The Middlepause: On Life After Youth

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A Year in Reading: Angela Garbes


I started 2018 hugely pregnant, so looking back, I suppose it’s no surprise that I spent a lot of time dwelling in writing about bodies. The first book I treated myself to this year—and feasted on—was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. Here were bodies I could get down with: female bodies, brown bodies, queer bodies, possibly magical bodies, doing everything: working, eating, cooking, loving, haunting, surviving. Other books I have treasured, that have fucked me up in equal measure, and are distinctly masterful at examining life (and death and aging, menopause, trauma, race, and care) as it is experienced in human physical form: The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown, Heavy by Kiese Laymon, The Middlepause by Marina Benjamin.

I did have that baby, in March, and the four or so months that followed (during which I was also on book tour, something I do not recommend) are a blur. Because I didn’t have the attention span or capability to read whole books, I left stacks of New Yorkers around the house and in my bag, pre-opened to articles I wanted to read. I actually ended up reading a lot this way (while nursing, while the baby was napping, on flights), and feeling quite accomplished about it. Now, though, I realize I remember absolutely nothing of what I read, save for this detail from a profile of ESPN host Stephen A. Smith: that he once hosted a late-night R&B radio show called “Tender Moments.”

Sometime in late summer cookbooks, specifically Vibration Cooking by Vertamae Smart-Grovesner, as much a vivid memoir and cultural history of America as anything else, brought me back to reading and, in many ways, back to life. Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat and Alison Roman’s Dining In were balms. When standing somnambulant in sweatpants and a soft bra in front of an open fridge filled with languishing vegetables and in desperate need of dinner, a common refrain in our house became “What would Samin do?” Often I’d just boil some vegetables, open a can of sardines or smoked trout, make Roman’s preserved lemon labneh or spiced olive oil, douse everything in the sauce, and call it good. During a year of postpartum haze, frequent travel, and constant energetic output, it was reading these warm, encouraging books that got me back into my kitchen, back into my body, and feeling (mostly) like myself again.

I read nearly all of The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling on my 41st birthday on a beach in Mexico, and it really did feel like a gift: Affirmation that, given the current state of our country, I don’t want to know or be friends with anyone who is remotely okay. That our institutions are working exactly as they were designed to, and that they will fail us as humans. But that amid all this, there is still love and light and connection and grace. It was one of several books I read that also complicate the conventional ways we view and talk about motherhood, including Camille Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers, Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars, and The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs (I still think about Boggs’s essay “Solstice” all the time).

Because I’m also the mother of a four-year-old, in truth the most reading I did this year was of children’s books, always out loud, mostly the same ones over and over: Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats, Hey Willy See the Pyramids and Swami on Rye by Maira Kalman. But it’s Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances books that I’ve read pretty much every day. The books are pleasurable and funny for adults and I love them, though not nearly as much as I love watching my daughter develop her own reading life. She relishes creating the tunes to Frances’s many songs, then marches through the world making up her own.

This summer was a strange time to have any sort of public platform to discuss parenting in America, especially as a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, which is exactly what I was doing on book tour. Family separation made it impossible to not think and talk about our country’s shameful, inhumane, and morally bankrupt policies. I did so many events freshly postpartum and thinking about these things, with both the sharp fear and knowledge that at any moment I might completely lose track of what I was saying, or just start raging or weeping uncontrollably. I still live on that edge.

My strongest memory of reading in 2018 will be a scene that repeated itself so many nights in our living room this summer: Reading the I Can Read Level 2 paperback version of  A Baby Sister for Frances aloud, my infant daughter in my arms or upstairs asleep in her crib, her older sister in my lap or face pressed into my chest, my glasses fogging up as hot tears rolled down my face when I hit page 33: “A family is everybody all together.”

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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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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