Preparation For The Next Life

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I’m Suspicious of Empathy: The Millions Interviews Jess Row

Reading Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination is like reading three books in one. The first book is a memoir of Row’s artistic coming of age. The second book is a scholarly critique of white writing and how work by people of color is excluded, ignored, and otherwise neglected. The third book is a meditation on aesthetics, craft, and ideology in creative writing. All three books are imbricated in a way that the seams are hidden but felt.

I especially was taken with Row’s chapter on American Minimalism and the overarching and lasting (but eroding) influence of Gordon Lish. My interest lay in a compelling argument Row makes about Lish’s influence on minimalist writers like Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Amy Hempel, and Richard Ford. He claims minimalist writers aren’t “able to relax into something larger, even into idiomatic speech: the consecution method doesn’t permit that…What they are performing is a Morse code, a telegraphic effect: this is how we live, this is what the present entails. And: this is all that the present entails.”

Row and I talked recently about minimalism, race, empathy, and White Flights.

The Millions: Is White Flights a project built around empathy?

Jess Row: No, I don’t think so. I’m suspicious of empathy for a lot of the reasons you see coming up in books like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. There was a great roundtable about empathy published in The Boston Review several years ago. And in it was this psychologist, Paul Bloom. His basic critique of empathy is that it tends to focus our political thinking on objects that we feel an immediate emotional connection with, and it excludes beings and subjects we don’t feel a direct emotional connection with. There are a lot of people in the world of creative writing who put empathy at the center of their thinking about why literature is important and why fiction is important. My thinking about that is always a little more skeptical. Obviously, when you create literary characters, to some degree you’re looking for a connection, a recognition of the fictional consciousness of the character, if you’re in that realm of psychological realism. But I always think that using empathy as a justification is too simple. It requires some clarification about what empathy means.

TM: Because the idea there is empathy is self-directed. It doesn’t come from outside of you.

JR: Yeah, empathy is also circumstantial. To some degree, social media feeds on this quality. If you’re constantly seeing things popping up in your feed about some outrage in the world, it could be they’re designed by the algorithm for other reasons not having to do with creating any narrative or hierarchy of meaning. You could have someone being cruel to kittens and have widespread environmental destruction or homes destroyed in East Jerusalem. In other words, empathy can create a distorted sense of where your attention should be in the world. It’s easy to manipulate in that way.

TM: The question is: Between logos, pathos, and ethos. Which one do you think is being used most? Overwhelmingly, it’s the emotional appeal, pathos. I wonder how much pathos is behind empathy, as opposed to, say, logic or credibility.

JR: One thing I write about in the book (very briefly) is the three definitions of love in Christianity, which come from classical Greek thought. Philia-love, romantic love, and agape-love. This is something that Martin Luther King talked about all the time. When he talked about racism in the United States, he constantly talked about the importance of defining your terms when you talk about love and racism. You’re not just talking about philia-love. You’re obviously not talking about romantic love. He said you always have to be talking about agape. You have to be talking about the largest concept of love. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That’s a great way of summing up agape in the black prophetic Christian tradition.

TM: You write “white American writers are almost never asked to bring their own sadness or their own bodies into play when writing about race or racism; their dreams, their sources of shame, their most nightmarish or unacceptable or crippling fantasies”—but it also seems that fear is to blame, because who wants to have a tin ear or come off sounding hurtful. Though, you also write that, “dealing with shame is meaningful.” Do you see fear playing a role like shame?

JR: What you say is important. They’re definitely connected. I think fear of being exposed as being insensitive or being exposed as being racist or just not thoughtful in your speech or whatever—I would say that fear is absolutely debilitating for white people, writers, teachers.

But I also think there’s a culture that sustains that feeling of paranoia: “No matter what you say, or try to engage in, you’re going to be criticized.” That’s why I say that I think that it’s really important to look at those feelings directly and ask yourself, Where did those feeling come from? Who is it that’s telling you that you can’t win? Who is it that’s encouraging these feeling of paranoia? And: For whom are those feelings politically useful?

In an academic setting, that paranoia around race is extremely useful to the institution because it enables administrators and leaders to essentially treat racial justice and questions around it as an area of diversity that can be farmed out to the vice president of diversity or whatever. And the rest of us don’t have to think about it.

