A Year in Reading: Emily Adrian

In 2020 I had time to read. I spent March and April sitting in my parked car while my son “played steering wheel.” I could have read a lot of books in the passenger seat while Wes beeped the horn and pressed all the buttons on the broken CD changer. But mostly, I didn’t. Mostly, in 2020, I stared at the news, or at the sky, or down at the top of my dog’s head where his orange fur is turning white. I went for long, thought-obliterating runs—first along the James River, sweating in the Virginia heat; and then through the New Haven fall, past the dorms full of quarantined students who were not allowed past the padlocked courtyard gates. In 2020 I got stronger and faster, and I gave myself an uneven bob with the kitchen scissors. I watched too much pandemic basketball, moved to my third state in as many years, published a novel, and yelled at my adorable son more times than he deserved. I did not get on a plane; I did not see my family. I hardly read. It feels bad to admit it.

It also feels a little dishonest. Because I did read. More
than most people, maybe. But the events of the past year have compromised my attention.
Apparently, in order to slip inside a fictional world, I need to have some
amount of faith that my actual world will remain fixed for thirty minutes or an
hour—whenever I choose to put down the book. And it’s an unreasonable requirement
now that the virus kills more than a thousand Americans a day; now that the
president refuses to concede an election he lost; now that I am quarantined in
my living room with my three-year-old, who was exposed to Covid last week. If
I’m exaggerating how little I read this year, it’s because I want to confess that
under duress I surrendered one of the great pleasures of my life. Reading,
which was always easy, became hard. 

But because it has been hard, it is also the case that the
books I finished in 2020 have not blurred or dissipated in my mind. I remember
them vividly, think about them constantly.   

I read Ling Ma’s Severance at the end of February, as the virus loomed imprecisely—the kind of crisis that would wreak havoc in other places but let America off with a warning. I read Severance for the same reason a lot of people watched Contagion, or the reason English majors always read A Moveable Feast after a trip to Paris. To think, I’ve been there; I’ve seen that. To feel the chill of recognition. In March, I read an early copy of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham (and wrote about it for the Los Angeles Review of Books). There is something irresistible about a counterfactual history, especially in an era when our own political fate feels infuriatingly arbitrary—both avoidable and nearly avoided. When we can’t stop tweeting: “It didn’t have to be like this.” I read The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe as summer eclipsed spring in Virginia. I carried the book with me as my son and I roamed Richmond, searching for deserted parks where we could go maskless. Thorpe is one of my favorite writers: nothing could prevent me from losing myself in her fiction, which has a way of remaking the world without veering into fantasy or surrealism. Everything is just slightly heightened, vibrational. Like when it’s ninety degrees at nine a.m., as it often was, this spring.

At the start of summer I picked up Toni Morrison’s Sula, having last read it ten years ago. I wanted something I knew I loved and would finish in an afternoon. This was June, when a lot of people were sharing “anti-racist reading lists” with Sula or The Bluest Eye slapped on at the end, as if Morrison was in the business of giving white people self-improvement lessons—a point made most memorably by Lauren Michele Jackson in Vulture. The main reason to read Toni Morrison remains that she was a novelist of unparalleled brilliance. Soon after Sula, I got my hands on an ARC of Want by Lynn Steger Strong, a riveting, relatable book about two things that often obsess me: running and economic anxiety. Next I tore through Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, wanting it to last forever. Truly great novels make me forget I’ve written a few. I become a person who would never try, would never want to try to write a book, knowing the effort wouldn’t compare to the satisfaction of reading a book as well-plotted and tightly controlled as Bennett’s. 

The fall was when my attention fractured irrecoverably. When I gave myself over to the running, and the NBA, and the whitening patch of fur on Hank’s head. Thankfully, my friend Kerry Winfrey sent me her forthcoming romantic comedy, Very Sincerely Yours. The best thing about being a writer is befriending other writers who send you their unpublished, unedited manuscripts. Not because those drafts represent the apex of their talent, but because those drafts have the most of your friend in them. Kerry’s manuscript made me laugh at a time when almost nothing made me laugh.

For every book I read, I picked up and abandoned three more. Often they were books I had read before, which I revisited for the particular insights I knew were there. While watching the U.S. Open, I picked up Citizen to re-read Claudia Rankine on Serena Williams. While missing my hometown, I dipped into Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City, a deliciously detailed and accurate portrait of the old Portland, Oregon. In the middle of one night between November 2 and November 7, I stood in front of my bookshelf reading the first chapter of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich for the thrill of June Kashpaw saying to a stranger in a bar: “You got to be different.”

Sometimes, when I’m running, I hurt myself. And then I have
to stop running for a day or three or ten. It feels bad; I imagine my muscles melting
into muck. I imagine that, because I am not presently running, all the runs
I’ve run before no longer count. I try to remind myself that the point of
running is to run all my life. No particular day or week really matters; there
is no endgame. Running is a project with which I’ll never be finished. The same
is even truer of reading—and I’m glad I spent the first thirty years of my life
inhaling fiction, as if I suspected there would come a year when books would
be, if not scarce, impossible to read. In 2020, all the books I didn’t read
sustained me as much as the books I did.

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A Year in Reading: Zak Salih

I’m writing this on an overcast afternoon in uncertain times. Two hours ago, my youngest sister called to inform me of her positive COVID-19 test results, my sister who just had dinner with my mother and father two days earlier, my mother whose voice sounds hoarse over the phone and my father who has quarantined himself in the guest bedroom, both of whom will be getting tested tomorrow and, while not ancient, are most certainly seniors with pre-existing conditions, which means even more anxiety and worry and fear and anger and disgust and disappointment and dread in a year that seems, collectively, to have let all of us down.

Amid the uncertainty, however, is one thing I’m absolutely certain of: reading saved my sanity. Not the tweets, the breaking news blurbs, the protest signs, the think pieces, the text messages and emails that ended with some variation on the phrase “hope you are doing as well as one can in a time like this”—but the books. I clung to books this year for consolation, for escape, for solace, for comfort in a way I haven’t clung to them since I was an equally anxious and uncertain teenager. Quarantine, in a perverse way, made real my boyhood fantasy of doing nothing all day but reading. Now, I had all the time in the world; and with independent bookstores and a robust public library system, all the books.

As someone with a first novel coming out in February, much of my reading this year was focused on debut books. If those writers went through the gauntlet and survived, especially in such a terrible time, maybe I could, too. In reading them, I hoped to cobble together some haphazard sense of community, and I was fortunate to encounter work that was ferocious, inspiring, and, to be truthful, somewhat intimidating. I’m thinking in particular of De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s In West Mills, Crissy Van Meter’s Creatures, Peter Kispert’s I Know You Know Who I Am, and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. Then there was Everywhere You Don’t Belong, by Gabriel Bump, and Real Life, by Brandon Taylor—which I read back-to-back, and which I think of as a pair because their joint reading in Washington, DC, in February was the last public reading I would attend.

During the second half of the year, with no more edits to make on my very gay novel, I felt free to catch up with queer writers I had either never read or had avoided out of fear their brilliance would make me second-guess my own work. I was wise to have waited, because I found myself continually enraptured by the authors I spent time with. There was my first book by Andrew Holleran, the melancholy and funereal The Beauty of Men; Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (I know, late to the party); Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh (late to that party, as well); The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels, after which I can never listen to David Bowie without thinking of his characters; Jeanette Winterson’s queering of Frankenstein and love affairs, respectively, in Frankissstein and Written on the Body; the tender, empowering poetry of Jericho Brown (The New Testament, The Tradition), Carl Phillips (Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, 1986-2006), and Henri Cole (Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems, 1982-2007); Robert Gluck’s erotic and delightfully blasphemous Margery Kempe; and the stories of If I Had Two Wings by the late Randall Kenan. And then, of course, there is Garth Greenwell, who I am convinced history will remember as one of America’s greatest prose stylists. Cleanness, a re-reading of What Belongs to You, an essay on “relevance” in Harper’s, his address to the 2019 graduating class at Bennington College Writing Seminars—all of them were life-affirming during a year when powerful factions in this country spoke of our lives (Black, queer, foreign) as so much rubbish.

In fact, so much of the literature I read this year succeeded where conservative politics continually fails: at empathy. At inhabiting other minds, other bodies, other experiences; at seeing the world through new eyes; at realizing we’re all in this together. We like to think we already grasp these facts, but all of us could stand to be reminded. Of particular help in this, for me, were Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied Sing; Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia; Amy Hempel’s short stories (especially “A Full-Service Shelter” from Sing to It); and The Nature of Things by Lucretius and The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, by Thomas W. Lacquer, whose projects of cataloguing those twin mysteries of existence (Where do we come from? Where will we go?) seemed to suit the times, when days and months became indistinguishable, and all we could think about were the dead and dying.

Yes, I could have read more. I could have read differently. But what matters is that I read. Even still, did it do me any good? I wonder. As Olivia Laing reminds us in Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, reading is vital to empathy—but it’s not enough.

Can art do anything, especially during periods of crisis? In 1967, George Steiner wrote a famous essay in which he observed that a concentration-camp commander could read Goethe and Rilke in the evening and still carry out his duties at Auschwitz in the morning, regarding this as evidence that art had failed in its highest function, to humanise. But this makes art sound like a magic bullet, which should reorganise our critical and moral faculties without effort, while simultaneously obliterating free will. Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It’s work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.

