A Year in Reading: Tim Lane

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I was recently alerted that there was a piano out for free down the block. After much huffing and straining, and tearing up a large swath of grass in my backyard, a neighbor and I managed to get it into my office without mangling our feet. Had I ever wanted a piano before? No. However, I was taken by the fantasy of plunking away on it in between dashing off sentences of incredible depth and artistic feeling. When I brought my wife out to see the piano, she stopped, five feet shy of the door.

“It smells,” she said. “Doesn’t it
smell pretty bad?”

I hadn’t noticed. But I leaned in
and inhaled and yes, there it was, scent like one of those old “touch-me” pelts
of abused animal fur you find in well-meaning interpretive centers. And yet,
the thing was just so massively heavy, there was no way I was ever going to
move it again.

And so it also is with my year in
reading. Some books are the piano, some books are the smell, but all of them
will be with me, forever, in this strained second year of our lord, the pandemic.

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai was a brutal, dark, and frantic novel that chimed a little too perfectly with my charcoaled soul. That was a tough week in the house as my wife inquired what was wrong and I stared into my coffee. Following Ōba, a talented young man, as he slides into depravity, we see him abused and abusive. By the end, as he relapses into hopeless, dark, destructive behavior yet again, I felt implicated, too. As though, had I read with a little more care, perhaps things might have turned out differently for Ōba.

Then there was Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry and Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. Two extended mood-riffs, each the kind of book dangerous for a writer to pick up. The writing was just too easy to slip under the spell of and imitate. Or attempt to. Though Leave the World Behind has a definite ticking clock, I found myself drawn more to the virtuosic solos of description. The modern crisis of your GPS losing its chorus of satellites en-route; the false armor of filling your cart with artisanal meats and cheeses; the playacting of being new people in a vacation house; the line: One dick, two dicks, three dicks, four! The writing felt tossed off in the best way, like Alam could do this all day. All of it seemed to point to the inanities we fill our time with while the world heats up under our feet. We are the frogs, or we are the water, but we definitely have Internet connections.

Night Boat to Tangier was easy and thrilling in a different, just as powerful way. I kept finding myself thinking, You’re allowed to do that? A main insecurity of mine is that I don’t have an MFA. And so I often wonder if I have the “right” depth of reading. So, perhaps, Barry’s casual, folkloric, wildly digressive style is old hat, but I was floored. The book is like sitting with your favorite uncle and trusting totally and completely that his meandering yarn will eventually wrap you up and deliver you someplace worthwhile. And, even if it doesn’t, which for me, I got no place especially far, it doesn’t really matter because the language was enough.

I tore through Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty and scolded myself for being a snob about her before. I struggled with Leo Benedictus’s Read Me, wondering where the line for evil goes from scary to boring. I read Miracle Creek by Angie Kim and Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha back to back and took a deep breath, because both are just so fucking good.

There are those books that you read and find you cannot stop telling people about. That’s The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea. That’s Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. That’s The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. And speaking of Whitehead, there’s a shopworn wisdom sports podcasters like to repeat about great players in the midst of their prime: don’t take them for granted. Whitehead has somehow figured out how to saddle and break a lightning bolt. I heard him say in an interview that some years back, he had a string of ideas all at once, and that the books we are reading now, from Underground Railroad to Harlem Shuffle, are the result of that brainstorm. What a legend. Let’s not take him for granted.

Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia by Robert Boyd, Kenneth Ames, and Tony Johnson painted a vivid picture of some of the first peoples to live in Oregon. I was humbled as I read about the expert ways they hunted whales, caught salmon, and built homes.

The Story of a Marriage by Geir Gulliksen was both the inspired piano keys and the funky pelt smell in one. I was devastated, frustrated, and ultimately very moved by the introspective dive into the darker realms of fantasies and delusions. The narrative skips around the timeline as Jon tells us about leaving his first wife for Timmy, and then, perhaps out of overconfidence, guilt, or naivety, is left by her after encouraging a flirtation with a neighbor. If it lingered a little too long, even at a brisk 160 pages, but perhaps that had to do more with my own squeamishness re: self-destructive behavior than any shortcoming of the book.

Speaking of self-destructive, holy shit, Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed kicked me down and then picked me back up again. The main character, Rachel, is obsessive about her eating to the point of comedy. Which is appropriate because, in the book, she is a stand-up comic and very funny. I found myself actually participating in the does-that-ever-really-happen practice of lol-ing. There’s hot sex, send-ups of our obsession with fame, and even a real-life (maybe) golem. What I didn’t expect was the surprisingly poignant finish.

James Tate Hill’s memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, was exceptional. We see Hill as a young man, losing his sight to Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. In many ways, it couldn’t have happened to a worse person. Obsessed with TV and acutely self-aware of his standing in the social order, his reaction to the loss of his sight is to simply fake being able to see. In one incredibly powerful scene, his ex-wife confronts him about his faking it. She won’t lie for him anymore. On the other hand, Hill handles the hardship with an earned grace and easy-going charm. He isn’t someone to feel sorry for, he’s going to figure it out, and eventually does, though without the treacly beam of light.

I read some of the Big Books like Obama’s A Promised Land and Rooney’s Beautiful World Where Are You?. Franzen’s Crossroads and Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. Although, for the last one, perhaps you need the full name. That’s Kevin Wilson. I think that what this book was heralded as (Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s review in The New York Times begins with “Good Lord, I can’t believe how good this book is.”) and what it actually is, created a gulf for me that might have been too big to cross. I read how it was preempted in Hollywood and due to be the next big thing, but…I don’t know. I loved The Family Fang and I’ve equally loved some of his short stories I’ve come across, but this one…I kept wondering, is there more? And, most likely, I am wrong. I gave the book to a friend, asked for his take, and he really enjoyed it. It’s most likely a reflection on how some (writers) are primed to dislike a book because of the hype while others (normal, well-adjusted people) are either unaware of said hype or encouraged by it. The book isn’t broken, it’s me.

And so I bumbled on.

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman, The Intimacies by Katie Kitamura: yes, yes, yes. The Fuck Up by Arthur Nersesian, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn: interesting, okay, and not for me.

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris lived up to its buzz and I was taken back to my time working in publishing, but all of it dressed a little sexier, the stakes much higher. While working in foreign rights, sometimes the biggest intrigue of the day would be whether or not the coffee was brewed. Here it was global, it was creepy, it put me in my place, and I loved it.

This summer, before Delta was too big, in that brief, heady honeymoon of freshly-vaccinated wonderland, my wife and I took a three-week road-trip to New Mexico. Along the way, we stopped at the Topaz Internment Camp where my wife’s family was held during World War II, near the tiny town of (seriously) Delta, Utah. All of the buildings from the camp have long-ago been sold to residents of the town, but out on the dusty, hot scrubland, we found the apocalyptic remnants of one of our country’s great shames. There, amid the signs denoting where the mess hall had been, the dormitories, and the elementary school, was the detritus of stolen lives. Buttons, chipped ceramics, and old food tins. So often, I consider history a thing of the past. This is most likely thanks to the easy glide being a white man in this country affords me. But it isn’t, of course. To think history is the past is an incredible privilege, and only belongs to those in power. In fact, history is now. There in that desert, there in those pieces of broken crockery. An obvious realization, but one with amperage nonetheless. I sought out When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, a beautiful, cutting, and immediate book about one family’s struggle to retain their humanity as they are gathered up, separated from their father, and placed in Topaz.

