January Pure Wit by Francesca Peacock [NF] I first learned about the life and work of seventeenth-century writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish in Regan Penaluna's stellar study of women thinkers, and I've been dying to read a biography of Cavendish ever since. And I'm in luck (all of us are) thanks to biographer Peacock. A proto-feminist, science-fiction pioneer, and divisive public figure, Cavendish is endlessly fascinating, and Peacock's debut gives her the rigorous, in-depth treatment that she deserves. —Sophia M. Stewart Nonfiction by Julie Myerson [F] A blurb from Rachel Cusk is just about all it takes to get me excited about a book, so when I saw that Cusk called Myerson's latest novel "glitteringly painful," "steady and clear," and "the book [Myerson] was intended to write," I was sold. A tale of art, addiction, and the ties that bind mothers and daughters, Nonfiction promises to devastate. —SMS Immediacy by Anna Kornbluh [NF] Did the pandemic kill postmodernism? And what comes after the end of history? University of Illinois–Chicago professor Kornbluh dubs our contemporary style “immediacy,” characterized by same-day delivery, bingeable multimedia, and real-time news updates that spin the economic flywheel ever faster. Kornbluh names this state of emergence and emergency, and suggests potential off-ramps in the direction of calm reflection, measured art-making, and, just maybe, collective wisdom. —Nathalie op de Beeck Slow Down by Kōhei Saitō, tr. Brian Bergstrom [NF] In this internationally-bestselling treatise, Japanese philosopher Saitō argues against "sustainable growth" in favor of degrowth—the slowing of economic activity—which he sees at the only way to address the twinned crises of inequality and climate change. Saitō's proposal is simple, salient, and adapts Marx for the modern day. —SMS Relic by Ed Simon [NF] From Millions alum Simon comes a slim study of the objects we imbue with religious (or quasi-religious) meaning, from the bone of a Catholic martyr to Jimi Hendrix's guitar pick. Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series never misses, and Relic is one of the series' most unconventional—and compelling—entries yet. —SMS Filterworld by Kyle Chayka [NF] The outline of reality has become increasingly blurry as the real world melds with the digital one, becoming what Chayka, staff writer at the New Yorker, calls “Filterworld,” a society built on a foundation of ever-evolving algorithms. In his book of the same name, Chayka calls out the all-powerful algorithm, which he argues is the driving force behind current and accelerating trends in art, consumption, and ethics. —Daniella Fishman Portrait of a Body by Julie Delporte, tr. Helge Dascher and Karen Houle [NF] A gripping narrative of coming to terms with her queer identity, Canadian cartoonist Delporte's latest graphic memoir—praised by Eileen Myles and Fariha Róisín—sees Delporte learning to embrace herself in both physical and metaphysical ways. Dreamy colored pencil illustrations and gently flowing storytelling capture the beauty, trauma, and ultimate tranquility that comes with learning to exist on your own terms. —DF Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino [F] In Bertino’s latest novel, following 2020's Parakeet, the launch of Voyager 1 into space coincides with the birth of Adina Giorno, who, much like the solitary satellite, is in search of something she can't yet see. As a child, she senses that she is not of this world and struggles to make a life for herself amid the drudgery of human existence. Playing on Adina's alienness as both a metaphor and a reality, Bertino asks, “Are we really alone?” —DF The Last Fire Season by Manjula Martin [NF] Martin returns ablaze in her latest memoir, pitched as "H Is for Hawk meets Joan Didion in the Pyrocene." Following an anguishing chronic pain diagnosis, Martin attempts to reconnect with her beloved Northern California wilderness in order to escape not only her deteriorating health but a deteriorating world, which has ignited around her in the worst fire season California has ever seen. Devastating and ambivalent, The Last Fire Season tries to sift through the ashes of climate change. —DF The Furies by Elizabeth Flock [NF] Violence by women—its role, its potential righteousness—is the focus of Flock's latest. Following the real-life cases of a young rape survivor in Alabama, a predator-punishing gang leader in India, and an anti-ISIS militia fighter in Syria, Flock considers how women have used lethal force as a means to power, safety, and freedom amid misogynistic threats and oppression. Is violence ever the answer? Flock looks to three parallel lives for guidance. —SMS Imagining the Method by Justin Owen Rawlins [NF] University of Tulsa professor Rawlins demystifies that most celebrated (and controversial) acting school, challenging our contemporary conceptions of screen performance. I was sold the moment I saw Rawlins received the ultimate stamp of approval from Isaac Butler, author of the definitive account of method acting: "If you care about the evolution of twentieth-century screen performance, you should read this book." —SMS We Are Free to Change the World by Lyndsey Stonebridge [NF] Famed twentieth-century philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote passionately about power, freedom, and inequality against the backdrop of fascism—a project as relevant today as it ever was. Stonebridge, a professor of humanities and human rights, revisits the lessons of Arendt's writings and applies them to the twenty-first century, creating a dialogue between past, present, and future. —DF Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea by C.D. Rose [F] In these 19 short stories, Rose meditates on philosophy, photography, and literature. Blending erudition and entertainment, Rose's fables follow writers, teachers, and artists through various situations—and in a standout story, imagines how St. Augustine would fare on Twitter. —DF Black Women Taught Us by Jenn M. Jackson [NF] Jackson's debut book foregrounds the work of Black feminist writers and leaders—from Ida B. Wells and Harriet Jacobs to Shirley Chisholm and bell hooks—throughout American history, revealing the centuries-long role that Black women have played in imagining and fighting for a more just society. Imani Perry calls Jackson "a beautiful writer and excellent scholar." —SMS The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James [F] Pitched as Cormac McCarthy meets Gabriel García Márquez (yeesh!), The Bullet Swallower is the second novel (after Mona at Sea) from Elizabeth Gonzalez James, who also wrote the weird and wonderful essay/play Five Conversations About Peter Sellers. Infusing the spaghetti western with magical realism, the novel follows a Mexican bandito on a cosmic journey generations in the making. —SMS Last Acts by Alexander Sammartino [F] In Sammartino's debut novel, the owner of a gun store hatches a plan to resurrect his struggling business following his son's near-death experience. George Saunders, Mary Karr, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah have all heaped on praise, and Jenny Offill finds it "hard to believe Last Acts is a first novel." —SMS I Sing to Use the Waiting by Zachary Pace [NF] Pace fuses memoir and criticism (my favorite combination) to explore the emotional and cultural impacts of women singers across time, from Cat Power and Rihanna to Kim Gordon and Whitney Houston. A queer coming-of-age story that centers the power of music and the legacies of women artists. —SMS Dead in Long Beach, California by Venita Blackburn [F] Blackburn, the author of the stellar story collections Black Jesus and Other Superheroes and How to Wrestle a Girl, delivers a debut novel about storytelling and unreality, centering on a successful novelist who gets hold of her dead brother's phone—and starts answering texts as him. Kristen Arnett calls this one "a bonafide knockout" that "rewired my brain." —SMS Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here by Jonathan Blitzer [N] New Yorker staff writer Blitzer traces the harrowing history of the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, foregrounding the stories of Central American migrants whose lives have been threatened and upended by political tumult. A nuanced, layered, and rigorously reported portrait that Patrick Radden Keefe hails as "extraordinary." —SMS The Survivors of the Clotilda by Hannah Durkin [NF] Durkin, a British historian, explores the lives of 103 Africans who were kidnapped and transported on the last slave ship to dock in the U.S., shortly before the Civil War began in 1861. Many of these captives were children, and thus lived their lives against a dramatic backdrop, from the Civil War all the way up to the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. What these people experienced and how they prevailed should intrigue anybody interested in learning more about our nation’s darkest chapter. —Claire Kirch Your Utopia by Bora Chung, tr. Anton Hur [F] Following her acclaimed sophomore novel The Cursed Bunny, Chung returns with more tales from the realm of the uncanny. Covering everything from unruly AI to the quest for immortality to the environmental destruction caused by capitalism, Chung’s story collection promises more of the mystifying, horror-filled goodness that has become her calling card. —DF The Rebel's Clinic by Adam Shatz [NF] Frantz Fanon—political philosopher, psychiatrist, and author of the trailblazing Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth—is one of the most important writers and thinkers of the postcolonial era, and his work continues to inform contemporary thinking on race, capitalism, and power. In this sprawling biography, Shatz affirms Fanon's place as a towering intellect and groundbreaking activist. —SMS You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue, tr. Natasha Wimmer [F] Enrigue's latest novel, following Sudden Death, reimagines the fateful 1519 invasion of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. With exuberant style, and in a lively translation by Wimmer, Enrigue brings the Aztec capital and the emperor Moctezuma to vibrant life—and rewrites their destinies. —SMS February Love Novel by Ivana Sajko, tr. by Mima Simić [F] Croatian literature may lag behind its Russian, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian counterparts—roughly in that order—as far as stateside recognition goes, but we all make mistakes. Just like couples do in love and under capitalism. “A war between kitchen and bedroom,” as the liner notes read, would have been enough to sell me, but that war’s combatants, “an unemployed Dante scholar” and “a passable actress,” really sealed the deal. —John H. Maher The Unforgivable by Cristina Campo, tr. Alex Andriesse [NF] This new NYRB edition, introduced by Kathryn Davis, brings together all of the essays Campo published in her lifetime, plus a selection of additional essays and autofiction. The result is a robust introduction to a stylish—but largely forgotten—Italian writer whose "creativity was a vocation in the truest sense," per Jhumpa Lahiri. —SMS Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti [NF] Last year, I was enraptured by Heti's limited-run New York Times newsletter in which she alphabetized sentences from 10 years' worth of her diary entries—and this year, we can finally enjoy the sublime results of that experiment in book form. This is my favorite work of Heti's, full stop. —SMS Dinner on Monster Island by Tania De Rozario [NF] Blending film criticism, social commentary, and personal narrative, De Rozario (most recently the author of the Lambda Literary Award–nominated And the Walls Came Crumbling Down) explores her experience growing up queer, brown, and fat in Singapore, from suffering through a "gay-exorcism" to finding solace in horror films like Carrie. —SMS Wrong Norma by Anne Carson [NF] Everyone shut up—Anne Carson is speaking! This glistening new collection of drawings and musings from Carson is her first original work since the 2016 poetry collection Float. In Carson's own words, the collection touches on such disparate topics (she stresses they are "not linked") as Joseph Conrad, Roget's Thesaurus, snow, Guantánamo, and "my Dad." —DF Self-Portraits: Stories by Osamu Dazai, tr. Ralph McCarthy [F] Japanese writer Dazai had quite the moment in 2023, and that moment looks likely to continue into the new year. Self-Portraits is a collection of short autofiction in the signature melancholic cadence which so many Anglophone readers have come to love. Meditating on themes of hypocrisy, irony, nihilism—all with a touch of self-deprecating humor—Dazai’s work will either pull you out of a deep depression or crack your rose-colored glasses; there is no in-between. —DF Imagination by Ruha Benjamin [NF] Visionary imagination is essential for justice and a sustainable future, argues Benjamin, a Princeton professor of African American studies and founder of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab. In her treatise, she reminds readers of the human capacity for creativity, and she believes failures of imagination that lead to inequity can be remedied. In place of quasi-utopian gambles that widen wealth gaps and prop up the surveillance state, Benjamin recommends dreaming collective and anti-racist social arrangements into being—a message to galvanize readers of adrienne marie brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs. —SMS Literary Theory for Robots by Dennis Yi Tenen [NF] Artificial intelligence and machine-generated writing are nothing new, and perhaps nothing to fear, argues Tenen, a Columbia English professor and former software engineer. Traveling through time and across the world, Tenen reveals the labor and collaboration behind AI, complicating the knee-jerk (and, frankly, well-founded!) reactions many of us have to programs like ChatGPT. —SMS A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh [F] Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone, but what he considered his life's work was the education of deaf children—specifically, the harmful practice of oralism, or the suppression of sign language. Marsh's wonderful debut novel unearths this little-known history and follows a deaf pupil of Bell's as she questions his teachings and reclaims her voice. —SMS Get the Picture by Bianca Bosker [NF] Journalist Bosker, who took readers behind the scenes with oenophiles in her 2017 Cork Dork, turns to avid artists, collectors, and curators for this sensory deep dive. Bosker relies on experiential reporting, and her quest to understand the human passion for visual art finds her apprenticing with creators, schmoozing with galleristas, and minding canonical pieces as a museum guard. —NodB Columbo by Amelie Hastie [NF] Columbo experienced something of a renaissance during the pandemic, with a new generation falling for the rugged, irresistible charms of Peter Falk. Hastie revisits the series, a staple of 70s-era TV, with refreshing rigor and appreciation, tackling questions of stardom, authorship, and the role of television in the process. —SMS Acts of Forgiveness by Maura Cheeks [F] Cheeks's debut novel sounds amazing and so au courant. A woman is elected U.S. president and promises Black Americans that they will receive reparations if they can prove they are descended from slaves. You’d think people would jump on achieving some