Every year is a great year for reading; 2019 was no exception.
One of my favorites this year was Helen Phillips’s The Need—part parenting book, part horror, part thriller, part literary fiction—actually none of these descriptors do it justice; narratively inventive in a Jenny Offill Dept. of Speculation way, it requires close reading, with a big and tender and surprising payoff at the end.
Jean Kwok’s literary thriller, Searching for Sylvie Lee, put the literary back into literary thriller; a fast-paced but surprisingly emotional novel that takes place across countries and generations.
Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay is another literary thriller that takes on the violence of the L.A. Riots and examines the simmering communal dynamics that led to the clash between the African-American community and Korean storekeepers.
Grace Talusan’s memoir, The Body Papers, was a marvel, combined with a new look at the essay collection, combined with astonishing writing about very tricky subjects.
Lauren Mechling’s How Could She, about three 30-something Toronto-ites tripping into the belly of the Conde Nast-esque beast, the shifting alliances amongst the newly ambitious, learning too separate the gilt from the actual and true, the romance and heartbreak that is dating and basically everything in NYC—this witty, super-smart dissection of female friendships cements Mechling as today’s Edith Wharton.
My most recent reading in the last months of 2019 was related to the unexpectedly great news that my first novel, a young adult novel called Finding My Voice, is being reissued. It’s a coming of age story about an Asian American teen growing up in the Midwest. Apparently books about racism and immigration are seriously back in demand, and this also prompted me to take a dip back in the current pool to see what’s new and look at a few more recent classics.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was a perfect novel, YA and otherwise. An African-American teen getting a ride home from a party with her crush, then a traffic stop ending with her friend being shot in front of her begins this story that is complex, fresh, and explores fraught subjects with real heart, humor, and really sharp dialogue.
I really related to Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, as her protagonist is an artsy child of immigrant parents who have sky-high expectations for her—expectations that may be at odds with her own dreams.
Foundational Asian-American author R. Zamora Linmark is back with The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart, a tender, funny gay coming-of-age drama that includes being ghosted by real ghosts.
Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi—this novel practically fizzes: super-fast plot, super-snappy and right-on dialogue. It’s contemporary but in a way that doesn’t feel like it’ll be dated in a few years: There’s a careful deployment of technology that’s necessary for the fame component of the plot, but it’s done in a way that will keep it flexible enough for the coming years rather than cementing it into place. Pablo Neruda Rind is an infuriating, hilarious intensely real character, a 20-year-old mixed-race guy trying to find his place in a shiny, distracting world.
Pet: I just started this, but what a perfect coda to 2019 reading. Novelist Akwaeke Emezi’s novel in its opening scenes reveals something futuristic, but also a parable with lots of Octavia Butler grace notes. Jam is a teen who mostly signs, selectively speaks, and lives in a world that has gotten rid of monsters and replaced them with angels—and libraries still exist! I’m only in the first half, but Emezi’s big ideas and elegant prose have me hooked:
No revolution is perfect. In the meantime, the angels banned firearms, not just because of the school shootings, but also because of the kids who shot themselves and their families at home; the villains who thought they could shoot people who didn’t look like them, just because they got mad or scared of whatever, and nothing would happen to them because the old law liked them better than the dead. The angels took the laws and changed them…
In 2019, I published my first book, The Body Papers, and while visiting bookstores, book fairs, festivals, and colleges, I met other authors on the road accompanying their newly published books to panels and readings and salons. I bought their books and they bought mine. A book or three, even hardcovers, fit easily into my bag and I would drop them off at home in between trips. Because it was such a special treat to have so many Filipinx books available, I filled a suitcase of books from the Filipino American International Book Festival with authors such as Jose Antonio Vargas, Walter Ang, Randy Ribay, Cecilia Brainard, Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino, Sarge Lacuesta, Eugene Gloria, EJR David, Alfred A. Yuson, Criselda Yabes, and dozens more. By then, I didn’t have any more space in my bookshelves so I stacked my souvenirs in the dining room.
I usually pass
books onto students and friends after I’ve read them, but I had not read these
yet. And the ones I did pull out of the pile to read, I loved so much that I
wanted to keep them. It wasn’t until I saw my husband almost trip multiple
times as he tried to make his way through the obstacle course that I knew that
I had a problem.
I burned through some graphic memoirs in one sitting, such as Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream, AJ Dungo’s In Waves, and Good Talk by Mira Jacob, all of which I loved and have given away multiple copies as gifts. While on the road, standing in lines and waiting in boarding areas, my companions were the essayists in anthologies such as Burn It Down, edited by Lilly Dancyger, and What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, edited by Michele Filgate. As for the rest of the books, I stack them and they fall down and I stack them again.
