Year in Reading

A Year In Reading: Nick Moran

In Jeff VanderMeer's Area X trilogy, characters grow unhinged and obsessed. One undergoes a psychosis so fully that he physically morphs into a massive, slug-like creature wholly consumed with the task of writing on cavern walls with a glow-in-the-dark, living "ink." The trilogy is fantastic not only in its plotting and characterization, but also in its depiction of this particular kind of creeping madness -- this transformation from mundane to alien -- and how that transformation begins gradually, then hastens, and becomes permanent. It's striking how believable VanderMeer makes it seem. You read and think to yourself, could this happen to me? Well, yes. Consider: Three years ago I vowed to only read books based on, written in, or otherwise concerning the state of Florida. (I've mentioned this before.) It started out quaint enough. I worked my way through Peter Matthiessen, John D.MacDonald, Thomas McGuane, Carl Hiaasen, Padgett Powell, Charles Willeford, and almost all of Joy Williams. I got a Key West-themed bookmark and savored Elizabeth Bishop's Florida poems. I sought out recommendations from friends, and that's how I discovered Jennine Capó Crucet, Craig Pittman, and Nick Vagnoni. My to-read pile soon warranted its own shelf, and that shelf soon annexed others. Now I have a Florida bookcase, and certain shelves within that Florida bookcase are home to works on certain Floridian sub-themes: football (inarguably the best in the country!), nature (arguably the best in the country!), and politics (inarguably the worst in the country!). Tchotchkes have accumulated. I have a staple remover that looks like an alligator's mouth; I have a backscratcher that looks like an alligator's claw. My refrigerator has a lot of magnets featuring anthropomorphic suns. (Question: Why do anthropomorphic suns always wear sunglasses?) A few months back, I began a series of paintings based on Florida's wildlife. I hadn't painted in more than a decade, but suddenly I had the itch. Florida's crept into my spinal column -- slithered in like an invasive boa constrictor -- and coiled itself around my brainstem. I start each day with an email round-up of Florida's news headlines. I end most days with a different one. I imagine Florida cinched around my medulla, throbbing once to let me know there's a book about the state's foreclosure crisis, or secreting sucrotic refinery byproduct to let me know Dave Barry's got a new book out. (It wasn't as good as Pittman's.) To return to the VanderMeer analogy: consider me your alien man-slug, obsessively slinking deeper down into the cavern of insanity, fixated only on complete submergence into all things Sunshine. Much like how people don't so much inhabit Florida as they bruise her, an interest in Florida leaves visible marks as well. Fortunately, Florida as a concept inspires a lot of works for me to read, and Florida as an incubator of talent produces a lot of creative people. I've had little trouble finding new things to read. While I've gone through most of the well-known books, I'm now happy to investigate the deeper cuts. Everybody knows about Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but how many have read Don Blanding's Floridays? People the world over are interested in the Everglades, but how many would willingly read a crappy e-book written by something no less Floridian: a C-grade club promoter? How many of you would read Burt Reynolds's memoir solely because he went to Florida State University? I'm mostly unashamed to say: I would, and I have. By now, it may be hard to take me seriously, but hang on. Less well-known Florida works aren't all bad. There are rabbits in the muck if you're willing to chase them down. The carcasses of boars and headless goats wash ashore with the tides, but so does Cafe Bustelo. And while I'd argue that sifting through the filth to get to the treasure heightens your enjoyment of those riches (and probably also builds character), I realize not everyone has the time or inclination to consume so indiscriminately. Therefore, what follows is a list of the three best lesser-known Florida-related books I've read this year. Enjoy! Naked in Garden Hills by Harry Crews. Determining Crews's finest Florida novel is a conversation best had with a well-read friend over a couple drinks, preferably in a public place just in case tempers do flare to the point where witnesses might be needed. I won't try to do that here, but I submit that Naked in Garden Hills is the Crews novel that's most representative of Florida, or at least the qualities we've come to accept as particularly Floridian: unsettling strangeness and capitalism's worst effects. Set in a weird, sunken town built on an abandoned phosphate pit and populated by all sorts of bizarre characters -- one is reminded, in a way, of the "Humbug" X-Files episode -- Naked in Garden Hills tracks the forsaken also-rans left behind after corporations leech the life out of a place and leave only its husk behind. Nine Island by Jane Alison. Sex is essential to Miami, but Alison's treatment is wholly distinct from the more typical, desirous leer of authors like Tom Wolfe. Nine Island concerns an older, divorced woman living alone in a Miami Beach high-rise, determined to find happiness, but at times uncertain of her ability to do so. It interrogates the relationships between solitude and loneliness, sexual desire and actual sex, and youth and wisdom. It's a delight. I took three of Alison's writing courses years ago at the University of Miami, and in one of them she had us read Susan Minot's excellent story, "Lust," in which a woman matter-of-factly catalogs her sexual partners. Her voice is fascinating: both playful and bleak; simultaneously celebrating conquest while acknowledging the complicated, often painful feelings wrought from the pursuit and consummation of desire. Toward the end, that voice shifts from first to the second person, and with that shift the speaker's lessons gleaned from years of her own sexual activity are transformed into universal prescriptions -- personal memories turned to generalized ache and forlorn warning. In Nine Island, Alison's taken elements of "Lust" and not only stretched them out, but reoriented them -- taken a young woman's premature world-weariness and transferred it to a woman farther along in life, with more experience under her belt and less time for self-pity. Eight Miami Poets from Jai Alai Books. As a rule, every New York Times article about Miami is absolute trash (and now that it's Art Basel week, it's doubly true). I believed that even before they ran that condescending opinion piece last year. Indeed, I've come to expect a level of dismissal from all New York-based publications when it comes to evaluations of Miami's cultural scene. Perhaps it's jealousy? Miami is much prettier than New York, and there's no denying it smells better. Yet even still, I was unprepared for a blithe statement quoted by Elizabeth Kolbert in her otherwise interesting New Yorker article about climate change's effects on Magic City. The line, spoken by a Miami resident (who should know better!) was: “I’m sure if we had poets, they’d be writing about the swallowing of Miami Beach by the sea.” Man, what are you talking about!? Miami has tons of poetry; it has an entire month dedicated to it! In fact, as Exhibit A in the case against this man, I offer as evidence Jai Alai Books's terrific anthology, Eight Miami Poets, featuring the work of Miami-Dade County-based writers. Topics covered: opioid addiction, palmetto bugs, and, yes, the existential threat of sea-level rise. I rest my case. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