Well, the piano is still here. I’ve gotten used to the smell, or the smell has gone away, and sometimes, during the in-between times, I will turn around and I will plunk a few keys. It is an imperfect metaphor. Then again, it feels so heavy, too much effort to change, so I think I will just let it be, along with this entire, regrettable year.

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A Year in Reading: Ariel Saramandi

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The post has not come. The post
hasn’t come in six months. The last delivery was in May: a bundle of books and
journals from 2020, some art books. Most of my copies of The Paris Review,
The LRB, The White Review, Granta are growing mouldy in the docks of the
capital.

Getting mail from abroad, pre-Covid, was already quite the hassle. Most books usually did arrive, though: December’s post would be delivered in March; parcels that I’d written off would find their way into my P.O. box after having been re-routed from Mauritania.

I wait and I am disappointed
every day. There is so much horror and death in the world, in my country, that
it feels so trite to be complaining about the post. And yet.

I spend most of my disposable income on books and literary journals. “Income,” what a joke. Mine was slashed during the pandemic, after the near-collapse of our economy. My income now has to reckon with our new excruciating levels of inflation and outrageous shipping costs. Still, the fact that I can still buy books from abroad makes me luckier than most people here. We have no proper English-language libraries in Mauritius and the selection in bookshops is poor.

Anyway. All this to say that most
of the books I bought to read in 2021 were electronic (hate the format,
grateful for the new material). They kept me company in what was yet another difficult
year.

Poetry, first and always, like last year. In 2020 I’d tie my son to me in a baby wrap and I’d walk up and down my apartment so he’d sleep, a book of poetry in my hand. I could hold a poem in my head and think about it for the rest of the day. For many months, this was enough, poems kept me going. My son runs and talks at great speed now. My mother-in-law takes care of him for a few hours each morning so that I can work. In between jobs, I read poems. Some collections I dipped into this year: Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012; Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems; Sharon Olds’s Selected Poems; Henri Cole’s Blizzard; Jericho Brown’s The Tradition; Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems; Frances Leviston’s Disinformation; Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground (pages held together with sticky tape); Carl Philips’s Quiver of Arrows and Wild is the Wind; Rimbaud’s Oeuvres Completes. I hate that I keep turning to Derek Walcott’s Another Life, Omeros, and the volume of his collected poems –– a wretched man, and I feel almost dependent on his work.

I started the year reading Dan Fox’s Limbo, which was clever and surprisingly affecting. Fox travelled from London to Shanghai on a container ship; I can’t even long for this kind of adventure now, pandemic and gender/ethnicity notwithstanding. I recoil every time I see a container ship near our lagoon after the Wakashio disaster. I wrote about the oil spill for Granta in early February; while going through edits and emails, I read Andreas Malm’s excellent How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Joanna Pocock’s Surrender, Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body (a book I love and reread often) and Tim Clark’s Ecocriticism on the edge.

In February, March, and April I read and loved Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy and No One Is Talking About This; Brandon Taylor’s Real Life; The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart (which should be taught alongside Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea); Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes; Niven Govinden’s Diary of a Film (such an elegant rush of a novel); Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts; Katharine Kilalea’s OK, Mr Field; Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill; Frances Leviston’s The Voice in My Ear; Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives; John Patrick McHugh’s Pure Gold; John Berger’s G; Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady; Raven Leilani’s Luster; Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (which I really hope will be turned into a film) and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake (if only I’d read this years ago, at university! Such an astounding, lyrical blend of history, philosophy, art, criticism—it completely reshaped what I thought was possible in nonfiction), and Guy de Maupassant’s short stories.

April was a strange month. The government was considering a “proposal” to implement a digital surveillance system to counter the so-called “abuse and misuse” of social media in Mauritius. This came after a series of inane arrests, such as making memes mocking the prime minister. We were under lockdown when the proposal was announced. I created a petition, not really knowing what else to do. I hoped it’d gain some traction. Next thing I knew I was on BBC Radio. I was introduced as an activist, a term that I’d never used to describe myself before. While I was figuring out what activism could be for someone like me—a quiet homebody with no social life—I spent time reading and thinking about the novels that emerged after Brexit, particularly Olivia Sudjic’s Asylum Road, Xiaolu Guo’s A Lover’s Discourse, and Natasha Brown’s Assembly. They are sharp and brilliant and (though I loathe the cliché) absolutely needle into the pulse of the moment. Asylum Road was the first of the three that I read early in January, and I loved it so much that I reviewed it. Research included reading Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans and Aleksander Hemon’s gorgeous The Lazarus Project and The Book of My Lives.

The government backed down on the proposal. That wasn’t the end of my worries, though: the anti-vaccination movement here was growing, led by Mauritians and expatriates. They spewed discourse imported from America and France; I read David Neiwert’s Alt-America and Red Pill Blue Pill and Talia Lavin’s Culture Warlords, which helped me understand where some of these ideas were coming from. I thought, after the success of my petition, that I’d be able to perhaps counter this movement and protect more people. I was wrong. I was stunned by the outrage directed at me from many Mauritians, some of them leading public figures. A torrent of comments asking me to be raped, beaten, silenced. I was doxxed. People mocked me for using a pseudonym; people shared anti-semitic pictures of and articles about my family. I took screenshots and when I was too numb, my friends took over. For many months afterwards, I couldn’t go out. In the supermarket, I’d look around and think maybe it was this person or that person who said they wanted to kill me.

For what felt like a long time I was unable to read. Vinod Busjeet’s Silent Winds, Dry Seas was published and I couldn’t review it as I had intended to. I felt naïve and ashamed. I had asked Mauritians to listen to me but who was I, in the end? The only times I’d stepped into public hospitals was as a journalist. I knew, but hadn’t actually suffered from, the outrageous lack of care doled out in those places. These people had excellent reasons to doubt the medical system and its products.

Who was I? A writer who wouldn’t have chosen to keep living in Mauritius anyway, even before the incident. But such is life. You make a room of your own in an unwanted house. A selection of books by Frances Borzello arrived around then. I plunged into them: Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits; The Naked Nude; At Home: The Domestic Interior in Art; A World of Our Own: Women as Artists Since the Renaissance. They were a pleasure to read and gaze at. They gave me some quiet in my head, at last. In the women artists Borzello describes, I found resilience, too.

On art and women artists: I joined a reading group led by Lauren Goldenberg early in the year (#womenbios21) and it has proved to be such an enriching experience. I learned so much about artists I’d never or barely heard of. So far we have read Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting; Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (I read Lose Your Mother straight afterwards, too), Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women (it is long, it is worth it), and Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents.

I haven’t been to a gallery or a museum in three years and I don’t know when I’ll be able to go again. I miss them terribly. We were lucky enough to have Zanele Muholi’s work exhibited in Mauritius in 2019; I love their work so much that I bought the Tate’s monograph on the artist just so that I could keep looking at the pictures.

All these books made me reflect on the art that is being produced in Mauritius at the moment. When I was finally able to leave the house I went to the Imaaya Gallery to look at the paintings of Alix Le Juge: her art makes me feel unnerved, expansive but also liminal. In the aftermath of the online harassment, I hadn’t registered that my friend Max Anish Gowriah had held his first solo exhibition at the same gallery, and discovered what was left of his paintings while walking through the space. I was so struck, so taken by them: an effervescent, irreverent, joyful celebration of sex and the body. The kind of art that so many Mauritians would take as an affront to respectability. The kind of art that is radical and urgent for this country.