Essentially, you hire people to do the uncomfortable work of raising awareness about these feelings and you yourself are feeling like you’re not—you, the white administration or professor or department chair—are not able to do anything about it because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. That paranoia is structurally built into the institution.

TM: Do you find that Lish’s minimalist aesthetic, through what you describe as “beautiful shame,” fetishized the poor or the downtrodden?

JR: I think those two things are related. And it’s always what I say about Lish: he pressured Carver to remove the direct reference to his own background. I think that Gordon Lish himself was never interested in fetishizing rural poverty, because I think his aesthetic interests were so different. His interests were late modern, Gertrude Stein, an obsession with the sentence as a self-fulfilling object. He was able to create this artistic aura, this sense of existential inner-poverty that translated easily to American literary culture into a larger way of fetishizing poor white people as the authentic or raw voices.

TM: That reminds me of Sarah Palin talking about the “real America” back in 2008.

JR: The fetishizing of the dirty realists in the 1980s, Tobias Wolff, John Dufresne, Richard Ford. Annie Proulx’s first book Heart Songs is in this category. A lot of things came together at same time: Lish’s approach to realism, the overwhelming popularity of Raymond Carver. But you also had the Reagan era, white American retrenchment, there was a broader cultural interest in white working-class authenticity that you have in Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. If you look at Mellencamps’s hits, “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” “Jack & Diane”—white t-shirts and blue jeans. That’s part of a wave of fetishization of American rural life that started in the post-war era and really flowered with the baby boomers because so many of them were moved away from that life. As soon as that way of life began to fade, it became a fetish for the up-and-coming suburban bourgeois class.

TM: Who would be an example of an author who goes past the fear and beautiful shame? You mention Dorothy Allison and Allan Gurganus as examples back in the 1980s and 1990s. What about today?

JR: The landscape of American fiction is fractured as compared to how it used to be. You don’t have one aesthetic that’s nearly as dominant as the minimalist aesthetic was in the 1980s. Are you asking about specifically white writers who are going beyond shame?

TM: Yes. I mean, I’m taking your book to be a call to stronger self-reflection, as a challenge. That is, for writers to ask, “In my next story, how will I deal with shame?” I’ve been super self-conscious about who I could write. I’m like a vestigial Platonist, a latent essentialist. I read you claiming that we need to stop thinking there’s an essentialist aspect to writing others.

JR: When you talk about being a vestigial Platonist, you have to think about Plato’s critique of poetry in The Republic. This is a central tension in Western aesthetics. Plato hated the idea of mimesis and mimetic art because of what you’re saying. It is anti-essential. If an essence can be replicated, what is it? Do we need it?

The central challenge in fiction is representing other lives and consciousnesses. That’s always the core artistic challenge. I think that, in some ways, American fiction writers have essentially sort of sat back and avoided the central artistic question that should’ve been discussed in the 1960s and 1970s: Given that the country is becoming so equal and more egalitarian (superficially, anyway) and poly-cultural, how do fiction writers deal with that? That was a big subject of American fiction in the early 20th century. Along with the kinds of cities there were and new immigrants, there was all this discussion of the social novel and naturalism. What happened after 1970 in American fiction is things went radically the other way, especially in the highbrow white aesthetic universe. Nobody wanted to talk about that stuff. No one wanted to talk about the crisis of representation. There were all these postmodern systems novels and the New Minimalists, but even the most ambitious novelists, like Don DeLillo, were flattening, reducing, altering, and manipulating surface difference to create some otherworldly universe.

No one was interested in the basic question about how you write a novel where a Chinese immigrant women falls in love with a black man from Mississippi. No one wrote that novel. That novel should’ve been written in the late ’80s. But that novel didn’t make the front page of The New York Times Book Review. People are writing that now. Atticus Lish’s novel Preparation for the Next Life is a little bit like that, which is ironic. In some ways, the central artistic question hasn’t been discussed because writers are always so weighted down with fear, paranoia, and anger, legitimate anger about the bad attempts at racial representation that have happened in the past.

TM: Do you think the blowback over William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) had something to do with that?

JR: I do. I wrote about this in the book a tiny bit. I’ve written about Styron and Nat Turner before. That was a huge thing for me. When I was 17, in my first writing workshop, my teacher told us, an all-white class, that white writers cannot write about race because Nat Turner proved that we will be punished for doing so. He was expressing the conventional wisdom at the time in his circles. This was 1992. The teacher of the class, Lee Abbott, a wonderful person, who knew Ray Carver and Richard Ford, was a short story writer very much of that time, of the late ’80s and ’90s. He was essentially expressing the literary consensus of the white American creative writing community. Of course, that had a huge effect on me. It basically convinced me that I could not do that. I spent years trying to write in an all-white way.

