Over at Ploughshares, Daniel Peña traces a parallel between Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Gloria Anzaldúa’s hybrid text Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. As he puts it, “To separate Anzaldúa from the larger canon (and subsequently from those books she influenced) is to ignore her contribution to American literature. It’s to say she doesn’t belong in that kind of highbrow conversation, which she so obviously does—even Nelson acknowledges that she does.”
The National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced last night, and the winners might be familiar to Millions readers: last year, our own Matt Seidel reviewed fiction prize winner The Sellout, and the Football Book Club read Maggie Nelson's winner in the criticism field, The Argonauts. Head on over to The Guardian for more details.
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 December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Between the World and Me 6 months 2. 2. A Little Life 6 months 3. 6. Fates and Furies 4 months 4. 3. Purity 5 months 5. 4. Slade House 3 months 6. 5. Go Set a Watchman 6 months 7. - Fortune Smiles 1 month 8. 10. The Big Green Tent 2 months 9. 9. The Heart Goes Last 4 months 10. 8. City on Fire 3 months After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winner, Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions's December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’” and it was said to “echo” the author's “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.” Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn't too much to report. Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and Me, A Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They'll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one's already in our Hall...) Will it be Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?** Stay tuned to find out. * Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week? ** Probably. Everything does. This month's near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner House, Undermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.
Year in Reading reminds me of that cinematic device where the camera slowly backs away from the characters we’ve been following until it’s looking at them from outside their window, and then back farther still until you see into their neighbors’ windows as well, and farther still to show a whole building of occupied windows, and then a whole city, until you are looking at hundreds of little scenes in hundreds of little windows. And you think, if I contain multitudes, and there are multitudes of people, then there are multitudes upon multitudes, and your brain starts to spin. What I’m trying to say is that over the last few weeks, 78 writers have written about close to 500 books, and following the posts as they roll out is as intimidating and overwhelming one day as it is invigorating the next. Of those books, nearly half were fiction, the most popular genre by far, followed by biography and memoir, making up roughly 15% of the recommendations. Another 15% was taken up by traditional non-fiction — books I categorized as either “history,” “essays,” or “events.” And our contributors recommended 55 books of poetry during the series, a healthy list for anyone who is definitely, no take-backs, going to read more poetry in 2016. Surprising no one, Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’s Between the World and Me and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet were the twin titans of this year’s series, each being cited by 12 of our contributors. Close behind, A Little Life and The Argonauts were each mentioned eight times. What is surprising, and a little delightful, is that two contributors read Colette’s Claudine at School this year, and two more read Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. I’ve added Eileen Myles to my reading list for next year based on that, and because Chelsea Girls wasn’t even her only book to be recommended this year. I’ve also added Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings based on Sandra Cisneros’s recommendation, and the line she quoted, and its awesome title. I also added Vivian Gornick, especially The Odd Woman and the City, because Hannah says it’s “about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve ‘come into your own.’” It’s been a privilege for Lydia and I to edit the series this year. We hope you’ve found a few things you’d like to read, a few writers who share your tastes, and a few who don’t. Year in Reading is like drinking from a firehose of literary wonders. It always helps me start off my new year itching to get into the books I’ll write about at the end of it. See you then. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
At the end of last year, my brain had been steeping in mid-century Southern literature as research for South Toward Home for so long that I resolved in 2015 to read mostly books that had come out in the past five years. That mostly worked out: this year had some real dazzlers in the bunch, the kind of books that I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was like that, as was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which I read greedily one summer afternoon before immediately launching into her equally excellent Bluets. In mid-summer I was derailed from my resolution by the juicy, dreamy Meanwhile There Are Letters, a collection of the correspondence between Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald, which sent me back into Flannery O’Connor’s sharp, insightful correspondence collection The Habit of Being, the kind of book that I’m always tempted to buy extra copies of so that I can pass them out to friends. This year I first read Percival Everett, thanks to his new collection, Half an Inch of Water, and went on a collect-them-all mission until I had a good five of his books teetering on my nightstand. But one of the books that’s most stuck in my brain this year is Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins’s stunner of a debut novel. I read it in the unseasonal heat of early September, when her vision of a parched, overheated, waterless country seemed particularly close at hand, but I’ve found myself reaching for it in the cooler months too, to reread passages of Watkins’s semi-apocalyptic psycho-geography of the West. It’s a fascinating piece of work, bleak and weird and unafraid to question the assumptions of American mythology, and even be a little bored by the idea of a dystopian future. Plus, there’s a huge ever-moving sand dune. It’s pretty great. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