I caught Covid-19 and contaminated my husband and toddler in October. I felt terrible guilt, mitigated a little by the fact that, while I was floored by the virus, their symptoms were comparatively milder. I read mostly at night while my family was sleeping (on the nights I was able to read, at least): Carmen Maria Machado’s gorgeous In the Dream House; Anne Boyer’s The Undying; the Gardening: Essays on Nature anthology; Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life; Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex; Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Daddy Issues and Unmastered; Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness; Mark Sealy’s Decolonising the Camera: Photography in a Racial Time; Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies and A Separation; Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy; Jennifer Higgie’s The Mirror and the Palette; Lucia Osbourne Crowley’s My Body Keeps Your Secrets; William Trevor’s After Rain (picked up after reading Jamel Brinkley’s beautiful short story “Comfort,” written in response to one of Trevor’s stories in the collection).

I am writing this essay at the end of November. The
Delta variant overran the country almost as soon as our borders reopened. Our hospitals are overwhelmed. I’ve seen photos of
patients lying in direct sunlight outside, others huddled into overcrowded
waiting rooms. I hear doctors and nurses pleading on the radio. I’ve read accounts
of patients who said they weren’t bathed or changed for the entirety of their
stay; who watched as corpses were wrapped in plastic and left on the beds; who
couldn’t sleep from their pain and the sound of patients screaming through the
wards.

It is a small island. I recognize
the names of the dead every other day.

I can’t watch any television. I read, restlessly, fitfully: Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North; Chris Power’s A Lonely Man; Charles W. Mills’s The Racial Contract; Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue.

In the last two weeks, I’ve had a series of slight, startling breakdowns. My mind’s not right but I’m trying to get better. I picked up Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li during the weekend and it held me. Reread some stories in William Trevor’s After Rain. Now I have Joy Williams’s Harrow open beside me as I type and I love it too.

I hover around the Fitzcarraldo page, wonder if it’s worth buying Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (translated by Jennifer Croft) now or whether I should wait a few months, wait for a semblance of normalcy to return, though with the new variant that has appeared in South Africa I doubt that’ll be possible.  Other books I look forward to reading soon: Merve Emre’s annotated Mrs Dalloway; Lauren Elkin’s No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute; Wole Soyinka’s Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth; Deborah Levy’s Real Estate; Anna Neima’s The Utopians; John Keene’s Punks; Lauren Groff’s Matrix; Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake; Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s You Have Not Yet Been Defeated; Percival Everett’s The Trees; Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s La plus secrète mémoire des hommes; Nathacha Appanah’s Rien ne t’appartient.

I still wait for my books to arrive. I wait and hope with extravagant optimism.

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A Year in Reading: Daniel Loedel

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2020 was a year of events. Though time became warped when we went into isolation, it remained hugely punctuated on the global level: the pandemic, the protests, the election. On the personal level, it was the same, at least for me; I can tell you where I was emotionally every month, and by the same token what I was reading, since the two are often inextricable.

2021 was a different beast. Blurrier, seemingly blander, much more limbo-esque. January is one of the only months I can report anything definitive about without consulting my journal or work calendar. News-wise there was the coup and the mounting death rates. Me-wise there was the publication of my first novel. All of it chaotic and frightening, and for my pleasure reading, I needed books I could trust, the safe, soothing hands of favorite writers. I started with the treasured galley I’d been saving of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, which in its strange way was incredibly reassuring. First, probably, because it took me into a mind so radically not my own; and second because it was so removed from the narrow-minded arguments of the present and so undaunted in its tackling of the big questions—what does it mean to be human? To be alive? No other novelist today seems to me to produce work so timeless. That month I also read J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and, for the first time, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. A brutal love story set against deep New England snows, it was a perfect companion for the dark days of winter.

Winter this year was especially dark—and long. It’s here the chronological and narrative fuzziness sets in for me. I remember my couch and my girlfriend’s and lazy mornings and black afternoons and a sad dreariness that some books accentuated and others alleviated. When, which couch, what if anything was happening outside these pages—it’s an unsettling blank I draw. I read two gorgeous and form-pushing memoir-novels, Jennifer Croft’s Homesick and Yiyun Li’s Where Reason Ends. I read Abdellah Taïa’s A Country for Dying, a symphony of immigrant experiences in Paris, which revealed to me a gritty corner of the City of Lights I’d never seen. I read Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, which although wildly different, struck a similar chord in me about the infinite complexities of being an immigrant or the child of one. The energy of his prose and his thoughts and his provocativeness provided sweet ruptures to my malaise.

In that foggy, cold, waiting-for-vaccines period there were other year-old hits I finally opened including Bryan Washington’s Memorial, Raven Leilani’s Luster, and Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, all of which lived up entirely to the hype. Another stand-out in my catching up on 2020 books was Sanaë Lemoine’s The Margot Affair, a wonderfully intimate coming of age story that squarely focused on the heart rather than the head in a way I wish more debuts today would. And probably my favorite reading experience of the year, the one that will most entrench itself in my psyche—Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi. Never did I think an exploration of isolation could be so magical. It reminded me of the full power of the imagination, and how exhilarating it is to get lost in its mysterious halls.

This was all what I earlier called pleasure reading—that is, reading outside of my work as a book editor. No submissions or edited manuscripts included. But even so, the line often gets blurry. Sometimes you read a book to know the market, the competition. Sometimes to find a perfect blurber. Sometimes you acquire an author with previously published books, and you acquaint yourself—or reacquaint yourself. For me there was a lot of reacquainting in that late spring-early summer sludge. I had the incredible luck of becoming the editor of Alan Moore, and in celebration slash homage to the high school version of me who first fell in love with his work, I immediately reread Watchmen and From Hell. Works of genius and stunning imaginative power just as good nearly two decades later.

In July, I went to France, meaning I finally made associations with books beyond a couch. There was Deeshaw Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which I devoured gleefully on my first plane ride in two years. There was Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, which I lingered over at cafes on the Canal Saint-Martin and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Her sentences in that book, at once so sharp and lush, are the kind that make you look up and think, and there may be no better place in the world to do that than Paris. I read Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, another dazzling short story collection as good as everyone said it was, and In Concrete by Anne Garetta, brilliantly translated by Emma Ramadan. This was a kind of romp to the limits of language (and translation), a book written entirely in puns and slang that reminded me just how joyful playing with words could be.

The rest of summer is a bit of a hot, indistinct line to autumn. I know I read David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon on a beach in Block Island, still in vacation mode, and Marie Ndiyae’s La Divine on a bus to Cape Cod and Detransition, Baby in the mornings in Fort Greene Park, waiting to sign up for a tennis court. I know I read Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s Song for the Flames and that, inspired by the title or the desire for more haunting, moody stories from Latin America, I returned to The Plain in Flames by Juan Rulfo, another favorite writer.

At some point it became big book season and I did my part. I read Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies and became entranced by the strange atmosphere she created. I read Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, whose feats of lyricism continue to astound. And yes, I read Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney, which I enjoyed but in a sort of apathetic way. My hot take is that it was far less overrated than many other books this year, but that on the other hand, I might not have remembered reading it at all if not for my writing this piece.

Now, though, I want to be surprised again, to connect in that more private way with something, or be transported to a world I feel I am among the few to visit. Kamel Daud’s Zabor or the Psalms is up next, Elizabeth Metzger’s poetry collection Bed, and after that I don’t know. A new discovery hopefully, one I can use as a marker for a year that otherwise had so few. A book that allows me to look back on 2021 and say that, though the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel dimmed and grew far away, I found something else to lead me out of the darkness. 