TM: Whatever “writing in a white way” means, right?

JR: Yeah. In my case, what it meant was relying only on white models. It meant I went through all of 20th-century American fiction and picked out the white prominent writers and tried to read all of them and tried to ignore everyone else. That was what was being taught in creative writing classes. I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan from 1999 to 2001, which is, in the greater scheme of things, not long ago. I don’t believe there was a single text by an African-American author taught in any of my classes. Maybe one in a craft class. One or two; that’s it. Nobody, none of my teachers in fiction workshop, made any but the most sort of marginal reference to a black writer.

TM: Five years later in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, I definitely had African-American writers and writers of color included in my workshops and courses.

JR: You’re lucky. The way that I teach fiction workshops now couldn’t be more different, self-consciously so. Not just in racial representation but in looking at different aesthetics, which wasn’t really done much in any of my writing workshops. I never had a teacher who encouraged us to work with experimental texts.

TM: You mention how writers “outside of whiteness” use white writing as an anti-metaphysics. Like Colson Whitehead adopting DeLillo’s style in The Intuitionist or Monique Trong’s The Book of Salt. I think about when I first read Toni Morrison and wondered, “How in the hell do I learn to write like her? How can I do what she does?” And after reading your book, I wonder, about the reverse way that writers of color, borrowing rhetorical styles from white writers, can operate backwards, for white writers to work within African-American and non-white rhetorical styles?

JR: I think it’s hugely important for white writers to talk about how influenced they are by writers of color. It doesn’t happen nearly enough. The only way to start talking about American literature as a whole literature is to talk about the interplay among the different voices, and that just doesn’t happen enough. I talk about that issue in the book in many places. For me it came up so vividly when I read James Baldwin and was so intensely captivated by his novel Another Country. I said to my wife, “I want to write a novel exactly like this.”

That is a crucial artistic step forward, acknowledging the influence—and it should be obvious and go without saying, but it isn’t obvious and it doesn’t go without saying. Toni Morrison is held up as a larger-than-life person, an icon (which is all true), but for fiction writers she’s so important because of her technical skill and stylistic, artistic skill. As a humanist voice, yes, she’s important, but for fiction writers, it’s that she’s so good at writing. Her technical abilities and her innovations are hugely influential. When I read Beloved for the first time, which was not until graduate school, I suddenly understood why so many other writers I had seen were doing things or using the chapter beginnings or the kind of voice that they were using. “Oh, it’s because they’re influenced by Toni Morrison!”

This strikes me all the time whenever I hear discussions about American memoir and hybrid texts. “Is a memoir actually fiction?” Someone no one ever talks about is Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior is the text that invented the modern American memoir, the text that started the whole movement toward so much of what is happening today. That text only gets acknowledged as quote-unquote multicultural literature. And, of course, it’s vital for Chinese-American culture. But for writers, it has so much to teach us about the overlay between autobiographical narrative and fictional narrative, and she does it so openly and skillfully, weaves in and out so skillfully.

Everybody should be learning from that—that should be the center of the canon.

A Year in Reading: Paul Yoon

This year I read too many wonderful books to name all of them here, but some highlights were: Katie Kitamura’s intoxicating A Separation, which is such a wild and yet disciplined exploration of the idea of the traveler and of grief. Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage came out last year, but it is a book I hold close to me these days, a miracle of a novel, one of the most humane, visceral, gut-wrenching and precise stories I have ever read. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life exploded in my head and I’m still reeling from the effects of living that journey. I absolutely loved Jenny Erpenbeck’s new one, Go, Went, Gone. She is one of my favorites, one of those rare writers who, I think, can write a narrative where you feel layers, not only the layers of a character’s life, but literally the layers of sky, the earth, soil and history and the future. Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance will haunt me forever, a narrative that continues to astound me, and I think a near perfect portrayal of aloneness and solitude and deep longing. Finally, I just finished a book coming out next year, Happiness, by the great Aminatta Forna. It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift. It was what I needed. Readers are in for a treat.