I am in two
writing groups and I will highlight the books from those members published this
One of my groups is an online accountability group. For several years, we’ve emailed weekly reports of where we’ve submitted our writing. We wanted to counteract the imbalance of women’s writing in the pages of literary magazines and book review pages by encouraging each other to submit more often. This year, two of the women in that group published books, which made my very happy and proud. Novelist Beth Castrodale’s In This Ground follows Ben, a cemetery worker, as he turns 50 and his once stable, quiet life is threatened. Once an indie-rocker who almost made it, Ben has spent the past few decades putting his musical dreams behind him while also at his job at the cemetery, constantly reminded of the death of his band’s former lead singer. If you’re going to check out her work, I also recommend Marion Hatley, about a young woman in 1931, who, while running from her past, invents the an alternative to the corset, which is a relief for all women who suffer privately from the hidden constriction of their torsos. Beth is a compassionate writer whose novels are immersive, totally engrossing reading experiences. I was also overjoyed when Gilmore Tamny’s HAIKU4U was published. I’ve been listening to Gilmore perform these poems for years and to have these nuggets of the absurdity, mundane, and transcendent bound in a book was such a joy. Daniel Clowes, author of Ghost World, writes, “In these apocalyptic end-times, I recommend reading twenty of Ms. Tamny’s haikus every day to remind yourself that humankind is still, in certain rare instances, redeemable.”
My other writing group, The Chunky Monkeys, more of a traditional feedback group, also had a big year. Six of us published books. First, Whitney Scharer published her first novel, The Age of Light, which is now out in paperback. The launch for her first novel was so crowded with fans and supporters that they snaked through the aisles of the bookstore and listened to her reading over the sound system. The novel is beautiful in so many ways and the writing sparks joy for me. But the book will also be a souvenir of a wonderful evening and a reminder of how important it is to trust our creative instincts. That night, Whitney talked about how the idea for the book, the life of artist Lee Miller, came to her as she walked through an art museum, pushing her daughter’s stroller. She could have ignored the idea or forgotten it, but instead she followed her curiosity and conviction and now Whitney was standing in front of us, her daughter in the front row, reading from a work of art that came out of that chance moment with another work of art.
I spent the first months of 2019 very ill with pneumonia and Christopher Castellani’s Leading Men was the first book I was able to read. I was so grateful to leave my sick bed for Portofino in 1953 and hang out in the fabulous world of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and his lover Frank Merlo. The novel is meticulously researched and yet I didn’t see the research. Rather, I felt the aliveness of the characters and their complicated, loving relationships with each other. I’ve loved Castellani’s fiction since his first novel, A Kiss from Maddalena, his several novels in between, and was overjoyed to have another book to read. While recuperating, I also read his book from Graywolf’s “Art of” series, The Art of Perspective. I’ve been lucky to hear Chris lecture on perspective and was glad to be able to return to his ideas more closely in this book.
Later that spring, on the day Chip Cheek’s Cape May was published, I rushed to a bookstore and when I found his novel on the shelf, I jumped and clapped with joy. I was so happy to hold it in my hands, this beautiful, heartbreaking story that forced me to stay up later than I should have that night. I could not stop reading it. Somehow, I simultaneously rooted for the honeymooning couple to have a long and loving marriage while also wanting them both to misbehave and betray each other immediately. In May 2019, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere came out in paperback. I had already read and loved this novel in hardcover, but the paperback served a different purpose. I was often alone and even lonely on book tour, so whenever I spotted Celeste’s novel, which was prominently displayed in almost every airport bookstore I walked past, it was like glimpsing the face of a dear friend, cheering me on.
At the close of 2019, the sixth book published from our group is Calvin Hennick’s Once More to the Rodeo: A Memoir. A few years ago, Calvin sent to me what became this book in daily accountability emails. He told me not to read his emails, but I could not help myself. I was riveted by his candor, humor, and the beautiful, complicated, loving relationship unfolding between a father and son on a road trip. I was certain this would become a book even if the author sometimes doubted it would reach an audience larger than us. Already, the pre-publication response has been overwhelmingly positive and the memoir has appeared on “best” lists.
2019 was a great year of reading and I have so many in 2020 that I look forward to. From my writing group, Jennifer De Leon’s Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From in May. Meredith Talusan’s Fairest, Matthew Salesses’s Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, and so many more. But first, before one of us sprains an ankle, I need to hit the books.
Earlier this year I started writing an essay that includes references to Maman, the towering spider sculptures by Louise Bourgeois that I’d seen in Tokyo and Ottawa and that were at the time being exhibited at SFMoMA. I discovered that my Writers Grotto colleague Bridget Quinn had a chapter on Bourgeois in her book Broad Strokes so I pulled it out of my TBR. In her introduction, Quinn describes falling in love with art history as an undergraduate at U.C. Santa Barbara while having a nagging feeling that something was missing: Where were the women artists? In the massive textbook by H.W. Janson that we all used in college, the first female artist (Artemisia Gentileschi) didn’t appear until page 500, and only 16 made the cut in 800+ pages.
Broad Strokes is an engaging and necessary step toward correcting this imbalance, with 15 essays on artists ranging from famous to obscure, and from the 17th century to today. While not a focus of her book, Quinn also addresses the erasure of nonwhite artists by including chapters on Ana Mendieta, Ruth Asawa and Kara Walker. Quinn seamlessly weaves together biography, art history, memoir, and incredible storytelling, such as in the chapter on Edmonia Lewis and the rediscovery of her long-lost sculpture The Death of Cleopatra. Her writing is intimate and unstuffy, and it makes learning about important and overlooked artists feel like having a conversation with a smart, badass friend.
