A Year in Reading: Namwali Serpell

I’ve been thinking a lot about pettiness lately. I live in the U.S. and right now, the American media landscape is all blah blah incivility blah anger blah blah hate. But it feels to me like the great fever of rage-mourning prompted by the 2016 election has now settled down into a less intense, more pervasive atmosphere of snark and slights, subtweets and sarcasm. SNL spoofs rapists. Twitter memes hate crimes. And then there’s the hilarious string of alliterative names for white people losing their minds over black people existing. We’re squarely in an era of pettiness, the Age of the Drag. Petty comes from petit, the French for small: Think small-minded, mean, snide. Pettiness might seem to trivialize social issues, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish them, at least no more than bad-faith grandstanding does. Plus, intense emotions like love and hate can get you killed. You might lose money or pride off of petty, but nobody’s dying from a subtweet. To mock hateful things like racism, misogyny, and elitism lets us think about them with some distance, without getting caught up in self-seriousness, fury, or despair. If nothing else, it makes them survivable. I’d say “y’all trifling” and strut off with a fluttering hand, but I kinda love pettiness: It’s witty and clever and often contagious. For example: I’ve wanted for a while to teach a graduate course on everything Roland Barthes ever wrote, as an excuse to read it. (Most professors are just perennial students: We teach the courses we wish we could take.) So I mocked up a syllabus. I titled it, “Everybody Loves Roland.” I was inordinately excited. But then I was asked to teach another course I’d proposed as a second choice, “American Genres,” because it would help students fulfill a program requirement. Well. OK. Fine. I scrapped my syllabus of American Genre-ish fiction by high literary authors—Toni Morrison and Hannah Crafts as “Gothic,” Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler as “sci-fi,” Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley as “noir.” And I went full bestseller: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Stephen King’s Carrie, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Danielle Steel’s The Gift. It was a petty move over a set of novels that are themselves often considered trifling—the fast food of fiction. And so, given my usual reading habits, and the black sci-fi class that I taught again last year, this was My Year of Reading Genre Fiction. I wasn’t alone. Genre is all the rage—this is especially clear in television and film—though it sometimes feels less like a key ingredient and more like a spice that contemporary artists have started shaking over their works (to say nothing of the disavowals). The thing is, it has always struck me as bizarre that professors mostly teach students how to read (and imitate) the “literary canon”—essentially the same one I was tasked to ruminate over as a student. You’d think this recycling project would be less tenable now that some of our greatest living writers (Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have publicly embraced genre fiction. Haven’t we diversified the syllabus, if not decolonized it, by now? Maybe, but let’s be real: Even the non-white, non-male, non-rich writers on our reading lists are still mostly “literary”; as Du Bois might have put it, they “sit with Shakespeare and wince not.” Our anti-elitism is still elitist. The question of how and what we (ought to) read is political for me in this sense: If we believe in democracy and equality, why are our aesthetic priorities shaped by an elite minority? Why do we dismiss our engagement with genre works as “love-hate,” “hate-watching,” and “guilty pleasure” when we spend so much time doing it? Why do we refer to these works as “low” or “lite” when they are read by millions more people than the classics? In short, why don’t the numbers matter? Maybe these texts aren’t read much in academia because they don’t require scholars to explain or analyze them: The story we tell ourselves is that they aren’t difficult or ambiguous; they’re self-evident, simplistic even. But maybe that’s just some petty nonsense to justify the need for literary critics? As it turns out, many of the novels I read this year, while they fit the “formula” of genres like crime fiction, the Western, fantasy, romance, the spy thriller, and science fiction, are actually really weird and interesting and worthy of analysis. In fact, I’ve been developing a theory that the most recognizable of these non-canonical texts—the highest of the lowbrow, so to speak—are all deeply interested in their own form. That is to say, they are metafictional—they are self-aware about these genre categories we use to dismiss them. Now, a text’s self-investigation of its own condition is one of the marks of sophistication, of high literary value: Think Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” But I found it all over formulaic novels. It’s like they’re formally petty: They draw attention to and even drag the qualities we’re so used to valuing automatically. Let me give you three examples: James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice ends with the main character in prison saying this of psychology: “There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his father, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up…. To hell with the subconscious!” This is a hilarious send-up of the psychological