Salt Houses

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A Year in Reading: Nishant Batsha

In
late spring, my wife and I enrolled in a childbirth class. During the first
meeting, we had to go around the room and talk about our favorite birthing
books. I had not read any birthing books—not because I didn’t want to, but
because I know that given the smallest unstructured bit of information, I
immediately fall into the trap of endless Googling for this and that. I’ve done
this exactly once since my daughter was born. I ended up reading about infant
dementia for an hour. I don’t recommend that article to anyone.

When it was my turn to discuss my favorite book, I sheepishly mentioned Leslie Jamison’s essay at the Paris Review, “Reading While Nursing.” Jamison’s essay beautifully recollected the experience of her changing (physical and emotional) life in relation to care and the act of reading. As she put it, her daughter, “taught me how to read with one arm, in stolen chunks of time, in half-delirium, in the long hormonal soup of the fourth trimester.”

After
my daughter was born, I remember holding her in the recovery room and feeling
that first burst of physical love. I couldn’t focus upon anything but her small,
warm weight pressed up against my chest. From that weight came a tingling that
radiated outwards through every nerve ending, as if my fingertips were pointed
up to the sky bringing the lightning right through me.

Everyone
had warned me that I would be up at all hours with a newborn, but I had no idea
how much she would sleep, dozing off with twitches, smiles, and open, shifting eyes.
She was always a good sleeper, but she especially loved to sleep on my chest,
giving me two or three hour chunks of time where I, as a good bed, had to
remain perfectly still.

A
perfect chance to read.

I began with Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, gripped by Isabel’s travails across Europe. From there, I couldn’t stop. Perhaps because I was so anchored to whatever position I was in when she fell asleep, I was drawn to books with a sense of place, family, and movement. I read, one after another (sometimes all in one sitting), Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, Dina Nayeri’s Refuge, Xhenet Aliu’s Brass, and Irina Reyn’s Mother Country, before finally returning to Henry James once again with The Turn of the Screw.

And then, without warning—at around eight weeks—she didn’t like to sleep on my chest anymore. It probably began to feel too much like tummy time, which as any parent knows is hard work for a newborn. Sleep experts always say that one should never work on their bed.

She’s six months old now and loves riding on my shoulders, cackles with joy when I hold her in the air. I’ve found that the joy of children can be mired in cruelty: she keeps growing and each step takes her away from me. She moves, into her own life, when all I want is to hold her close, feel that warm weight, pass my time with a book in my hand, turning each page with a finger alive with that electric arc of love.

A Year in Reading: Etaf Rum

I am lucky to be part of Instagram’s book community via the account I started a few years ago, @bookandbeans, which gives me early access to many of the most anticipated books of the year. I initially joined Instagram while feeling quite isolated: As a young mother in a new place, it was often hard for me to find a sense of connection with others, especially as an Arab American in a predominantly white southern town. I’m always reading multiple books, juggling different styles and plots, seeking out connection and understanding. I often find myself surprised by how seen I feel in unlikely places. Here are 10 of my favorite books this year, along with quotes I had underlined in them—hopefully you will feel that same sense of belonging when you read them as I did.

“Perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface.” —Han Kang, The Vegetarian

“I’m not from Israel. I’m from before Israel, from beneath the Israeli towns and cities built over my homes and orchards and fields. I am an Arab Palestinian, not an Israeli.” —Moriel Rothman-Zecher, Sadness Is a White Bird

 

“What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.” —Hala Alyan, Salt Houses

 

“Often, still, my own life story feels fragmented, like beads unstrung. Each time I scoop up my memories, the assortment is slightly different. I worry, at times, that I’ll always be lost inside.” —Clementine Wamariya, The Girl Who Smiled Beads

 

“If you don’t know the tale of where you come from, the words of others can overwhelm and drown out your own. So, you see, you must keep careful track of the borders of your stories, where your voice ends and another’s begins.” —Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars

 

