A Year in Reading: Susan Straight

I live in a place where all our stories are told in the park, in the truck, in the yard, on the porch, at the baseball diamond, or in the bar. Every year, I balance those hundreds of daily stories, of the hundreds of people in my life, here where I have lived since birth in the part of inland Southern California that Joan Didion wrote of as doomed and overlooked, strafed by Santa Ana winds, with the hundred or more books I read when I am finally alone.

I have done this since I was a child. Listened to narratives wild and devious, tender and violent, about the great-aunt who shot a man between the eyes and then with her friend dragged his body away, about my brother and his friend fishing by throwing dynamite into a lake, about my father-in-law and his brothers putting their bodies to the plow in Oklahoma after their father and their mule died; then read novels and memoirs and poetry by strangers from far away, across America and the world. But this year, on the road for my memoir, In the Country of Women, I met a lot of new writers, bought or traded for their books, and was captivated by the different incarnations of family in their pages, which I consumed at night, finally alone.

I met Laurie Frankel in Seattle, at Elliot Bay Books, and her novel This Is How It Always Is was among my favorites of the decade.  So funny I laughed on planes and in hotel rooms and then on my porch back home, the love story of two parents who have four sons, and the youngest son is a daughter, a character like I had never read before, a singular human moving through existence with plumed grace and sharp observance, and the whole world limned through the eyes of the family as tribe.

I met Faith Sullivan in Minneapolis, at a book festival, and her novels The Cape Ann and Ruby and Roland took me to rural Minnesota, her fictional town of Harvester so much like the place Sullivan’s grandmother was raised, during the early part of the century and the Depression. The girls and women of these novels witness violence and alcoholism and mental illness, they bake cakes and pies and wash clothes and try to find home in railroad stations and tiny farmhouses, and always, they help other women who are losing babies, losing love, losing their sanity, and finding their way back to hope.

I met Steph Cha in Los Angeles at another book festival, and read her amazing literary thriller Your House Will Pay in two days. Few writers know southern California like Cha, whose characters live in Granada Hills, Palmdale, South Los Angeles, Pacoima and Silver Lake; based on a shooting at a convenience store in LA, when a Korean-born woman killed a young black woman born in the neighborhood over a container of juice, this novel traces two families trying to survive the reverberations and losses after a death, and then another death, for revenge.

Also in Los Angeles, I met Bridgett Davis and bought her memoir The World According to Fannie Davis, a book countless visitors saw on my porch in April, touching the cover, as Fannie Davis, the author’s mother, who worked in the Detroit number business, looked so much like the women in my family, whose stories I had just written for my own book. Davis writes of her mother’s desire to make sure her daughter knew she was valuable, with yellow patent leather shoes and a sense of pride; I was writing about my mother-in-law and her three sisters, whose beauty and hard work are legendary here. Davis’s book sat on a small white wrought-iron table my neighbors had given me, found on the street, with a bouquet of yellow roses, and when another friend or relative saw me sitting outside, reading after work, and pulled up in a car to visit, Fannie Davis seemed part of our family, too. One of the central women in my book, Jennie Stevenson, ran numbers from her house in Los Angeles, even in her 80s, and so we told those stories again.

I have not met Tupelo Hassman yet, but cannot get over her novel Gods with a Little G, which I have read twice this year, which is about a group of teenagers in a repressive Northern California city, girls and boys who take shelter in a tire yard with beer and each other, a novel for which I have read sections aloud to countless people, especially this chapter—The Golden Rule: Beat others as you would wish to be beaten.

Last week, in Mexico City, I met my former student Gabriela Jauregui, a writer/mother/activist, and she gave me her new book, La Memoria de las Cosas, so I am reading this on the porch now, a great line: Escondidos in Escondido, California. Hidden, in Hidden, California.

A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry

Jean-Patrick Manchette, the French crime novelist who died much too young in 1995, continues to attract new followers, and a cloud of cultish devotion now surrounds the dozen or so slim novels that he left behind. Flinty, sexy, and pacy, they reek evocatively of the 1970s and 1980s in seedy Parisian settings—the waft of hashish burn! the funk of cheap sex!—or in woeful French provincial towns, and they are novels that are shot through with the usual and expected existential despair—he was French after all—but they are fantastic entertainments, too, in that Graham Greeneish way, and they stand up, I believe, as genuine literary artefacts; his unique take on Noir is as good as anything in Roberto Bolaño. Serpent’s Tail have been doing a splendid job of issuing new translations—you might start with Fatale or The Prone Gunman, but anything with that name on the spine is worth a rip.

I love oral biographies, and I picked up an absolute doozy from a bargain bin this year—it’s a pleasantly chubby little number on Robert Altman, compiled by Mitchell Zuckoff and published by Knopf back in 2009. A motley crew of actors and agents and crew members and family and friends and, of course, Altman himself, pitch in their thoughts and reminiscences on his great, radical career, on his many trials and reverses, and on his great joys and successes, too. It’s a monument to a mighty, vivacious life—he was the party boy to end all party boys; a spliff in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other, from about the hour of noon—and to a great purity of vision. To protect that vision, he had to be a monster sometimes, too, and the book doesn’t flinch from the often grim and telling details.    

Page for page, though, the most fun I had with a book this year was with Profiles, a collection of the late Kenneth Tynan’s pieces on show people (to use that wonderful old phrase). His work was sharp but breezy, very warm-hearted but still riddled with venomous gossip, and his critical intelligence had an extremely keen and perceptive edge. His long essay-portraits of artists like Katharine Hepburn and Tom Stoppard are models of the form, and they are way beyond anything being produced now.

Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9 – Fog (FSG) is a beautiful and haunting piece of fiction, worked up from a found diary, and I’m frothing at the mouth waiting for her collection of stories, The Dominant Animal, forthcoming from Daunt Books in the spring.

Meanwhile, back in my own yard, the usual swarm of horrendously gifted young Irish debutantes came yodeling over the hills with their elaborate gifts. Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time (The Stinging Fly/Bloomsbury) was a fabulously entertaining record of what this gifted writer has been up to in the realm of short fiction—it’s very funny stuff. The pages just glide by, but there’s really difficult material and really knotty emotions thrumming along just beneath the blithe surface of things. The poet Stephen Sexton’s first collection, If All the World and Love Were Young, is a brilliant portrait of grief refracted through the prism of a teenage gamer’s swivel-eyed worldview; beautiful vocabulary, sinuous lines, great lurches of emotion. And finally Ian Maleney’s Minor Monuments (Tramp Press) is a superbly weighted essay collection, a portrait of a place and of a family and of a slow, graceful demise.

A Year in Reading: Dustin Kurtz

Had a fun year this past year. No real reason for it. Ever have one of those? Just a good time. Each morning waking up, feeling swell. Glad to be awake. Each day not only a joy but memorable, you know? The kind you’re proud to tell your kid about. Days where you hate to shut your eyes, put an end to them. Nights swaddled in a rich thick sleep. Brain full of health and juices, taut, toothsome, like a lychee. Just a good year. How are things, people ask. Great, you say. Things are great.