Heading into another uncertain year—Who else in my family will get sick? When I can be a slut for hugs again? What, if any, success will my novel have? Will justice ever come for the current Thug in Chief and his cronies?—I’ll think of these words and continue doing the work that’s required of me. That’s required of us all.

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A Year in Reading: Katherine D. Morgan

Can we all agree that 2020 was one emotionally draining year? Some days it was harder to crawl out of bed than others. Of course, that means that some days it was harder to crack open a book than others as well. Although I read more than last year, my reading was sporadic. I run a book club, and I didn’t make it through a lot of books, even though I had been the one to choose them. From living almost an entire year in a global pandemic to losing my beloved job at Powell’s Books due to said pandemic, I miss being around books. I miss discussing books with my brilliant coworkers. I miss dusting my shelves and creating displays for the aisles that I ran. I miss my discount. I miss sitting on the couch before my shift started, cracking open my current read, and trying my hardest not to fall asleep on the couch. I miss my old life. I miss my love of reading.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I read some excellent titles this year. I laughed. I cried. I angrily threw down books, only to beg for their forgiveness as I picked them up again. Reading for me felt different this year. It felt like a survival tactic, instead of something that I wanted to share with others. I changed that by creating an Instagram account that solely focuses on what I’m reading (you can follow it @foreverabookseller). It has been such a bright light for me, making friends and sharing reads. This year alone, I have tried my best to single handedly keep independent bookstores alive by purchasing stacks and stacks of books. Hell, I even got a job with Bookshop.org, because I figured that my heart will forever be tied with indies. Now, the only thing left to do is read them.

I
wanted to focus on nonfiction for 2020, since I’m in the process of writing my
second essay collection. However, fiction, graphic novels, and young adult kept
me sane, and hopeful. I’ll go back to real life in 2021.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby allowed me the chance to laugh at the absurdity of life. It was also the first book that managed to hold my attention after I was laid off. Everything Irby writes is wonderful, and I’ll forever be one of her biggest fan girls. Godshot by Chelsea Bieker and Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham were the last books that I worked on during my internship at Catapult, and I think of these two debut novels every day. While reading Godshot, I reflected on my own views of feminism, religion, and motherhood, highlighting passages and writing in the margins, which I don’t do very often. I’m still bummed that I wasn’t able to wear my gold skirt to Powell’s to shake her hand in person. Black Sunday made me uncomfortable, which I frankly…liked? Rotimi Abraham knows how to write, and there’s a small part of me that’s jealous that I may never be as talented as her, writing about the disturbing moments that come with being a Black woman. Whew. Just…whew.

I feel like if you haven’t read Real Life by Brandon Taylor yet, then you should call your local bookstore and request a copy immediately. It has been a long time since I have felt seen in a book, and even though I didn’t even finish my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to hug Wallace, Taylor’s main character. From grieving the loss of his father to facing outright racism in his Ph.D. program, he could have used someone to tell him that he was loved, and that he’ll be okay. Taylor’s short story collection is coming out next year, and I am patiently impatiently waiting for it to land on my doorstep. Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales made me sit up in the middle of the night and cheer out loud. I love queer romances, and I love a moment where love is on full display. Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings was hands down one of the best books that I read all year. I know what it’s like being a Black woman but reading Park Hong’s work made me realize my racial blind spots, especially when it comes to the Asian community. It took me a while to get through, but it was worth it.

Memorial by Bryan Washington made me sit down and deal with the grief of my grandmother’s passing, which happened earlier this year. COVID-19 really took a lot from me. Washington is extremely talented and creates such realistic characters who are looking for a little comfort wherever they can find it. It was a surprisingly quick read, but I have thought about it once a day since I finished it. Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After made me cry happy tears. I loved reading about a young Black queer trans boy finding love and discovering his voice. Also, that cover? I will gladly judge a book by its cover, and this one is STUNNING. I laughed out loud multiple times while reading Born to be Public by Greg Mania, and I am grateful that I own a copy so I can reread my favorite parts and harass my friends with Mania’s notes of wisdom.

I couldn’t finish Tinderbox by Robert Fieseler in one sitting. It broke my heart, reading about the tragic lives lost in the Upstairs Lounge Fire. It’s one of the best researched nonfiction books that I’ve ever read. Fieseler immersed himself in New Orleans and the culture of the 70s, and I respect him as a writer, a researcher, and a person. I will read anything that Jasmine Guillory writes, and I absolutely adored Party of Two. I love her strong, sexy, feminine, badass characters. Can she write me into one of her stories so I can stop online dating? I’d love that. When I finished Almost American Girl by Robin Ha, I immediately told my friends to read it. It made me feel comforted, and less weird and lonely. The artwork was lovely, and it invoked all of the awkwardness that came with being a teenage girl–but imagine coming to a new country, not knowing the language, AND being a teenage girl? Whew, talk about a learning curve. Ha takes it in stride. Finally, I want to believe that Yesika Salgado wrote Corazón with me in mind, but even though she didn’t, it felt like she was gifting me a love letter, one that told me that I will be okay, and that I’m more than worthy of love. That’s a great feeling to have going into yet another year.

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A Year in Reading: Paul Tremblay

How can I summarize 20201 beyond unhinging my mouth open and loosing a terrified, mournful, righteously angry, existentially-fried scream that will Edvard Munch within the birdhouse of my soul for as long as I live? So, yeah, I’ll get right to the part about my reading then.

That said, you and I will have to muscle through one quarantine anecdote2. The start of Massachusetts’s stay at home orders in March coincided with my two-week Spring Break from school. Having already written a novel3 about a virus outbreak in Massachusetts in which there was a shortage of PPE, poor4 federal response, and right-wing, racist virus conspiracies5, I was NOT the least bit mentally prepared to handle the coronavirus reality. I spent those two weeks in a metaphorical fetal position. I couldn’t concentrate on the books I was supposed to be reading for possible blurbs and instead watched Animal Planet and reruns of Mythbusters. I was trying to escape but couldn’t. What brought me back was rereading The Throat by one of my favorite writers, Peter Straub. Hardly a feel-good novel, the third in his Blue Rose cycle of novels, writer Tim Underhill returns to his dreary hometown of Millhaven, Illinois as it appears there’s a new killer mimicking the murders that occurred during his childhood. Beyond the dizzying twists and thrills of the plot, the sentence level prose is a marvel. For the first time in weeks, I was swept along into that trance, that magic inner space where stories live. But!6 The book was not an escape. I did not lose myself7 in its pages. Instead, with the help of Peter’s sublime talents, I found myself.

I don’t read to escape. I read to be me.     

I’m glad I have that off my chest. Or maybe I should wear it on my chest, like a I-read-The-Throat-again-and-it-helped-save-me t-shirt.

Anyway. The upshot is, I read a lot of books during the delineated time-period comprised of twelve months8. What follows is not in chronological order, nor is it everything I read. I’m sticking to the highlights.

Favorites9

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth was a revelation. A time hopping epic about a cursed girl’s school in the early 1900s and the modern-day crew of Hollywood misfits attempting to adapt a recently published queer feminist history about what had happened at the school. It’s funny and weird and scary and sexy and stingy. And it has footnotes10.  The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is surely to be on every year’s-best list. Four Native American friends who did something terrible when they were younger now face a terrifying entity bent upon revenge. Stephen expertly explores what justice means and it’s scary as hell and there’s basketball too. Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies by John Langan. A stunning collection of novelettes and novellas that explore monsters and the monstrous. John is one of horror’s deepest and most fearless explorers, continually pushing at what a horror story can be. The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang. I gleefully sank into this layered, multigenerational gothic novel that starts as a quiet character study and finishes with the book exploding in your hands11. A Brooklyn man suffering from mental illness marries a Taiwanese woman and their attempt at settling into the 1950s American Dream life in Northern California is more than disastrous. The book is gorgeous and shocking and I look forward to reading it again. Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby. Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a family man and local mechanic struggling to compete with the corporate chains. He’s also the best getaway driver east of the Mississippi. Due to financial struggles, he’s compelled to drive one more. Like the best crime/noir, our main character is doomed, and we know he’s doomed, but we still can’t help but pull for him anyway, and we’re led along the path to ruin by Cosby’s style and expert pacing. The Auctioneer by Joan Samson. A small New Hampshire town welcomes a stranger who holds auctions to help raise money for infrastructure the town doesn’t need (ie. more police). The story is told from the point of view of a farming family who loses everything as the charismatic auctioneer takes over the town, forcing folks to do things they know are not right and not in their best interest. That this novel was published in 1976 and not now, during life in Trumplandia, is mind boggling to me. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Mixing personal reflection/memoir and his vision of how to recontextualize and reshape the racial conversation, while also discussing gender, homophobia, class, and capitalism’s gears being greased by racism, the book is unflinching and written from a place of hope and love. Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War by Duncan White is a comprehensive history of writers struggling against (and sometimes for) the dominant political forces of the twentieth century. I marveled at the bravery of so many of the writers who, at the cost of their careers if not their lives, stood against fascism and imperialism. I was also chilled by the parallels to our current political climate.

Books recommended to me

Priya Sharma (Ormeshadow, All the Fabulous Beasts) mailed me a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. A fun and surprisingly sinister comedy of manners and a teacher’s cult of personality. Michael Cisco (The Divinity Student, Animal Money) wouldn’t stop yelling at me until I read The House Guest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila, which was a delightfully dizzying collection of ambiguous horror stories and fever dreams. Laird Barron (Black Mountain, Worse Angels) didn’t yell at me, but remained insistent that I read Delicate Prey and Other Stories by Paul Bowles, which featured globe-trotting settings, damaged characters, and two of the most disturbing stories I’ve read in years.

