A Year in Reading: Catherine Lacey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Year in Reading: Lauren Michele Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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A Year in Reading: Yan Lianke

Translated by Carlos Rojas

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

These two novels moved me.

They also infected me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Kichijiro’s soul!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Year in Reading: Max Porter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Year in Reading: Marcos Gonsalez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Year in Reading: Nayomi Munaweera

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

This is simply the best literary (in gorgeous graphic novel form) exploration of what it means to be an immigrant in the U.S. I’ve seen in years. Jacob talks about what being a parent in our current trash-fire of an age is like, what it means to have to explain racism and politics to her beautiful, Prince-loving child. She goes back into her own youth, growing up brown in America, the various pitfalls and pleasures of that experience in a way that brought it all back. I’m going to teach this one every chance I get; it says all the things.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam and Less by Andrew Sean Greer

I’m pairing these because they have a strand of similarity in that male main characters go on long, joyous, terrifying journeys of self-discovery. They leave their abodes and step into the wild world and mayhem ensues. One of these books won the Pulitzer, the other got much less notice. I think the lesser known one should get so much more attention—read Prof Chandra; it’s fun and you’ll cry! I also really loved Greer’s descriptions of what it means to live in a writer’s brain. Greer’s made it okay to have a main character who’s a writer again.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

This is just gorgeous and smart and beautiful and scary. Machado has pretty much put dynamite under the house of genre and blown it up. Not to mention she’s taken up the topic of domestic violence within the LGBTQ community in a way that has barely been addressed. She’s written into the void. I’m sure this book will end up on many writers’ lists in this very column, a feat considering it just came out. But many of us have been waiting for this book and it does not disappoint.

The Body Papers by Grace Talusan and The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

Both of these deal with bodily trauma in brilliant and beautiful ways. Talusan’s book is a memoir of growing up Filipina with all the secrecy and fear that attends immigrant families attempting to fit into the America Dream. Denfeld’s thriller takes us on a wild ride on the streets of Portland and forces us to confront what happens to the street kids we pass every day. Two powerful, truth-telling books.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

I return to this when writing feels particularly hard. It doesn’t make the writing any less hard but it makes me feel like I’m less alone, like I’m part of this strange, wonderful group of people whose deepest life and deepest loves are literary.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

This is a strange and wonderful book about immigration, class, aging, gender. Its resonance is eerie and horrific. Who’s watching the kids? Who has to watch the kids because there are no other options? So much here.

Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World by Anu Taranath

This book is changing the conversation around what it means to lead privileged American students into the wider world in a respectful way. As someone who now and then takes writing students abroad, I found it essential.

Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

I really love this strange book that one of my most well-read friends recommended. It takes on the idea of haunting as the uncanny caused by quirks in architecture as well as the way history itself leaves trace markers on place. The premise is that a place is haunted by its emotional, social history—and I am on board.

Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life by Laura Thompson

I love Christie; she’s the grande dame of the mystery and the thriller and every now and then I like to immerse myself in a huge bath of a book about a writer’s life. This book brought Christie to life in a way that I could imagine looking up and finding her in the armchair in front of me. It pays special attention to the mysterious episode in which she went missing in reaction to her first husband’s claim that he was leaving her for another woman. It was the scandal of the day and for weeks all of England was looking for her. Not many writers’ lives live up to the drama of their literary work, Christie’s at least in that episode, certainly does.

No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

I thought I understood DV but this book really shook that belief. For example, did you know that many domestic violence victims (primarily female) sustain traumatic brain injures that can affect their ability to have jobs, read, drive—basically every necessary skill? These injuries are often overlooked even when victims go to the doctor. Studies say DV survivors may have traumatic brain injuries at the same rate as athletes and returning soldiers. It’s a silent unseen epidemic. That’s just one piece of this book that stayed with me.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

I’m not confused about the question of motherhood in the way Heti’s main character is. I’ve never wanted children and as I get older I’m much more rooted in that decision. Yet it was such an enjoyment to read this book, to follow the meditations of the character as she wandered through the labyrinth of cultural pressure, bodily desire, and the call of deep solitude. I’m in love with Heti’s brain and her prose. This is the work of a deeply thoughtful writer.

Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown

This book is essential, life-affirming, life-supporting reading for our moment. It reclaims joy, freedom, most especially for people of color. It marries theory, politics, social activism, and so much more. I felt my toes curling with pleasure reading these pages and learning and relearning lessons about revolution starting with the self, about “self-care” being part of activism. Bonus: beautiful essays about surviving and claiming self and thriving by personal sheroes, Amita Swadhin and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

Finally, I don’t read much poetry. Probably because I am intimidated by the purest form. This year I steeped myself in two gorgeous books of poetry, Cenzontle by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and Scratching the Ghost by Dexter L Booth (I mean, just those two titles, right?!) and I am so much the better for it.

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

A Year in Reading: Isabella Hammad

This year felt like a year in which I read poorly. Or at least my reading felt inconsistent, and punctuated by long passages in which I was unable to read at all. But now that I have drawn up a list, I seem to have read exactly 50 books, which isn’t too bad.

Some highlights:

I read Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg this summer inside a hot, nearly uninhabitable farmhouse on a couch frequented by ants, while everyone else was sitting outside being sociable and eating melon. Ginzburg narrates the rise of fascism in Italy with a dry simplicity that I found extraordinary and very affecting. Perhaps predictably, the book also made me reflect on some of the bizarre sayings that have remained current in my own family over the years. I read Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues a few weeks ago. This one came into my hands with perfect timing, particularly the essay “Human Relationships.”

I inhaled Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise when ill with flu one weekend this spring, mostly while lying on my pink sofa. (Apparently I do a lot of reading on sofas.) Enthralling plot, delicious prose, marked by surprising, instinctual metaphors. Also delicious prose: Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie’s. Both Trust Exercise and At Freddie’s follow a theatrical theme. Trust Exercise (which just won the National Book Award) is set, at least first, at an American performing arts high school. At Freddie’s follows a children’s theatre school running into financial difficulties, although like all Fitzgerald novels its plot winds whimsically out of your hands so that when you reach the end you feel a little uncertain about what just happened, while the afterimages of the characters are so strong they stay with you for ages. I’ll have to start spacing my Fitzgerald novels out every two years or I will run through them too quickly. At Freddie’s is also hysterically funny. I read it in Spain.

I read three Etel Adnan books in quick succession: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, Sitt Marie Rose, and Of Cities & Women. She is a wonderful person to spend time with, writing with great wisdom of war, womanhood, exile, wandering, the weather.

I read three Etel Adnan books in quick succession: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, Sitt Marie Rose, and Of Cities & Women. She is a wonderful person to spend time with, writing with great wisdom of war, womanhood, exile, wandering, the weather.

I started José Saramago’s A Year of the Death of Ricardo Reís in Madrid and finished it on a series of hallucinatory morning bus journeys to the British Library in London. I read Raja Shehadeh’s Going Home while in Palestine, in Ramallah, which is the main subject of his ruminations as he walks the city’s streets, recounting its inhabitants, insurgencies, and repressions with vividness and insight. This is also where I read The Years by Annie Ernaux, a memoir mostly in the third person and a masterpiece of granular history-telling, mingling the large and the small, the private and the public, with great beauty. I thought her descriptions of consumerism were amazing. My only regret was that I didn’t have my own copy, so I couldn’t underline everything. Two people in the space of a week mentioned they had just read it, and I somehow ended up with both copies on loan, one of which had a couple of bougainvillea flowers pressed separately inside; I asked the friend who lent that copy if the location of the flowers signified anything, but they did not, disappointingly.

In London, I reread Beloved by Toni Morrison, which made me cry like I cried when I was 16. It reminded me of another rereading, of a very different book—Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Only when I returned to Portrait a few years ago did I realize how formative it must have been when I first read it as a teenager: it seemed to have left a permanent imprint on my brain which, reread, it slotted into. I felt the same way about Beloved.

Some other memorable reads this year: Passing by Nella Larsen, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Soul by Andrey Platonov, Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg, All The Battles by Maan Abu Taleb, Children of the Ghetto by Elias Khoury, The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo, The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun.