The thing with having a swell year is that you spend a lot of your time kind of trying to get yourself as close to a state of big blank noise as you can. Like, degrade your waveform down into the background hiss, you know? Get the pitch of the nothing in your head closer to the pitch of the bigger nothing. On account of how good you feel. One way to do that is to stare at your phone, mouth open as if you’re gagging. Maybe make an animal whine. Importantly, reading a book is not a good means to that end. Chalk it up in the How Books Are Bad column, I guess: They shore you up as a reading subject instead of letting you blur out. What a misdeed. Probably we should stop making them. Or, me specifically, I should. Again, due to feeling good.

I read a few books in spite of that. Enjoyed some of those. Cried at most, probably. A real softy. That’s the hell of it, right? To still be there enough that the weather can blow you around a bit. If I’m gonna live with a crow in my mouth let it have the decency to stay there. It’s the coming and going, when you sort of realize how to move your mouth again, wiggle that jaw, close that throat, but you know the damned thing’ll come back to roost, that’s what’ll get you.

One note: I work for Catapult / Counterpoint / Soft Skull. I talk about their books online. Part of that job means being fair in the mention I give to our authors. Because of that, I won’t be mentioning any of our own books here, though they make up the bulk of my reading life. There isn’t space to talk about them all, so I won’t pick and choose.

I read A Maggot by John Fowles. Had this one on my shelf for a while. Only the second of his I’ve read, after that little book about trees and fathers. This one was a real delight, an epistolary murder mystery set in eighteenth century Britain—Exmoor among other places—involving puritans, Stonehenge, sex, satanic panic, jurisprudence and a hard pivot into the fantastic. I love thinking about the mood of this alongside some of the recent work of M. John Harrison.

Reminded me, too, of parts of The Return of the Native, some of which I reread this year, as I’ve done every year lately. When he hides under the turf. The cart tucked away in a firelit cleft. The well. The mummers, outside in the cold waiting to enter. People mention Hardy’s cruelty to his characters but his greater cruelty is in reminding us again and again of the grave we miss but to which we can’t find the way back.

Another book I reread every year is After Ikkyu by Jim Harrison. These are poems, most of them toying with zen practice. They’re extremely Harrison—that is to say, they revel in a kind of needy gruffness, a deflation of romance, gentle horniness, some mourning, some birds and rocks thrown in for the hell of it. His dog sleeps on his zabuton. My admiration for Harrison is my northern Michigan birthright and I don’t expect I’ll shake it any time soon.

I read three chapbooks from speCT! Books in Oakland: Wildfires by my old colleague Will Vincent, Delphiniums by Amanda Nadelberg and selected emails by Jan-Henry Gray and enjoyed them all. The last is, ostensibly, a transcription of email from author to publisher leading up to the creation of itself, the chapbook, as an object. It engages directly with anxieties of creation, of deadlines, and—something poetry sidesteps as a rule—issues of veracity. If you work in publishing it will make you pale with inbox panic.

I read Wayward Heroes by Halldor Laxness, translated by Philip Roughton. Brilliant brilliant book. A novel that situates the heroics that inform the Poetic Edda in a more materialist context. The result is that the heroes look and speak like absolute psychopaths, go around slaughtering and robbing strangers with impunity, and act very much with an eye to fame and posterity. I’ve compared it—online—to a sort of pre-modern Icelandic Man Bites Dog.

Read Underland by Robert Macfarlane soon after. Another book dealing in graves, more explicitly so. Grave planet. 

I read We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma. Bought it at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg, along with a book—I Thought I Saw an Elephant!—where you poke your finger in a hole and shift an elephant cutout around the page. Lou Sullivan was a gay transgender man and an early activist working to shape a space for men like himself, and the book pulls from his diaries, beginning as a ten year old in Wisconsin, up to his AIDS related death in ‘91. The writing is great, and, joyfully, aware of it’s own skill. The entries collected deal with obsession, politics, bodies (the sex scenes are great), medicine, longing. Easily one of the best things I read this year. My colleague Cal wrote about it here and you should read that. 

I read some Stephen Dixon—not strictly because he died, though he did die. Mourned him a bit with his real fans. Me, I’m an interloper. Never knew him. Haven’t read his most famous work. I read a lot of 30: Pieces of a Novel, which is Dixon in a more, I dunno, Frederick Barthelme mode? Maybe that’s a shitty comparison. Reread some of What Is All This? Uncollected Stories, which is sometimes in a more gonzo mood. That book is an amazing object, kudos to Fantagraphics.

Read my first Mark Fisher this year, too—his Capitalist Realism. I’ll work my way through more. No rush, he also died and his work won’t get any less relevant, even after we seize the means to forge a continued path for human survival on this planet.

When you’re having a very good year, books are also a kind of nesting doll signifier for all the things you know yourself to enjoy, or have built an identity performing enjoyment of—online. “Am I capable of liking things” is a fun question you end up asking yourself with every page of every book you read, during a good year. I mean to say that when I tell you I liked a book, let’s understand that to mean I recognized it as good, decouple it from affect, yes? 

I read Camera by Marcelline Delbecq, translated by Emmelene Landon, very Kluge. Got that one as part of a gift from my wife, a subscription to Ugly Duckling Presse’s books in translation. One of the best gifts I’ve gotten in recent memory. Another highlight from what they sent: The Winter Garden Photograph by Cuban poet Reina Maria Rodriguez, translated by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen. I’m flipping through that again right now and god these poems are so deeply satisfying, so controlled but a control that hints at the surreality at the core of all image. Like a dancer, taut, still form screaming abandon. Ha wait am I stumbling ass backward into THE DIALECTIC.

I finally read Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale. If I’d been paying attention enough to learn that it engages with the work of Edouard Glissant I’d have grabbed it sooner. I loved this book. I loved the generosity of the translation, the end notes, the structure, all of it. There is a page about midway through where the narration, switches from close third to first; I had to cover my face at the recognition of what Chamoiseau was doing there, the force of it. It’s a novel, too, in explicit conversation with Walcott.

I read Mark Haber’s wonderful and fun Reinhardt’s Garden, which is a bit Fitzcarraldo by way of Thomas Bernhard and Robert Burton. The Bernhard comparison, and what we mean when we toss that name around, is explicitly addressed in this conversation he had with Martin Riker.

I read Joao Gilberto Noll’s Lord, another fugue state narration that kind of bridges a gap—stylistically—between the Haber and the Chamoiseau. All the Noll I’ve read thus far thrums with dread, alienation, misunderstanding between character and world and reader and character, and this is no different. I’m such a fan.

Read a couple of books by other contributors to the year in reading this year. What’s the etiquette on commenting on those? Happily enough I enjoyed them both—Females by Andrea Long Chu and The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories by Ayşe Papatya Bucak. Females is that rare joy, a book that starts with a premise and works through consequences. And, too, I knew so little about Valerie Solanas going into it. What did I do in college? The Trojan War Museum I haven’t been able to get out of my head—tender and haunting.