In August of this year, my president, Barack Hussein Obama, wrote: We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.  We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women...And yes, it’s important that [Sasha and Malia’s] dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.  (Glamour, August 4, 2016) Sigh. This year my Year in Reading selections are themed: fathers and daughters. The topic is close to home: the father-daughter relationships in both my novels -- Long for This World and The Loved Ones -- are central. Not all the following fictional father-daughter bonds are as beautiful or evolved as the first family’s, but they are all complex and memorable. These fathers and daughters are flawed, some painfully so, yet there is an honesty and a messy striving in these depictions that I find compelling. The 1955 novella Bonjour Tristesse -- a delicious, devastating anti-coming-of-age tale written by Françoise Sagan when she was 17 years old -- tops my list. Cécile (also 17), her father, and his mistress du jour take a villa on the Mediterranean for the summer. In her own words, Cécile’s father Raymond, a 40 year-old widower, is a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and very attractive to women. It was easy for me to love him for he was kind, generous, gay and fond of me. Father and daughter are similarly flawed -- self-centered, hedonistic, driven too much and too often by a need for “physical charms” at the expense of intelligence or moral depth.  Thus Cécile “cannot imagine a better or more amusing companion.” American readers in particular -- now as then -- will judge Raymond harshly, as indulgent and inappropriate and oblivious to fatherly responsibility. For these very reasons, I confess I find Raymond, Cécile’s relationship with him, and the narrative perspective on both (Cécile’s retrospective but not fully illuminated first-person point-of-view) not just refreshing, but persuasive.  In an era of helicopter parenting and an oppressive parenting industry, the absence of all that striving by this duo to be anything but themselves means an implicit bond/trust between them that one can’t help but give its due: it’s them against the world.  Both do behave badly, and others suffer seriously as a result.  The brilliance of the novel, I think, is its power to reflect back to the reader how much you care about the damage the pair causes versus the assertion of their essential selves.  Diane Johnson, in her introduction, implies that the reader unequivocally does, is meant to, read through the narrator -- assess her failures from a wiser, morally superior vantage point -- and internalize a cautionary tale of weakness of soul. I’m not so sure, myself; ambiguity teems in the subtext, and as far as I’m concerned, herein lies the elegant technical achievement of a prodigy’s debut -- the first of Sagan’s 30 novels to come. Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel, Home Field, shows us just how tragic the unbridgeable gap between a father and daughter can be, when connection is desperately needed and the disconnect no one’s fault.  Under the best of circumstances, Dean and his teenage daughter, Stephanie, would fail to connect: he is the high school football coach, a hero in a small town and wholly absorbed in his devotion to his players, while Stephanie doesn’t much care for the sport at all.  When Dean’s wife/Stephanie’s mother, Nicole, commits suicide, all bets are off as each family member is sent reeling into remote grief.  Stephanie goes off to her freshman year in college, which lets Dean off the hook, sort of.  In the short-term he reaches for another woman, as well as a kind of unconscious replacement for Stephanie in his niece.  Then, when Stephanie suffers a bad acid trip while at school, and he isn’t home to receive the emergency call from Stephanie’s roommate, Dean’s uselessness comes into stark relief. Gersen doesn’t tidy any of this up easily. Her novel has been compared to the TV series Friday Night Lights, but whereas the show -- of which I am a huge fan -- leans YA in its goodness-prevails outlook, Home Field allows characters to scatter and come together more quietly: the violent loss hits each family member uniquely, and in the end it’s mere proximity and watchfulness that they can offer one another: “Dean got a glimpse of what [Stephanie] would look like when she was older, and for the first time he could picture her in the world, the adult world.” In Rion Amilcar Scott’s “202 Checkmates,” my favorite story from his powerful debut collection, Insurrections, a 12 year-old girl and her downtrodden father find absorption and shared passion in the game of chess: “We both hunched over the board. There was no world outside the both of us, outside of this game.”  The layering of a coming-of-age, working-class, black family struggle, and the complicated, aching need children have to both admire and conquer their parents is beautifully done here.  The mother character is somehow both backgrounded and heartbreakingly blaring as she whisper-harangues her husband for encouraging their daughter toward chess instead of schoolwork, and for spending money on a marble chess set when he is chronically underemployed. Father and daughter reach together toward something beyond mere survival -- toward mental vitality and mastery and delight.  The tension that builds toward the story’s end anticipates the reader’s conflicting investments perfectly, and the resolution satisfies just as well. One stunning father-daughter portrayal this year came not through a book but across my screen, via French maîtresse-filmmaker Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum.  Here -- as in her wonderful earlier film U.S. Go Home, which focuses on a brother-sister relationship -- Denis explores her interest in the romantic shades of familial love. Lionel -- a widowed métro train driver and West African migrant -- and his daughter, Josephine -- a university student in anthropology whose mother was German -- might be seen as a working-class version of Sagan’s Raymond and Céline: they have a special intimacy, it’s them against the world, and they’re each fearful of imagining life without the other.  