I went to AWP for the first time this year and it was exciting, enriching and… so overwhelming. It’s essentially two months’ worth of readings and socializing (and book shopping!) packed into three days. One of highlights was the chance to reconnect with Grace Talusan and to pick up her utterly incredible memoir-in-essays The Body Papers.
Like AWP, The Body Papers fits a lot into a small space, but the result is much more satisfying. Talusan takes us on a journey from her suburban childhood as the daughter of Filipino immigrants to the trials of adulthood as a wife, breast cancer survivor, and Fulbright scholar in the country of her birth. She writes humorously about family vacations in her parents’ battered green car, and how the love of a dog transformed her father’s attitude toward animals. But the dark beating heart of the memoir is her resilience in response to bodily trauma: her childhood abuse by a family member, and her decision to have a double mastectomy because of a genetic predisposition to cancer. Talusan’s writing is unflinchingly honest and demonstrates the healing power of telling one’s truth.
I don’t read that many novels (compared to how many I buy… cough cough) because I need generous stretches of time to immerse myself. So I mostly read them when I travel long distances. This summer we took a trip to Norway and I brought along Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin and Devi S. Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues.
Ruth, the quirky heroine of Goodbye, Vitamin, moves back home with her parents after a shattering breakup and witnesses the strain that dementia is putting on their marriage and home life. Seeing her father’s depression after he is forced to take a leave of absence from his university teaching job, she participates in an elaborate ruse to stage a series of classes with fake students to allow her father to regain a sense of normalcy and purpose. I was immediately drawn to this book because I could relate to the premise: My mom (also a professor) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s many years ago and it was wrenching to see how her illness tested my parents’ long and mostly harmonious marriage.
Ruth is an appealing narrator who perfectly captures the awkwardness of being an unmarried 30-something daughter who’s living at home and hasn’t yet found her direction in life. What Goodbye, Vitamin gets right is the fascinating triangulation between Ruth, her father and his students; for the first time she is privy to the intimacy of the bonds between them, both admirable (his trusted teaching assistant) and illicit (a female grad student). She uncovers troubling evidence of betrayal while contending with his mood swings and irrational behavior, but ultimately summons deep compassion for a parent in decline. Khong offers a riveting, generous portrait of a family in crisis.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues starts with a close-up of a woman, identified only as “Mother,” bleeding from a gunshot wound in her driveway while her home is raided by police for unclear reasons. In this cinematic opening, the reader is suspended in this long moment as Mother stares at the sky and asks herself: How did I get here? Laskar’s slender novel punches above its weight, delivering a searing indictment of American racism in short, lyrical vignettes that are devastating in their collective impact. I’m reminded of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen in the way each remembered micro-aggression accretes into a smoldering undercurrent of rage. Laskar’s book was recently recognized as one of 2019’s “Books All Georgians Should Read.” What a difference it would make if all Americans could imagine what it’s like to be a woman of color.
Mira Jacob’s terrific graphic memoir Good Talk touches on some of the same themes but in a completely different, unique way. I first fell in love with Jacob’s writing when I read her viral Buzzfeed piece about her son’s obsession with Michael Jackson. I had never seen anything like it: It was hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, and brutally honest about what it means to grow up brown in America.
Good Talk moves back in forth in time, from Jacob’s awkward childhood to early romantic relationships to motherhood and her development as a writer in post-9/11 New York. Told mostly in dialogue, the book tackles serious issues with grace and humor. The most impactful moments are when Jacob catches herself trying to downplay the racism she encounters when she least expects it—at a party hosted by her in-laws, or in her correspondence with an NPR station during her first book tour. She doesn’t shy away from loss either—I cried reading about her attempts to buy weed to ease her father’s pain during his cancer treatment. Through it all, her son Z steals the show with his constant chorus of “why?” Although she refuses to sugarcoat the realities of the Trump era, she wants to instill in him a sense of hope that with our hearts in the right place, we can find a way forward.
Peg Alford Pursell’s A Girl Goes into the Forest is unlike anything I’ve read before. While a few of the stories are longer, the majority are flash and micro fiction, in some cases a single paragraph. Pursell is a master at building layered, complex characters and distinctive moods in a compact space. A motif that is repeated throughout the collection is mothers and daughters that are trapped and trying to break free, literally or figuratively. For example, in “The Magician’s Assistant,” a girl feels the heat of her mother’s submerged anger and resentment towards her father, and imagines a way to make herself disappear. The writing is precise yet enigmatic; it feels like looking at family snapshots in a stranger’s photo album. We see a series of moments in time, and can only imagine the drama that takes place off the page.
Later in the year, a different art exhibit led me to a book. At the De Young Museum I stumbled upon in Pursuit of Venus [infected] by Lisa Reihana, a stunning, monumental video installation that shows scenes of life in the Pacific Islands before and after the arrival of Captain James Cook in the 18th century. It begins with what you’d expect: palm-fringed vistas, women with flowers in their hair and tranquil domestic tableaus. With the arrival of ships and colonizers, the vignettes become more tense and confrontational, ultimately ending in violence. Afterward I reflected on how little I knew about this history and the ramifications of colonization that are still felt throughout the Pacific Islands today. So I went home and reached for my copy of The Charm Buyers by Lillian Howan.
