A Year in Reading: Jianan Qian

During our school years in Shanghai, we were always reading two books at the same time. One was our textbook, which sat open on the desk, protected by extra covers, lines highlighted and margins filled with tidy handwriting, reflecting our diligence; the other was the book we were actually reading, hidden inside our desks, probably dog-eared and without notes. As our teacher droned on and on, our souls slipped into the worlds of those books: some of us fought to be Kung Fu masters, others fell in love with someone magnificent.

Now, years later, I often hear people say that the books we loved in youth are not good, and that we liked them only because we desperately wanted to escape from the chore of schoolwork. This year, I spent a lot of time rereading the same books I used to sneak into my desk back in old days. And I mean to say this: We don’t need to feel apologetic about loving these books. Most of them still speak to us.

1. Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau

For most of this year, I was translating English Professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, into Chinese. I took the opportunity to reread Thoreau’s major works. Now, it’s safe for me to say that I still admire Thoreau. Not because I, as a city person, fancy the romantic idea of living in the woods, but because I appreciate his moral struggle and his life-long journey to elevate himself.

There have always
been two Thoreaus: one was the hermit by the
lakeside, a moralist who maintained his self-purity by disengaging with the
infected human society; the other was a politically responsible citizen who
would rather go to jail than support the unjust American government by paying
poll-tax and who tirelessly called on his people to do the same, to commit
civil disobedience.

Walls’s biography inspires me to see the two contradicting images as one. Thoreau saw the interconnectedness of all reality—“A man is a bundle of relations” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)—firstly in nature, where the newly-built hydraulic machinery threatened the lives of innocent fish. He defended the fish in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Later, he extended his defense to include all oppressed forms of life: slaves controlled by their owners, Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants, Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest…He was not merely interested in self-cleansing, either; he aimed to be the “chanticleer” (Walden) who would wake his neighbors with the dawn and remind them to live up to Higher Laws.

In
a time when we are so easily lost in the trappings of material success, perhaps
we can always turn to Thoreau for insight and courage. As Walls beautifully puts
it:

When [Thoreau] wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he meant not an ascetic’s renunciation, but a redefinition of true wealth as inner rather than outer, aspiring to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art. “There is Thoreau,” said one of his closest friends. “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough.” (Henry David Thoreau: A Life)

2. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

One often has to defend their love for Haruki Murakami in the same way one must defend their love for J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It is true that there are certain books that you will never truly understand—and, even if you do understand, you will never experience that same electrifying feeling—unless you have read them at a certain age. This speaks to my experience with Norwegian Wood, which we carefully kept away from parents and teachers during adolescence and which offered us an exciting glimpse into what then seemed to us the mysteries of adulthood.

Earlier this year, I reread After the Quake, a collection of stories Murakami wrote after Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake. This time, I must confess that I enjoyed the book even more. I remember I used to adore “Thailand” and “All God’s Children Can Dance,” but now my favorite piece is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.” In this story, an average Japanese salaryman is chosen by Super-Frog to save the metropolis. When this ordinary man doubts himself for lacking any traditional heroic qualities, Super-Frog convinces him otherwise: “Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it’s for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo.” Amanda Lewis, in her essay about Murakami and his un-Japanese style, suggests that Murakami’s exploration of “the needs of the individual” is his refusal of “the essence of the Japanese mind,” which often contains an undertone of “a disregard for the sacredness of human life.” (Amanda Lewis, “The Essence of the Japanese Mind: Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize.”)

I am not saying I like all of Murakami’s works—some of them are disappointing—but the books that enthralled me when I was young—Norwegian Woods, After the Quake, South of the Border, West of the Sun—have quite a lasting charm.

3. The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner

My American friends often find it unbelievable that I read Sound and Fury when I was a teenager. Back then, I read its Chinese translation; Li Wenjun, the translator, carefully inserted footnotes to offer the much-needed context when time-shifting occurs. So I didn’t find it too difficult. This year, to write a script for a Chinese radio show, I reread the book in English. Because I already had the plot in my mind, I was able to appreciate the beauty of Faulkner’s writing.

Quentin’s
section stunned me, as it had years ago. What seems like nonsense—long, chaotic
sentences without quotation marks is also pure poetry. Of course, the young
Faulkner—he was only 31 when he wrote this masterpiece—was probably also
showing off his mastery of different prose styles. His genius may overawe all
the aspiring young writers of today. But it is fine to feel intimidated; that
is how we push ourselves to write better.

P.S.: As a woman of color myself, I am aware of the race and gender issues in “the Western canon.” So, I would also like to recommend the best history book I have read this year: A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights Movement by Jeanne Theoharis. Theoharis argues that politicians have twisted the narrative of the civil rights movement. Now, we feel as if American democracy is a self-correcting and self-renewing system. However, the struggle of African Americans is proof of the system’s problems, not of its perfection. By glossing over the complexity of history, the current narrative turns us away from the still-dire racial present. The most deep-rooted racism, Theoharis suggests, doesn’t take the form of violence; it lies in the way parents assert their rights as taxpayers to maintain a dominantly white “neighborhood school.” Racism happens not only in the Deep South but also in New York City, in Los Angeles, in all those big cities which purport to embrace diversity.