My professional reading life is fairly regimented -- I have to be attentive to new, newsworthy books to assign for review or to write about myself -- and my personal reading habits have become suitably random in response, subject to mood as much circumstance, which, this year, meant the purchase of a new coat. Said coat, a voluminous and awful garment -- moss green, somehow both pilly and prickly -- has, to its credit, pockets like wells. Which meant that I, who do most of my reading on the Q train to and from work, fell in with a group of regular traveling companions. Four books (or rather, 3 and 3/4), whose slenderness was, at first, their chief qualification, took up permanent residence upon my person: a new Picador edition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that's about the size of a pack of cards; my friend Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2012 collection of poems Our Andromeda, a book I worship; my husband’s high school copy of Macbeth minus an act or two; and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. I read and reread many books in 2015 (my favorite books of the year can be found here and here), but these are the books I kept in orbit, the books I wore out. Desperate Characters, in particular, I couldn’t stop rereading. It’s the type of novel it’s become so fashionable to deride -- one of the “quiet” books about middle-aged women staring out of windows, enjoying quiet epiphanies -- when it’s really a wallop of a book, a barbed portrait of a marriage, not to mention a brilliant take on gentrification, white fears of black and brown people, the hostile insularity of the nuclear family, and how power reproduces and how power conceals itself. And from time to time, sure, the heroine stares out of a window. (It occurs to me now that these books are more connected than not -- they’re all about paralysis and ambition, about moving through trauma, trying to move past it. Reading choices can seem so random, but aren’t we always just digging deeper and deeper grooves into old obsessions?) But it was also a year of discoveries -- the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was one, the poet Anne Boyer another -- and rediscoveries. I taught a class in criticism, which allowed me to go back and reread a few favorites -- The Sight of Looking at Death by T.J. Clark, Zona by Geoff Dyer, Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, My Poets by Maureen N. McLane, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman. Most of all I was grateful for the number of writers finding fresh and intelligent ways to think about family life -- I’m thinking of recent books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, On Immunity by Eula Biss, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, 10:04 by Ben Lerner -- but also older books, beloved books I returned to as I wrote about these issues in an essay for Bookforum, including Zami by Audre Lorde, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. These books position the family not in conflict with creativity but an extension of it, not a way of retreating from our obligations to our communities but a reaffirmation of them. It's a lovely thought -- that what tethers us, burdens us can somehow also set us free -- especially to one in a coat bogged down with books, standing on a subway platform too early in the day. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
While most of my life I’ve been interested in long narratives that I could really live inside, something about the overall vibes of 2015 got me into a mood to dip in and out of multiple stories, and/or to get in and out quick. After years of side-eyeing books of short stories without ever really diving in, I finally spent some real time with them. I fell in love with Amelia Gray's Gutshot; I started many Sunday mornings trying to work my brain out of a hangover, opening to a random page and reading a very short story very slowly. At AWP, I stopped at the booth for the Austin-based indie press A Strange Object and picked up Nicholas Grider's Misadventure after hearing Grider had written a piece that was a catalogue of ex-lovers. “Formers (An Index)” is my favorite story in the book. My brain was also primed for poetry this year and I finally picked up Dorothea Lasky's Thunderbird, which contains my favorite contemporary poem “Why It Is a Black Life” (the text of which I framed and hung in my closet). I discovered the poem right next to it in Thunderbird, “The World Doesn’t Care,” excites me just as much. I read the two poems out loud to myself dozens of times this year; they always steadied me. At a few points during 2015, strong voices pulled me in for longer periods of time. Jeremy Bushnell's The Weirdness was the best straight-up novel I read all year and I loved Leon Neyfakh's The Next Next Level, an examination of what looking at another person can make us learn about ourselves. Most of the rest of the books I read this year contributed to my ongoing project of trying to figure out how to live as a difficult woman by reading about difficult women. I’m no closer to