The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir

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A Year in Reading: Jeff Chang


This past year, I spent a huge portion of my non-work-related waking hours immersed in the national output of nonfiction books. Instead of reading for writing projects, as was my annual routine for many years, I was reading to determine a winner. But in a year that left so many of us battle-weary, the idea of winning seemed beside the point, perhaps even part of the problem. I wanted books to tell me that truth, reason, and probity will endure, and that people—some a lot like us and some more like us than we would have ever guessed—persevere. The books did and we do, over and over again. So here’s a tribute to some of the non-winners.

The Apparitionists by Peter Manseau
This account of the work and criminal trial of “spirit photographer” William Mumler is fascinating for reasons historic and contemporary. In the years following the Civil War, as a nation mourned its dead and longed for a lost innocence, Americans turned to religion and religion turned to the supernatural. Mumler’s most explosive portrait work challenged photography’s verities by claiming to represent images of the dead returning to comfort the living. Unlike Kevin Young’s Bunk, which roams widely to uncover racialized Othering as the deep stream of our attraction to spectacular hoaxes, Manseau’s book sticks closely to the facts of Mumler’s case. But in our own era of war, “fake news,” and spiritual unrest, the story feels more than merely suggestive.

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
This unusual book brings together the case of the murderous pedophile Ricky Langley with the author’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse. As Marzano-Lesnevich, who is training to become a public defender, dives into the research on Langley’s case, she is drawn back into her own personal and family traumas. At that point it becomes a powerful #metoo story and a deep meditation on the stories we tell each other in order to continue. It ponders the incompleteness of the law as remedy, and how the process of finding truth enables and suppresses. And it also plumbs the depths of our current discussion—now that the horrors of powerful men, including some of our former heroes, have been publicly named—about whether redemption is possible or desirable.

The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum
What if science and art were not only compatible, but inseparable? Prum argues that the way we receive Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution—that only the fittest can survive—is incomplete, even dangerously so, as in the rise of the racist pseudo-science of eugencics. Darwin, Prum notes, actually argued that such a selection process would never explain nature’s diversity. Instead, bird sex, like human sex, is not merely functional and utilitarian, but about pleasure and taste. He moves on to consider surprising new directions for evolutionary history, such as how it might understand queerness, the end of patriarchy, and the centrality of arts and culture. “Beauty happens,” Prum writes, and thank goodness for that.

Letters to Memory by Karen Tei Yamashita
Gifted—or burdened—with the papers of her aunts and parents and grandparents, all survivors of the World War II Japanese American concentration camps, Karen Tei Yamashita constructs a structurally cunning, richly literary, and deeply moving tribute to the lives of her kin. The book unfolds as a series of letters to a set of imagined muses, all of which reference her family’s real letters. Some detail a story of her idealistic young aunt, who is afforded a temporary freedom as a witness in a government case, and the family locked away in the camps. What are her obligations to them? Is it folly or selfishness that makes her think she may be of more help to them on the outside? These letters remind us that, once perpetrated, injustice cannot be reduced or forgotten.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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A Year in Reading: Julie Buntin

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On the first day of 2017 I finished The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I was in Tokyo, and still believed that Donald Trump would be impeached, that someone (who?) was going to call bullshit, that we would get a second chance. Stone Diaries follows Daisy Goodwill from birth to the end of her life, and infuses even the minute details of her existence—recipes, letters, addresses—with poignancy and grace. Reading it felt like an antidote to the way women had been undermined by the election results. The ending delivered me so fully into the world that the hours I lived after closing the book have the clarity of something written—the watery sunlight, the moment, in a crowd of hundreds at Meiji Shrine, I realized that the policemen were not carrying guns. Months later, on tour in Michigan, I mentioned the novel to a Canadian friend, how much I loved it, how profoundly it made me want to write. I hated that book, he said. I had to read it in school.

My friend is a sensitive reader, and yes I know this reaction isn’t fair, but I remember looking at him and thinking, would you have still hated it, if it were about a man?