social justice in the form of cold cash, right? Not Willie Revel’s family, who’d rather she not delve into the family history. This promises to be a provocative read on how the past really isn’t past, no matter how much you run from it. —CK The Sentence by Matthew Baker [F] I minored in Spanish linguistics in college and, as a result, came to love that most useless and rewarding of syntactic exercises, diagramming sentences. So I'm very excited to read Baker's The Sentence, a graphic novel set in an alternate America and comprising single, 6,732-word sentence, diagrammed in full. Syntax wonks, assemble! —SMS Neighbors by Diane Oliver [F] Before her untimely death in 1966 at the age of 22, Oliver wrote stories of race and racism in Jim Crow America characterized by what Dawnie Walton calls "audacity, wit, and wisdom beyond her years." Only four of the 14 stories in Neighbors were published in Oliver's lifetime, and Jamel Brinkley calls the publication of her posthumous debut collection "an important event in African American and American letters." —SMS The Weird Sister Collection by Marisa Crawford [NF] Essayist, poet, and All Our Pretty Songs podcaster Crawford founded the Weird Sister blog in 2014, covering books and pop culture from contemporary young feminists’ and queer perspectives. The now-defunct blog offered literary reviews, Q&As with indie authors, and think pieces on film and music. For this collection, whose foreword comes from Michelle Tea, Crawford gathers favorite pieces from contributors, plus original work with a Weird Sister edge. —NodB Smoke and Ashes by Amitav Ghosh [NF] As research for his Ibis trilogy, Ghosh mapped the opium trade around the world and across centuries. This global and personal history revisits the British Empire’s dependence on Indian opium as a trade good, and how the cultivation of and profits from opium shaped today’s global economy. In his nonfiction The Great Derangement, Ghosh employs personal anecdotes to make sense of larger-scale developments, and Smoke and Ashes promises to connect his own family and identity to today’s corporate, institutional, and environmental realities. —NodB Private Equity by Carrie Sun [NF] In her debut memoir, Sun recounts her time on Wall Street, where she worked as an assistant to a billionaire hedge-fund founder and was forced to rethink everything she thought she knew about work, money, sacrifice, and living a meaningful life. This one sounds like a great read for fans of Anna Wiener's Uncanny Valley (e.g. me). —SMS I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both by Mariah Stovall [F] When Khaki Oliver receives a letter from her estranged former best friend, she isn’t ready for the onslaught of memories that soon cause her to unravel. A Black Bildungsroman about friendship, fandom, and sanity, I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both is an unflinching look at "what it means to be young in a hard, and nonetheless beautiful, world," per Vauhini Vara. —Liv Albright Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit by Aisha Sabatini Sloan [NF] I know from personal experience that anything published by Graywolf Press is going to open my eyes and make me look at the world in a completely different way, so I have high expectations for Sloan’s essays. In this clever collection, a Black creative reflects upon race, art, and pedagogy, and how they relate to one’s life in this crazy country of ours during the time period between the 2016 election and the onset of the pandemic. —CK Language City by Ross Perlin [NF] Perlin travels throughout the most linguistically diverse city on the planet—New York—to chronicle the sounds and speakers of six endangered languages before they die out. A linguist and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, Perlin argues for the importance of little-known languages and celebrates the panoply of languages that exists in New York City. —SMS Monkey Grip by Helen Garner [F] A tale as old as time and/or patriarchal sociocultural constructs: a debut novel by a woman is published and the critics don't appreciate it—until later, at least. This proto-autofictional 1977 novel is now considered a classic of Australian "grunge lit," but at the time, it divided critics, probably because it had depictions of drug addiction and sex in it. But Lauren Groff liked it enough to write a foreword, so perhaps the second time really is the charm. —JHM Ours by Phillip B. Williams [F] A conjuror wreaks magical havoc across plantations in antebellum Arkansas and sets up a Brigadoon for the enslaved people she frees before finding that even a mystic haven isn't truly safe from the horrors of the world. What a concept! And a flexible one to boot: if this isn't adapted as a TV series, it would work just as well as an RPG. —JHM Violent Faculties by Charlotte Elsby [F] A philosophy professor influenced by the Marquis de Sade designs a series of experiments to prove its relevance as a discipline, specifically with regard to life and death, a.k.a. Philip Zimbardo (Chopped and Screwed Remix): The Novel. If you ever trusted a philosophy professor with your inner self before—and you probably shouldn't have?—you probably won't after reading this. —JHM American Abductions by Mauro Javier Cárdenas [F] Plagued by data harvesting, constant surveillance, mass deportation, and incarceration, the society at the heart of Cárdenas's new novel is less speculative dystopia than realist reflection. Channeling Philp K. Dick and Samuel Delaney, Cárdenas imagines a society where Latin Americans are systematically expunged. Following the lives of two Columbian-American sisters, one who was deported and one who stayed in the U.S., American Abduction tells a new kind of immigrant story, suffused with mysticism and philosophical rigor. —DF Closures: Heterosexuality and the American Sitcom by Grace Lavery [NF] I took Lavery's class on heterosexuality and sitcoms as an undergrad, and I'm thrilled to see the course's teachings collected in book form. Lavery argues that since its inception the sitcom has depicted heterosexuality as constantly on the verge of collapse, only to be reconstituted at the end of each half-hour episode. A fascinating argument about the cultural project of straightness. —SMS Whiskey Tender by Deborah Taffa [NF] Almost a decade in the making, this memoir from Taffa details generations of Southwest Native history and the legacies of assimilationist efforts. Taffa—a citizen of the Quechan Nation and Laguna Pueblo tribe, and director of the MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts—was born on the California Yuma reservation and grew up in Navajo territory in New Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s. She reflects on tribal identity and attitudes toward off-reservation education she learned from her parents’ and grandparents’ fraught formative experiences. —NodB Normal Women by Philippa Gregory [NF] This is exciting news for Anglophiles and history nerds like me: Philippa Gregory is moving from historical fiction (my guilty pleasure) about royal women and aristocrats in medieval and early modern England to focus on the lives of common women during that same time period, as gleaned from the scraps of information on them she has unearthed in various archives. I love history “from the bottom up” that puts women at the center, and Gregory is a compelling storyteller, so my expectations are high. —CK Blue Lard by Vladimir Sorokin, tr. Max Lawton [F] Upon its publication in 1999, Sorokin's sci-fi satire Blue Lard sparked protests across Russia. One aspect of it particularly rankled: the torrid, sexual affair it depicts between Stalin and Khruschev. All to say, the novel is bizarre, biting, and utterly irreverent. Translated into English for the first time by Lawton, Sorokin's masterwork is a must-read for anyone with an iconoclastic streak. —SMS Piglet by Lottie Hazell [F] Hazell's debut novel follows the eponymous Piglet, a successful cookbook editor identified only by her unfortunate childhood nickname, as she rethinks questions of ambition and appetite following her fiancé's betrayal. Per Marlowe Granados, Hazell writes the kind of "prose Nora Ephron would be proud of." —SMS Grief is for People by Sloane Crosley [NF] Crosley enlivens the grief memoir genre with the signature sense of humor that helped put her on the literary map. In Grief Is for People, she eulogizes the quirks and complexities of her friendship with Russell Perreault, former publicity director at Vintage Books, who died by suicide in 2019. Dani Shapiro hails Crosley’s memoir—her first full-length book of nonfiction—as “both a provocation and a balm to the soul.” —LA The Freaks Came Out to Write by Tricia Romano [NF] The freaks came out to write, and you better believe the freaks will come out in droves to read! In this history of the legendary alt-weekly the Village Voice, Romano (a former writer for the Voice) interviews some 200 members the paper’s most esteemed staff and subjects. A sweeping chronicle of the most exciting era in New York City journalism promises to galvanize burgeoning writers in the deflating age of digital media. —DF Burn Book by Kara Swisher [NF] Swisher has been reporting on the tech industry for 30 years, tracing its explosive growth from the dawn of the internet to the advent of AI. She's interviewed every tech titan alive and has chronicled their foibles and failures in excruciating detail. Her new book combines memoir and reportage to tell a comprehensive history of a troubled industry and its shortsighted leaders. —SMS Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange [F] Orange returns with a poignant multi-generational tale that follows the Bear Shield-Red Feather family as they struggle to combat racist violence. Picking up where Orange's hit debut novel, There There, left off, Wandering Stars explores memory, inheritance, and identity through the lens of Native American life and history. Per Louise Erdrich, “No one knows how to express tenderness and yearning like Tommy Orange." —LA March The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan [F] Callahan's debut novel follows a young artist as she faces sudden hearing loss, forcing to reevaluate her orientation to her senses, her art, and the world around her. Amina Cain, Moyra Davey, and Kate Zambreno are all fans (also a dream blunt rotation), with the latter recommending this one be "read alongside the novels of W.G. Sebald, Rachel Cusk, and Maria Gainza." —SMS The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft [F] When a group of translators arrive at the home of renowned novelist Irena Rey, they expect to get to work translating her latest book—instead, they get caught up in an all-consuming mystery. Irena vanishes shortly after the translators arrive, and as they search for clues to the author's disappearance, the group is swept up by isolation-fueled psychosis and obsession. A “mischievous and intellectually provocative” debut novel, per Megha Majumdar. —LA Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, tr. Heather Cleary [F] This isn’t your typical meet-cute. When two women—one grieving, the other a vampire, both of them alienated and yearning for more—cross paths in a Buenos Aires cemetery, romance blooms. Channelling Carmen Maria Machado and Anne Rice, Yuszczuk reimagines the vampire novel, with a distinctly Latin American feminist Gothic twist. —LA The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez [F] I'm a sucker for meticulously researched and well-written historical fiction, and this one—a sweeping story about the interconnected lives of the unsung people who lived and labored at the site of the Panama Canal—fits the bill. I heard Henríquez speak about this novel and her writing processes at a booksellers conference, and, like the 300 booksellers present, was impressed by her presentation and fascinated at the idea of such a sweeping tale set against a backdrop so larger-than-life and dramatic as the construction of the Panama Canal. —CK Bite Your Friends by Fernanda Eberstadt [NF] Melding memoir and history, Eberstadt's Bite Your Friends looks at the lives of saints, philosophers, and artists—including the author and her mother—whose abberant bodies became sites of subversion and rebellion. From Diogenes to Pussy Riot, Eberstadt asks what it means to put our bodies on the line, and how our bodies can liberate us. —SMS Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez [F] When Raquel Toro, an art history student, stumbles on the story of Anita de Monte, a once prominent artist from the '80s whose mysterious death cut short her meteoric rise, her world is turned upside down. Gonzalez's sophomore novel (after her hit debut Olga Dies Dreaming) toggles between the perspectives of Raquel and Anita (who is based on the late Ana Mendieta) to explore questions of power, justice, race, beauty, and art. Robert Jones, Jr. calls this one "rollicking, melodic, tender, and true—and oh so very wise." —LA My Heavenly Favorite by Lucas Rijneveld, tr. Michele Hutchison [F] Rijneveld, author of the International Booker Prize-winning novel The Discomfort of Evening, returns with a new take on the Lolita story, transpiring between a veterinarian and a farmer's daughter on the verge of adolescence. "This book unsettled me even as it made me laugh and gasp," gushes Brandon Taylor. "I'm in awe." Radiant by Brad Gooch [NF] Lauded biographer Gooch propels us through Keith Haring’s early days as an anonymous sidewalk chalk artist to his ascent as a vigilante muralist, pop-art savant, AIDS activist, and pop-culture icon. Fans of Haring's will not want to miss this definitive account of the artist's life, which Pulitzer-winner biographer Stacy Schiff calls "a keen-eyed, beautifully written biography, atmospheric, exuberant, and as radiant as they come." —DF The Riddles of the Sphinx by Anna Shechtman [NF] Sometimes you encounter a book that seems to have been written specifically for you; this was the feeling I had when I first saw the deal announcement for Shechtman's debut book back in January 2022. A feminist history of the crossword puzzle? Are you kidding me? I'm as passionate a cruciverbalist as I am a feminist, so you can imagine how ravenously I read this book. The Riddles of the Sphinx is one of the best books of 2024, hands down, and I can't wait for everyone else—puzzlers and laymen alike—to fall in love with it too. —SMS The Silver Bone by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Boris Drayluk [F] Kurkov is one of Ukraine's most celebrated novelists, and his latest book is a murder mystery set against the backdrop of WWI-era Kyiv. I'll admit what particularly excites me about The Silver Bone, though, is that it is translated by Dralyuk, who's one of the best literary translators working today (not to mention a superb writer, editor, and poet). In Drayluk's hands, Kurkov's signature humor and sparkling style come alive. —SMS Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls [NF] This multigenerational graphic memoir follows Hull, alongside her mother and grandmother, both of whom hail from China, across time and space as the delicate line between nature and nurture is strained by the forces of trauma, duty, and mental illness. Manjula Martin calls Feeding Ghosts “one of the best stories I’ve read about the tension between family, history, and self.” —DF It Lasts Forever and Then It's Over by Anne de Marcken [F] Haunting