Unlike their privileged, indulgent counterparts, however, Lionel and Josephine see that they must try harder to connect with humanity, and their own hearts' desires, beyond the safety of their love.  Denis -- a master of complex emotional layers in the guise of simple stories -- seems to laud that effort while simultaneously rendering its emotional cost and the uncertainty of its result. Re: Daniel Paisner’s A Single Happened Thing, published this past spring, I’d like first to set the record straight: despite its cover art and the characters’ extreme passion for the sport, it is not “a baseball novel.”  Not solely or primarily, anyway. (Paisner and I share a publisher, which is how I came to read the book, and I’m thankful, since, given its basebally veneer, it may otherwise have passed me by.)  Rather A Single Happened Thing is a poignant and whimsical story about a man, David Felb, stalled at middle age, who anxiously doubts then gives himself over to the possibility of a fantastical visitation upon his unremarkable life. The central question Paisner asks via Felb’s story is, What happens when you are carried into a nether realm of anything-goes, and your loved ones are not willing to come along with you?  In David Felb’s case, it is his wife, Nellie, who becomes wary of him; but his daughter, 15 year-old Iona, hitches her heart to her father’s leap of faith.  Paisner’s novel walks the sad, beautiful line that children walk when they love both parents and know that “sides” are forming; it also allows us to feel for Nellie all that Felb himself feels -- love, longing, disappointment.  Iona’s evolving originality and girl-power intelligence leap off the page, reminding us that parents often pour the best of their own remarkableness into their children; and that ain’t nothin. Plus, if the same happens also to apply to Sasha and Malia Obama vis-à-vis their parents’ best, then look out, world: we absolutely do have hope for the future. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

In honor of -- or in dismay at -- Oxford Dictionaries announcing “post-truth” as the word of the year, I thought I’d highlight books that dove headlong into fiction, books that are set, quite literally, in the land of literature. In Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows, a work comprising 34 sections, the narrator resides in an upper story of “the house of fiction” along with like-minded writers. Henry James’s name naturally comes up frequently in their conversations, but, as the narrator dryly notes, another subject is avoided: “The word plot is seldom heard in the sporadic discussions that take place in the upper corridor of this remote wing of this building that remains largely unfamiliar to most of us.” A Million Windows is, among other things, a primer on narratology, though when the narrator looks at a chart produced by a renowned German narratologist, it brings to mind an “inscrutable calendar or sky-map from a civilization long since vanished.” The narrator’s primary contention, however, is far from inscrutable: There is an unbridgeable divide between the real, or “visible,” world and the fictional, or “invisible,” world -- each operating under an incompatible set of principles. Both sets of principles are mystifying to the narrator, but “I could never doubt that those in the one differ greatly from those in the other and could never consider any writer claiming otherwise to be anything but a fool.” There are many such fools. The narrator has little patience for social novelists, “the paraphrasers of yesterday’s newspaper headlines: those who write, often with what is praised as moral indignation or incisive social commentary, about matters that none of us in this building has ever understood, let alone wanted to comment on.” Confessional novelists, whose works “might have passed for documentary films, with themselves as subject-matter,” don’t impress him either. (No Karl Ove Knausgaard on his Christmas list.) He shows a grudging respect for a writer like Charles Dickens and the “control that [he] and others exercised over their characters,” yet views his own lack of control as liberating, admiring Evelyn Waugh’s remark that he had never entertained the least interest in why his characters behaved as they did. The principled narrator technically cohabitates with romance novelists in the house of two or three stories, but late night assignations are unlikely: “Somewhere in this building is a colony of writers of this sort of fiction, although none of us has sought to learn where.” The narrator distrusts easy mimeticism, railing against the “faulty fiction” that draws on filmic techniques to set the scene: “What happens in the mind of the reader of true fiction is richer and more memorable by far than anything seen through the lens of a camera or overheard by an author in a bar or a trailer park.” Dialog is a no-no for a variety of reasons: because it makes the text look like a “filmscript;” allows the writer to avoid “struggl[ing] with a report of elusive or abstruse matters;” and, crucially, is a device that “most readily persuades the undiscerning reader that the purpose of fiction is to provide the nearest possible equivalents of experiences obtainable in this, the visible world where books are written and read.” As a result, the narrator and his ilk react with palpable disgust opening dialog-heavy books, “the sight of quotation marks looking like swarms of flies...” An Ivy Compton Burnett novel would thus be a festering carcass. What, then, distinguishes “true” fiction from “faulty” fiction? A Million Windows answers this question by defining and then exhibiting what true fiction looks like. First the definition -- or rather one of many: We sense that true fiction is more likely to include what was overlooked or ignored or barely seen or felt at the time of its occurrence but comes continually to mind ten or twenty years afterwards not on account of its having long ago provoked passion or pain but because of its appearing to be part of a pattern of meaning that extends over much of a lifetime. A certain Keatsian receptivity is required, the willingness to obey the apparitions delivering the following command: “Write about me in order to discover my secret and to learn what throng of images, as yet invisible, lie around me.” There are tantalizing snippets of these “haunters,” or “ghosts above the pages,” or “casters of fictional shadows” -- all terms used to emphasize the absolute otherworldliness of the fictional realm and its inhabitants. Primary among these is the narrator’s mother, who “for reasons that he could never afterwards recall...was not to be trusted.” (Trust -- in narrators, people, readers -- is a main theme.) The mother is the first in a series of dark-haired haunters who bewitch him. In some cases, a brief glimpse of a stranger is enough: “A few strands of hair and a small area of skin of a certain colour had started him on a detailed mental enterprise that occupied much of his free time for two years.” (With