This year I have been keeping a list. The first book I read was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. A friend recommended it and she was right. This slim novel is very funny. I went on to read more books by Muriel Spark, like The Finishing School and The Driver’s Seat. I remember trying to read Memento Mori at a café with a woman I had a crush on, and I couldn’t read it. I stared down at the same page for an hour. I’m sure it’s a good book!
By the summer, I was living in a sublet in Brooklyn. In that shabby room crowded with mood boards and Zen trinkets, I read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, a grotesque, startling vision of contemporary life on this planet, and The Answers by Catherine Lacey, a gorgeous and incisive account of people struggling to answer impossible questions about what it means to be a flawed human in relation to other flawed humans.
A couple months ago, I moved from a sublet in Brooklyn to a place in Ditmas Park. I read Taipei by Tao Lin, which is one of the most uncomfortable and awkward books I’ve ever encountered. It moved me. I adore it.
My friend Brandon Shimoda, a poet, sent me his journal. He printed it out and mailed it to me in a priority envelope. He writes about dreams, walking, his impressions of people on the bus, etc. Sample entry: “Couldn’t care less about poetry or its mind, I just want to make things out of trash and give it all away.”
And finally: Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard. Sarah Gerard is a writer who also happens to be a detective, an intellectual, and a hobo. Her collection of essays about Florida, religion, friendship, sex, and eccentric people and their questionable activities made me perceive the world in a different way. I fell in love with her, so I might be kind of biased.
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This year has been a tremendously difficult one for millions across the country as we figured out how to recalibrate our boundaries towards resistance and self-care, protecting ourselves while defending others, and making time for laughter in the midst of a trash-fire administration. For anyone who has been involved with books, this new political landscape has made it difficult for authors, particularly those with debuts, to have a strong opening, as the cultural window kept shuttering around any and everything that did not relate to he-who-shall-not-be-named and a sum total of our political opinions. Yet still, books have prevailed. And they always will, because they are necessary for guidance, transportation, and understanding.
I am proud to say that the majority of the books I’ve read this year was written by women. Immediately in January, I devoured Difficult Women by Roxane Gay within a few days. Homesick for Another World and The Book of Joan were two outlandish works of art that will stay with me for a long time because I feel like despite completing them, there may have been some details that I might have missed, which may or may not give me an entirely new experience while reading them once more. I read All The Lives I Want by my dear friend Alana Massey, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, and Hunger. Then I read works that delved deeply into the intricacies of family politics, such as Goodbye, Vitamin, What We Lose, Sing, Unburied, Sing, and The Rules Do Not Apply. I also read some entertaining debuts, such as Start-Up, Marlena, and Sour Heart, while reading recent works from more established authors, such as Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women and Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up.
There’s still so much I need to finish: Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and the Nasty Women anthology, and so much more. But the aforementioned books are those that I remember so vividly, whether I was taking a voyage to Brooklyn, reading as I waited for my tapas at a Barcelona restaurant, or having quiet time away from family back in New Jersey. I hope that they will do the same for you.
Late last year, in the wake of the election, with no one quite certain what Donald Trump in the White House would mean, I didn’t know if I’d be able to write for Year in Reading again. I didn’t think I’d ever stop writing, or somehow cut ties with The Millions—I thought there was a chance that reading itself could die out. For a long, embarrassing month, I was a magical thinker, a person inclined, for the first time in his life, to believe that a black hole might swallow the planet come January, or that the Inauguration might kick off something like the Rapture. I didn’t read very much, if at all, because doing so felt beside the point, and plus it was hard to make time when I was busy not sleeping and reading Twitter.
A couple months passed. The world failed to end. I found Xanax quite helpful. I slowly realized that if I were killed, I’d want to be a dead man who’d kept reading. So I went out and bought story collections, having found them addictive in college and believing, or more accurately hoping, that stories might turn out to be, as they were for me as a teenager, one of my brain’s more reliable antidotes to cortisol.
First on the docket was Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World. I’d read bits of her fiction before, mainly in the Paris Review (which gave her a Plimpton Prize for two of her stories in the magazine), but I’d never read a story of hers (or her novel) from start to finish. Everything she writes is funny and daring, and I’d be ruining the book if I summarized, but I’ll just say that “The Weirdos,” which tells the tale of a woman in Los Angeles who dates an aspiring actor, is easily the best depiction of an idiot that I’ve ever read. There’s nothing boring in here, and quite a lot that’s downright brilliant.
Moving (ahem) across the ocean, I read some Colum McCann, specifically his debut collection Fishing the Sloe-Black River. For readers of TransAtlantic, its fluent, tight lyricism is familiar, but the arcs of its stories are genuinely strange, epiphanic in the best sense of the word. Equally at home in foreign locales as he is his native Ireland, McCann has an old-fashioned empathy that makes everything he writes worth reading.
I’d been told I should read one story in particular from Emerald City, but I can now recommend Jennifer Egan’s first collection in full. The book was her debut—her very first New Yorker story, a melancholy account of a photoshoot, appears in there, along with a debaucherous story that draws on her childhood in San Francisco. Goon Squad fans might find it a departure, but it’s up there with the author’s best work.
Finally, I discovered You Are Having a Good Time the old-fashioned way: by reading a story that blew me away, and setting out to read everything by the author. That story was “William Wei,” which netted Amie Barrodale the Plimpton Prize (a couple years before Ottessa Moshfegh) and which is good enough that I have to quote its simple, perfect first sentence: “I once brought a girl home because I liked her shoes.” The following sentences are equally perfect—I’ve now read the story seven times.
If all of us are lucky, we’ll be here next year, and we’ll all still be reading, and writing about it.