A Year in Reading: Anjali Enjeti


First, a confession: I read fewer books during the first
year of the pandemic than any other time in my reading life. It was easier for
me to catch up on episodes of Shahs of
Sunset than crack open a book. My mind was a sieve, struggling to sift
through language and meaning. Many days, I found myself too spent to glance at
the pile on my nightstand.

In the summer of 2021, when Covid cases declined and my youngest child became eligible for the vaccine, reading slowly seeped its way back into my life. I’m not sure why or how it happened, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I’ve begrudgingly accepted that the way we live now—masks, limited in-person social engagement, limited travel, surges of cases, dwindling hospital beds, continued deaths, anti-science propaganda, and online meetings—is our new normal. This reckoning has helped me cope with pandemic-related anxiety, and in doing so, has paved the way for me to return to pre-pandemic routines, including a regular reading practice.

This past year I read some poetry, some fiction, but mostly
nonfiction. The six dazzling books that conclude my 2021 year of reading
largely reflect this. They have left me inspired, energized, and ready to take
on 2022, no matter what the year may bring.

I hope they do the same for you.  

There are so many more interesting things about perennial Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin than her relationship with her ex-husband, former congressman and convicted sex offender Anthony Weiner. Thankfully, Abedin’s memoir, Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds, focuses on her childhood in Jeddah and her illustrious career, which began with an internship with the former first lady, and spanned major advisory roles with the two-time presidential candidate and President Obama’s first secretary of state. It’s rare for me to say I can’t put a 500-page book down—but I could not put down Both/And. The daughter of Pakistani and Indian academics, Abedin is a brilliant, talented, and humble public servant, who has been a key player in shaping the past 20-plus years of U.S. policy. She has more than earned this starring role in her own engrossing narrative.

Victoria Chang’s books, whether prose or poetry (her last poetry collection, Obit, was long listed for the National Book Award in 2020) are a master class on short, tight, potent phrases. In Dear Memory, a sentient epistolary book, Chang avoids flowery and dramatic language to unspool an enchanting anthem. If the pandemic had a theme, it would be that time is slippery, that our memories serve as life jackets in an uncertain world, and that our letters to others are really letters to our lonely, broken selves. Here, Chang unspools family archives to tell a deeply provocative tale in an era when we are all relying on our memories now more than ever.

Alison Kinney’s essays about opera for various publications are an art form that matches the breadth and depth of the art itself. Her new book, Avidly Reads: Opera, incisively explores opera as a statement on politics and culture. One contemporary work she examines, Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsberg, tells the story of the two supreme court justices’ bizarre friendship in light of their diametrically opposed interpretations of the law. As Kinney deftly reveals, opera, like all art, is not only a searing comment on a specific socio-political moment, but also a useful tool to expose oppression. “It convenes powerful people and forces them to listen to what’s good for them,” she writes. “But only if they’ve bought tickets.”

Steve Majors is a veteran broadcast journalist who grew up in the rural poor farming town of Batavia, N.Y. He and his family members are Black, but the source of Majors’s confusion as a child derives from his very light skin tone. In his riveting debut memoir, High Yella, he writes, “While I began to learn how to move between worlds on the outside, I still struggled to find my identity within my own family.” As an adult, Majors marries Todd, a white Jewish man, and together they adopt two Black infant girls. The adoption both fortifies and complicates his journey to understand his own origins, his community, and his ideas about what makes a home. Majors is a patient and gracious storyteller who, despite a very difficult childhood, doesn’t shy away from turning a critical eye on himself.

Saadat Hasan Manto’s posthumous short story collection, The Dog of Tithwal, translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon, is an ode to his quirky, dark, punchy short stories. Manto, a Muslim from what was then known as Bombay (now Mumbai), was beyond prolific. When he passed away in 1955, at the age of 43, he had completed 20 short story collections. The Dog of Tithwal touches on prostitution, infertility, surprising friendships, and the subject he is most known for—the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent, an event he found to be unnecessary and absurd. This snappy collection is a must-read.

In her collection of essays, Dark Tourist, Hasanthika Sirisena does what I love most as a reader of nonfiction—she challenges, disrupts, and reinvents the form. This astute book knits seemingly disparate events of the personal, political, and cultural persuasion into a cohesive quilt. An insightful storyteller who examines disability, queerness, her Sinhalese roots, as well as “great love under duress,” Sirisena is also a critic at heart who scrupulously dissects political upheaval. Dark Tourist is also a stirring exploration of the self. “I feel like so much of my trajectory—career, cultural, sexual—has been the result not of choice or deliberation but of a series of evasions, near misses, stumbles, and, too, a deep inability to perceive clearly,” she writes. “But I am, after everything, whole.”

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A Year in Reading: Robert Jones, Jr.

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2021 was the first year in which I read books as a published author and I realized that there is a distinct difference between reading books as an average reader and as someone whose own book is now out in the world. First, I no longer have time for “pleasure reading.” I receive many requests to read other authors’ books to possibly provide a blurb. I also read the books of authors whom I will be in conversation with for book tours and other events. What that means (because I am, by nature, a slow reader) is that I have to delay reading the books that I purchased to read as part of my favorite pastime, and my “To Be Read” (TBR) pile grows taller and taller by the minute because I continue to buy the books I want to read as I am reading the books I’m asked to read. But it’s really a win-win. I get to read some great books way before they hit the shelves, books like Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera, Brother Alive by Zain Khalid, The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, and The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela.

