Notes of a Native Son

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A Year in Reading: Zoë Ruiz

I spent most of the year living in a small town in Oregon where I read a lot of student work and finished my MFA thesis. There I read my first but not last book by Octavia E. Butler, Kindred. I borrowed Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, from a graduate employee union organizer, read some stories, and assigned one to my introduction to fiction class. adrienne maree brown, one of the editors of the anthology and author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, gave a keynote for an on-campus conference coordinated by community organizers, and the talk ended with her encouraging the audience to howl together in honor of the full moon. After her Friday night talk, I walked out into the cool air and saw cherry blossoms lit by street lamps.

At the end of June, I was back in Los Angeles and sitting on Rocío Carlos’s porch and talking to Chiwan Choi, who told me that Los Angeles Public Library had opened up the Octavia Lab. I was back in L.A., where Butler’s archives are held at the Huntington, and telling Chiwan that I hoped someone is writing Butler’s biography because not one yet exists. I suspect the reason one has yet to exist has to do with inequities in publishing. (If you read this and you know of a published biography, please let me know.) Before I was in L.A., I stayed in San Francisco for a couple of days and met with my friend Dan Weiss who now works at McSweeney’s and he told me about their forthcoming issues. Later, back in L.A., I enjoyed their artfully designed Twenty-First Anniversary Issue, featuring 65 contributors, including Claudia Rankine, Terrance Hayes, and Morgan Jerkins.

In July, I stayed in a one-bedroom casita in Santa Fe, spent most of time journaling and meditating and practicing yin yoga at a yoga studio a block away. My friend visited me, and we took a tour of O’Keeffe’s house and I started reading Laurie Lisle’s biography of O’Keeffe, Portrait of an Artist. I wanted to read every biography of her and then realized that maybe I really enjoy biographies focused on artists. This year, Love Unknown, an Elizabeth Bishop biography, was published, and I want to read and gift it to avid Bishop readers. In the one-bedroom casita, I sped-read Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage and bookmarked Rachel Vorona Cote’s article “Eve Babitz Could Capture Only One Side Of L.A.,” which argues that Babitz’s work is “saturated with a carelessness afforded by whiteness and beauty.” From a used bookstore, I bought a beautiful copy of Julio Cortázar’s Cronopios and Famas.

After Hernán Diaz read my (unpublished) fiction at Bread Loaf in 2016, he recommended I read Cortázar, specifically this title. So I’m reading it. Slowly. On mornings that I work on my fiction, I read one story from the collection. Sometimes I just read a paragraph. I’m taking my time with it. Because it’s a special book with special stories, unlike any other I’ve read. Because it’s strange, it’s delightful. Because it’s my cure for days filled with despair and bleakness and, in this way, reminds me of the power of fiction. Because Cronopios and Famas is a book that inspires me to get out of bed and sit at my writing desk and do the work. Because you only get one chance to read a book for the first time, and when you find a book that affects you like Cronopios and Famas affects me, you take your time with it. In Santa Fe, I made friends with a yoga teacher who would bring her dog to classes, and on one of my last nights in that city, I went to dinner with her and a Dutch-Canadian visual artist who had recently moved to the area.

In August, I spent two weeks at Bread Loaf, focusing on coordinating events in the Little Theater, participating in a writing workshop led by Ravi Howard, and socializing with writers. I bought multiple copies of De’Shawn C. Winslow’s In West Mills for myself and family and friends. I loved falling into the world that Winslow created in his debut novel, and look forward to reading his second novel. Bread Loaf’s assistant director Lauren Francis-Sharma organized a private screening of “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” in the Little Theater. Morrison was at Bread Loaf in 1977, and her archived talk is available online. When I was back home, I read Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which has been on my to-read list for years, and implore every writing instructor to read this book as well as anyone interested in, studying, or writing literary criticism and fiction. After I finished reading Playing in the Dark, I started reading Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.

I began working for a true crime writer and bestselling memoirist who recommended that I read Helter Skelter. I knew very little about the Manson family or the murders and admittedly had little interest in them, but found Helter Skelter to be a page turner. The book is well-written and structured, and Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s matter-of-fact style and detailed knowledge of the case and the cast of characters was propulsive. On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I discovered Helter Skelter pairs well with Didion’s essay “The White Album.” The true crime writer and memoirist asked me to read Billy Jensen’s Chase Darkness with Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders for research purposes. I recommend this title to anyone who is interested in reading about true crime or serial killers. It’s not exactly my field of interest and tends to disturb me in the most depressive- and anxiety-inducing of ways. When those moods come—and they do—I reach out to friends, and now remember one Monday night in October when Peter Woods, Rocío Carlos, and Rachel McLeod Kaminer responded to my texts. We gathered at a bar on Spring Street in downtown L.A. when Sara Borjas was bartending, and I spent hours with them, my spirit lifting.