I read The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner and quickly found myself a very loud evangelist for it. This is a brilliant materialist novel that begins with a kind of “Matty Groves” scene—adultery, naked swordplay—but then immediately sends you into a convent where you follow nuns trying to find ways to pay for bridge upkeep over something like 400 pages and 300 years. This is what I want in a novel. Tell me who’s bringing the firewood and why. Who milks the cows when the black death rolls through and what happens the season after? It’s great for fans of Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.

I read The Incompletes by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Heather Cleary. Chejfec has been the author of some of the most lasting scenes in my reading life—fleeting things: fences, muddy pathways, a bird, a stretch of track. The Incompletes revels in clue-ness, significance, but with no puzzle or expectation of an answer. Chejfec is one of the great writers of our age and this is no exception. 

I read Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated by Frank Wynne. It was grim and somehow—a neat trick—silent, if you know what I mean. I don’t know what I mean. Another of the best books I read this year, and a kind of answer to Zola. Ah, I see now Grove even cites Zola in their damned copy for the book. Well, it’s apt. Hi Grove. Animalia opens with a family of French peasant farmers and gets meatier and more foul over the course of decades as industrialized capitalism and mechanized death progress. It was an interesting pairing with the only Counterpoint book I’ll cite, Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring. He’s dead, it’s fine, it’s fine to talk about this one. That novel, too, opens with a peasant farmer on a hardscrabble farm in France. In Giono’s case, though, it’s a book about rediscovering communal joy and wonder, a beautiful novel, written in ‘36 when Giono was a vocal pacifist. It’s almost a direct inverse of Del Amo’s book in every way and I far preferred Animalia. I’d be curious to hear if he’s read it and his thoughts on it.

When I read, in the span of this, the good year, I read alongside a better me, one having less of a swell time, a self who is not having and has never had a very fun year. And for every moment in which I fuzzed out or slept or hid my face beneath the cool darkness of a book just to hide, he kept reading and he felt the words. He felt them, not just the echo of when another reader might be expected to feel them. He felt them and he felt happy to feel them. What a clown.

A Year in Reading: Roberto Lovato

If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld. Virgil, The Aeneid

My reading—and life—were swallowed by subterranean forces in 2019—and I’m all the better equipped to face our civilizational crisis because of it. 

Besides the fact that I work out of a collective literary cave called the Writers Grotto, the primary reason for the obsession with underworldly literature is my own book: a reported memoir about my 30-year journey across the 2,500-mile chain of mass graves, forgotten dead, and devalued life. The book takes me from wartime El Salvador to the remote tropical forests, cartel-controlled deserts and other infernal places where underground elements—MS13 and other gangs, as well as governments—have killed, dismembered, and buried tens of thousands of their victims.

Underneath a refugee crisis story conveniently curated to begin at the U.S.-Mexico border is an altogether different reality from that contained in spectacularly shallow headlines that have, at different times, dominated the electoral and news cycle for weeks, as we will soon see again in the coming election year.

The refugees’ epic journeys through Mexico and the United States, my home country, are the closest thing many U.S. citizens will ever come to western civilization’s foundational underworld stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh,  Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid.

Yet, if there was ever an English-language story that could benefit from narrative power of the depths it is the Salvadoran epic. Outside of translations of the virtuoso writing of award-winning journalist Oscar Martinez, the author of the The Beast and The Hollywood Kid (written with his brother, Juan), there are few to no major English language Salvadoran narratives about the ongoing crisis written by actually existing Salvadorans. Scholarly works by Leisy Abrego, Joaquin Chavez, Cecilia Menjivar, and other U.S. scholars do much to fill in the academic void in the English language. Journalism and literature are another story.

My research shows that a similar erasure of Central Americans and the resultant superficiality in storytelling exists in recent media coverage of the ongoing humanitarian refugee crisis. The effects of this lack of a English-language Central American perspective (except, that contained in two dimensional images of pain and sound bites of suffering) can be seen in the controversy surrounding the video of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a Guatemalan migrant who died in a south Texas immigrant prison. 

After a news organization failed to ask their permission before releasing the disturbing footage of their boy’s horrific final hours, his parents released a statement in which they declared the following: “It’s been really painful for our family to lose Carlos….but having all these people watching him die on the internet is something we couldn’t have imagined in a movie or a nightmare.” 

Left out of the crisis stories is a deeper context that includes the 74 other migrants who died similarly horrific deaths between March 2010 and early 2017. Unlike Hernandez Vazquez’s, these stories and bodies were buried in anonymous media graves by the inconvenient fact that they weren’t killed by Donald Trump. 

Desaparecido in the English language is the voice of those hailing from cultures that the great Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria described as a “map of deep mystery.”

In search of a deeper way to tell this perpetually-urgent story, I found the ideal trope with which to explore ideas and emotions in times of such epic and interconnected personal and political crisis: the trope of the underworld. 

The magical literary workings of the Great Below are described in Wendy Lesser’s masterful The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History. Hands down the best survey of the subterranean in literature, Lesser’s book helped me understand (pun kind of intended) how different authors have used narratives of descent as a way to structure, move and animate fiction, nonfiction and poetry, especially in times of profound personal and civilizational crisis. 

Central to the different genres using underworld tropes—noir (i.e. The Maltese Falcon), thrillers (i.e. The Third Man), sci-fi (i.e. The Time Machine), psychological, working-class struggle (Hard Times), racism (Invisible Man)—argues Lesser, is the way such literature contrasts a surface world or reality with a parallel world below. And, more often than not, this contrast serves to attack the existing order. In our Age of the Spectacular Superficiality, dissent necessarily means descent.

To complement the shortcomings of Lesser’s marvelous book, my own reading drew primarily from the wells of a underworldly Latin American literary tradition that includes the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation,  Antígona González which uses the Greek tragedy Antigone to tell a story of the search for Mexico’s thousands of desaparecidos, and Yuri Herrerra’s outstanding Signs Preceding the End of the World, the story of a lyrical, hard-boiling journey into the criminal, political and migration depths. The first words of the protagonist, Makina, who works as a telephone operator, make clear the story’s abysmal ambitions: Estoy muerta.

A great 19th-century illustration of how the narratives of descent disorganize the senses of readers in ways Rimbaud demanded of all poets is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll deployed Alice’s journey, in part, to disrupt and deconstruct Victorian English sensibilities. He did so using a defamiliarizing technique that defines the workings of  the underground in literature: literally deforming a character’s (in his case Alice’s)—and everyone else’s—body, their sense of identity and meaning. Also known as “katabasis,” the underworld journey of rebirth also serves to alter notions of time and space, as Carroll does to the spatio-temporal ideas created and enforced by the forces of industrial capitalism

A more contemporary filmic example of the uses of the underworld trope to disorganize our senses is The Matrix, released at the beginning of the century, in 1999. Neo, the Wachowski sisters’ central character, undergoes an Alice-like descent into the depths of the myths and lies of post-industrial capitalism. These myths and lies are delineated in John Beaudrillard’s epochal Simulacra and Simulation, a book featured in the movie. Both remain relevant.

