I did a lot of moving this year, both literal and figurative, so it isn’t hard to see why I was drawn to reading tales of instability, of moments when the girders are buckling and the bridge won’t hold up for much longer. Sometimes, this affinity led me to pick books about traumas and disasters, but other times it led me to narratives of a generalized insecurity, be the source of that insecurity economic, social, or romantic. All I wanted to feel this year was a sense of ambient doom, it seemed, and the books I’ll remember in the future are those that delivered, and then some.
Chief among them has to be The New Me by Halle Butler, an excruciating recession fable and one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I suppose it’s not technically a fable, as its plot is grimly realistic, but with its gimlet-eyed view of the precarity and misery of the modern workplace, it earns a spot among the classics of what we might call the Recession Era. The protagonist, Millie, is stuck in an awful temp job, and everything she does to move up or please her superiors inevitably makes it all worse. She writes polite emails, gets all her work done, and (mostly) keeps her gripes to herself, but none of it proves to be enough to keep her afloat in her position. Her struggles will prove familiar to millennials of my particular age cohort, as will the farce that plays out as she vainly attempts to keep her dignity. All her interactions with her boss are somehow both threatening and smarmy, and fairness itself is nothing more than a joke. Eventually, she has no choice but to move back home with her parents, which the book depicts with a masterful grip on her interiority. I found this book unbearably painful, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.
I also loved reading Severance, Ling Ma’s excellent debut, which adds the tropes of zombie fiction to the microgenre of the office novel. The book switches back and forth between the recent past and the present, when the world has been wrecked by a brain-frying virus called Shen Fever. The protagonist, Candace, used to work at a Bible publisher, and most of the novel’s flashback sections focus on her time at work. It likely says a lot about me (almost none of it particularly flattering) that I found these flashbacks as thrilling as the action-packed sections in the present, partly because, like Candace, I too have spent time in a number of soul-grinding jobs. I couldn’t help but sympathize with her stubborn pride and industry, which keep her ensconced in a position that’s a little too real for comfort. Like The New Me, Severance illustrates the costs of our economic hellscape, all the while telling a genuinely new story that’s always a pleasure to read.
I also read some great short stories, some from this year, some not. I fell for “Waugh,” a heartbreaking tour-de-force by Bryan Washington and easily my favorite New Yorker story from this year. I loved “Elliott Spencer,” a new-ish George Saunders story that brings the author’s considerable skills to bear on Trumpian propaganda. I loved “Guests,” a story in The Paris Review by Mary Terrier, with its brilliantly textured portrayal of grief. And I spent a month on The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, which made me yearn for a bygone socialist community that has almost completely disappeared. All of the above were beautiful and startling, and I hope I never forget them.
God willing, I won’t feel drawn to reading stories of doom, next year.
Well, I must start and finish this essay while my mother watches my youngest child, my third, but who’s counting? (Dear God, I am!) With writing and motherhood, one is always aware of how little time there is. Writing takes time, and babies don’t give you any of it: particularly breastfed ones; they are like tiny bombs that go off approximately every two hours.
So here we go.
This third child, his name is Mickey Ocean Brown, was born in August. Before and after that I was reading voraciously. I swore off social media for all of 2019, which didn’t so much reveal endless vistas of time and encourage profound thinking, but, rather, showed me that I’m a compulsive reader: I’ve got to be reading something, anything, at all times. I’m like a slobbery Golden Retriever at its dog bowl. More, more, more! At least this year I devoured less Facebook and more, you know, real books.
And I read so many great books!
My fatigue of postapocalyptic novels ended with Severance by Ling Ma. Let me tell you, once you write a novel about the end of the world, you’re asked to blurb many others and also be on every apocalypse-related panel known to humankind. “Enough already!” I felt like shouting, around 2015. But here I am, in 2019, recommending this one. I read Ling Ma’s debut of my own volition (I admit the millennial pink cover drew me in…) and was immediately enthralled by its post-epidemic landscape: an emptied-out New York City, the desolate roads beyond, a repurposed shopping mall. I loved heroine Candace Chen’s pre-apocalypse job as production editor of bibles; I will read the prequel, Ling! I felt Candace’s longing for her mother and boyfriend as if her mournfulness were my own. I loved it.
