My most mysterious reading experience of 2019 began with a dream, in which a friend arranged for me to meet with her literary agent. He had read my novel manuscript and told me he liked it very much, then handed me a musty pile of books. He instructed me to read them and absorb their lessons, and once I did I was to get in touch. We had a disagreement about something and I left. When I awoke, the agent’s name was on my tongue: Sergio Chejfec. If you’re like me then, you may have heard of his name, have an inkling that it belongs to a fiction writer whose work has been translated into English, or perhaps you even know this writer hails from Argentina and that his translations have been published by Open Letter. I was nonplussed by the clarity of his name and my seeming lack of connection to it, and so I followed this thread to see where it led, if it did.
I headed downtown to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library and found two novels by Chejfec: My Two Worlds and The Planets. I picked up the latter first, and reader, I was stunned. The first line? “Dream, nightmare, truth.” The narrator dreams of a girl falling, mangled in an explosion, her unlikely name the name of one of the protagonists in the novel I’ve written, that in my dream Chejfec supposedly had read. The explosion was an occurrence that the narrator had previously dreamt: “Days earlier he had woken to a memory, at the time still unreal.” And on the second page of the novel: “Grino often wondered about the power of dreams, whether they simply reflected events, or if, perhaps, they catalyzed them.” Needless to say I checked out both books. I still cannot fathom how a dream led me to an author with whose books I feel such deep kinship. Chejfec was an author I didn’t know I needed to read, although, however, it seems that somehow I did.
Sergio Chejfec writes deeply interior novels, concerned with the shape of time and how we experience moving through it, preoccupied with thought and memory; his characters are philosophical and enigmatic. The Planets concerns the lives of two men, close friends, who are separated when one, M, is disappeared (it was the ‘70s, Buenos Aires). Grino convinces himself in his swirl of memory that the two had been switched as children—M had always seemed the writer, and here he is, telling M’s story. He writes his memories as if he’s still searching, as if to uncover and reanimate this absent half.
At another point Grino retells a story he’d heard a woman tell: An ashtray fell, cracked, and one half disappeared, as if it was mysteriously reabsorbed by the universe. A friend conjectures, when asked, that if he couldn’t find the missing half, he’d assume it to be lost. What I’ve found in this book is more than coincidence, and yet it’s now influencing how I perceive the world, my realm of possibility; it’s even rewriting my history. Though, on some level, isn’t this what great literature does? I wonder at times, is it possible that I somehow unknowingly encountered this novel before? I find something impossible in encountering Chejfec in this way, and yet the notion is utterly enticing to me. It seems like the perfect response to this novel, and yet in my account time seems warped.
I am surprised again and again by Chjefec’s sense of interiority—which when done well in fiction, I adore—his focus on mystery, and his interrogation of how we encounter time passing and memory. In The Planets, Chejfec writes: “There I was wondering about the nature of an impossible event and, not only that, trying to find some explanation for its appearance along my path. This might seem ridiculous—all of life’s events are certainly interruptions, providential obstacles eternalized later by the course of events itself, and we know that to wonder about chance is to deny the power of destiny.”
Another wonder of a book is Brandon Shimoda’s Grave on the Wall. His book draws on his nearly preternatural ability to perceive, draw connections between unlikely events (and also insert other texts and exchanges into his own as if they were conjured there first). He uncovers layer upon layer, connecting material and ethereal. It makes me think of Ocean Vuong saying in an interview that novel writing is a form of myth-making, and yet the best way to describe Grave on the Wall is that it’s doing the reverse. Teasing the sacred and profane from the mundane—whether it’s the appearance of Shimoda’s grandfather’s ghost or his encounter with his grandfather’s portrait when visiting the internment camp he’d been held at in Missoula during WWII. Shimoda asks how do we remember, and how do we metaphorically, or even physically, enter our ancestors’ graves? how do we attempt to conjure the individual names and faces of the dead when a memorial focuses on the grandiosity of destruction? On his third visit to Domanju—a less conspicuous memorial mound that holds the ashes of 70,000 killed by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima—Shimoda sees an entrance he’d never fathomed before: “ It suggested a clandestine, unending world. An underground network, a labyrinth. Shadow Hiroshima … I had not imagined that the mound could be entered.”
This fall in Budapest I entered what was once a temporary grave for many, a wartime hospital and later a nuclear bunker built into a series of caves in the hill that borders the west side of the Danube. The lobby sells outdated items such as old gas masks and glass syringes as cheap memorabilia. What I didn’t realize before the tour is that part of the former nuclear bunker had been transformed into a memorial to the victims of the atom bomb. Melted glass and images of the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are present as are maps of international cities where hypothetical epicenters and fireball perimeters are mapped out. They are meant to leave an impression, I suppose, of how swiftly a city a visitor knows intimately could be wiped out. I wasn’t surprised to find Washington, D.C., represented here, but I couldn’t have fathomed that the imaginary bomb detonated over the metropolitan area would be one with multiple smaller nuclear warheads, with one situated directly above my hometown of Accokeek, Maryland, a town so small that friends from high school 20 miles away didn’t know where it was. I’d travelled thousands of miles to a city where I didn’t speak the language to witness this fantasy of a horror at home, in a way that I’d never so explicitly imagined.
