Since 2019, when I finished and sold my first novel, the number of books I’ve read in a given year has gotten smaller and smaller, as I read my own book approximately 300 times. I’m a slow reader. I feel a great kinship with snails. What I read in the first half of 2021 fell into the categories of inspiration while editing/proofreading or reward after I met my deadline. After May, I started trying to catch up on my TBR pile while leaping into the future with galleys of books coming out next spring and summer.
Early 2021 feels like 30 years ago, and while it’s hard to remember the chaos of January, I do recall beginning the year with The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh and Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras. I’ll read any book that involves women and water and anything by Duras. Mackintosh’s novel built to a truly terrifying climax, while the Duras collection provided perfect morsels of insight for my frayed attention span.
I should note that, as the parent of a small child, I wasn’t reading by magic or by staying up all night or while homeschooling. I was in the very privileged position of having childcare for my four-year-old (who returned to preschool in the fall), which is why I had time to read at all. Knowing how much other parents, as well as people all over the world, were suffering, I sometimes had to remind myself that part of my job as a writer is reading, because spending my childcare hours reading novels sometimes felt illicit. As winter turned to spring, when I wasn’t doomscrolling, I read Joan Didion’s latest essay collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, and was consoled to find out that she was once nervous about writing a second novel. I finally read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (so late to her work!), which was especially alarming given the food shortages and climate disaster happening in Texas at the time, though given the rest of 2021, this would be true any time one picked up this forever relevant book.
Dorthe Nors’s new story collection, Wild Swims, inspired me while I was reviewing my third pass pages. She’s one of the authors I read for sentence-level brain fuel, with kudos to Martin Aitken (who translated my ultimate favorite Karate Chop from the Danish) and Misha Hoekstra (who translated Wild Swims). After meeting my deadline, I treated myself to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, which was quite tough to read as a parent, but contained fascinating, elegant world-building.
April was when
my husband and I were vaccinated. And when we decided to move from Philadelphia
to my hometown of Chicago. And when my final pass pages were due. And when we
had a sudden change in childcare. I wasn’t sleeping much. What I most remember
about April was the spa shooting in Atlanta, where the victims included six
Asian women. As a Chinese-American, I’ve felt afraid since the start of the
pandemic, aware that anti-Asian rhetoric was endangering us all, that attacks
were increasing, but after Atlanta, in addition to mourning and feeling
enraged, I started being afraid to go outside. My husband and I were suddenly
discussing whether it made sense for me to buy some pepper spray. I worried
that something would happen when I was out with our daughter, and for a while,
made my husband come with us every time we left the house.
In this state of anxiety, I read A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet and started Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. An early copy of The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s daring debut novel, held me rapt during a time of intense distraction and despair.
I reread Cathy Park Hong’s essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which felt urgent in 2020, but now felt essential. This is the book I always needed. I’ll be rereading it all my life. I’ll share it with my daughter as soon as she’s old enough.
In early summer, I discovered a special category I’ll call “books that sustain you while packing and moving to another city during a pandemic while parenting a small child.” Cheat Day by Liv Stratman was one such book. It made me miss New York, where for years I too lived on kale and dated awful men and yearned to be loved.
If I had to choose a favorite book from this year, it would have to be Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. What a primal scream howl of joy and recognition. I was reminded of my first time reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter as an undergrad 20 years ago, that feeling of total amazement: fiction can do that? Writers can do that? I want to do that too! God, that line about the “thousand artless afternoons.” I’ve recommended this book so many times that I feel like I should have little cards printed: If you liked my book, read Nightbitch.
There were some glorious weeks this summer when we socialized indoors, had playdates, ate in restaurants, and said a bittersweet goodbye to our friends in West Philly. But the feeling of freedom was short-lived, as we suspected it would be. As I wait for my daughter’s fifth birthday and first vaccine dose, I do my traveling in books. I visited California’s Central Valley via Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot, went to Hollywood via Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, went to the Netherlands via Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee.
Once we were finally unpacked in our new apartment, I had the pleasure of reading We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, the debut novel by Tsering Lama, forthcoming in May 2022. It’s epic and intimate, a love letter to the Tibetan people and culture. And then, because I wanted to read Brandon Taylor’s New York Times review, I read Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, which made me feel rather old, as all her books do.
Continuing with future titles, Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin (March 2022) is a super-smart speculative thriller, full of great ethical dilemmas. Genius Hilary Leichter (author of Temporary) let me read a manuscript of her second novel, Terrace Story. I want to tell you what it’s about, but you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s wonderful.
Though James Han Mattson’s Reprieve should be read in one fell swoop, I had to read it in stolen bits of time over two months. I was so impressed by the novel’s scope and structure. It’s a horror novel and social critique. I both admired and studied it as I read.
Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej (May 2022) is the sexiest novel I’ve ever read, full of insights about art-making and power. I stayed up way past my bedtime finishing the book, then couldn’t fall asleep, then dreamed about the main characters. I don’t devour many books (see above, snail), but I devoured this one.
In November, soon after finishing Kathryn Harlan’s stellar debut collection, Fruiting Bodies (June 2022), which features stories about girlhood at the end of the world, I finally finished Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I’ve been reading these gorgeous essays one at a time since the summer while trying to learn this daunting new form. The book covers so many phases of Chee’s life that you feel like you’re growing up with him. Like Minor Feelings, I’ll be rereading it forever.
I’m currently halfway through Chantal V. Johnson’s heartbreaking and wickedly funny debut novel, Post-Traumatic, which publishes in April 2022. I was dog-earing favorite pages until I realized I was folding every single one. After this, I hope to resume reading several brilliant 2021 books by friends and comrades that I started but paused due to book deadlines and life.
Besides giving my daughter a galley of my novel, my favorite book-related memory of 2021 was reading her Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Brave and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 for the first time. As a child, I had a Ramona journal in which I wrote: “I AM RAMONA QUIMBY!” Given how often she requests these books, my daughter seems to feel this affinity too. She likes to flip through the book, pick a page that looks fun, then have me start from there, so we’ve never read either book start to finish. My hope is that there will one day be a children’s series about a mischievous little Chinese-American girl, where the goal is not educating readers about ethnic identity or cultural traditions or why she and her family are different, where she just gets to be a kid and do crazy things and have her story be regarded as timeless and universal. I am forever searching for this book, unsatisfied with what currently exists, because I want my daughter to see herself represented on the page and I want that representation to be as awesome as Ramona. If you have any ideas, do let me know.