Besides, while we appreciate the problems and values of the literature of the past, we can also keep an eye out for the potential classics of the future. I enjoyed reading The Study of Animal Language by Lindsay Stern and 99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai. And I am also looking forward to reading the following books, all of which boast excellent reviews: In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow, The Travelers by Regina Porter, and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Yes, these authors are all my workshop buddies at Iowa, but I will feel honored to have been one of their first readers.

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

When I think back on my reading life to date, there are maybe a couple dozen writers who stand out from the rest as the true friends of my mind: Woolf, Bellow, Proust, Dostoevsky…And the weird thing is that none of these—well, none except the poets—were love at first sight. I remember staring blankly at the first page of DeLillo’s Mao II at 15, when I still believed I was a poet myself. I remember struggling with the Constance Garnett version of The Brothers Karamazov by our apartment-complex pool the summer after freshman year of college, before switching translations and falling into it utterly. And I remember (this is embarrassing) tripping over the sprung rhythms of the opening of Augie March and being like, this is what all the fuss is about?

The experience of suddenly gaining new ears for an author is one I can perhaps best compare to the effortless French fluency I sometimes achieve in dreams. Or to the way Douglas Adams described the workings of the Babelfish in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One minute, I’m bumbling along with furrowed brow, nodding in feigned comprehension, Oui, bien sûr, the beach is which way again?; the next minute, the barriers melt and I’m immersed in a clear sea.

And this is the experience I had this year with the late Canadian genius Mavis Gallant—which is odd, because I already liked Mavis Gallant. In fact, I recommended her anthology Paris Stories in this space a couple years back. Some time in June, frustrated with much of the new fiction I was reading, I picked up the companion volume Varieties of Exile, confident that I at least knew what I was getting: a certain standard of craftsmanship. What I found instead was rapture. In the wry, daring, tender, and ruthless prose of stories like “The Chosen Husband” and “The Concert Party,” I was suddenly hearing secret harmonies. How many such stories had Gallant published in her lifetime? I decided I had to read them all, post-haste.

I turned to her Collected Stories, an 850-page feast recently reissued by Everyman’s Library. Starting with the pieces published in The New Yorker around what seemed her annus mirabilis, 1979, I read my way forward and backward with growing astonishment: “In The Tunnel,” “The Pegnitz Junction,” “An Alien Flower,” “Potter”… the stories only got deeper, richer, funnier, sadder. I limited myself to one a day, so that each would have time to steep in the back of my brain; soon, my daily hour with Mavis Gallant became the thing I most looked forward to. From “The Remission,” possibly the greatest of Gallant’s stories:

“When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera. The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this—migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky.”

Collected Stories was the best book I read all year—one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read—and as the remaining pages dwindled, I began to feel the sadness of impending loss; never again, barring amnesia, would I get to read these stories for the first time. Happily, Collected Stories turns out to be a wild misnomer; by July, I’d found an equal number of Gallant’s masterpieces lurking in unconscionably obscure volumes like My Heart Is Broken, Home Truths, and The Other Paris; on microfilm at the NYPL; and in the anthology of “uncollected work” The Cost of Living. Nearing now the true end of the Gallant oeuvre, I felt as if certain engines of perception had been restored to their factory settings; even books plucked from the New Release shelf at the bookstore carried a Gallant-like charge of clarity and depth. Or perhaps, afraid to break the spell, I began choosing them more carefully.

I found myself loving, for example, Max Porter’s short novel Lanny, with its tender English domesticity and bursts of wild, magic-realist collage. And Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth, an easygoing autofiction of Mumbai life that stealthily opens into something deeper (like all of Chaudhuri, really). And Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, the daft and incendiary follow-up to A Naked Singularity, centering on mass incarceration, Joni Mitchell, and an off-brand football team called the Paterson Pork. I loved, at length and for the record, Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School. And much of Ocean Vuong’s debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Cautiously, I turned this polyamorousess, or mania, or whatever it was, to some older fiction I’d been meaning to start or finish for a while now. The problems with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow are well-documented, and probably inevitable—the whole thing is told backward, for God’s sake—but in my state of generalized receptivity, I found myself marveling more at its eclipsed discoveries (that guilt is the corollary not of sin but of fear; that suicide is impossible in reverse). One could certainly point out problems with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, too—it’s no one’s idea of tightly constructed—but I found the narrator’s lusty openness to happenstance so vital and persuasive and charming that I went ahead and read The Black Album, too. Charmed isn’t quite the right word for what I felt about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything; its longeurs put even My Struggle to shame. But having set it aside a couple years ago, I now pushed on to one of the strangest and most indelible conclusions in literature.

It is only by comparison with Knausgaard that Vivian Gornick’s intense memoir Fierce Attachments can be called a palate-cleanser—it will haunt you, too. But this is a flawless piece of writing, born of a kind of intoxicating New York astringency I associate with Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paula Fox. (What a pleasure it would be to teach a class on these four writers.)