Happily, the books that I am asked to read become books that I want to read, as I discovered when I read Mateo Askaripour’s Black Buck earlier this year. I didn’t think I would be a fan of absurdity and satire until Askaripour’s novel showed me how it could be done in a way that is innovative, smart, biting, and timely. I’ve not seen discussions of race, class, and gender done in quite this way. The title of the book, which works on a multitude of levels, is also quite daring. I was lucky enough to be asked to moderate a stop on Dawnie Walton’s book tour for The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, and read the book in preparation for our conversation. This was the book that made me feel like an anxious reader again. Opal and Nev is perfect in every conceivable way, easily my favorite novel of 2021. I haven’t been this enthralled by a book in a very long time and really didn’t want it to end. It’s a wonderful reevaluation of musical history that will having you using Google to determine if the characters and situations are real. It’s superb.

I also got to speak with Maurice Carlos Ruffin about his collection of short stores, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced as much joy, pain, laughter, and sadness as I have while reading these stories set in New Orleans. Ruffin gives the Black residents of that city the depth, breadth, and attention they deserve. The opening story alone is magnificent, and I’m left asking how Ruffin is able to pack so much meaning into so few words.

Dante Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle is another book I read before interviewing the author on a book tour. Unlike the aforementioned works of fiction, Shoutin’ is memoir about the trials, tribulations, and illuminations of a young Black man from the American South who is attempting to rethink Christianity such that it can be used in favor of liberation rather than subjugation. And this young man, at age 29, is writing on the level of James Baldwin, who is clearly one of his influences. His memoir is full of truth, love, and hope.

Long Division by Kiese Laymon is the only book that I’ve read twice: I read the original version some years ago and fell in love with it. I later learned that it wasn’t the version the author wanted to release and he bought back the rights to rerelease it in the manner he had intended—a book where the end is in the middle. Depending on which direction you start the book, the latter half is flipped upside down, replicating the plot in ingenious ways as it tells the story of a Black boy in the South coming of age in the midst of love, violence, and time traveling. If I loved the first version of this book, I absolutely adored the revised version.  

I had the esteemed honor of reviewing legendary author Gayl Jones’s first novel in 22 years, Palmares, for The New York Times. And what an experience that reading was. Jones is a master writer. While reading Palmares, it often felt like I was reading something written for another dimension; that’s how complex and glowing her skill is. This story of a young woman attempting to find a lost love and escape the confines of slavery is one for the ages. A masterpiece that will be studied for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Lastly, I’m currently reading Honorée Fanone Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, an 800-page epic that caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey and became a celebrated Oprah’s Book Club pick. I’m only 125 pages in and I can see why Ms. Winfrey selected this rich, lyrical, genius of a story about a Black woman whose entire lineage is told from beginning to present, revealing the complex history of the United States.
Other books on my list that I haven’t had the chance to read yet, but really, really want to:
Felon: Poems by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Punch Me Up to the Gods: A Memoir by Brian Broome
Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement by Tarana Burke
Everyman by M. Shelley Connor
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Matrix by Lauren Groff
Zorrie by Laird Hunt
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka

And at least a hundred more that I have not listed. Happy reading!

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A Year in Reading: Anuk Arudpragasam


I was restless this year. I didn’t read much, even less than I normally do, and I left more books unfinished than usual too. A lot of the novels I read were forgettable, but a few left more lasting impressions on me, their lines and images slowly making their way into the mental repository through which my relationship to the world is mediated. I thought about these latter texts a lot, naturally, returning to them in various ways and at various times, but I feel some hesitation now in sharing their names and what they have meant to me—shouldn’t reading be kept private, a part of me wonders, like one’s prayer or tears?

My primary reading project this year, fortunately, was completely devoid of interiority, public in the way one’s first reading experiences, on mother’s lap and classroom benches, are also public. I’d long been averse to modern poetry in English, not just failing to appreciate a lot of it, but also failing to understand why it is written the way it is. Why does a poet break a line here rather than there, for example, or use this spatial arrangement rather than that? What is the relationship between how a poem looks and how it should be voiced? Deciding, at the beginning of this year, that my aversion to modern poetry had its source mostly in insecurity and lack of training in literature, that I could learn to appreciate it the way I’d learned, just a few years before, to appreciate Homer, Dante, and Milton, I resolved this year to learn how to read modern English poetry. I took one of Yale’s free online classes, Langdon Hammer’s 2007 undergraduate course on modern poetry, sitting through several sessions on Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Pound, Moore, and Bishop. I did basic exercises in scansion, studied Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, read interviews with Ashbery and O’Hara, Walcott, and Clifton, and listened to poets reading their poems so I could get a better sense of how to voice them.

I learned a lot, I think, enough to begin taking more pleasure in contemporary poetry, to understand some of the structural differences between poetry and prose, but not enough really to want to incorporate it more systematically into my reading habits. What started off as aversion became, sadly, with the passing months, something much closer to indifference. I’m not sure why, but it has to do with time, I think, the way a lot of the poetry I read this year seemed to want to gather itself around a moment, to hold a moment still inside margins of white space, which I contrast with the way certain novels, the ones I love at least, seem to dwell inside time’s currents, live through the long duration of moods. Maybe such generalizations are just a mark of not having read enough, I’m not really sure, but one book of poetry I did very much enjoy this year was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which has persuaded me to abandon modern poetry in favor of the epic for next year.

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A Year in Reading: Mai Al-Nakib


At the start of the year, a friend asked how I choose the books I want to read. He explained that he consulted reviews, bestseller lists, prize nominations, end-of-year lists, then compiled a detailed spreadsheet, and proceeded to read as many books as he could over the course of the year. My own method—if it can be called that—is the opposite of systematic. It’s almost as if the books I read choose me. I hear about a book from a friend or on the radio. A writer I like mentions another writer, and my interest is piqued. Or, as was the case with the first book I read in 2021, it might have been sitting patiently on my shelf for years, waiting its turn.