prose and a pithy crow guide readers through Marcken's novel of life after death. In a realm between reality and eternity, the undead traverse westward through their end-of-life highlight reel, dissecting memories, feelings, and devotions while slowly coming to terms with what it means to have lived once all that remains is love. Alexandra Kleeman admits that she "was absolute putty in this book's hands." —DF Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi [F] When I visited Prague, a year after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Czech capital struck me as a magical place, where anything is possible, and Oyeyemi captures the essence of Prague in Parasol Against the Axe, the story of a woman who attends her estranged friend's bachelorette weekend in the city. A tale in which reality constantly shifts for the characters and there is a thin line between the factual and the imagined in their relationships, this is definitely my kind of a read. —CK Say Hello to My Little Friend by Jennine Capó Crucet [F] Crucet's latest novel centers on a failed Pitbull impersonator who embarks on a quest to turn himself into a modern-day Tony Montana—a quest that leads him to cross paths with Lolita, a captive orca at the Miami Seaquariam. Winking at both Scarface and Moby-Dick, Say Hello to My Little Friend is "a masterclass in pace and precision," per Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. —SMS But the Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu [F] Girl, a Malaysian-Australian who leaves home for the U.K. to study Sylvia Plath and write a postcolonial novel, finds herself unable to shake home—or to figure out what a "postcolonial novel" even is. Blurbs are untrustworthy, but anything blurbed by Brandon Taylor is almost certainly worth checking out. —JHM Wrong Is Not My Name by Erica N. Cardwell [NF] Cardwell blends memoir, criticism, and theory to place her own Künstlerroman in conversation with the work of Black visual artists like Lorna Simpson, Lorraine O'Grady, and Kara Walker. In interconnected essays, Cardwell celebrates the brilliant Black women who use art and storytelling to claim their place in the world. —SMS Great Expectations by Vinson Cunningham [F] A theater critic at the New Yorker, Cunningham is one of my favorite writers working today, so I was thrilled to learn of his debut novel, which cheekily steals its title from the Dickens classic. Following a young Black man as he works on a historic presidential campaign, Great Expectations tackles questions of politics, race, religion, and family with Cunningham's characteristic poise and insight. —SMS The Future of Songwriting by Kristin Hersh [NF] In this slim volume, Throwing Muses frontwoman and singer-songwriter Hersh considers the future of her craft. Talking to friends and colleagues, visiting museums and acupuncturists, Hersh threads together eclectic perspectives on how songs get made and how the music industry can (and should) change. —SMS You Get What You Pay For by Morgan Parker [NF] Parker, a brilliant poet and author of the stellar There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, debuts as an essayist with this candid, keen-eyed collection about life as a Black woman in America. Casting her gaze both inward and onto popular culture, Parker sees everything and holds back nothing. —SMS Mother Doll by Katya Apekina [F] Following up her debut novel, The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish, Apekina's Mother Doll follows Zhenia, an expectant mother adrift in Los Angeles whose world is rocked by a strange call from a psychic medium with a message from Zhenia's Russian Revolutionary great-grandmother. Elif Batuman calls this one "a rare achivement." —SMS Solidarity by Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix [NF] What does "solidarity" mean in a stratified society and fractured world? Organizers and activists Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor look at the history of the concept—from its origins in Ancient Rome to its invocation during the Black Live Matter movement—to envision a future in which calls for solidarity can produce tangible political change. —SMS The Manicurist's Daughter by Susan Lieu [NF] After her mother, a refugee of the Vietnam war and the owner of two nail salons, dies from a botched cosmetic surgery, Lieu goes looking for answers about her mother's mysterious life and untimely death. Springing from her hit one-woman show 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother, Lieu's debut memoir explores immigration, beauty, and the American Dream. —SMS Through the Night Like a Snake ed. Sarah Coolidge [F] There's no horror quite like Latin American horror, as any revering reader of Cristina Rivera Garza—is there any other kind?—could tell you. Two Lines Press consistently puts out some of the best literature in translation that one can come by in the U.S., and this story collection looks like another banger. —JHM Headshot by Rita Bullwinkel [F] Bullwinkel's debut collection, Belly Up, was a canful of the uncanny. Her debut novel, on the other hand, sounds gritty and grounded, following the stories of eight teenage girls boxing in a tournament in Reno. Boxing stories often manage to punch above their weight (sorry) in pretty much any medium, even if you're not versed enough in the sport to know how hackneyed and clichéd that previous clause's idiomatic usage was. —JHM Choose This Now by Nicole Haroutunian [F] Haroutunian's novel-in-stories, part of Noemi Press's Prose Series, follows a pair of inseparable friends over the years as they embark on careers, make art, fall in and out of love, and become mothers. Lydia Kiesling calls this one "a sparkling, intimate look at women's lives" that makes "for a lovely reading experience." —SMS Death by Laughter by Maggie Hennefeld [NF] Hennefeld's scholarly study explores the forgotten history and politics of women's "hysterical laughter," drawing on silent films, affect theory, feminist film theory, and more. Hennefeld, a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature, offers a unique take on women's pleasure and repression—and how the advent of cinema allowed women to laugh as never before. —SMS James by Percival Everett [F] In James, the once-secondary character of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn narrates his version of life on the Mississippi. Jim, who escapes enslavement only to end up in adventures with white runaway Huck, gives his account of well-known events from Mark Twain’s 1880s novel (and departs from the record to say what happened next). Everett makes readers hyperaware of code-switching—his 2001 novel Erasure was about a Black novelist whose career skyrockets when he doubles down on cynical stereotypes of Blackness—and Jim, in James, will have readers talking about written vernacular, self-awareness, and autonomy. —NodB A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen [NF] Chronicling 36 fateful encounters among 30 writers and artists—from Henry James to Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain to Zora Neal Hurston—Cohen paints a vast and sparkling portrait of a century's worth of American culture. First published in 2004, and reissued by NYRB, A Chance Meeting captures the spark of artistic serendipity, and the revived edition features a new afterword by the author. —SMS Who's Afraid of Gender? by Judith Butler [NF] Butler has had an outsized impact on how we think and talk about gender and sexuality ever since the 1990 publication of Gender Trouble, which theorized the way gender is performed and constructed. Butler's latest is a polemic that takes on the advent of "anti-gender ideology movements," arguing that "gender" has become a bogeyman for authoritarian regimes. —SMS Green Frog by Gina Chung [F] Chung, author of the acclaimed debut novel Sea Change, returns with a story collection about daughters and ghosts, divorcees and demons, praying mantises and the titular verdant amphibians. Morgan Talty calls these 15 stories "remarkable." —SMS No Judgment by Lauren Oyler [NF] Oyler is one of our sharpest and most fearless cultural critics, and No Judgement is her first essay collection, following up her debut novel Fake Accounts. Opining on gossip and anxiety, autofiction and vulnerability, and much, much more, Oyler's caustic wit and penetrating voice shine through every essay. —SMS Memory Piece by Lisa Ko [F] Following up her National Book Award–nominated debut novel The Leavers, Ko's latest follows three lifelong friends from the 1990s to the 2040s. A meditation on the meaning of a "meaningful life" and how to adapt to an increasingly inhospitable world, Memory Piece has earned praise from Jacqueline Woodson and C Pam Zhang, who calls the novel "bright with defiance, intelligence, and stubborn love." —SMS On Giving Up by Adam Phillips [NF] Psychoanalyst Phillips—whose previous subjects include getting better, wanting to change, and missing out—takes a swing at what feels like a particularly timely impulse: giving up. Questioning our notions of sacrifice and agency, Phillips asks when giving up might be beneficial to us, and which parts of our lives might actually be worth giving up. —SMS There's Always This Year by Hanif Abdurraqib [NF] Abdurraqib returns (how lucky are we!) with a reflection on his lifelong love of basketball and how it's shaped him. While reconsidering his childhood, his relationship with his father, and the meaning of "making it," Abdurraqib delivers what Shea Serrano calls "the sharpest, most insightful, most poignant writing of his career." —SMS The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones [F] The final installment of Jones's trilogy picks up four years after Don't Fear the Reaper. Jade Daniels is back from prison, and upon her release, she encounters serial killer-worshipping cults, the devastating effects of gentrification, and—worst of all—the curse of the Lake Witch. Horror maestro Brian Keene calls Jones's grand finale "an easy contender for Best of the Year." —LA Worry by Alexandra Tanner [F] This deadpan debut novel from Tanner follows two sisters on the cusp of adulthood as they struggle to figure out what the hell to do with their lives. Heads butt, tempers flare, and existential dread creeps in as their paths diverge amid the backdrop of Brooklyn in 2019. Limning the absurdity of our internet-addled, dread-filled moment, Tanner establishes herself as a formidable novelist, with Kiley Reid calling Worry "the best thing I've read in a very long time." —DF [millions_email]
My reading year was interrupted by the caesura of an interstate move, as we traded in lobster rolls for Maryland blue crabs, Legal Seafood for Ben’s Chili Bowl, Leonard Bernstein for Duke Ellington, and the shadow of Harvard University Memorial Hall for that of the Capitol dome. Don’t take the last sentence as an obnoxious humble-brag; I didn’t attend Harvard, though I often caught the T near there, as now I regularly commute underneath the Capitol South Metro Station, and that proximity to my “betters” is enough for me to fart a bit higher than my posterior. Now that I’m a proud denizen of the District, as us locals apparently call it, I’m not just a citizen who is constitutionally prohibited from voting for my own congresspeople, but also a resident of America’s unheralded literary capital. Where else have Americans so often fervently oriented both their dreams and increasingly nightmares? What other hundred square miles (well, with a bite taken out of the bottom of it) has so clearly mapped onto the geography of national aspirations? Who doesn’t basically know the shape of the Mall, the look of the Lincoln Memorial, the feel of the White House? New York is the only other city I’ve lived in to give the same sense of spatial “fame-overload,” as perambulations take you by any number of structures so iconic in their import that you can’t help but develop a continual vertigo. As with my retrospective last year, I’m going to limit my consideration of books read in 2019 to those I’ve taken out from my local library, whether near Cambridge or in Capitol Hill (also, support your local library). In the interests of dutiful fairness, I’m not mentioning any of the exceptional books that I already reviewed this year. I’m also making one alteration; previously I limited myself to focusing only on novels. This year, with the logic that our social reality is as disturbing and surrealistic as any fabulist gothic, I’ve decided to make an exception for one class of nonfiction by including books on politics. Chief among these was the gorgeous Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain. Justly celebrated for his brilliant novel Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, which smashed American idols from militarism to sports-obsession with a deft empathy (not an attribute often associated with smashing), Beautiful Country Burn Again heralds Fountain’s return to journalism. Since the 2016 election, certain elite publications have taken to reading the tea-leaves of American malaise, going on what some wags have terms “red-neck safaris” so as to better understand the sentiments of those of us who originally come from “flyover country.” Texas-born Fountain understands that the reality is often far more complicated, and he provides a distressing, heart-breaking, poignant month-by-month reading of the election that saw nascent authoritarianism sweep into Washington. “2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest,” Fountain writes, “Screens, memes, fake news, Twitter storms, Russian hackers, pussy grabbers, Hillary’s emails, war, the wall, the wolf call of the alt-right, ‘hand’ size, lies upon lies upon lies and moneymoneymoney—the more money, the more likes, is this politics’ iron rule?—they all combined for a billion-dollar stink of an election.” Disorienting as well as disturbing to read the account of recent history which all of us lived. Fountain has somehow defamiliarized it, however, and the rhetoric of retrospective history strikes us in its sheer nightmarish surrealism. Turning to historical and economic analyses, but filtered through the consciousness of a poet, Fountain’s account isn’t that of other classic campaign works like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72 or Matt Taibbi’s Spanking the Donkey. Fountain isn’t embedded with any campaign; he doesn’t eat barbecue at Iowa state fairs or whoopie pies in New Hampshire. He’s an observer like the rest of us, and somehow Beautiful Country Burn Again is all the more powerful because of it. William Carlos Williams wrote that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” If I can stretch my amendment that allowed for political non-fiction to include poetry as an example therein, holding to the position that poetry may not be factual in the same way as journalism, but it is often more truthful, than the most powerful book on current events that I read this year was Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Because Hayes, currently a professor at New York University and the poetry editor at The New York Times Magazine, was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon when I got my Masters there, I sometimes like to pretend that I actually know him, though the extent of our discourse was me saying hello to him once on the winding, red-bricked stairwell of Baker Hall. Hayes had a mohawk then; the haircut has changed, but in the meantime, he’s gotten a National Book Critics Circle Award, the TS Elliot Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a Macarthur Fellowship. No doubt he’ll one day soon (deservedly) get a position as the Library of Congress’ national Poet Laurette of the United States. When I pretended to know Hayes, he was simply a brilliant poet, but since then he’s announced himself as a potentially canonical one. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin was in part Hayes’s reaction to the election of you-know-who, but more than that it’s his grappling as a black man with America’s legacy of violent institutional racism. Writing in a poetic form that goes back to Petrarch and defined by Wyatt, Surrey, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, Hayes intones, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” If it’s true that “Poetry is news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound once claimed, then American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin has distressingly been news for a long time, in 1619, in 1776, in 1860, in 1960, in 2019. So upside down is our current moment that politics must of course be explored by that engine of empathy which literary critics long ago deigned to call the “Novel.” Some of these considerations are in the form of historical fiction, some through the vagaries of science fiction, but if poetry like Hayes's is at one pole of human expression then surely the very opposite must be that of dry, government report. That’s the genre chosen by the political scientist Jeffrey Lewis, who moonlights as director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Lewis’s first “novel” is the surprisingly engaging and pants-shittingly terrifying The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. Borrowing the form, feel, and language of actual governmental documents from the "Warren Commission," the "9/11 Commission Report", and the "Mueller Report," Lewis imagines a series of miscalculations, blunders, strategic missteps, and plain political idiocy (in part due to you-know-who) that leads to a brief nuclear exchange that sees the destruction of Seoul, Tokyo, Yokohama, and the virtual obliteration of North Korea. Added to such horror are the detonation of nuclear warheads over Honolulu, Palm Beach (Mar-a-Lago is a target), Manhattan, and northern Virginia when a missile intended for Washington is a few miles off course. Lewis writes with eerie and prescient verisimilitude that “We present this final report and the recommendations that flow from it mindful that our nation is more divided than ever before, particularly over the question of responsibility for the chain of events that led to the first use of nuclear weapons in more than eight decades—and their first use against the United States of America.” Evoking other examples of “official document” fiction, from Robert Sobel’s textbook from a parallel universe For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga and Max Brooks’s pastiche of Studs Terkel’s reporting World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Lewis novel is among one of the most disturbing I read this year, in part because of its dispassionate, objective tone. Speculative fiction was also the chosen genre for Leni Zumas’s startling, upsetting, and unnervingly realistic Red Clocks. Yet another representative example of a novel written as part of our ongoing golden age of feminist science fiction, Zumas joins Naomi Alderman, Louise Erdrich and (of course) Margaret Atwood in examining trends regarding reactionary gender relations, reproductive rights, and institutional misogyny by extrapolating out from our current moment to a possible (and believable) near-future. Red Clocks is science fiction for a post-Kavanaugh era, taking place sometime in the next decade or so after Roe v. Wade has been overturned, LGBTQ and single Americans have been denied the right to adopt, and creeping theocratic logic infects even the liberal environs of the Pacific Northwest where the novel is set. The novel is focalized through four major characters: a single high-school teacher and historian approaching middle-age who wants a child but is infertile and is running up against the government’s bans on IVF and adoption by the unmarried; her pregnant teenage student who wants to get an abortion; the wife of one of the teacher’s colleagues who finds herself in a stultifying marriage; and a local midwife with witchy affectations who runs afoul of the increasingly draconian state. One of the strengths of Red Clocks is how deftly it shows the lie that pro-choice politics are anti-pregnancy, and how what lies at the center of any defense of reproductive rights is the freedom to make the best decision for yourself. At the core of Red Clocks is the conviction that women must have their right to bodily autonomy be recognized, and that we don’t have to be living in Gilead to admit that things can get just a little bit worse every day. If Zumas imagines a not-so-distant future to explore her political themes, then Joshua Furst takes us to the not-so-distant past in Revolutionaries. Evoking recent novels such as Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Furst’s second novel is arguably part of a trend of millennial writers attracted to the political radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, while refusing to simply embrace the mythology of the Woodstock Generation as being the primogeniture of all that is just and free. Revolutionaries is narrated by Fred (ne “Freedom”) Snyder, the put-upon, manipulated, emotionally abused, and often ignored son of notorious countercultural radical Lenny Snyder. “Call me Fred,” the narrator says, “I hate Freedom. That’s some crap Lenny dreamed up to keep people like you talking about him.” If Revolutionaries were in need of a subtitle, I’d suggest “OK Boomer.” Snyder is a not-so-thinly veiled version of Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (or Yippies), jailed member of the Chicago Seven, and arguably the anarchic spiritual ancestor of the Dirtbag Left. As with Hoffman, Snyder organizes trollish pranks against the establishment, such as raining dollar bills down on the New York Stock Exchange to demonstrate the petty greed of the brokers who scramble after literal change, or in his demonstration against the Pentagon in which a group of warlocks and witches attempts to levitate the massive structure. He’s idealistic, utopian, and committed to freedom, equality, and justice. Snyder is also occasionally cruel, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and unequivocally a terrible father. Revolutionaries neither condemns nor celebrates Snyder, taking him with all of his complexities while asking how any radical is able to be committed equally to both family and their movement. Recent political history was also the theme of Jennifer duBois’s The Spectators, and as with Furst she excavates the previous decades to give intimations of what the genealogy of our current age might be. The Spectators isn’t interested in hippie hagiography and its discontents, however, preferring rather to toggle between the gritty, dystopian world of New York City in the ’70s when the Bronx was burning and Gerald Ford proverbially told the five boroughs that they could drop dead, and the belle epoque of the mid-’90s when Americans took their first hit of mass marketed infotainment. DuBois’s central, mysterious, almost Gatsby-esque character is Matthew Miller (born Mathias Milgrom), who in the 1993 present of the novel is the host of a day-time talk-show with shades of Jerry Springer. Before his current iteration of peddling shock television—all baby-daddy reveals and Satan-worshiping teens encouraged to brawl in front of a live studio audience—Miller was an idealistic city councilman in New York between the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS pandemic. His ex-lover Semi recollects that Miller “radiated a subtle electricity—something slight and untraceable that kinectified the air around him—and it was easy to mistake this, then, for the particular dynamism of compassion.” Like the actual Springer, Miller was an idealistic, progressive, crusading politician; unlike the actual Springer he was also a closeted gay man. The Spectators’ attention shifts between Semi in the ’70s and ’80s and his publicist Cel in the ’90s, their two stories converging in the novel’s present as Miller faces a reckoning after it has been revealed that a midwestern school shooter was a fan of his show. DuBois writes with a tremendous humanity, a novelistic consciousness whereby she almost magically occupies with equal aplomb both the experience of young gay men on the Lower East Side in the early ’70s and an anxious career woman who grew up dirt-poor in New England. Within The Spectators something else emerges, a portrait of a nation obsessed with violence, spectacle, and ratings, but where sometimes there may still be something noble, since “compassion took work, he always said, and anyone who told you otherwise wasn’t really trying to be good at it.” Furst and duBois have written historical fiction of a kind, but they’re just two examples of what’s been a growing crescendo of excellent examples of that often-forlorn genre. Like all of the genres that are too often condescended to or ghettoized, historical fiction has been critically disparaged, passed over as the purview of petticoats and carriages. Yet the last few years have seen an explosion of the form, from Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of New York to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. What these titles share is a sense of playfulness within the dungeon that is history, as well as a reverential imitation of the often-labyrinthine prose of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such historical fiction isn’t written as a palliative for the contemporary moment, but rather as an excavation of our fallen, modern age. Edward Carey’s achingly melancholic Little takes as its subject Marie Grosholtz, an 18th-century Alsatian peasant girl adopted by an esteemed physician who mentors her in the art and science of making realistic wax sculptures of humans. Marie’s autobiography, exemplary and talented as she is, is still from the perspective of one of us commoners, even as she Zelig-like intersects with the great personages and events of her age. Brief appearances of Enlightenment luminaries punctuate Little (as do Carey’s own delightful line drawings), including cameos by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, Diderot, and Marat, Napoleon and Josephine (and the latter’s pug), and by the very end, as if to demonstrate the sheer scope of her life, a young writer named Charles Dickens. So begins her account that “In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761…was born a certain undersized baby.” By the conclusion of Little, Marie is known by her married name of Madame Tussaud, and while her children encourage her to embrace a new technology invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, she believes that nothing as ephemeral as photography can replace the warm fleshiness of molded wax. Across the English Channel from France, and Imogen Hermes Gower describes a fantastic 18th-century world marked by exploration, trade, and mystery, but also by exploitation and cruelty, in her humane and beautiful The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Gower’s maximalist door-stopper of a book tells the tale of Jonah Hancock, comfortable merchant and member of London’s rising bourgeoise, who finds himself in possession of a “mermaid” brought back by one of his sailors from the sundry regions of the globe. Hancock’s London is no less enraptured by spectacle than Matthew Miller’s New York, and so the “mermaid” becomes the linchpin of various schemes, even while the bumbling, good-nature, and fundamentally conservative financier finds himself falling in love with Angelica Neal, a courtesan and adept student of the School of Venus, as if a character right out of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. London in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is described by Gower with almost supernatural precision, “The white-sailed ships strain upon it, and the watermen have gathered their bravado to steer their little crafts away from the bank and race across the current… the winking glass of the Southwark melon farms; the customs house, the tiered spire of St Bride’s the milling square of Seven Dials, and eventually… Soho.” A mermaid of sorts does eventually arrive in Jonah and Angelica’s life, but she is neither symbol nor synecdoche, metaphor or metonymy, but something else, with the whiff of ineffability about her. Across the Atlantic Ocean from Great Britain, and Esi Edugyan imagines a different 18th-century world, though perhaps no less wondrous, even if similarly marked by exploitation and cruelty in her equally humane and beautiful Washington Black. Since her stunning debut Half-Blood Blues, which imagines the fate of a biracial jazz musician living through the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the Canadian novelist has become one of the most lyrical interpreters of race, identity, and the troubled legacies of history. Washington Black arrives as one of the greatest fictional accounts of slavery’s too-oft ignored role in the establishment of the “New World,” recalling both Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, if choosing to hew away from those books’ parodic sentiments towards a more baroque, quasi-magical realism. Edugyan’s titular George Washington Black is born enslaved on the Caribbean island of Barbados, witness to the unspeakable cruelties of a sugar plantation overseen by a British master. When Washington is indentured to the master’s brother, an aspiring scientist with an interest in hot-air balloon transportation, as well as being a secret abolitionist, it provides him with a means of acquiring his freedom, which propels the narrative of Edugyan’s ingenious picaresque. Washington, in a manner that made him more deserving of his name than the man whom his master had ironically christened him after, was “of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith that the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.” Washington Black, never content to obscure the evils which marked the emergence of the modern world, also revels in the wide-roaming nature of freedom itself. Edugyan takes her characters from Barbados to Virginia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, west Africa, the Sahara, and even an aquarium which Washington constructs in London (perhaps Jonah’s mermaid could live there). Throughout Washington Black a tension is brilliantly held: ours is a fallen world which sometimes can still produce such wonders. Taking place during the same time period as Washington Black, but a few thousand miles north of sweltering Barbados, is Carys Davies’s minimalist novella West. Pennsylvania farmer Cy Bellman reads an account of giant fossilized bones discovered on the Kentucky frontier, and though the recent accounts of Lewis and Clarke returning from the west tell no tale of massive monsters roaming the American plains and mountains, the gentle widower assumes some remnant of the megafauna must still live beyond the horizon, and so compelled by an obsessive sense of wonder he journeys to find them. “He paced about