Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry

The book I’ve read the most this year is Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño. I read a few pages from it every morning before I crawl across the floor to my desk. It’s Bolaño distilled. It’s a crime story, a death story, a sex story, a love story, but always it refuses to pick up its narrative threads. It never binds. Instead it spins out. It is pure expression. I think Bolaño is the most important guide for fiction writers of this era; in fact, he is a kind of spirit-guide—he shows us what we don’t have to do anymore. The note of his perception rings utterly true on every line. And even in translation his sentences have such a glamorous charge to them. When night falls, I crawl back across the floor, to the fireside, where this year I’ve been mooning constantly over A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf. It is hugely consoling to see the way she constantly twists on the wires of doubt; she is dismayed by doubt at her own ability, on a daily basis, but also she is strangely enraptured by this same doubt—it fortifies her. You can see her thinking: if I’m worried, that means I must be working. She comes across in places as a desperate old snob but she’s of her era, and as often she seems a really gorgeous person. And I’d personally forgive her a murder for prose like this: Thursday, August 18th 1921 - … and what I wouldn’t give to be coming through Firle woods, dirty and hot, with my nose turned home, every muscle tired and the brain laid up in sweet lavender, so sane and cool, and ripe for the morrow’s task. Here in Ireland, if the short story doesn’t get an almighty kick up the arse about every five years or so, it tends to melt down into puddles of lyric reverie. Fortunately, this year was a good, spiky and raucous one—there were some fabulous collections, and most of them came from the small, indie Irish presses. Three I admired: The History of Magpies by Desmond Hogan (Lilliput Press), a witness text by one of our finest prose stylists that peels away the layers to reveal the true, contemporary Ireland, in all its melancholy, gaudiness, and shabby grandeur; Levitation by Sean O’Reilly (Stinging Fly Press), a memorable return from a writer of fierce commitment, and a collection that constantly questions the story as form; and Room Little Darker (New Island Press), a miraculous debut from June Caldwell, whose every sentence roars that she is the real, darkly-comic deal. Finally, it is conceivable that Virgina Woolf is back, and this time she’s a man—Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is a portrait of an English rural community that’s quiet on the surface, measured in its structure, but astonishing in its effect, and his sentences have a truly Woolfian uncanniness and grace to them. It’s an absolutely beautiful novel. 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 [millions_ad]
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Simeon Marsalis

William Faulkner Books provide me an escape from the horrors of our modern reality until they call me back to what I am trying to escape. When I read the work of authors who captivate me, as Faulkner’s work does, I feel there is something underneath the text the writer is communicating. Here, I must add that I am captivated by things that contain content I dislike. For a more nuanced explanation of this phenomena, read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992). I was reading an early draft of Zachary Lazar’s Vengeance (2018) when my friend told me that my novel, As Lie Is to Grin (2017) reminded them of Absalom, Absalom! (1936). I had not read this book, and was embarrassed by the fact, so I went to my local bookstore to find a copy. Faulkner had taken great care in the naming of places. The city where Sutpen finds his first wife is called Jefferson. Every time I saw Jefferson, the fictitious town began to take on a historic meaning. Every time he wrote Jefferson, I began to wonder if the whole tale about Sutpen was not a thinly veiled psychoanalysis of Thomas Jefferson and his offspring. So distracted was I by this presumption that I went to a bookstore in my old neighborhood, to see if this link were true. In my hands was Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy (1997). It was supplemented by DNA evidence, which confirmed the theory that our founding father had, in fact, had children with his wife’s sister (after her death), who was one of his slaves. We had been robbed of history because Jefferson had tried to conceal the unseemly parts of his life with falsified legal documents and delayed freedoms. I wanted to get closer to Jefferson, so I went back to the bookstore, and picked up something he had written. Although, The Jefferson Bible: The Life & Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1803), was not written by the former president, but edited by him. The Jefferson Bible was a combination of verses from a select few gospels that told the story of Jesus Christ, without mention of (what Jefferson perceived to be) the fantastical. The narrative fits within the Founding Father’s grasp of reality, underneath that apathetic