depth of high literature, whether or not it embraces Freud. As it turns out, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger was strongly influenced by Cain’s novel. Why is the absence of conscience, a refusal of psychological complexity, and an action-based philosophy valued in the existentialist classic but dismissed as “brutality” in the crime novel? The very existence of Cain’s novel calls portentous, intellectual fictions into question. Madeleine L’Engle’s “science fantasy” A Wrinkle in Time dwells on the way time, space, and feeling get enmeshed in the literary setting. Tessering is explained in diagrams—famously an ant crawling along a string—and the setting is strangely book-like: when the characters tesser through a two-dimensional space, they become “flat,” as if they are literally made of the paper on which we’re reading about them. The novel seems to me to spoof the narrative questions familiar to us from Journalism 101 with characters like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and the Happy Medium, a jolly clairvoyant with a crystal ball, whose name puns on the equanimity to which Meg aspires while offering an apt description of L’Engle’s bizarro religious novel itself. In this way, the novel offers a metafictional meditation on the use of the objective correlative—using the setting to convey emotion—in the high literary novel. It even begins: “It was a dark and stormy night.” [millions_ad] Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is a (long-winded) spy novel about, yes, identity, but also about the literary category of the character. The amnesiac protagonist is a blank slate—who happens to have the default unmarked identity of a straight, white male—trying to figure out who he is. But he never really does and neither do we. Instead, the novel gives us a paradoxical refrain that seems to connect his code names with the names of his targets: “Caine is for Charlie and Delta is for Caine.” This odd phrase doesn’t make sense, though—is the character “for” as in substituting for or as in created for? “Spy,” whether it functions as a noun or a verb, comes to invoke metafictional questions about the visibility and identification of characters: Whom are we as readers asked to slip into and why? How “blank” or “recognizable” should characters be? This page-turner suggests the fascinating possibility that character—and perhaps identity itself—might be a matter of interchangeability. Maybe I’m overreading—this is congenital for me, I admit. But it seems to me that even on their own terms, these genre fictions explore a set of formal questions that take us beyond the usual truisms about the satisfactions of “psychology,” “emotion,” and “the human condition” in literary fiction—which comes more and more to look like just another genre. So what happens if we take this truth to be self-evident: that all genres are created equal? I believe each genre offers its own specific value and way to think through literature, by which I mean both to think about literature and to use literature to think. My own fiction writing has become increasingly informed by this sensibility. My debut novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth 2019) embraces “low” genres even as it ironizes them. Regardless of how my publishers and reviewers see it, for me, genre is a lens—a mode of seeing the world—not a label. I adore those contemporary fictions, like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, that sing genre with their whole chests, that don’t pull punches or bleed it of its fun, color, and momentum, and respect it enough to engage with it. I read two books this year that fit this description. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties reimagines fairy tales and surrealism, and one of its standout stories, “Especially Heinous,” is a set of evolving synopses of episodes of Law and Order: SVU, a genre show if ever there was one. I love the unaccountable weirdness of that story—the girls with bells for eyes, the ubiquitous dun dun—and how it imitates the longueur of watching crime shows: the running jokes, the strange entanglement of voyeurism and misogyny in “hate-watching,” and that thrumming desire for release, however implausible. After a casual exchange with Victor LaValle on Twitter about the creepy eugenical subtext of one of the animated movies I love-hate, The Incredibles, I plucked his novel The Changeling from the middle of my stack and opened it. Twelve hours later, I closed it, cheeks streaked with tears, throat sore from laughter. A beautiful, moving Gothic/fantasy/fairy tale, The Changeling is a masterful novel that doesn’t try to smooth away any of the dark, rough edges of its genres. It doesn’t shy from realism either, though—as when it literalizes the internet “troll” as a pale gross dude who sits in front of screens and gets paid for webcam views. This is clearly dragging fantasy and its fans, but LaValle has mad love for the genre, too. His novel The Ballad of Black Tom is essentially a love-hate letter to the virulently racist H.P. Lovecraft. It’s next on my list, along with a growing set of recent Afro-fantasy novels. Pettiness is not just a trifling game, it can be immensely generative. After all, we pay close attention to what we “haterate,” and sometimes that attention can yield glorious acts of creation. More from A Year in Reading 2018 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 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Octavio Solis