In 2017, years of work come to fruition all at once. My first novel came out. Two books I edited, and love and admire deeply—Exes by Max Winter, and Large Animals by Jess Arndt—were published. Catapult’s creative writing program doubled its classes offerings. Something about all of that, or maybe it was the news, or maybe it was getting off Zoloft and going back on it, or maybe trying to keep my head above water at work while promoting a book, or maybe it’s that I got a little obsessed with my Goodreads reviews—I don’t know. Internally, I suffered a small collapse. It’s not a very interesting story—and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a non-problem. I finally got to hold so much of what I’d been fighting for in my hands, and in response, that inner voice, the most sacred part of me, went quiet. All year, I’ve been trying to wake my voice back up. I’m still trying. I throw books at the silence, and it helps. If you’re feeling quiet, too, in the face of the world right now, consider the titles below a prescription.

I’m tired of men, so I won’t talk about what they wrote in 2017, not even the books by them that I loved. Instead, a partial list of books I read by women, most released into the estranging darkness of this year, many of them debuts. The ones that made me laugh (and in a few cases, also cry): Rachel Khong’s glorious Goodbye Vitamin, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Edan Lepucki’s Woman No 17, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Weike Wang’s Chemistry.

The ones that haunt me still: Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket, Kristen Radtke’s breathtaking Imagine Wanting Only Wanting This, Josephine Rowe’s A Loving, Faithful Animal, Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming to Save Us, Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow, Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark.

The ones that were extremely sexy: Jardine Libaire’s White Fur, Jamie Quatro’s forthcoming Fire Sermon.

As a writer, I found something to envy in every single one of these books; as a reader, I was simply grateful.

There were others, too. I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, in Bruges, after a photoshoot that embarrassed me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I developed some kind of aspirational writer crush on Danzy Senna after an event in Martha’s Vineyard and read New People in an exhilarating two-day burst; I’m reading Caucasia now. I had never been to Belgium before, never been to Martha’s Vineyard—how strange to be welcomed to these places thanks to a book I wrote when I was a different person. I spent a lot of this year feeling like a liar. I picked up Sallie Tisdale’s Violation, on a recommendation from Chloe Caldwell, and am shocked that we don’t talk about her more—her essay on abortion, “Fetus Dreams,” should be taught in schools. I didn’t read as much nonfiction as I normally do, but particularly loved The Middlepause by the infinitely wise Marina Benjamin, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I read What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, on my phone during my commute. Poetry-wise, I was stunned by Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone. I read Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce three times, and returned to Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, a gift from my friend Steph Opitz, again and again—as if both books were lifelines, which, I suppose, they are.

I am forgetting things. Forgetting books I loved—I’ll look at this later and want to shake myself. Just now, I’m remembering that this is the year I had an affair with wry, elegant Anita Brookner, that I read Iris Murdoch because my husband made me and he was right, that I returned to Wuthering Heights because of an assignment and found it maddening and melodramatic and irresistible. I read Jean Rhys—Good Morning, Midnight—for the second time in a hotel bathtub in London, drinking wine. I decided I couldn’t write a prep school novel after reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, because she did it better than any of us ever will. I received my first blurb requests and resisted the urge to write back to the editors, to the authors, asking, are you sure? There are some good, good books coming next year—by writers like Meaghan O’Connell, Lucy Tan, Zulema Summerfield, Jana Casale, Rachel Lyon, Danielle Lazarin.

I’ve spent my entire career employed by bookstores or indie presses or nonprofits devoted to indie presses, and yet I read very little by small presses in 2017, which I hadn’t realized until just this moment. An assignment for the rest of the year. That, and reading the things I bought and never got to—Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; American Street by Ibi Zoboi.

So, where to end? When I think of what I read in 2017, the work by women that inspired and motivated and moved me, there’s one book I haven’t mentioned yet. Over and over again, I read Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir, All You Can Ever Know, watching it evolve from proposal, to partial, to the honest and vulnerable and vital book it is now—both the chronicle of Nicole’s own adoption, and a larger story about identity and family. It is many things—but above all else, it’s a fierce and urgent story by a woman whose voice we need.

Something to throw at the silence, I think. Something for 2018.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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