Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family's Past Among Taiwan's Mountains and Coasts

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A Year in Reading: Shruti Swamy

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Do you remember, in late March, when it started to get
serious? In my state, that’s when the shelter in place orders came down, and
every third person walking down the street was clutching toilet paper in their
arms. For me, the emergency hoarding was library books—I literally ran to my
local branch when I received the email that they would be closing (for a couple
weeks, I think everyone said, but we knew it would be likely a little longer, a
couple months, probably), pulling books off the shelf almost at random. I got
more books than I could comfortably carry, and made my way home with aching
arms. It was a cozy feeling, mixed with panic, like hunkering down for a storm.
So many months in, I almost feel nostalgic for it, those early days, when you
were going to stay home reading novels and starting a garden.

Late March, and April, strangely, were fruitful months for my reading life; the combination of the pile of borrowed books from the library and from friends mixing enticingly with the books on my shelf I had not yet read. I sat out on my front steps drinking tea, tearing through Elizabeth Tallent’s Scratched, then The Society of Reluctant Dreamers by José Eduardo Agualusa, on the back steps with wine when the light was better there. I got that book from the free book bin outside Dog Eared Books, where some months ago I had retrieved also a whole armful of literary magazines and actually read them the whole way through, The Paris Review, and Zyzzyva and n+1 mostly, something I had never done before and was startlingly enjoyable. My neighbor leant me Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass at exactly the right time; I read it uncharacteristically slow, not wanting it to end. I read Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Leewhen I was feeling root-bound, wander-lusty. I read Cathy Hong Park’s Minor Feelings with a feeling of recognition so intense that at times it felt like panic. Sing to It by Amy Hemple, a library find, made me remember short stories again, what they could do. And the atmospheric Creatures by Chrissy Van Meter, which gave me watery dreams.

I read to my daughter books about the moon. A good children’s book, of course, deserves as much respect as any other good book: the best ones are as finely tuned as a poem with an attention to humor, surprise, and delight. Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer makes me appreciate words in the same way a poem does: “shimmering seat in space,” “weird creature,” “gorgeous costumes,” “grumpy killjoy.” There was The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House by Ida Pearle; of course there was Goodnight, Moon, and Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin, whose protagonist wears the same sneaky smile my daughter has when she is doing she should not be, but cannot help but be proud of herself for it.

I read more books—like those of my friends and peers whose beautiful first works entered the world this year (what a banner year for books by women of color!): Meng Jin’s Little Gods, How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang, The Inheritors by Asako Serizawa, A Burning by Megha Majumdar, Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford, Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang, Raven Leilani’s Luster, A Good True Thai by Sunisa Manning, the utterly terrifying Lakewood by Megan Giddings—but one of my most favorite is by a writer I never had the privilege of meeting, and who died shortly after his book was published: If I Had Two Wings, by Randall Kenan. These stories are everything stories should be: wise, and deeply felt, effortless and beautiful, sometimes achingly so—but the magical thing about them is that they’re all those things and funny too. I read that one doubled-masked on BART, the train bearing me back to the city. It was a bright, gold day, late summer, and from the windows of the train the view of the white container cranes standing at attention beside the glistening bay—a view I have always loved—remained unchanged, it seemed to me. Even in this year, in which I went through bleak periods of being unable to read anything at all, reading too remains a constant. The light these books cast onto my life made it brighter.

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