These are the books I have been reading since the year 2018 began. Seven novels, five books of poetry, three short fiction collections, three nonfiction, one art book. 1. Let It Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems by Sheryl St. Germain Sheryl's a body poet, embracing her own first, then the world's, with all the complicated feelings of love and loss that must come with it.   2. The Given World by Marian Palaia A novel about a young woman who ventures into postwar Vietnam in search of her lost brother and her own innocence. Lyric moments that leave one breathless.   3. Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero A terrific page-turner of a memoir, part gothic mystery, part parapsychological trek in which the author comes to terms with her father’s special madness.   4. The Animals by Christian Kiefer  A masterful novel about a man trying to rebuild his life taking care of lame and wounded animals in a wildlife sanctuary.   5. There There by Tommy Orange  A superb new work that upends everything we ever thought about the Native experience in this country. Fierce, volatile, building on the memory of massacres past and present.   6. I'm Not Missing by Carrie Fountain If this is a “young adult” novel, then I’m young all over again, getting caught up in this New Mexico story of a young high school girl trying to cope with her friend’s sudden disappearance.   7. Twenty-One by Katherine Swett How does one write so truthfully of a woman's pain at losing her daughter? Like this. A moving cycle of the sparest poems about hurt and loss.   8. MyOTHER TONGUE by Rosa Alcalá Tremendous collection of new verse in which the poet navigates the shoals of grief and love as she loses her mother even as she herself gives birth to her daughter. The lyric umbilicus threading through three lives is beautifully explored. 9. Doc/Undoc: Documentado/Undocumented Ars Shamánica Performática MacArthur Genius Guillermo Gómez-Peña and award-winning book artist Felicia Rice create a multi-media border-crossing hybrid: the book as performance art.   10. The Immigrant's Refrigerator by Elena Georgiou A stirring collection of stories about the immigrant experience, spanning nationalities, cultures, genders, and sexual preferences.   [millions_ad] 11. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro I realized late that I’d seen the film adaptation of this heartbreaking story, and still I got caught up in these young peoples’ tragic utilitarian lives.   12. Meatballs for the People by Gary Soto Odd little maxim, homilies and saws from one of my favorite poets. Quirky and comical at times, but always wise.   13. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann A ripping historical account of one of the most heinous and almost completely forgotten series of murders in American history.   14. Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard A spare how-to manual on witnessing your own slow death. Sam’s final elegiac musings on a world that is slipping away.   15. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson Denis’ final collection of stories. ‘Nuff said!   16. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates Required reading for anyone maneuvering through our dangerous world today. Mr. Coates’ open letter to his son is a brutal assessment of American racial politics. Wise, beautiful and powerful.   17. My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems by Ana Castillo Ana Castillo's proto-feminist poetry collection from 1988 resonates even more strongly today.   18. Edgar and Lucy by Victor Lodato A thoroughly engaging novel about a young boy who finds magic and fellowship in the company of a mysterious stranger.   19. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon I lived in England during the late 70’s, which is roughly when this novel takes place. Utterly recognizable working-class neighborhood undergoes a crisis when a house fire results in a death and only young Grace is willing to piece together the clues. More from A Year in Reading 2018 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 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Ayşegül Savaş

In the bleakest days of the year, I read Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, about twin brothers living in a Hungarian village with their grandmother during the war. They orient themselves in the world with a bizarre and unflinching ethics which, for its very fairness, seems immoral. I read it one afternoon standing against the radiator for warmth, and I was so ashamed by it—its cruel humanity, its truth—that I could not bear to underline any of its passages. The weather grew milder. It rained for weeks. In days of sunshine people looked confused, wearing summer clothes, hats and scarves; pale and clammy as if gripped by a rising and dropping fever. I was reading Yūko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a feverish book of breathtaking beauty, about a single mother and her young daughter living in a light filled apartment for a year. Later, when it became certain that trees would have leaves again and that the sun was to be trusted, there was the desire to emerge fully from the fever, to sort and sweep and put things in order. I read Natalia Ginzburg’s essays The Little Virtues and her novel Family Lexicon with their simple language close to prophecy, without exaggeration or ornament. The honesty of Ginzburg’s writing is a shock; a human standing naked and speaking loud. Later still, when heat replaced thought, I spent