I should say, in the interest of accuracy, that all was not totally hopeless before my Summer of Mavis Gallant, though the best books I read in the first part of 2019 were mostly classics, consecrated by time, or satellite works orbiting around them. Some years ago, a publisher from the Netherlands gave me a list of her country’s greatest novelists, and this spring I finally got aroud to reading Max Havelaar by Multatuli (a.k.a. Eduard Douwes Dekker). I had thought of it as a proto-muckracking work about the evils of the 19th-century coffee trade—the thing it’s famous for—but Multatuli is also an extraordinary writer and literary architect, hurling thunderbolts of satirical and polyphonic prose, as much Sergio De La Pava as Ida B. Wells. Encouraged, I decided to try W.F. Hermans as well, mainly because his just-translated war novella An Untouched House, from 1951, was shorter than Gerhard Reve’s The Evenings. I was pleasantly surprised to find Hermans’s writing beautiful and devastating as well as misanthropically furious—the thing he’s famous for.

And then, wrapping up an introduction to Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, I picked up Niels Lhyne, by Pontoppidan’s fellow Dane and rough contemporary Jens Peter Jacobsen. The fact that I’d been barely aware of it seems insane to me now, both because Niels Lhyne forced a reassessment of my maps and calendars of literary modernism and because of the insane beauty of Jacobsen’s sentences (in Tiina Nunally’s exquisite translation.) Wanting to know more, I read the young critic Morton Høi Jensen’s 2017 book on Jacobsen, A Difficult Death, and found it a wonderful tutorial, in the vein of Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov. This reminded me in turn of how much I love the genre of popular criticism, and sent me toward David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables—far more worth your time than the borderline-unwatchable BBC remake of Les Mis with Phil Collins’s daughter and McNulty from The Wire.

This was a wonderful year for new criticism as well (shout-out to James Wood’s essay on Pontoppidan, and to Patricia Lockwood’s incandescent rereading of Updike in the LRB). I’ll admit to having lumped Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker pieces in with some of the more fleeting hot takes that seem to have crept into that magazine via its website. But in August, as I traveled up to Maine for vacation, a friend urged me to give Tolentino’s Trick Mirror a chance, starting with the essay on ecstasy. I’m grateful for the advice. Tolentino’s decision to write nine original pieces for this book, rather than recycling from the magazine, is a sign of courageous seriousness—and serious courage. Moreover, Tolentino is a gifted memoirist and a brilliant reader, and her take on our digitally damaged culture, however warmly felt, is also about as definitive as we’re likely to get at present. I found a similar balance of thinking and feeling in the criticism of the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, which I’d started reading a few months earlier. There are some gems tucked into the gallimaufry They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, but his book-length essay on A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, seems to push the whole genre of music writing forward.

Of the narrative nonfiction I read this year, only Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s tremendous account of Ireland’s Troubles, counts as new, strictly speaking. But the lowercase troubles depicted in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers remain urgent news, and I’d recommend any of these without reservation, not least for the effortless way they smuggle analysis into their storytelling. I’d also put in a plug for Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, neither narrative nor criticism, exactly, but all in all the Lipstick Traces of hip-hop.

Back to Mavis Gallant, though, through whom my whole year in reading flowed. I finished the last unread piece of her writing, the novel Green Water, Green Sky, on the first day of that vacation in Maine. For an encore, I went with a friend to the nearby house of Marguerite Yourcenar, whom Gallant had praised in her wonderful essay “Limpid Pessimist.” Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian had been stalled out for years now in the lower hundreds of my to-read list, but the experience of walking through her study, browsing her bookshelves, and of Gallant’s beneficent influence on my reading more generally, meant that I would give it another look. I found it as advertised: a singular masterpiece, an almost spooky inhabitation of the Roman imagination.

And then I turned to The Bluest Eye, in memory of Toni Morrison, one of the very first friends of my mind, whose writing had in a very real sense, made a novelist of me. It had been years since I’d read her, and I felt a little trepidation. How real were they, really, these ecstasies and deep sympathies? Was it possible they were just figments of my own imagination, like my ability to speak flawless French? Or of someone else’s, like the Babelfish? Or something in between?

“Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door fried who lives above her father’s café, sits in a 1939 Buck eating bread and butter.”

Nope. I can’t begin to understand, much less explain, what these lines do to me, but as we turn the collective page into 2020, I feel certain it doesn’t get any realer than that.

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Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

Maybe this is the result of going on long runs in the woods, but I am pulled toward itinerant literature: the whisky priest moving across the Mexico countryside in The Power and the Glory, the Bundrens bungling their way across Mississippi in As I Lay Dying, Sethe moving from a past she can never leave behind in Beloved. I like books that move.

On the Road with Saint Augustine by James K.A. Smith moves (and moved me). Smith mines the fascinating life of Augustine, his writings, and how applicable his vision and experience are to our modern anxieties. Don’t miss the “Fathers” chapter, where Smith gets poetic and personal. 