every half hour, he took the folded paper from his shirt pocket and smoothed it flat on top of the table and read it again: there no illustrations, but in his mind they resembled a ruined church, or a shipwreck of stone—the monstrous bones, the prodigious tusks, uncovered where they lay, sunk in the salty Kentucky mud,” Davies writes. Bellman’s heart is set on both his dead wife, and the dinosaurs he imagines foraging in a fantastic American west, but he leaves his daughter behind with a long-suffering sister, the young girl both pining for her father’s affections and struggling to survive her approaching adolescence in a young nation not amenable to any weakness. West alternates between the accounts of young Bess, and Cy and his teenage Indian guide as they fruitlessly search for the creatures. As a British author, Davies has an ear for American weirdness that can sometimes elude domestic novelists, and West functions as a parable of lost innocence in the era of bunkum, of medicine shows and tent revivals. Davies writes with the clarity of a fairy-tale, but West never reduces its visceral characters to the level of mere allegory. Sharma Shields tells tale of a different loss of American innocence, not the terra incognita of Manifest Destiny and all that was projected onto an already occupied west, but what the United States did with that land and by proxy all of humanity well into the twentieth-century. Set in the same Pacific Northwest country as Red Clocks, Shields’s novel takes us to the most pertinent Year Zero in human history of 1945, when the United States first unleashed the power of matter, when atomic fission possibly set the world towards the inevitable tragedy of nuclear annihilation. The Cassandra is Shields’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth about a woman condemned to prophesize the future, but to never be believed by those in power. In Shields’s novel, the role of the oracular Sibylline is played by Mildred Groves, a secretary at the Hanford Research Center on Washington’s Columbia River, an instrumental laboratory in the Manhattan Project. Mildred is preternaturally odd, prone to strange trances, visions, and fits, and with a heartbreaking ability to charitably misinterpret her family’s abuse in a benevolent light, as a means of preserving her fractured psyche. One of the most engaging narrators I encountered in my past year of reading, Mildred is simultaneously innocent and terrifying; Shields performs a deft alchemy that makes her protagonist seem both unreliable and omniscient. The Cassandra is at its heart a book about violence in all of its myriad forms—the violence of the natural world, the violence of emotional abuse, sexual violence, and the annihilating nuclear violence to end all violence. In prose that recalls Patmos, Shields intersperses the narratives with Mildred’s terrifying visions, of “dark forests, wild dogs, long-clawed hags, cottages with candy-coated exteriors belying menacing contents: cages, skeletal remains, a hot stove reeking of burnt flesh, cutting boards strewed with bloodied fingers.” With language that owes so much to the vocabulary of nightmare, The Cassandra is commensurate with the bottled violence of potential nuclear holocaust. What makes the novel all the more terrifying is when you realize that Mildred’s visions are of an event that has yet to happen. [millions_ad] Taylor Jenkins Reid’s titular protagonist in Daisy Jones & the Six is a radically different kind of oracle from Mildred Groves, but an oracle all the same. Reid’s novel is a brilliant and ridiculously entertaining account of a fictional rock band in the ’70s with shades of Fleetwood Mac, with the beautiful, troubled, brilliant Daisy Jones a stand-in for Stevie Nicks, who has “got an incredible voice that she doesn’t cultivate, never takes a lesson.” Written as if it were the transcripts of an MTV Behind the Music-style documentary, Reid’s characters include bandmates, roadies, producers, and family, switching off between perspectives and dramatizing the variability of memory, with effects both poignant and funny. All of the rock and roll stations of the cross are visited—the combustive bandmates, the groupies, the addictions, and the inevitable rehab—but the result is anything but cliched, rather reminding us why we don’t change the dial when something from Rumors comes on the classic rock dial. The overall effect of Daisy Jones & the Six recalls classic rock journalism, such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Reid’s obvious encyclopedic knowledge of the singer-songwriter tradition of that decade, combined with her love of musicians like Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, Carol Kane and so on, creates the uncanny familiarity where you almost remember the music of Daisy Jones as if it were real. In a gambit that almost seems like bragging about her incredible talent, Reid includes as an appendix the lyrics to every song on Daisy Jones & the Six’s seminal album. “When you look in the mirror / Take stock of your soul / And when you hear my voice, remember / You ruined me whole.” Just like the white-winged dove you’d swear you heard that track before. To reduce Daisy Jones & the Six to being a mere roman a clef about Stevie Nicks would be an error, because what Reid provides is nothing less than history from an alternative universe, a collaborative, polyvocal, multitudinous rock epic—it’s an experimental masterpiece. Ottessa Moshfegh explores self-destruction as well, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation which reads a little as if Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground were written by a terminally depressed, beautiful, wealthy Gen-X orphan living in New York at the turn of the millennium. Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator lives in an Upper East Side penthouse, and ostensibly works as an assistant for a gallery owner downtown, but her days are spent endlessly watching the same discount VHS tapes over and over and moldering away in her hermetically sealed apartment. My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s protagonist reads like an Aubrey Plaza character scripted by Albert Camus, and part of the novel’s freshness and misanthropic joy comes from encountering a woman who embodies all of the existential ennui of those masculine characters of twentieth-century modernism. Rather than a French Algerian smoking in a café or a Russian dissident wondering what the meaning of life is, Moshfegh’s narrator is a Columbia graduate with model good looks who is able to be as much of an antisocial anti-hero as Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger. “I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks.” Her narrator suffers from an almost terminal case of sleep irregularity, between insomnia and somnolence, culminating in a performance art piece that in the hands of a lesser author could read as parody, but in Moshfegh’s novel becomes a metaphysical exploration. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by giving us a woman who can behave as badly as a man, has its own type of transgressive power. But to reduce it to a Ghostbusters reboot of a J.G. Ballard novel is to miss that My Year of Rest and Relaxation, not in spite of but because of the jaded affect, is a potent novel about depression and grief. Cofounder of the site N+1 and brother to the LGBTQ activist, political commentator, and Russian dissident Masha Gessen, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country explores the chimerical Russia of the last decade. The novel is categorizable among the same tradition that led to fiction by first-generation Russian immigrants to the United States who arrived right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, such as in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutants Handbook or Ellen Litman’s The Last Chicken in America. Gessen’s novel is similar to those precursors in that the nation actually under scrutiny in the title is arguably the United States. A Terrible Country focuses on New York comparative literature graduate student Andrei Kaplan, who has absconded to the Moscow of his youth as dissertation funding begins to dry up, ostensibly to assist his shady oligarch-adjacent brother Dima in the care of their grandmother with dementia. “My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981,” Andrei says, “I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian.” The differences between those two cultures, as with Shteyngart and Litman’s writing, is the tension of A Terrible Country; the novel reading as a sort of fictional companion piece to journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s chilling Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Set during the 2008 financial collapse, Gessen’s novel traces the gloaming period between the dawn of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the current midnight of Vladimir Putin. In A Terrible Country Putin’s regime is not yet exactly a “regime,” the authoritarian tendencies of the former KGB officer still tangibly “Western” if you’re drunk and squinting, but one of the things Gessen does so well is dramatize the myopia of the individual before history. “I pictured myself protesting the Putin regime in the morning, playing hockey in the afternoon, and keeping my grandmother company in the evening,” Andrei says, though of course the reality of history is that it rarely keeps to our neat schedules. No novel from the past few years quite so clearly provides a map of the terrain of national divisions, and what it means to simply try and lives life for yourself and your family in light of those divisions, as much as Lydia Kiesling’s first novel The Golden State. Former editor for The Millions, Kiesling’s novel is an engaging, empathetic, and honest exploration of the stresses of motherhood, professional life, family, and regional identity. Much to the benefit of this beautiful novel, The Golden State relegates current events to the role that they actually play in our lives, as a distant vibrational hum, even when those events can and do have profound personal effects on us. New mother Daphne is a low-level administrator for an Islamic studies program at a school that appears very much like UC-Berkeley, while her Turkish husband has been denied reentry into the United States after harassment by the Department of Homeland Security. While her husband attempts to disentangle his visa situation (while Daphne wonders how hard he is really trying), she absconds with her daughter Honey from San Francisco to her grandparent’s former home of Altavista located deep within the dusty, brown interior of the state. The Golden State explores a California not often revealed to outsiders; it’s not the brie and merlot set of the Bay area, nor the quinoa and avocado bowl folks of L.A., but a different place entirely, accessed through “nearly four hundred miles of road, leading up to the high desert.” Altavista bears more similarity to Idaho or Nevada than Palo Alto or Malibu, a place beyond the “top of Donner Pass and some kind of geological divide, [where] suddenly the forest are gone and the land is brown and stretching out for miles and miles.” Daphne’s interactions with the locals, specifically a woman named Cindy who is a leader in a quixotic secession movement not dissimilar to right-wing survivalist militias, provides a perspective on national splits more potent than the typical “bubble” discourse favored by the aforementioned major newspapers. The Golden State is the most accurate portrayal of the red-state/blue-state dichotomy published since the election of you-know-who, and all without mentioning you-know-who. Kiesling’s portrayal of that split never pretends it isn’t real, there is no rapprochement or understanding with Cindy, but there is an awareness that none of us are as sheltered as the New York Times editorial page pretends. A denizen of San Francisco can be totally aware of what lay off 400 miles down the road. What’s even more crucial in Kiesling’s novel is the wisdom that politics is always personal, that more than what appears on 24-hour news it’s expressed in the fear of a wife waiting for her husband’s safe-return, or in a mother’s tender love for her daughter. For reasons not even totally clear to myself, I’d always thought that successful, local restaurants providing accessible food to a large number of people could be material for a great American tragedy. When I lived in small-town eastern Pennsylvania, there was a regional chain of restaurants, only three or four of them, owned by these Greek brothers. The food was basically Applebee’s redux, but I was obsessed with the chain, not least of which because I thought there must be so much drama between the siblings; who got to manage which restaurants, vying for the affection of their immigrant parents, even arguing over the composition of the slick, laminated menus—for so much depends on the jalapeño poppers. Lillian Li basically wrote that novel for me, transposed from the Lehigh Valley to suburban Washington, D.C., with a sports bar replaced with a once high-end Chinese restaurant undergoing increasingly hard times. Complicated family arrangements are at the heart of Li’s engrossing Number One Chinese Restaurant, a novel which peels back the jade-green curtain at the institution which is the mid-century Chinese-American eatery to provide an epic narrated by a chorus. Manager Jimmy Han, prodigal son of the Beijing Duck House, hopes to close the restaurant down in favor of opening an elegant, hipper location on the Potomac waterfront, but he’s set between the machinations of his perfectionist, professional brother Johnny, his calculating mother, and the underworld figure “Uncle” Pang whose investments had saved the restaurant since its founding. Johnny’s restaurant, to his disdain, is a place of “gaudy, overstuffed décor,” defined by a “deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lightning, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers.” Rockville, Maryland’s Beijing Duck House is the sort of restaurant omnipresent at one time, the affordable, quasi-sophisticated repository of Yankified Mandarin cuisine, all chop suey, and egg foo young, moo goo gai pan, and of course the crispy, greasy, delicious duck which gives the establishment its name. Li interrogates questions of ethnic identity and food, class and food, and family drama and food. What elevates Number One Chinese Restaurant to greatness is that Li never forgets the humanity of these characters, from the long-repressed love of the elderly kitchen staff to Johnny’s vices and hubris. [millions_email] Patrick deWitt knows that family is complicated in French Exit: A Tragedy of Manners, which bears less similarity to Number One Chinese Restaurant than it does a novelization of Charles Addams’s The New Yorker cartoons, or as if a Wes Anderson movie produced by Tim Burton. Author of the under-heralded (though filmed!) post-modern western The Sisters Brothers, deWitt is a master minimalist for whom every comma is cutting, every semicolon a scythe. French Exit initially takes place in a seemingly timeless Upper East Side, all jackets with crests and loafers, inhabited by the wealthy widow Frances Price, a “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone” and her adult son Malcolm, “looking his usual broody and unkempt self,” who become Parisian expats