answers but I read well: Kate Zambreno’s chapbook Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, and Toilet Bowl: Some Notes On Why I Write, Amelia Morris’s memoir Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Chelsea Hodson’s Pity the Animal, reality TV star Courtney Robertson’s I Didn’t Come Here To Make Friends: Confessions of a Reality TV Villain, Lili Anolik’s dark teen girl mystery Dark Rooms, Eve Babitz’s Eve’s Hollywood, and Carrie Brownstein’s new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I had the good fortune to have a lot of excellent books come across my desk. Some standouts from this year have been celebrated by many: Jami Attenberg's Saint Mazie, Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, Joshua Mohr's All This Life, Alex Mar's Witches of America...The list goes on and on. At some point in the year I began seeing a theme arise in the books I was chasing down. Heidi Julavits's The Folded Clock, David Shields's That Thing You Do with Your Mouth and Donald Antrim's The Afterlife all tackled mothers or motherhood in an interesting way. Each function as a memoir, some testing the boundaries of the form, all while looking at the peculiarities and constraints of being a mother. (Or perhaps, that's what stood out to me.) Although all three books are vastly different, each made me consider what we inherit from our mothers, through psychology and physiology. There's a refreshing grimness to David Shields's riveting conversation with his cousin Samantha Matthews in That Thing You Do With Your Mouth. The narrative asks the question whether or not we can get over early traumas, but the book evolves into a mediation on performative femininity and debasement, with Matthews's candid account of a life where “My body was everyone else's but mine.” Matthews, a voice-over actress who also dubs porn in Spain, offers a frank account of the struggles she's inherited from her mother, with incisive observations about her mother (and herself), “She's just lost and trying to pretend she's not. I'm lost and trying to admit I am.” Shields's slim book takes a fascinating look at Matthews's own mother who harbors a sort of dual personality in Carol, “a repressed post-1950s mother,” and Kitty, a woman with a deep need to be desired by men. I thought a lot about this sort of inheritance and the inheritance of traumas from our mothers while I read Shields's book. It came at a time when scientists discovered trauma can literally be passed along to our children through our DNA. Antrim's much lauded memoir, The Afterlife, explores his relationship with his creative, though troubled, alcoholic mother through her death. I had to read it in bits because the writing is so visceral and painful that I often felt overwhelmed by the intimacy of his grief. I read it while going through my own grief, or anticipated grief, as it were, and it felt necessary and comforting. In one section, Antrim writes about purchasing an expensive mattress after his mother's death. One that felt like an albatross in his house in the absence of her. Antrim has the incredible ability to infuse even the most oppressive grief with a sense of humor. The frenzy in which Antrim navigates the purchase and return of this mattress was both crushing and hilarious. He had imbued it with his grief and he would have no rest until it was returned. “The bed was alive. It was alive with my mother,” he writes. In this book, it feels like Antrim is searching for himself, by way of looking at the evolution of his mother, and coming to understand her. The relationship he had with his mother, rueful and anxiety-inducing, felt so familiar to me. In Heidi Julavits's The Folded Clock, Julavits navigates being an artist and a mother, and a woman and an artist, and a human being in this world who is filled with a familiar sense of longing. She ascribes importance to inanimate objects that hold mysterious power for her and I can so relate. “When things are going badly, I scan my life for the cause. Often that cause can be sourced to an object,” she writes. I laughed out loud because I understood this on such a profound level. Recently, my husband and I purchased a sofa from a couple divorcing. It was a great deal. After three days of having the sofa in the house, I felt agitated and angry. My husband kept calling it the divorce couch. I laughed at first but then it made me feel sad. The sofa had been purchased by the divorcing couple just six months before and was barely used. I began to feel as though the sofa was bringing us bad luck. It had been privy to other people's unraveling. We argued over stupid things, inconsequential things. It was the sofa's fault, I decided. I called my husband from work and demanded he sage it. Amused, he did. It worked. Besides the moments of superstition that made me relate to Julavits's diary, I found her struggles and questions about how to be a woman, an artist, a wife, and a mother -- as well as her fight for her own autonomy -- deeply absorbing. Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts looked at similar themes and is another book I highly recommend. I found myself underlining on nearly every page of both books. Perhaps the books I chose are not so much about mothers as they are a search for self through investigations of where we come from and what we inherit from those who came before us. All in all, a great year for books. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I’m a promiscuous reader, always reading multiple books at a time, switching back and forth. I’m not a poet, but every year, I find myself reading more and more poetry collections. My biggest poetry crushes this year? Ross Gay's Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and (though they weren’t published this year) Stacey Waite's Butch Geography, and Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, which (I guess) qualifies as poetry, but I would call it fiction. My poet friends and I keep having the same argument about whether Maggie Nelson's work is poetry or nonfiction. They keep trying to claim her, of course, but we all know the truth. After reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, an examination of love and suffering and her personal obsession with the color blue, I immediately went out and got The Argonauts, which is a hybrid of sorts, although I’d call it lyric essay. It’s a love story, but it’s also an exploration of motherhood and gender and family and queerness and sexuality, and so many other things. Bonus: the sections discussing women’s anal eroticism, in which Nelson writes, “I am not interested in a hermeneutics, or an erotics, or a metaphorics, of my anus. I am interested in ass-fucking.” Yes! Most of the novels and story collections I enjoyed most this year were fabulist, or had some kind of supernatural element -- apparitions or hallucinations or ghosts or the unexplained -- and required some suspension of disbelief. Kelly Link's stories in Get in Trouble, funny and imaginative, were rife with ghosts, super heroes, vampires, and pocket universes. César Aira's allegorical novel Ghosts, in which a family squatting in an unfinished apartment building in Buenos Aires can see ghosts, is strange and witty and sometimes a little disturbing but surprisingly lighthearted. John Henry Fleming's stories in Songs for the Deaf were inventive in the best way, sometimes satiric, sometimes dreamy and lyrical, sometimes dysfunctional, and often hilarious. This year I also revisited Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle -- one of my all-time favorites -- a gothic novel, about two sisters who still live (with their elderly uncle) in a house where most of their family was murdered. It’s dark and funny and surprising, part murder mystery, part psychological thriller. Bonus: Merricat, the young narrator, is creepy and sadistic as hell. Diane Cook's Man V. Nature was probably my favorite story collection in the last two or three years. I finished it and then texted a bunch of friends to tell them about it and then immediately re-read it because DAMN it was just that good. Cook’s stories are hilarious, even when they’re tragic. Executives are hunted by a monster in an office building, babies are stolen from their mothers, unwanted (or “not needed”) boys are sent off to be incinerated, a giant baby can bench press more than his father. Cook’s stories remind me of Karen Russell, whose stories always knock me out. (By the way, Karen Russell’s novella, Sleep Donation, was one of my favorite reads last year.) My two favorite memoirs this year, Lacy M. Johnson's The Other Side and M.J. Fievre's A Sky the Color of Chaos were both as harrowing as they were beautiful. The Other Side opens with Johnson’s escape from a soundproof room, where she was imprisoned by her former boyfriend -- he’d intended to kill her, but she managed to escape. Johnson’s memoir, rather than just a story of the trauma and violence inflicted on her, is about how one deals with the aftermath and effects of trauma, written mostly in short, lyrical sections, often laced with metaphor. M.J. Fievre’s A Sky the Color of Chaos is a memoir about growing up in Haiti after the fall of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the country’s violent dictator, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president. During this time, the Haitian people were taking violent revenge on the Tonton Macoutes, who were responsible for thousands upon thousands of rapes and murders, and several massacres. As much as it explores Haiti’s difficult history, A Sky the Color of Chaos is a coming of age story, and a story about Fievre’s complicated relationship with her father. I started reading Angela Flournoy's The Turner House while planning a move to Detroit. I was looking for what I thought would be “a Detroit novel.” What I got was so much more than that. A moving family saga full of complex characters and subtle metaphors -- Cha-Cha seeing haints, the rise and fall of the city, the house itself. Everything about this novel feels balanced -- the writing is controlled and elegant; Flournoy chooses two of the 13 siblings to focus on, the eldest and the youngest; the family experiences hard times but also, much like in real life, joy. The Turner House is timeless. And speaking of timeless: I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Amina Gautier's The Loss of All Lost Things, her third story collection, which comes out next year. The stories in this collection, which is her best, are about all types of loss -- parents who lose their son, a boy who comes to terms with the fact that he is lost, the loss of innocence. Gautier is definitely a prose stylist. Her sentences are lyrical, evocative, often haunting. Like every other person I know, I’m in the middle of Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is brutal and irreverent and unapologetic and badass, which is why everybody in the world is talking about it. I’m also finishing Phillippe Diederich's Sofrito, a novel about a restaurant owner who travels to Cuba, his parents’ homeland, in order to steal a secret recipe he thinks may save his restaurant. Diederich, a former photojournalist, really has an eye for details. Cuba is very vivid in this novel -- you can see it, smell it, taste it. And I just started Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us. Kim is a South Korean investigative journalist who secretly crossed the border into North Korea, going undercover in Pyongyang and posing as a North Korean teacher. Without You, There Is No Us is the book she wrote while immersed in the North Korean culture. What’s next? I’m excited to finally get to Tanwi Nandini Islam's Bright Lines. Tanwi and I will be in conversation at the Betsy Hotel South Beach on December 12, talking about books, queer coming of age stories, and so much more! More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