“How were they to know the moment that would define them? It will affect his personality for his whole life, someone is saying to her, and whose fault will it be then? Mine, a voice replies, and the voice is hers.” —Fatima Farheen Mirza, A Place for Us

 

“Oh, our private selves—how strange we all are, how full of feelings and essentially alone.” —Curtis Sittenfeld, You Think It, I’ll Say It

 

 

“A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.” —Tayari Jones, An American Marriage

 

“It was that kind of mindfuck: to be too visible and invisible at the same time, in the ways it mattered the most.” —Lisa Ko, The Leavers

“Being a woman is always a performance; only the very old and very young are allowed to bow out of it. Everywhere, you are observed and assessed: walking down the street, riding a bus, driving a car, eating in a café. You must smile, but not too widely. You must be pleasant, but not forward. You must accommodate and ingratiate but never offer too much of yourself, and never for your own pleasure. If you do this, it must be in secret.” —Frances de Pontes Peebles, The Air You Breathe

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A Year in Reading: Crystal Hana Kim

It’s easy to feel defeated these days. It takes more effort and conscious positivity to focus on the future, on the historic firsts. We elected a record number of women to the House this year, including 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women in Congress, while Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland became the first Native American Congresswomen. Florida elected their first openly lesbian mayor. There’s so much more. On a personal note, I teach high school students from across the United States. They all inspire me, but my female students in particular give me hope. From New York City to Detroit to Sioux Falls, they are canvassing, organizing community meetings and protests, creating change. I am flooded with strength as I look to the future.

So, in gazing forward while reflecting back on 2018, I want to highlight the women writers I’ve fallen in love with this year. I’ve read 35 books so far, and though some were written by men, we as a society need to #readmorewomen.

In poetry, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion both consider addiction, family life, dreams, myth, and cultural history. These powerful poems dismantled and surprised me. Emily Jungmin Yoon’s debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, is stunning. Written in the voices of Korean “comfort women,” Yoon’s poems about sexual violence, gender, and oppression are brutal, incisive, and necessary.

My first novel was published in August, and with publication came an eventful book tour, which I’m profoundly grateful for. At the same time, book publication also brought the fear that I was speaking about myself, my writing process, and my novel too much. I found refuge in novels written by the wonderful writers I was lucky enough to do events with. I was drawn into the strange and magical What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine. In this dark, feminist novel a girl named Maisie has the power to kill and resurrect with her touch. I read What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling in a packed, whirlwind of knock-out debut fiction. I loved Naima Coster’s Halsey Street, which alternates between Penelope, a young woman who returns to a gentrified Brooklyn to care for her ailing father, and Mirella, Penelope’s estranged mother in the Dominican Republic. In Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, four friends navigate their entwined careers, love lives, successes, and failures as a string quartet. Gabel’s descriptions of music, music-making, and auditory pleasure were absolutely beautiful.

Elsewhere in fiction, I read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time. What took me so long? I want to devour everything she’s written, and I want more books that reimagine our literary canon. I finished Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing while on a weekend break from book tour. It made me want to return to my writing desk immediately. Ward is a literary genius, and I will read everything she writes. In more recent fiction, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong and You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman both made me reconsider the body, food, consumption, and our desire to belong.

In nonfiction, Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know about the adopted author’s decision to find her biological family moved me with its honest portrayal of the fears we have about belonging, identity, and motherhood. I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson on a beach, staring at the blue of the ocean, the sky. One of my dearest girlfriends gifted me Kayleen Schaefer’s Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendships, which reinvigorated me to reach out to all of my female friends, to strengthen those relationships even in adulthood.

I want to end with Deborah Eisenberg’s short story collection Your Duck Is My Duck because she is one of our best living writers. Her fiction precisely illuminates what it feels like to be alive, to wade through our world in its natural beauty and manmade devastation. Her writing is political and true, intimate and expansive.

I hope to read more in these last weeks before 2019 arrives. I’ve just started Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses. Toni Morrison’s Paradise awaits, as does Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is on backorder at my local bookstore. There is so much more to read and so much more to hope for, and I am grateful.

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

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