The literary future also appears to be going under to find the “deep time” that Robert Macfarlane’s striking book, Underland, implores us to better align our species with.

All the prizes and plaudits recently won by narratives using subterranean tropes appear to indicate that the literary and cultural establishment also believes these tropes can help us to grapple with our astonishing global crisis and inequality. Jordan Peele’s Us used underworld themes to great effect and garnered numerous awards. My favorite award-winning filmic example this year is Korean master Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a brilliant satire about the class conflict brewing in the nuclear bunkers turned into housing beneath the apartment buildings and homes of post-war South Korea. The film’s acid critique of the Korean “economic success” story has already racked up Cannes’ Palme d’Or, eight Golden Globe nominations, and is generating serious Oscar buzz. 

In similar fashion, this year’s Nobel prize in literature went to Olga Tokarczuk, the author of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a book whose protagonist balances her heavenly pursuit of astrological truths with her love of one of the greatest English language promoters of underworld power, William Blake. The theatrical re-telling of the Orpheus myth of Hadestown won eight Tony awards this year, including Best Musical, while The Ferryman, the story of a former member of the Irish underground, the IRA, won the Tony for Best Play. 

On television, HBO’s Westworld series regularly takes viewers on this underworld journey each time its (robot and human) characters descend into the high-tech storeroom where androids, some of which/whom are becoming sentient, have the stories they’re programmed to enact in the amusement park world above erased. This descent into erasure parallels the crossing of the Lethe, the mythological Greek River of Forgetfulness (or, in some interpretations “river of Unmindfulness) that the souls of the dead must drink from before entering the afterlife. The literary treatment of the Lethe is described smartly in Herald Wienrich’s Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting. “Lethe” is also at the center of the adventure and search for truth in the recent His Dark Materials television series based on the Phillip Pullman book series of the same name. The instrument guiding Lyra, the story’s central character, as she navigates a world layered in lies, intrigue and erasure is called a “alethiometer,” a kind of compass that finds the truth behind any question asked of it. This association of of the Lethe with truth also harkens back to the Greeks for whom the search for truth was directly related to remembering forgotten truths.

Our time, our literature require the narrative alethiometer that is the underworld. Recent revelations that 3 U.S. Administrations—Bush, Obama and Trump—lied to the public to keep almost a trillion dollars of our tax dollars flowing to military industrial contractors and others profiteering from death and war in Afghanistan should serve as a reminder to go deep—and then keep going deeper. 

For these and other reasons, I let the underworld swallow my attention this year. And, from a glance up at the future, I will continue to follow Blake and and AC/DC in seeking salvation on the highway to hell.

A Year in Reading: Thomas Beckwith

I did a lot of moving this year, both literal and figurative, so it isn’t hard to see why I was drawn to reading tales of instability, of moments when the girders are buckling and the bridge won’t hold up for much longer. Sometimes, this affinity led me to pick books about traumas and disasters, but other times it led me to narratives of a generalized insecurity, be the source of that insecurity economic, social, or romantic. All I wanted to feel this year was a sense of ambient doom, it seemed, and the books I’ll remember in the future are those that delivered, and then some.

Chief among them has to be The New Me by Halle Butler, an excruciating recession fable and one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I suppose it’s not technically a fable, as its plot is grimly realistic, but with its gimlet-eyed view of the precarity and misery of the modern workplace, it earns a spot among the classics of what we might call the Recession Era. The protagonist, Millie, is stuck in an awful temp job, and everything she does to move up or please her superiors inevitably makes it all worse. She writes polite emails, gets all her work done, and (mostly) keeps her gripes to herself, but none of it proves to be enough to keep her afloat in her position. Her struggles will prove familiar to millennials of my particular age cohort, as will the farce that plays out as she vainly attempts to keep her dignity. All her interactions with her boss are somehow both threatening and smarmy, and fairness itself is nothing more than a joke. Eventually, she has no choice but to move back home with her parents, which the book depicts with a masterful grip on her interiority. I found this book unbearably painful, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

I also loved reading Severance, Ling Ma’s excellent debut, which adds the tropes of zombie fiction to the microgenre of the office novel. The book switches back and forth between the recent past and the present, when the world has been wrecked by a brain-frying virus called Shen Fever. The protagonist, Candace, used to work at a Bible publisher, and most of the novel’s flashback sections focus on her time at work. It likely says a lot about me (almost none of it particularly flattering) that I found these flashbacks as thrilling as the action-packed sections in the present, partly because, like Candace, I too have spent time in a number of soul-grinding jobs. I couldn’t help but sympathize with her stubborn pride and industry, which keep her ensconced in a position that’s a little too real for comfort. Like The New Me, Severance illustrates the costs of our economic hellscape, all the while telling a genuinely new story that’s always a pleasure to read.

I also read some great short stories, some from this year, some not. I fell for “Waugh,” a heartbreaking tour-de-force by Bryan Washington and easily my favorite New Yorker story from this year. I loved “Elliott Spencer,” a new-ish George Saunders story that brings the author’s considerable skills to bear on Trumpian propaganda. I loved “Guests,” a story in The Paris Review by Mary Terrier, with its brilliantly textured portrayal of grief. And I spent a month on The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, which made me yearn for a bygone socialist community that has almost completely disappeared. All of the above were beautiful and startling, and I hope I never forget them.

God willing, I won’t feel drawn to reading stories of doom, next year.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

In the last five days I have driven a little over a thousand miles in a rented Toyota Camry with my two daughters and a large carton of Goldfish crackers. This trip seemed like a good idea when I planned it, but as the date of our departure approached it began to appear increasingly quixotic. For one, the nominal purpose of the trip was to make an author appearance at a book club that I had agreed to visit when I lived in the Bay Area, where it was to be held, and not in Oregon, where I now live. Moreover, the trip was not planned as a straight line. It takes about 10 hours to drive directly from Portland to the Bay Area, but I added several hours to the trip by planning to stop in the town of Alturas, California, to visit my deceased grandparents in the cemetery and spend the night in a historic hotel. (In addition to being quixotic, the trip also seemed like metatextual cuteness, since I had written an entire book about a woman who drives to rural California with a small child in the backseat; it was as if I had decided to insert autobiography where there had been none, and prove my Goodreads detractors correct that the book is artless.)

I decided that the trip was only going to work if I employed all of the tricks that were not available to the book’s protagonist, or to my own parents, who spent a lot of my childhood driving me around in the backseat of a car.  I set up an iPad for the older child, a backup tablet for the younger child, positioned the Goldfish carton so that both could reach down into its maw, and for myself downloaded an audiobook of Pride and Prejudice, which I realized I had never read despite knowing its plot from various film properties.  