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A Year in Reading: Margaret Verble

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First, let me say that I know the title and author of every book I read in 2021 because I’ve been faithfully tracking my reading since I was 15. In that long-ago year, I read, among other books, Rebecca, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I also read two of Ayn Rand’s books. She seemed appealing to me then, but I matured out of that.  

Next, I’ll add that much of what I read this year probably doesn’t have wide appeal. I’m working on a new novel. Every time I read for pure enjoyment, that novel barks in my head like a next-door neighbor’s dog left in the yard. Books I’ve thrown over that fence in appeasement are things like The Annotated History of Alabama: And Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period by Albert J. Pickett and edited, annotated, and introduced by James Pate. Pickett’s book was originally published in 1851 and was so popular it went into its third edition before the year’s end. The version I read was published in 2018. I actually loved it, and it kept the metaphorical barking down for several days, but it’s not for everyone.

Now, as to the body of my pleasure reading, the most depressing thing about recording titles yearly is that, looking back, I often can’t remember exactly what some of those books were about. I don’t think that’s due to age. I noticed this first decades ago. Some books just aren’t memorable. Even for a few months. I’m not going to list any of those here because I have a rule for myself about not saying anything at all about the work of a living author if I can’t say something nice. That’s my mother in my head. Sometimes she competes with the metaphorical dog.

So, what stands out in this year of my reading?

The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. This was a gift from friends who had social-distanced with me around a heater in my airy garage in the dead of the Covid winter. I think we all probably had those kinds of experiences and read these kinds of books as a result.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves. I’d been meaning to read this book since 1976 when Derek Jacobi so brilliantly played that emperor in the Masterpiece Theater series. And it’s a good reminder that we haven’t devolved from a Golden Age; we’ve actually become more civilized. As hard as that is to imagine.

We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper. I love true crime, anthropology, and graduate school intrigue. This book rang all three of those chimes.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. I was embarrassed that I didn’t just salivate over My Brilliant Friend like so many of my author friends did. So I decided to give Ferrante another chance. I deeply enjoyed this book. I liked the themes, the complexity, and the depth of characterization.

The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro. This is another true crime. It’s set in India and I found it culturally fascinating. And, really, any book with the words “ordinary” and “killing” next to each other in a title should be interesting.

The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos. This comes from a genre of books (captive stories) that used to be wildly popular, but which most of us don’t read any more. It starts with a Native American raid on Deerfield, Mass., in 1704 in which several Puritans are abducted. Most of those whites returned home, but one didn’t. In reality, thousands of these abductions went on both ways during the European invasion of our land, and some of those captives settled into happy lives and didn’t want to go back to their original families.

Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun by Charles Hudson is about de Soto’s rampage through the southeast. This book is the result of a staggering amount of work over a long period of time and is the definitive work on de Soto and his atrocities. I found it gripping.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. This book is currently a bestseller and is a lot of fun. Particularly for anyone in the novel-writing profession.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich has just come out as I’m writing this. But I read an ARC in preparation for interviewing Erdrich for the Pen/Faulkner Foundation. I thought it was a great read. It works on several levels.

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A Year in Reading: Anna North

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This year was supposed to be a return to reading for me. Like a lot of people, I didn’t have much time for books in 2020—our son was home from daycare for a lot of it, and we were trying to split up working and caring for him, a situation both lucky and disastrous with which many people are only too familiar. Also I had my own book coming out, with all the page proofs and getting-ready tasks associated with that, and then also I was working full-time as a journalist and the news was really, extremely bad. 

Rounding the corner into 2021, I was hoping what I think a lot of us were hoping: that the vaccines would end the pandemic, that life would return to normal, and also that I’d start making time for some of the things I cared about that had fallen by the wayside in 2020, like reading.

The first two things didn’t happen, obviously. The third maybe kind of did, although slowly and fitfully, and not always in the ways I hoped.

In February, my family got Covid, and since I got sick last there was this sort of golden time where my husband and son were both better but I got to lie in bed for a couple of days and read. That I think of this as a golden time is probably deeply fucked up, but here we are. I remember that the New York City Test and Trace Corps kept encouraging me to take time off work, even if I worked from home, and I was really grateful for that. I was reasonably sick but I never thought I would die and I just took cough medicine and this really disgusting Vitamin C drink that had been recommended to my husband, and I read God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney. It is about having a sister and growing up in an evangelical church, both of which I am totally unfamiliar with, and so it was an introduction to another world for me. It was just the right thing.

Later on some other months happened. When my son was born in 2018, time stopped for a while and I kept dating things May even though it was August, and that is just what everything feels like now. In the early part of the year, I read Jung Yun’s O Beautiful, which is about oil drilling and racism and violence against women and is also a page-turner in the best way. I also read Jane Pek’s The Verifiers, which is a kind of unconventional mystery about online dating, and which made me feel like maybe a little literary-mystery trend is happening. I am excited for this. I also read Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky, which is absolutely devastating.

In the summer, we were finally able to go to California to see my family. Often I read a lot there, but this time I was trying to work so I only finished two books. One was Art Is Everything by Yxta Maya Murray, which is extremely smart, sort of a novel-in-critical-essays. It made me think about writing as making art, rather than just slogging through and producing content, which was therapeutic. The other book was Klara and the Sun, which I read for a friend’s book club. I have seen this reviewed (and also heard it described by friends) as sort of B-list Ishiguro, but I loved it. I loved the way Klara sees in “boxes” that get more numerous and confusing as her neural circuits get overloaded with new information—this feels both very believable as a problem an android would have, and also pretty human.

In California I bought Second Place, which I also loved so much. I am obsessed with Rachel Cusk; I am always really jealous of writers who can write in that way, making ordinary things feel intellectually and emotionally fascinating. Second Place is not autofiction-y in the way that the Outline trilogy is—instead it is based on a woman who once hosted D.H. Lawrence. In some ways what I loved the most was imagining the marsh where it is set.

I am going to forget some things. There have been a lot of times when I’ve tried to read more, such as by reading when my son was playing, but then he will frequently come over and take the book from me and demand that I read it to him and then he eventually gets bored and I have to put the book away and pay attention to him.

Oh! I read Fight Night by Miriam Toews. I love Toews and this one especially had that quality of facing death with joy and laughter. My son was really interested in this one, I think because it has a fist on the front, and he actually made me read it aloud to him for many pages. Eventually I stopped because there were things I didn’t want to explain to him.

I read Matrix by Lauren Groff; I loved this one too. It has a quality of not very much happening even though it spans a whole life during which loved ones disappear, die, and return and also an enormous labyrinth is built around an abbey. I found it very beautiful and also personally interesting because I am trying to write about the past now, a little bit.

I read Luster by Raven Leilani, which I bought in 2020 and put aside for a time when I would be reading for pleasure again. I found this one initially hard to read and then impossible to put down.

Now it is November and I am on a trip. It is the first time I’ve really been away from my husband and son since the pandemic started, and some combination of that plus jet lag plus too much caffeine has left me kind of frozen with anxiety at various points. This state is good for reading and I have finished Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies and Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! and have gotten most of the way through Olive Kitteridge, which I realized I had not read. I extremely loved Intimacies; I left the hardcover at a friend’s house to save space in my luggage but I already regret it because I want to read it again (also the cover is cool). I liked Oh William! a lot but I think My Name Is Lucy Barton is still my favorite Strout.