After our year of entrapment and fear, Roland Barthes’s Incidents felt right. A book of elsewheres and movement, of yearnings for the ineffable, Barthes’s journal-like writing is interspersed with haunting photographs by Bishan Samaddar. These lines stay with me: “Because ‘to read’ a land is first to perceive it through one’s body and memory, through the memory of one’s body. I believe the writer exists in this vestibule of knowledge and analysis: having more awareness than experience, aware of the very cracks in experience. This is why childhood is the anointed road on which we can best know a land. In the end, there is no Land other than the Land of Childhood.”

 So that’s where I head next. Back to Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret, sitting on my bedside table with 10 or so other books I like to keep close: talismans. Though I mention Fitzhugh’s titles often when asked what books meant the most to me as a child, I haven’t actually read them in years, maybe decades. Reading them again, they remind me of who I’ve always been. Did Harriet make me? Or was I attracted to Harriet because I so completely identified with her? A child in Kuwait who dreamed of being a child in New York City, claiming the wild freedom personified by that place. After our hell year, as a result of which I’ve come a little undone, these books take me back to my own Land of Childhood, when “pandemic” and “climate crisis” meant nothing at all.

Next comes Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable because the climate crisis—evidence of which I see outside my window every day in the form of yellow-gray smog—is the principal planetary urgency. Ghosh is a masterful writer and thinker, a gift to the world, and this stunning book, which I couldn’t put down, forces us to think the unthinkable because the alternative is annihilation.

Then I am drawn to Milan Kundera’s Slowness, which I’ve read before but have forgotten. The title seduces me. It, too, like Ghosh’s book, is an indictment of our contemporary blindness, our need for speed, activity, fame, and commodities. Slowness, in contrast, cultivates secrecy, discretion, anonymity—forgotten pleasures.

At the same time, I also read Marilyn Chase’s beautifully composed biography Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa. It is aligned with Kundera’s notion of slowness because Asawa’s delicate, powerful sculptures and presence connote the opposite of speed and greedy consumption. I am moved by her persistence and her impeccable ethics, not to mention her remarkable, singular art.

I pick up André Aciman’s Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, and his description of reading as a teenager in Rome reminds me of my own practice of reading as a teenager in Kuwait: “In that room on Via Clelia, I managed to create a world that corresponded to nothing outside it. My books, my city, myself. All I had to do then was let the novels I was reading lend their aura to this street and drop an illusory film over its buildings, a film that washed down Via Clelia like a sheet of rainwater, casting a shimmering spell on this hard, humdrum, here-and-now area of lower-middle-class Rome.” I did that, too, in my room off Ali Bin Abi Talib Street.

I read The Birds by Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas because I am a little obsessed with birds and with Norway, a place I’ve never been, an oil-producing country like my own, which seems to have done so much better with the blessing-curse of it. The book is breathtaking, quietly devastating, ominous from beginning to end.

 Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body follows, and I devour it. The first installment of Dangarembga’s trilogy, Nervous Conditions, is a book I teach often, and the characters Tambudzai and Nyasha are, for me, alive. Dangarembga is a sharp writer, and I love that she takes her time with her novels. I’m thrilled this one was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

I read Camus’s Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist, which is a tiny book, an essay, really, and it resonates with Ghosh’s thesis about the role of the artist/writer in the era of climate catastrophe. Concealing, obfuscating, ignoring are no longer options, if they ever were. “To create today means to create dangerously,” Camus writes. “Every publication is a deliberate act, and that act makes us vulnerable to the passions of a century that forgives nothing.” We should not expect forgiveness in this century either—we writers, we humans. We must inhabit our vulnerability (accountability) with grace.

Summer arrives, and I read Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, because the premise of being under house arrest in a hotel attic in Moscow carries a strange pandemic appeal. Then Annie Ernaux’s The Years, a memoir without the first-person—a revelation. Followed by Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces, about a woman who suffers a psychic break, narrated with such precision and startling images that I can only read a few pages at a time. Then Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—part memoir, part academic meditation—another book that has been sitting on my shelves for too long. And Sjón’s Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, which I heard about on NPR some time ago, forgot about, then remembered again. I wasn’t expecting the 1918 flu to feature, and reading about it felt oddly soothing, though I’m quite certain that wasn’t the intent.

Currently I’m rereading J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K. This too is a random choice, plucked off my alphabetically ordered shelf as I was re-shelving Anton Chekov’s Stories, some of which I also reread this year (“The Death of a Clerk,” “Vanka,” “A Boring Story,” “In Exile,” “The House with the Mezzanine,” “Gooseberries,” and more). I’m reading Coetzee’s novel as if for the first time, and it’s like breathing in icy air, clearing away layers of stifling debris. It’s all here: colonialism, racism, classism, a parent-child relationship, violence, resilience. It forces us to ponder, in this hard moment, the inevitable outcome of centuries past, the pressing question: What are the parameters of a dignified life?

In this year of reading, it is that question, I think, that my trail of books—haphazard and circuitous—has been leading me through, opening up all kinds of unexplored possibilities, for which I am grateful.