God-head. The tale begins with Jesus’s parents being taxed. In the end, there was no resurrection. This was not what interested me though, what was in my brain then were these three texts, all-in-one. The City of Jefferson, or the person, peaked between lines 38 and 39 of Book LXVIII in a wildly confused man on a cross, calling out to a dead prophet, Elias. Clarice Lispector I made a new friend in late February. She gave me The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (2015) translated by Katrina Dodson. It was around this time that I had been walking around New York City, with my head in Sharifa Rhodes Pitt’s Harlem Is Nowhere (2011), so my memory of Lispector’s stories was incomplete. I do remember, “Explanation.” I laughed out loud. She wrote (Dodson translated), “Someone read my stories and said that’s not literature, it’s trash. I agree. But there’s a time for everything.” I purchased Machado De Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881, translated by Gregory Rabassa in 1998) and Hilda Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D (1982, translated by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo in 2012). John Keene wrote the introduction, which was funny, because I had just finished his Counternarratives (2016). Hilst’s work reminded me of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. (1964, translated by Idra Novey in 2012)—this made me pick up my copy of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915, translated by John R. Williams in 2011), again. Although, it is hard for me to get through that story now, with all of these other words, from another world, on top of it. Not that the work seems less modern, but I could not get back to the original feeling I’d had when I first read it. Or so it seemed, on certain afternoons. Washington Irving There was one book that stalled my reading in 2017: Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809). I was trying to finish reading it before my stay in New Orleans was to end, this June. Irving had created a character, Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was retelling the history of New York from the beginning of the universe. It was written in lofty prose to mock the Historical Societies of the time. From their pretenses about the origin of man and race to the way they quoted from unreliable yet primary sources, Irving had crafted a witty tale in which the pioneers were would-be-dictators, drunks, and dullards. I can imagine that the publishing of this work meant a great deal to Irving. The year that it was published, the 24-year-old was mourning the loss of his 17-year-old wife. To drive sales, Irving took out advertisements in New York’s newspapers declaring that an old Dutch Historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, had gone missing. The number to Knickerbocker’s hotel was listed for any who had information. Some days passed. Irving took out more ads in the paper declaring, We have not found Knickerbocker, but we have found his manuscript, an inexhaustible history of New York, which we will publish to recoup the cost of his stay. Needless to say, the history was Irving’s novel. [millions_ad] 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
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Paul Goldberg

During the presidential primaries, I picked up a copy of The Art of the Deal. My financial exposure in the deal I made at the cash register was minimal—it was a paperback. My underlying business strategy: I would read that thing in the unlikely event its author would win the Republican nomination. Who knows, it might be possible to gain insight into his mind. Also, quoting Donald Trump could become my parlor trick. And I could annoy my wife and children. I ended up reading that book in the way fundamentalists read the scripture. I hate to admit this, but great fun can be had with The Art of the Deal and a sharp No. 2 pencil. As I did this, I reminded myself that things could be worse. Vladimir Lenin’s complete works are arranged into 45 hefty volumes and Joseph Stalin’s into 16. The margins of my copy of The Art of the Deal are heavily annotated with exclamation marks, all manner of expletives, even miniature drawings. I didn’t just underline—I color-coded. Here is something one can use in daily life: “I like to think big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you are going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” “Old man Goethe could not have done better,” I scribbled on the margins. Also, this from Mr. Trump: “There are people—I categorize them as life’s losers—who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others. As far as I am concerned, if they had any real ability, they wouldn’t be fighting me, they’d be doing something constructive themselves.” My response: “Does this not prepare you for pretty much everything that has happened so far and everything that is about to happen?” And I would be remiss to neglect this: “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.” “Indeed!” I concurred on the margins. Had these lines in The Art of the Deal been uttered by a character in a novel, what would you be able to say about that