Smith recently talked all things Augustine (and more) at Seattle’s Hugo House with Garth Greenwell, whose novella Mitko I’ve been returning to recently for a sense of moving—of syntax and sense, in his Augustinian moments and even the smaller touches (“After crossing a little wooden footbridge, at the middle of which I stopped for a moment, peering at the churning waters and feeling their vibration in the structure that held me above them, I found a small cafe nestled in a bend in the river, on a plot of land the waters had spared.”). How that sentence moves, the commas like gestures—handing one phrase over to another.

I’ve been moved often by the poetry of Rose McLarney (including her new book, Forage), so I was pleased to see her co-edit a book with Laura-Gray Street: A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia. It is a treat to hold and a pleasure to look at: beautiful illustrations paired with place. There are poems here to the Single-Sorus Spleenwort and the Wine-Leaved Cinquefoil; to the Eastern Wood Rat and the Northern Long-Eared Bat; to the Black-Throated Blue Warbler, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Painted Turtle, the Mottled Sculpin, the Fat Pocketbook Mussel, and Thorell’s Lampshade Spider. There’s even a poem to the American Caesar’s Mushroom: “As the slender stem rises, red / And relentless as mountain sunrise, / As coal fires burning around us.”

Even the Dark by Leslie Williams moves in its own way, from pauses to prayers (one of the latter starts in the eye of a bird: “It sees magnetic fields and ultraviolet light. As it flies, horizons stay precise.”). Her book is a great one to end the year on, or perhaps to start the new year with: “You could pine / for solitude and then complain of loneliness.” I like how her poems pull me here and there, and leave me elsewhere. “What’s a life for?” she asks, mid-poem. Let’s read and figure it out. Or just wander.

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A Year in Reading: Carolyn Quimby

I’ve spent this year second-guessing myself. Every decision inspired fear. My emotions were out of control. I despised (yet yearned) for change. My astrology-inclined friends tell me this is my “Saturn return,” which is when Saturn returns to the position it was in during your birth. Saturn return tends to be a period of time rife with change, intensity, and questioning. And, despite being skeptical of cosmic predictions, I can’t help but feel like I’m in the midst of something larger than myself. And, like my thoughts and emotions, my reading has been all over the place. 

I kicked off the new year by reading Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State poolside in the Sunshine State. Its willingness to explore the mundane (and maddening) minutiae of motherhood with a thoughtfulness usually reserved for Very Serious Topics™ felt revolutionary. I’ve never read anything like it (in the best possible way). In addition to reading and reviewing for work, I read a few books for fun including Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I listened to the audiobook and I would argue it’s the best (perhaps only?) way to read the book. Without realizing it, I started The Plot Against America (my first Philip Roth book) on a train to Newark. Disturbing in its own right, the alternate history of America post-WWII has far too many parallels to today’s political climate. I also read, and enjoyed, a little book no one’s ever heard of: Normal People by Sally Rooney. Rooney manages to capture the feeling of being young and desperate for belonging with honesty.

Summer was bookmarked by queer novels: Carolina De Robertis’s Cantoras—a luscious and heartbreaking story about revolution in 1970s Uruguay—and Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things—a novel about a grief-stricken family, taxidermy, and obligation. In between those books, I read some incredible books: And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell, which made me cringe, laugh, and cry all at the same time; What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate, which is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in years; Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game, a beautiful memoir about toxic mother-daughter relationships; The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, a quiet, deliberate masterpiece; Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, a creepy, queer YA dystopia; and Lauren Groff’s Florida, a short story collection further proving Groff is one of the best. The New Me by Halle Butler was feverishly inhaled over the course of one afternoon. Butler’s office novel hit too close to home and it sent me reeling. I also worked my way through Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn, which I had been (unknowingly) waiting for since I read The Empathy Exams in 2016. No one writes an essay like Jamison, and I’m already awaiting her next collection. 

As a freelancer, I mostly review fiction so I gravitated toward nonfiction in my free time. I read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the late Michelle McNamara’s haunting book about the Golden State Killer (her nickname). What a sadness that she couldn’t finish what she started but, man, what she left behind was incredible. In a move that shocked no one, I tore my way through Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, which was informative and hilarious in equal measure. John Glynn’s Out East warmed my cold Long Island heart with its sun-kissed honesty. Furious Hours by Casey Cep was the perfect combination of true crime and literary history. I was horrified and enthralled by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said about breaking the Harvey Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement. I’ve always loved books and movies about journalism, and this is journalism at its finest. For the aspiring writer in your life: Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal (out January 2020) is an invaluable resource. 

And then there were my two favorite books of the year: the ones I sat with the longest, that inspired me to write, and that I’ll revisit over and over again. Read over the course of a weekend, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls left me speechless, devastated, and hopeful. I cannot remember the last time I filled a book with so many annotations, asterisks, and exclamation points. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise totally and completely blew my mind. I said it then and I’ll say it now: I would take a whole course dedicated to studying the structure and form of Choi’s novel. Trust Exercise left me unmoored and it took weeks to find my next book. It’s without a doubt the best novel I read all year.2019 was bad in many ways but the reading was good. If anything, that’s what I’ll take into 2020. More books and writing. Less indecision and trepidation. Stars be damned. 