This year I discovered two writers who have been around for some time, one so long that she is now dead. That’s Anita Brookner, whom novelist Rumaan Alam recommended in this appreciation. Brookner passed in 2016 but she thankfully left us many novels, which is astonishing when you consider that she didn’t publish her first until she was over 50. I read three Brookners this year, and my favorite was A Closed Eye. Because describing plots is boring, I’ll say that all her work seems to be about a hemmed-in life and a chance for freedom and pleasure that is always, ultimately, denied. Brookner conveys character consciousness with such clarity and depth; she reminds me a bit of Henry James in this regard. However, because her sentences are not nearly as labor-intensive, she can be read poolside and near rambunctious children without a snag.
The other writer I discovered this year is Cathleen Schine. I read They May Not Mean To, But They Do and her newest, The Grammarians. Oh what a delight it is to read Cathleen Schine! Both of these novels are about families and the pain and love and miscommunications and in-jokes and required delusions found therein. Her work is breezy without being stupid, and wise while also being very funny. I keep worrying about the matriarch of They May Not Mean To, But They Do as if she is a real person. What a feat!
I read a lot of wonderful, thought-provoking nonfiction for my podcast, Mom Rage, including On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. I didn’t realize one could tackle the subject of vaccinations from so many vantage points; it makes sense that Biss’s father is a doctor and her mother a poet, for this book’s mix of science and poetry, of the known and ineffable, is a marvel.
On Immunity is kindred spirits with another book I read for the podcast: Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life by Darcey Steinke, which also looks at a single subject through many lenses. I recommend everyone read Flash Count Diary, whether you menstruate(d) or not, because there isn’t enough knowledge about (or even acknowledgment of) this big life experience that happens to so many human beings. Steinke’s book is a tapestry of history, science, poetry, scholarly work, and firsthand account. It’s beautiful and raw and brilliant. She writes:
Becoming animal. This does not mean I go feral or become base. It is not complicated. If you pay attention, you can feel animal many times a day: when you fuck, shit, breastfeed your baby, run, swim, eat, or have a hot flash. But I find it hard to sit in the void with my animal self. I want to check my phone every few minutes, to make sure I have enough soy milk for my morning coffee, to see how many people liked the picture I posted on Facebook of my cat.
This spoke to me, in 2019, as I tried not to look at
my phone—and often failed. As I pushed a baby through and out of my body and fed
him from that same body. As I sat in the void, sometimes with great discomfort.
And now I’ve got to run upstairs and feed my child. As I do so, I’ll read The Handyman by Carolyn See. Or I’ll close it to look at Mickey. More than books this year, I have read my new child. I have memorized those big blue eyes of his, his funny nostrils, that roll of fat at the back of his neck, his tiny flat thumbnails. Leaving the internet, and having another baby, and reading so much, has made me feel more private and more vulnerable. I feel softer. I feel irrelevant. I feel mysterious. I feel grateful.
This year for me seemed sure to be defined by the publication, in May, of my first book, which disrupted absolutely everything around it, like a bowling ball dropped onto a spring mattress in one of those 1990s commercials. In this metaphor, the mattress is my life. The bowling ball is a bowling ball. It crashed down. I quit my day job; I lost my mind; I obsessed for months over how to most effectively present as an author; I changed writing and eating and travel habits; I met a thousand people I’d never met before. Reading, too, was altered.
Going on tour gave me hours in transit to spend with books. On airplanes, I read Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, which was laser-focused, jaw-dropping, exquisite, and Normal People by Sally Rooney, which was so sexy and engaging I wanted to scream. (Reading Conversations with Friends at home afterward, I felt the exact same way.) On trains, I read The Affairs of the Falcóns, Melissa Rivero’s claustrophobic, pitch-perfect debut novel, and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe’s deep dive into the IRA. I read The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden in a hotel room and then had strange, vivid dreams about magicians all night. I finished Women Talking by Miriam Toews on the subway and wept so hard that my face lotion ran into my eyes and made them burn.
I read books to review and books to blurb. I read books I’d avoided while writing my debut (Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which turned out wider, wilder, and more experimental than I’d dreamed) and books I hope might inform future work (The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon). I even read a book about books: Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum, which was the invaluable publishing guide I wish I’d had in 2018 or in 2017, or had been issued to me in the hospital when I was born.