character? This can be a game. Any writer with a dog-eared copy of the DSM-5 can play. Perhaps a professor at a place like Bard could fashion a lovely workshop to develop this character—how does he live, what does he eat, wear, think? After my fundamentalist reading of Trump, I resolved to make 2017 the year of reading masochistically. I didn’t plan to read dreck. The Art of the Deal was but my starting point. My next step was to torture myself with good stuff. Heeding the call of inner voice, or possibly an inner chorus, I went to my neighborhood bookstore and bought out the entire Bertolt Brecht lineup, figuring that as a Communist who has seen the rise of fascism in Germany and the heyday of McCarthyism in the U.S., Brecht might have something to say. The Brecht selection at the bookstore was surprisingly light. So, I supplemented on AbeBooks, acquiring a stack of slender, pre-loved, pre-underlined tomes Until this year, I experienced Brecht one play at a time. Having self-administered a high dose of Brecht, I felt more than my usual level of anger at the forces of darkness and more than my usual level of resolve to stand up and confront them no matter what the cost. It is with a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction that I must report that I plowed through almost the entire Brecht without even a faint urge to self-mutilate. Disclosure: I am not now nor have I in the past seven years been in therapy. I emerged with confirmation of the not-entirely-surprising notion that political repression is good for literature. At least for a while, it’s good for journalism as well. Ipso facto, had I been voting to advance my professional interests, I would have voted for Trump. [millions_ad] My pile of slender tomes of Brecht included a rarely produced play, Schweik in the Second World War. Brecht took the Czech national hero, a fictional dim-witted World War I soldier named Schweik (spelled Švejk in Czech), and extended his life and adventures into World War II. After going through that play, I found myself turning to the novel that inspired it: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Mine was a fine Russian translation, but I am sure there are great English translations as well. Just make sure you get the copy with cartoons. They are as good as the prose. Is Hašek’s Švejk really a dimwit or is he pretending? We never learn, and it’s entirely possible that the author doesn’t really care about the answer. But we do learn that when the world goes mad, as was the case in World War I, it takes a thick coat of feeblemindedness to remain sane. When Brecht extends the novel to World War II, his Schweik meets Herr Adolf Hitler in the snows of Stalingrad. In Brecht, the chorus always get the best lines: The times will be changing. The intricate plotting Of people in power must finally fail. Like bloodthirsty cocks though today they are strutting The times will be changing, force cannot prevail. There you have it: “Force cannot prevail.” From Brecht’s chorus to God’s ear; yes? Few things are as comforting than determinism. For the record, I would support any proposal to have choruses roam the streets or stand on every street corner and just sing. There is no such thing as too much truth. I am ending the year on a genuinely masochistic note: Ezra Pound. I had the neighborhood bookstore special-order me a copy of The Cantos. As the specter of fascism pops up in places like Charlottesville, it may or may not be relevant to know that it’s possible to be both a fascist and a great American poet. I am still on the early pages, but I am putting my No. 2 pencil to good use, and I picked up a copy of The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, by Daniel Swift, to inject some reality into the situation. Here is what I am able to report so far: The Cantos are incomprehensible, but I am finding some priceless lines. 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
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Heather Scott Partington

A few days after the 2016 presidential election, I did a weird, sobbing thing. I copied Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” onto a card and posted it in my office. “And you, O my Soul, where you stand,/ Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,” I wrote. 2017 began, and that space had become everything; I just sat alone in the middle of it, swaddling myself in anxiety. I blocked myself from reading social media because I was afraid to feel angry about my friends and family. Every day was another national crisis; my husband and I started redirecting our money and attention to newspapers, charities, and organizations that protect —we’ve deemed these civic tithes. But I felt scattered and incapable of sustaining a thought, let alone a life of critical reading, or engagement with my government. I wanted to slip into a dark crack and hide there, unnoticed. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want to move. To borrow from Whitman, my 2017 in reading was about the bridge I needed out of that dark space; the tentative, then hopeful casting of webs until something caught. Two books I read early in the year were bridges for different reasons. Courtney Maum’s novel Touch celebrates a future where the latest trends are freedom from technology, and physical human connection. That thought was a balm. The second was David McCullough’s collection of speeches, The American Spirit. Frankly, it gave me hope because it reminded me that America has been in dire straits before—awful messes—but is built on imperfection and persistence. I was reminded that books are products both of when they are written, and the world they are born into. I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phenomenal short story collection, The Refugees, the same week the president first cruelly called for a ban on all refugees entering the country. Many books I read—both fiction and nonfiction—in 2017 started to coalesce around the same idea: we don’t believe each other. Whether we’re talking about political needs, or allowing immigration, or honoring the story of someone who has been abused, belief is the central tenet of the conversation. Nguyen’s stories, like Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, Hillary Clinton’s post-election memoir, What Happened, Mohsin Hamid’s magical novel Exit West, and Jesús Carrasco’s novel, Out in the Open, all deal in some way with the questioning of personal truth. This makes sense to me, given how we’ve treated truth like a toy for the last 10 years. I find that exhausting. I caught up on titles I’ve missed from years past, finally immersing myself in things like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo like everyone else and, like everyone else, was amazed. Two books from 2017 that stood out were Attica Locke’s smart thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, which moves beyond easy tropes of good guy/bad guy to tackle real issues of race in East Texas, and Andrea Lawlor’s gutsy, hopeful, gender- and shapeshifting novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. I read wonderful books by people I adore: Liska Jacobs’s novel, Catalina, Tod Goldberg’s sequel to Gangsterland, Gangster Nation, JoAnn Chaney’s thriller, What You Don’t Know, Natashia Deón’s novel, Grace, Deanne Stillman’s historical nonfiction Blood Brothers, and Elizabeth Crane’s short story collection Turf. I read a funny memoir about a brain tumor: Mike Scalise’s The Brand New Catastrophe. I read Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints and wondered if I’ll ever be the kind of critic I want to be. But all of these books were daring, moving, life affirming. And when I couldn’t handle the all-conflict-no-resolution scroll of social media, these words brought me back to myself and back to a sense of my place in the world. If there’s a slow words movement, like slow food, I want to join it. Most importantly: This summer I attended a teacher institute at the Library of Congress, and worked on a research project about the WPA Federal Writers’ Project—a time when our government prioritized putting writers to work by having them collect personal histories and write regional guides—writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. I knew that the Library has a vast array of online and physical resources, but what I didn’t know is that it relies on an almost parallel network of human historians. As I navigated my way through the various reading rooms, I was guided by experts in American Folklife who showed me slides of Hurston in Florida and played recordings of her singing; I was handed boxes of photographs of Federal Writers’ Project Book Fairs by WPA experts in the Prints and Photographs room, and in Manuscripts, an excited WPA expert pulled four boxes of FWP minutes, hand-written notes, and records for me to read. I kept wondering why they were letting me look at all of that stuff. (What if I sneezed on something?) But all I needed was my library card. My most powerful moment in reading was sitting in those quiet, beige rooms in D.C. with American history in my hands. Libraries are still a beautiful democracy of ideas. Despite the sky falling every day in 2017, we have that. It was the thread of connection I needed. O my soul. 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? 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Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Patty Yumi Cottrell

This year I have been keeping a list. The first book I read was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. A friend recommended it and she was right. This slim novel is very funny. I went on to read more books by Muriel Spark, like The Finishing School and The Driver’s Seat. I remember trying to read Memento Mori at a café with a woman I had a crush on, and I couldn’t read it. I stared down at the same page for an hour. I’m sure it’s a good book! I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year in Los Angeles with the digressive and maddening Javier Marías: A Heart So White, All Souls, The Infatuations, Dark Back of Time. By the summer, I was living in a sublet in Brooklyn. In that shabby room crowded with mood boards and Zen trinkets, I read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, a grotesque, startling vision of contemporary life on this planet, and The Answers by Catherine Lacey, a