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A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

The fact is I’ve been a grumpy reader this year: as someone who’s been at this books thing “professionally” for a while, and who is also an avid film and TV consumer, I confess I really, really need books to prove to me why they need to exist. A lot of what I come across these days strikes me as basically middlebrow, and I’ve lost interest in anything that counts language a mere vehicle for narrative and/or seems unconcerned with its own lack of urgency. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the two books that stood out to me this year are both experimental in form—nonfiction books by writers who work in non-narrative genres, photography and poetry respectively.

1.Emmanuel Iduma’s A Stranger’s Pose places photographs—some of which Iduma took and others he admires—in conversation with text, carefully curating a sensory, intellectual, and emotional experience that is at once meditative and evocative. As travel writer, memoirist, and visual artist, Iduma, who is Nigerian, reinvents the travelogue: For one, he is a black African traveling throughout Africa (finally, an introspective travel essay framed by a sensibility other than the White Western adventurer’s). In addition, the arrangement of vignettes and images that make up the whole is more intuitive and associative than chronological or thematic. The result is a compellingly impressionistic work that demands your full attention and mesmerizes at once.

2.Why have I not known of Anne Boyer’s work before now? This is the question one always asks upon meeting a mind, voice, soul, and talent that the world needs utterly. Boyer is a poet, essayist, activist, cancer survivor, and all around integrated soul, as far as I can tell. Her book of short essays A Handbook of Disappointed Fate is both all protein and all glistening jewels; an anti-capitalistic rant that is also a sumptuous love song.

Poetry is sometimes a no. Its relative silence is the negative’s underhanded form of singing. Its flights into a wide-ranged interior are, in the world of fervid external motion, sometimes a method of standing still. Poetry is semi-popular with teenagers and revolutionaries and good at going against, saying whatever is the opposite of something else, providing nonsense for sense and sense despite the world’s alarming nonsense. …poetry is made up of ideas and figurations and tropes and syntaxes as much as it is made up of words. We can make a poetry without language because language as the rehearsal material of poetry has made the way for another poetry, that of objects, actions, environments and their arrangement. This is not saying to be a poet means you can only rehearse turning over the world: now try putting the chair on your head.

These essays are very short and yet each will take you a lifetime to really truly read. Run don’t walk.

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A Year in Reading: Catherine Lacey

This is the first year I kept an almost accurate list of what I read and, as I look over it now, I am surprised at the number of books I read and hated. Is it sacrosanct to so gleefully abandon a bad book in an airport or on a public bench? I will not mention them here because I am incapable of speaking briefly on the subject of bad books. Instead, here are a few of the memorably good ones.

Winter in Chicago—I read Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez hunched over my kitchen table one night, wholly absorbed. An account of the year or so Nunez lived with Sontag while dating David Reiff, Sontag’s son, Sempre Susan is an ideal memoir. I tried to recommend it to my friend Kathleen but it turns out she had been the one to recommend it to me!

In a friend’s apartment full of books in languages I could not read I found an old friend: Today I Wrote Nothing by Danil Kharms. Still just as wonderful.

A hawk book double feature—I bought the beautiful British edition of H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald at Shakespeare & Co in Paris and read it on a train. It was so piercing and perfect. Like Sempre Susan, it is a memoir focused on a single subject—in this case the husbandry of a hawk—as a way to write about broader, more slippery subjects like grief and family and solitude. H Is for Hawk led me to another hawk book—The Peregrine by J.A. Baker, a book my partner Jesse and others had been suggesting for years. Little happens—a man observes peregrines in the wild over time—and yet everything happens. It is one of those books that reminds you so emphatically that you belong to a planet of which humanity is a very small part.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams. Again a reread. Williams is a national treasure. These stories are especially good when read aloud— like prayers, but better.

My friend Brenda gave me a copy of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights several months before the Nobel. What a thrilling and impossible book. It was like watching a figure skater do endless triple axels.

After a chance meeting with the writer Elnathan John, I read his first novel, Born on a Tuesday. It is gripping, terrifying, and clear. A force to be reckoned with. Not unlike Elnathan himself.

I came across a copy of Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton and enjoyed it very much. Shapton has this consistent aesthetic language across both the visual and the written; I find it very soothing.

A writer I met this year, Ayşegül Savaş, told me about Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Leger; I read it and immediately bought a copy for my friend Brenda to repay the Tokarczuk recommendation. Ayşegül & Brenda are two of my most trusted book suggesters. I put their titles at the top of the list and though they’ve never met there is, increasingly, a conveyance of books between them.

Another Brenda recommendation—Embers by Sandor Marai—was also passed along to Ayşegül. I then went on to read Portraits of a Marriage, also by Marai, which was just as captivating.

I read two unpublished books by Jesse Ball you might be lucky enough to come across in future years.

While in Berlin I read Joseph Roth’s What I Saw (another book from Brenda) which was about Berlin in the 1920s. Also I read After the Wall by Marc Fisher, an account of the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. They’re both wonderfully chatty but informative accounts of daily life in Berlin during the early and late 20th century.