so little else to grasp onto, colors become almost more important than characters.) There are two ways to read A Million Windows. One would be to recoil at the narrator’s ostentatiously recondite, and rigid, vision of fiction and stubbornly defend the meticulously choreographed plots, intense identification with characters, genre fiction, film, and prestige television. Or, as the “discerning reader” mentioned throughout the novel, you could marvel at the narrator’s ostentatiously recondite, and rigid, vision of fiction, then, before picking up another Murnane -- say, Inland -- treat yourself to a cozy mystery, perhaps set in a house of two or three stories with numberless windows. And now for something completely different...yet another work of the fictional landscape made manifest: Christopher Boucher’s Golden Delicious. The novel takes place in the town of Appleseed, Mass., or rather in the pages of Appleseed. Plentiful stories used to grow in the once fertile soil, and “wild language” ran through the streets, prompting parents to enact “no language-in-the-house policies.” But a blight has struck Appleseed, and the ground is filled with “dead language...commas, semicolons, fragments, wordbones, and other carcasses.” Meanwhile, bookworms, with their unparalleled “ability to metaphor,” have infiltrated the town and spread their rot into language, rendering sentences incoherent and threatening to destroy the lifeblood of the economy: meaning. The narrative world runs riot with personifications. A certain War is said to have died after a truce, though rumors persist that he lives on. The narrator loses his virginity to the Appleseed Community Theater: “The scene happened so quickly; soon it was one spotlight, then several, and then all the light, bright hot white, and then curtains and applause, and darkness.” And the description of an automobile as “a strange metaphor of a vehicle, assembled from pieces and parts of others cars” reminded me of a friend’s elegant, turnpike-inspired simile that forever solidified for me the distinction between a metaphor’s tenor and vehicle: “My love for you is like a truck.” Yes, the novel is clotted with whimsy, and some readers won’t find its wit, or scenes of non-whimsical menace, sufficient to counteract the glut. But for me the fanciful novel managed to walk the tightrope, stumbling but never falling into the cloying abyss. And now for something even more completely different...I’ve been paging through an edition of The Voynich Manuscript (Beinecke MS 408), a baffling 15th-century book of “herbal, astrological, balneological (relating to healing baths), and pharmacological” drawings accompanied by an impenetrable text that has never been decoded. The manuscript was once purchased for the low price of 600 ducats by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who thought it to be a work by Roger Bacon; centuries later, a shadowy rare books dealer and revolutionary by the name of Wilfrid Michael Voynich got his hands on it. Yale University’s Beinecke Library has the book now. The Voynich MS is not a work of fiction -- though it very well may be a hoax -- and yet there is something of the fictional imagination at play, a commitment to a private truth expressed in a private, indecipherable way. The sui generis manuscript contains a world unto itself. In one section, a series of nude women bathe in green water, in blue water, in communal or private tubs, posed in foot baths or sticking their arms in an octopus-like contraption of pipes and funnels. What Whitmanian raptures, or hygienic tips, does the surrounding text reveal? We will probably never know. William Friedman, “the world’s greatest cryptologist” who led the U.S. effort to break Japanese codes in World War II, tried to solve the riddle over many years. His final statement on the matter expressed “the futility of searching for anagrammatic ciphers,” and the statement itself concealed a coded message: “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type—Friedman.” That doesn’t mean I won’t give it a try. After all, in the past year I’ve successfully completed Escape the Room -- twice. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

2016: The year my daughter learned to stand on her own and walk away. It's also the year my son learned about the Holocaust, that it happened, and not that long ago. He is five, she is one. If this opening relies too heavily on the metaphorical, please forgive me: I refuse to besmirch my entry with a certain someone's name, he has crowded my Internet and my brain too much already. I also would like to assert the pleasures of this year, no matter what happened in November. Those pleasures cannot be rescinded. I had a good time writing a book, seeing friends, meeting my youngest niece, cooking with my husband, even gossiping via direct messages on Twitter (oh god please don't hack me, Russia!). I watched my son graduate from preschool. He learned to read. When we rang in the new year, his baby sister was a basically a tadpole; now she can amble across the living room and ask for raspberries and point at everything in the room, a perpetual desire machine. Dat, Dat, Dat, she calls out. One day my son said, "Dolls are for girls -- in TV commercials." On another day he said, "Movies and stories usually open with the villain. It's the bad thing to get you interested." Reading isn't just the ABCs. Speaking of reading. There were also books in 2016. Great ones. Like everyone else, Oprah Winfrey among them, I loved The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I loved it because it does what it wants story-wise, demands you just go with it, but on the level of plot or structure it's not at all messy. As we used to say in high school: it's tight. More quote-unquote ambitious novels need to take note of this book's symmetry and precision. I've long been a fan of Whitehead's work, in particular his graceful and surprising turns-of-phrase. This new one is just as beautifully written, but the power of its prose held me in the paragraphs rather than single sentences or similes. See this one early on, describing the interruption of a rare party among the slaves: The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always -- the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude. The rhythms here are brilliant, the sentences describing the celebration's end -- "The music stopped. The circle broke." -- as brief as the humanity each slave momentarily experiences before "the eternity of her servitude" takes it away. The cruel assonance of "eternity" and "servitude." There are so many paragraphs like this in The Underground Railroad. The book contains flashes of Whitehead's classic sharpness, that ironic gleam of his that I've always loved, but it peers in at the edges; the subject matter requires sincerity, gravity. The sharpness, though, keeps this from feeling like a safe, milky-glow historical story. This terror feels present, is present. Another