The first leg of the trip was supposed to take around six and a half hours. As the road began to incline up toward the snow-dusted trees of the Willamette pass, Jane got sick (Mrs. Bennett made her go to Netherfield without the carriage), and I stopped to pee on an embankment in sight of the car. I drove white-knuckled and 18 miles an hour over the packed snow at the pass, the soothing voice of Rosamund Pike nudging me onward. We stopped to give thanks and pee at a gas station in Chemult at twilight, which was the advent of Mr. Collins, and he delivered his ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth as we passed the turnoff for Crater Lake with the last bit of pink in the sky. We stopped to pee again in Merrill, and the children crowded in a gas station bathroom with me while I devised an impromptu sanitary napkin out of paper towels and wondered what the Bennett girls did in these moments. Between Ambrose and Hackamore, after Bingley decamped for London without warning, we hit an owl.

At one point in the drive my older daughter, who was watching Cinderella, asked if I was listening to a story too, and I said I was. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Cinderella, and I groaned when I heard the voice of the advisor from the backseat, surveying the array of uglies at the ball: “There must be one who’d make a suitable mother…err a suitable wife!” he says. There are so many moments in the raising of girls where the available cultural materials seem sorely wanting. But then I realized that I was listening to essentially the same story, and that it was probably single-handedly responsible for turning an experience that is objectively unpleasant—long car travel with children in sparsely populated country in the early winter dark—into one of the best times I have had in recent memory.

That first night we sat outside the Niles Hotel in twenty-degree weather waiting to be let in, the only guests in a drafty century-old building with period furnishings, and then the girls cozied up together in an ancient bed, and I re-read Of Human Bondage, which I had brought as my physical book. I wondered what was happening with Lizzie and Darcy and Bingley and Jane. I knew what would happen at the end of the book but I could hardly wait to get back into the car to listen to it.

I don’t know if it was the novelty of the trip—Portland to Alturas, Alturas to Petaluma, Petaluma to Oakland to Davis, Davis to San Francisco to Menlo Park—or the iPad, or Pride and Prejudice, but something has encouraged all of us to rise to the occasion this week. As we passed familiar sights I was glad we made the trip: the life-size religious tableaux set up by the In Search of Truth cult in Canby, California, the long-awaited McDonald’s in Burney, the glory of Shasta rising up on a clear winter day. My beloved aunt died in October and I found myself wanting to call and tell her about the things that we saw in her hometown. The importance of aunts is a theme in Pride and Prejudice; aunts as confidants and sources of wisdom. When I was younger my aunt let me smoke in her backyard and tell her my adventures.

This week in the car stands in stark contrast to the last week I spent alone in the company of my children, which was when we moved to Portland at the end of July. The move has turned out to be the best possible thing for our family, but that week, when it was hot and we were in a new city with no furniture and nothing to do, was one of the worst weeks I can remember. My most vivid memory from that time is chasing a 22-month-old around a Fred Meyer grocery store, sobbing on the phone with my former Primary Care Practitioner in San Francisco, with whom I have always had a very cordial and impersonal relationship, to see if there was anything she could prescribe me to get through this experience (she reluctantly but kindly prescribed me Prozac, which I failed to pick up from my HMO before we were switched over to a PPO, and for all I know is still sitting there in a pigeonhole marked K).

The move is one of the reasons I feel as though I haven’t read anything this year. But as in every year, I did read things. Before we moved I read The Revisioners and Women Talking and Lanny and Heavy and The Unpassing, all of which made me weep for different reasons. I read The Parisian and The Old Drift, which are both long and wonderful and address history and which I envied for their beauty and complexity and verve. I know I read other things, but the spring is a blur of thinking about whether to move and discussing the particulars of the move and preparing for the move and then doing the move itself.

Post-move, when my children started camp and daycare and I was alone in the empty house with a number of home improvement projects and a book project I lacked the wherewithal to do, I opened a box of galleys I had previously felt too burned-out and defeated to read. I read Normal People and felt like the raw edges of the preceding weeks smoothed over. I read The Altruists. I went to the library and got a library card and read Loving Day on the porch and on the bed my poor husband put together by himself after going to a new job and coming home to find me crying after a day at the indoor playground. These books helped me feel pleasure in things again.

When I was settled enough to get to work, I read The Smartest Guys in the Room. I purchased and read the “Women of Enron” issue of Playboy, a real object that exists and was produced by our society. I tried to remember the excellent things I had already read for this project, back before moving consumed everything. Before we moved I had read The Oil and the Glory at a table of the Ingleside branch of the SFPL, and an anthology called Working for Oil. At the library of the beautiful Morrison Reading Room at UC Berkeley I read The Oil Road.  (It occurs to me now that I am trying to write a book that combines what all these authors know about extractive industries and business culture and imperialism with what Jane Austen knew about the women of her acquaintance sitting together in a room, and I am still not sure how to do this.)

When I adjusted to the fact of our new city, when we got a bookshelf and a dresser, I could look back and see clearly how anxious and unhappy I had been for a lot of the last year. Oddly, work trips, which seemed like a pain in the ass at the time of their planning and execution, were some of the moments that I remembered most fondly, and they were lonely and strange times. In May I traveled to Miami for a work thing and sat at a restaurant alone reading Cities of Salt in the sea breeze, glowing with happiness at the luxury of solitude and an immersive novel.  Over two solo road trips to Los Angeles, also for book stuff, I listened to the entirety of Oil!, finishing it just before hitting the In ‘n Out burger at Kettleman City on the way to San Francisco.  In Los Angeles I sat at a bar and read The Sea, The Sea for the hundredth time.

Every book that I’ve managed to finish since we moved feels like it helped me regain my equilibrium in some crucial way. Before Halloween, I read Chimerica, which is a book that sounds slightly batshit (it has a talking giant lemur who is the subject of a court case) and turns out to be one of the smartest fictional engagements with the American legal system that I’ve ever read. I read Perfect Tunes with a whiskey sour my husband made me, the children asleep in bed, and I felt young and happy. I read American War on the plane to California to see my aunt for the last time. After Halloween—which since having children marks the start of a period that lasts until mid-January and during which I don’t get anything done due to holiday obligations and inevitable winter illness—I lay on the couch reading In the Dream House at nearly one go while my children watched shit on the iPad and my husband made our dinner in the toaster oven (we were at this time living out of the dining room). It feels peculiar to have such a singularly enjoyable reading experience from a book that arises from someone else’s pain, but that’s one major paradox of reading, and Carmen Maria Machado is so talented that it is pure pleasure to be in that swiftly-moving book. I read Giving up the Ghost, which is also pure pleasure rooted in someone’s pain, Hilary Mantel with her treacherous endometrial cells and her subtly idiosyncratic prose. I read How Much of These Hills is Gold, which is gorgeous and close to my heart because it is about a quixotic trip through California, undertaken for family and personal reasons.