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A Year in Reading: Gina Apostol


When the pandemic began I worked fiercely on finishing a novel I had started but dropped a few years ago—because that’s what I do under stress: I buckle down and write. It’s how I cope. Work is my pleasure and my lifeline. So mostly what I read at the beginning of the year were odd books on the first years of American occupation of the Philippines, 1899 to 1905 or so—one of the time-spans in my novel. I read a book called Not by Might about the 1903 group of pensionados, Filipinos sent on scholarship to the States before the Philippine-American War was even over. This early education of Filipinos who became collaborators with the American regime was part of U.S. war strategy against the country. Sadly, my mother’s favorite relative, her Lolo Paco, was one of those 1903 pensionados, a fact I learned through research. But you know, since Gun Dealers’ Daughter, bourgeois complicity with horror has been one of my work’s themes. I also read a book about the Lopez sisters of Balayan, early activists who organized the Association of Filipino Feminists in 1905. I read the entire catalog of Filipino agrarian goods, telescopic machines, animals, and displayed humans in The Report of Philippine Exhibits of the Louisiana Purchase World’s Fair in St Louis in 1904.

Otherwise, my pleasure books in between novel writing were those crazy history-based nutcake older ficciones, as I call them, by Ishmael Reed—Flight to Canada, Reckless Eyeballing. Reed’s sheer inability to be held to conventional modes of narration, time, or ideology makes me happy. I think the sense of freedom in writers like Reed helps free me as well, as a writer. One of the stupid questions I ask myself as a reader is—is the writer good enough to be sexist or whatever? I say “stupid” because that question makes my good law-abiding friends groan. I mean, there are racist moments in Down and Out in Paris and London—but I will still read Orwell. I have nice friends who won’t read Reed—but for me, he’s a huge pleasure, one of America’s fabulous greats. But then you know, the first novel I ever wrote, coming out in the U.S. this January, is called Bibliolepsy—which, among other things, is about the complex ethos of being true to the books of your attachments. This year I also read books by novelist friends—Sabina Murray’s Human Zoo, Eugene Lim’s Search History, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed. I looked forward to these books because I believe Viet, Eugene, and Sabina, no matter what they end up doing—they are all quite different writers—are thinking through problems of the novel that constantly absorb me, e.g., the link between politics and art, or the conceptual work that goes behind one’s necessary attention to readers’ pleasures linked to one’s necessary attention to the world’s concerns. Also, I read their books because I can talk about novel writing only to very few novelist friends, like Sabina and Eugene, since most of my friends, for some reason, are gay poets. I also reread the great Filipino writer Wilfrido Nolledo’s 1970s novel But for the Lovers to write a foreword on a forthcoming Philippine reissue. Every decade, I end up rereading that book and always find something new: but that’s the way of reading classics and books one loves, isn’t it? For me, But for the Lovers is both. On a surreal trip to Venice after vaccination and before the Delta variant, my early-summer travel books oddly touched on the same topic—a clash between ancient Americas and monarchal Europe. But I do love books about world collisions. My partner told me to read Laurent Binet’s Civilizations, in which Viking genes among the Incans make them immune to smallpox, Columbus is killed before he can go back to Europe, and Atahualpa the Incan takes over the Holy Roman Empire. Then I also had Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, which features a great Mayan headdress and a tennis match involving Caravaggio, the poet Quevedo, and Anne Boleyn’s hair. I still think a lot about both books—but maybe because I miss Venice. I also read Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate in Venice: appropriate also for the books I had with me. It’s a great primer, kind of Lacanian without using jargon at all, for the complex ways of reading and writing cultures and art that our times require.

My current reading, for my next novel, set among anarchists and radicals in late-19th-century Paris, is Karl Marx: I needed something to absolutely absorb me when my last novel was done—my mind during my second pandemic summer needed to be occupied. As a Filipino kid in activist martial-law Manila, our leftist reading was Maoist. So being M-L, as it was called—Marxist-Leninist—among my friends was kind of retrograde, and I was a kid and just accepted the bias. So I never read Capital. It’s like a lightning bolt. My brain—or maybe the world—just seems more lucid, reading Capital. But I guess we do not need to read Capital actually—we live it. Marx calls capitalists “thieves of time”—there seems no huge difference between the news now on Amazon’s diabolical theft of their workers’ life, their time, from the struggle in 1840s England about the workday. Too many lives are in that state of immiseration Marx predicts simply by meticulously describing the logic of capital.

Lastly, I’d like to say that the most compelling contemporary writer’s book published this year, for my money, is Anthony Veasno So’s Afterparties—though today I just cadged Percival Everett’s The Trees from my partner, who always loves the right books—and I am now divided. The Trees just kicks America’s white ass in all the right places. I think a close semblable of So’s book might be Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: where the fund of huge communal tragedy, a holocaust (in So’s case Cambodian), a parade of a monstrous history’s ghosts, is told with such capacious love for that community and with that erotic humor and energy that sustains the best texts. I realized, after reading So, that Roth’s Portnoy, which I read as a teenager in Manila, and other Jewish books—I.B. Singer, et al—were maybe the first “identitarian” books that I’ve read—except they were just called novels. I loved those Jewish American books. Fortunately, I don’t have to ask my stupid reader’s question about So: his range of empathy is so much broader than Roth’s. I think So’s Afterparties is an American masterpiece, and I feel privileged to have read it this year. In the meantime, right now I’m cackling over The Trees, with its excellent murders and Southern-gothic fun aimed at the proper targets. This should be Everett’s Pulitzer year. In fact, I dare the Pulitzer to give him the prize.
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A Year in Reading: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

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I’ve noticed that some of my readers have taken to posting “trigger warnings” about my novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, which deals with early African and Indigenous history in the American south. Sometimes, there are strings of at least 100 words, letting folks know all the horrible things that happen to the enslaved folks in my book. That doesn’t hurt my feelings—actually, I find it quite informative—but it does make me realize that, when it comes to the stories of African and Indigenous people(s) in this country, many folks don’t understand that American history is a trigger warning. We can either accept that fact, or we can remain soothed and oblivious—but then, we will continue to be bewildered when history repeats itself.