Is this the definition of unheimlich? Or is this the opposite, by finding the familiar in the foreign? Perhaps the two are similar. In Kate Zambreno’s “Translations of the Uncanny,” which appears in her Appendix Project—a series of essays that developed from and beyond her Book of Mutter—she writes, “home is tied up with the concept of what is hidden.” She writes of her friendship with the writer Sofia Samatar and the inherently uncanny nature of correspondences in their thinking and reading and general simultaneity of thinking, and how this happens so frequently they no longer find it surprising. This essay is a meditation on uncertainty and chance occurrences, of how, if we’re aware, we move through time witnessing crossed signals and ripples: “what can double, return, echo—I keep on thinking of the phrase , a copy within a copy. … How can literature yearn towards art, how can image ghost text?”
But also, how can text ghost image? I’m thinking of Zambreno’s linguistically taut and intellectually riveting Screen Tests, and precisely of how its story series of “Sontag in the Bear Suit” one-ups the image by using it as a springboard for pithy wordplay. Literary figures pepper Zambreno’s stories as if family, or at least familiar, their familiarity born of vast reading, which is often the best way to be intimate with a writer.
I also loved Max Porter’s language-drunk Lanny, Jesse Ball’s Divers’ Game for its perfect first page alone (though, keep on!), and Amanda Goldblatt’s wonderfully strange Hard Mouth whose prose leaves an indelible mark. The pleasure, pain, and beauty of forever becoming in T Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through. Miyó Vestrini’s ferocity and desiring toward death in the collection Grenade in Mouth, translated by Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig. I found deep companionship in Kevin Huizenga’s The River at Night—with Glenn’s late-night coffees and sleepless nights, his bibliophilia and endless stream of existential thinking. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing gave me hope that individually and in communities we will be able to delineate spaces apart—both online and off— from social media, from expectation, from demands of efficiency and production, and where we may again move toward the communal without commercial interference.
Miriam Toews’s Women Talking has such a pleasing structure and yet is so destabilizing in its #metoo, as a group of Mennonite women must decide whether to stay and fight or leave their deeply traditional and community, when they discover that some of their men have been using animal anesthesia to rape with impunity for years. Last and never least is Amina Cain’s soon-to-be-published Indelicacy. Its title is a swift, elegant repudiation. I develop a synesthesia when considering Cain’s writing. I imagine Cain like Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe standing before a canvas, painting her book with lush but controlled strokes, the painting itself airy, allowing ample room to move within and breathe.
I am ashamed how little I’ve read for myself this year—how seldom I’ve allowed myself to reside in the privacy of someone else’s text, how little time and space I’ve allowed or been allowed in general. “The full punch in the mouth of motherhood,” my friend Sofia Samatar recently wrote me, and that is what parenting a toddler has felt like, while worrying about various stresses, anxious over my precarity and financial insecurity while adjuncting in non-union environments on various campuses and dealing with the fairly incessant labor of publishing. I am at this point in my life where I find these lists voluptuous brags about time, which I have surely been party to in the past, by those who spend their time doing something so wonderful as reading books for their pleasure and contemplation, much like the other day I found myself in an involved fantasy about someday going to the movies by myself again that in its sheer desire approached something of the transgressive, or adulterous.
I’ve read many things on the Internet this year, most of it not especially reassuring, although powerful nonetheless: Rachel Cusk’s recent essay about the two painters Celia Paul and Cecily Brown, Aysegul Savas’s essay, “The Cost of Reading,” on the gendered labor of publishing, Emily Raboteau’s extraordinary essays about history and climate change in The New York Review of Books. I’ve worried, like everyone else I know, to an excessive, sweaty, grief-stricken degree, about what’s going on now and will be going on in the future in this country and the world, and most especially about climate change.
The most crucial book I read this year was Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, her paean to existing in the present-day, within community, and I wish I still carried more presently that spirit of resistance with me, but unfortunately all has dissipated except that feeling of hope when I was reading it. I thought about reading more than I read this year, and I always thought about it longingly. I woke up at 4 a.m. this morning to try to get any thinking or reading time to myself, and after reading the Cusk essay I began rereading W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn for my graduate seminar, the moment when the narrator’s exhaustion toward the futility of creative work blends with his friend, the translator and writer Michael Hamburger’s:
For days and weeks on end one racks one’s brain to no avail, and if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair, or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane. Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.