I never canceled the book club thing in California I think because I wanted to tell myself that moving to Oregon would be just like moving to another neighborhood, and that I would continue to be able to access my family and friends and the landscapes of California with total ease. This road trip has made it clear that it is not the case. There’s the distance, which is vast but surmountable; more than that I’m realizing how difficult it is to visit your grown-up friends when you have children in tow. This is a trip where I’m seeing very few friends, despite my breezy assurances when we moved that “I’ll come back all the time.” This realization is one in a series of recalibrating lessons, but I’m in a better frame of mind lately to receive it. I’m typing this at two in the morning in my grandmother’s house in the Bay Area, and my children are sleeping, and they have been such good girls, and I have been such a comparatively calm and pleasant mother to them on our strange road trip, maybe because it was one I conceived of and undertook entirely on my own steam, or maybe it was because Pride and Prejudice made me happy. Tomorrow we will start the long drive back home; I downloaded Sense and Sensibility to ease the way.

A Year in Reading: Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Every year is a great year for reading; 2019 was no exception.

One of my favorites this year was Helen Phillips’s The Need—part parenting book, part horror, part thriller, part literary fiction—actually none of these descriptors do it justice; narratively inventive in a Jenny Offill Dept. of Speculation way, it requires close reading, with a big and tender and surprising payoff at the end.

Jean Kwok’s literary thriller, Searching for Sylvie Lee, put the literary back into literary thriller; a fast-paced but surprisingly emotional novel that takes place across countries and generations.  

Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay is another literary thriller that takes on the violence of the L.A. Riots and examines the simmering communal dynamics that led to the clash between the African-American community and Korean storekeepers.

Grace Talusan’s memoir, The Body Papers, was a marvel, combined with a new look at the essay collection, combined with astonishing writing about very tricky subjects.

Lauren Mechling’s How Could She, about three 30-something Toronto-ites tripping into the belly of the Conde Nast-esque beast, the shifting alliances amongst the newly ambitious, learning too separate the gilt from the actual and true, the romance and heartbreak that is dating and basically everything in NYC—this witty, super-smart dissection of female friendships cements Mechling as today’s Edith Wharton.  

My most recent reading in the last months of 2019 was related to the unexpectedly great news that my first novel, a young adult novel called Finding My Voice, is being reissued. It’s a coming of age story about an Asian American teen growing up in the Midwest. Apparently books about racism and immigration are seriously back in demand, and this also prompted me to take a dip back in the current pool to see what’s new and look at a few more recent classics.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was a perfect novel, YA and otherwise. An African-American teen getting a ride home from a party with her crush, then a traffic stop ending with her friend being shot in front of her begins this story that is complex, fresh, and explores fraught subjects with real heart, humor, and really sharp dialogue.

I really related to Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, as her protagonist is an artsy child of immigrant parents who have sky-high expectations for her—expectations that may be at odds with her own dreams.

Foundational Asian-American author R. Zamora Linmark is back with The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart, a tender, funny gay coming-of-age drama that includes being ghosted by real ghosts.

Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi—this novel practically fizzes: super-fast plot, super-snappy and right-on dialogue. It’s contemporary but in a way that doesn’t feel like it’ll be dated in a few years: There’s a careful deployment of technology that’s necessary for the fame component of the plot, but it’s done in a way that will keep it flexible enough for the coming years rather than cementing it into place. Pablo Neruda Rind is an infuriating, hilarious intensely real character, a 20-year-old mixed-race guy trying to find his place in a shiny, distracting world.

Pet: I just started this, but what a perfect coda to 2019 reading. Novelist Akwaeke Emezi’s novel in its opening scenes reveals something futuristic, but also a parable with lots of Octavia Butler grace notes. Jam is a teen who mostly signs, selectively speaks, and lives in a world that has gotten rid of monsters and replaced them with angels—and libraries still exist! I’m only in the first half, but Emezi’s big ideas and elegant prose have me hooked:

No revolution is perfect. In the meantime, the angels banned firearms, not just because of the school shootings, but also because of the kids who shot themselves and their families at home; the villains who thought they could shoot people who didn’t look like them, just because they got mad or scared of whatever, and nothing would happen to them because the old law liked them better than the dead. The angels took the laws and changed them…

A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne

How is it
that Don Winslow is not a household name?

I’ve spent the last few years plowing through the Winslow oeuvre, including his masterly Cartel Trilogy, and wondering why I still get blank looks when I mention his name. Yes, he occasionally gets a rapturous review, and, yes, his books sell. But how can it be that, as I write this, Lee Child’s umpteenth Jack Reacher novel and John Grisham’s latest lawyer tome are numbers one and two on the New York Times Bestsellers list for hardcover fiction while Winslow’s The Border isn’t even among the top 15? How can it be that, 20 years into Peak TV, we still don’t have any cable series based on Winslow’s relentlessly telegenic books?

I have no
answers to these questions. I just think America’s readers need to step up their
game.

Crime writers, the good ones, anyway, are the poor man’s social historians. Open a Richard Price novel like Clockers and you learn the brutal mechanics of the drug trade in a gang-ridden urban housing project. Read Tana French and you see how the politics of social class roil just below the surface in the quaint neighborhoods of Dublin.

What sets Winslow apart is both the depth of his social insight and his versatility. Like the criminals they write about, most crime writers stick close to home. French writes only about Dublin and environs. Price’s books rarely leave New York and northern New Jersey. Winslow’s 18 novels range from surfer-dude Southern California (Savages and The Kings of Cool) to gritty New York (The Force), to the Mexican drug war (The Cartel Trilogy: The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border). He’s even set a few novels in Asia (The Trail to Buddha’s Mirror and Satori).

This would seem only a writerly parlor trick if it weren’t for the fact that each time Winslow drops into one of these wildly different worlds, you feel like he must have lived there his entire life soaking up social detail. Savages, the first Winslow book I read, exudes SoCal cool. The prose itself seems stoned, blissed out on some primo couch-lock weed that leaves you feeling both transcendently chill and hyper-aware. But then The Force captures world-weary New York, a cop-centric world of dishwater coffee and 4 a.m. cigarettes with a junkie informant jonesing for a fix.

Savages and The Force are first-rate
crime fiction, smart, well-written, and compulsively readable, but they don’t really
transcend the form. They’re merely good. But with the Cartel Trilogy, a
ripped-from-the-headlines fictional retelling of the drug war in Mexico and the
United States, Winslow holds a mirror to contemporary North and Central
American society in the same way Dickens and Balzac did for their
societies. He tells a story of ourselves and our age that we all know in our
hearts but would rather not have to hear spoken aloud.

The trilogy
focuses on DEA agent Art Keller and his Ahab-like obsession with stomping out
the Mexican drug trade, especially cartel kingpin Adán
Barrera, a ferociously violent philosopher-villain based loosely on real-life
drug lord Benjamín Arellano Félix. But if Keller’s pursuit of Barrera
and his fellow cartel leaders forms the narrative spine of the three long,
twisty, blood-soaked books, what sets them apart as fiction is Winslow’s
reckoning of the human cost of a long, senseless war waged in order to get
Americans high.