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A Year In Reading: Brian Etling

It’s probably easiest to summarize my year in reading by relating a decision that came to typify my next 11 months with regards to books: I chose a long-awaited beach vacation with family as the time to finally sit down with The Year of Magical Thinking. There are few experiences quite so disorienting as thumbing through 200 pages worth of eviscerating grief (and near-matchless prose) in between body surfing and tossing a frisbee on a humid beach. Despite a bit of environmentally-inspired cognitive dissonance, I found the book to be everything that everyone had lauded it for/warned me about; it’s difficult to imagine ever reading another memoir about the loss of a loved one that captures the particularity of grief more capably than Joan Didion. That is, unless you want to talk about another book of Didion’s that is the worst kind of companion piece, Blue Nights.

As an independent bookseller-cum-college student slouching towards graduation, temptation to read is at an all-time high and time itself is at a premium. It would be dishonest of me to say that I don’t carve out a disturbing amount of my free time for some of life’s finer pleasures like binge watching nature documentaries and, more recently, pouring hours into Fallout 4. I imagine these luxuries are not afforded to my rooted friends with little ones and spouses, and I suspect this decision-anxiety is familiar for anyone who balances a career and a family. Nevertheless, my decision about what to read next was made by a mostly haphazard combination of chance and odd luck, having less to do with a conscious decision than with a serendipitous whim or a particularly bountiful bookstore shipment. That said, I managed to read a whole bunch of stuff.

Like everyone else in the world, I loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me — as far as I’m concerned, it’s deserving of all of the accolades and then some. A few surprise non-fiction favorites included One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad and Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement. Seierstad’s book is, as the heavy-handed subtitle suggests, the fascinating story of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik from pre-birth to purgatorial present in prison — it’s hard to put down in the way that a car accident on the highway is hard to look away from. Clement’s book, on the other hand, is by turns delicate and lacerating in its riveting, poetic portrayal of the relationship between artistic savant Jean-Michel Basquiat and his partner/muse Suzanne Mallouk. As for drama, a customer’s suggestion to check out Middletown led to a months-long affair with all things Will Eno — it left me feeling even more suburban and despondent than usual (in a good way?).

Poetry is my real first love, and it’s the area where I found myself devoting most of my squirreled-away reading time. A ton of poets that I admire released collections this year — two of my longtime favorites, John Ashbery and Yusef Komunyakaa, each have new books out. Some of the new releases that I enjoyed a great deal were those by Terrance Hayes, Nick Flynn, Dorothea Lasky, Deborah Landau, and Richard Siken. A chance encounter with Elegy Owed by Bob Hicok mutated into near-total immersion in his body of work — Bob, if you’re reading this, I’m finished and I need some new poems.

The most interesting poetic rabbit hole I stumbled down this year began with reading A Question Mark Above the Sun by Kent Johnson. In Johnson’s bizarre book, he alleges that Frank O’Hara’s poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” (which was first discovered and recited by O’Hara’s longtime friend Kenneth Koch at a memorial event celebrating the poet’s life) was actually written by Koch and “given” to O’Hara as a kind of private elegy to his closest friend. It’s may be the most touching gesture in the history of poetry or a totally outrageous accusation — either way, it was the gateway book that led to my mainlining a dangerous cocktail of New York poetry which included the likes of Koch, James Schuyler, and Ted Berrigan.

A surprise reading trend that cropped up this past year included burning through collection after collection of unbelievable short stories by some frighteningly talented women. Like many others, I drank the Clarice Lispector Kool-Aid and trudged through her Complete Stories in a bewildered haze that I’m not sure I ever made it back out of. I prefer Lispector’s slim, puzzling novels to her stories, unlike another South American woman whose collection I read and loved, Silvina Ocampo. Ocampo’s stories are in the vein of a magical realism where all of the playful niceties are replaced by an unforgiving and overt brutality — needless to say, they are pretty badass. Collections by Lucia Berlin and Joy Williams were also among some of the best.

Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life was the most memorable — if profoundly depressing — novel that I spent time with this year. It shares my top fiction spot with Cow Country, a bizarre book penned by Adrian Jones Pearson, an openly self-identified pseudonym, and published by a nonexistent publishing house. The star of a few speculative pieces about the identity of its author (the most popular of which is Thomas Pynchon), Cow Country is smart and hilarious and incisive no matter who wrote it. Some of my other fiction favorites included Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide, Per Petterson’s I Refuse, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. My biggest letdown was Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, for which my expectations were too high and my disappointment now is total and all-encompassing. I found it far too guarded and vanilla for the same man who shocked my sensibilities with a couple of brilliant, fully-realized memoirs about an addiction to crack cocaine.

