I’ve had a complicated relationship with reading for the past year. Complicated is a word I’ve never used to describe reading before; I’ve loved to read since I first learned how, and there have only been a handful of days in my life when I haven’t read for at least a few minutes for pleasure. But in this year, my second year as a published author, first year as a full-time writer, when my third and fourth books came out, when I wrote my fourth and (most of my) fifth books, when I have either worked on a book or traveled for work almost every single calendar day of the year, it became hard to determine what reading was “for pleasure” and what reading was work. Fiction has always been my true love, but the more galleys I get sent, the more I get asked for blurbs, the more I get asked to recommend books in a professional context, the harder it is to read fiction for relaxation. I’m not complaining about any of this—every time I get home to one of those padded envelopes, I still rejoice like the book loving kid I’ve always been. I’m honored to blurb other authors and support them in the way so many have supported me. But I’ve had to figure out techniques for myself so I can read and write and keep joy in my heart for both.
For years now, my standard reading time has been at night, after I’ve finished all of my own work for the day, in the bathtub. That’s when I relax and unwind from the day, and signal to my brain that work time is over. But now that writing fiction is my job, it felt like work time was continuing, just in another space, so I’ve had to switch the kinds of books I read in the bathtub (almost) every night. I realized early this year that mystery novels were just what I needed. They’re different enough from what I write that reading them doesn’t interfere with my own writing, but they still fully immerse me in another life, which is what I ask for in my fiction. Also, in a year when the national news is full of people being evil and cruel on a daily basis and never enduring any consequences, it’s wonderful to read books where people do something bad and then are caught and punished for it. I read almost all 30 of the Patricia Wentworth Miss Silver books, which feel like wrapping yourself in a blanket knitted by someone who loves you. I also read plenty of Agatha Christie, and reread a bunch of Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books, all of which are cozy and relaxing and satisfying all in this way.
I also read more nonfiction this year than I have in years. I’ve realized that there’s a point in the life of each book manuscript where I stop being able to read any fiction, and nonfiction has sustained me. During one of those periods as I was working on my fourth book, Royal Holiday, I read Esmé Weijun-Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, which was extraordinary—thoughtful, fascinating, heartbreaking, and also wryly funny. Partly for research, and partly for fun, I read Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, which anyone who enjoys The Crown should read immediately—you come out of it disliking Margaret (and indeed, the whole royal family), but it’s still very entertaining. I had a ton of fun with Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman—I was a history major in college and still love big, fat, deeply researched historical biographies, and this is a well written and juicy one; it kept me captivated on one of my many long plane flights this year. And I reread Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Story Genius and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, the latter of which I read for the first time last year, and have a feeling I’ll likely reread every year and get something more out of every time.
The most profound reading experience I had this year was with Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House. I started The Yellow House, Broom’s memoir about her family and about New Orleans, a few days after my grandmother, who was born in New Orleans, went into the hospital. I watched an interview with Broom on PBS with my grandmother in her hospital room. And I finished The Yellow House a few days after my grandmother died. Reading that book was like reading a history of my family, all of the people felt so familiar; this, even though my own family has had a very different history. In retrospect, it wasn’t a great idea to read the Hurricane Katrina section of this book the day after my grandmother died, because, oh wow, did I cry a whole lot—but it was also cathartic in many ways. This book is a triumph, and I’m so grateful it’s gotten the accolades it deserves.
The times this year I have been able to dive into my beloved fiction have not coincidentally been when I’ve gone on vacation. In April, after I turned in Royal Holiday, I went to Hawaii for a week, and brought a whole pile of galleys and published books with me and loved so many of them. The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren, Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev, Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn, Beach Read by Emily Henry, Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jallaludin, Playing House by Ruby Lang—it was my best reading week all year. (Note to self: go to Hawaii more often).
Six months later, I stole a weekend away for my birthday and went to Mexico; there I read The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai, Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika and Maritza Moulite, and Faker by Sarah Smith. In other stolen weekends, or on some long plane flights where I gave myself a break from either trying to write or trying to do any other work, I read and loved The Key to Happily Ever After by Tif Marcelo, There’s Something about Sweetie by Sandhya Menon, Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, The Bewildered Bride by Vanessa Riley, Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore, Return to Me by Farrah Rochon, All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg, and Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Work and pleasure were all mixed up for almost all of these books—I blurbed quite a few of them, some I wrote about or talked about on TV later on, others I read to prepare for events with their authors. But it was good to learn that there are ways that I can still fall head over heels with a work of fiction, even though reading it is now (part of) my job.
I hope in 2020 I
manage to take more weekends off, get to read a whole lot more, and take more
trips to Hawaii with big stacks of books in my suitcase.
The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2018 Award Finalists, and the winners of three awards: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
The finalists include 31 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:
Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Man Booker Prize)
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau (translated by Linda Coverdale)
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (part of our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright
Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos
Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang
The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy
The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story by Richard Beard
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood by Rigoberto Gonzalez
Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home by Nora Krug
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (read our review)
The Carrying by Ada Limón (found in our August 2018 Must-Read Poetry list)
Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Asymmetry by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanagh)
Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 by Robert Christgau
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt
To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight by Terrance Hayes
The Reckonings: Essays by Lacy M. Johnson
Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (found in our February 2018 Monthly Book Preview)
Here are the winners of the three stand-alone awards: Arte Público Press won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to book culture. Maureen Corrigan won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Tommy Orange’s There There won the John Leonard Prize for a first book in any genre. (Read Orange’s 2018 Year in Reading entry).
The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on March 14, 2019.