The sheer
body count of the three novels is staggering. Children are thrown off bridges.
Civilians are slaughtered in drive-by shootings. Cops and informers are
tortured to death in any number of gruesome and inventive ways. But Winslow
also spends long passages in The Cartel, the trilogy’s second book,
following a band of courageous Mexican journalists and a small-town mayor
trying to take back their town from the murderous cartels. In the most recent installment,
The Border, published earlier this year, Winslow follows a young boy’s intercontinental
journey to escape poverty and a sadistic gang enforcer in Guatemala, only to
find himself years later poor and enmeshed in gang life on the streets of New
York. The violence in these books is relentless and stomach-turning, but it’s
never mindless or gratuitous. This is a war, Winslow is saying, and this is
what war looks like.

I just wish more of my fellow Americans were willing to look.

A Year in Reading: Anne Yoder

My most mysterious reading experience of 2019 began with a dream, in which a friend arranged for me to meet with her literary agent. He had read my novel manuscript and told me he liked it very much, then handed me a musty pile of books. He instructed me to read them and absorb their lessons, and once I did I was to get in touch. We had a disagreement about something and I left. When I awoke, the agent’s name was on my tongue: Sergio Chejfec. If you’re like me then, you may have heard of his name, have an inkling that it belongs to a fiction writer whose work has been translated into English, or perhaps you even know this writer hails from Argentina and that his translations have been published by Open Letter. I was nonplussed by the clarity of his name and my seeming lack of connection to it, and so I followed this thread to see where it led, if it did.

I headed downtown to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library and found two novels by Chejfec: My Two Worlds and The Planets. I picked up the latter first, and reader, I was stunned. The first line? “Dream, nightmare, truth.” The narrator dreams of a girl falling, mangled in an explosion, her unlikely name the name of one of the protagonists in the novel I’ve written, that in my dream Chejfec supposedly had read. The explosion was an occurrence that the narrator had previously dreamt: “Days earlier he had woken to a memory, at the time still unreal.” And on the second page of the novel: “Grino often wondered about the power of dreams, whether they simply reflected events, or if, perhaps, they catalyzed them.” Needless to say I checked out both books. I still cannot fathom how a dream led me to an author with whose books I feel such deep kinship. Chejfec was an author I didn’t know I needed to read, although, however, it seems that somehow I did. 

Sergio Chejfec writes deeply interior novels, concerned with the shape of time and how we experience moving through it, preoccupied with thought and memory; his characters are philosophical and enigmatic. The Planets concerns the lives of two men, close friends, who are separated when one, M, is disappeared (it was the ‘70s, Buenos Aires). Grino convinces himself in his swirl of memory that the two had been switched as children—M had always seemed the writer, and here he is, telling M’s story. He writes his memories as if he’s still searching, as if to uncover and reanimate this absent half. 

At another point Grino retells a story he’d heard a woman tell: An ashtray fell, cracked, and one half disappeared, as if it was mysteriously reabsorbed by the universe. A friend conjectures, when asked, that if he couldn’t find the missing half, he’d assume it to be lost. What I’ve found in this book is more than coincidence, and yet it’s now influencing how I perceive the world, my realm of possibility; it’s even rewriting my history. Though, on some level, isn’t this what great literature does? I wonder at times, is it possible that I somehow unknowingly encountered this novel before? I find something impossible in encountering Chejfec in this way, and yet the notion is utterly enticing to me. It seems like the perfect response to this novel, and yet in my account time seems warped. 

I am surprised again and again by Chjefec’s sense of interiority—which when done well in fiction, I adore—his focus on mystery, and his interrogation of how we encounter time passing and memory.  In The Planets, Chejfec writes: “There I was wondering about the nature of an impossible event and, not only that, trying to find some explanation for its appearance along my path. This might seem ridiculous—all of life’s events are certainly interruptions, providential obstacles eternalized later by the course of events itself, and we know that to wonder about chance is to deny the power of destiny.”  

Another wonder of a book is Brandon Shimoda’s Grave on the Wall. His book draws on his nearly preternatural ability to perceive, draw connections between unlikely events (and also insert other texts and exchanges into his own as if they were conjured there first). He uncovers layer upon layer, connecting material and ethereal. It makes me think of Ocean Vuong saying in an interview that novel writing is a form of myth-making, and yet the best way to describe Grave on the Wall is that it’s doing the reverse. Teasing the sacred and profane from the mundane—whether it’s the appearance of Shimoda’s grandfather’s ghost or his encounter with his grandfather’s portrait when visiting the internment camp he’d been held at in Missoula during WWII. Shimoda asks how do we remember, and how do we metaphorically, or even physically, enter our ancestors’ graves? how do we attempt to conjure the individual names and faces of the dead when a memorial focuses on the grandiosity of destruction? On his third visit to Domanju—a less conspicuous memorial mound that holds the ashes of 70,000 killed by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima—Shimoda sees an entrance he’d never fathomed before: “ It suggested a clandestine, unending world. An underground network, a labyrinth. Shadow Hiroshima … I had not imagined that the mound could be entered.” 

This fall in Budapest I entered what was once a temporary grave for many, a wartime hospital and later a nuclear bunker built into a series of caves in the hill that borders the west side of the Danube. The lobby sells outdated items such as old gas masks and glass syringes as cheap memorabilia. What I didn’t realize before the tour is that part of the former nuclear bunker had been transformed into a memorial to the victims of the atom bomb. Melted glass and images of the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are present as are maps of international cities where  hypothetical epicenters and fireball perimeters are mapped out. They are meant to leave an impression, I suppose, of how swiftly a city a visitor knows intimately could be wiped out. I wasn’t surprised to find Washington, D.C., represented here, but I couldn’t have fathomed that the imaginary bomb detonated over the metropolitan area would be one with multiple smaller nuclear warheads, with one situated directly above my hometown of Accokeek, Maryland, a town so small that friends from high school 20 miles away didn’t know where it was. I’d travelled thousands of miles to a city where I didn’t speak the language to witness this fantasy of a horror at home, in a way that I’d never so explicitly imagined. 

Is this the definition of unheimlich? Or is this the opposite, by finding the familiar in the foreign? Perhaps the two are similar. In Kate Zambreno’s  “Translations of the Uncanny,” which appears in her Appendix Project—a series of essays that developed from and beyond her Book of Mutter—she writes, “home is tied up with the concept of what is hidden.” She writes of her friendship with the writer Sofia Samatar and the inherently uncanny nature of correspondences in their thinking and reading and general simultaneity of thinking, and how this happens so frequently they no longer find it surprising. This essay is a meditation on uncertainty and chance occurrences, of how, if we’re aware, we move through time witnessing crossed signals and ripples: “what can double, return, echo—I keep on thinking of the phrase , a copy within a copy. … How can literature yearn towards art, how can image ghost text?” 

But also, how can text ghost image? I’m thinking of Zambreno’s linguistically taut and intellectually riveting Screen Tests, and precisely of how its story series of “Sontag in the Bear Suit” one-ups the image by using it as a springboard for pithy wordplay. Literary figures pepper Zambreno’s stories as if family, or at least familiar, their  familiarity born of vast reading, which is often the best way to be intimate with a writer.