An insane thing happened—I read an old interview with Vito Acconci in which he mentions Curzio Malaparte, a name I’d never heard before and that afternoon, while I was on a walk in the sculpture fields at the Omi International Arts Center, I came across a copy of a book called Malaparte by Michael McDonough that was contained within a small cube-shaped structure. The book covered the life of Curzio Malaparte and this strange home he built in Capri. I sat down and read it in full.

The Melancholy of Resistance by Lazlo Krasnahorkai was an apt companion in recent months, these doldrums of #resistance. I had tried and failed to read this book in the two years since Jesse gave me a copy, and finally the time was right. You have to be ready to lie down and be walked over, I have found—it was pleasing and discomfiting at once.

Another Ayşegül recommendation—Happening by Annie Ernaux. In fact, she recommended The Years by Ernaux, but Happening is the one that I found that day at Myopic Books in Chicago—my beloved used bookstore. Happening is about the near impossibility of getting an abortion in 1960’s France. I will soon read everything by Annie Ernaux I can find.

I read and continue to read relatively few works by Americans—which I recommend highly. Our books are often disseminated far beyond our borders and often for no good reason. I think there is a special heaven for translators in this country. I recommend you hug the next translator you meet. I also recommend abandoning books you dislike, even pushing them into recycling bins if you must. Such carnage this year. Hopefully 2020 will be kinder.

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A Year in Reading: Lauren Michele Jackson

At the risk of being obnoxious, I checked some majors off the list this year: job, Ph.D., book—in that order. What all that mostly indicates is a joyful change in reading habit and frequency, from the skittish chapter-hopping of the scholar put to market to the languid page-turning of a person who puts pleasure first. And so I must begin with the romances: first, the friends and lovers (and friends turned lovers, naturally) of Jasmine Guillory as entwined in The Wedding DateThe Proposal, and The Wedding Party. I read Casey McQuiston’s delicious Red, White & Royal Blue and wouldn’t stop talking about it. I returned to Lisa Kleypas, whose historical romances I first discovered in my Nana’s basement and devoured in secret in my preteen bedroom, catching up with the gentry’s next generation in Cold-Hearted Rake. I went back to another fave, Donna Fletcher, in reading The Irish Devil and Irish Hope, books that animate all the feminist talking points on the problem of romance novels (in which “No” means “Take me, I’m yours!”).

Most exciting was the gift of getting to read titles while talk still swirled around them, from the justifiably hyped Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado to small, sharp entrances by Eric Thurm (Avidly Reads: Board Games) and Andrea Long Chu (Females). I felt belated to some books that became instant classics in my hands and on my shelf: Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang (I like to joke that I crossed the Atlantic just to get my hands on the quietly gorgeous U.K. edition), How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Severence by Ling Ma, What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell, and Her Body and Other Parties, also by Machado.

Coming from literary studies, I am rather hard on sociology but I read more in that genre this year than I ever have. Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan M. Metzl expertly evades sentimentality; Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom won’t stop, quit, or compromise; and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo let me know what the fuss was about.

I attended an event that introduced me to the tender words of Briallen Hopper, whose essay collection Hard to Love I immediately purchased and sank into. No less tender is Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, whose tiny experiments with memoir I much appreciated.

Setting the mood for now and forever are two masterpieces by black women I read for the first time in 2019: Corregidora by Gayl Jones (edited by thee Toni Morrison) and Rebel Yell by Alice Randall. Because the page, the text, language, and all the movement, all that shit, fucking matters.

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A Year in Reading: Yan Lianke

Translated by Carlos Rojas

When the Japanese author Shusaku Endo passed away in 1996, two of his novels, Silence (1966) and Deep River (1993), were placed in his coffin. This past year, I finally had an opportunity to read Chinese translations of these works.

These two novels moved me.

They also infected me.

At the end of the day, literature always derives out of a sense of “suffering because of love, and love because of suffering,” which is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s notion of painful lyricism, and in Endo’s Silence, the appearance of the character Kichijiro expands the avenues for expressing the author’s suffering, love, and compassion. Actually, a precedent for the extraordinary religious oppression described in Silence (translated by William Johnston) can be found in Graham Green’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, which leaves readers extremely disoriented. Green’s and Endo’s respective novels are both cruel and unsettling, and the works’ narrators are similarly passionate and repressed. However, whereas in Green’s novel, the “whisky priest” is elevated to martyrdom even as he is slipping into decadence, in Endo’s novel, by contrast, the Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues takes the opposite route—in that as he is approaching a pinnacle in life, he cannot help but fall into depths of despair as a result of his concern for the lives of other believers.

If this were the only connection between these two works, it would simply be a case of two stories of religious repression each written with different narrative styles and set in different historical periods and in different locations. Fortunately, Endo’s novel also contains another element that further enhances the work. In addition to Rodrigues, Silence also features the character Kichijiro, who has abandoned his faith and repeatedly sins and confesses, then sins and confesses once again. This character, who in doctrinal terms is viewed as a dog, is described as having yellow teeth, bad breath, and timid, lizard-like eyes. Under the author’s “painful lyricism” writing style, however, he is granted power deriving from experience with pain and darkness. For instance, the novel describes how Kichijiro, after having been forced to trample on a sacred Christian image, entreats a priest in a voice “like that of a child pleading with its mother,” saying:

“Won’t you listen to me, father! I’ve kept deceiving you. Since you rebuked me I began to hate you and all the Christians…

“God asks me to imitate the strong, even though he made me weak…

“Father, what can I do, a weak person like me? . . .