For the plane home I bought Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch and Elissa Washuta’s White Magic, both of which I’m excited about, but I can already feel my reading frenzy subsiding a little bit. I think in 2022 my hope is to have more tranquil times where I am simply opening a book because I want to and not because I am sick or freaking out, but I guess what you could say for 2021 is at least I got some reading done.

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A Year in Reading: Farah Ali

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My reading used to be a lot of old
favorites and some works by writers new to me. For the past couple of years
that has shifted. Some of the “new” writers are long gone. Some have been
around for a while.

I had bought a used copy of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea from Powell’s in Portland and brought it back with me to Dubai. I opened it two years later, and found a world within of alienation, love, and madness. There is a feeling of claustrophobia and darkness in the story; the woman’s yearning is palpable. I loved the book. I didn’t know until later that Jean Rhys had written it as a prequel to Jane Eyre. What was just as interesting to me was what she had said in an interview published in The Paris Review: “I guess I write about myself because that’s all I really know.”

Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue was a surprise. I had read Eileen first and had been told that it was nothing like her first book, and I found there was no exaggeration in that claim. McGlue is a story told at the pace of a fever-dream. I don’t think I paused very much while reading it except to perform basic life necessities.

I had first read about Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station when it won the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2020. The novel has been translated into English by Morgan Giles. The premise is fantastic—the ghost of a migrant laborer haunting a park in Tokyo. Yu Miri brings together national and personal histories, showing how the two are always connected, and how the latter, in particular, is affected by the former.

What made me get a copy of Tove Ditlevsen’s Childhood, Youth, Dependency: The Copenhagen Trilogy was Parul Sehgal’s review of it in The New York Times. Memoirs by their nature are meant to be moving; what I found different about this one was the simplicity of its language. As Tove grows into an adult, she seems to drag her childlike self along with her; it hovers right underneath her plans for success in work and relationships. It isn’t a healthy combination of selves, one sees, reading the last pages of the book.

A different memoir I have begun very recently is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I have only finished the first book so far. Knausgaard had existed in my subconscious for some time because whenever his name comes up it is with a definite opinion attached to it, pertaining to his six-volume My Struggle series. I sort of concurred with what I read about his project, which is not the best way to form an idea about something. Also, the reading task seemed daunting. Six volumes, 3,600 pages long altogether. When I saw a used copy of the first book in the series I thought, It’s not like I’m spending a lot on this anyway. I was curious. And I discovered writing that I had never seen before. Pages of details, yes, but not there pointlessly because everything mattered. Every big and small action had a part in this life that Knausgaard was describing. An instinctive thought is that not every detail about one’s days is interesting, but Knausgaard wasn’t aiming to write a thrilling, juicy bit of Norwegian life. In this longer, more thorough writing about his childhood and, later, his father’s death, he is simply cataloging all his impressions and his actions based on those.

I read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves right after My Struggle. The two reading experiences were wildly different. The Waves is Woolf’s most experimental novel. Six characters speaking in soliloquies, except when there is a third person describing the progress of a day by a coast. These soliloquies take place from the speakers’ childhoods to adulthoods. The poetry-like prose is hypnotic, and it is incredible how the individual characteristics of these people become clearer through the progression of the pages and their lives, even as their subconsciouses have shared experiences. It was unpleasant coming across phrases such as “savages in loin-cloths” when a narrator would think about some place far away from England. Those were, thankfully, very few.

Early this autumn I had read Jakob Guanzon’s Abundance. It is a remarkable book. I love that the chapter titles are fluctuating dollar amounts that the protagonist has at different times. The protagonist is a too-real human, a father of a young child when we first meet him in the book. Like the ghost in Yu Miri’s book, this father is homeless. So much about money is tied up with circumstance, and Guanzon shows us that without making excuses for the character, with just showing us life as it is.

Phuc Tran’s memoir Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In was a moving read, a journey from his life as a child from Saigon into the suburbs of America. There were so many things that resonated with me about this: his sharpening his knowledge of books, finding music that worked for him, and finding through that other kids he felt accepted him as he was.  

Since I am writing out of sequence, this is a good place to bring in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. I had read a few essays by her previously. Her fiction is a completely different experience of course. The Flamethrowers’s protagonist is a girl we call Reno because that’s where she is from. Notably absent is Reno’s past, which was intentional, as Kushnber said in an interview. We are put firmly into Reno’s now, her artistic aspirations, her living arrangements, her movements between cities. There is history in the book and other people’s ambitions that result in lives being affected down years and in different places in the world. Even now, months after reading the book, I can still see Reno in my mind’s eye.

A book that I read very recently that was truly transformative was When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West. Call it a nonfiction novel, call it a book about science in the context of actual lives—there is no one way to describe this work. The Spanish title of this book is Un Verdor Terrible, which roughly translates to “A Terrible Greening.” There is a night gardener toward the very end who describes the way citrus trees die: how their fruits ripen at the same time and their weight causes the limbs to fall off; rotting lemons cover the ground. He says, “It is a strange sight, he said, to see such exuberance before death.” I absolutely loved Labatut’s book.

Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays was a pleasure to read as well. Other new books were Rachel Beanland’s Florence Adler Swims Forever and Brian Castleberry’s Nine Shiny Objects. In between these I picked up an old one, James Joyce’s Dubliners. I finally got a copy of Layli Long Soldier’s phenomenal Whereas, and Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell. I don’t think those poems are going to leave my table.

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A Year in Reading: Francesco Pacifico

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I’m happy to have found the following books this year,
it’s been a wonderful year for visions and dreams—while most requirements from
society faded in the background, it became easier for me to decipher the
subtler voices.

Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson

Maybe the best thing I’ve read this year. Compelling prose on a bunch of places but specific and abstract. Suburbia. Scaffoldings. Imagine the trippiest parts of a DeLillo novel, without the novel. Robertson’s gossamer writing is a convincing argument as to why architecture needs words. But the words should not explain, only build, only connect.

Superstudio’s Opere 1966-1978

The radical architects at Superstudio were great at creating
manifestos using collage and language. In a way, they are the Flying Circus of
architecture. They did to modern architecture what “the Ministry of Silly
Walks” skit did to being adults in a suit.

Sarah Gainsforth’s “Airbnb Città Merce”

An essay by a very good and relentless Italian communist journalist. It means “Airbnb City Commodity.” Our cities are being emptied out by the Airbnb model. It came out before the pandemic, but it’s still very relevant.

Elena Croce’s Lo snobismo liberale

The daughter of Italy’s most boring intellectual writes: “The images of “homes”, in those years, seemed to prevail over the images of people… In the notion of “home” people were emphatically acknowledging a fundamental projection of personality. Stating that a person had a “casa simpaticissima” was tantamount to suggesting that said person had secret resources of “intimacy”…”

Maurizio Cattelan: A monography for Riga Review, edited by Elio Grazioli and Bianca Trevisan

Saul Steinberg: A monography for Riga Review, edited by Marco Belpoliti, Gabriele Gimmelli, and Gianluigi Ricuperati

These two quintessentially Milanese characters, one hailing from Romania in the fascist era, one hailing from Padova, both destined to glory in New York, are accounted for in their respective issues of the Riga collection of monographies. They’re both vast and hermetic in their production, they both have a lot to teach on how expression begins where we start to play with our idées reçues and turn them into mysteries.