Reading true crime and researching serial killings has me thinking of a section of “True War Stories,” an essay written by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen writes:

Opening a refrigerator is a true war story. So is paying one’s taxes. Complicity is the truest war story of all…Americans do not wish to confront this domestic horror directly, which is why they substitute for it stories of zombies and serial killers and the like. Fictional violence and monstrous horror are easier to stomach than understanding how opening our refrigerator or watching a football game connects us to war, which is not thrilling at all. The true war story is not only that war is hell…The true war story is also that war is normal, which is why we are always going to war…War involves all of us, and that is more discomfiting than any horror story over here or blood-and-guts story over there.

These days I often think of lines written or stated by Nguyen, because I’m reading approximately 60 essays and op-eds written by him and over 200 interviews with him.

In October, I attended John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons” with my 15-year-old niece who is a Leguizamo superfan. We waited in a long line so Leguizamo could sign Ghetto Klown, and she was elated after meeting him. Most of the time my niece experiences reading as a chore or schoolwork, but she started and finished the graphic novel memoir in less than 24 hours. My sister sent a photo of my niece walking and reading the book in the halls of her high school. As I read Leguizamo’s memoir, illustrated by Christa Cassano and Shamus Beyale, I focused on visual narration, the structure and plot, and identity politics and inequities in Hollywood. In 2020, a paperback edition of Ghetto Klown will be released with an introduction by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I’m thinking about what I’ll read in 2020. I haven’t been in a book club since I created a book club for 826LA volunteers almost a decade ago, and am considering joining Los Angeles Gay Lady Book Club, curated by a friend and ProDomme. I’m creating a list of writers who I want to interview in 2020—and, as always, my goal is to read more than last year.

A Year in Reading: Anna Wiener

I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.

After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.

I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.

I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.

A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.

I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.

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A Year in Reading: Chelsey Johnson

I launched a debut novel and bought three to five books at every store where I read on tour, so I struggle to even start to encapsulate this year in reading. And year-end lists tend to cycle around the same famous books again and again, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of what everyone else is crowing about. I read and loved many of those books but you don’t need me to tell you about them.

1. Dept. of Extreme Rereading
OK, that said, I have to shout out Alexander Chee’s essay “The Guardians,” in the collection you’ve read about literally (literally!) everywhere. I read this essay on a gray couch in a tiny house in Echo Park. As it unfurled, I felt my heart start to pound with that feeling of oh my god, this essay, this is going to be one of those, like Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” or that part in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son where he describes anger at the lunch counter. “The doll woke up, stretched, looked around, and believed it was me.” I read it, I reread it, I handed it to people I love with you have to read this, they handed it off to other people with the same, it transformed us all.

My other vital reread is the poem “Glitter in My Wounds” by CAConrad: “glitter on a queer is not to dazzle but to / unsettle the foundation of this murderous culture.” I read this in the November issue of Poetry, sitting at a tiny table in a big corporate bookstore while I waited for my dog to be finished at the vet across the street. I read “Glitter in My Wounds” so many times I think I’ve inadvertently committed it to heart. And it led me directly to Conrad’s collections The Book of Frank (2011) and While Standing in Line for Death (2017), half of which I accidentally read sitting on the living room floor between my dogs. I casually started reading and then couldn’t stop gorging myself on Conrad’s feral queer genius. (“You Don’t Have What It Takes to Be My Nemesis”: writer battle cry.)

 

2. Dept. of Chronology
The first book I read this year, traveling to snowy northern Minnesota, was Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks—fierce, lyrical, deeply intelligent both linguistically and emotionally, and the most honest and complicated book about reproduction I’ve ever read. The ending both wrecked me and restored me. The last book I read this year—as in I am reading it right now here in snowy northern Arizona—is The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and it may be one of the most brain-tinglingly brilliant books I’ve ever read. Tsing takes the rare and undomesticable matsutake mushroom as an entry into the way life regenerates and reassembles in ruined spaces—it’s not just about mushrooms; it’s also about economies, scales, interspecies assemblages, human migration, and, well, as the subtitle says, “On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.” I can feel this book reshaping my lens on the world even as I read.

3. Dept. of Collections
I read Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck in bed, sometimes way too late into the morning when I should have been up and working, and sometimes aloud at night to my companion as they fell asleep. Eisenberg is one of my all-time short-fiction heroes and Your Duck Is My Duck is, as usual, school for me. With each story, you’re just, like, submerged into a full-blown consciousness and set loose. Every time I read her I learn from her. Out of all the famous people in the world the only person I have ever felt legit starstruck by is Deborah Eisenberg. At an Iowa anniversary event, I couldn’t even bear to approach her, even while our mutual friend strolled over to chat.