book that rocked me was Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, which is about present-day South Central Los Angeles and its epidemic of murder and violence. Like The Underground Railroad, it's about vulnerable black bodies, about our American failure to protect and value black Americans. Leovy is a reporter for the L.A. Times and she covered homicide from 2001 to 2012, embedding herself in the LAPD's 77th Street Division a couple years into this assignment. Her thesis is simple: "When the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic." She argues that "perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter." She continues: Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate." The book is a tremendous journalistic feat. Leovy is able to make statistics and historical data coherent and compelling, and she depicts the lives of those affected by these traumas with a vividness that can only come when you've truly seen someone and tried to view the world through his eyes. These first two books are clearly defined, respectively, as fiction and nonfiction. Another favorite from this year bled into both categories: Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. I had never heard of this little svelte book when I bought it from Green Apple Books in San Francisco. I was simply attracted to its square shape and its cover drawing of a blonde woman. I didn't even read the back cover. Turns out, Barbara Loden was an actress who starred in Wanda, the only film she also directed. I am not a movie buff -- in fact, I rarely watch movies, especially the "important" ones -- but I realize I love reading descriptions of film scenes. There's a kind of inert vividness to these descriptions, a scrim between me and the dramatic moment, that I find almost erotic. Léger intersperses descriptions of Wanda with passages about how she came to know this movie, how she tried and tried to understand Barbara Loden herself. Woven into these, too, are autobiographical asides. One begins: "Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men." The result of these combined fragments is delicious and mysterious. Aside from these three new favorite books, I also found a new favorite author. I discovered him over the summer, when I was tired of reading what everyone else was reading or had read. What initially drew me in was the vintage Bantam paperback, tucked into a neighbor's front yard Little Library. Lurid red, with the phrase WIFE TROUBLE in big gold letters on the back. The novel was The Barbarous Coast, published in 1956 and written by Ross Macdonald, an L.A. pulp writer who was raised in Canada. Bookseller-friends had recommended his work to me before, but this was my first foray. Macdonald's detective is one Lew Archer, a quippy loner as they usually are, and I didn't care as much about the story -- a beautiful dead girl, a fancy beach club, etc. -- as I did about the writing. The writing! "Manor Crest Drive was one of those quiet palm-lined avenues which had been laid out just before the twenties went into their final convulsions." It's cool and stylish. I love it. I noted the sexist shit, too: "Her breath was a blend of gin and fermenting womanhood." Soon after finishing the book, I bought The Far Side of the Dollar on eBay. I longed to read another Macdonald, but like the first one, it had to be an old dime-store paperback, its pages yellowed and flaking, the jacket copy over-the-top cheesy ("I'm the man women can't forget and some men don't live to..."). Again the crisp language. Lew Archer's assessments of women -- "Legs still good. Mouth still good." -- continued to rankle, and I began to collect these instances...for what, I am not yet sure. Maybe as a reminder that this way of seeing females is historical, at least half a century old. It is also our inheritance. And it persists. I'm going to read The Galton Case next. Now onto 2017. Sometimes I am fearful and despairing about what's to come. Not entirely, though. I won't let that happen. To start, there will be books. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 Save
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Caille Millner

My reading took me to many different places this year, but it began and ended in France. Luc Sante’s The Other Paris. The more our major cities shift from places of community and society towards havens for whimsy and capital, the more I want to live in Sante’s cities. He’s a historian of anarchy and disorder, a writer whose prose shines when it’s exploring the dirtiest of places. The Paris that explodes with life on these pages is neither chic nor intellectual -- it’s scrappy, ornery, and dangerous, but it’s also a place of intimacy and wild possibility. That’s also a fine description of his writing. Gayl Jones’s Corregidora. The story of Ursa Corregidora, a hard-living Kentucky blues singer, went directly into my central nervous system. Jones is a conjurer, and her techniques include stream-of-consciousness, collective memory, and some of the best dialogue I’ve read in ages. The themes of this book -- how sexual, racial, and historical trauma are passed down in ways we keep reliving -- have only gotten more relevant since it was published in 1975. Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. There are so few “extreme adventure” books written by women and people of color that I always devour any I can find. Shepherd was devoted to climbing the Cairngorms, a mountain range in Scotland, but the point of this short, bracing novel is not the summit -- it’s the climb at different times of the year and of life. Shepherd strikes a wonderful balance between the scientific details (Arctic-era plants) and the spiritual, sensual joys of spending one’s life engaged with the natural world. Michael S. Harper’s Nightmare Begins Responsibility. Harper was a beloved teacher, poet, and friend who passed away this year. I reread his work with great sadness at his passing and wonder at his existence: you are your last breath; you are your first scream: you are; you are. (From “Primal Therapy”) Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft. They say history is written by the conquerors, but Boullosa has other ideas. Texas reconsiders the U.S. annexation of Texas through the eyes of the conquered -- a sprawling cast that includes Mexican elites, peasants of all nationalities, drunks, Austrian immigrants, and runaway slaves. The story is told as a series of impressions, the way gossip passes through a small town. The result is something bizarre, comedic, fantastical, and unsettling -- kind of how history feels when you’re forced to live through it. Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures. Walser is such a singular writer that I picked up this book with trepidation -- how would he write about art, a subject about which he knew little? Of course he wrote about art the way he wrote about everything -- turning it inside out in that lovely, broken mind of his, giving alternative histories to paintings and telling heartbreaking stories about their creators that feel more real than the truth. I read this book in one setting, and my feelings went from frustration to relaxation to grief to buoyancy to, finally, jubilation. Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. Herrera wrote a very short book -- it’s only 107 pages -- and he makes it clear from the first sentence that he’s not going to waste a minute of your time. World starts out as a hell-raising thriller -- a young Mexican woman is crossing the U.S. border to look for her brother, carrying a message from the criminal underworld. That would be more than enough to keep my attention, especially since Herrera always picks the best details and his writing never slows down. But the story is so much more than that. More than halfway through, it shifts, almost imperceptibly, into a dark, surprising allegory about the border, immigration, and what it means to live as an immigrant. The result is something as ancient as it is contemporary. Eliot Weinberger’s The Ghosts of Birds. Over the course of several books, Weinberger has been writing a “serial essay” on the largest themes imaginable -- the facts of our lives, as told by many civilizations over the centuries of our existence. I am not sure what to tell you about Weinberger’s work except that his erudition is astonishing, his prose is like a midsummer plunge into a brisk lake, and his literary essays are a deeply spiritual experience for the reader. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays. I may never finish this book from cover to cover, but I love to return to it again and again. Montaigne’s writing was both personal and expansive -- an example of how you can use your unique sensibility to make any subject immediate to another mind. It’s also comforting, in these dark political times, to observe a precise thinker in a previous century wrestle with topics like the fall of empire and the vanity of men. Some things never change. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Tony Tulathimutte

This year I read the manuscript for Jenny Zhang's upcoming debut story collection Sour Heart. It's both about young immigrant girls growing up in New York in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, and a mind-blanching raunch fest that includes schoolgirl torture fantasies, prepubescent sexual assault, and benevolent vomit-eating. I've never read a book that so utterly ethers, all at once, the pious stereotypes of immigrant narratives, the Chinese model minority, and familial love -- and if you can believe it, it's also warmly doting and uncheesy (We Asians tend to be lactose intolerant). The content will not be news to fans of her poetry, but I'm looking forward to seeing pearls clutched nationwide when it drops Fall 2017 as the lead title at Random House's Lenny imprint. You can't unread it, but you will reread it. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Claire-Louise Bennett

I have been a terrible reader this year, demanding the impossible -- I wanted to experience the same tumult and sting of feelings I encountered when I read classic books for the first time, around the age of 16. There are many different reading modes and naturally I frequently read as a writer so as to augment my sense of what is possible formally -- I am fascinated by unorthodox structuring methods -- but I am only a writer when I am writing and for much of this year I was not writing a great deal, and so I read with a deeper more personal hunger. I wanted to be moved, stirred, disturbed, shaken, perhaps even turned on a little. And so during a trip to Paris in spring, I picked up five books by Anaïs Nin and was for several weeks cast out in an unmoored realm of trenchant lust and forensic self-scrutiny as Nin’s novels charted her decadent quest to overthrow the boundaries of personality through a tantalizing series of choppy sexual encounters. For Nin, any kind of stability was deadly -- "When I am most deeply rooted, I feel the wildest desire to uproot myself" -- and yet I’d be reluctant to describe her deracinating tendencies as reckless or self-destructive. Insatiable, certainly, but that doesn’t imply that Nin was not in possession of a finely-tuned sensitivity and an acute sense of love, her writing attests to both superbly, and magnanimously -- Nin is nothing if not generous -- and so, despite my not quite having gone to the fleshly extremes she went to, her uninhibited prose recognizes and delineates that strange ineffable ache that from time to time dumbly echoes in the very pit of me. The frequency with which I underlined the most resonant sentences increased the further into whichever book I went, as if the process of reading gradually effected a reciprocal divestment of shame so that I became more willing to admit and highlight uncomfortable affinities. At the end of Henry and June Nin writes "I wept because I was no longer a child with a child’s blind faith...I wept because I could not believe anymore and I love to believe...I wept because I have lost my pain and I am not yet accustomed to its absence." At around the same time, I was writing a story in which the narrator confesses, "My heart is no longer immersed and the mornings come like frigid air, stinging my unconsumed heart into rude awareness." When books are selected in order to loosen an intrinsic deadlock, the most exquisite and searing simultaneities often arise -- there it was again, that same paradoxical suffering, intravenous and estranged, in a very short piece titled "Such Gentleness" by Clarice Lispector; "I am a bit disoriented as if a heart had been torn from me, and in its place were now the sudden absence, an almost palpable absence of what before was an organ bathed in the darkness of pain." I like to read Lispector’s stories aloud because it is inside the mouth that the import of her rhizomatic sentences is best released and absorbed. This imbibing approach was also very effective when it came to taking in Raduan Nassar’s Ancient Tillage, a full-bodied short novel that evokes the calamitous sexual awakening of André -- "I was absolutely certain my body had been carved out to receive the devil himself"-- a young man growing up on a farm in Brazil. Here is another individual sensually ablaze and pitted against carnal thresholds; for André the passage across is supported but mostly thwarted by fluctuating spiritual, familial, physical, and agrarian injunctions -- distinct and demanding forces that Nassar channels and conflates with such power and prowess that the prose practically attains to the shamanic in several places. It shook me to the core. Following on from this, I entered into "Green, bourgeoise France," the location for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The story of a love affair told by an onlooking collector of photographs, the prose here flickers with observations and impressions, "as if a huge deck of images is being