Okay, this is getting too long but more books, books, books12

Punk reads: Do What You Want by Bad Religion and Jim Ruland, a thoroughly entertaining and informative history of one of my favorite punk bands; The Ramones’ Ramones by Nicholas Rombes, from the series of rock album books from 33 1/3, is half history of punk and half ode to the Ramones’ first album.

Oh the Horror!: 2020 was a banner year for horror, er, fiction. Silvia Moreno-Garcia took on race, eugenics, gothic literature, and fungi with her best-selling juggernaut Mexican Gothic; Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide for Hunting Vampires playfully and expertly recreated a time and place that still feels like now; Jeremy Robert Johnson’s The Loop poses a terrifying Michael Crichton-esque13 what-if spliced with the horror of John Carpenter’s The Thing; John Fram’s The Bright Lands mixes a gay man’s return to home, Texas high school football, and ancient terror; Karen Russell’s funny and uniquely disturbing novella Sleep Donation outlines a pandemic of not-sleeping, of more than insomnia–the sufferers don’t sleep at all; Zoje Stage’s Wonderland taps into nightmares and our quarantine anxieties with her family trapped in a rural home; Tananarive Due’s The Good House puts a new twist on an evil from the past revisiting the present mixed with a compelling intergenerational drama. I really enjoyed Jessica Guess’s inversion of the slasher trope with Cirque Berserk; Errick Nunnally blew me away with two dark fantasy/horror hybrids All the Dead Men (hardboiled werewolf fighting a vampire conspiracy and I imagined every vampire looked like Stephen Miller) and Lightning Wears a Red Cape (a gritty superhero novel), and K. P. Kulsi’s debut Fairest Flesh was a wonderful, affecting, and disturbing mash up of fairy tale the horrors committed by Erszébet Báthory.

Crime: Laird Barron continued his series of novels featuring former hitman Isaiah Coleridge and edged closer into his weird, cosmic horror territory with Worse Angels; I don’t read many series, but the other one that I do read is Liz Hand’s Cassy Neary, punk photographer, novels, and her latest The Book of Lamps and Banners does not disappoint. It is unsettling and very now (involving the far right and white supremacy in the UK); okay, it’s not really crime, and I’d argue it at times shades toward horror, but Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives follows a doomed poetry circle of writers through the decades; also, not typically what would be considered a crime novel but Julia Phillips’s mesmerizing novel in stories Disappearing Earth opens with the kidnapping of two sisters on the Kamchatka peninsula.
What Was I Thinking Reading These Too-Timely Books Right Now?14  Albert Camus’s The Plague, um, yeah, it was really good, and he freaked me out with references to plague deniers, but it didn’t help me with Covid life; During election week15 I read Steven Wright’s The Coyotes of Carthage about corporate funding of a local South Carolina campaign that riles up nationalist freedom fever dreams to allow for the pillaging of state owned lands, and yeah, it was great but it left me in a puddle of political anxiety.
Books you can’t read yet!16 Out this month is Sam J. Miller’s The Blade Between and is both gritty and dreamlike as it mixes genres, gentrification, LGBTQ themes, social politics, and whales (yes, whales; there’s one on the cover!); in 2021 be on the lookout for Sarah Langan’s horrifying and brilliant dissection of suburbia with Good Neighbors and two short fiction collections–The Low Desert by Tod Goldberg, which is a brilliant armload of crime stories, full of humor and pathos, set in southern California, and Usman T. Malik’s wildly imaginative short story collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan; it brings to mind the best of Ted Chiang, but Usman has a voice all his own.

Um, wow, that’s a long list. And I left off more worthy books, but I should stop now. Here’s hoping for a better year for us all, and for more reading. 

1 We know what year it is. Stop taunting us.2 Sorry. I really mean it. 3 Survivor Song, published July 2020. Yeah, there’s a virus and horror and sadness, but there’s hope in it too. I swear.4 as in piss poor, as in the pissingest poor5 I never imagined how mainstream such conspiracies would become.6 This is important enough for a single word ‘but’ sentence.7 You hear that all the time, right? ‘I lost myself while reading that book…’8 I’m using ‘year’ as literal. I’m going to mention books read from November 2019 to November 2020. So there.9 The books I recommended the most.10 So, yeah, I love footnotes, even though I know these are endnotes.11 I wanted to write literally exploding, but that isn’t true. Mostly.  12 with subcategories within the categories13 But with well-crafted characters. Sorry, Michael.14 Also, um, speaking of ‘timely,’ please buy my book Survivor Song. Thanks.15 Or month(s) now as of the writing of this Trump and his slimily soulless seditious sycophants continue their coup attempt.16 A nicer way to put it would’ve been, coming soon to a bookstore near you, I suppose. 

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A Year in Reading: Andrew Valencia

In 2020, I fulfilled a goal that I set for myself in college and completed gradually over the next twelve years—to read every novel that Cormac McCarthy has ever published. As it happened, I finished Cities of the Plain, the last book on my list and the final installment of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, while on vacation in Japan. Like the best of McCarthy’s works, Cities of the Plain is saturated with sadness and longing for a time gone by, for an epoch that has violently passed away, and for the disordered lives left behind in its wake. For Billy Parham and John Grady Cole, the young heroes of the story, the rough borderlands of Texas and New Mexico have already changed beyond recognition by the time they land jobs as ranch hands in the early 1950s. “Anyway this country aint the same,” Parham laments one evening on the cattle trail. “The war changed everything. I don’t think people even know it yet.”

As is often the case with McCarthy, the strength and naïveté
of youth is contrasted starkly with the frailty and mournful wisdom of age. In
one particularly striking scene, an old man runs out of the house in total
darkness, disoriented by a vivid dream. Later, as the old-timer sits at the
table sipping coffee, the narration breaks from its objective point of view and
forces us to consider the subjective mysteries of experience. “In his time the
country had gone from the oil lamp and the horse and buggy to jet planes and
the atomic bomb but that wasnt what confused him. It was the fact that his
daughter was dead that he couldnt get the hang of.”

I was in Japan for two weeks during Chinese New Year, on
break from the school in Taiwan where I’ve been teaching for the past five
years. Had I known at the time that it would be my last trip out of country for
a while, I might have felt a bit more wistful as I wandered the pristine, cold
streets of Osaka and Kyoto. By a stroke of good fortune, I arrived back in
Taiwan in early February, right as the first reports of COVID were coming out
of China, but before widespread travel restrictions were in place. At the
airport in Taichung, security agents, following early rumors that the disease
was linked to infected meat, inspected our luggage for animal products, but
took no temperatures and collected no personal information. Almost no one wore
a mask.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel A Pale View of Hills, a Japanese woman living in England remains in denial about the role she played in her adult daughter’s suicide. She reminisces on her life in Nagasaki after the war, when most Japanese people were eager to put the past behind them. Etsuko, too, attempts to make a clean break. “If you don’t like it over there, we can always come back,” she tells her daughter as they prepare to follow a British man overseas. “If you don’t like it over there, we’ll come straight back.”

But no. There is no going back.

As I write this, votes in six states are still being processed. After we were promised a landslide this time. Repudiation. Collective redemption. The nightmare expunged. I think about one of Gore Vidal’s history novels, 1876. A hundred and forty-four years later and the language of American corruption is still the same. The popular vote rendered meaningless in the face of an electoral college numbers game. An unpopular president interfering with the vote counts in specific states. Vidal’s protagonist, Charles Schuyler, admires the Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden for his commitment to political reform, but turns a blind eye to his Southern allies’ tactic of suppressing black voters through violence.

Now it’s finally starting to turn cold on the island, which means the year is almost over. It’s been months since our last confirmed case of the virus, but I still wear a mask off and on. At night I try to make time to finish Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, but the days are long and tiring, and it’s easy to get distracted by the news. Taiwan is beautiful, safe, and free, but I never expected to be here this long. Even so, I fear the country I left behind has changed in ways I wouldn’t care to imagine. In ways I don’t yet even know.

In the meantime, I’m reminded of the famous fig tree speech from The Bell Jar, which I read for the first time this year at the age of thirty-one. Better late than never. “I wanted each and every one of them,” Esther Greenwood says, “but choosing one meant losing all the rest…”

I hope to read more in the new year. I hope this world will
retain some of its beauty.