days sitting at a table, shutters closed, not stepping out until the evening. I was writing a book; I watched with daily frustration as my characters spoke in contradictions and clichés, wading in the dim tangle of my mind. How did anyone tell a story, I wondered, from start to finish, clean as a bow? One morning, shutters closed, I read Fred Uhlman’s Reunion about the friendship between the son of a Jewish doctor and an aristocrat at the rise of the Nazi regime. As if to defy its impossible subject, it’s told in the simplest way and is the length of a short morning, leading to stifling afternoon: The two boys share an intimate friendship with its own rules and logic, the world seeps in, their friendship ends. What did it mean, today, to tell a simple story of impossible times? I’d read that in Norway, the artist Katie Paterson was collecting manuscripts—of Margaret Atwood, Han Kang—for a library of the future whose works would not to be read until a hundred years later when the trees to house their building had grown. But what would those books even mean to humans of that period, if those trees managed to grow, if humans still read, if there were still humans around? I was reading the Arabic scholar James Montgomery’s Loss Sings. His translations of seventh-century laments of the Arabian poet al-Khansā’ are interspersed with his journal notes throughout one year, chronicling his thoughts about translation and trauma, in the aftermath of an accident that leaves his son with “life changing injuries.” Fourteen hundred years after their composition, the poems offer solace and take on new meaning for their translator. This tiny book, and the intimacy of literature spanning centuries, gave me hope. The summer crawled back. The smell of a new season emerged. Mornings, the light was bright and frail. There was the desire to be out, to explore, to connect the world in a web of thoughts. In Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden, the writer is constructing a profile of the actress and filmmaker Barbara Loden through a scene-by-scene retelling of Loden’s film Wanda alongside Léger’s personal history and research process. Early on in the book, the documentarian Frederic Wiseman tells Léger to make up whatever she doesn’t know. Then, the narrative continues. It’s a biography, an autobiography, a work of fiction. When I finished reading it, I wanted immediately to sit down and write a book, full of thoughts and life and imagination. In an exhibition across the city, Tomás Saraceno had brought different species of spiders to weave three dimensional webs, taking off from one another, extending and shifting the others’ logic. His works contained vibrations of arachnids, the sounds of dust particles, air currents drawn on paper with pollution-produced ink. Invisible forms revealed galaxies in the smallest patches of air. In my neighborhood, the nine plane trees lining the boulevard were roped and nailed with a sign of their upcoming maintenance. The climate report outlined the natural catastrophes that would unravel with increasing urgency, the life forms disappearing daily, the time left to us. And what did it mean, still, to write and read, to give form to our thoughts and shape them into works? In the days approaching the bleakest of the year, I read anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s masterpiece of ethnography and hope, How Forests Think. Through his fieldwork with the Runa in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, Kohn proposes moving anthropology beyond the framework of the human to include all life, offering ways in which we may begin to see the world as enchanted once again, with its loci of thoughts—human, animal, plant— in a multitude of patterns and forms. “My own ethnographic meditation has been an attempt to liberate our thinking,” Kohn writes. “It has been an attempt to step out, for a moment, of our doubt-ridden human housing to open ourselves to those wild living thoughts beyond the human.” More from A Year in Reading 2018 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 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

The Millions Top Ten: November 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Overstory 6 months 2. 7. Washington Black 3 months 3. 5. There There 5 months 4. 4. The Incendiaries 4 months 5. 6. The Ensemble 5 months 6. - The William H. Gass Reader 4 months 7. 8. Transcription 3 months 8. 10. Killing Commendatore 2 months 9. - Severance 1 month 10. - The Golden State 1 month   The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction has reached our site's Hall of Fame each year that the site has operated, and this month the trend continues with the ascension of Andrew Sean Greer's Less. Joining it on that voyage is Sergio De La Pava's Lost Empress, marking the second time De La Pava's earned the honor since Garth Risk Hallberg profiled him back in 2012. We ran another long interview with the author earlier this year. Meanwhile Michael Ondaatje's Warlight has once again dropped out of our Top Ten. In the past four months it's been on, off, on and off, flickering like a candle that can't quite stay lit. With three fresh spots, we welcome three newcomers to the list. All 928 pages of The William H. Gass Reader hold sixth position, and the book enters our ranks at an appropriate time. When better than the winter, asked our own Nick Ripatrazone, to appreciate the author of "a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated — and, instead of Joyce — tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead"? Nick went on to enumerate his thoughts on Gass's work, and its transformative effects. In the ninth spot, we find Severance, Ling Ma's "funny, frightening, and touching debut," which our own Adam O'Fallon Price called "a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book" in his teaser for our Great 2018 Book Preview. Ma has since contributed to our ongoing Year in Reading series, recommending a newly reprinted novella first published in 1982. To find out which, you'll have to read the entry for yourself. Finally, Millions editor Lydia Kiesling's novel The Golden State makes its first appearance on our Top Ten. As of this writing, four Year in Reading participants have included the book in their lists: Angela Garbes, Edan Lepucki, Lauren Wilkinson, and Crystal Hana Kim. (They won't be the last.) "It was one of several books I read that also complicate the conventional ways we view and talk about motherhood," Garbes wrote. "The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation," Lepucki added. Next month's list should be shaken up quite a bit by the rest of the Year in Reading series, which reliably bloats everyone's "to read" piles just in time for the New Year. This month’s near misses included: The Practicing StoicLake Success, The Friend, and What We Were Promised. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]

A Year in Reading: Lisa Halliday

It has been a year of reading in fits and starts, indeed of doing everything in fits and starts, fits and starts being the general run of things when you have a baby. For articles I was writing, I happily revisited passages from several books, including:     Little Women Elizabeth Costello The Garden of Eden Tropic of Capricorn Bartleby & Co. A Sport and a Pastime Yann Andréa Steiner NW To the Back of Beyond Charlotte’s Web For my next novel, I read bits of books about fathers, including letters between Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart; books about Italians, including Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation; and books about conspiracy theories and “the power of the lie,” including David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, and a timely new anthology entitled Orwell on Truth. I read books that were sent to me, including Free Woman by Lara Feigel and the forthcoming Such Good Work by Johannes Lichtman. In preparation for events, I read Kevin Powers’s A Shout in the Ruins, Aminatta Forna’s Happiness, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. Each made me grateful for the forces that delivered it over my transom. In London I read Sally Rooney’s absorbing Conversations with Friends while my daughter patiently paged through an old copy of The Cricket Caricatures of John Ireland. In Tobermory I read about the history of lighthouses and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped in The Cicerone Guide to Walking on The Isle of Mull. On a flight from San Francisco to Boston I read Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina and wished it were twice as long. On Thanksgiving I read Updike: Novels 1959-1965, including the biographical chronology at the end, marveling at a prolificacy I think only Simenon outmatched. I read The New York Times, most avidly the obituaries, which are like little novels. I read The New Yorker. I also listened to The New Yorker, and to Jeremy Black’s A Brief History of Italy, and Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight, because of course listening is a way of reading when your hands and eyes are otherwise occupied.   I read books about motherhood, including the Sebaldian Sight, by Jessie Greengrass; And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O’Connell; and too many books about how to get your baby to sleep, none of which helped except for the one that asked me to consider what kind of memories of my daughter’s infancy I would like to have. I re-read Strunk & White. I read What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, which Philip Roth sent me 40 days before he died.   And, with my daughter in my lap, I read many more books, most of them multiple times, including Il flauto magico, One White Rabbit, The Range Eternal, Where’s Mr. Lion?, Giochiamo a nascondino!, Pinocchio, Biancaneve, Good Night, Red Sox, and an especially treasured box set illustrated by the late artist Leo Lionni: Due topolini curiosi, whose cover features a duly curious little mouse with her whiskers buried in a book. More from A Year in Reading 2018 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 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005 [millions_ad]

2018 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Announced

Tommy Orange's There There wins the 2018 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize! Awarded to the best debut novel published between January 1 and December 31 of the award year, the winner is given $10,000. This year's judges were Jeffery Renard Allen, Julie Lekstrom Himes, Katie Kitamura, Rachel Kushner, and Dana Spiotta. There There was featured in our 2018 Great Book Preview, snagged a spot in The Millions Top Ten, and made an appearance in multiple Year in Reading entries. About the novel, YiR alum Ada Limón wrote: Tommy Orange’s There There had me deeply disturbed and enthralled, not only for the characters and cultural veracity, but because I think he’s an incredible master of time. Here are the authors that made this year’s short and long lists.