I’ve desired far more to be engrossed in other people’s words, to be rendered more perceptive, not more insane. I did read some beautiful and important books this year, some I taught in order to have time to really think through them. I thought a lot about ghosts, and what it means to be haunted. T. Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, Aysegül Savas’s Walking on the Ceiling, Bhanu Kapil’s ghost stories for the spring Paris Review, as well as Sarah Manguso’s “Oceans” essay in that same issue, Sofia Samatar’s nonfiction manuscript The White Mosque, Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9 – Fog, Moyra Davey’s Les Goddesses/Hemlock Forest and her forthcoming New Directions collection, Modern Nature by Derek Jarman, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk, Iman Mersai’s How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts, a small, peach book about photography and motherhood which Sofia sent me as solace. I’ve really admired the column my partner John Vincler has been writing for Paris Review Daily, on thinking about painting within the current attention economy. Lydia Davis’s new Essays have made me feel revitalized again, when I let myself, about thinking about writing, or at least thinking about thinking about writing. For the past few years I’ve been apparently writing a small book (a small small book, a book-length essay, I’ve begun telling myself) about Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, for Columbia University Press—Semiotext(e) is thankfully reissuing To the Friend next year—and so much of what I’ve read has been thinking through Guibert, especially as other works explicitly think through Guibert, like the excellent Andrew Durbin story in the Guibert zine Tinted Window and the title novella in Toshiyuki Horie’s The Bear and the Paving Stone. (Horie is the Japanese translator of Guibert.) I know it might seem from this list I actually have read a lot this year but I think it might have to do with the nature of these lists—the passion in listing becomes a propulsive form that is its own intensity.
There are years in which you are a stranger to yourself. This was one of them. I stopped keeping to-do lists, forgot obligations, hit pause on making sense of my life: why I cried when I should have been happy, why I grew angry or listless, why convictions I’d held no longer convinced even me. It was the last year of my third decade on this earth, and it seems that with every passing year I grow increasingly alien to that earth, or it to me. A fragmented year.
This was the year I moved to San Francisco for the third time, ambivalent. A bizarre place. Nowhere else can the simple act of buying snacks or going to a day job trigger in me the question, How to live?, or perhaps, How to live as a human?, or, What is a human?, or, How is humanity defined in a place of enormous income disparity and mind-boggling callousness as well as beauty? I’m not sure we all share the same definition of human these days. I’m not sure that, were I to rap politely on the skulls of those beside me on Valencia Street or in the backseat of my rideshare, I would hear flesh rather than a more synthetic response. A surreal place. In trying to make sense of it, I found conversational partners in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.
This was the year I got engaged, and though publicly I kept it low-key, privately I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. I found dark and delightful and intelligent company in Louse Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Karen Russell’s Orange World, Alex Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Meng Jin’s forthcoming Little Gods. I sobbed through Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea—maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.
This was the year I was so paralyzed by anxiety that only horror could shake me out of it. In the summer, my non-American partner was exiled in Mexico for an unspecified amount of time, awaiting opaque “further processing” on his routine visa run. On my trip back alone, the only book that could distract me was Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone—at least we weren’t being boiled alive or eaten by bears! I read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Megan Gidding’s forthcoming Lakewood, Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Meanwhile, I practiced pacing my apartment while voicing the very worst possibilities: I could quit my job and move to another country! I could sell our needy puppy! I could delete my digital presence and become a hermit! How soothing to twist reality into its most nightmarish shape, and then study it.
This was the year I sought to lose myself in worlds I’d visited before. I reread sagas: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu from the Earthsea Cycle, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske from the Tales of the Kingdom series, and George R. R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (as far as it exists; George, please). The escapism is not lost on me. Closer to home, I reread Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—more than one reread, in the case of certain stories. “As ordinary as it all appears,” Lahiri writes of the immigrant experience of shifting from one world to another, “there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
This was the year I grieved and found solace in books that peered closely at the texture of daily, mundane grief. I read Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, and Miriam Toews’s strangely hilarious All My Puny Sorrows.
This was the year I looked for joy in the last pure place: in syllables. I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, in which syntax is sheer delight. I reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on a solo writing trip to Hiroshima where, alone in my hotel with a sea view and two beds, no one minded if I occasionally threw the book across the room to yell WHAT THE FUCK when metaphors got too good. Intending it as mourning, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved the day the news of her death broke. I felt only elation. It is a perfect book. It is new every single time, as if the language is being birthed in radical shapes as you read—you can’t help but celebrate the life in it.