gorgeous and incisive account of people struggling to answer impossible questions about what it means to be a flawed human in relation to other flawed humans. A couple months ago, I moved from a sublet in Brooklyn to a place in Ditmas Park. I read Taipei by Tao Lin, which is one of the most uncomfortable and awkward books I’ve ever encountered. It moved me. I adore it. My friend Brandon Shimoda, a poet, sent me his journal. He printed it out and mailed it to me in a priority envelope. He writes about dreams, walking, his impressions of people on the bus, etc. Sample entry: “Couldn’t care less about poetry or its mind, I just want to make things out of trash and give it all away.” And finally: Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard. Sarah Gerard is a writer who also happens to be a detective, an intellectual, and a hobo. Her collection of essays about Florida, religion, friendship, sex, and eccentric people and their questionable activities made me perceive the world in a different way. I fell in love with her, so I might be kind of biased. 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 [millions_ad]
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Kara Levy

For me, there are two types of reading urges: the impulse to read the mirror of your life, and impulse to forget your life by reading yourself out of it. This year I was lucky enough to read a book that did both. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo may be a play about ghosts with an undead president, a spectre with a giant erect penis on display, and enough puns to light up the night sky, but it’s anything but slapstick. This is everything humor can and should be: the mirror, the escape, the heartbreaker and the thing that makes you shout “Ha!” on public transportation. (No one even turned around, but that’s the San Francisco BART for you.) Lincoln in the Bardo is as close to a perfect book as I can imagine. I have now read it about five times, which either says something bad about me or great about this book. I also read two phenomenal story collections this year. Both were in the “mirror of your life” category—though often a kind of fun-house mirror. First, I re-read Katie Chase’s Man and Wife. Sometimes I lie awake thinking about these stories. They’re not just about what it means to have a female body in this world, but about female consciousness, female expectations, and female desires. And Katie does it all with a dry wit and beautiful concision that will make you wish you wrote this collection. I also read Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow. Fiction is so often complimented for being unsentimental, but this collection leaps into sex, disgust, desire, and betrayal as though it were a ball pit full of M&Ms. If you’re ready to escape your life, I highly recommend two very different novels: Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. Borne takes you into a post-apocalyptic world where the protagonist questions every step she takes—but not the existence and good will of an otherworldly, amorphous being. Totally creative, weird, funny, and suspenseful—I didn’t think one time about my looming deadlines or the contents of my child’s lunchbox. Manhattan Beach, like all of Jennifer Egan’s work, was researched and executed so beautifully that the absorption is total. Not a detail out of place to make you think you aren’t really on the dock of a '40s shipyard with a sick sister at home and a mysteriously missing father. 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 [millions_ad]
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Shanthi Sekaran

2017. The best I can say for 2017 is that it showed us new and unexpected ways to be punched in the stomach. But there were good things. I’ll focus on the good things. My book came out, for one. My kids grew a few inches. My kids, period. I discovered non-dairy cashew ice cream. I met Eva Longoria. That was cool. I met Mohsin Hamid, whose every book I’ve read, including his latest, Exit West, a spare and sublime fairy tale steeped in the realism of civil war and refugee flight. 2017 was also the year I found two fantastic writing partners. We met almost every Wednesday at a café in Oakland for writing and no talking, followed by lunch and non-stop talking. One of those writers is Nayomi Munaweera, whose first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, I finally got around to reading. You know when your friend writes a play or belts out a song or makes a working beehive out of marzipan and you’re like, “Oh, good God”? I read most of this novel sitting stick-straight, my mouth agape, quietly cursing. Yes, I’d known about the Sri Lankan Civil War, but only vaguely. I knew Tamils were involved, because I’m half Tamil, but that's where my knowledge ended. This book took my marginal knowledge, fashioned it into a dagger, and drove it straight into my chest. It gives us the stories of both Sinhalese and Tamil families before, after, and during the war. The bloodshed is brutal and perpetrated by both sides, and it spills over family loyalties, inter-community romance, and post-migratory memory. When it came to reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy’s