In the midst of real-life challenges—political horrors, personal reckonings—books gave solace. They contained and named our daily pains; they showed how hard it can be to be alive, and how beautiful, too, how precious, how strange. Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, shared the most tender and aching truths about family. Sarah DeLappe’s play, The Wolves, captured the raw, vicious experience of girlhood and of growing up. Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, with its vomiting, shitting, and completely captivating narrator, exposed the brutality of the body. Ling Ma’s novel, Severance, shed new light on late capitalism. Two romance series I gobbled up this year, Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals and Melonie Johnson’s Sometimes in Love, advanced visions of a better, fairer, and sexier world, where everyone might find their happily ever after.
Finally, I read Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet, because I got pregnant in 2019. The year then redefined itself, making a fetus, a heartbeat, and folic acid supplements the most disruptive things in my life by far. A first baby—nothing to stress or obsess about there, right? No bowling-ball-like upheaval? And I can anticipate that 2020, with an infant, will offer plenty of time for more reading? How wonderful.
At the risk of being obnoxious, I checked some majors off the list this year: job, Ph.D., book—in that order. What all that mostly indicates is a joyful change in reading habit and frequency, from the skittish chapter-hopping of the scholar put to market to the languid page-turning of a person who puts pleasure first. And so I must begin with the romances: first, the friends and lovers (and friends turned lovers, naturally) of Jasmine Guillory as entwined in The Wedding Date, The Proposal, and The Wedding Party. I read Casey McQuiston’s delicious Red, White & Royal Blue and wouldn’t stop talking about it. I returned to Lisa Kleypas, whose historical romances I first discovered in my Nana’s basement and devoured in secret in my preteen bedroom, catching up with the gentry’s next generation in Cold-Hearted Rake. I went back to another fave, Donna Fletcher, in reading The Irish Devil and Irish Hope, books that animate all the feminist talking points on the problem of romance novels (in which “No” means “Take me, I’m yours!”).
Most exciting was the gift of getting to read titles while talk still swirled around them, from the justifiably hyped Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado to small, sharp entrances by Eric Thurm (Avidly Reads: Board Games) and Andrea Long Chu (Females). I felt belated to some books that became instant classics in my hands and on my shelf: Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang (I like to joke that I crossed the Atlantic just to get my hands on the quietly gorgeous U.K. edition), How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Severence by Ling Ma, What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell, and Her Body and Other Parties, also by Machado.
Coming from literary studies, I am rather hard on sociology but I read more in that genre this year than I ever have. Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan M. Metzl expertly evades sentimentality; Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom won’t stop, quit, or compromise; and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo let me know what the fuss was about.
I attended an event that introduced me to the tender words of Briallen Hopper, whose essay collection Hard to Love I immediately purchased and sank into. No less tender is Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, whose tiny experiments with memoir I much appreciated.
Setting the mood for now and forever are two masterpieces by black women I read for the first time in 2019: Corregidora by Gayl Jones (edited by thee Toni Morrison) and Rebel Yell by Alice Randall. Because the page, the text, language, and all the movement, all that shit, fucking matters.
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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.
The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
The William H. Gass Reader
Educated: A Memoir
The New Me
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
Patience gets undeserved hype because persistence is the real virtue. Persistence is active; it depends on a desire to change one’s status. Persistence relies on volition. Meanwhile anything can be patient if it sits around long enough. I am thinking of this today, nine months after The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual first appeared in our Top Ten posts… among the “near misses.” Since then, Ward Farnsworth’s book, which Ed Simon called an “idiosyncratic, strange, yet convincing and useful volume,” has made seven more appearances… among the “near misses.” It was only this month, roughly 250 days since we first caught its glimpse, that the book has made it to the actual Top Ten list… in tenth position. Persistence, friends. It’s patience plus positivity.
Two true newcomers joined our Top Ten this month as well: Halle Butler’s The New Me, which came out in March, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which followed in April. In our Great Book Preview, Anne K. Yoder called Butler’s second novel “a skewering of the 21st-century American dream of self-betterment.” Then, in a review for our site, Freya Sanders called Rooney’s latest “an unconventional bildungsroman that explores not the power of self-determination but the idea of the self as something generated between people.”
These three books found space on this month’s list because our Hall of Fame scooped up three more: Ling Ma’s Severance, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. For Ma and Atkinson, this is their first trip to our Hall, but Moshfegh has been there once before in 2017—her ticket stamped on the strength of Homesick for Another World.
Next month we inch closer to our Great Second-Half Book Preview, so buckle up.