In writing this, it occurred to me that I must have had more time to read than I remember, or else I just didn’t take great care of myself, because I read a ton of books. However, for everything I read and loved, I watched another 10 books languish on the shelves at my store, knowing I would never have the time to pick them up. As far as figuring out what to read next is concerned, it seems that the stakes are higher than we often give them credit for; the decision is an expressed commitment to an ideal, be it beauty or bacchanalia. Or maybe I just want my job to feel important. And so we beat on, I guess.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

1.
I read Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland in a hotel room in Saint Paul. This was a couple of months back, 13 months into a book tour that seemed by then like it might not ever end. (Not a complaint — I love my job, and am immensely grateful for it — but perhaps we can all agree that being away from home and loved ones for long periods can wear on a person, and leave it at that.) By the time I reached Saint Paul, I’d been feeling badly for awhile about how few books I was reading. Even the most grueling days usually contained a small amount of downtime. There were days where I spent an awful lot of time just sitting there in airplane seats and waiting around in airports and idling alone in hotel rooms, all places that should theoretically lend themselves to getting some reading done.

Then I had an irritating couple of days on Twitter, which sparked the somewhat obvious realization that if I took a week off from Twitter I’d have more time in which to read, so I logged off in the Saint Paul hotel room and haven’t been back since. I wouldn’t have said that I’d been spending much time on Twitter, but in its absence, there seemed suddenly to be an immense amount of space around me. I picked up two novels at the bookstore down the street and read them in two days. Wonderland was one of them. It’s an exceptionally well-written novel. The plot concerns an aging musician on what may or may not turn out to be her last tour.

“What made you want to write about actors?” people kept asking me that month, in audience Q&As.

“Well,” I kept saying, “I’m interested in film and theatre, and I wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art, the costs and the joys of that…” and then I read Wonderland and saw that D’Erasmo wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art too, but she kept that the focus of the entire novel, and it makes for a razor-sharp, unsparing book. She captures both the joys and the terror, the grind and the exaltation.

Others: I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on a brief interlude between tours. It moved me in a way I hadn’t been moved by a book in a while. There was a sense of having encountered a rare masterpiece, also a sense of having been burnt to the ground. I expect it will live on my shelves forever, but I don’t think I could bear to read it again. Earlier in the year, on airplanes and in other hotel rooms, I read Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. It’s a love story set in a marginal New York City, involving an undocumented immigrant and an ex-soldier with PTSD. It’s harrowing, extremely violent, and extraordinary. What all three of these novels have in common is that they remind me of nothing else I’ve ever read.

2.
Sometimes you encounter the perfect book for a given moment, and so I felt when I picked up Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. When he isn’t writing, Vanhoenacker flies 747s in and out of London. I’d come across his work in the form of a gorgeous essay about flight that ran in The New York Times, and was delighted to realize that the essay was an excerpt from a longer work. Part of why I picked up the book was that I used to love flying, and by autumn of this year I dreaded it, and I wanted very much to love it again.

I’ve never been a nervous flyer — I feel far safer on airplanes than I’ve ever felt in a car — but the thing with airplanes is that there are too many other people on them, extended business travel is exhausting, being herded like a sheep is exhausting too, and, well, let’s be honest here, exhaustion can spark a certain low-level misanthropy when one’s crammed in with others at close quarters. When I was lucky enough to get a window seat I still found unspeakable beauty in the sight of the world from 30,000 feet, but by October, which is to say sometime around my 100th event for Station Eleven, the inevitable small tics and inconsequential bad habits of others were becoming all but unbearable to me: the woman sitting across the aisle, loudly smacking her lips while she ate a cookie and then slurpily licking each of her fingers in turn, for example; the guy in the row in front of me who apparently never learned how to blow his nose and thus found it necessary to sniffle every three seconds, for five hours, at a decibel level too high to drown out with my headphones; the business travelers competing to see who could tell the most boring flight stories. (“So then by the time we get to Atlanta, the heat’s not working at all and it’s 50 degrees on the plane.”) Etc. I turned up the music and tried to disappear.