A Year in Reading: Donald Quist

I started 2018 homeless. I don’t want that to sound more dramatic than it is. I had shelter—cycling between futons, backseats, guest beds, and floors—thanks to the kindness of friends and family. I also had work, eking by without health insurance as a college adjunct, getting paid $1,800 per course for the entire semester. Things are better now. I’m ending the year with my own space, less scarcity, and more books read. Over the last 12 months, I struggled to parse my obligations to writing when it so often felt ill-suited to help myself or anyone else. In the times when I’m stunned by financial challenges or tragedies both foreign and domestic, there is a moment of doubt; a fear that, at this point in my life, at this moment in our collective history, participating in literary discourse is pointless, even irresponsible. I wrestle with the practicality of addressing disparities with stories. In 2018, I had reason to ask, What does art, what does writing, do? And what does one owe their craft? And how might pursuing a life of art fulfill, or complicate, what one owes others? These questions led me through some of my favorite books this year. Accepting that art does not exist outside of context, independent of rhetorical situations, the narratives that affected me the most this year are the ones I could most easily tie to the framework of my own experience. The 12 books below helped me read myself in the midst of confusion. These texts provided answers to some of my doubt; they helped me. I selected quotes emblematic of each narrative and its role in my life this year. When I collected these passages together, I noticed a unifying theme joining them in conversation with one another. I hope to contribute to that conversation. In writing, I hope my voice carries to someone who might need it. 1. We Are Proud to Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, between the Years 1884 - 1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury (Bloomsbury) “...And tell us your version / of everything when it isn’t even about you.” (Scene: “Process”) 2. The Secret Life of a Black Aspie: A Memoir by Anand Prahlad (University of Alaska Press) “People don’t know it, but they are forests and cities of sounds. Of colors and scents. And each forest and each city has its own patterns. [...] These patterns are my time, like your time is clocks, hours, and minutes. Seconds and years, and decades and months. My time is the pattern the patterns make.” 3. Pacha by Nick Hilbourn (Kattywompus Press) “Like most people, I’ve fallen down before a mirror to worship the absence of things, to pray to the images in my mind. Meaning, being the fragile compass, I imagine lives somewhere else, in a well that seduces with the promise of a rope and provides just enough water to survive.” (from “The Holy Maggots”) 4. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls (New Directions) “And a world is not art.”   5. Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures by Yvan Alagbe (New York Review Comics) “At the moment I am a shadow. I come in the name of pain, to sharpen my song, the tongue that bleeds.” 6. Humanity by Ai Weiwei, edited by Larry Warsh (Princeton University Press) “The West does not want to accept its responsibility. There are going to be millions of Africans fleeing war. The population is growing, it’s going to double, there will be more famine, more wars, and more refugees. This is not just about Syria. Are Western leaders hoping that the problem will just resolve itself?” [millions_ad] 7. The Linden Tree by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews (New Directions) “...turn back to the past. Not as nostalgia or history, but in a constructive, optimistic, spirit.”   8. Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed (Scribner) “It occurred to me that I was borrowing from these systems: Religion, Philosophy, Music, Science, and Painting, and building 1 of my own composed of their elements. [...] I had patched something together out of my procedure and the way I taught myself became my style, my art, my process.” 9. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin) “I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold While your better selves watch from the bleachers.” 10. Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña, edited and translated by Rosa Alcala (Ugly Duckling Press) “One day I suggested to my desk mate that we change the world. ‘How?’ he asked. By talking, I told him. ‘But how can a conversation change the world?’” (from “The Conversationalists”) 11. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead) “It’s just, I’m stuck. I can see the story perfectly, but sometimes it’s hard to move forward.”   12. Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire, translated by Theo Cuffe (Penguin) “‘All this is indispensable’ [...] While he was reasoning thus, the sky darkened, the winds blew from the four corners of the earth, and their ship was assailed by the most terrible storm...” More from A Year in Reading 2018 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 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Adrienne Celt