I read Michelle Tea’s essay collection Against Memoir in a couple of quiet early summer afternoons on a friend’s pool house couch in Los Angeles; I was in a blue moment, and this wide-ranging collection took such good companionable care of me. Michelle writes like she talks—quick and insightful and candid, witty and vulnerable and curious and smart. (Describing her tweenaged hopeless love for Prince: “It was impossible. I didn’t cry. I just sort of exuded trapped melancholia into my environment, like a plant.”)

I read Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut Heads of the Colored People all over the place: in galleys in Richmond, Virginia, in hardcover on a friend’s couch in Los Feliz, on audiobook as I wound through the red rock cliffs and cacti on Arizona’s Highway 17. The title story, “Belles Lettres,” and “Fatima, the Biloquist” are so smart, emotionally rich, and necessary they’re going straight to my syllabi.

4. Dept. of Nepotism But Also 100 Percent True Fandom
The book I literally read and listened to more than any other this year, from proofs to press, is Blanket by K Thompson. Even if K were not my life companion and dog co-parent, I would be in love with this beautiful, strange, brilliant mediation on blankets, interwoven with brief glimmering shards about the death of a beloved young brother. When a passage can move you to cry as much on the tenth read as on the first, you know you’ve hit gold.

Abbey Mei Otis knocked me out with her fiction in a workshop I taught years ago at Oberlin, and this summer Small Beer Press published her first collection, Alien Virus Love Disaster. I read it at the coffee shop in the morning when I was supposed to be writing and at home as the August afternoon monsoons rolled in. Taut, freaky, unsettling speculative fiction where actual aliens, viruses, love, and disaster abound. So do great sentences. This book feels like the future. All hail the new writer generation.

5. Dept. of Actual Scandal
Like many of us who are academia-adjacent, I was completely captivated and repulsed by the Avital Ronell scandal that broke this summer: a story of queer mentorship gone terribly awry, brazen power abuse misrepresented as special “queer coding” when it simply bears all the hallmarks of an unchecked personality disorder, and an evidence chain of weird, cringe-inducing, wildly inappropriate emails. I think I read just about everything there was to read about this, and the two pieces that stuck with me most were a predictably witty, scathing article for the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Andrea Long Chu (“Academic celebrity soaks up blood like a pair of Thinx”) and an unexpectedly witty, scathing LARB post by (to my shock) old-school Marjorie Perloff (“Certainly I will make some new enemies, but that’s a chance this octogenarian is willing to take.”)

6. Dept. Of Local Treasures
This summer I moved into a ponderosa pine forest near Flagstaff, Arizona, and fell in love with the place the way you fall in love with a living thing. Flagstaff is a mountain town, a border town, the homelands of several native nations, a volcanic wonderland, a dark-sky city, and home to astonishing biological and geological diversity. Ever since, the book I have picked up more than any other this year—I read it on the couch, I read it in the car, I pull it out on the side of the hiking trail—is Geology Underfoot in Northern Arizona. This information-packed, funny, friendly book has me all hopped up on things like the difference between rhyolite and basalt, why the peaks outside my window are shaped as they are, infant volcanoes, and mining and hydrology crises. The Book of Hopi by Frank Waters and Oswald White Bear Fredericks is a gorgeous gathering of origin stories, Hopi world views, and artwork, as told by 30 Hopi elders. Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy, a book I recently picked up in a bead shop in town, describes the intricate, awe-inspiring astronomy and cosmology of the Navajo; in a place so dark and clear-skied that I can actually see the Milky Way overhead, I’m starting to learn my way around the constellations, and the stories here captivate me far more than the old Greek ones. Finally, two weeks ago I picked up Sherwin Bitsui’s brand-new book Dissolve, a collection of brief, sharp, glimmering pieces that accrue into a single long poem rooted deeply in place. “This plot, now a hotel garden / its fountain gushing forth— / the slashed wrists of the Colorado.”

In 2018 I’ve thought more than ever about the Colorado River. I lived half the year in Los Angeles, the heedless beneficiary of that river’s diversion, a place where people spend that water foolishly like an inheritance they never had to work for, and then I lived half the year here in northern Arizona, where the litigious control of that river has caused relentless ecological and cultural disaster for the people, animals, and plants indigenous to the place. Everything I read this year (both listed here and not) moved me, shaped me, and cracked open new understandings for me, but perhaps nothing has been more influential or important to me than reading books about the place where I now live. When the contemporary world is falling apart, it helps me to turn to geological time and to scientific and indigenous knowledge about the ground beneath my feet and the sky overhead. The more I learn, the more I love it, with awe, with desperation, and with the understanding of how my own settler presence is a threat—yet how in the ruins we can find new and remarkable growth and assemblages. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that the ground beneath your feet holds the stories of everything.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

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