I’ve learned to just write what I believe needs writing from the late Toni Morrison, who famously said that before beginning a new book, she’d ask herself a question she wanted to answer. It is noteworthy that in Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, Morrison’s friend, the (much younger) scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin, also begins with a guiding question: “What might an engagement with literature written by Black Americans teach us about the United States and its quest for democracy?” Part scholarly monograph, part memoir—and so beautifully written—Griffin’s book alludes to intersections between American history and literature: that anti-literacy laws in the 18th- and 19th-century American South made it a crime for Black folks to read. A crime for holding a book in Black hands. A crime for White folks to teach us. Thus, when Griffin recounts the story of her father’s insistence that she comprehend the words laid out on a page—his advice forms her book’s title—we readers who are familiar with southern history understand that Mr. Griffin lovingly taught his daughter resistance, to help her survive this country, as her ancestors had survived. That thought moves and fills me with gratitude.

Frequently, I considered resistance, while reading The Prophets by Robert L. Jones, Jr. In this groundbreaking novel, Jones embraces slave history, and rejects its erasure, for his exquisitely rendered novel imagines what we know must have existed: romantic love between two enslaved Black men. I want and need to call these characters’ names, Samuel and Isaiah, because other men unknown to us had names they, too, mingled in love. (And I use “enslaved” and “Black” because, Black people weren’t the only enslaved folks in antebellum North American. Indigenous people(s) also were enslaved.) There is triple resistance in The Prophets: First, Isaiah and Samuel are determined to love each other while enduring slavery, a commerce-driven institution that was focused on breaking the binds of affection of peoples of African descent. Second, these characters are two queer Black men loving each other—erotically, romantically, spiritually—during a time of horrible homophobia, when free, White men could be imprisoned for engaging in same-gender intimacy. And third, the fact that Jones wrote and normalized a story that never has been published before—about queer love in a time of slavery—is an act of monumental resistance but also devotion. Also, the tending of ancestral altars. Also, so much that my pen and tongue cannot conjure, but which my heart and spirit knows and cherishes.

And finally, Jennifer L. Morgan is one of my favorite scholars whose work on slavery history is so essential. While writing my novel (which was completed earlier this year), I’d read—and reread, and reread again—Morgan’s monograph, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2011), as well as her groundbreaking essay, “Partus Sequitur Ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery” (2018). Both Morgan’s book and essay allowed me to depict fully imagined—and hopefully, realistic—lives of enslaved Black women. For example, it was Morgan who introduced me to the 1662 Virginia law (quoted in the title of her essay) that ensured that the children of African American women remained enslaved and removed Black fathers’ legal and lineal power over their children.  This law represents an act of familial violence, one that echoes in the negative (and false) narrative of “fatherless Black children” often repeated today. Further, Morgan tells us that, during the 17th and 18th centuries, Black women were publicly disrespected and demonized, their Black bodies described as monstrous by White male slaveholders, their Black women’s morality publicly diminished, especially when compared to the femininity of White women.  

When I Googled Morgan (as I do regularly), and saw that she had a new book coming out this year, Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, I was elated. I bought this book in both physical and Kindle versions on the day it was released. Like Morgan’s earlier work, Reckoning with Slavery goes deep into the archives, to construct utterly human narratives about the Black women whom Whites named as property, and who were only considered worthy within the realm of commerce. Simultaneously, Morgan shows us that the enslavement of Black folks developed alongside White supremacist philosophy and public intellectual writing, and like Morgan’s earlier work, she alerts us to those reverberations of White supremacist teachings that still exist in our time—like Griffin’s father tells us, if we’d but read and stick with this history, we’d eventually understand.

It’s not difficult for me to draw a connection from early American history to these difficult, current times of the 21st century—which is why work wrestling with American history is so important, and why I remain so fascinated by it.  To me, known and unknown Black historical figures aren’t dead and gone, but alive. These figures speak, they sing, and they give me wisdom. They give me sustenance, and I’m telling you, these days I really need sustenance and wisdom.

Sometimes, when I watch the news, I think, “How much more can I take, dear Lord? How much longer before I crumble?” But then, I think on what my ancestors endured—what they still teach me—and I carry on.

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson


In my decade-long project to read through Russian literature chronologically (with frequent divagations—I’m motivated but not monomaniacal), this year I reached 1976 and three famous novels generally considered the best their authors ever wrote. Spoiler: I loved them all. The first was Yuri Trifonov’s House on the Embankment; last year in this venue I wrote about three of his earlier “Moscow novels,” with their gripping stories of moral choices, and this is even better. Anyone who read Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government will be familiar with the main location of the book and the kinds of people who lived there, and anyone who hasn’t read it should read my 2017 Year in Reading plug and remedy the omission posthaste. Trifonov binds the Stalinist past to the smugly self-seeking present remorselessly.

The second is Valentin Rasputin’s Farewell to Matyora. Matyora is the name of a fictional island in the Angara River in Siberia, as well as of the village that has flourished on it for 300 years; a downstream dam is about to flood the village, and the events are seen through the eyes of the aged Darya Pinigina, who has no conception of life beyond the village and no desire to evacuate it as the authorities demand. Her son, who lives on the mainland and understands the idea of progress, tries to tempt her with the better life available elsewhere, but she is stubbornly focused on the life she has been living and the other lives that have given the island its meaning; the novel opens with a crew of men demolishing the cemetery, and she and other aging villagers are horrified at the desecration. As the novel draws to its astonishing close there are more and more echoes of the Book of Revelations, and Rasputin makes you feel the apocalyptic nature of what to modern people represents simply a change of venue. To quote Darya: “The truth is in memory. Whoever has no memory has no life.”