first novel in 20 years, I thought I was on stronger footing. I know India. I’ve written about India. I know Indian history. But Roy forced me to look at Indian progress in a way that was both uncomfortable and revelatory. She looks past the facades of India’s vast new malls, its gleaming tech centers and hotels; she takes us out the back door to meet the people who’ve been left behind because they don’t fit the contours of shiny new India. Her novel offers up contemporary India on an overladen platter, to be considered not for its particularities, but for its panorama. While Roy’s novel is about the intentional blindness necessitated by economic development, Chilean author Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red takes on the experience of actually going blind—something that happened to the author herself. What got to me, ironically, was the book’s vision. It’s not often that I read something that provides such pleasure merely through perspective. Lina, the narrator, establishes instant intimacy with her reader, who has no choice but to follow, like someone strapped to a toboggan, hurtling through the viscerality of going blind (suddenly, bloodily) and the interpersonal crises that ensue. I turned 40 this year. Not much of a surprise there. I pretty much knew it was going to happen. One thing I didn’t expect was a package in the mail with a book in it and no indication of who sent it to me. This wasn’t a galley seeking a blurb. This was an old book, its cover tattered and faded. The edition was printed in 1956. The title was Gift from the Sea: An Answer to the Conflicts in Our Lives,  by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (wife of Charles). It was a beautiful thing to receive, its mystery compounding its beauty. It’s not often I get to read old books; my reading and writing lives are steeped in the contemporary. Gift from the Sea is a sort of manual on living and seeking contentment. But it doesn’t claim to have any answers. It elegantly, and quite humbly, invites its reader to think quietly alongside it, like two people on a beach. In February, I picked up a book called The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan, an Irish writer who lives in California now. I have a thing for the Irish generally, and for Irish literature, specifically. Rohan’s book takes on the issue of teenage suicide, a growing epidemic in Ireland. The story itself is less about the decision to die than the decision to live. It’s told through the eyes of Billy Brennan, a morbidly obese man whose son has recently killed himself. We meet Billy as he decides to take control of his body, and to stage a long-distance walk to raise awareness for suicide, a notion that some find inspiring and others—including Billy’s own family—find distasteful. What I love most about this book is the way it grapples with the discomforts of tragedy—the embarrassment that often closes a suffocating fist around family trauma. What results is a novel that embraces possibility, and champions a man burdened by grief, but brave enough to naysay the naysayers. And then there was the day in July when I went to Pegasus Books in Berkeley. I picked up Winter Journal by Paul Auster. To be honest, I picked it up because I’ve always loved the picture on its cover: black and white, taken sometime in the 60s, Auster with that dark-ringed serial killer gaze, his lower lip thrust out brattishly, brooding and Heathcliffian. I turn back to the book now, and try to find the sentences that first grabbed me, that made it impossible to put that book down. Because that’s what happened. I’d never been much of an Auster fan, but there was something about that book. Looking back, I see that there was no single magical sentence, but a propulsion of sentences, a frank and snowballing narrative that was impossible to put down. Written in the second person, the book is a meditation on aging bodies, aging hearts. I took Winter Journal on vacation with me. I read it mostly in a hammock. I didn’t put it down for six days. Books on aging, books on childhood. Mostly, I read books for children. Hundreds, maybe, each year. I read to my two sons every night. This was the year I finally threw a Power Rangers book in the recycling bin. I hated that book. My four-year-old loved it. I don’t feel guilty. I couldn’t read that book one more time. Not one more time. The children’s books I did love from this year: The Mysterious Benedict Society, Nicholas and the Gang, Wonder, and Frog and Toad Are Friends. I will always, always, go back to Frog and Toad. And there were so many other books I haven’t even started to talk about: Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua, The End of My Career by Martha Grover, Get It While You Can by Nick Jaina, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, Broad Strokes by Bridget Quinn, A Good Country  by Laleh Khadivi.  The year doesn’t sound so bad, if I look only at the books. Maybe this will be how I survive 2018—looking only at the books, hearing and speaking only their words. But books are physical manifestations of vision’s triumph. The writers above have dared to sift through blindness, to look and to report what they see. And isn’t this what books are? Missives from the front lines? But I need a break. I need to not see. This winter, I will hibernate. I’ll watch pointless comedies. I’ll read horoscopes like they’re The Bible. Maybe I’ll read The Bible. And then I’ll return. 2018. I’ll return, ready to see again. 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 [millions_ad]