I also loved Max Porter’s language-drunk Lanny, Jesse Ball’s Divers’ Game for its perfect first page alone (though, keep on!), and Amanda Goldblatt’s wonderfully strange Hard Mouth whose prose leaves an indelible mark. The pleasure, pain, and beauty of forever becoming in T Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through.  Miyó Vestrini’s ferocity and desiring toward death in the collection Grenade in Mouth, translated by Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig. I found deep companionship in Kevin Huizenga’s The River at Night—with Glenn’s late-night coffees and sleepless nights, his bibliophilia and endless stream of existential thinking. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing gave me hope that individually and in communities we will be able to delineate spaces apart—both online and off— from social media, from expectation, from demands of efficiency and production, and where we may again move toward the communal without commercial interference.

Miriam Toews’s Women Talking has such a pleasing structure and yet is so destabilizing in its #metoo, as a group of Mennonite women must decide whether to stay and fight or leave their deeply traditional and community, when they discover that some of their men have been using animal anesthesia to rape with impunity for years. Last and never least is Amina Cain’s soon-to-be-published Indelicacy. Its title is a swift, elegant repudiation. I develop a synesthesia when considering Cain’s writing. I imagine Cain like Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe standing before a canvas, painting her book with lush but controlled strokes, the painting itself airy, allowing ample room to move within and breathe.

A Year in Reading: Grace Talusan

In 2019, I published my first book, The Body Papers, and while visiting bookstores, book fairs, festivals, and colleges, I met other authors on the road accompanying their newly published books to panels and readings and salons. I bought their books and they bought mine. A book or three, even hardcovers, fit easily into my bag and I would drop them off at home in between trips. Because it was such a special treat to have so many Filipinx books available, I filled a suitcase of books from the Filipino American International Book Festival with authors such as Jose Antonio Vargas, Walter Ang, Randy Ribay, Cecilia Brainard, Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino, Sarge Lacuesta, Eugene Gloria, EJR David, Alfred A. Yuson, Criselda Yabes, and dozens more. By then, I didn’t have any more space in my bookshelves so I stacked my souvenirs in the dining room.

I usually pass
books onto students and friends after I’ve read them, but I had not read these
yet. And the ones I did pull out of the pile to read, I loved so much that I
wanted to keep them. It wasn’t until I saw my husband almost trip multiple
times as he tried to make his way through the obstacle course that I knew that
I had a problem.

I burned through some graphic memoirs in one sitting, such as Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream, AJ Dungo’s In Waves, and Good Talk by Mira Jacob, all of which I loved and have given away multiple copies as gifts. While on the road, standing in lines and waiting in boarding areas, my companions were the essayists in anthologies such as Burn It Down, edited by Lilly Dancyger, and What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, edited by Michele Filgate. As for the rest of the books, I stack them and they fall down and I stack them again.

I am in two
writing groups and I will highlight the books from those members published this
year.

One of my groups is an online accountability group. For several years, we’ve emailed weekly reports of where we’ve submitted our writing. We wanted to counteract the imbalance of women’s writing in the pages of literary magazines and book review pages by encouraging each other to submit more often. This year, two of the women in that group published books, which made my very happy and proud. Novelist Beth Castrodale’s In This Ground follows Ben, a cemetery worker, as he turns 50 and his once stable, quiet life is threatened. Once an indie-rocker who almost made it, Ben has spent the past few decades putting his musical dreams behind him while also at his job at the cemetery, constantly reminded of the death of his band’s former lead singer. If you’re going to check out her work, I also recommend Marion Hatley, about a young woman in 1931, who, while running from her past, invents the an alternative to the corset, which is a relief for all women who suffer privately from the hidden constriction of their torsos. Beth is a compassionate writer whose novels are immersive, totally engrossing reading experiences. I was also overjoyed when Gilmore Tamny’s HAIKU4U was published. I’ve been listening to Gilmore perform these poems for years and to have these nuggets of the absurdity, mundane, and transcendent bound in a book was such a joy. Daniel Clowes, author of Ghost World, writes, “In these apocalyptic end-times, I recommend reading twenty of Ms. Tamny’s haikus every day to remind yourself that humankind is still, in certain rare instances, redeemable.”

My other writing group, The Chunky Monkeys, more of a traditional feedback group, also had a big year. Six of us published books. First, Whitney Scharer published her first novel, The Age of Light, which is now out in paperback. The launch for her first novel was so crowded with fans and supporters that they snaked through the aisles of the bookstore and listened to her reading over the sound system. The novel is beautiful in so many ways and the writing sparks joy for me. But the book will also be a souvenir of a wonderful evening and a reminder of how important it is to trust our creative instincts. That night, Whitney talked about how the idea for the book, the life of artist Lee Miller, came to her as she walked through an art museum, pushing her daughter’s stroller. She could have ignored the idea or forgotten it, but instead she followed her curiosity and conviction and now Whitney was standing in front of us, her daughter in the front row, reading from a work of art that came out of that chance moment with another work of art.

I spent the first months of 2019 very ill with pneumonia and Christopher Castellani’s Leading Men was the first book I was able to read. I was so grateful to leave my sick bed for Portofino in 1953 and hang out in the fabulous world of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and his lover Frank Merlo. The novel is meticulously researched and yet I didn’t see the research. Rather, I felt the aliveness of the characters and their complicated, loving relationships with each other. I’ve loved Castellani’s fiction since his first novel, A Kiss from Maddalena, his several novels in between, and was overjoyed to have another book to read. While recuperating, I also read his book from Graywolf’s “Art of” series, The Art of Perspective. I’ve been lucky to hear Chris lecture on perspective and was glad to be able to return to his ideas more closely in this book.

Later that spring, on the day Chip Cheek’s Cape May was published, I rushed to a bookstore and when I found his novel on the shelf, I jumped and clapped with joy. I was so happy to hold it in my hands, this beautiful, heartbreaking story that forced me to stay up later than I should have that night. I could not stop reading it. Somehow, I simultaneously rooted for the honeymooning couple to have a long and loving marriage while also wanting them both to misbehave and betray each other immediately. In May 2019, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere came out in paperback. I had already read and loved this novel in hardcover, but the paperback served a different purpose. I was often alone and even lonely on book tour, so whenever I spotted Celeste’s novel, which was prominently displayed in almost every airport bookstore I walked past, it was like glimpsing the face of a dear friend, cheering me on.

At the close of 2019, the sixth book published from our group is Calvin Hennick’s Once More to the Rodeo: A Memoir. A few years ago, Calvin sent to me what became this book in daily accountability emails. He told me not to read his emails, but I could not help myself. I was riveted by his candor, humor, and the beautiful, complicated, loving relationship unfolding between a father and son on a road trip. I was certain this would become a book even if the author sometimes doubted it would reach an audience larger than us. Already, the pre-publication response has been overwhelmingly positive and the memoir has appeared on “best” lists.

2019 was a great year of reading and I have so many in 2020 that I look forward to. From my writing group, Jennifer De Leon’s Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From in May. Meredith Talusan’s Fairest, Matthew Salesses’s Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, and so many more. But first, before one of us sprains an ankle, I need to hit the books.