shuffled. After this will come the trick." A fair warning: the narrator, by his own admission, is not entirely reliable; "I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh." Pulsing, suspended, slowly perilous, the details of these erotic fragments seamlessly entwine the fanciful with the ordinary, as this particularly well-compressed couplet illustrates, "Aureate light is reflected from the ceiling. He has a hard-on he is sure will never disappear." In order to address the fact that for much of the year I wasn’t writing a great deal, I spent the best part of autumn on a residency in Italy. It was here I came across Enrique Vila-Matas’s book Bartleby and Co., a book that every writer retreat should have multiple copies of upon its shelves, not least because its subject is antithetical to the purposes of a residency. Bartleby is the law-copyist from Herman Melville’s short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," who, for reasons never ascertained, responds to his employer’s increasingly exasperated demands by saying "I would prefer not to." From this one instance of flat refusal Vila-Matas develops a worldly compendium of writers who can’t or won’t write and thus builds up a composite and compelling case for not putting pen to paper, which was a delight to peruse while on a writing residency -- not getting down to work was no longer strictly attributable to lily-livered indolence but perhaps indicated a vital and sophisticated caesura. Vila-Matas’s examples introduced me to an extraordinary array of work, including a very fine piece by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, "The Letter of Lord Chandos." In this fictional missive addressed to Francis Bacon, Philip Chandos explains, with somewhat self-refuting erudition, why he has abandoned all literary endeavors; "My case, in short, is this: I have lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently." This dire incapacity isn’t due to Chandos losing his mind, on the contrary, it would seem his mind is all too present and mercilessly impressed upon by uncontained stimuli; "my mind compelled me to view all things occurring in such conversations from an uncanny closeness...For me everything disintegrated into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea." Chandos no longer perceives the world as a unifying whole and its disintegration has induced an enhanced state of consciousness, and empathy, but at the cost of a loss of faith in language. The same paradox might also have afflicted the narrator of Roger Lewinter’s The Attraction of Things, a recently translated work, which, in the author’s own words, tells "the story of a being who lets himself go toward what attracts him, toward what he attracts..." The various encounters with "beings, works, things" are also viewed from "an uncanny closeness," but Lewinter bypasses the oppressive difficulty of linguistic representation with a sinuous syntax that is up to the task of calibrating and enacting the intricacies of an atomized reality. Consequently the process of putting life into words does not lead to a void, as it does with Chandos, but towards moments of tranquil illumination. Indeed, the sensation of Lewinter’s prose upon one’s eyes is not dissimilar to looking across at the sun through overlapping branches of thin bright leaves. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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: Sofia Samatar

This was a year of books of marvelous disappearance. I began with Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne: a catalogue of vanished writers that is also a paradoxical and seductive manifesto for the “literature of the No.” I read Haytham El-Wardany’s How to Disappear, translated by Jennifer Peterson and Robin Moger: a sustained immersion in sonic detail, in the endless sound of the city, that uses the form of a self-help book to explore alienation and failure. That probably sounds depressing, but in fact it’s exhilarating! So is Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, a small dense meteorite of a book about disappearing from home, womanhood, and even language. So is Dodie Bellamy’s essay collection When the Sick Rule the World, in which entire neighborhoods have vanished. An uncanny year. I read, for the first time, Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, with its wonderfully creepy long central chapter, the narrator escaping -- from what, she doesn’t exactly know -- across a dark Irish landscape that hums with paranoia. I reread Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer in the old Françoise Delisle translation, which I think is supposed to be a bad translation, but I really love it: that weird children’s party, the simultaneous sense of carnival and threat, and then, of course, the disappearance, the lost love. I was privileged to read, in advance of publication, Kate Zambreno’s incredibly tender Book of Mutter, forthcoming from Semiotext(e) in 2017: a book about art and grief and how both create strange loops in time. I read Renee Gladman’s Calamities, which is really about appearance, not disappearance -- the appearance of writing, the appearance of drawing -- but still has a profoundly ghostly feel. It’s like a book of spells: so focused on the desire to conjure something, it becomes the song of what isn’t there. I read, for the first time, Roland Barthes’s lectures on The Neutral, translated by Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. How fantastic to think about a kind of disappearance that isn’t negative, but bubbles up like champagne foam! I read again, because I can’t stop reading it, Bhanu Kapil’s lush and harrowing Ban en Banlieue, in which a girl stops, evanesces, lies down on a sidewalk forever. I read Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, which is about being sent, transported, about black church practices that cannot be owned but only collectively produced, that must be given away. This too is a kind of disappearance: an ecstatic dissolving of the subject so that a collectivity can come into being. In the communal shout, in the moan, one is no longer one but part of “an unbroken circle, a critical sociality of intense feeling.” More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Chigozie Obioma