Set in Tahiti in the 1990s during the last years of French nuclear testing, The Charm Buyers follows the adventures of Marc, the son of Hakka pearl cultivators who is unmoored when his childhood sweetheart goes abroad to study in France. He drifts from one moneymaking scheme to another, and begins a relationship with a beautiful older French woman that is passionate but unsustainable. When his sweetheart returns years later from France with a mysterious, debilitating illness, Marc acquires a magical bead and calls on the shamanic powers of his ancestors to help ease her suffering. While this is the major arc, the novel is packed with colorful characters from all walks of life, painting a vivid portrait of a multicultural society in transition and the collision of different races, cultures and generations. Like Reihana, Howan explodes the myth of the postcard-perfect South Pacific and gives us a more nuanced and dimensional view of the islands that reckons with their colonial past.
By the time this column comes out, I will have finished reading one more book: Leland Cheuk’s wonderful No Good Very Bad Asian. I’m about 50 pages into this epistolary novel about Chinese-American standup comic Sirius Lee, and so far it’s a riot.
This year has been a blur of landscape from the window of a bullet train. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, came out in February to critical acclaim and it’s been a whirlwind. Even before the novel’s official entrance, from August 2018 I was one of five debut authors managing the Debutante Ball blog until this fall. I’ve met people all over the country and heard from readers all over the world—it’s been a waking dream. I feel part of a vibrant writing community. Reading is not just a guilty pleasure, but an essential part of being a writer; I’m delighted to have had a chance to read so many books that have thrilled me and inspired me this year.
One of my favorites has been Mira Jacob’s memoir, Good Talk. This funny yet poignant comic-book is brilliant in its scope of tackling racism and identity in America. I’ve reread this one a few times. I loved Soniah Kamal’s debut novel, Unmarriageable, which is Pride and Prejudice retold and set in Pakistan, Jean Kwok’s literary thriller Searching for Sylvie Lee, Grace Talusan’s memoir of being an immigrant in America, The Body Papers, Chelene Knight’s hybrid memoir about all of the places she lived in Vancouver as a child, Dear Current Occupant, Yangsze Choo’s historical novel The Night Tiger, Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s speculative and satirical We Cast A Shadow, and Julia Phillips’s debut sparked by the disappearance of two girls, Disappearing Earth.
I’ve loved having the opportunity to support other authors’ works, through debut authors blog and by serving as a contest judge and writing endorsements for books that will be out in the next year, including: Carole Stivers’s sci-fi thriller The Mother Code in the not-too-distant-future America and Jayant Kaikini’s invaluable stories of Mumbai in No Presents Please and of course, Zeyn Joukhadar’s big second novel that combines history, art, mystery and the life of a trans Syrian-American, The Thirty Names of Night.
It was a pleasure to read Anita Felicelli’s surreal legal thriller Chimerica and be in conversation with her this year. I marveled at my colleague Debutante Ball bloggers’ novels—K.A. Doore’s The Perfect Assassin, Layne Fargo’s Temper, Martine Fournier Watson’s The Dream Peddler, and Stephanie Jimenez’s They Could Have Named Her Anything—and had a fun evening recently interviewing Stephanie in California. I was honored be a co-editor for a mixed-genre anthology Graffiti that was wholly produced by writers of color.
It was wonderful to read Cinelle Barnes’s second book, a collection of essays, Malaya, and Amanda Goldblatt’s beautiful debut Hard Mouth and Ma Jian’s China Dream. Though each book was vastly different, what drew me in, in each case, was the beautiful use of language.
I thoroughly enjoyed Tope Folarin’s debut novel of immigration and being other in America, A Particular Kind of Black Man, and Mitchell S. Jackson’s memoir Survival Math. I could not put down Jeanine Capo Crucet’s book of essays, My Time Among the Whites, Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s novels The Evolution of Love and Running Wild, Casey Cep’s nonfiction book of Harper Lee and the story the Pulitzer Prize winner ultimately didn’t tell, Furious Hours.
I’m slowly reading (so it won’t be over!) Colson Whitehead’s heart-thumping story of reform school in Nickel Boys and Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, a stunning immigration story told in a hybrid epistolary form, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
2019 has been a fantastic year for poetry: loved, loved, loved Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Tina Chang’s Hybrida, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón and Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster. And I loved Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, which casts new light into her seminal long-ago book of poetry, The Country Between Us.
By the time you read this I will have finished reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s POV, The Forest of Enchantments, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s page-turner The Revisioners, Rene Denfeld’s The Butterfly Girl, and Meg Waite Clayton’s novel about the World War II Kindertransport, The Last Train to London.
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
This is simply the best literary (in gorgeous graphic novel form) exploration of what it means to be an immigrant in the U.S. I’ve seen in years. Jacob talks about what being a parent in our current trash-fire of an age is like, what it means to have to explain racism and politics to her beautiful, Prince-loving child. She goes back into her own youth, growing up brown in America, the various pitfalls and pleasures of that experience in a way that brought it all back. I’m going to teach this one every chance I get; it says all the things.