“Father, listen to me. I have done something for which I can never make amends. And you officials! I am a Christian. Put me in prison.”

At
this point, Kichijiro’s soul reaches its highest position, the way that distant
stars can still produce a dazzling light. Rodrigues’s suffering was a result of
the darkness of external religious repression, while Kichijiro’s derives from
own betrayal of his faith, combined with his inability to truly abandon that
same faith. Yet in the dark depths of Kichijiro’s heart, the flame of his faith
and his belief is never truly extinguished.

This is Kichijiro’s soul!

Regardless of how devoted Endo may have been to his religion, or whether he gives the impression that literature was his greater faith, he nevertheless managed to make Kichijiro’s weak and dirty soul sparkle with a thrilling radiance. Nevertheless, the sense of forgiveness, tolerance, and compassion that Endo clearly feels for this character, whose soul has never been extinguished, makes readers realize that Endo never stopped embracing pain and darkness. We thereby appreciate how Endo, either as an author or as a believer, maintained a tradition of respect and humanism in his love of all people, even the sinners. 

In his 1993 novel Deep River (translated by  Van C. Gessel), meanwhile, Endo takes the sort of heavenly love that one finds in this sort of pure religious literature, and brings it down to the mortal world. Compared with other great religious novels—such Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin, Green’s The Power and the Glory, together with Yukiko Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion—it is Endo’s Deep River that best succeeds in taking a religious story about God and Heaven, and bringing it back to the mortal world. The novel portrays the lives of several different sorts “nonbelievers”—including Osamu Isobe, who has recently confronted his wife’s death; Mitsuko Naruse, who for years has lived irreverently and mocked religion; Kiguchi, who is trying to recover from wartime experiences; and Numada, who is a relatively simple children’s book author—all of which represent the sufferings of ordinary people deriving from their entanglements and desires outside the immediate sphere of religion. Apart from the priest Augustine Otsu, the non-religion of these sorts of “non-believers” represents the novel’s confrontation between belief and non-belief. Like Silence, Endo’s Deep River uses a priest (Otsu) to narrate a purely religious story—namely, Otsu retains a sense of respect and stubborn skepticism toward all religion, but when it comes to his life, he continually proceeds further and further toward a deep love. On the other hand, all of the secular characters begin with a skepticism toward life and fate, but in the end they all embrace religion.

In Deep River, the entanglement of these two contradictory elements contributes to the work’s attraction and its ability to stimulate readers’ interest. It is not so much that the novel’s strength lies in the way it presents the parallel narratives of four different characters who all visit India’s Ganges River, where their fates become intertwined, but rather that the novel’s (overly) intricate structure is used to take the four protagonists’ frustrations and desires, and transport them to the Ganges River, where they undergo a religious purification and spiritual cleansing. At this point, discriminating readers might be dissatisfied with the way the author deploys this parallel structure—finding that it relies on too many coincidences, to the point that readers may fear that the work might collapse under the weight of excessive melodrama. After finishing the novel, however, one cannot but respect the author’s composition, and specifically the way that he manages to deploy the sort of “embracing suffering” that we associate with Dostoyevsky in order to defuse this melodramatic narrative. This will make readers appreciate how the author, in taking a sense of great religious benevolence and transposing it from a divine position to the position of ordinary individuals in the mortal world, has once again used an unweakened Christian spirit to fill the nihilistic and anxious fissures of mortal existence. In addition, readers will also be reminded of that saying that many people often forget and which authors who overemphasize technique often tend to mock:

The size of one’s heart, corresponds to the size of its significance; and the weight of one’s spirit corresponds to the weight of the corresponding literature. 

In the end, Endo’s two novels give readers the sense of narrative that is swamped by lyricism, while this lyricism makes people feel that suffering is but a romantic shout that inevitably culminates in an ear-piercing scream.

Carlos Rojas is Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at Duke University, and the translator of several works by Yan Lianke, including Yan’s memoir Three Brothers: Memories of My Family (Grove Atlantic, 2020). 

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A Year in Reading: Max Porter

A combination of factors (leaving my editorial job, a new book out, traveling a lot, being sent a great many books, small children, existential crises, moral panics, a cold office, bad knees, a guilt complex) means the structure of my reading life has crumbled. I’m all over the place. Undisciplined. Books everywhere. Books about ecological disaster sitting next to old copies of Asterix. Mad panic that I might not have time to read Pantagruel again so I’m hiding in the toilet reading Pantagruel while I should be getting my kids ready for school. It feels strange to read books. But we are reliably informed that it always did.

Most of my reading these days is about animism, paganism, druidism, and trees. Treeism? Some of this is research, but mostly it’s philosophical escapism. I’m searching for something. My second novel got a review from a right wing paper that said ‘Porter goes full hippy” and I took it as permission to do just that. If not now, then when?