Jeff Wall’s Gestus and Lewis Baltz’s Scritti

Last year I did a podcast on photography with my friend Fabio Severo, a curator and teacher and critic. I wanted to learn more about photography. I also learned that some of photographers are terrific writers, and these are my favorites. Strong opinions, great descriptions of art scenes, and creative riddles.

Fabriano Fabbri

La moda contemporanea II: Arte e stile dagli anni Sessanta alle ultime tendenze

I’ve been looking for great writing on fashion for 10 years. Then an editor at Einaudi who is usually all about the Anthropocene put this mammoth in my hands and now I can read about Pierre Cardin and Virgin Abloh and everything in between and get a clearer idea on the way fashion designers work to change the way we walk.

Agnès Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop

More food for thought to declutter the often ham-fisted conversation on pop. Dialectics of Pop is the perfect—and properly gargantuan—treatise for people who swear by Adorno and his disdain for Light Popular Music and also live now and don’t want to live a life of resentment. Pop deserves subtler philosophical ways than hating on it, but you shouldn’t be too smug about it.

Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices

Eno makes life seem important and fluid. The book chronicles a not so important year in his production, I think, which makes his MO of gentle concentration all the more important for us who need better than the egomaniacal, self-conscious irony of the IG/Twitter philosophers.

Maya De Leo’s Queer. Storia culturale della comunità LGBT+

Queer people used to throw costume parties. Then, with the end of the 18th century, identity became the question. De Leo quotes magnificent material from all over the place in the last two centuries, to help us connect with the great travesty/drag of finding one’s identity and respecting the identity of everybody else.

Marco D’Eramo’s “Dominio”

A spectacular essay on the way rightwing corporations started subsidizing universities in the late ’70s because they believed that the rich should use the same tactics of communists: hegemony, ideology, ideological guerrilla warfare. The essay is very explicit on the fact that the worst problem for the left is we just blindly make fun of the enemy without ever realizing when its solutions are smart. A real treat for those like me who hate leftist podcasts when all they do is snort and giggle when they mention the enemy.

Charles Burns’s Labirinti

I understand it came out in France first, not yet in the U.S. A genius of grunge comics, he started out making retro stuff and now his grunge ethos of depression and inspiration and impossible love and aliens is both retro and effortlessly emo.

Michele Mari’s Le maestose rovine di Sferopoli

Maybe Italy’s most peculiar writer, the one with the best vocabulary, a heir to Gadda, a stalwart of literature as pastiche and manierismo, Mari has published this collection of short stories that perfectly encapsulate the magic of his vision. One story is mostly made of notes an elementary school teacher takes on his children’s horror stories, that they’ve written as a test. The story combines the very dumb language adults use to judge kids—and the devil.

Gary Indiana’s Do Everything in the Dark

People use the world “bubble” a lot. People swamped in
the mainstream have no respect for scenes and call them bubbles. This book is
about all the things that make a scene beautiful and gross.

These are the translations I’ve been working on in 2021:

Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise

Claudia Rankine’s Just Us

Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth

Chris Ware’s Building Stories

Yanagihara’s new novel is three novels in one, and there’s a reckless dive into a century of future pandemics that has been weirdly satisfying to translate. And a very classist late 19th-century New York City where gay marriage is legal.

Just Us by Rankine is a thorough, compelling argument about how we are taught by our kindergarten teachers most subtle behavior that black kids are trouble and blonde people are the best. It’s a horror movie in a book of poetic prose.

Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison’s posthumous novel, has maybe the most interesting voice I’ve ever encountered in a novel. I wrote about translating Ellison (I worked on Invisible Man in 2020) on the latest issue of n+1.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories, a collection of printed material about a woman, her family, some buildings, and some bees, all collected in a cardboard case, has been very influential for me. Some structural choices I made on both Class and The Women I Love come straight from this book, and I’m grateful I finally get to do the Italian version.

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A Year in Reading: Hermione Hoby

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I write down each one in black biro in a white notebook and when I count up the titles at the end of the year, the number is always too low. Here I am then, repenting of minutes spent slack-gazed at Instagram, or hours squandered watching ’90s British sitcom and early Richard Curtis venture The Vicar of Dibley. (The vicar’s got knockers, is the central joke. In my defense, I had flu.) When, at the end of that sick week in August, I’d scraped iPlayer’s barrel for its last dredge of Dawn French in a cassock, Mary Oliver pulled up a chair in the corner of the room of my mind, crossed her arms and said, huh, so this is what you did with your one wild and precious life. I’m a little disappointed in me, too, Mary. But Mary, I also read some books.

I closed out the year with a Lawrence kick. I haven’t read him since I was a teenager, i.e. not yet a woman, certainly not a Woman in Love. How wonderful to re-encounter Ursula and Gudrun—especially Gudrun, ah, Gudrun in your smashing tights making your weird little serious woodcuts—as an equal. Or so I flattered myself; I don’t dress as well (my tights, neither silken nor emerald, are cheap, black, and have holes in the toes) but I delighted in our shared anti-natalist sentiments and auto-Anglophobia. I really think we’d be great pals, me and the Brangwen gals. I’m working on a third novel, hopelessly striving to build the kind of intelligent architecture that makes possible accretive narrative meaning, and reading Women In Love, I realized, mildly scandalized, that there’s a modular quality to the book: discounting the last 50 pages or so, you could basically rearrange chapters however you liked and the thing would have the same psychological intensity. An uncharitable way of putting this would be that one of the best novels of the 20th century is less than the sum of its parts. Speaking of love (always!) I finally read Phyllis Rose’s enduring and rightly beloved Parallel Lives. May we all be George Eliot and George Henry Lewes.

Shamefully, before this yea,r I’d only ever read Baldwin’s essays, no fiction, so I read Go Tell It on the Mountain and If Beale Street Could Talk, which was even better. The only reason I didn’t read Giovanni’s Room, which I understand to be his best, is because the other two were on sale and cheap at my beloved local used bookstore, Trident, and Giovanni’s Room wasn’t. That’s how it goes.

Living in Colorado, it seemed only right that I redress another lacuna: Willa Cather, she of the Great Plains. I read The Song of the Lark and My Antonia and both felt like children’s literature, which I mean as praise: stories in an old-fashioned sense—smooth, immersive, consoling, benign. Can’t say the same for Bellow. With Herzog and Seize the Day, I relished the dynamism of the high-low prose and also found myself literally choking on—actual spluttering—the sexism and racism. Since we now find ourselves in the category of disreputable men, I can tell you that I also reread both Lolita and Nausea, like I was 15 again. I don’t need to tell you they’re both great; you remember this from when you were 15. 

I read a lot of friends. (But not enough.) Sheila’s Motherhood and Pure Colour both found me at exactly the moment I needed them, which is what Sheila’s work does to people. She’s spooky like that. I read Katie’s exquisite Intimacies (we share a book birthday.) I tore through Josh’s crackling, hilarious The Netanyahus and Christine’s very sharp The Life of the Mind. I read Alex’s inspired Something New Under the Sun and Ramona’s dear and strange stories in Awayland. I read my pal Geoff’s hypnotic Someone Who Isn’t Me and my old friend Matt’s screamingly hilarious A Class of Their Own, a memoir about tutoring the children of the super rich. I just started my brilliant friend Amia’s The Right to Sex.