But Skyfaring is a love letter to flight, to a profession, and reading it was a balm. Vanhoenacker slips easily between poetic meditation into the nature of travel and technical explanations of the mechanisms of the 747, and I found all of it fascinating. It is a delight to encounter someone so unabashedly enamored of the romance of his profession. On a flight bound for southern Africa, he gives a position report to the controller:

‘Roger,’ says the controller. ‘Next report the equator.’
I feel a shiver of surprise; I still can’t quite believe it’s part of my job to announce that we’ve crossed into the skies of the other half of the world. I try to imagine the old days of the ocean liners, when crossing the equator, the first of our grand marks on the sphere, was still understood as momentous, how on deck, sparkling glasses would be raised.

The book’s meditative pacing isn’t dissimilar to the rhythms of flight itself, to the way landscapes gradually unspool far below. There’s tremendous pleasure in coming across the explanations for aspects of flight I’d never quite understood – the gorgeous phenomenon I’ve seen a couple of times on long flights over the Pacific, for instance, where a strip of night hangs suspended on the horizon between sections of daylight — and equally fascinating to catch a glimpse into the closed world of the cockpit. It was easier, after reading it, to forget my exhaustion and the small annoyances of the world and lose myself again in the beauty of the flight.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

I wrote my last Year in Reading when I was about to have a baby, and now the baby is here. In accordance with all platitudes, the year has gone by very quickly, and yet its component moments were glacial, with a glacier’s way of doing a lot while appearing to do very little. Richard Ford, whose novels I re-read just before the baby came, divided Frank Bascombe’s life into the Existence Period, the Permanent Period, and the Authentic Self. My year comprised three epochs which were, more or less, 1) Magic, 2) Bad, 3) Decisive. The Magic Period was all soft blankets and endless afternoons in the nest and long, slow walks across the city. The Bad was clumps of hair like hamsters in the bathtub, and tiny plastic pump pieces, and vanished milk, and finding myself on lunch break smoking cigarettes in a shrub. Then, perhaps as a consequence of this period, came a time for making plans. Motherhood is not unlike drugs in that it has caused me to question the arrangements of life in even its most privileged iterations. “Why should people go to a desk and sit in front a computer and write emails all day,” I would say to my husband, like a very young, very high person.

I suppose the thing that most characterized the year, apart from the presence of the baby herself, is an overall failure to modulate, some mechanism gone haywire, so that seeing someone with a bag on a seat on a crowded train made me want to scream “The bag doesn’t get a seat!” out of all proportion. When a series of administrative fuckups created a reversible but maddening problem with my maternity leave, I felt my rage could electrify a small village. I noticed the other day that a Vanity Fair I bought in an airport seven months ago is still sitting on our coffee table, because I’ve become strangely obsessed with ensuring my husband reads an article by William Langewiesche about commercial space flight. “You’ve got to read this amazing story — you’ll love it!” I keep telling him, and Robin Wright gazes serenely from the cover, asking me whether I need to talk to somebody.

How to describe a year where I felt simultaneously so powerless and so powerful — when the prospect of buying a stamp or fully participating in electoral democracy seemed insurmountably difficult, but writing a book seemed possible. Or moving to a new place. Or having another baby. When I felt so inept at the womanly art of taking care of my appearance, but so unexpectedly okay at taking caring of the baby (she is what they call an easy baby; I know it could have gone any number of ways). How strange it was to go to work and long to be with her; to long for solitude in her presence.

I know that I read a lot this year, but I can remember almost nothing, and what I remember is tied to the epochs outlined above. Like most efforts at periodization, things fall apart when you begin serious excavations. There was plenty of magic distributed through the year; it smiled in the winter and laughed in the spring and crawled in the summer and stood up in the fall. And the Magic Period, if I think about it, was actually marked by frequent crying episodes (mine, not the baby’s), like little bursts of rain against the roof. But like rain in California — and it actually did rain, those first few weeks of her life — there was something nourishing and necessary about the jags. During that period I read Mating, and whether it was the time or the book I don’t know but it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever read. I loved it so much that I immediately tried to write a novel in its image, but fortunately realized, somewhere around the third paragraph, that it wasn’t a very good idea. I read Elisa Albert’s After Birth, and even though it was before my own rage came home to roost, I felt the force of her beleaguered, gimlet-eyed narrator.