At some point in the middle of this year, I began worrying that my education was wearing off. Not that I was getting stupider, exactly, but that in the years-long absence of coursework, my reading was becoming less rigorous and my choices more predictable, too much in thrall to whatever was on the literary radar. At the same time, I began experiencing serious anxiety for the first time in my life. I know what you might be thinking: These things are probably not unrelated. Indeed, I generally began to visualize lots of worst-case scenarios, hoping, I guess, that I’d be allowed to prepare for them if I was smart enough to imagine them. One preparation (this, for death; no big deal) has been to download an app called WeCroak, which periodically sends me a push alert that says “Don’t forget, you’re going to die” and then encourages me to click into the app to get a melancholy quote. The quotes can be wishy-washy, but they’re often quite good; the best one so far was from a Muriel Spark novel called Memento Mori—which I also happened to read this year—in which a mysterious stranger keeps calling up London’s elderly and telling them, “Remember, you must die.” The app’s full quote speaks to my desire to anticipate problems early and often: “It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.” This would be grim, except that it’s true. Remembering the inevitability of death a little bit every day instead of all at once, at the end, seems to take the pressure off. And similarly, reading with greater variety all through the year helps me feel less dumb at Christmas. In pursuit of this, I’ve been reaching for writers like Spark, like Iris Murdoch, like Joy Williams and Karen Tei Yamashita, who invite the bizarre and the morbid into their work with a welcoming hand. While traveling in France, I read two Murdoch novels: A Severed Head and The Bell, both of which made me laugh out loud on the train, while simultaneously giving me an existential stomach ache. They are the ordinary world, stitched through with dark thread; reality, slapped on the stinging ass. Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange seems to tilt the other way, depicting a world boiling over with pestilence, through which a joyful note nonetheless continues to sound. As for Joy Williams, I read The Quick and the Dead in a series of bubble baths in the month when I was recovering from surgery, and I wouldn’t mind doing so every year, even if it meant an annual slice of the knife. (I’m almost being sincere about this. Joy Williams is a flavor that pairs well with trauma.) I had a book come out this year, too—which might account for the anxiety—and as a result I couldn’t help also reading a bunch of new work; not only because the writers belonged to my publishing cohort (if you will) (will you?), but also because they were exciting and excellent. Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy, Danielle Lazarin’s collection Back Talk, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Rebecca Kauffman’s The Gunners, Alice Hatcher’s The Wonder That Was Ours (which uses collective consciousness in a way I’ve never seen before), Laura van den Berg’s outstanding, protracted fever dream The Third Hotel. Back-to-back, I read Meaghan O'Connell’s And Now We Have Everything and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and the fact that I have not yet reconciled my own conflicting desires in the arena of procreation can, at least, not be blamed on them. Speaking of nonfiction, Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else is a collection of essays that engages so openly—lovingly, pugnaciously—with its own ideas that it filled me with professional envy. You can be metatextual with an essay in a way that’s not so easy in fiction, taking a concept and interrogating the fact that it occurred to you, without sounding obnoxious or twee. A fictional narrator can theoretically do the same, but because that narrator is invented, there’s always an added layer of ironic remove between them and the reader. Shelley Jackson’s novel Riddance perhaps comes close to bridging the gap, forcing its ideas about ghosts, mortality, and the nature of inquiry through the sieve of the body and all of its orifices. It perseveres, framing and re-framing its question through the mouth, through the voice, through the ear, through the land of the dead and the concept of child endangerment. It’s pretty wild. Moving on: Books I’ve loved this year that actually come out next year include Erika Swyler’s Light from Other Stars, which gave me the same feeling I had at 11 or 12, watching Contact for the first time: an un-cynical joy and wonder; Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, which was rightly pitched as Veronica Mars at a school for magicians (!); Kat Howard’s collection Cathedral of Myth and Bone, which guided me through stressful periods in the fall with the nudging reminder that the fantastic is in our DNA, in stories if not in actual fact; and Women Talking by Miriam Toews, which is searing, cunning, redemptive, perfect. I’m a bit stunned that, given our current cultural penchant for autofiction (see: Rachel Cusk’s Kudos and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, both of which I read and adored) more Americans didn’t read the 2017 translation of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story, which is spooky and intimate, not to mention clever as hell. French Exit by Patrick deWitt is like contemporary P.G. Wodehouse except sadder and with better swears (the fucked witch!). The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman is a book of ideas (what does it mean to shape the narrative of your ambition? What do you owe to your sources of inspiration? Was Nabokov a dick?) and a thrilling true crime story. The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson is about murder, and it made me feel dark and content at a time when I was previously just feeling dark. Daphne du Maurier will never bore me. Finally, Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was the first book I read this year, sitting on my couch with a yard of gauze in my ear, unable to turn my head. It tells the story of a curse that runs through generations of men and women, manifesting both subtly—bad choices, bad luck—and vibrantly—full-body possession!—as people just try to live their fucking lives. Many, many worst case scenarios, and yet it filled me up with hope. More from A Year in Reading 2018 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 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]