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A Year in Reading: Alexandra Kleeman

I think it was this year that I felt my hunger for language, the texture and variety of it, come back full force. For the couple years before, I had felt afraid to look away from The Feed—the persistent, unceasing flow of awful news that felt just a bit less out of my control if I could put my eyes on it.  The feeling was like those days when your fear for a sick family member or friend leaves you unable or unwilling to eat, afraid that any action could disturb some delicate superstitious balance. But this year, I woke up hungry.Some of what I read was related to the fears I felt about the outside world: Marie Ndiaye’s eerie, dreamlike thriller My Heart Hemmed In, where feelings of xenophobia and exclusion circulate in terrifyingly visceral ways, and Jeff VanderMeer’s ferociously creative and beautiful Dead Astronauts, an environmental novel animated by a tremendously tender sense of despair and self-sacrifice. Some of what gave me comfort were novels and memoirs that put me in contact with deeply intelligent, thoughtful, emotional interiorities. At a time when I felt my own interiority continually in flux, dissolving and coagulating, the feeling of pliant, agile mental life that I found in Joanna Howard’s Rerun Era, Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, and Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women felt like it could glue me together and make me person-shaped again.On a visit to the Small Press Distribution warehouse in Berkeley, Calif., I learned about an incredible press called Timeless Infinite Light that unfortunately has already been shuttered—their backlist is available through SPD’s website. Raquel Sala Rivera (The Tertiary) and Lauren Levin (Justice Piece/Transmission) were my two favorite discoveries from them. Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (from Daunt Books’s new Originals series) blew me away with its frosty lyricism. I discovered the pocket-sized Forerunners series from the University of Minnesota Press, and especially loved Joanna Zylinska’s The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse and Robert Rosenberger’s Callous Objects: Design Against the Homeless.In a world where only six percent of mammalian biomass on the planet now comprises of wild animals, I longed for books that pressed me up against the inhuman, that connected me to an inhuman world. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer moved me to actual tears, and Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Natures Signs taught me to see differently, animated my hikes in entirely new ways. Water and Dreams by Gaston Bachelard and Augustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy both made criticism and fiction, respectively, feel oceanic, decentered, and world-sized to me. Through these books, I read myself back into the world.

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A Year in Reading: Kali Fajardo-Anstine

In December of 2018, in preparation for the publication of my first book, Sabrina & Corina, I quit my job as an office manager in Denver and organized a national book tour (with a couple stop offs in Canada along the way). Sabrina & Corina was born out of a decade of writing, countless rejections, and years of uncertainty. I was both excited for and afraid of what lay on the other side of publication, and I knew I had to do everything in my power to honor the book I had written. In the span of eight months, I traveled to over 20 cities and small towns, and I gave readings at places like universities, high schools, community centers, book stores, literary festivals, public libraries, art galleries, and more. All this is to say, in 2019 I spent long hours in the air, reading books. I read books by my debut peers. I reread many of my old favorites. I read books I found in Little Free Libraries. I read books abandoned in hotel lobbies. I read books gifted to me, wrapped in red bows.

In 2019, I took pleasure in reading new short story collections. I was charmed, delighted, and challenged by the power of the stories in Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s The Heads of the Colored People. I loved the connection to place, Houston in particular, and the natural readability of Bryan Washington’s Lot. Beth Piatote’s The Beadworkers dazzled me with voice, dreamscapes, the reverence for ancestors and land.

As for novels, in Santa Fe, N.M., on a rooftop patio with adobe walls, sipping a bright green margarita, I was blown away by the robust storytelling in Inland by Tea Obreht. During a family vacation in Breckenridge, Colo., I took my father’s advice and read the exquisitely written On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

For a piece in Bustle, I revisited The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and was reminded of reading this masterwork for the first time in high school, the lingering pleasures of feeling seen on the page, 15 years later. In preparation for my conversation with Julia Alvarez for her NEA Big Read event in Denver, I reread In the Time of the Butterflies and was reminded of the power in her storytelling, the intricacies of her plot, the force behind the Mirabal sisters.

In 2019, I read memoirs, too, and I found myself staying up late into the night thinking about Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. It’s beautifully haunting and structurally gripping, providing an important look into loneliness and so much more. I also read a memoir from 1996, Drinking: A Love Story by the late Caroline Knapp, which I fished out of a free library in Golden, Colo., while I was on a walk one summer evening. I finished the book that night, and I thought a lot about my own relationship to alcohol and the vulnerability of Knapp’s voice.

And then there were the poets. I saw Tommy Pico perform at the 2019 Bay Area Book Festival, and I was blown away as he read from Junk. His latest, Feed, kept me company this fall and reminded me of how bighearted and wide-ranging both language and the imagination can be. I adored the crisp and somber Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love by Keith S. Wilson. And during the summer in Los Angeles, I nearly teared up at Yesika Salgado’s signing table after reading her Hermosa.  

It was a beautiful year for books, and I was so honored to read these transformative words. Thank you to their authors. 