After those novels, both deeply traditional in their different ways, it is a shock to turn to Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Fools. Sokolov didn’t come out of nowhere—he develops ideas and techniques from Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Joyce, to name a few predecessors—but he uses themes like doubling, madness, and sexual obsession in a way that is his own and feels completely new (Nabokov famously gave the book a rare blurb). It’s a pseudo-memoir by a young man who is in the titular school and is haunted by a beloved teacher who may or may not be dead; he himself may or may not have been transformed into a water lily. The hero of the book is language itself, and I’m happy to say that the previous inadequate translation has been superseded by Alexander Boguslawski’s superb one; it’s so good I not only bought it but read it through after finishing the Russian original, and I urge everyone to do the same. You won’t be disappointed. (And if you like it, you might want to give his follow-up a try, Between Dog and Wolf; it was long thought to be untranslatable, but Boguslawski did a remarkable job of turning it into English, and there are plenty of notes as well as a helpful introduction to orient you.)

If you were intrigued by my remark that Sokolov borrowed from Joyce, or if you’re simply interested in Russian literature and how it gets made, I urge you to run out and buy José Vergara’s All Future Plunges to the Past, which describes how Yuri Olesha, Vladimir Nabokov, Andrei Bitov, Sokolov, and Mikhail Shishkin have responded to Joyce and his shifting fortunes in the Soviet Union (initial excitement followed by suppression and secretive reading until the flood of translations in the 1980s). Vergara writes in a very readable way (unlike many academics I could name), and he brings all the books he discusses to vivid life. And at the end, he canvasses a bunch of living authors to get their takes on Joyce. I enjoyed it tremendously.

A couple of other fine works of scholarship about Russia: Anne Lounsbery’s Life Is Elsewhere is about the image of the provinces in Russian literature, which changed from an appreciation of diversity in the 18th century to a picture of dreary uniformity in the 19th (this had to do with the government’s push for standardization across the empire); and Jonathan Waterlow’s It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! looks at Stalin’s USSR from the perspective of the jokes people told (and sometimes got in trouble for). Waterlow knows people and how they adjust to the world around them, and does a good job of explaining how the jokes were (among other things) a way of sharing knowledge of how to act and what not to say under the norms of the new society. His brilliant description of Stalinist ideology as “a language of which there were no native speakers” has stayed with me.

My wife and I have a custom of bedtime reading, and lately I’ve been reading Ann Patchett to her; we both greatly enjoyed her novels The Magician’s Assistant, Commonwealth, and The Dutch House, and I recommend them to all and sundry—as I do the Chinese novel translated by Arthur Waley as Monkey. Waley has been criticized for leaving out most of the poetry, but we were happy just to follow the adventures of Monkey, Pigsy, and their fellow dubiously devout Buddhists as they travel to India to bring back holy scriptures. It’s a lot of fun.

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A Year in Reading: 2021

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Well, here we are. The beginning of Pandemic Winter 2: The Omicron Story, and the 17th annual Millions Year in Reading. We are grateful to our contributors for sharing their years with us, some of them very difficult years, and to you for returning every December to celebrate the role of books and reading in our lives.

The names of our 2021 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published—starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning, and ending Dec. 23. Bookmark this post, load up the main pagesubscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram to make sure you don’t miss an entry—we’ll run three or four every day.

Stephen Dodson, proprietor of LanguagehatHonorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du BoisGina Apostol, author of InsurrectoMai Al-Nakib, author of The Hidden Light of ObjectsAnuk Arudpragasam, author of A Passage NorthRobert Jones, Jr., author of The ProphetsAnjali Enjeti, author of Southbound and The Parted Earth

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A Year in Reading: Anthony Veasna So


Editor’s note: The writer Anthony Veasna So passed away unexpectedly on December 8. We are publishing his Year in Reading entry with this note from his partner, Alex Torres. Anthony’s friends and family have created a memorial fund to establish scholarships in Anthony’s name.


When I met Anthony in college, back in 2014, he was taking a class on Moby Dick. In between making penis jokes (his not-so-subtle way of flirting), he’d go on about the beauty of individual sentences and words, like “portentous.” He’d say that nothing was more beautiful than Melville’s images of squeezing sperm. 

Anthony thought it was “beyond stupid” (his words, not mine) to read the entire book, so he read the Cetology chapter (the one where Ishmael goes on and on about the zoology of whales) about 20 times instead. He loved details and tangents; he had faith in digressions. He never finished Moby Dick, but if I’m being honest I doubt that Anthony finished any book, except of course for the books that formed his teaching load.

The reading habit that he talks about in this essay started with Moby Dick. Instead of finishing our required reading that quarter, we’d stay up late, watch the first season of Broad City, and talk about Moby Dick during the commercials. (“So is Ishmael more of an Abbi or Ilana?” I remember asking.)

Last February, Anthony and I started fine-tuning the plot of his new novel while eating vegan sushi. I suggested that he read a few passages from some of my favorite books: Orlando Furioso, Invisible Man, and The Savage Detectives. For fun, he recommended that I read The Friend, which I devoured in one sitting. (“How can you binge read like that?” he’d always ask me). Anthony never finished the books I recommended to him, but he’d read my favorite passages–covered in pencil marks and pretentious sticky notes–over and over again, until he was ready to start writing.  

It feels strange to me that Anthony’s “Year in Reading” is the last essay I watched him write, that it’s the last essay he will ever write. He wrote individual paragraphs in between baking a Thanksgiving vegetable tart and completing an ab regimen he learned from Crossfit. The morning before he finished the essay, as we were walking to pick up cold brews from the French cafe around the corner from our apartment in the Mission, he told me that he was going to include his favorite Gatsby anecdote in the essay. “The one from high school?” I asked, confirming what I already knew. 