I want to live. I want to choose. I want to gather fruit.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

December Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: In The Freezer Door, award-winning author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore meditates on connection, loneliness, sex, social conformity, trauma, and more. Wayne Koestenbaum describes this new work as “a book that defies borders and uses language to dive directly into mystery.” And, Maggie Nelson declares, “I really love Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door…I stand deeply inspired and instructed by its great wit, candor, inventiveness, and majesty.” (Zoë)

Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley: The “Perestroika” in Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley’s new novel refers not to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Soviet liberalization, but rather a spunky French racehorse who is the center of a group of animal friends in her beast fable. Author of the King Lear adaptation A Thousand Acres and of the immaculate campus novel Moo, Smiley has always had a talent for animal representations both charming and truthful (perhaps reflecting those years spent at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). Perestroika in Paris features not just the titular equine, but also the horse’s friend, a German shorthaired pointer named Frieda, while recounting their lives in the City of Light. (Ed Simon)

Rest and Be Thankful by Emma Glass: Written in a lyrical, dreamy style, Glass’ sophomore novel—which follows up her Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted debut Peach—explores the life of Laura, a pediatric nurse whose life seems to be falling apart before her eyes. Her days are filled with the immense stress of caring for (and grieving for) children; living with a man who no longer loves her; and grappling with hallucinations that she fears is death itself. Kirkus’ starred review calls the sophomore novel “a heart-wrenching and poetic look at a profession that deserves more literary attention.” (Carolyn)

Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo: In her second book, Oluo (So You Want to Talk About Race) examines the last 150 years of American history—ranging from the legacy of the Wild West to racism in the NFL—and the dangerous consequences of society’s centering of white men. About the book, Ashley C. Ford says: “This book goes beyond how we got here, and digs into where we are, what we’re going to do about it, and what’s at stake if the people with the most power refuse to do better.” (Carolyn)

A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers: In Summers’ gory, campy, and satirical debut, James Beard Award-winning food critic Dorothy Daniels recounts her life from prison—where she is serving a life sentence (and then some) for cannibalism and murder. Megan Abbott calls the culinary crime novel “mordantly funny and lushly baroque” as if ” American Psycho as rewritten by Angela Carter.” (Carolyn)

Proustian Uncertainties by Saul Friedländer: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Friedländer examines the mastery of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (“one of the most important novels ever written”) in this book-length scholarly essay. In what Kirkus calls an “intimate literary investigation,” Friedländer explores the sometimes puzzling similarities and differences between Proust and his narrator. (Carolyn)

A Year in Reading: Lynn Steger Strong

At the end of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which I teach and re-read almost every year, a wolf-boy, (half boy half wolf or maybe only dressed up to appear this way) stands on stage, in front of a rapt and silent crowd–though minutes before, this same crowd was tittering, choosing whether or not to listen or to laugh–and screams. Screams, is maybe not quite right. It is a sort of wail, a primal scream. This is the last paragraph, one of my favorite ever paragraphs, in its entirety:

But they hushed, all at once and quite abruptly, when he stood still at center stage, his arms straight out from his shoulders, and went rigid, and began to tremble with a massive inner dynamism. Nobody present had ever seen anyone stand so still and yet so strangely mobile. He laid his head back until his scalp contacted his spine, that far back, and opened his throat, and a sound rose in the auditorium like a wind coming from all four directions, low and terrifying, rumbling up from the ground beneath the floor, and it gathered into a roar that sucked at the hearing itself, and coalesced into a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it, taking itself higher and higher, more and more awful and beautiful, the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made, of the foghorn and the ship’s horn, the locomotive’s lonesome whistle, of opera singing and the music of flutes and the continuous moanmusic of bagpipes. And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.

Train Dreams is a book about a man, Robert
Grainier. We meet him in his thirties, but through the course of the book,
which is only 117 pages, we get most of his whole life. He loses his young
daughter and his wife in a fire. He lives, for years, in the charred remains of
the place that used to be their home. It is, to my mind, a nearly perfect book.
I love short books. I love books that are as careful with everything they leave
out as they are with what they put in.

This
last scene too, is, to me, a little bit of what it is to be a writer; it’s the
only type of book I want to read right now. By this, I mean the scene portrays
a particular and penetrating type of performance. I think all books are
performance, which is to say they are not life but an attempt to contain and
offer something about life to other people, which is very different than just
living day to day. This is the wolf boy on stage. In addition to performance,
the books that I love most are guttural, visceral, and urgent: a scream. The
types of performance that make almost everyone who hears them stay still and
silent, sit up straight.

I started a lot of books I didn’t finish this year. I had no attention span; I’ve been with my children almost all the time. I read some books that felt empty, like box checking, the opposite of the wolf boy. But I also read Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In, like nothing I have ever read before and a performance of a dissonance, a way of being in the world and feeling of near constant discomfort and vertiginous-ness that felt not only true but also like I’d never seen it portrayed as brilliantly as I did in the NDiaye. I read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of The Dead and found it equally thrilling and specific. Though I should admit there is no surer way to thrill me than to give me a brilliant angry older woman who might have also lost her mind.

I taught both these books in a class about “Unhinged Narrators”. This is a made-up term. Most of the narrators, to my mind, are only there to show us how unhinged any of the people who don’t feel regularly, or at least intermittently, unhinged are. We read Erasure by Percival Everett, a master class in grounding the reader firmly and confidently inside a well-built narrative, sufficient that, within it, the writer might go anywhere he wants; we read the brilliantly funny, fragmentary Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison. We read Thomas Bernhard, whom I adore, and who students inevitably feel strongly about. When they come into class and claim to hate him, I ask them to consider how that too is an accomplishment. There’s nothing scarier, I tell them, to me as a writer, than to imagine someone reading something that I wrote and feeling meh.

This
is connected to the primal scream and how it’s how I’ve come to think of novels
lately. I want the ones that hurt a little, get inside of me and make me pay
attention. Like life, but distilled down to its clearest and most visceral
component parts.

We also read Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in The Mirror and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a book I love not least because I love how she shows how stories can take feelings and imbue them fully into objects: that last image of those girls locked up inside that house, the way it makes me feel both pleasure and horror at the same time, feels like an accomplishment very few books can pull off with abstraction all by itself.

Other books I read this year that felt like this haven’t come out yet: Brood, By Jackie Polzin, Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House, Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan. I read each of these quickly and hungrily, foregoing sleep. I’d never read anything quite like them, even as they explored terrain I’ve spent my whole career reading and thinking and writing about.

So
much of this year has been awful. What we’ve lost, how separate we’ve all felt.
I’ve cycled through every awful feeling. I’ve been so scared and sad. But as
opposed to other times that I have felt sad and angry, desperate like this,
other times when I started to be horrified that I’d chosen to make a life trying
to do something as futile and absurd as to write books, this time I’ve found a
different and more solid sense of solace inside of reading and of writing.
Maybe because of how much I miss human interaction, maybe because I’ve lost my
faith in so much else: I believe in books, at least the ones that feel like
primal screams, in ways I never have before. I don’t think that they can save
the world, but, I think, the fact that their power is on the scale of the
individual and specific and guttural feels like one of the few spaces that
still seems capable of offering some hope.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Mira Assaf Kafantaris

The through-line coursing through this year is the sad familiarity of loss. My mother is often on my mind; Lebanon is often on my mind; my children are often on my mind. Trumpism that will outlive Trump is on my mind. I think of endings a lot, all the people I loved and lost, the griefs I have grieved. I think of what I take for granted, what I ignore, what I carry with me. I think of this Eavan Boland line a lot: The ache of things ending in the jasmine darkening early.

January: The Lebanese uprising choreographs my joys and disappointments. You see, in the fall of 2019, massive protests broke out over the impossibility of life in a state that suffocates the living. So much is at stake, but most urgently for me, the promise of a feminist breakthrough. I feel a hunger to learn “the wreck and not the story of the wreck,” as Adrienne Rich tells us, to connect to my Arab heritage, to learn the work of protofeminist Arab women writers. I read Layla Baalbakki’s second novel al-Aliha al-mamsukha (The Deformed Gods, 1960); I savor the rhythm and cadence of my mother language, my internal language, carrying me into the rich and deep world of my ancestors. In its essence, this novel disrupts the model of virtuous, submissive Arab womanhood as intrinsic to the welfare of the umma, or the commonwealth, in the aftermath of coloniality. In the protagonist Mira’s rejection of patriarchy–she says at one point, “I’ve had it up to here with fathers. If he weren’t dead, I’d wish he was”–I sense a groundswell of desire for feminist liberation billowing, unfurling. The more I read, however, the more dejected I become; Mira’s quest for subjectivity and power can only be imagined, called forth, made possible, at the expense of Black and brown migrant workers. In the Arab world, as elsewhere, hierarchies of race and gender work together to oppress those who are farthest away from whiteness.

I devour the trenchant words of Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, which exfoliates, among other topics, the racialization of Asian Americans as model minorities. Perhaps prophetically, she telegraphs the pernicious sinophobia in the months to come as the novel coronavirus spreads like wildfire in the US. Derisively, the outgoing president calls COVID-19 the “kung flu” and the “China virus” to make a point about Asia’s threat to America’s exceptionalism. I am enthralled by “Portrait of an Artist,” the essay on the avant-garde artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s classic work Dictee. In addition to chronicling Cha’s achievement as an experimental artist, Hong recounts her tragic rape and murder days after the publication of Dictee. To fully understand the impact of Cha’s remarkable work, its reception and afterlife, Hong tells us, we need to consider it alongside the sexual violence and brutal death she endured as a Korean-American woman living in a world that has yet to create a place for her in it.

I spot Such a Fun Age in the new acquisitions display at my local public library and remember listening to a National Public Radio interview with its author, Kiley Reid. I marvel at Reid’s ability to create racially illiterate white characters who act by the playbook of white supremacy: white innocence, white tears, white rage. For example, Alix, the bourgeois white woman who employs Emira, the Black nanny, to care for her little daughter, is incapable of seeing Black girlhood and womanhood outside the optics of white saviorism. Alternatively, the babysitter is a young woman who experiences the uncertainties and mistakes of early adulthood in all its glorious contradictions. She falls in and out of love, enjoys sex, is ambivalent about her career, and worries about money. In social media parlance, she is #LivingHerBestLife. I believe this is the novel’s sharpest achievement: to unsettle white America’s love affair with the white savior narrative and turn it on its head.