after their wealth evaporates. Joining the Prices is Frances’s cat Small Frank, whom she (correctly) maintains is the reincarnation of her despised husband. Frances would seem to be a role made for Jessica Walter, even as Wikipedia dutifully informs me that Michelle Pfeiffer has been cast in the adaptation being developed by deWitt himself. French Exit is a delicious mint-flavored green-pastel macaron of a novel, with just a hint of sweet arsenic. A benefit to being a nonfiction essayist reading and reviewing novels is that there is a degree or personal distance that you can affect to avoid pangs of professional jealousy which sometimes accompany reading great writing, and which any honest scribbler would have to cop to. When I read something as tender as The Golden State, as astute as A Terrible Country, as innovative as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or as wondrous as Washington Black, I can console my envious conscience with the mantra that “Well, I’m not a novelist.” With K. Chess’s mind-blowing, psychedelic Famous Men Who Never Lived I can’t quite do that, because her narrative conceit is so brilliant, it’s so good, that I can’t help feeling jealousy at having not conceived of the story first. Famous Men Who Never Lived gives account of Hel and Vikram, two refugees from a parallel universe who alongside thousands of others are in exile in our own reality (or at least a version which seems nearly similar) after their world was destroyed, living in a New York City that diverged in the earliest years of the twentieth-century. These refugees between universes remembered their “world history… the rumors about forced labor at America Unida’s hidden education camps, about what the Power Brothers in Ceylon had done in the jungles to city-dwelling elites. And she’d remembered the KomSos clearing the shtetls of the Pale from east to west.” As with those dislocated by history in her world, Hel and Vikram are dislocated from the very idea of history itself, where you must “Leave what you own behind.” The result is a novel with not just a clever science fiction conceit, but also one which is a moving meditation on loss and dislocation. Hel comes to believe that the point of divergence involved Ezra Sleight, who died in childhood in our universe but grew to be a popular science fiction author in her and Vikram’s reality, with the later an expert on his The Pyronauts. Chess’s ingenious nesting stories recall Emily St. John Mandel’s similar speculative fiction masterpiece Station Eleven, with Famous Men Who Never Lived giving voice to the dislocations of exile, whether in our world or between our worlds. What Chess accomplishes is nothing less than a demonstration of how literature creates new universes, while expressing that which is consistent for humans regardless of which reality we may be living in.
As my relationship to reading has changed and deepened these past few years, so too has my ability to devour books as voraciously as I once did, when I read mainly for pleasure rather than parsing technique. The pleasure is still there, of course, but now there’s an additional layer of wonder, of anxiety, of “How the hell did you do this?” and "Can I make this magic work for me?" Add this to selling and editing my first book, facilitating my first graduate-level workshop, the absolute shit-fire of our country’s white supremacist agenda, and you have a recipe ripe for not reading as much as you wanted. But I did read, and in the spirit of learning to be kinder to myself and not measuring my productivity by the productivity of others, I’m glad to put together what I’m calling my “Past, Present, and Future” list of books by favorite, new, and new-to-me authors. 2019 has been a year of rereading for me, of taking refuge in the pages of books that have already won my heart. I do this with television and films, too. Rewatch and dissect rather than hopping into anything new. Between us, my husband and I have four streaming services and yet I’ve watched Mad Men thrice in its entirety; I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve mouthed lines along with Crooklyn. Sometimes I wonder if I’m afraid to fall in love, to be vulnerable to or invest in new characters, new worlds. There’s something about the feeling of sinking down into a life for the first time, wondering if you’ll understand the rules by which the author set the game. I both love and resist it. I reread A Visit from the Goon Squad for its form and the devastating ending of “Safari,” and We the Animals for another lesson on brevity and beauty. The Color Purple, which teaches me so much about our ideologies on God and power, is a book I will read for the rest of my life. I dove back into Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story to help me structure lessons I wanted to impart in my classrooms, and as a reminder that, in this life, I want to remain a student myself. Maybe my resistance isn’t about fear of the new, so much as the appeal of a knowledge that seems fixed, but never really is. The End We Start From by Megan Hunter made me think more seriously about white space in novels; Bryan Washington’s Lot opened me to the possibility of endings; the entire collection of Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater was so stunning that, at times, I was almost offended. And I read both Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks and Sigred Nunez’s The Friend so quickly, so needfully, it reminded me that I can still allow myself to be wonderfully overcome. I read Nella Larson’s Passing and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names; I wish I’d read them sooner. I’ve been so grateful to the spate of stories allowing women to be human, to be unsexy and imperfect and absolutely radiant in that imperfection: so thank you to Chemistry by Weike Wang, Come to Me by Amy Bloom, Goodnight Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. I am indebted to Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. This one straddles the line between present and future, but the language in C. Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold kindled a spark in me, and I got to walk around the whole day after finishing it feeling permeable to inspiration. My TBR pile judges me (or I continue to project judgement upon myself), especially for my tendency to add to it before I’ve finished others waiting. But I’m looking forward to reading so many more books, monumental to myself, maybe even before the year is through. Here are just a few on my list: Aria Arber’s Hard Damage; Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress; Michael Lee’s The Only Worlds We Know, because poetry is at the raw heart of language; Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart and Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s The Trojan War Museum because fiction is at mine; and Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard because of her timelessness, her wisdom, her place in the shaping of my past, present, future. Because it is necessary, and I am not yet ready to let the Queen go. More from A Year in Reading 2019 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 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]
Leni Zumas’s 2018 novel, Red Clocks, which has drawn wide comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, paints a chilling portrait of a near future in which not only is abortion illegal in the United States, a “Personhood Amendment” to the Constitution prohibits the use of IVF fertility treatments. The book, a national bestseller, won the 2019 Oregon Book Award and was named a “Best Book of 2018” by The Atlantic. It was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Washington Post Notable, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and an Indie Next pick. A longtime fan of Zumas’s work, I caught up with her at the Brooklyn Book Festival last year during the fraught confirmation proceedings of now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. We discussed Red Clocks, as well as what Kavanaugh’s confirmation could mean for reproductive rights in the U.S.—a struggle even now unfolding in the American South, as states move to pass measures that would effectively ban abortion. The Millions: Red Clocks is often compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, and rightly so—it’s a near-future sci fi novel, and the major factor that has rearranged the world is government regulation of reproduction, specifically as it applies to the female body. But The Handmaid’s Tale is also about religious fundamentalism, whereas Red Clocks seems as if it’s really more just challenging us to think through legislation—actual legislation that has been developed by actual American politicians—showing us both the intended and perhaps unintended consequences of that kind of legislation and how it could affect so many woman in so many ways. We’ve got Ro, a single woman trying to get pregnant; Mattie, a high school student who’s unintentionally pregnant; and Gin, who’s being persecuted for offering alternative healthcare services to women. I think this book is such a service in the way that it helps us model those consequences. Leni Zumas: A lot of the legislation that’s affecting the characters in Red Clocks is influenced by evangelical Christianity…You know, Mike Pence is politician who in every way allows his convictions to tell him, “Oh, I get to legislate what happens to your body, and yours too.” And when I was doing research for this book, his name actually popped up a lot, especially with regard to creating a law in Indiana requiring women who had miscarriages or abortions to have a funeral for or cremate their fetal tissue. So, religion is kind of a shadow presence in the book. However, you know, an interesting thing about the United States is that Americans have this conception that we have a separation of church and state…when actually, if you look at, say, the Supreme Court, most people on the Supreme Court are Catholic. In the Trump administration, there are some extremely radical Christian men who are in there creating laws—and yet, that’s not really part of the national rhetoric. Whereas we might look at a place like Ireland and say that legislators there are all completely controlled by the Catholic Church, when Ireland is the place that just voted via referendum to make abortion accessible. So, the religion question is interesting to me, though it wasn’t explicit in the book. What I see as one of the superpowers of fiction is that it can really put the reader inside the experience of a law’s consequences and aftermath, intentional and unintentional, as you say. So rather than, say, having an abstract conversation about reproductive rights…it’s more about, say, what it feels like to be a 15-year-old girl who has plans to become a marine biologist and go to math camp who’s told, “There’s a beginning of a pregnancy in your body and you cannot stop it.” TM: Yes. And further, in this widespread comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale—it’s not like you haven’t written speculative work (some of the stories in your collection, Farewell Navigator, definitely have a fantastic element). But this book is not that speculative. LZ: Is it even dystopian? I don’t know. It’s so close to our own society that it could be true next month. After Kavanaugh is confirmed, and certain states begin enacting prohibitively restrictive abortion laws, we really could have a Personhood Amendment on our hands. I really hope to hell that does not happen, and there are a lot of progressive people in this country working really hard to make sure that it doesn’t. But I never thought Trump would be elected. I had finished Red Clocks by then, but I was still revising it, and so that sort of sense of disbelief or horror or fearful dread kind of colored my revision. TM: I’ll admit, even though I’m a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t allow myself to watch the Hulu series based on the novel until I was preparing for this interview. LZ: I still haven’t seen it. TM: I think I was maybe trying to protect myself from further horror, just trying to keep it together. But watching it felt like sticking a fork in an electrical outlet. Like, Dear God, what have you been doing? We are under siege here. We are at war. The consequences of ceding control over the reproductive capacity of the female body to men are horrifying. And The Handmaid’s Tale illustrates that horror by going to extremes. LZ: Right. TM: But Red Clocks is in many ways just as horrifying, and there’s nothing really extreme about it. It is just one step—one stumble—away from where we are now. LZ: And that was definitely intentional. I wanted to hew as closely as possible to an ordinary—if we can even say anything is ordinary about this political moment—to an almost a run-of-the-mill version of what would happen, for a few reasons. In general, as a writer I’m interested in tiny strangenesses and discomforts and sort of unnerving experiences in the world that aren’t spectacular and aren’t, sort of, radically unpredictable. They’re almost more the things that escape our notice. So, I think having characters who are sort of going along in their lives—they might be somewhat politically aware, but not that active, then things start to happen to them. And that’s the kind of a horrifying wakeup that I think I’ve been experiencing in the last couple of years, and I know a lot of other people have too. TM: In my review of Red Clocks for LitReactor, I referenced El Salvador’s abortion ban, which takes place in a context where cities like San Salvador are widely ruled by street gangs—a context where girls cannot refuse sex with gang members without risking their lives. And when you combine that with, not only is there no access to abortion, if you even have a miscarriage— LZ: You can be locked up. TM: Right, after being accused of attempting abortion. And this extremely hostile environment for women has of course created a refugee crisis. So, many women are running for their lives. But then— LZ: The Attorney General says that domestic abuse is not a valid reason to seek asylum. TM: Right. And then we have Trump’s war on refugees—and again, this is a different situation— LZ: But they’re connected. TM: In Red Clocks, you have this “Pink Wall,” where women running from the U.S. to Canada to try to get an abortion will be deported. Right now, we have this refugee wall, where if you’re running to the U.S. from this kind of violence south of the border, you will be returned to that violence. In this way, it seems as if some of the key themes of Red Clocks are unfolding before our eyes in the Americas. LZ: Yes. And I’m glad you brought up the connection with immigration, because one of the most insidious things about the current administration—and also, you know, past administrations’ policies, I don’t want to put everything at the feet of Trump—is the notion that if a woman is being beaten and raped by her husband, beaten and raped by others, that’s not enough of a reason to grant her asylum. It really reveals a basic disregard for an experience that is coded female. Listening to the Attorney General say, “Well, you know, we can’t let everyone in, and just because some woman’s having some trouble at home…” I connect that in my mind to some other old white man in a small town being like, “Oh, you have another black eye? Well, you probably