Now as I read the essay I think back to Anthony, the 21-year-old hopeless romantic who would text me flirty “Mobius Penis” jokes while he was supposed to be reading hundreds of pages of Moby Dick.

I like to think that Anthony couldn’t finish Moby Dick because he was falling hopelessly in love with me. But if you asked him, he’d probably say he never finished the book–or any book–because I wouldn’t shut up. 

-Alex Torres, December 23, 2020


This year I have started almost a hundred books and finished none of them. It’s not a terrible way to live as a writer with political and aesthetic aims of the lofty, masochistic variety, whose first novel draft will definitely push the limits of digestible length. Call it reading not as binge-worthy commitment, not proof of literary engagement—indulgent showboating, at its worst—but instead as a mode of aesthetic encountering. I actually recommend everyone to stop taking books so seriously, so monogamously, as though the price of hardcovers were only justified through the number of titles logged into Goodreads. Never have I been more productive as a lover of prose.

Before I continue, I do want to say: maybe not entirely my fault! I did attend a crowded public high school where teachers assigned few novels or full-length plays a year. During sophomore year, my English class spent two months on The Great Gatsby but never chewed on the tragic death of its eponymous schmuck, as the library recalled our copies to give to another class of forty students. (Our teacher, making up for this glaring hole in our Western cultural education, later devoted a week’s worth of instruction to watching the 1974 film adaptation; somehow, our class was denied, yet again, the epiphanic experience of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ending, however diluted by David Merrick’s sterile and wack direction. The next semester our teacher resigned herself to sending our class off into the SSR woods. As in silent sustained reading. As in the educational cornerstone of elementary language arts, of second graders learning to concentrate and sit frozen with stoic obedience.) Even my AP Literature seminar of college-bound seniors focused on just two books: Hamlet and Invisible Man. While I remember this teacher somewhat fondly, she was not equipped to riff on Black characters and the failures of white-centered Marxism.

And before I self-incriminate any further: I swear (as a courtesy to my editor and agent and public-facing persona, as well as the privacy of my literary group chats, not to forget the boyfriend who hates how far-reaching my dumb, petty mouth often stretches), truly, emphatically, that these past months of noncommittal reading have little to do with hot takes on big four publishing conglomerates. Or the nihilism of overeducated, philosophy queer bros I sometimes, unfortunately, find myself guilty of affecting.

Anyway, it’s true! My mushy quarantine brain has been commandeered by a fuck-boy approach to literature. I remain incapable of finishing novels and poetry collections, memoirs and nonfiction books and academic monographs, or, at my most scattered, single short stories, even those written by dear friends. At any given moment, thirty to fifty tabs—usually the preview pages of books I’ve marked to buy or borrow from the library, which land on my radar at the recommendation of peers and mentors whose literary tastes I adore—are left open in Google Chrome for weeks on end, maybe months. I also sabotaged four book clubs, one of them organized by yours truly.

Through a number of these books I made a not insignificant, not not respectable, headway, having consumed a chunk of their words before dropping their characters and speakers like I did a majority of my high school graduating class—with zero notions of ill-will. Hopefully, someday, I will finish every book I started. Perhaps when I write to the ending of my novel. While tinkering with my opening pages, I read so many first pages while stoned in my neighborhood bookstore. Several weeks later, when I got stranded in the gulf between chapters two and three, I proceeded to the next fifty pages of half of these same books. Each time my dialogue comes out stilted I read bangers from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. All I want is for my characters to speak like Frank O’Hara.

To formulate my novel’s voice, the narrator’s range of telling, I hopped through Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Danez Smith’s Homie, James McBride’s Deacon King Kong. Its structure: I got a third of the way into those collected interviews of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Its ancestors: a combined thirty pages of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, before I realized how hopeless it was to locate heirs for my stoner novel about queer Khmer Americans. Might as well be my own daddy.

Okay, I misrepresented. I trekked to the endings of a few novels. Right as I was passing the ten-year mark for my high school graduation, I reread Invisible Man and finally understood just how little I had learned in AP Literature. How the fuck did I miss so much of Ellison’s genius? I asked myself, overwhelmed by this epic I’ve always thought to be a favorite of mine. I guess understanding has nothing on profound impact.

Then I read The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. It’s absurd to me that I’ve cast aside dozens of novels and somehow finished two dense behemoths. Maybe I just vibe with lost narrators full of hope. Like Ellison’s narrator, I want to believe that “when I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Like Augie, I haplessly take wisdom from those who cannot guide me. Too bad over 1.5 million people died in the Cambodian genocide.

I did love Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Or maybe I loved knowing the characters of this kaleidoscopic novel. Maybe I need to record the lives of as many archetypal Khmer queers I can imagine.

I should return to the books I have yet to finish! The first story of David Means’s collection Instructions for a Funeral, “Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950,” dazzled me with its slow hypnotic recursion, its dilation of time that ebbs and flows with every sucker punch, every decline and uptick of glorious, pathetic testosterone. I don’t understand how others can so easily open this collection without spending all their time basking, cheering, stepping inside those fighting passages. And I felt a similar sensation, this devotion for swaggering, cocky syntax, while immersed within Luster. That breathless account of delivery gigs and mishaps, it dead-ass bullied me into dropping Raven Leilani’s debut novel and working on my own. I was slapped by that whirlwind of manic energy and meaning-making the protagonist, Edie, conveys from one drop-off spot to the next until she slams hard against the guarded stony walls of her fuck buddy.