As my milk dried up and the Bad Period began, I read Beloved and Preparation for the Next Life, and they were vivid and perfect, although they didn’t make me feel less blue. I read The Ghost Network, which has as its heroine a Lady Gaga figure, and because of it I listened to Lady Gaga on purpose for the very first time. There was a stretch of about a week when I couldn’t bring myself to climb the hill to my office without blasting the song “Do What U Want,” imagining myself pirouetting up the road like someone in a training montage. I mentioned how much I liked the song to a friend, who said, “It sucks that it’s R. Kelly”; I hadn’t realized that it was R. Kelly, who is known for doing what he wants with the bodies of underage women, and I understood then that verily there are no pure pleasures.

I read so many sad things this year, and felt that life itself has a failure to modulate. I read Aleksandar Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium,” about his daughter, and my friend Katie Coyle’s essay about hers. Sad things so generously written have a way of momentarily recalibrating the haywire apparatus, so that it registers, These are the real things — not bags on the seat, not misfired paperwork. But it’s not as if there’s comfort in the suffering of others; hugging your own family close only illuminates the supremely inequitable hazards of existence. Reading the news has, of course, been unspeakable, when every drowned child and murdered child assumes the characteristics of your own, and it feels like all there is to do is watch events unfold on a chyron, and read Facebook posts.

As I clambered toward the Decisive Period I read Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart, which is out next year and which is breathtaking. I read J.M. Ledgard’s “Terra Firma Triptych,” also breathtaking in the very particular and somewhat confounding way of J.M. Ledgard (he seems to also be a person who has reached a decisive moment, but whereas mine was, “I should quit my job and write things,” he schemes to build drone ports across rural Africa, and has evidently arranged his life thus). I read a stirring article about small-boned women and ancient cousins who bury their dead. Finally, I picked up Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel, which I had once put aside after a dozen pages, and discovered that she was exactly who I needed to read: a woman writing about women, their ugliness and their ambition and their promise and their rage — their utter humanity. I ripped through the remaining volumes. You’d think a cheerful book would be the thing to pull me out of my funk, but I needed something pitiless, something about the messy arrangements of life, something about a writer trying to “imitate the disjointed, unaesthetic, illogical, shapeless banality of things,” and failing up into something vital and perfectly-formed — more lifelike, somehow, than life itself.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

Winter
As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.

I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.

The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.

Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.

Spring
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.

Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.

Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.

Summer
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?

I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…

And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.

It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.

Fall
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.

Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.

In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.

As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: 2015

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Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year.

After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we’ve seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read–how the reading shaped the year.

There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry.

– Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen.
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Nell Zink, author of Mislaid.
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.
Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate.
Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.
Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books.
Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise.
The Book Report, everyone’s favorite literary show.
Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen.
Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning.
Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale.
Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician.
Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood.
Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything.
Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart.
Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker.
J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence.
Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls.
Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays.
Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty.
Justin Taylor, author of Flings.
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami .
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper.
Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts.
Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race.
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God.
Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind.
Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World.
Sady Doyle, a writer in New York.
Patricia Engel, author of Vida.
Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders.
Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City.
Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network.
Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home.
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age.
Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?.
Brian Etling, intern for The Millions.
Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.
Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War.
Kerry Howley, author of Thrown.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow.
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People.
Kate Harding, author of Asking for It.
Year in Reading Outro.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Before They Were Notable: 2015

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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well:

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (You Can’t Lie in Fiction: An Interview with Kevin Barry, You Must Read Kevin Barry, A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Hinge of History: Nine Books for the Post-Ferguson Era)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (The Opening Lines of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, I’ve Rarely Felt So Free: The Millions Interviews Garth Risk Hallberg, Garth at The Millions)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector (A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (A Happy Sort of Pessimism: The Millions Interviews James Hannaham)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Exclusive First Look: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July (A Box of Powerful Things: The Millions Interviews Miranda July)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (The Audacity of Prose, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam (Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction)
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson (A Blacker Shade of Pale: On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day)
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (The Book Report: Episode 30)
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (A Heightened State of Emotion: The Millions Interviews Mary Gaitskill)
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (The Crime of Life: On Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation)
Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Elena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the Minotaur, Outside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena Ferrante)
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Tricks and Lies: On Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth)
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, The Tortoise, Not the Hare: The Millions Interviews Angela Flournoy)

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