I’m pairing these because they have a strand of similarity in that male main characters go on long, joyous, terrifying journeys of self-discovery. They leave their abodes and step into the wild world and mayhem ensues. One of these books won the Pulitzer, the other got much less notice. I think the lesser known one should get so much more attention—read Prof Chandra; it’s fun and you’ll cry! I also really loved Greer’s descriptions of what it means to live in a writer’s brain. Greer’s made it okay to have a main character who’s a writer again.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
This is just gorgeous and smart and beautiful and scary. Machado has pretty much put dynamite under the house of genre and blown it up. Not to mention she’s taken up the topic of domestic violence within the LGBTQ community in a way that has barely been addressed. She’s written into the void. I’m sure this book will end up on many writers’ lists in this very column, a feat considering it just came out. But many of us have been waiting for this book and it does not disappoint.
Both of these deal with bodily trauma in brilliant and beautiful ways. Talusan’s book is a memoir of growing up Filipina with all the secrecy and fear that attends immigrant families attempting to fit into the America Dream. Denfeld’s thriller takes us on a wild ride on the streets of Portland and forces us to confront what happens to the street kids we pass every day. Two powerful, truth-telling books.
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
I return to this when writing feels particularly hard. It doesn’t make the writing any less hard but it makes me feel like I’m less alone, like I’m part of this strange, wonderful group of people whose deepest life and deepest loves are literary.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
This is a strange and wonderful book about immigration, class, aging, gender. Its resonance is eerie and horrific. Who’s watching the kids? Who has to watch the kids because there are no other options? So much here.
Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World by Anu Taranath
This book is changing the conversation around what it means to lead privileged American students into the wider world in a respectful way. As someone who now and then takes writing students abroad, I found it essential.
Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
I really love this strange book that one of my most well-read friends recommended. It takes on the idea of haunting as the uncanny caused by quirks in architecture as well as the way history itself leaves trace markers on place. The premise is that a place is haunted by its emotional, social history—and I am on board.
Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life by Laura Thompson
I love Christie; she’s the grande dame of the mystery and the thriller and every now and then I like to immerse myself in a huge bath of a book about a writer’s life. This book brought Christie to life in a way that I could imagine looking up and finding her in the armchair in front of me. It pays special attention to the mysterious episode in which she went missing in reaction to her first husband’s claim that he was leaving her for another woman. It was the scandal of the day and for weeks all of England was looking for her. Not many writers’ lives live up to the drama of their literary work, Christie’s at least in that episode, certainly does.
No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder
I thought I understood DV but this book really shook that belief. For example, did you know that many domestic violence victims (primarily female) sustain traumatic brain injures that can affect their ability to have jobs, read, drive—basically every necessary skill? These injuries are often overlooked even when victims go to the doctor. Studies say DV survivors may have traumatic brain injuries at the same rate as athletes and returning soldiers. It’s a silent unseen epidemic. That’s just one piece of this book that stayed with me.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti
I’m not confused about the question of motherhood in the way Heti’s main character is. I’ve never wanted children and as I get older I’m much more rooted in that decision. Yet it was such an enjoyment to read this book, to follow the meditations of the character as she wandered through the labyrinth of cultural pressure, bodily desire, and the call of deep solitude. I’m in love with Heti’s brain and her prose. This is the work of a deeply thoughtful writer.
Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown
This book is essential, life-affirming, life-supporting reading for our moment. It reclaims joy, freedom, most especially for people of color. It marries theory, politics, social activism, and so much more. I felt my toes curling with pleasure reading these pages and learning and relearning lessons about revolution starting with the self, about “self-care” being part of activism. Bonus: beautiful essays about surviving and claiming self and thriving by personal sheroes, Amita Swadhin and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.
Finally, I don’t read much poetry. Probably because I am intimidated by the purest form. This year I steeped myself in two gorgeous books of poetry, Cenzontle by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and Scratching the Ghost by Dexter L Booth (I mean, just those two titles, right?!) and I am so much the better for it.
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Welcome to the 15th annual Year in Reading series at The Millions. When site founder C. Max Magee first put together his year-end reading reflections in the early 2000s, no one suspected that a blog post would eventually grow into a series that has featured hundreds of writers and readers: librarians, critics, bloggers, journalists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers ranging from just-starting-out to just-won-a-Pulitzer-Prize. What the participants have in common is that they are loving, devoted readers.
To celebrate its 15th year, this December’s series is, at 90-something contributors, the most crowded yet. As in every year, entries turn out not to be mere lists of books, but records of time passing–there were births and deaths, moves and separations and career changes. As in every year, some books pop up again and again in contributors’ collections of memorable reading experiences. And as in every year, we guarantee you will conclude the month with at least one book to add to your TBR pile.
The names of our 2019 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). 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 — we’ll run at least three per day for the next three weeks.