I duly undertook and enjoyed 2021’s classic Internet-novel-pairing of debuts, Fake Accounts and No One Is Talking About This. Other reading that felt obligatory, discourse-wise, which doesn’t preclude it also being pleasurable, included Rachel Cusk’s Second Place and Torrey Peters’s Detransition Baby.

I read two books with “mountain” in the title, which, intellectually speaking, is an entirely null observation. One was Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain, another Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a gem of a book from 1977 about walking the Cairngorms. It was a gift from my friends Brigid and Jamie, and it changed the way I think about hiking here in the Rockies. Other nonfiction I read included two very different essay collections, both of which I admired deeply: Namwali Serpell’s brilliant Stranger Faces and Barrett Swanson’s super smart and compassionate Lost in Summerland. I didn’t read enough poetry; mainly just bits and pieces, paddling about in Adrienne Rich and A.R. Ammons, but I enjoyed, in their entireties, Kyce Bello’s Refugia and Michelle Otero’s Bosque.

I wrote about a sly and intriguing novel called My Friend Natalia by Finnish author Laura Lindstedt, as well as the swaggy flex of Sean Thor Conroe’s fuccboi. Predictably, I adored Annie Ernaux’s The Years, which I stole from my friend Osh while we were horsepacking in the Flat Tops wilderness. I read Adorno’s Prisms in a lazy river. Hearing a voice intone this—“The question about poetry after Auschwitz has been replaced with that of whether you could bear to read Adorno and Horkheimer next to the pool”—I wondered, as my inflatable donut idly bumped its way around the artificial waterway, if I’d gained one over on Walter Benjamin in terms of hypothetical egregiousness made real. Not next to the pool, but in it, dude. And not even a pool. A Lazy River.

I reread most of Jhumpa Lahiri to review her latest, Whereabouts, and (re)admired the ambition and control of the early novels. I also loved and reviewed the new book from a young Irish writer called Sally Rooney, who you should maybe check out. It’s called Beautiful World, Where Are You.

Other treasures included The Beginners by Anne Serre and Troubles by J.G. Farrell and The Stone Face by William Gardner Smith. Claire Louise Bennett is a genius and should be protected at all costs: I adored Checkout 19. It made me homesick, which is quite a feat.

Risking the derision of my friends, I went around brandishing Crossroads and declaring it “Tolstoyan!!!!!” with that many exclamation points. To my mind, it recalled that panoramic, deft manipulation of Anna Karenina’s cast of characters, all that great shifting moral light. I don’t want to die on this hill, I just want to sit on this hill and read the rest of A Key to All Mythologies! On the subject of Russians, I loved being guided through some top drawer Chekov and co. in George Saunders’s A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. There’s no one like George, the beloved uncle of American letters, to restore your faith in our species—to rest a kind hand on your shoulder and tell you you’re okay, things are okay, we’ll be okay. I read most of that book over a vast bowl of vegan shoyu at Ivan Ramen in the Lower East Side, and that felt right.

Do plays count? What with the world ending, we had a standing Sunday night Zoom date to read them with friends. The main thing was doing stupid accents. The Brits took the piss out of the Americans’ Dick Van Dyke cockney and the Americans roasted the Brits for unacceptable Southern drawls. Shout out and tossed roses to all The Lockdown Players. I’ve yet to meet a Caryl Churchill or Annie Baker play I didn’t love. Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning was savage and great, as was Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses. Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies impressed me and made me want to read his plays.

It’s my job to read, there’s so much I urgently need to read, and with that in mind, I’d say 100 would strike me as a respectable number of books for a year. Eighty would be okay. Sixty… fine. How many did I read? Not counting plays, not counting books started and not quite finished—45. (“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”) Next year, I’ll fail better. Even if the number’s higher, the number will be the same: not enough.

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A Year in Reading: Jessamine Chan

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Since 2019, when I finished and sold my first novel, the number of books I’ve read in a given year has gotten smaller and smaller, as I read my own book approximately 300 times. I’m a slow reader. I feel a great kinship with snails. What I read in the first half of 2021 fell into the categories of inspiration while editing/proofreading or reward after I met my deadline. After May, I started trying to catch up on my TBR pile while leaping into the future with galleys of books coming out next spring and summer. 

Early 2021 feels like 30 years ago, and while it’s hard to remember the chaos of January, I do recall beginning the year with The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh and Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras. I’ll read any book that involves women and water and anything by Duras. Mackintosh’s novel built to a truly terrifying climax, while the Duras collection provided perfect morsels of insight for my frayed attention span.

I should note that, as the parent of a small child, I wasn’t reading by magic or by staying up all night or while homeschooling. I was in the very privileged position of having childcare for my four-year-old (who returned to preschool in the fall), which is why I had time to read at all. Knowing how much other parents, as well as people all over the world, were suffering, I sometimes had to remind myself that part of my job as a writer is reading, because spending my childcare hours reading novels sometimes felt illicit. As winter turned to spring, when I wasn’t doomscrolling, I read Joan Didion’s latest essay collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, and was consoled to find out that she was once nervous about writing a second novel. I finally read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (so late to her work!), which was especially alarming given the food shortages and climate disaster happening in Texas at the time, though given the rest of 2021, this would be true any time one picked up this forever relevant book.

Dorthe Nors’s new story collection, Wild Swims, inspired me while I was reviewing my third pass pages. She’s one of the authors I read for sentence-level brain fuel, with kudos to Martin Aitken (who translated my ultimate favorite Karate Chop from the Danish) and Misha Hoekstra (who translated Wild Swims). After meeting my deadline, I treated myself to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, which was quite tough to read as a parent, but contained fascinating, elegant world-building.

April was when
my husband and I were vaccinated. And when we decided to move from Philadelphia
to my hometown of Chicago. And when my final pass pages were due. And when we
had a sudden change in childcare. I wasn’t sleeping much. What I most remember
about April was the spa shooting in Atlanta, where the victims included six
Asian women. As a Chinese-American, I’ve felt afraid since the start of the
pandemic, aware that anti-Asian rhetoric was endangering us all, that attacks
were increasing, but after Atlanta, in addition to mourning and feeling
enraged, I started being afraid to go outside. My husband and I were suddenly
discussing whether it made sense for me to buy some pepper spray. I worried
that something would happen when I was out with our daughter, and for a while,
made my husband come with us every time we left the house.

In this state of anxiety, I read A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet and started Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. An early copy of The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s daring debut novel, held me rapt during a time of intense distraction and despair.

I reread Cathy Park Hong’s essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which felt urgent in 2020, but now felt essential. This is the book I always needed. I’ll be rereading it all my life. I’ll share it with my daughter as soon as she’s old enough.

In early summer, I discovered a special category I’ll call “books that sustain you while packing and moving to another city during a pandemic while parenting a small child.” Cheat Day by Liv Stratman was one such book. It made me miss New York, where for years I too lived on kale and dated awful men and yearned to be loved.  

If I had to choose a favorite book from this year, it would have to be Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. What a primal scream howl of joy and recognition. I was reminded of my first time reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter as an undergrad 20 years ago, that feeling of total amazement: fiction can do that? Writers can do that? I want to do that too! God, that line about the “thousand artless afternoons.” I’ve recommended this book so many times that I feel like I should have little cards printed: If you liked my book, read Nightbitch.

There were some glorious weeks this summer when we socialized indoors, had playdates, ate in restaurants, and said a bittersweet goodbye to our friends in West Philly. But the feeling of freedom was short-lived, as we suspected it would be. As I wait for my daughter’s fifth birthday and first vaccine dose, I do my traveling in books. I visited California’s Central Valley via Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot, went to Hollywood via Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, went to the Netherlands via Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee.