A Year in Reading: Hernán Diaz

Few of the books I read this year have touched me as deeply as Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. Eventually, after blackening almost every sentence with underlines and every margin with exclamation marks, I had to give up highlighting the passages I found remarkable. This is an untamed, unlit, unforgiving book—which makes its relentless beauty all the more impressive. This was the year when I finally read William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I have always been interested in aesthetics, and Gaddis gives wonderfully diagonal and opaque answers to the eternal questions about representation, originality, and how personal expression struggles to make its way through historically sedimented forms and materials. Also, I love loners, and Wyatt Gwyon is Arctically alone. Then, there is the prose. A few chapters into the book, I found myself creating a document that collected Gaddis’s descriptions of skies. (Bonus: the Dalkey Archive edition features an intense introduction by William Gass.) Being obsessed with P. G. Wodehouse, Max Beerbohm, and, to a lesser degree, other British parodists from that general era, I am surprised to have come to the Mitford sisters only this year. But more than with Nancy, my heart is with Jessica. I simply loved Hons and Rebels, and for a whole weekend I annoyed everyone around me by sharing passages made totally unintelligible by my fits of laughter. Many events in the book are genuinely horrifying and heart-wrenching: two of her sisters'—Diana and Unity Valkyrie (yes, that’s right: Unity Valkyrie)—ties to Nazism, the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, the death of Jessica’s first baby… Still, when it comes to family dynamics and politics, Mitford keeps a Wodehousian stiff upper lip that exposes their ultimate absurdity. I have been reading a lot of Theodore Dreiser, and I am almost done with the Trilogy of Desire, of which, I believe, only the first volume, The Financier, is still in print. I can’t say I am enjoying the writing or the general architecture of the novels, but I think they are helping me to understand American realism (and America) a little better.   About a year ago, Mandy Medley, Coffee House Press publicist and fanatical Scandophile, told me to read Elisabeth Rynell’s To Mervas. I did, although it took me a very long time. The novel—which narrates a recluse’s impossible journey to find the great love of her life, who sends her an enigmatic letter after decades of absence—is almost physically depressing: After a few pages, the weight would become too much, forcing me to put the book aside for days. The result was an extended read that, in a way, mimicked the protagonist’s trip. I know this doesn’t sound like a recommendation. But it is. Briefly, in the 19th century, a strong taxonomical drive in science coincided with the diametrically opposed experience of the sublime the Romantics found in nature. I suppose both were, in their own way, totalizing impulses—the former was systematic and detached, the latter transcendental and rhapsodic. But these opposites came together in the short-lived figure of the naturalist. And yet, in the 20th century, Loren Eiseley brought to the cosmos the same sense of awe his predecessors had for far-away lands. I don’t ever want to finish the double volume of his Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos. These are texts by a true polymath and, above all, one of the greatest stylists I have read in a long time. It was fortunate that I was late to come to Eisley: earlier, his influence would have been paralyzing. Eisley was one of our most eloquent environmentalists, and it was quite an experience to read his work almost in conjunction with Lauren Groff’s latest book. Florida addresses the urgent dangers posed by climate change but does so without falling into the didacticism that often characterizes “engaged” literature. Groff can create a reality, down to the last detail, only to shatter it in the most brutal, gorgeous ways, showing us that our world is a fragile construct besieged by forces over which we have no control—among them, increasingly, the rightful revenge of nature. The range of the prose is striking: from transcriptions of the barely audible murmurs of a conscience to the deafening roars of apocalyptic storms. Describing one of Diane Williams’s stories inevitably takes more words than those in the story itself. And there is something equally wonderful about the dissonance between the sheer size of the megalithic Collected Stories of Diane Williams and the conciseness of the perplexing, beautiful texts within. I have always been drawn to books that can be opened at random and still provide a full reading experience. This volume is that and more. It reminds me of Borges’s book of sand, which has neither a beginning nor an end because its pages multiply infinitely as one turns them. More from A Year in Reading 2018 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 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Neel Patel

Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans is about race, redemption, and immigration, but at its core is a tender, aching love story. I cried and cried and cried. Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil is so timely and necessary I can’t think of anything else to say other than you. must. read. this. Jardine Libaire’s White Fur is a sparkling, sexy love story set in 1980s New York. It’s as much about love and desire as it is about race and class and society. I didn’t want it to end. More from A Year in Reading 2018 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 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]