Mischling by Affinity Konar is a lyrical book written with much gusto and power. The story of twin sisters trying to survive the Nazis is at once powerful and harrowing. It has the ambition that great novels, and those that last, carry. The prose is composed and has the energy of a restless dancer, one whom you can not tire from watching even late into the night. And I am sure that it will endure. Although I read and blurbed an advance copy, this is a novel I will return to in the nearest future. The first J.M. Coetzee I read was Disgrace. I picked it up by chance, as I have been hard at work on my second novel, which has in its heart the theme of disgrace. Coetzee's novel has a way of turning the reader into an unacknowledged participant in the disruption of a life. David Lurie, an intellectual, one who works a job similar to mine, will go on to be “disgraced.” Coetzee does not write what you might call abundant prose, but when the authorial gaze becomes razor-sharp, the result is often sensational. And this novel is a testament to the power of his writing. I enjoyed Odafe Atogun’s Taduno’s Song, a novel about Nigeria’s tumultuous years under authoritarian rule. The prose is simplistic, and even sometimes imprecise. This would have marred a lot of novels, but because of the plot of this novel -- the allusiveness of a musician who has returned from a long exile to his homeland where no one remembers him -- the prose works. When the story veers towards its end, we are awakened to the power and strength of this debut novel, and everything feels like a kind of trick -- a trick on the soul of the reader. The novel comes to the U.S. next year, and I hope people will give it a chance. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson

I thought I was pretty familiar with Alexander Herzen. I’d read Isaiah Berlin’s articles on him and parts of his autobiography, and I could have told a good story about how as a teenager he swore an oath to fight tsarist tyranny, how he fled Russia for Western Europe and established the first free Russian press, and how he was vilified by both conservatives and radicals for his unfashionably nuanced views.  All of that is true, but in reading Aileen M. Kelly’s new biography, The Discovery of Chance, I found that I really knew hardly anything about him. In the first place, he studied the natural sciences in college rather than history or philosophy like almost every other socially aware student of his generation, and this gave him the lens through which he viewed everything else: man was part of nature, and history was the product of natural laws. He had this crucial insight before Charles Darwin, and publicized it long before Darwin dared to. Furthermore, history, like life in general, was driven by chance rather than any kind of higher plan; it wasn’t heading inevitably toward a socialist paradise or any other destination. This idea was unacceptable to almost everyone then and is resisted even now, and Herzen himself took many years to assimilate it. Herzen’s twin emphases on truth and freedom carried him through to conclusions that still have the power to surprise and provoke: “There is no universally valid idea from which man has not woven a rope to bind his own feet, and if possible, the feet of others as well...Love, friendship, tribal loyalty, and finally even love of freedom have served as inexhaustible sources of moral oppression and servitude.” He opposed what he called “the mysticism of science,” and asked his fellow radicals “why belief in God is ridiculous and belief in humanity is not.” Kelly maintains a fine balance between the events of his life and the intellectual currents that shaped him; she has useful summaries of the work and ideas of thinkers like Georges Cuvier, Buffon, Montesquieu, and Emmanuel Kant, and a paragraph on Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling explains that mistily transcendental philosopher in a way that for the first time gives me an idea of what he meant and why he was so popular. She gives vivid descriptions of radicals like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, who had a huge influence on both Herzen and all of Europe.  She seems to have absorbed everything relevant to her subject, and she challenges received opinion with brio. As I was reading it, I was thinking that anyone interested in the intellectual life of the 19th century would profit from this book, but having finished it, I think anyone interested in intellectual life, period, should get it. It’s the best work of history or biography I’ve read in a long time. Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350 is an absorbing and detailed analysis of medieval history; his discussions of the interplay between the military and social meanings of words for "knight," the history and spread of the general label “Frank” (“The classic enterprise which stimulated the use of this term was the crusade, the ‘Deeds of the Franks’ as its earliest chronicler called it”), race relations in the frontier zone of Latin Europe (“If we define, say, ‘German’ and ‘Slav’ by customs, language and law rather than by descent, the grandchildren of Slavs could be Germans, the grandchildren of Germans Slavs”), and localized repertoires of names (“It is easy, given a few personal names, to tell which region or ethnic group is being talked about”) kept me reading with interest and taught me a great deal. David Stahel’s Kiev 1941 shows that Adolf Hitler's war in the east was lost by the end of August 1941; the rest was a long, drawn-out, incredibly destructive demonstration of that fact, with the Soviet advantage in manpower and resupply grinding down the German war machine. Hitler and Joseph Stalin both made major errors, but Stalin learned from his and started letting his generals make decisions; Hitler learned nothing and insisted more and more on his unique genius. This is a superb book of military history, with a fresh and convincing analysis. Like so many other people, I devoured Elena Ferrante’s glorious Neapolitan quartet; when I was done, I had a Naples itch, and to scratch it I finally read my ancient copies of John Horne Burns’s The Gallery and Norman Lewis's Naples '44, and was bowled over by both. The first, a set of stories whose characters often find themselves in the Galleria Umberto in downtown Naples, won renown when it was published in 1947 (John Dos Passos called it “the first book of real magnitude to come out of the last war”) but seems to have been forgotten along with its author, who faded quickly; NYRB Classics revived it a few years ago, and I hope it regains its deserved high reputation. Lewis was a British intelligence officer before he became one of the finest travel writers of the last century, and his account of his experience mediating between the triumphant Allies and the starving but resourceful Neapolitans is alternately funny, horrifying, and just plain humane. Together they provide a stereoscopic view of a time and place that will help Ferrante readers understand the world her characters were shaped by, and will help any reader understand the behavior of armies among civilian populations. Also during 2016 I went on a Herman Melville binge (Moby-Dick is as great as I remembered, Israel Potter was surprisingly enjoyable, and The Confidence-Man turns out to be an amazing novel the vision of which is too dark to allow it the popularity it merits), and my wife and I continue to make our way through Anthony Trollope (we’re not enjoying the parliamentary novels as much as the Barchester series so far, but that’s a high bar, and we’re only up to Phineas Finn). More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005