck is cut and the cards are dealt there is a promise looming, something that could be condemnation or a salve. There is still time to change my mind, to say no thank you, Ms. Magic Lady, your curtains are weird and I’m going to go grab a snack. Getting to the end of a book is the real flip of the card, when I can’t say no thank you to the spell, I can’t say my future is my own, I am compelled to grip the chair, press on to see and be changed. I read a lot of effing books this year, but so far these are the ones that I experienced from beginning to end and once complete turned them over again and again in my hands to shake one more word of destiny from the paper.

The Novels

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is the kind of book that is more of an experience than a read. It isn’t hyperbolic or dazzling the way some highly stylized narratives can be, a sort of smelly circus that alarms as well as entertains. This novel is quiet and hilarious, every word is the thing you need to hear when the end of the world happens. I think I planned to write this novel or live this novel years ago. That is how it leaves you.

We the Animals by Justin Torres is another tiny novel with epic, crushing force. I love narrators that exist as a collective consciousness. I write them often. This one explores the violence of boyhood with such accuracy we should set clocks to it.

Finally, the novel that I did not expect that has changed my whole brain is This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It is weird, a sci-fi fantasy epic romance with all the creaking machinery I demand of science fiction but also the heart-breaking poeticism I demand of all good literature. Swoon.

The Comics

Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda is gorgeous, full of incredible art and seriously sexy heroes and villains all of which are interchangeable, mostly women and may or may not be possessed by ancient gods. You’re welcome.

The Poetry

Lately, I’ve been trying to
understand what the word deserve means as in “I deserve” or “you deserve” or
“they deserve” anything. We offer these judgments as if they are real and slide
people easily into the category of deserving or undeserving with thoughtless habitual
conviction despite all manner of suffering that blooms from our lips.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine came out years ago, won pretty much all the awards in some capacity, and I never knew about it until this year. Where was I? I don’t know. But I have now arrived. The poems are mirrors that show how our collective psyche continues to unravel in this nation on a micro and macro level.

The Stories

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: The stories are brooding, black, violent, calm, and masculine—though not the typically canonized version of masculinity (racist/sexist/narcissistic). In this collection, another masculinity flexes, strong, patient, and ferocious with characters that feel like they will live on beyond the page whether we want them to or not for their own good or ours. This book put sad and frightful people in my mind forever, and I am grateful.

The other collection I encountered this year with stunning language and haunting environments was Florida by Lauren Groff. The prose is lovely and controlled. I’m always excited when I read women authors that not only know what they’re doing, but they know they know what they’re doing and that you know it too. Reading her work is like watching a 1940s black-and-white film of a glamorous woman smoking a cigarette, and it’s so perfect that the plot, the cameras, the wars, the taxes, and the whole quaking world doesn’t matter.

A Year in Reading: Carolyn Quimby

I’ve spent this year second-guessing myself. Every decision inspired fear. My emotions were out of control. I despised (yet yearned) for change. My astrology-inclined friends tell me this is my “Saturn return,” which is when Saturn returns to the position it was in during your birth. Saturn return tends to be a period of time rife with change, intensity, and questioning. And, despite being skeptical of cosmic predictions, I can’t help but feel like I’m in the midst of something larger than myself. And, like my thoughts and emotions, my reading has been all over the place. 

I kicked off the new year by reading Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State poolside in the Sunshine State. Its willingness to explore the mundane (and maddening) minutiae of motherhood with a thoughtfulness usually reserved for Very Serious Topics™ felt revolutionary. I’ve never read anything like it (in the best possible way). In addition to reading and reviewing for work, I read a few books for fun including Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I listened to the audiobook and I would argue it’s the best (perhaps only?) way to read the book. Without realizing it, I started The Plot Against America (my first Philip Roth book) on a train to Newark. Disturbing in its own right, the alternate history of America post-WWII has far too many parallels to today’s political climate. I also read, and enjoyed, a little book no one’s ever heard of: Normal People by Sally Rooney. Rooney manages to capture the feeling of being young and desperate for belonging with honesty.

Summer was bookmarked by queer novels: Carolina De Robertis’s Cantoras—a luscious and heartbreaking story about revolution in 1970s Uruguay—and Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things—a novel about a grief-stricken family, taxidermy, and obligation. In between those books, I read some incredible books: And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell, which made me cringe, laugh, and cry all at the same time; What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate, which is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in years; Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game, a beautiful memoir about toxic mother-daughter relationships; The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, a quiet, deliberate masterpiece; Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, a creepy, queer YA dystopia; and Lauren Groff’s Florida, a short story collection further proving Groff is one of the best. The New Me by Halle Butler was feverishly inhaled over the course of one afternoon. Butler’s office novel hit too close to home and it sent me reeling. I also worked my way through Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn, which I had been (unknowingly) waiting for since I read The Empathy Exams in 2016. No one writes an essay like Jamison, and I’m already awaiting her next collection. 

As a freelancer, I mostly review fiction so I gravitated toward nonfiction in my free time. I read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the late Michelle McNamara’s haunting book about the Golden State Killer (her nickname). What a sadness that she couldn’t finish what she started but, man, what she left behind was incredible. In a move that shocked no one, I tore my way through Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, which was informative and hilarious in equal measure. John Glynn’s Out East warmed my cold Long Island heart with its sun-kissed honesty. Furious Hours by Casey Cep was the perfect combination of true crime and literary history. I was horrified and enthralled by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said about breaking the Harvey Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement. I’ve always loved books and movies about journalism, and this is journalism at its finest. For the aspiring writer in your life: Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal (out January 2020) is an invaluable resource. 

And then there were my two favorite books of the year: the ones I sat with the longest, that inspired me to write, and that I’ll revisit over and over again. Read over the course of a weekend, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls left me speechless, devastated, and hopeful. I cannot remember the last time I filled a book with so many annotations, asterisks, and exclamation points. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise totally and completely blew my mind. I said it then and I’ll say it now: I would take a whole course dedicated to studying the structure and form of Choi’s novel. Trust Exercise left me unmoored and it took weeks to find my next book. It’s without a doubt the best novel I read all year.2019 was bad in many ways but the reading was good. If anything, that’s what I’ll take into 2020. More books and writing. Less indecision and trepidation. Stars be damned. 

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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