For a book I want to write, I’ve been researching medieval life, art, and medicine. Highlights include Towards a Global Middle Ages by Bryan C. Keene (especially Eyob Derillo’s amazing work on Ethiopian amulet scrolls), Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell, and the British Library catalogue Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

I would have been lost this year (as any other) without poetry to cling to and travel with. If I had to choose a single book of the year it would be Jay Bernard’s Surge. It is an extraordinary artistic and political achievement and one of the most important British books of the last decade.

Other highlights have been Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland, Rebecca Tamás’s Witch, Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost, Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason, and Anthony Anaxagorou’s After the Formalities.

There is also a shockingly fresh, invigorating, boasty-bright new translation of the Welsh epic Taliesin, by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams. It bubbles, swoons, and swaggers as if Alice Oswald wrote it yesterday. I’ve kept it by my bed in the hope I dream of “Nettle flowers from the ninth wave’s water…conjured by Math.”  

I have spent a lot of time rereading Julia Blackburn’s Time Song, Richard Holloway’s On Forgiveness, and Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye. These books have given me clarity and inspiration this year. I also reread Riddley Walker for discussion with the great Backlisted Podcast, and holy shit it’s still the absolute best.  

I read some classics including Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, which cut through everything else around it like a very sharp knife. What a powerful book. This was also the year I first read Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass, After London by Richard Jeffries, The Golden Legend by Jacobus De Voragine, Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, and Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls.

The work in translation I’m most grateful to have discovered this year is the Tilted Axis series of pamphlets Translating Feminisms. Extraordinary Nepali, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tamil poetry, with introductory essays by the translators that make visible and examine the political machinations of translation. Radical, stylish, important, and invigorating publishing.

Three really, really good new American novels from my old pals at Granta Books knocked my socks off: Jenny Offill’s Weather, Jesse Ball’s The Divers’ Game, and Ben Lerner’s Topeka School. The disconnect between these visionary, elegant, sophisticated literary endeavors and the burger-vomit death-cabaret is…well I don’t know what it is. It’s simultaneously wildly bizarre and heartbreakingly mundane.

In British nonfiction I’m grateful to Nathan Filer’s This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health (formerly titled The Heartland), because it did. Johny Pitts’s Afropean and Mariam Khan’s It’s Not About the Burqua both do a lot to expand, revise, and interrogate the ideas we have of one another in the U.K., and counter some of the entrenched bigotry and pernicious ignorance that shapes so much of the discourse on our small racist island.

Samantha Harvey’s forthcoming book on insomnia is incredibly good. As is Mark O’Connell’s forthcoming book on the end of the world.

The graphic novel I am most excited about is Anders Nilsen’s visionary work-in-progress Tongues. I read the first three parts this year and I eagerly await the next. It’s just…staggering. Utterly fucking insane. So beautiful and so strange. He is a genius.

Lastly, John Burningham died this year. I grew up with his books. They’ve been a constant presence in my children’s lives. They’ve been in our dreams and in our language. His clouds, his animals, his strange domestic spaces, his weird anguished faces and bruised mottled landscapes. I love his books very, very much.

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A Year in Reading: Marcos Gonsalez

I’ve read far less this year than I typically do. Not by choice, really, but by circumstances. There just didn’t seem to be enough time, but when is it ever enough time to read all of what one sets forth to read? So, the little reading I did get to do really stuck with me. Maybe what they say about less is more is true.

Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy, was beautiful devastation in prose. I raged, I thought, I cried. I read it all on one cold Saturday, devoting the day to those words, taking my time to feel all it does so masterfully. Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground and Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls were another set of memoirs that were everything to me. Each one I set aside a full day to read. These writers demanded such time and attention from me, and I am glad I made time for them.

I read the New Directions reissue of Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel Malina. A very strange book, an oddly composed and written book, but one that is deeply moving for how it represents obsession and how those we love the most can hurt us the most. I am hooked on Bachmann and all I look forward to in 2020 is reading more of her work.

I encountered essays and reviews by Tobi Haslett and I am downright obsessed. Haslett’s fabulously incisive and bitingly spot-on analysis of contemporary literature and art production I can read for days.

Took the time to reread books that continue to awe and inspire me like Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother; the poems, plays, and essays collected in Assotto Saint’s unfortunately out of print Spells of a Voodoo Doll; Justin Torres’s We the Animals; and Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.

The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda gave me a poetic and stunning memoir about his search to find out more about his grandfather who lived through Japanese internment in the United States. I continue to recommend this book to everyone and anyone.

Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination is an impressive book of literary criticism, cultural analysis, and memoir that raises many important questions about whiteness and literature in the United States. My mind is still reeling and working through all the ideas it generates.

One book that I will never forget from this year is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. A marvelously written—innovative in its use of research—and just an all-around radical book we all should be reading. It’s a book that gave me genuine hope this year.

Not enough reading for me this year, but what little I did has left its lasting impression and a multitude of stunning writers to continue reading on into 2020, and beyond.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005