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Jamel Brinkley

2017 has been another year of transition for me. After living in Madison, Wisc., for only a year, I moved out to California. It’s been strange and a little unsettling to move farther and farther away from my family and friends in New York. I’ve also felt anxious because teaching duties in Madison and Iowa City, a fairly demanding new job I’ve taken on to pay the bills, and edits for my forthcoming debut story collection have kept me from writing any new fiction. And then, of course, there’s been the nightmarish daily assault of Donald Trump, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, gun violence... The list goes on. Thank goodness for independent bookstores! A Room of One’s Own, Skylight Books, Eso Won Books, and The Last Bookstore helped new cities feel more like home. Greenlight Bookstore and Prairie Lights Books have been priority stops whenever I dipped back to Brooklyn or Iowa City. Thank goodness for books. Here are some that have ushered me through a challenging year: A People on the Cover by Glenn Ligon The Mountain by Paul Yoon Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe Exit West by Mohsin Hamid The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar New People by Danzy Senna Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson The Changeling by Victor LaValle What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons Afterland by Mai Der Vang What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing by Margot Livesey Idaho by Emily Ruskovich Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke Bestiary by Donika Kelly Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado Play Dead by francine j. harris Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott 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 [millions_ad]
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Michael David Lukas

A few weeks ago, thinking back on my Year in Reading for the purposes of this post, I realized something I’m kind of ashamed to admit. I don’t think I read any books in 2017. I read a whole lot of magazine articles and short stories. I read for research. I read for work, for classes I taught. I was a screener for the NEA fellowship. And I listened to a whole bunch of audiobooks. But did I actually sit down and read a real (print) book for pleasure? I may have. It’s possible. I just can’t say for sure. For a variety of reasons—writing and teaching and parenting a toddler and trying to be a good partner in spite of all that—the majority of my pleasure reading in 2017 was via audiobook. I could write a whole post on the pros and cons of listening to literature while running or walking my dog, the different readers, how much I appreciate my local libraries for providing the service, and how 90 percent of the time I still buy print versions of the books I listen to on Overdrive. But that’s not what Year in Reading is all about. So, enough about my habits of literary consumption. What about the books themselves? Of all the books I read this past year, the one I keep coming back to, the one I can’t shake, the one I recommend to anyone who will listen, is Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It’s a relatively simple story, set in an unnamed city that could be anywhere in the Middle East or South Asia (but made me think of Aleppo). Boy meets girl, boy and girl hook up, rebels invade the city, girl moves in with boy and his father for complicated reasons, boy and girl decide to leave the city through a mysterious portal, boy and girl try to make a new life in the West amidst growing resentment of refugees like themselves. But the straightforwardness of the plot and the fable-like quality of the narration belie a certain radical empathy at the heart of the book. As Hamid points out in a recent interview with The Nation: Nobody’s going to say that today in Pakistan, 16 million mothers kissed their kids goodnight, 5 million musicians practiced their musical instruments, and 833,000 people fell in love for the first time. They’re going to say that today in Pakistan somebody killed five other people with a bomb. Now, that is true, but it is a fundamental omission of so much information. In addition to its many purely aesthetic achievements, Exit West forces us to see (and empathize with) a group of people we might prefer to look away from. And it forces us to see them as individuals, as mothers kissing their children goodnight and young people falling in love. It’s unfortunate that Exit West is so relevant. But given the world we live in—a world with 60 million refugees and internally displaced people; 60 million people, each one of whom was forced to leave his or her home and life behind—it’s hard to think of a more important book for 