Stephen Dodson, proprietor of Languagehat.Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories.Shea Serrano, author of Movies (And Other Things)Dantiel W. Moniz, author of the forthcoming collection Milk Blood Heat.Andrea Long Chu, author of Females.De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills.Omar El Akkad, author of American War.Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina: StoriesAlexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.Isabella Hammad, author of The Parisian.Nayomi Munaweera, author of What Lies Between Us.Marcos Gonsalez, author of the forthcoming memoir Pedro’s Theory.Max Porter, author of Lanny.Yan Lianke, author of The Explosion Chronicles.Lauren Michele Jackson, author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.Catherine Lacey, author of the forthcoming novel Pew.Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Loved Ones.Carolyn Quimby, associate editor for The Millions.Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Longing for an Absent God.Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.Jianan Qian, staff writer for The Millions.Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.Kate Gavino, social media editor for The Millions, author of Last Night’s Reading and Sanpaku.Adam O’Fallon Price, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink.Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers.Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You.Devi S. Laskar, author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues.Jason R Jimenez, author of The Wolves.Iva Dixit, associate editor at The New York Times Magazine.Jennifer Croft, author of Homesick.Venita Blackburn, author of Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold.Jedediah Britton-Purdy, author of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth.Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic.Jennine Capó Crucet, author of My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.Kate Zambreno, author of Appendix Project (Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents) and Screen Tests.Chanelle Benz, author of The Gone Dead.John Lingan, author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-TopBeatrice Kilat, a writer and editor living in Oakland, Calif.T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.Grace Loh Prasad, a contributor to the anthology Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America.Kaulie Lewis, staff writer for The Millions.Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer for The Millions.Zoë Ruiz, staff writer for The Millions.Ed Simon, staff writer for The Millions.Edan Lepucki, staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions, author of California.Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field.Matt Seidel staff writer for The Millions.Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.Rene Denfeld, author of The Butterfly Girl.Bridgett M. Davis, author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers.Anita Felicelli, author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent.Oscar Villalon, managing editor of ZYZZYVA.Terese Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir.Jenny Offill, author of Last Things and Dept. of Speculation.Joseph Cassara, author of novel The House of Impossible Beauties.Daniel Levin Becker, senior editor at McSweeney’s.Nishant Batsha, a writer whose work has appeared in Narrative, TriQuarterly, and The Believer.Mike Isaac, author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.Andrew Martin, author of Early Work.Kate Petersen, a writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Paris Review Daily.Anne Serre, author of The Fool & Other Moral Tales.Tanaïs, author of Bright Lines and creator of independent beauty and fragrance house Hi Wildflower.Sophia Shalmiyev, author of Mother Winter.Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers.Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions.Lydia Kiesling, contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State.Thomas Beckwith, staff writer for The Millions.Roberto Lovato, teacher, journalist and writer based at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, California.Dustin Kurtz, Social Media Manager for Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull.Kevin Barry, author of novel Night Boat to Tangier.Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women.
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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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In a recent lecture on innovative writing, Myung Mi Kim argued that any artistic experiment is inherently violent, as the artist is dismantling an inherited tradition in order to make way for the new. For many writers, innovation does indeed contain destruction in its very definition. After all, the experimental text cannot exist in the same space as the conventions that restrict its meaning, stifle its performativity, and deny its legitimacy.
Three recent books remind us that an experiment, though it challenges elements of a familiar literary heritage, does not have to sacrifice unity of voice and vision. Karla Kelsey’s forthcoming Blood Feather, Kenji Liu’s Monsters I Have Been, and Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers skillfully dismantle received forms to offer alternative ways of creating meaning and coherence from human experience. Though vastly different in style and scope, these three innovative texts share a commitment to a unity of concept, presenting us with larger questions about the politics of language that ultimately guide and focus the generative violence of the experiment. In their hands, innovation becomes an exercise in precision, as well as a legitimate danger. As Liu writes, “The under state / swarms our / documents. Our / lungs.”
Monsters I Have Been opens with an articulation of the artistic goals and the parameters of an invented poetic form called “frankenpo.” Liu writes in the form’s definition: “to create a new poetic text by collecting, disaggregating, randomizing, rearranging, recombining, erasing, and reanimating one or more chosen bodies of text, for the purpose of divining or revealing new meanings often at odds with the original texts.” As the book unfolds, the constraints and freedoms of “frankenpo” serve to unify the book’s wild flights of the imagination, as Monsters I Have Been reads as an extended exploration of the possibilities inherent in this specific literary form.
In many ways, it is the intense focus of Liu’s experiment that brings his discoveries into sharp relief. Culling text from a variety of sources, which range from screenplays to New York Times articles, feminist theory, and U.S. presidential executive orders, Liu shows us beauty and danger contained within the same turns of phrase, which can house both violence and redemption, light and unspeakable darkness. The poems in Monsters I Have Been call attention to the remarkable disconnect between language and the real world toward which it constantly gestures. At the same time, Liu frames this disconnect, the inherent arbitrariness of the signifier, as a source of agency for the creative practitioner.