I remember a reading I attended in the past–remember those?–when a well-meaning white man asked the poet Ross Gay about the place of racial struggle in his poems. And Ross Gay, in the sweetest and most generous Ross Gay fashion, said something along the lines of “I just wish to write about curling my toes in the grass or eating a loquat,” and that white readership’s expectation of oppression is itself racist, because they cannot see Black people as existing outside these violent and victimizing frameworks. In the same vein, I appreciate Reid’s development of Emira as a young Black woman who exists in the quotidian; alternatively, the white characters cannot translate Emira’s being and embodiment without employing harmful stereotypes. And Reid’s scrupulous peeling away of the white characters’ racism is truly a masterclass in storytelling.

At a poetry reading, my beloved friend Zoë Brigley Thompson reads from Hand & Skull. I’m so viscerally moved by her words, her passionate and powerful evocation of gender violence and environmental degradation as inextricably linked to the same power dynamisms. I cry in public. “My Last Beatitude,” an elegiac commentary on the heartbreak of miscarriage, shreds through my heart. The woman on my left offers me a Kleenex. On my right, a friend caresses my arm. Had I known lockdown was around the corner, I would have savored this last communion more intentionally, lingered in this intimate physical contact with a friend and a stranger.

February: I fall deliriously sick. Have I
contracted “the Corona,” as my children come to call it? The doctors have no
idea; I have no idea. Twice I get tested for the flu; twice my results are
inconclusive. My body aches. My head aches. I cry for my mother. No books,
please. Only self-pity; and a prayer for a national mass testing program.

Ding Dong. Bill of Mortality: 10 people die of COVID-19

March: A deluge of job rejections descend upon me and crush my brittle spirits. My ego hurts. My heart hurts. I crawl back to bed, but with a stack of steamy romances this time. I enjoy Bringing Down the Duke for its protofeminist fantasy, hot sex scenes, and a brooding, class-conflicted duke. Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine lifts my spirits.

In Lebanon, my grandmother Yvonne dies, alone. She is buried alone. It is a story that would permeate the months to come, as deaths by Corona, in isolation, become a daily reality. She speaks to me through a fugue of food, poetry, and music. For most of her adult life, Yvonne lived in the border town of Baalbek, where I spent many summers in the shadows of the Roman ruins. The sensorium of these summers–their taste, smell, and feel– returns to my body as a summoning. I crave my grandmother’s Damascene pumpkin preserves and her makdous, or stuffed aubergines cured in oil. Cherríe Moraga’s Native Country of the Heart, a memoir of and homage to her mother Elvira, is a balm to my longing for a life long gone, in that borderless geography of community and care. It is a book I love and return to when I miss my mother and all the women who mothered me. I find solace in the essays in A Map Is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary, that contemplate the meaning of family, memory, and immigration. Jamila Osman’s “A Map of Lost Things,” about rootedness and uprootedness, loss and memory, devastates me. So does Lauren Alwan’s “Arab Past, American Present.”

Ding Dong. Bill of Mortality: 3,169 people
die of COVID-19

April: The magnitude of the coronavirus is impossible to grasp. My husband and I slouch towards indefinite confinement with two little children. I cherish the whimsical and compassionate world these children’s books create: Salma the Syrian Chef, Grimelda the Very Messy Witch, Diary of a Wombat, Frog and Toad, What Do You Do with an Idea, and Amos & Boris.  I feel a camaraderie with Anne Enright, whose Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood is an exhilarating portrait of motherhood in all its euphoric highs and wretched lows. I want to love Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but my own struggle with motherhood makes it impossible to appreciate the lyricalization of bad mothers. Likewise, Anna Burns’s brilliant fictionalization of the Troubles in Milkman is too close for comfort. It triggers the ambient sound of unease–the foreboding hum of civil strife–that coursed through my childhood.

Days come and go. Bill of Mortality: 15,454 people die
of COVID-19

May: My friend Annie recommends Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, about gifted teenagers in an elite arts school and the charismatic teacher who abuses them. I’m engrossed in part one of the novel, but when the narratorial point of view shifts in part two, I lose interest. Rattled by the uncertainties of COVID-19, I do not have the mental and emotional bandwidth to put my trust in an unreliable narrator. I yearn for comfort; I lose myself in Ross Gay’s book of sparkling vignettes: The Book of Delights. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble, about a sometimes self-loathing and a sometimes megalomaniac middle-aged white straight man who libidinizes women, does not hit the mark. I am enthralled by Nikki Grimes’s Ordinary Hazards, a harrowing and triumphant memoir in verse.

Days come and go. Bill of Mortality: 6,128 people die

June:  The racist murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd unleash convulsions of rage, public and private, and an upswell of racial reckoning with the ever-present brutalities of white supremacy. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a fabulously exquisite, expansive tour de force on womanhood from multiple perspectives, multiple histories, and multiple networks; on Black queer love; and on Black feminist everlasting movement towards the commune and the communal.

Days come and go. Bill of Mortality: 3,795 people die of COVID-19

July: Black feminist scholars, artists, and activists respond to the conjoined violence against Black lives: violence as the carceral state; violence as the health system; violence as low-paying jobs; and most brutally, violence as law enforcement. Saidiya Hartman’s essay in Artforum evokes the poetics of refusal and activates an abolitionist imaginary. Dionne Brand’s “On Narrative, Reckoning and the Calculus of Living and Dying” rejects the fantasy of “a return to normal”–a fantasy only afforded to those who benefit from the after-effects of coloniality, the brutalities of slavery, and the tyranny of border imperialism. I am inspired by Black feminist ethics of compassion and care, where people make space for each other, keep an eye on each other, elevate each other.

Carmen Maria Machado’s ground-shifting memoir In the Dream House is like nothing I’ve read before. Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward’s elegiac memoir about loss and mournfulness, brings back buried memories of a good friend who also died a young and violent death in my senior year of high school. In Tommy Orange’s There There, I learn about a historical act of Native American reclamation that representations of the counter-cultures of the 60s have erased: the Native American occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-1971. I love how Orange braids the utopic dreams of Native resistance with the brutal realities of executing such an ideal, from securing food and shelter, to sexual violence, to death. For a personal essay that sutures my border-crossing story during the Lebanon-Israel War to a critique of the movie Sérgio, I revisit Edward Said’s Orientalism, a magisterial classic that deconstructs white European power over the stories of the Global South.

In joy, I read Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer in one sitting on a hot summer afternoon while my children splash around in the plastic paddling pool. It is hilarious from beginning to end, but also astute in its telling of sibling rivalry and the creative ways in which women join forces–here in the form of sororial solidarity–to disrupt patriarchy’s sway over their lives. I laugh whenever I see copies of My Sister on display at my local library. I welcome the escapist distraction of Libba Bray’s The Diviners.

Days come and go. Bill of Mortality: 8,151 people die of COVID-19

August:   The catastrophic explosion in Beirut shatters me. The words of Souad Labbize in Je Franchis les Barbelés (I cross the barbed wire) telegraph the intense alienation I feel in America sometimes, when my heart, mind, and soul are preoccupied with Lebanon. This dual existence is so seamlessly woven into the fiber of my life that it goes unnoticed in my everyday life. But when a thread rips or loosens, when a cataclysmic, man-made disaster kills 200 people in one blow, my entire sense of self rips open, lays bare, comes undone. Jericho Brown’s poems in The Tradition are a daily tonic. Mohsin Hamid’s incantatory Exit West dwells on the meaning and effect of displacement, statelessness, vulnerability, and loss; on doors that open, and doors that close; those who cross our paths and those we leave behind; on the staying power of love. I recall the Warsan Shire line: No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. The passages describing Saeed’s praying rituals are the most beautiful evocation of a person’s congress with the cosmic I have ever read.

Mexican Gothic is a suspenseful treat–a latinx variation on the southern gothic genre where the master’s house–the plantation house or the mine mansion–molts and then burns to the ground as a symbol of purification and excision. What remains is the regenerative promise of love; and a sassy heroine with an impeccable sense of style.

Bill of Mortality: 5,584 people die of COVID-19

September: Unthinkable rage and disillusionment after a Louisville Grand Jury exonerates the police officer who killed Breonna Taylor in her sleep. In Citizen: An American Lyric, I dwell on Claudia Rankine’s power to bring Serena Williams’s righteous anger to the page.

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is the book of the summer for me. It is beautiful imagining of queer kinship and Black futurity throws into sharp relief the stagnation and toxicity at the heart of white heteropatriarchy. Similarly, Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom is a stunning and devastating novel about border crossing, from Ghana to the US to Ghana again; about the movement between the elusive borders of faith and science; and a précis on the overwhelming, debilitating sway of grief; our hunger for human connection; and for the life-affirming promise of love.

Themes of loss and grief find me again in Lily King’s beautiful Writers and Lovers. I love it and look for other books by King. Quite predictably, I pick up her award-winning Euphoria. I’m a sucker for stories of unrequited love, but the ethnographic spectacle of indigenous inhabitants of Papua Guinea as backdrop to the tempestuous love triangle between the American anthropologist, her Australian husband, and her British lover does not sit well with me.

Bill of
Mortality: 4,003 people die of COVID-19

October: My friend Emer recommended Fiona Mosely’s Elmet, which is set in a damp and brooding Yorkshire and has a gothic flavor to it. It is a tense and unnerving read. It stays with me for days. Brandon Taylor’s Real Life articulates with such subtlety and such tenderness the alienation of a Black gay man living in a white world. In the novel, this punitive dynamic plays out in a postgraduate lab where white characters claim racial innocence and cognitive superiority while Wallace is subjected to the insidious stereotypes that many of my Black colleagues have experienced in majority-white universities.