2017. A couple of years ago, during a conversation about post-apocalyptic novels, a student of mine suggested that I might like A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., a 1960s science fiction novel about a group of monks who keep the seeds of science and civilization alive for thousands of years after a devastating nuclear war. I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical at first. It sounded like one of those high-concept hard sci-fi novels that sacrifice character and prose on the altar of plot. But eventually I got around to the book and I sure am glad I did. It’s a strange and beautiful and deeply humanistic novel that unsettled me for months after I put it down. Think Isaac Asimov’s Foundation meets Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. If you don’t like “the more speculative genres,” you might have a hard time getting through certain sections. But on the whole, it’s an amazing book, way under-read, and deeply relevant for these pre-apocalyptic times. In addition to being my year of the audiobook, 2017 was also the year I finished working on my second novel (a polyphonic, multigenerational book centered on a 1,000-year-old synagogue in Cairo). So it’s only right, I think, to give a shout out to two wonderful scholarly works that were my constant companions during the seven years it took me to write the novel. The first is Sacred Trash by Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman, a beautifully written and researched academic history that follows multiple generations of scholars working on an enormous cache of documents found in the attic of the synagogue at the center of my novel. The second is A Mediterranean Society by S.D. Goitein, an eight-volume scholarly behemoth that uses these same documents as its source material. Sifting through thousands of scraps of paper—letters and marriage contracts, business agreements and shopping lists, magic spells and prayer books—Goitein conjures up a meticulously detailed portrait of the vibrant, cosmopolitan society that was medieval Cairo. And finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the author I read most this year: Sandra Boynton. You may know her from Moo, Baa, La La La or Blue Hat, Green Hat. Once you’ve seen her work, you’ll recognize it anywhere. All those cheerful round animals—hippos, cows, sheep, and pigs—dancing and eating and generally being silly. In a year’s worth of bedtimes, I must have read Hippos Go Berserk! and What’s Wrong Little Pookie? 100 times each. And more than once, sitting there with my daughter on my lap, her thumb in her mouth, reading about barnyard animals or bellybuttons or earnest little pigs who forget why they are sad, I thought, this is as good as it gets. If that isn’t enough to recommend a book, I don’t know what is. 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 [millions_ad]
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Morgan Jerkins

This year has been a tremendously difficult one for millions across the country as we figured out how to recalibrate our boundaries towards resistance and self-care, protecting ourselves while defending others, and making time for laughter in the midst of a trash-fire administration. For anyone who has been involved with books, this new political landscape has made it difficult for authors, particularly those with debuts, to have a strong opening, as the cultural window kept shuttering around any and everything that did not relate to he-who-shall-not-be-named and a sum total of our political opinions. Yet still, books have prevailed. And they always will, because they are necessary for guidance, transportation, and understanding. I am proud to say that the majority of the books I’ve read this year was written by women. Immediately in January, I devoured Difficult Women by Roxane Gay within a few days. Homesick for Another World and The Book of Joan were two outlandish works of art that will stay with me for a long time because I feel like despite completing them, there may have been some details that I might have missed, which may or may not give me an entirely new experience while reading them once more. I read All The Lives I Want by my dear friend Alana Massey, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, and Hunger. Then I read works that delved deeply into the intricacies of family politics, such as Goodbye, Vitamin, What We Lose, Sing, Unburied, Sing, and The Rules Do Not Apply.  I also read some entertaining debuts, such as Start-Up, Marlena,  and Sour Heart, while reading recent works from more established authors, such as Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women and Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up. There’s still so much I need to finish: Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and the Nasty Women anthology, and so much more. But the aforementioned books are those that I remember so vividly, whether I was taking a voyage to Brooklyn, reading as I waited for my tapas at a Barcelona restaurant, or having quiet time away from family back in New Jersey. I hope that they will do the same for you. 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 [millions_ad]