At the beginning of the year I was finishing a book, and at the end I was starting to think tentatively about another one, and in between I was making a concerted effort to rediscover reading for pleasure, so one way or another this really has been a year in reading. Heavy reading (A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara), light reading (a spree of memoirs about Freddie Mercury), nourishing reading (Derek Jarman's Garden), shallow reading (The Andy Warhol Diaries). I built new shelves, and painted them too, so there was at least a month without book piles, though it didn't take long for buying to exceed capacity. In retrospect, I've been voyaging thematically. Number one: the art of collage. One of the central questions of my new book, The Lonely City, is about brokenness and wholeness: how a self might end up in pieces, and how that sense of sundering might be medicated or treated, particularly by way of art. I was interested in artists like Henry Darger, who concentrated on collage, and in using psychotherapists like Donald Winnicott and Melanie Klein to think about what that kind of work might be doing. No doubt this is part of why I responded so explosively to Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts (Graywolf Press). A work of collage in its own right, it also thinks deeply and with immense nuance and grace about division and completion, about how we make boundaries and categories and what happens when we cross over, or are more than one thing at the same time. An instruction manual for the art of being both, you might say, which brings me to another book of parts. Ali Smith's magnificently curious and mobile How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton) is a novel in two halves that circles in on itself like a mobius strip. You don't often hear Nelson and Smith discussed in the same breath, but it seems to me they're up to something of the same business: finding new forms for thinking about sexuality and selfhood, evading or exploding categories, and reveling in language while they do so. Speaking of which, The Dictionary of Lost Languages is an A to Z of languages that are for one reason or another either extinct or under threat, from Jailic, the pidgin Gaelic IRA political prisoners taught themselves in the Maze, to Umbugarla, lost for good with the death of its last speaker, Butcher Knight. The Dictionary was made by the artist and filmmaker Sarah Wood as a public commission, with copies inserted into each of Cambridge's public libraries (a very small run is for sale here). Considering that the loss of a language is almost always related to the destruction of a people, whether by war, imperialism, genocide, or globalization, it should make for depressing reading. And yet it's imbued with an infectious faith in language's capacity to regenerate and return, and is one of the most heartening and exciting things I've read all year (I'm very proud to have contributed an entry on the artist David Wojnarowicz). Two more suggestions on the art-language axis. The poet Ian Patterson, also a Cambridge professor and translator of Marcel Proust, has just published Time Dust (Equipage), a volume of poems inspired by or written in response to the work of the artist Siân Bowen. A little reminiscent of John Ashbery or J.H. Prynne, and full of double meanings and retractions, this is language folded in upon itself, moody, wonderful, on the threshold of abstraction. If Patterson has a counterpart in the visual, it's the painter Matt Connors, whose luminous A Bell Is a Cup (Rainoff) seems to be turning over similar question by way of color and form, and who likewise inserts ripples of unease into what look at first glance like radiant surfaces. With its fabulous rainbow hues, A Bell also wins the prize for the most beautiful book I bought this year. Another running thread I've been thinking about is long-term creativity. How do you keep making art, book after book, decade after decade? What really constitutes success? If you want to survive, you have to ask these questions, and to find answers that are robust and engaging, because if it's just about critical or market approval you'd go completely crazy. You have to let yourself fail and fuck up, and you have to be able to make bad or messy or otherwise hopeless things on the way to good ones. (I'm writing this in a backyard in New Hampshire accompanied by two dogs and a merlin. Took a break a minute ago to attend to a hive being readied for the winter. I'm all for reading, but sometimes you just need to sit in the sun with a beer and feel the earth swing on its axis). Anyway, what got me thinking about all this, asides from heading towards 40, was a commission to write about the minimalist painter Agnes Martin, who didn't really get going until she was in her 40s, and who finished her last painting weeks before her death at the age of 92. Two terrific books about Martin came out this year: Nancy Princenthal's biography Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson) and a catalogue for the Tate retrospective, edited by Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell, which is full of intensely interesting and thought-provoking essays on closets, grids, withdrawal, persistence, and repetition. My favorite of the bunch is Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances by Martin's friend and gallerist Arne Glimcher (Phaidon). It combines scraps of her own writing with beautiful recollections about her defiant, difficult, and isolated life in New Mexico, and the extraordinary things she made there. Martin is something of a guiding light for me right now and will be central in my next book, for sure. Another category: things that aren't out in the world yet. First up: Amy Liptrot's The Outrun (Canongate), a memoir by a young writer about overcoming alcoholism, in part by returning to the isolated Scottish island where she grew up. It's wild writing: sexy, unguarded, raw, and ardent. Out January, and highly recommended. I've been reading Jeremy Atherton Lin's blog Leaves for years, and now he's putting together a memoir, tentatively titled The Sun and the Air, about growing up in California and being obsessed with The Smiths. He's one of the best writers I've encountered, remaking the world sentence by immaculate sentence, and he's got a particular knack for zooming in on microscope details -- an earring, say -- and using them to sally outward on a dérivé through cultural and emotional landscapes. He's better at this than almost anyone I've come across, and I hope the book finds a home soon, because I want to read it. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets -- this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading. I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in. When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master. If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power. On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head. After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over. I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish. All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould -- who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading -- told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more. As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I don’t know how to think about the passage of time except in cliché -- pieces completed, leases signed, commutes commuted, lessons taught, moments Instagrammed -- but recollecting years in terms of books read, books loved feels more vital than trite. A bookshelf marks time in the same way seasons do, or the way that old blog posts tell us who we were then, those people in photos laughing at jokes no one’s heard in years. This year, I read books mostly on the recommendation of friends; despite that, each title I finished seemed somehow appropriate to what was happening, to me and in the world. While I can’t recall all of their names, I could probably tell you the things I absorbed from their pages. Here are the best ones I remember. There was I Think I’m in Friend-Love with You, by Yumi Sakugawa, which I read twice because it was so beautiful in its illustrations and its evocation of totally consuming friendship; and then later, I read Lit, Mary Karr’s third memoir, which thrilled me with its electrifying description of substance abuse. I loved Michael W. Clune’s heroin memoir, White Out, for its chaotic and careening prose -- “Dope gives me a new, dope body. And the way the world looks from deep inside the dope body! From high atop the white tower. The world. It would break your human heart to see it.” -- and his second memoir, Gamelife, for the same reason. Ben Lerner’s 10:04 was brilliant in its plotting and conceit, and I enjoyed it so much I lent it to a friend impulsively over glasses of champagne. I left my copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts with a person I love, because that’s what you’re supposed to do with books that completely understand the subject. I read Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, in its entirety, drunk on different trains. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, on the other hand, I read entirely on my phone in a bed that was temporarily mine. I was in motion when I read Eileen Myles’s Inferno, which I consumed between leases and between the subway stops that cover the distance from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I read a galley of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s stunning (and now National Book Award-winning) Between the World and Me in a frantic afternoon, and finished it, in tears, by sunset. I didn’t Instagram that view, but I did post a picture of the book. It got 21 likes, and I was a different person then. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year. After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we've seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read--how the reading shaped the year. There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry. - Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen. Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life. Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House. Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You. Nell Zink, author of Mislaid. Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus. Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate. Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector. Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books. Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise. The Book Report, everyone's favorite literary show. Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic. Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven. Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions. Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions. Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions. Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen. Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning. Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale. Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician. Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood. Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything. Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart. Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker. J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence. Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls. Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies. Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh. Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City. Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays. Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty. Justin Taylor, author of Flings. Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami . Dave Cullen, author of Columbine. Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions. Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions. Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions. Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear. Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You. Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California. Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer. Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper. Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts. Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race. Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God. Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind. Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World. Sady Doyle, a writer in New York. Patricia Engel, author of Vida. Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark. Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders. Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City. Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network. Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review. Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home. Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age. Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?. Brian Etling, intern for The Millions. Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions. Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions. Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning. Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War. Kerry Howley, author of Thrown. Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow. Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts. Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People. Kate Harding, author of Asking for It. Year in Reading Outro. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
It's bye week over at Football Book Club. And while there's no new book to read this week -- everybody's resting up, licking their wounds, and sticking pins in Jay Cutler voodoo dolls -- you, gentle reader, should be sure to check in for new posts on Louisa Hall's Speak -- and Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts.
This week, Football Book Club is taking it to the next level: They're reading Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts and posting about Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half. If you're keeping score at home, that means this week is All Brosh, All the Time. Also, as per usual, they will not be watching the NFL and not liking it one bit.
Graywolf Press – the publisher behind Citizen, The Empathy Exams, The Argonauts, and On Immunity: An Inoculation – has built a reputation as “a scrappy little press that harnessed and to some extent generated a revolution in nonfiction, turning the previously unprepossessing genre of the ‘lyric essay’ into a major cultural force.” Over at Vulture, Boris Kachka writes about the history of one of the nation’s leading independent literary publishers.
From where I’m sitting I can see the galleys of Maggie Nelson’s incredible The Argonauts, which will come out this spring from Graywolf, and Aaron Kunin’s brilliant, Cold Genius, just out from Fence. Chris Nealon’s Heteronomy, published by Edge, has been supporting me all fall. Nealon taps into the energies of popular culture without condescension or self-congratulation or (easy) irony; his poems are at once totally well-wrought and unaffectedly conversational; he is clear-eyed about the catastrophe of the present but refuses to descend into mere melancholy; he has no illusions about poetry’s practical power but he is not in love with -- or particularly tortured by -- its marginality; Nealon -- an accomplished literary critic -- neither disavows his learning or retreats into it. Please read this book with me because everybody who reads it gets to enter a meadow where we can dance and die together: “I think whenever you felt it, in austere modernity above a skyline, or in the back of some pub on the pilgrim’s way – I think wherever you are when you feel this, you’re in a kind of meadow – And – I don’t know how to explain – I think no matter how we all go down together, by whichever combination of terminal failures – Whether the landscape after is a ravaged wasteland or a wide plain, hushed – I think however we die out, we’ll have died in that meadow” More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In her poetry collection The Pedestrians, Rachel Zucker writes of a woman who is reading a novel about another woman: “The voice gets into her head” and “her thoughts have become inflected and unfamiliar.” That’s the extraordinary intimacy of reading, the penetration of one consciousness by another. “This is now the only way she leaves her city,” writes Zucker. The opportunity to think with another mind is also my preferred mode of travel. I like where I go, for instance, when I read David Trinidad’s Peyton Place, which is composed of one haiku for every episode of the soap opera. When my thinking is inflected by his wit, television is transformed into poetry and bad hair and tight slacks become the stuff of art. And I like where I go when I read Maggie Nelson’s forthcoming essay The Argonauts – I like it so much that I keep reading it again and again so that I can keep going there. Nelson offers a philosophical stance, an ethical posture, an attitude toward life that is joyous to inhabit. When I leave her meditations on family-making and queerness, I feel buoyed in my own efforts toward family-making and radical difference. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.