Steve Mentz’s Ocean is both a lyrical and scholarly ode to the sea, encrusting and fluid. Mentz’s meditation on the ocean and its valence in our cultural imagination wake so many memories of my amphibious childhood in an industrial seatown by the Mediterranean. Mine wasn’t a pastoral, Cousteau-esque experience, however. My family, along with our neighbors, swam in waters infested with sewage, industrial run-off, and on occasion, the carcasses of butchered animals. We witnessed dynamite fishing and the aftermath of dead fish floating everywhere at dusk. We also saw the first signs of war from that same coast, when Syrian and Israeli warships sailed too close to the shore. Despite all this, my relationship to the sea is still one of perpetual longing–what the Portuguese call saudades–of fragile, fragmented memories that follow the movements of the waves.

Bill of Mortality: 5,409 people die of COVID-19

November: The lead-up to the presidential election grips me for weeks. Poetry becomes a lifeline, particularly Joy Harjo’s An American Sunrise.  I adopt these lines, about the continuity of past and present, as my mantra: History will always find you, and wrap you / In its thousand arms. I follow Audre Lorde’s instructions in A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer “to listen to what fear teaches.” I fear blatant tyranny. I fear unfreedom. I fear a past cordoned off from the present.

Meredith Talusan’s Fairest is a poignant, powerful, poetic triumph of a book. Talusan breaks up and remakes her world, expands and contracts time; her childhood in the Philippines as a sensitive child with albinism; her gender transition; her bildungsroman as an essayist; her staggering reflections on race, class, and sexuality. Especially salutary is the incisive final essay, “Lady Wedgwood”–an honest, heartbreaking honoring of a love that ran its course, a love that enfolds and enfloods despite its ending.

Recommended by Talusan, Enfance by Nathalie Sarraute is elliptical, raw, and refined all at once; the two-ness of adult and child narratives interlocking, stabilizing and destabilizing memory, punctuating the slipperiness of language. It starts with these brilliant sentences:  “Alors, tu vas vraiment faire ça ? ‘Évoquer tes souvenirs d’enfance…’ ” (So, are you really going to do this? Evoke your childhood memories?) I talk openly about my desire to write my own memoir of a childhood marked by the Lebanese Civil War.

After the election, I gravitate toward the
voices of Arab Americans and their place in the American landscape. I’m not on
a quest for identity, but the discourse of American exceptionalism touts me,
and I find myself mulling over my tenuous relationship with my homeland, my
rejection of American military imperialism, its glorification of individualism
at the expense of the collective, and my embodiment as a diasporic settler of
color living on the traditional lands of the Shawnee, Miami, Lenape, and other
indigenous peoples.

I end the year with two Arab-American jeremiads: Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens and Massoud Hayoun’s When We Were Arabs. How do Arab Americans, whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, navigate the aura of suspicion and provisionality that surrounds them on a daily basis? In what ways can Arab Americans tell their unique American story on their own terms? To what extent can we disrupt the one-dimensional narratives of religious extremism, or backwardness, or superficiality that America attaches to our stories? These are some of the questions both Lalami and Hayoun explore in their incantatory meditations on their identities. Lalami’s searing story of migration and American citizenship resonate with mine. Ranging from themes of allegiance, to faith, to borders, she excavates the complex, multilayered, and nuanced story of being an Arab and Muslim woman living in the US. She is a conditional citizen, Lalami tells us, expected to perform her allegiance and gratefulness time and again in a political climate that is always already suspicious of Arabs and Muslims. Most powerfully and righteously, she bursts the myth of American innocence, renders hypocritical those who love the USA unconditionally, who sanitize a past of slavery and ignore the machinery of American imperialist warfare.

“I am a Jewish Arab. For many, I’m a
curiosity or a detestable thing. Some say I don’t exist, or if I did, I no
longer do.” So begins Massoud Hayoun’s memoir–a story of his Jewish family, a
story that creates the space to speak about a casually erased and willfully
forgotten population of Arabs. It is a beautiful act of resistance, of defiance
against erasure, of dreams of ancestors and their desire to build, create, and
enact a place for themselves and their descendants in the world. It is truly a
thing of beauty and reverence.

On and off, I try to read Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind; however, the dystopian end-of-the-world feel pulsating through the first pages makes it impossible to differentiate fiction from the affective texture of our present moment. In the here and the now, the ruling class has abandoned its people. Those in power make hostile, destructive choices daily in favor of personal advancement and capitalist accumulation. COVID has infiltrated our lives, our language, and our metaphors. Our world is rattling, crumbling right in front of our eyes.

Ding Dong. Bill of Mortality:  234,264 people have unwillingly left the
world behind.

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A Year in Reading: Carvell Wallace

Before 2020 became the 2020 that it became, there was a
little sliver, a little alley of time where it seemed like we would just be embarking
upon a normal late capitalist American hellscape of the type we’ve grown
accustomed to over the past several years. Yes, our reality was presided over
by the idiotic bluster of an orange grift monkey; yes, the planet was dying;
yes, every single group other than white men was on the daily having an
experience that landed somewhere on the spectrum between being painfully
oppressed and being killed, and most of those groups were willfully complicit
in the oppression of some other group. So yes, it was already pretty bad
as narratives of a moment go. But it could actually get worse and we
didn’t know it yet. What an amazing thing. The moment where things aren’t yet worse
as remembered from the moment when they are.

I entered into this time with the idea that I was going to read more books, which as a writer was not a thing I think I was doing enough of. I did not read a lot of books growing up. Which is not to say I didn’t read a lot, because I did. It’s just that I read the same book(s) over and over. I guess it was early expression of the compulsive nature of my addictive personality. I was afraid that I wouldn’t like a new book, so I would just read the old book again. Even if the old book was terrible, which it often was. It is for this reason that I still have entire passages of the novelization of the movie The Karate Kid memorized. In my adult pre-writer career, I would maybe read one random book a year which I always thought was the greatest book ever written because I had nothing to compare it to. The Fountainhead. A biography of Gandhi. A Biography of Jimi Hendrix. A Joshua Ferris novel. All these books, in retrospect, were…not…great?  But I thought I was supposed to like them because they were BOOKS and BOOKS were written by SMART PEOPLE and IF YOU DIDN’T LIKE SOMETHING SMART PEOPLE DID IT WAS BECAUSE YOU WERE DUMB.

The notable exception to this was when I read Song of Solomon in early college because a girl I had a crush on in high school several years earlier had told me it was good. (I was the kind of person who would retroactively try and impress someone who was no longer in my life and who I would never see again by doing something they would never know about. Please say amen if you feel me.) But in this case, it paid off because Song of Solomon was the first book I read that didn’t put me in the awkward position of lying to myself about thinking something was good. The book, quite literally, spoke to me. I dreamt of it. I heard its voice in the back of my mind. I felt it had been written for me. I felt it was the first time that an author was saying: Carvell. I see you. I think you’re real, and valid, and ok. And I made something for you. I really needed that. I needed even more of that than one book or one author could give. So, I keep looking for it, even to this day.

I opened this year innocently enough with a novel about a virus that comes from China, paralyzing world capitalism, and turning society into a formless shapeless husk where people wander empty streets like ghosts and are forever lost to their own memories. So, in retrospect that was kinda funny. I borrowed Ling Ma’s Severance from my roommate at Sundance in late January and read it on the flight home. Two days later I was stricken with the worst flu I remember having since childhood, and I convalesced by sitting on my couch surrounded by cough drops, oranges and blankets, and watching cartoons for 72 hours straight. The disconsolate dreamlike state of the novel became a filter through which I experienced my sickness. It also matched my own memory of being sick as a child and I just wanted something familiar, I guess. In an odd way it was one of my favorite memories from a year in which pretty much everything was revealed to be deeply sick.

After the public launch of The Pandemic, I spent a few weeks meditating on what was clearly going to be the end of humanity, thinking about how we had had a good run, reflecting on how lucky we all were to have actually gotten to be here for the end — even though it was probably going to be uncomfortable — and wondering what would happen after I and maybe all of us died. Then when that got boring, I started thinking about which book to read, and came across the online community that was doing Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Feeling myself up to the task for no reason (there may have been another crush, who’s to say) I joined in. To summarize a 1200-plus page book here would be a fool’s errand.  Suffice it to say the Peace was fascinating, the War was boring, and I left feeling pretty amazed at humanity’s persistent drive toward self-destruction, followed by re-build and renewal, followed by self-destruction.

I also read Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls largely because I was blurbing it and Nina Renata Aron is a valued local and IRL colleague in this writing game. It is always thrilling to see a writer dig deep into their own psyche, history, shame to illuminate problems that many of us struggle with. People think memoir is not art, but when certain people do it, it is.
 

Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro was also a book by someone I consider the homey. Once I was working at a short-lived online magazine and I loaned a copy of Morgan’s previous collection There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé to the only other black person there, an intern who refused to talk to pretty much any of the editors and clearly hated it there even more than I did. She stole the book from me. I’ve always felt that was entirely justified and I wish her well in all of her future endeavors. That’s what I think of Morgan Parker’s books. They should be smuggled by black women who are entirely fucking sick of dealing with white folks.

At some point this year I remembered that one of the books I read in college was Written on The Body by Jeanette Winterson. As a budding queer at the time who knew that I liked sex with people of all genders but did not know there was actually a political or philosophical worldview available to me because of it, Written on The Body felt like someone from a home planet sending me a radio signal scrambled and obscured by light years of water vapor. It was there, but I did not know what it was saying. So, I re-read it this year after I saw someone post the book title on Instagram. This time the message was much clearer: “Being queer,” it said, “is dramatic as fuck.” This explains a lot. I could not be prouder.