Liu writes, for example, in “Thus I Have Heard,” “We are visas / in a national / drowning. / Each of us an executive / decision, pursuant to clay. / Each a subsection of protocol / and yet.” Here Liu reconfigures language from unspecified source texts, reminding us that intent not only shapes outcome with respect to the words we use, but also that intent can bring to light the beauty that resides just beneath the surface of a seemingly unremarkable text. For Liu, the same language can carry revelation and violence, enlightenment and oppression.
What’s more, he shows us the myriad ways that language is illuminated by conversation, dialogue, and juxtaposition. In many ways, the personae contained within Monsters I Have Been are strengthened and refined by conversation, as proximity brings a single voice into clearer focus. He writes, for instance, in “As the light diminishes again,” “To fit the average, we come / as animals, with a pocket map / of the sky and nothing under. // How the ragged hairpiece gapes / open and declares teeth.” This poem utilizes found text from Judith Butler’s theoretical writings as well as the Heart Sutra. Approached with that in mind, the poem becomes a space for dialogue in which one texture of language complicates, and calls into question, the other. As Liu himself asks, “What masks / What power”?
Much like Liu’s book, Talusan’s recent memoir, The Body Papers, reveals (and renegotiates) the politics inherent in language. Yet Talusan takes this kind of experimentation in a new direction, pairing text with found images as she investigates the authority, reverence, and doubt that we invest in various types of cultural documents. The artifacts that inhabit The Body Papers range from canceled passports to immigration forms to family photographs. As the book unfolds, these politically charged and authoritative documents are positioned in service of personal narrative, a gesture that proves as innovative as it is subversive. The hierarchies that we impose upon types of language are provocatively reversed. Talusan summons the authority of official documents, journalistic photographs, and the various traces of governmental power to further a personal narrative of risk, family ties, and discovery.
Talusan’s daring reversal of these power structures comes through most visibly in her depiction of the journey of her emigration to the United States from Manila with her parents and siblings. Describing the obstacles her parents encountered as they applied for citizenship, she writes, “I was terrified. I had never thought about how meaningful U.S. citizenship was until I was told I didn’t have it. With a shuffle of papers, life as I knew it could be lost. I am still astounded by how meaningful these papers are, how they are pasted onto our bodies and determine where and how we can move through the world.” This powerful narrative, in which the narrator realizes the precarity of what she had remembered as a joyful childhood, is spliced with images of a canceled Philippine passport and a character reference in support of an application for United States citizenship.
In many ways, the images included in The Body Papers complicate and enrich the narrative proper. By pairing this section with these specific documents, for example, Talusan evokes the stateless and liminal status of her younger self. Yet at the same time, she provocatively claims the authority and power of these documents for own narrative, a reversal of the ways in which we often shape and reshape personal narrative in the service of government procedure.
This investment in revealing and challenging the authority placed in government documents unifies a gorgeously capacious narrative. Talusan writes, for example: “Without physical proof, I started to question whether I had even written [the letters]—a psychological pattern that I think is intertwined with the immigrant experience.” As this powerful memoir unfolds, however, Talusan challenges the artificial divide culture has created between objective and subjective types of language, laying claim to both in prose as deeply felt as it is precise and sharply focused.
Kelsey’s Blood Feather, like the work of Liu and Talsuan, utilizes experimental language in service of social justice. This book-length poem, inspired by a rich store of archival material associated with women’s history, manifests as three dramatic monologues spoken by different personae. The whole of the archive is subsumed into the voices of these richly imagined narrators, with Kelsey drawing from texts that include Aristotle, Pina Bausch, Julian Beck, Richard Brody, Cheiro, and many other writers, philosophers, cinematographers, and thinkers. By challenging the fiction of the single speaker in such a way, Kelsey gestures at voice as a social construct, calling into question the myriad ways culture presupposes that ownership over language is even possible.
It is the unity of voice, remarkable given the scope and range of archival material represented in this volume, that renders Kesley’s text as sharply focused as Talusan’s narrative memoir and Liu’s extended exploration of a single form. As the book unfolds, this unity of voice and vision is revealed as integral to the poem’s deeply philosophical meaning. For Kelsey, the self, the single spoken voice, contains multitudes. She shows us, through her sharply focused experimentation, that the boundary between individual and community is porous and indistinct. She writes, for example, in Blood Feather:
the aesthetic problem of
form exists essentially and simultaneously as
a moral problem writes Deren in
An Anagram of Ideas on Art
and so how to perform an
ethical relation to the footage of
a flood mobile homes uprooted a
man in a canoe paddling after
his lowing cow the film then
cutting to the tremor of a
hand-held camera actress gagged and bound
to the bed how to punctuate
Here the speaker reflects on the ethical problems inherent in representation. If the boundary between self and other remains blurry, Kelsey asks us to consider where cultural appropriation begins when attempting to depict one’s own perceptions. In many ways, the philosophical quality of Kelsey’s poetry is in itself subversive, as she uses the artistic repertoire of poetry to claim agency over a predominantly masculine philosophical tradition. In doing so, she reminds us that despite the rigid binary distinctions that circulate within culture, alterity inevitably resides within the subject, who is a world unto herself.