This was the year I stopped assuming I could see how things would turn out and cozied up to ambiguity. I read books that, rather than force a sweeping lesson, do what good friends do: hold space for complexity. I read Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming Real Life and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, in which endings are not ends. I reread the lyrical puzzle box that is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I read collections whose individual pieces fragmented, overlapped: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. I read Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere and Alexandra Chang’s forthcoming Days of Distraction, their narrators keeping me company in my state of persistent bemusement. Maybe it’s enough, these books say, to live with integrity through a day, a paragraph, a sentence.
This was the year in which I wondered what happens to women’s rage and hurt when it is no longer as fresh as it was in, say, 2016. What happens as time passes, what ferments or crusts or festers. I read Shelly Oria’s Indelible in the Hippocampus and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking. One of the first books I read this year was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, a real mindfuck of a book, too smart and too cynical and too exacting to give its reader the easy gift of catharsis. It won’t let me forget it. I don’t want to forget.
In 2019, I stopped reading more books than I ever have before; life is too fucking short. The books that held my attention this year—that reached out to me—are capsules of strangeness, of varied extremity; what they don’t do is try to convince me that everything is okay. That was a form of companionship I needed very much.
Here at The Millions we understand that writers are some of the hardest people to shop for. All they really want is more time, glowing reviews, and a cabin for brooding. But: Time is relative, comparisons are odious, and cabins are often chilly. Here are some gift ideas that are more realistic, and might even make life easier for the writers on your holiday list.
A Jigsaw Puzzle
Jigsaw puzzles are a writer’s best friend. They’re perfect for those moments when you need a break from writing, but you’re not ready to shut down your brain. Fifteen minutes of a jigsaw will take your mind off whatever problem you’re encountering in your writing and you can return to your work feeling mentally refreshed. (New York Puzzle Company has a New Yorker Collection, if you want to be especially literary.)
An Imported Notebook
The first time I wrote this gift guide, I admonished gift givers not to give writers blank books for writing. But that was before I knew about this notebook that I would never buy for myself but would use immediately if someone gave it to me (hint, hint). It has numbered pages, a table of contents, and something called gusseted pockets. There’s a slim version and a classic version, and also a special metallic edition, which seems festive, no?
An Expressive Hat
When you need to write from the heart, don’t put on your thinking cap: Put on your feelings hat.
A Really Big Eraser
eraser will remind writers that even if they handwrite 350 pages of feelings in their fancy new notebook,
they can erase them all and no one will be the wiser.
Chaga tea is made from chaga, a fungus that has a parasitical relationship with trees, particularly birches. People have been making tea from it for centuries, and there are many claims for its health benefits. I recommend it for writers because it’s a good coffee substitute when you need a pick-me-up but you don’t want to be up all night. Like coffee, it has a bitter, earthy taste, and it gives you energy, but there’s no caffeine, so you don’t feel overly wired.
Daily Calendar Pad
With this daily planner, you’re not tied to a particular month or year, so you can start and stop at will. It’s a good motivational tool for the writer who needs to be reminded that a big project can be finished by taking it one day at a time.
Bibliostyle: How We
Live at Home With Books
Speaking of How We Live at Home With Books . . . I was
trying to figure out how to put “cozy reading nook” on this list, so naturally
I googled “cozy reading nook.” The common thread in all of the rooms on display
was a fur rug, usually draped over an ottoman. So, if you can’t gift your
friend extra space in their home, you can at least give them a rug to tie the
room together. I’ve chosen this faux
fur rug from IKEA, not only because it’s affordable, but also because it is
made from recycled plastic bottles, instead of animal pelts.
I love this pen
garden, not only because it’s pretty, but also because I think it would
help me to keep better track of my pens.
Some days, writing is all about time management. This
timer will help you resist procrastination, multi-tasking, dilly-dallying, online
browsing, and it might even help you to tame your children. Just tell yourself
that you only have to work on a particular project for just 30 minutes and then
turn the cube over and sit tight and write. (If you have kids, you can set the
timer for them to play quietly while you finish up whatever you need to do.)
Sure, you have a timer on your phone, but we all know what happens when we pick
up our phones to just do one quick thing . . .
I’m surprised I’ve never recommended these before. I like to
work at home in silence, and there have been some days of construction noise
when some decent
headphones would have come in handy. I imagine that many people working in
coffee shops and shared workspaces often feel the same way.
How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
This is the book you need to help you get through another election year. With new polls being released every 30 seconds and memes lobbed like rotten tomatoes, you’re going to want some heavy-duty Zen. Jenny Odell’s wonderfully grounding book will remind you that you’re part of a local ecology, and that the more you tune into the physical reality around you, the happier you’ll be. Her approach is not prescriptive or scolding; instead, she shares her research into a variety of interconnected subjects, from Bartleby the Scrivener to Thoreau’s retreat from society to the intelligence of crows, as she slowly builds an argument for the importance of carving a space for yourself outside of an economy that seeks to monetize your attention and behaviors.