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A Year in Reading: Omar El Akkad

All that follows is the product of serendipity. Almost every book I read this year came to me through some unexpected channel—blurb requests, books picked up at random in literary festivals. Every year I set out with a plan, a list of upcoming releases to look out for, classics to catch up on. And every year, thankfully, I fail.

Here is the best of the accidental rabbit holes into which I
climbed this year, the accidental lives I briefly lived. 

The book I’ve thought about the most this year is a novel called A Luminous Republic by Andrés Barba. It takes place in a small city called San Cristóbal, where one day a group of 32 children, seemingly feral and speaking their own secret language, arrive. Slowly they begin to sow terror among the residents, and the municipal government goes to greater and greater lengths to hunt them down. If Lord of the Flies charted the ugliness that follows societal collapse, A Luminous Republic charts the chaos of societal tyranny, what happens when human beings abdicate their humanity.

A few months ago, a publisher sent me a copy of a novel called They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears, by Johannes Anyuru. Upon reading the synopsis—amidst a terror attack, one of the Islamic extremists has a change of heart—I was prepared to hate it. I’ve read a lot of “reluctant terrorist” novels and almost all of them descend into lazy, often racist cliché. But this is something else entirely—a mind-bending thing, wandering across alternate futures and playing with time and space in ways I didn’t expect at all. It’s much more a novel about belonging and nativism than terrorism, and is the most original piece of writing I read this year.

A few people recommended to me the tiny Japanese novel Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, describing it as a kind of comic gem. It’s the story of a woman who works in a convenience store because, well, the routine is a welcome respite from the machinations of the rest of the social world, a world she doesn’t understand or want any part of. But upon reading it, I was left with the same sensation I had after reading A Confederacy of Dunces—this novel billed as a laugh riot is in reality a story about a deep and crushing loneliness, about the ways in which the world is a supremely difficult place for many of us to navigate. It’s a marvelous story, but what’s comic about it masks something much darker.

Two of the best novels I read this year were debuts. Little Gods by Meng Jin opens with a woman giving birth in a Beijing hospital on the night of the Tiananmen Square massacre. What follows is a slow-burn unveiling of what happened to the woman, her husband, and her child in the years that followed. It is a masterfully crafted story about the gravity of the past, that unceasing pull toward a thing at once hidden and all encompassing. Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn opens with a 7-year-old boy falling off a cruise ship and into the shark-infested waters below, only for the sharks to carry him to safety. It is the first sign of the strange magic that lives within Nainoa Flores, the magic with which he and his family will have to contend. Washburn’s novel is an exceptional meditation on otherness, belonging, the ravages of poverty, and the many meanings of family. Both of these books come out early next year and both deserve all the attention I suspect they’ll soon be getting.

I read a lot of marvelous poetry this year, beginning with Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. It’s a book about war, and I’ve read a lot of books about war, but few as capable of mining that gray space where resistance and cowardice intersect. In Kaminsky’s work there is, amidst the violent oppression of wartime, room for love, lust, self-interest, self-sabotage—room for so much humanness, so much life. Quarrels by Eve Joseph is a stunning piece of literary beauty and whimsy—it begins with a train coming to a stop too suddenly, and all the babies lifting out of their carriages and into the arms of strangers. Every vignette moves in entirely unexpected directions, every page in this way reading like a strange and wonderful secret. I Become a Delight to My Enemies by Sara Peters—which cannot be described as either poetry or prose, but rather an experimental thing somewhere in between—is something like a dark mirror of Joseph’s work. Told in vignettes, the story takes place in an unnamed town where the women residents are subjected to grotesque and surreal cruelty. Much like Quarrels, it’s a book that has gotten almost no attention in the United States, and really should have. Finally, there is Invasive Species by Marwa Helal, a collection largely concerned with what it means to exist between cultures, between nations, a hyphenated American, and contains one of the most memorable lines I read this year: “they will say: show, don’t tell / but that assumes most people can see.”

A few weeks ago, a galley of Garth Greenwell’s new short story collection, Cleanness, arrived at my door, and I inhaled it. Greenwell is, pound for pound, my favorite writer working in the English language right now, and his debut novel, What Belongs to You, is my pick for novel of the decade. The stories in Cleanness are each a masterpiece. There is no pretension here, no dishonesty—be the subject matter sex or joy or vulnerability or the many meanings and consequences of human proximity. It’s difficult to explain just how much depth there is to Greenwell’s writing; suffice it to say there are things he accomplishes, emotional destinations he reaches in the course of a sentence that many other writers can’t get to over the course of a whole novel.

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