If innovation is in itself a destructive gesture, can that generative violence be placed in service of activism and advocacy through language? Kelsey, Talusan, and Liu show us that the precision of the experiment constitutes its power. In each of these three collections, this dismantling of convention is placed in service of a specific philosophical question, the work an inquiry into what is possible when specific rules associated with language are renegotiated. Here, language is wielded as veiled threat, as provocative reversal, as gloriously shattered syntactic convention. Yet it is this space between words that allows us to see the light.
Image credit: Annie Spratt
The term “Asian American” is rooted in 1960s political activism but over the past several years, it has been expanded in use. It is now common to use “Asian American” to describe a literary genre. And although Filipinos are the second largest Asian demographic in the United States, and are the fourth largest immigrant group in the country, the narrative of the Filipino American remains trapped under the broadly stroked term “Asian American.”
Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers pulls Filipino American memoir to the forefront of Asian American conscience with heartbreaking prose, taking on the impact of immigration, sexual abuse, medical trauma, and the diaspora via the documentation of—and a meditation on—brownness and her body. With conversational lucidity and subtle, direct prose, Talusan unveils an account of suffering—the short-and long-term impacts of unaddressed mental health needs, becoming a citizen, systematic racism, cancer, fertility, and filial piety. Confessional yet unapologetic, The Body Papers shows the lengths to which a writer will go to trace her lineage and find her identity, even if it means crossing oceans to unknown places. She modernizes the Philippine diaspora by peppering Tagalog vernacular in her prose and grounding the essays with medical records, immigration papers, and personal photos.
With American suburbia and Catholicism as background, Talusan does what many children of immigrants do in adulthood: finally show up for the long awaited reckoning with our childhood memories of acculturation. “Our house was American on the outside, but Filipino on the inside. We left our shoes at the door and wore slippers inside the house. We had a tabo…an electric rice cooker…an altar with statues of the Santo Nino…and we would kneel together as a family…to pray the rosary.” Talusan memorializes the seemingly innocuous details of teenage, pained assimilation: putting hair lightening products in her raven hair, just like her blonde friends, and enduring microaggressions camouflaged as insights from school teachers and counselors who failed to recognize her cultural roots and racialized experience.
Talusan explores lineage as a survival mechanism. Her documentation status, diaspora, and family dynamics lay groundwork for understanding the egregious sexual abuse she endured from her grandfather who she learns, after telling her family about the abuse, was a “relentless pedophile” whose abuse was protected by generations of silence and secrecy.
“All those years, I thought I was protecting the old man with my silence. I expected my father to beat my grandfather bloody. I thought the old man would be killed. Every day, I thought I’d been saving his life. My parents believed me. They did not seem very surprised to learn of my grandfather’s behavior. And that’s when I realized that he must have done this before. As soon as I told my parents what happened, they warned me to keep it quiet. I can forgive this reaction now—they knew a story could destroy you.”
In a nod to the paradoxes of Filipino American life, The Body Papers oscillates between anecdotes of erasure and hypervisibility—particularly when it comes to racial consciousness. As Talusan ages, she develops a deeper awareness of racial complexity and explores her own complicity and sense of inferiority because of white supremacy. Memories are framed with both leniency and criticism, but Talusan also incriminates herself for not fully grasping how white proximity has padded her anger and has fed her a false illusion of belonging. After she tells her high school counselor she wants her collegiate experience to be a more diverse experience, she uses the term “people of color” for the first time. In response, the white counselor compares his skin to hers, saying his skin, as a white man, is darker. He concludes, “I’m no more a person of color than you are.”
Talusan investigates her response pattern: first quiet acquiescence that hides her outrage and then, later, self-admonishment for failing to articulate her anger. “I’m still mortified at how I acquiesced. At the time, the development of racial identity was still in the fetal stage. Maybe I wanted him to be right. I also wanted to believe that my life would not be negatively impacted by race. Even now, I wish this were true. As a high school senior, I had no clue how to talk about race to white people. I still have no clue how to navigate that minefield.” And she recognizes the lifelong influence of racial dominance. “Even now, reflexively, I want to protect my relationship with them at the expense of my own feelings. Like them, I’m also steeped in white supremacy.”
There are multiple forms of trauma and healing processes that take place throughout the memoir. In her mid-30s, Talusan discovers that she has a family history of both breast and ovarian cancers. She opts for a double mastectomy after learning she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, which marks her as highly vulnerable to a lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancers. At one point, Talusan’s healing processes overlap: “I felt oddly relieved, I realized, that the part of my body my grandfather had most admired had been severed from me.” And then, after an emotional battle and eventual concession to her husband who does not want children, she decides to have an oophorectomy which ends her dreams of becoming a biological mother.
In this unvarnished, graceful memoir, Grace Talusan delves into the most intimate to tell us unforgettable stories from her body. The Body Papers is a double-ringed narrative where immigration is more than regional displacement, family is both destructive and restorative, and trauma presents and re-presents itself in a number of ways across her lifetime. This astonishingly brave work breathes life into a past that most would hope to forget. Talusan, however, does something different. She offers a meditative tour of immigration, trauma, and family. The Body Papers beats a different drum of triumph and sings a rare song of honesty; the book is an understated marvel that continues to sound even after the story is finished.