I also re-read James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, mostly in preparation for a piece I was writing for The New York Times Magazine. I like many things about McBride’s writing but one of them is that he is neither a Twitter celebrity nor hot Instagram writer. He’s just this dude in Red Hook who volunteers at a church and writes novels.  Very well, I might add. Good Lord Bird is one of those books where I would read entire passages out loud to myself because I was just in love with the language. Old-timey, poetic, hilarious. It was of course made into a Showtime series this year which I am on record as saying lacked much of the intricacy to be found in McBride’s pen, but that’s what books are for I suppose. The humor of it reminded of my dad, of my aunts and uncles. Real Black Americana which hey… for the few weeks I spent reading it…I didn’t mind a dose of.

I read a galley of Melissa Valentine’s memoir The Names of All the Flowers which came to my attention because my friend Sadie Barnette had designed the cover. Valentine tells the story of growing up where my daughter is growing up, going to school where my daughter is going to school and losing her big brother to gun violence in the city where we lose kids to gun violence. I mostly kept it together during the book but at some point in the final ten pages I fell into a crying that I didn’t know if I’d ever recover from. On the floor, snot, heaving. What a wonderfully human experience.

In general, I don’t believe in stealing when you don’t have to, but as indicated above I have a slightly different take on stealing books. To that end, I may or may not have liberated a copy of Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction from an Airbnb last year which I then read this year. If we ever stay there again, I’ll probably bring it back. (We won’t and I will not.) But the book was a helpful way for me to cheat on my Lit Theory since I didn’t go to school for this. Turns out literature and the way we think of it is very white, and most theory is little more than unnecessary classist gatekeeping.  I guess I didn’t need a book to tell me that, but it helped.

I was supposed to moderate the San Francisco book event for Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine’s memoir All I Ever Wanted but that event was scheduled for April 8th which by the new rules of 2020 dates was actually March the 40th. Needless to say, the event never happened, but I did read her book and found it really good as rock memoirs go. It was also an excuse to watch a lot of old Go-Go’s footage, to go down New Wave, No Wave, and post punk rabbit holes, and — most importantly to me — spend some time thinking about how the mess of the 1960’s and the laconic darkness of the 1970’s scarred pretty much everyone in my generation and the generation before mine.

While everyone else was getting into sourdough, I got into what I call BikeReading which is a thing I invented where you put a book in a bag, bike somewhere, get off your bike, read the book, then bike somewhere else. You repeat this until you have to pee at which point you go home. (Maybe I didn’t invent this.) My best BikeReading experience was Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside, a not-trendy short story collection where I just marveled at the past master nature of the author. It wasn’t even like “I wish I could write this well” because I’ll never write this well. It was more like “Ah so this is an example of the kind of calm, impeccable fiction writing you’ll never achieve.” It hurt very good.

This is getting long so let me start double timing. From the Gay Man with Black and White Cover section of the store I read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness. Vuong is maybe the first male writer I’ve ever heard treat language as something soft, unclear and uncertain, a thing I admire.  I like how Greenwell opened with a violent BDSM scene that probably made the most sense of any rough sex scene I’ve ever seen or read, and then later wrote a scene where someone was just kissing someone else that had me crying as though I was having everything beaten out of me. Well played, Greenwell.

There were other books: Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries which was stunning in its chaos, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans which I felt was overlooked as a piece of journalism and even more overlooked as a piece of writing; really an answer for anyone wondering how to blend journalism and memoir in a way that elevates both. But there is a book I want to end on, because it was the book that made the most sense to me this year

Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother.  I ended the year with this (so far) and I can’t explain it, it just has a kind of magic to it. The polar opposite of Vuong’s beautiful uncertainty of language, Kincaid’s narrator is never, not once, unsure of herself. It is a tremendous thing to behold, a meditation on power and freedom, on internal liberation. The protests of this year did not change me because I have been black in this country for more than four decades. I know the cycle. I was thrilled to see people taking to the streets for liberation, but I also know how oppression recovers, re-forms, re-constitutes. Perhaps as a result, the liberation I hang my heart on is less of a political one and more of a spiritual one, one diffuse enough that it spreads between this world and the next, between the concrete and body, between the flesh and the spirit. Kincaid doesn’t write about this liberation; she writes this liberation. No wonder literary critics of the time panned the book. It did not pretend. A perfect thing for a book to avoid doing in a year in which for the very briefest of moments, and in the very slightest of ways, we could all see that the veil had been lifted.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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A Year in Reading: Salar Abdoh

The year more
or less begins with something of a pushback at mid-winter dread – when Covid is
still a convenient rumor in my mind – with three back-to-back books to understand
the world from more than my own tired perspective:

The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal Transformation from Female to Male by Max Wolf Valerio. The memoir’s honesty leaves me discombobulated. As if I were listening to Tiresias. Hardcore and insightful, it keeps me up picturing some of the situations Wolf describes – his returning, for example, to a lesbian bar in San Francisco that he used to frequent as his prior self.

 

Then another lens, Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s not there: A Life in Two Genders. Boylan, like Wolf, tells of feelings probably impossible to know unless you have experienced them first-hand. She is generous in her narrative and extends a hand to show us that ineluctably tortuous path a person takes to finally settle into the skin they should have been born in all along. One night, well after she has made the transformation, she comes out of a bar she has been playing at with her band and is immediately accosted, almost assaulted by the brute that had had his eyes on her all night long.

And so the world turns:

To Saeed Jones and How We Fight for Our Lives. Reading this taut, poetic, sometimes scorching memoir of growing up gay and Black in Texas reminded me of moments from other people’s lives in other parts of the world that I have known. It’s a book I would like to dare and gift to many a young person in the Middle East and North Africa someday.

Next to war:

The Syrian poet Nouri al-Jarrah has been a part of a larger translation project from Arabic and Persian into English with my co-translator, Maryam Haidari. After translating several love poems of Jarrah from a Beirut-at-war of 1982, I return for another look at his A Boat to Lesbos, where the poet, long in exile, writes of his absence from his nearly ruined city, Damascus:

I wasn’t in Damascus/ I wasn’t on the street/ nor in a shop/ I wasn’t in the station/ nor on a balcony overlooking the train/ I wasn’t in a hurry/ nor slowing down/ I wasn’t in Damascus/ I wasn’t in Damascus.

A Damascene who did stay behind, however, is the novelist Khaled Khalifa. Translated from Arabic, Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work depicts the absurdity of war and its pity as well as any book on the subject. Wars are about checkpoints. Hundreds, thousands of them. They are warts on the skin of the land and they multiply. Just how absurd is the world Khalifa depicts? The corpse of the father who is being transported north of Damascus for burial, according to his last wishes, is stopped some twenty pages into the book because, the checkpoint officer insists, several security agencies in the country are still after the dead man.

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes comes next and stays with me a good long while – tagging along from one airport to the next in late Spring and Summer of 2020 when we are told it’s best not to travel but I do anyway and often. A big book. There are several novels of the Vietnam War I can recommend. This one though is one you’ll read if you want to know how it feels to be in the trenches, on patrol, and impossibly scared night and day from one second to the next for weeks and months on end while bogged down with the flotsam of bureaucracy and bravado and America’s never-ending race question each step of the way. It is the Marine story par excellence. A true tour de force of war writing. I expect it is already a classic. If it isn’t, then nothing is a classic.

I order Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War while in the Middle East. Spanning a half century of writing about conflict, starting with the Spanish Civil War, Gellhorn does what I like best, drops pretense at objectivity and covers war from many of the less-attended angles. She is a writer to learn from. I have read pieces by the legend here and there over the years, but this here is the book that brings it all together in one volume. In war, there is a choice of two unpleasantnesses, exaggerated noise or exaggerated silence, and neither is desirable. It is impossible to quite understand what she means unless one has experienced it for themselves. Gellhorn gets it. All of it.

As does Edward Girardet in Killing the Cranes. If there is one book to read in order to fathom the kind of destruction the world, as well as the Afghans themselves, wrought on Afghanistan, this is it. Written by a no-nonsense war correspondent who has been there and done that for over thirty years and knows the terrain of conflict without the bluster and the bullshit.

 

I have no doubt that Gellhorn would have also taken to Azadeh Moaveni’s Guest House for Young Widows. A tour de force of research and journalism shedding light on the many circumstances that give birth to a “terrorist” or the “wife/widow of a terrorist.” The detective work and interviews follow trajectories from neighborhoods as diverse as East London and Frankfurt and Tunis to the eventual theater of horrors that became the Islamic State’s so-called capital in Raqqa, Syria. Moaveni’s ability to see and convey behind the headlines is rare. I was gripped by the lives of these young, idealistic women who became the wives and widows of ISIS. Empathy and humanity accompanies the tough and always thorough investigation. This book should be required reading in many a think tank. The domestic segments that take place in parts of Syria and northern Iraq are particularly poignant – not unlike watching unfold the mini soap operas of the Islamic State.

Continuing with war, later in the summer and early fall I end up having two book events with Maaza Mengiste. The Ethiopian writer’s The Shadow King takes on Mussolini’s devastation of Ethiopia prior to WWII. This capacious, operatic novel is a story of war like few before it. As we watch the slow transformation of our heroine into a warrior, we also slide in and out of the interiors of just about every other character in the novel, the invading Italians among them. Even Emperor Haile Selassie gets his moments. The last battle scene and its immediate aftermath leave one to gasp. I will not forget it.

