Generally, I don’t care about the new year. The clock ticking from December 31st to January 1st doesn’t mean much, other than time moving as it always does, bringing all that’s come before to all that comes ahead. But 2020 might be different. It’s been a truly terrible year, one I’m ready to let go. Reading, therefore, has not only been a comfort, but a necessary escape, particularly in months of isolation, when bad news of the world (Trump, pandemic, Trump, pandemic, Trump) only seems to get worse.
Thank goodness, then, for Nothing To See Here. The story of a young woman charged with caring for two neglected kids who occasionally self-combust (unharmed, don’t worry), Kevin Wilson’s novel is hilarious and smart, totally moving and completely out of this world. Ten pages in, I remember thinking, I can’t believe how much I already care about these characters. I read this book just as the pandemic hit, and was grateful for it.
My partner and I were on sabbatical last spring, with airline tickets to Spain and Istanbul. The pandemic re-routed us to rural Indiana, and while the place had its charms (the best strawberry rhubarb pie ever, and a damn fine socially distanced daiquiri), I longed for international travel. So I revisited one of my favorite books about travelers, a collection of stories called Here Among Strangers, by the wonderful story writer Serena Crawford. This collection follows travelers jetting out into the world only to stumble when they get there; the inbound flight is always tougher than the outbound. “Can you ever fully return from where you’ve once been?” a character asks. These days, I keep asking myself the same thing.
With plans to travel most of the year, I packed very few books, including two short story anthologies. One was The Best American Short Stories 2019, which has a knockout story by Jenn Alandy Trahan called “They Told Us Not To Say This.” Written in the first person plural, the story is about young Filipino-American girls growing up in Vallejo, California, trying to live as large a life as they can, in a community that doesn’t always value them. The other was PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019, which includes “Today, You’re A Young Black Revolutionary” by Jade Jones, a story about a young African-American woman who climbs a pole to remove a Confederate flag. “How did a bundle of synthetic thread ever make you feel so powerless?” Jones writes. “At the top of the pole, you are now the banner, the pride of the state.” These stories are both timely and timeless, and Jenn Alandy Trahan and Jade Jones are names you’ll want to remember.
2020 was also the year I finally published my novel, The Son of Good Fortune. COVID-19, of course, shat on plans for a launch party, book travel, and in-person events, and what was a depressing and sometimes lonely time was made easier thanks to Lockdown Literature, a group of authors publishing during the pandemic, who banded together to support and promote one another’s books. Thanks to the group, I met great people and read wonderful books last year, and I hope you’ll check some of them out here. While there are too many to name, some of my favorites were Members Only by Sameer Pandya, The Likely World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman, and The Gringa by Andrew Altschul. The Lockdown Lit authors worked their tails off to finish their incredible books, and they all deserve a robust readership.
Another writer (un)lucky enough to publish during the pandemic is poet Bruce Snider. Admittedly, he’s also my partner, but seeing his third book of poetry, Fruit, enter the world was one of the year’s bright spots. The book deals with questions of familial history and legacy, particularly in an experience largely dictated by the choice to not have children. In a moment when so many of us are thinking of our families and wondering what’s next for them, this book comes at the perfect time.
My year of reading concludes with a glimpse into the future: I had the good luck to read an advanced copy of Jack Livings’s The Blizzard Party, which will be published by FSG in February of 2021. Livings’ first book was the story collection The Dog (one of The New York Times’ top 10 books of 2014 and winner of the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Prize), and his novel fulfills the promise of his stellar debut. On its surface, The Blizzard Party is the story of a party thrown the night of the Great Blizzard of 1978, but the novel swirls out from there, zooming into the lives of dozens of characters whose stories intersect and coincide within a narrative structure and timeline that are dizzyingly complex yet seamlessly rendered. “We do live in the past and future simultaneously,” one character wonders, “don’t we?” The people of this novel are complicated, sympathetic, infuriating, and unforgettable, and if The Blizzard Party is a sign of the books to come, then I might be willing to count down the last ten seconds of 2020 and welcome, with gratitude, uncertainty, and hope, the first moment of 2021.
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