shouldn’t talk back to your husband…” And you know, to your earlier point about much of these things already happening in the world—in parts of the United States, it is already virtually impossible for some women to get abortions. They don’t have the money to travel three days, they can’t take off work, they can’t afford childcare for the children they already have, there’s a 72-hour wait at a clinic, and there’s only one clinic in their state and they can’t get there. The sort of abortion ban I wrote about in Red Clocks is already true for them, and of course it disproportionately affects low-income women and women of color. And so reproductive rights are connected to social inequality, connected to economics, connected to immigration—there’s really no way to separate these things. TM: You’ve noted in other interviews that when the system stops working for the people who used to have power in it, there’s a tendency to turn to historically marginalized people and their wisdom. This is embodied in Red Clocks in Gin, a character who’s queer in more ways than one—when the women in her community need help with birth control, gynecological services, with abortion, Gin’s the one they turn to, the “witch in the woods.” And you walk a fine line with the speculative element here—you know, maybe she actually has magical powers? Maybe she’s just a little cray? But beyond all that, she absolutely is an herbalist. LZ: Yes. TM: As such, you’re clearly echoing European history, in the sense of a witch being, basically, the local midwife, the healer. And I remember my shock, in undergrad, in learning about the sheer scale of this era toward the end of the Middle Ages known as the Burning Times, when anywhere from 50,000 to 1,000,000 women were put to the stake, in a move that is widely agreed to have been a power grab by the male clergy of the Christian church, in order to undermine women’s authority in matters of life and death. But, of course, this was also an act of terrorism. So, I suppose I was wondering, what does that heritage mean to you? LZ: I love this question, because it’s something I think about a lot. Like, what are those traces and residues and sediments from history that we’re still, sort of, metabolizing? And one of them, I think, is the figure of the witch—which I would say now, or in the past decade or so, has become kind of trendy, in a way that’s both kind of cool and kind of annoying—there’s still that sense of another system of knowledge or power or wisdom that has been subjugated and suppressed, much like any kind of—well, this gets back to the colonial vision, in which a white European power going into other parts of the world, taking power, and subjugating people had to suppress these other systems of knowledge, whether it was medical or spiritual or, you know, ways that people organized themselves. It’s sort of necessary in order for colonizers to keep their hold that those systems are quashed. It goes to how even today the notion of midwifery or herbalism or alternative medicine is pooh poohed. Like, I’ve heard people refer to acupuncturists as witchdoctors or voodoo doctors…reaching for that kind of language that we already have to delineate who’s really in power and authority and who’s not. Like an old wives’ tale or an old wives’ remedy—as in, those things aren’t true, they don’t work. And there’s even sort of a way, I see—like…you’re walking down Alberta Street in Portland and you see sort of a naturopath school or a place selling herbs and they’re sort of twee and hipster, but where I go to in my head is that kind of longer history of, who was using these things? TM: Today, those sorts of wisdom systems are sort of like, that’s nice if you can afford that. That’s extra. They’re sort of the hot yoga of medicine. LZ: Exactly. And that’s why, with the character of Gin, I didn’t want her just to be someone who thrives in everyday society but also happens, on the side, to have this knowledge. I really wanted her to be outside the system and sort of off the grid and happily so—she’s not this outsider who’s trying to claw her way back into society. She’s sort of said no to that, but in order to survive—and also, I think because she is dedicated to the craft, to her expertise—she still wants to interact with women who need her help. But a lot of the reason they need her help is that they no longer have health insurance, or because certain basic health care procedures are outlawed now. TM: In Red Clocks, I was struck by the way that the characters of Ro and Susan seem to illustrate sort of a double bind that women face under patriarchy. Ro, in many ways, is a renegade: she’s a feminist high school teacher, she encourages her students to think for themselves—she’s an intellectual, an academic, trying to write a biography of this largely forgotten female polar explorer. And she’s also a single woman doing her damnedest to become a single mom. So, in many ways she’s pushing back on what’s expected of women, and she’s subjected to a great deal of hardship and judgment for it. And then there’s Susan, who’s pretty much checked off all the boxes, in terms of those expectations: she married a man, she had children with him, she stayed home to take care of those children—and in many ways, put her own ambitions on hold to do so. But she also faces many hardships and judgments. She’s sort of losing her mind in kiddieland, she feels super isolated, and she feels judged both by women who have children and women who don’t. Moreover, she feels trapped in her marriage—because she feels financially beholden to her husband, but also because she’s bought into this lie that children from “broken homes” are going to go on to meet terrible ends, and that if she essentially saves her own life by leaving this marriage, she will have destroyed theirs. The idea here appears to be that while some women might appear to have power, or enjoy a more protected status, under patriarchy, no woman really wins in this system. LZ: Yes. And I really think that with the character of Susan, I hope that one sees in the most glaring way that storyline she bought. She’s like, “Okay, I will be happy if I have these things.” Susan was in law school, but she decided that the prospect of becoming a lawyer could not compare to the prospect of becoming a mother. So, she married and became a mother, but she’s still not happy—which, again, is not a surprising story. In fact, it’s a very common story. So, the question for me is about how we relate to those stories and those sort of cultural imperatives. And I think that Ro, the biographer, has also gotten those same kind of messages, in terms of the idea that children from single parents don’t do as well in school. Which is such a way to cover up more systemic inequities and facts around poverty and race and education— TM: And the pay gap between men and women (“kids need both parents”). LZ: Yes. And if people aren’t going to have the conversation about class and race, they’re going to blame individuals. Like, you wrecked your child because you didn’t stay with your husband, or your marriage crumbled, or you chose to be a single mom. I think for me it was a great gift when my parents got divorced, because they were so clearly better off on their own, with their own lives. And yes, it was hard, but what was really hard was living with both of them in the same house and knowing they didn’t love each other. And how freeing for a person to be like, “Wow, that can happen, and then everyone can move on.” Rather than struggling to meet society’s messages about it, which is more like, “Why don’t you just work a little harder on your marriage?” [millions_email] TM: The final main character in Red Clocks is Mattie, who’s kind of the classic case in terms of who we think of being on the front lines in the struggle for reproductive rights. She’s young, she’s naive, she’s fertile, she made a mistake, and now the rest of her life is on the line. And this is probably the easiest consequence for people to model, in terms of an abortion ban. Because even if Mattie gives up the kid for adoption, her life has been changed irrevocably. LZ: Also, pregnancy is one of the most dangerous times in a woman’s life. So many serious health complications can occur as a result of giving birth—including death. People clearly aren’t thinking about that when they say of a woman, “Oh, she can just give it up for adoption.” TM: Which is a conversation we almost never have. But you know, it occurs to me that—you know, we think of the consequence, and the stakes, of an abortion, being just this one young woman’s life. But my mother had an abortion before she had me, when she was maybe around 20, and she had me when she was 37. And for my whole life, I have always had this sense that she gave me my life by doing that. LZ: She did. TM: She gave me the right father, and she gave me the luxury of a mature, wise, laid-back mom who had traveled the world, who had had a career, who had had her wild years— LZ: Who wasn’t resenting you. TM: And there’s no way for me to separate the immense gift of my life from that brave act of hers. So, it’s not just the young woman’s life at stake, it is the life of her kids down the road, if she has them. LZ: That question of interbeing and interdependence was in my head when I was writing Mattie’s character, because there’s a point at which she’s imagining—she’s herself adopted, which is one of the reasons her parents are anti-abortion. And I really wanted to make those characters sympathetic and not just these evil anti-abortion people—but she imagines the biological mother who gave her up, and what if she went on to become a scientist who made some great discovery. And there’s the question of that too: When a woman chooses not to become a mother, what are her other contributions to the world? And not that everyone—like, I think everyone has a right to do that, whatever their contribution—but within a woman’s life, if she decides, “No, I’m not going to have a kid, I’m going to work for social justice,” this affects a lot of people. TM: Red Clocks is an important book in the conversation around women’s rights right now. Are there any others you’d recommend? LZ: Women Talking by Mirian Toews. She’s a Canadian author who grew up Mennonite and her book is based on a real-life Mennonite colony in Bolivia where, between 2005 and 2009, the women in the colony were getting drugged and raped every night by this group of men in the colony. And this is this extremely particular and isolated religious community—it would be easy to think, “Oh, that’s so different from our society, what can we take from it?” But one of the sort of genius moves of the book is that you have all these Mennonite women in the colony talking about what’s happening and what they should do about it, and as I’m reading it, I’m thinking, like, this is all of us talking— TM: Finally! LZ: Yes! We’re talking about how to change the patriarchy, and how to look at our own complicity in perpetuating it.
The year began with Mexican beaches and ceviche and morning yoga during a much-needed sanctuary from Chicago winter and the latent anxiety that was plaguing me. This was an ideal setting to engage in the drama of someone else’s fucked-up life and fraught desire—perhaps I was seeking catharsis of some kind? Well, if so Elizabeth Ellen’s auto-fictional novel Person/a, provided it. Person/a is a tale of a once-requited turned unrequited love cum obsession, accompanied by a crumbling marriage (no surprise) and self-imposed isolation. The novel includes emails and chat sessions and text messages and almost like a preface, rejections to Ellen’s manuscript queries. It’s all so wonderfully messy and unnerving, it feels like it shouldn’t hold but it does. In an age where I Love Dick has been subsumed by the mainstream, Person/a still reads as raw and suppurating. Fleur Jaeggy’s I am the Brother of XX didn’t fare as well at the beach. No fault of the book that the sun was too adamant, the breeze too gentle for its dark melancholia, its haute cynicism. It’s better read on a bleak winter day, when the air is already laced with desperation. I am not sure how one writes so beautifully about melancholy, how to make envy so alluring, and yet Jaeggy’s a master. Obsession runs through yet another favorite — Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions is an obsessive’s compendium. The sprawling novel contains anthropological disquisitions on photography and our cultural inundation in images, and ends with the narrator Zeke’s attempt to delineate the new masculinity belonging to the sons of second wave feminists. Zeke's survey on the “New Man” ends the novel, with questions Tillman had posed to male subjects accompanied by a selection of answers. Tillman's choice to open the novel to a survey of voices conjures a conversation from Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, where the narrator argues that novels are not very good at conjuring our contemporary reality and that documentary fiction, such as Svetlana Alexeivich’s “novels in voices” seem to do a much better job. Despite my skepticism about any dog-centric story (the dog here being the narrator’s inheritance from the titular dead friend), The Friend became my constant companion for a few short days. Nunez plays with the conceit of the novel in a way that brings the "truth" of the main narrative into question, it's a wonderfully surprising turn, and that’s as much as I’ll say to avoid spoiling it. Many of the novels that stayed with me hijacked my expectations of what a novel is or can do. Dubravka Ugresic’s novel Fox was sly enough to seemingly shift forms while reading. I knew it was a novel going in, and yet by the time I was in the thick of it I questioned this until I was assured the book was definitively nonfiction. But then there were moments that gave me pause — such as when on a butterfly hunt, Nabokov’s companion's skirt flies up to reveal a butterfly resting on her pubis. What’s true and what’s not? Fox is cunning and places this ambiguity at the forefront, for the novel is concerned with what makes up a narrative and, specifically, how stories come to be written. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is nothing like Fox in its material — confronting a deep-seated ambivalence and desire about becoming a mother — and yet both books retool the novel’s form. Heti engages with the I Ching as a dialogic partner as she delves into an inquiry about whether Sheila and Miles should have children, and with uncanny results. (Incredibly, Heti notes that the answers from her coin tosses have not been manipulated.) If you aren’t subsumed by the desire to have children, if you’re female and an artist and that window of opportunity is closing, how do you decide? Heti’s commitment to exhausting the question illuminates fears wedged in the crevices of my own mind, such as how can you be both writer and mother without some type of neglect or resentment towards one or both roles? (which I know isn’t true, and yet…) I picked up Leni Zumas's Red Clocks while visiting family in a small coastal town in Oregon, a town serendipitously much like the one where the book is set. Being there I felt even more subsumed by the lush language and descriptions of the coast and dense forest, and was in awe of the nearly mystical powers possessed by herbalist abortionist whose power is derived from her knowledge the natural surroundings. Also, I was delighted to learn that 'red clock' means ‘womb’. Delight is just the word I’d use to describe reading Sabrina Orah Mark’s story collection Wild Milk, whose tales are surreal and playful and seem deceptively simple despite their profound linguistic and imaginative play. Rita Bullwinkell’s collection Belly Up is just as playful and profound, though her stories delve deeper and darker. They floor me with unexpected turns, slippages into the surreal, and their vast emotional registers. I’m a little late to the party, as everyone's championing Laura van den Berg's The Third Hotel, but I just encountered her Find Me this summer. I read it twice, and became obsessed with its own obsessions with memory and loss and what’s inaccessible, its esoteric theories about immunity to the ongoing epidemic, and the fracturing effects of trauma and absence. On Joy's ever-meandering bus ride, all seems like a dream: the bus is never heading where she thinks, she keeps getting deterred on her way. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for life, or perhaps she's she lost her mind? I love that both readings seem plausible. Unlike Joy, Sequoyah in Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking knows where his mother is (she’s incarcerated); though like Joy he’s suffered abuse and has been shuffled through the foster system. He’s so tender and adrift, but finds connection in his relationship to his older foster sister Rosemary, and their shared Native American heritage. They’re all so flawed and awkward and completely alive on the page. The dead do talk in Shelley Jackson’s Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children. It’s an enigma of a novel about a boarding school for stuttering children whose impediment, or rather, gift, allows them to effectively speak the dead's voices . The novel is a linguistic and imaginative feat, as well as a gorgeous object to behold. Interspersed between chapters is documentation of artifacts, images, and illustrations, which only an imagination as wonderfully freaky as designer Zach Dodson could pull off. Is it a cliche to say it’s enchanting? Though Riddance's main obsession is with a murder mystery, at its core it’s also a philosophical consideration of translation and writing, and the voices that exist beyond the grave. 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 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]
2018 was the year I outgrew my bookshelves. Between my boyfriend and myself, we already had a lot of books but this year our shelves began to burst at the seams. Between reviewing gigs, landing on more publicity lists, and my propensity for buying books, there is just not enough space. Stacks of books have taken up residence on our headboard, next to my desk, on the floor next to the bed, on any flat surface we can find. I was not shocked by the swelling shelves as this was my first full year of reviewing books professionally. Sometimes it still feels weird to say my job (well, one of them) is reviewing books. A blessing with a rather wonderful downside: being assigned reviews means I have less time to read what I want when I want. Despite this, I was able to read some truly incredible books this year. I kicked off 2018 with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which I read poolside on vacation. The stark difference between the collection’s tone and my physical setting was not lost on me. Everything that needs to be said about the book has already been said. All I’ll add is that it’s one of the best bodies of work (and debuts) I’ve ever read. Upon returning to the snowy tri-state area, I spent the seemingly never-ending winter making my way through a mishmash of books: Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown, an ambitious multi-generational epic from a writer to watch; Tayari Jones’ honest and searing An American Marriage; John Lewis’s March trilogy, which left me in tears; Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes (the smart, funny, and Rhimes-narrated audiobook is highly recommended); and Leïla Slimani’s claustrophobic and thrilling The Perfect Nanny. In the summer, I escaped to the Catskills nearly every other weekend—sans wifi, cell service, and other people—and read. Whether it was on the porch, next to the wood burning stove, or over a cheese plate, I was curled up with a book. Said books included Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks, which was both gripping and timely; Rachel Cusk’s Outline, a sparse triumph ; Samantha Hunt’s genre-bending, achingly-poetic The Seas; Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s heartbreakingly empathetic The Fact of a Body; Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, which I devoured in nearly one sitting; and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a beautiful novel about banality. Fall fell away in a flurry of pages and a stretch of indelible books. It started with R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, a slim, luminous novel where every sentence felt like a carefully-crafted poem. I mean: “punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals.” Nearly a week’s worth of commuting was spent savoring Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. A few essays made me openly weep on public transportation and I can think of no greater compliment. Essays gave way to post-apocalyptic debut with Ling Ma’s Severance—perhaps my favorite book published in 2018. Ma renders the peril and monotony at the end of the world with humor and heart. After passing its empty place on the library shelves for months, I finally borrowed André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. It left me raw and with a desire to flee to Italy. Reading the novel felt like pressing on a bruise: painful and sweet. Sidelined with a cold, I waded then dove head first into Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a modern retelling of Antigone. And after avoiding it for far too long (and for no good reason), I picked up Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which surpassed all expectations. In the midst of a depressive fog, the novel unlocked something inside me and buoyed me into December. Looking back, I realize I mostly read women writers—not a conscious choice but a choice nonetheless. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of my best reading years in memory was slanted in such a way, and I suspect next year will look similar. Looking forward, I expect to read all the books I missed this year (there were many), and as 2019 books find their way into my mailbox, I am going to find new homes for some of our misfit books. Maybe even regain a flat surface or two, if we’re lucky. 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 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
2018 has been—for us all, I think—a year full of fear and alarm. For that reason, it was also a year in which my reading habits changed. I’ve been reading compulsively, not only for curiosity and solace but also for distraction. Overwhelmed by the news, I’ve been reading less nonfiction than I usually do. And because this is the year my first novel came out, I’ve also been keeping a closer watch on contemporary fiction. What I’ve come to realize in 2018, more than any other year, is that books really can provide relief (and in some cases, answers). Here are the ones that—through some combination of truth, beauty, and intrigue—have made my life richer. In January, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists was released. The first time I encountered it, I read for a few hours straight, standing upright in a stranger’s kitchen. The book is so good I’d forgotten where I was. Soon after, I read Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, which is my favorite feminist read of the year. It was frightening and empowering, and I wanted to talk about with everyone I knew. In the spring, I finished reading the story collection Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway, about memory, identity, and war. I read it over a few months because each word is perfectly chosen, the emotional weight in each story perfectly calibrated. I also read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, which hit me harder than a book has in a very long time. It made me think more deeply, first about what it means to be a writer, and second, about what it means to be a writer working right now. This summer, something wonderful happened. What seems like a decade’s worth of fiction by Asian-American women was published all at once. Of those I read, I savored each one. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon is a lyrical feast. If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim introduced me to Haemi, one of my favorite characters in all of literature. A River of Stars, by Vanessa Hua, is a page-turning, heart-filling novel about two immigrant women on the run with their newborn children. In Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lillian Li writes about community and love in a poignant, unforgettable way. What a range of worlds spanning time and space, what a wealth of talent! I am waiting for the opportunity to dive into The Ensemble by Aja Gabel, Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirsten Chen, Severance by Ling Ma, and All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. The floodgates have opened for Asian-American stories, and I have a feeling they’re going to stay open. Next year, Susie Yang is publishing White Ivy, a novel remarkable in both scope and substance. Ocean Vuong’s highly anticipated debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, also hits shelves in 2019. In the fall, I read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man and Tommy Orange’s There There, which were both urgent and moving. That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam is the smartest work of fiction I read in 2018. It’s a gorgeously written, complex, and unsettling book about motherhood and white privilege. I also want to talk about Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, which is the most inventive and inspired book I’ve read this year. I loved it almost as much as Amy Bonnaffons’s hilarious and striking collection The Wrong Heaven, which sent me back to the blank page, wanting to play with form. The best non-fiction book I read this year was by Beth Macy. Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America is a heart-wrenching and necessary look at the opioid crisis in America. Read this book and you may find yourself starting to understand our country in surprising ways, as I did. The best mystery/thriller I read this year is a tie between The Perfect Nanny by Leslie Slimani and Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell. The former is a true literary thriller, psychologically disturbing and very well written. The latter is a book about a kidnapped dead girl. I’m generally through with stories about kidnapped dead girls, but I read this book upon recommendation, and I’m glad I did. It had me petrified, not only of the characters, but of my own theories about the novel’s resolution. Elegantly constructed and cleanly written, it’s well worth your time. I’ve also been enjoying 2018’s Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Louise Penny. T.C. Boyle has a story in there called “The Designee,” which is both suspenseful and heartbreaking. I can’t forget to mention my brief obsession with the Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami. Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated by Allison Markwell Powell, is a soul book for me. It gets at loneliness in a way I haven’t read in a long time. Xiaolu Guo is another writer I read this year whom I deeply admire. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is a raw and often uncomfortable consideration of language and alienation. It spoke to the part of me that feels at home in neither America nor China. I’ve been reading, but I’ve been listening, too. This year, I moved to Madison for a fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and became part of a community of emerging writers. We gather to read our work out loud. Hearing these authors’ poems and stories spoken in their own voices has given me life and sent me back to the writing desk with my head bowed and fire in my chest. Read this poem and essayby Natasha Oladokun, this poemby Chekwube Danladi, this book by Natalie Eilbert. I’ve had the rare pleasure of hearing Mary Terrier and Kate Wisel read from their novels-in-progress. These novels are very different from each other but both are devastating and bold, and already so sharp in their manuscript forms that I know they’ll take your heads off as soon as they’re published. Next September, we’ll be treated to Aria Aber’s first book of poetry, titled Nearby Is the Country They Call Life, which cannot arrive soon enough. And Emily Shetler’s fiction is as inviting and layered as the lives of the people in her stories. Here’s a weird thing: I’ve also been reading me. In 2017, as I was going through my novel draft after draft with a red pen, begging tiny changes from my copyeditor at the very last minute, I thought to myself, In 2018 I’ll never have to read this novel again! That turned out to be the opposite of true. But I’ve come to find that I enjoy giving readings, where I can offer my characters a physical voice and a body to occupy in a specific time and place. It’s become clear to me how powerful it is to hear a human voice behind a narrative. As a person of color, it feels not dissimilar to finally seeing faces like mine on TV and in theaters as we play roles we’ve written or originated—something we’ve gotten to see much more of this year. Suffice it to say, I’ve begun to appreciate reading as an art form. 2018 is also the year in which I’ve embraced audiobooks—though of course, nothing will replace the sight and feel of a physical book in my hands. Currently, I’m listening to A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, which is the only reason I know how to pronounce the name“Ove” (ooh-vuh). What else have I been reading? Strong undergraduate writing from the students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The empathy and curiosity in my students’ fiction gives me hope not only for the state of literature but also for the state of our nation. In class, they want to discuss: Who has the right to tell this story? What are the implications of writing from first person point of view? What place does fiction have in politics, and politics in fiction? I don’t have all the answers, but together, we’re making study of it. This semester, we’ve been reading work by Danielle Evans, Justin Torres, Lorrie Moore, Jamel Brinkley, and Joann Beard. Because it’s still November as I’m writing this, and because there’s not much else to do in the winter time in Madison besides drink, and in some cases, drive your car out onto the iced-over lake—neither of which I’m particularly good at—I’m going to end with a list of books I hope to read before the year is over. All come highly recommended: The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling, Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard, America for Beginners by Leah Franqui, and The Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. 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 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005