Nor do I forget Phil Klay’s Redeployment, a signed copy of which I picked up, I think, in 2014 or ’15 at the Miami Book Fair. This book, like so many of my books, ends up in Tehran with me (and is currently on loan to a Colombian journalist friend stationed there). Rereading it five years later (it is that kind of a short story collection; you cannot not return to it) I am taken, again, by its core integrity and the authentic portals the author walks through to convey war in its many orbits and not just the frontlines.

Two dear friends also had books out, in English, at the very cusp of Covid earlier in the year. Amir Ahmadi Arian’s Then the Fish Swallowed Him is a cerebral probe into what happens when a simple bus driver finds himself in the crosshairs of state security after a bus driver’s strike and demonstration in Tehran. The novelist steers, in sparest language, a fine balance in conveying the thoughts of a blue-collar guy who slowly discovers liberation ideology. Some reviews compared the book to 1984. I believe that Ahmadi plays a different, more nuanced set of chords than even the great Orwell.

Dalia Sofer’s A Man of My Time on the other hand is lush in prose and keenly psychological, with insights that make just about any other novel written about the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution seem rudimentary. The protagonist is not a victim of the state but a state operator and one-time interrogator who has sophistication, education, and a taste for art and literature. In one of his precise moments of discernment this character, who is problematic as a human being but certainly not pure evil, notes that every other person whose mere sleeve brushed the outside walls of the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran had to then go and write a bestselling “poor-me” memoir about it, blaming the Islamic Republic for everything and anything under the sun. Truer words, state interrogator or not, were never said.

In September The Brooklyn Book Fair placed me on a panel with two American writers I would not have discovered otherwise. Andrew Krivak’s The Bear I don’t find to be quite a post-apocalyptic novel, but rather Krivak describes a world beyond time and civilization where a young girl learns to fend on her own. Wondrous in its precise descriptions, the book is a virtual how-to of understanding our earth. There is something quiet, magical, and otherworldly to this book.

Dystopia however is on full display with my other Brooklyn Festival panelist in an imaginary town in California’s Central Valley. In Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot another young female protagonist negotiates, in a voice deeply felt and coming to its own, the bleakness of a parched landscape, a sinister church, and the search for the prodigal mother. This is a very different California (and one I have known intimately in another time and life) than folk can imagine.

Much of my
reading life by default revolves around the act of translation. My own
translation efforts, the works of friends who are professional translators, and
the publishers and journals in Tehran with whom I’m often in consultation, make
of the reading act a two-way river where I may end up reading in Persian a work
I had read years ago in the original or, more often than not, never read at
all. It is a recurring act of serendipity that never fails to bring entire
literatures to one of my two sofas:

My friend Farnaz Haeri, a formidable translator with an acute love of the works of Murakami, whom she has already translated in abundance, gives me her Persian rendition of William Trevor’s Elizabeth Alone. “Salar, you must understand, this is the book I needed to translate someday.” Trevor, whose short stories I have always found immaculate, writes in this novel of the inner lives and tribulations of four women in a hospital ward in London. The older I get the more I am drawn to books I know I haven’t the faintest tool to conceive of writing myself. 

Two more
volumes come my way out of a meeting with a Tehran publisher in October. There
are few things as heartbreaking for a writer than to go into a meeting to
dissuade an editor from translating and publishing their work in their mother
tongue. But I’m there to do just that. We talk shop, censorship and the notion
of my preferring for now to stay under the radar and limit myself to essay
writing here and not publishing the novels. “But if you ever change your mind…” the publisher says. I want to tell her that I ache for that day; I’m a
writer after all. And then for the effort of coming to their office I get a
gift of two of their recently translated titles:

In The Punishment, Moroccan-French Tahar Ben Jelloun does not waste time portraying the ruthlessness which the uniform, without accountability, can leash; his portrayal of 1960’s Morocco could just as well be any part of the Middle East/North Africa and swaths of the rest of the world as we write.

I’ll call the Joseph Brodsky volume Less than One, even though the Persian iteration is a collection of various essays that probably both includes and does not include those from a book I devoured in my twenties. The Russian poet says that he does not recall a whole lot from his past. But I think he does. Or I wouldn’t recall the image of his mother cooking in the communal kitchen of an apartment in Leningrad where, among other folk, they also have to share the place with a rather kindly state informer.

Back briefly in New York, during one of our regular Wednesday walks in our treasured Harlem (in what was an unviable summer of Covid), writer and dear friend Emily Raboteau lends me her copy of Mary Gaitskill’s This is Pleasure. I like the Persian word for “Labyrinth”: One Thousand-ins. In the tiny volume – nowhere near novel-length but formatted like one – Gaitskill does not quite turn the Me-Too movement on its head, but, skillfully and perceptively, she sheds a light on its one thousand-ins and unsettling transmutations.

Then I immerse myself in Valeria Luiselli’s The Lost Children Archive. The road trip of a fading marriage is more than enough reason to read any book. There is however an abundance of other contention happening in this remarkable work – the plight of children lost each year trying to make it through the Mexico-US border only the most obvious. This was a novel that made me stop and reconsider my own craft. Luiselli’s digressions are distilled insight, plus activism and fresh architecture. Many instances I had to put the book down after only a third of a page and consider what had just been written, and how it had been written.

In the meantime, in a year of going back and forth, back and forth, between at least two continents otherwise engaged with wave after wave of their own distinctive miseries, I turn to a favorite poet, Nicole Sealey (Ordinary Beast: Poems) for periodic consideration, or recalibration, of the end of things. Had you asked, I could’ve/ told you I’m not doing/ especially well at being alive.

About four
months apart, two books of translation that I had ordered find their place into
my homes, first in Tehran and then in New York. Each is a gem of prose and a masterwork:

Cervantes’ Don Quixote needs no introduction. I had been waiting for a long overdue reissue of Mohammad Ghazi’s virtuoso translation into Persian. An old English translation I’d read once and shelved a long time ago. And of course I also possess the new translation into English by the excellent Edith Grossman. But it is Ghazi and his sublime rendition that is my go-to every few years. In the way that Borges says Edward Fitzgerald managed to channel the essence of Omar Khayyam from Persian into English, I believe that Ghazi did the same for Cervantes. A one-of-a-kind translation of possibly the greatest novel ever written. I read a few pages, at complete random, on the many nights of Covid insomnia.

Or else I read the Rihla of Ibn Battuta, wherein a Muslim traveler of the Middle Ages sets off from today’s Morocco and clocks some 72000 miles under his belt. The book of travels of Ibn Battuta is astounding in every conceivable way. No other famed traveler of the classical era comes close to his range and breath – Spain, North and East Africa, Anatolia, Persia and the Arab lands, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and China, in a period of roughly thirty years after the Mongol invasions. As with the Quixote, I’d been meaning to get a certain masterly translation, Mohammad Ali Movahed’s tour de force from Arabic into Persian. For sheer reading pleasure, Mr. Movahed, a dean of Persian letters whose work on Rumi and Ibn Arabi is never to be equaled, may have (according to Maryam, who knows) even transcended the original.

And if insomnia persists, which it does, there are classics that I keep
nearby my brown insomnia sofa in New York and the orange one in Tehran. Season to season these books change, others take their place, but
they always return, like the best poems:

Abu Bakr Atiq of Nishapur. The Tafsir of Surabadi. Written in the 5th century of the Islamic era by a fellow Nishapuri of Omar Khayyam, this early Koranic exegesis is one among several towering examples of classical Persian. In the year of Covid, the solace it brings is priceless. For one thing, the knack in matching prose to mood is nothing short of wonder in Surabadi. In the Joseph chapter for example, after young Joseph is thrown into the well by his brothers, the Angel Gabriel appears and keeps Joseph company until help arrives. Potential help comes with the arrival of a caravan seeking water. But Joseph is afraid his brothers will get wind that he’s been rescued and they’ll come after him again. Now then, in a sentence so sweet in Persian as to make the reader ache for a boy thrown into a dark well and pregnant with fear, Joseph pleads with the angel, “O Gabriel, but there is such joy just spending time down here with you!”

Finally, the incomparable Al-Niffari and his Mawaqif & Mukhatabat. The vast ocean that is the Arabic language can do somersaults that arguably no other language can do. And few do it with more intensity and exquisite insanity than this obscure mystic who was born in what constitutes today’s Iraq and died in the Egypt of a thousand years ago. On seeing me, be a bridge in absence over which all things pass without wavering. One day, after two years of us wrestling with God’s words through Al-Niffari, I tell Maryam that it feels like I am losing my mind. “To translate him well,” she replies, “losing our minds is a must.”

The coda to all this takes place mid-summer
on either the brown or orange sofas of sleep-deprivation, in the one country or
the other. I honestly don’t recall. But this I do recall: a slim volume.
Translated from Spanish into Persian. Perhaps via the medium of English.

Here, I re-translate an
unforgettable sentence from one of its pages back into English, via the medium
of Persian, yet with the book no longer in my possession (so the chances of
getting it slightly off is hardly small); nevertheless: We
write in order to make a space in ourselves for reading.

A
sentence worthy of Al-Niffari.

I remember
that I was lying flat on whichever sofa, not even a pillow under my head (something
rare) when I came upon this line. I pressed the open book to my forehead then and
said out loud, “Yes, yes! That is one reason why we write.”

More from A Year in Reading 2020

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005