Once we were finally unpacked in our new apartment, I had the pleasure of reading We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, the debut novel by Tsering Lama, forthcoming in May 2022. It’s epic and intimate, a love letter to the Tibetan people and culture. And then, because I wanted to read Brandon Taylor’s New York Times review, I read Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, which made me feel rather old, as all her books do.

Continuing with future titles, Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin (March 2022) is a super-smart speculative thriller, full of great ethical dilemmas. Genius Hilary Leichter (author of Temporary) let me read a manuscript of her second novel, Terrace Story. I want to tell you what it’s about, but you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s wonderful.  

Though James Han Mattson’s Reprieve should be read in one fell swoop, I had to read it in stolen bits of time over two months. I was so impressed by the novel’s scope and structure. It’s a horror novel and social critique. I both admired and studied it as I read.

Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej (May 2022) is the sexiest novel I’ve ever read, full of insights about art-making and power. I stayed up way past my bedtime finishing the book, then couldn’t fall asleep, then dreamed about the main characters. I don’t devour many books (see above, snail), but I devoured this one.

In November, soon after finishing Kathryn Harlan’s stellar debut collection, Fruiting Bodies (June 2022), which features stories about girlhood at the end of the world, I finally finished Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I’ve been reading these gorgeous essays one at a time since the summer while trying to learn this daunting new form. The book covers so many phases of Chee’s life that you feel like you’re growing up with him. Like Minor Feelings, I’ll be rereading it forever.  

I’m currently halfway through Chantal V. Johnson’s heartbreaking and wickedly funny debut novel, Post-Traumatic, which publishes in April 2022. I was dog-earing favorite pages until I realized I was folding every single one. After this, I hope to resume reading several brilliant 2021 books by friends and comrades that I started but paused due to book deadlines and life.

Besides giving my daughter a galley of my novel, my favorite book-related memory of 2021 was reading her Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Brave and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 for the first time. As a child, I had a Ramona journal in which I wrote: “I AM RAMONA QUIMBY!” Given how often she requests these books, my daughter seems to feel this affinity too. She likes to flip through the book, pick a page that looks fun, then have me start from there, so we’ve never read either book start to finish. My hope is that there will one day be a children’s series about a mischievous little Chinese-American girl, where the goal is not educating readers about ethnic identity or cultural traditions or why she and her family are different, where she just gets to be a kid and do crazy things and have her story be regarded as timeless and universal. I am forever searching for this book, unsatisfied with what currently exists, because I want my daughter to see herself represented on the page and I want that representation to be as awesome as Ramona. If you have any ideas, do let me know.

A Year in Reading: Ella Baxter

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I read widely but abandon books quickly unless they captivate me. The lowest standard I hold for a book is that I want it to be so psychedelic, so completely discombobulating, that I am torn asunder. I want to read words that turn my bones to dust. I want to be unravelled, drowned, absolutely smote by a book. I wish I wasn’t like this. I wish I could just learn to relax, but those days are over, they are dead. Every day I am grateful that books exist and if you were to cut me open, I would bleed all the words I have banked inside, from all the books that have destroyed me, eyeballs first. 

At the start of the year I was given a copy of How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, a book on shamanism, and a copy of something else, perhaps a story about Tibet. I moved house so the books are still in tall stacks along one wall, and I can’t seem to find the titles to tell you their serious names.

To distract myself from all of the fame and fortune that releasing a debut novel usually brings, I spent the last of my publishing advance on some books, a haircut, and a pair of cowboy boots. I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to ground myself in stoicism, Living with the Gods by Neil MacGregor for perspective, and Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting) by Monica Dux because I was also very pregnant and quite terrified.

Throughout my life I have tried—at times, desperately—to become a better person, and nothing triggered me to act on this more than becoming a mother. In the first months of pregnancy, I listened to the audio recording of The Secret of Secrets: The Secret of the Golden Flower by Osho. I played it while I did my leg, butt, and thigh exercises in a bid to double down on self improvement. I also read The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Goldhor Lerner, and How to Do the Work by Nicole LePera. If I am honest with myself, which I am always trying to be, I have remained fundamentally the same.

I live in Melbourne, which has been in lock down for a total of 262 days since the pandemic began. Regularly, I have felt the need to escape my body and my house by inhabiting fictional worlds. I read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, which was profoundly bruising. Outlawed by Anna North was a wonderful feminist Western. In Moonland by Miles Allison was enjoyably bizarre and illuminating. Gunk Baby by Jaime Marina Lau threw me into a suburban consumerist fever dream. I also read Motherhood and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, which I loved dearly and plan to reread. And, Death in Her Hands and Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, and the incomparable, edible, stratospheric Luster by Raven Leilani.

I enjoy nonfiction as much as fiction and this year I listened and wept through both Girlhood and Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. Her voice is so calming, and so full of honey, that I would drift off and then come to and have to rewind to listen again. I also read The Believer by Sarah Krasnostein, which left me with a resounding curiosity about gods and ghosts. How to End a Story by Helen Garner was so well written that I wanted to weep. Eating with My Mouth Open by Sam Van Zweden contained some of the most perfect food and family writing I have encountered. Aftermath by Rachel Cusk because there is nothing like a brilliantly perceptive book about a fractured marriage to end the day.

I’m currently working on my second novel, which is about feminine rage and vengeance, which means I am doing a lot of research into the art of revenge. For now, it’s all I read and write about. Fatal Women by Lynda Hart lit the fire in my belly, and then in quick succession there was On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche, A Madman’s Manifesto by August Strindberg, and Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi, which is one of the most hilarious and genius books out there. I have also read a lot of court documents and forensic profiles and watched an ungodly amount of CCTV footage. I am obsessed with revenge, and I keep finding myself asking people whether they feel it is necessary or not, and to no-one’s surprise, most of us are in favor of it.

In order to learn how to write beautiful sentences, I read Plath. “Aquatic Nocturne,” “A Lesson in Vengeance,” and “Brasilia.” I am also reading poetry by Warsan Shire. Her poem “The House” reveals something new each time I revisit it, and there is another favorite of hers that begins with a father walking backwards into a room. Her poems are alchemical; I promise if you read a poem of hers you might levitate, at the very least you will be changed.

To prepare to give birth I read Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin and Birth with Confidence by Rhea Dempsey. I also read Birth Skills by Juju Sundin and The Art of War by Sun Tzu to help develop my focus and rigor. I bought a blow up pool and some stress balls, oiled my perineum, and performed some grounding lunges, but I shouldn’t have bothered with any of it because my baby was so big that he got stuck in my pelvis, and even though I labored for three days, in the end I was cut in twain and he was hauled out of my body unceremoniously. Perhaps what I have been expecting of books was achieved though having my beautiful baby. Perhaps I should use this as a learning exercise.

Birth obliterated me spiritually, physically, and mentally and when I came home from hospital I didn’t want to read or think anymore. I just needed to sit on the couch and look out the big old window for a very long time. A friend told me to read something regularly, even if it was just a sentence or two, so I slowly read smaller pieces. A sentence each day from Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier, which was a gloriously snappy novella. The short stories of Paige Clarke’s She Is Haunted, and some snippets of poetry from Keats, Dorothy Porter, and Rumi. I believe only now, four months on, that I am ready to think again.

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