Speaking of sentences, I’m stuck on the first line of Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House. I’m a love-sick idiot. I can’t break from this absurd romantic loop. The cosmic movement from aerial shots to the home address that Broom knows best—that “scab of green” where her brother, Rabbit, her brother, Carl, can be found sitting “poised on an ice chest,” this lone man of two names always searching and fishing for wonder—was enough to plant the seeds of my own essay collection that’s now already germinating.

I admit I am a selfish reader. I consume literature for the sustenance of my own writing. Maybe I should be more respectful of these stories and their authors and take them all on their own terms of understanding. I should lock my feet into those proverbial shoes of others not myself the way my sophomore English teacher, for the betterment of our society, dictated my class to do.

Still, I’ve always thought of total empathy as overrated. That it teaches one to care, sure, but never to build intimacy that accommodates for unknowability. At least not without bleaching nuance with bloated universal ideas. Plus I try not to befriend those who seek listeners and nothing else—not collaborators, not intellectual and cultural exchange—because I love dialogue! How awesome to witness Sigrid Nunez match the genius of The Friend with What Are You Going Through? Thank god Nunez granted her narrator the freedom of generous interiority, emotional responses, visceral thinking. Pretty sadistic if the narrator were forced to comfort a dying, suicidal friend with her inner voice gagged and duct-taped into silence.

Fuck, what the hell do I know? I’ve been on page 130 for months. Of course—I hate to say—that didn’t stop me from praising this novel to everyone I could.

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A Year in Reading: Martha Anne Toll


Pandemic, Uprisings, Election. 300,000 senseless deaths and
untold senseless misery, Black America demanding to be heard and honored, The
Election. I got COVID, was sick for a couple of months, recovered, and leaned
into audiobooks—blessedly available from our shuttered libraries—as I tried to
regain stamina. In 2020, as in all other years, books were tonic and balm,
escape, and lifeblood. I tend to group them in categories, even as categories
are both useless and limiting.

OBITUARY READS. I find gems reading writers’ obits, which I see as carrying on their legacy rather than a morbid fascination with death. A standout this year was Tunisian-French-Jewish-Arab writer Albert Memmi, who died at age 99. His autobiographical novel The Pillar of Salt (translated by Edouard Roditi) is a rich mélange of growing up poor and Jewish in the heart of a thriving polyglot city, the smells and tastes of Tunisian cooking, a young man’s thirst for education, and an interrogation of colonial oppression. I read my first Harold Bloom (I’d been avoiding him for years)—Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine—a fascinating exploration of cultural appropriation (Christianity appropriating Judaism). And while these do not qualify as Obit Reads, I’ll lump them here: The House of Childhood by Marie Luise Kaschnitz (translated by Anni Whissen), a weird and wonderful dreamlike visit to childhood, and Animal Farm by George Orwell (uncomfortably prescient).

GRIEF. This year, there was plenty to go around. I loved Grief’s Country: A Memoir in Pieces by Gail Griffin, a blunt and searing look at widowhood; Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, a deeply humanitarian approach to treating trauma through identifying how the body holds it; The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir by Sara Seager, a renowned astrophysicist who weaves her journey to find life in the outer reaches of the universe with her trail through marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and beyond.

MUSIC. I caught up with Stanley Crouch’s gorgeously written Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. I loved the short, insightful essays in concert pianist Stephen Hough’s Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More, and the shimmering writing in Wolf Wondratschek’s Self Portrait with Russian Piano (translated by Marshall Yarbrough). I was curious to learn about iconic twentieth century pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s young male lover in Lea Singer’s novel The Piano Student (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer) and I luxuriated in the beauty of Philip Kennicott’s Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning.

MEMOIR. I found Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers an elegantly composed, intense and important memoir about child sexual abuse, growing up Filipino in America, and so much more. I was struck by the craft and power in Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, fragmented essays about injured family and love relationships and the strains of stereotype and career. Written in fast paced, accessible prose, Sopan Deb’s Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me is a world-spanning effort to understand the parents he couldn’t know as a child. I adored poet Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, a heartrending revisiting of her mother’s murder; essayist Paul Lisicky’s Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, a loving and eloquent look back at the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and poet Mark Doty’s What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, a gorgeously written memoir organized around Doty’s lifelong adoration of America’s troubadour.

NONFICTION. I was riveted by Karen Armstrong’s deep dive into the development, role, and meaning of scriptural interpretation across the world’s major religions in The Lost Art of Scripture, and astounded by the complex communications amongst trees explored in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World (translated by Jane Billinghurst). Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures is a gripping, turn-your-world-upside-down-and-inside-out examination of some of earth’s smallest life forms. As a scientific neophyte, I appreciated Neil deGrasse Tyson’s clear explanations in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. And Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, a must-read for we white people grappling with our own racism.

NOVELS [mostly]. There are too many to do justice here, but here are some I found memorable: André Aciman’s beautifully written Call Me by Your Name (gay coming of age story, movie about same) and Mitchell James Kaplan’s Into the Unbounded Night (a sweeping and absorbing investigation into early Roman Christianity as it split off from Judaism). Donna Miscolta’s linked short story collection, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, manages to be both light and serious in its treatment of a young Mexican immigrant facing prejudice that threatens her dreams. I was totally taken in by Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (critical insights into the pain surrounding the act of passing); and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (in lovely prose, a scientist probes race and drug addiction and the meaning of family). Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a marvelous celebration of Black womanhood and love; Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown is a brilliantly structured takedown of Chinese stereotypes, Andrew Krivak’s stark and stunning The Bear follows the last girl on earth; Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence is My Mother Tongue covers life in an East African refugee camp, replete with societal taboos, sibling bonds, and the mysteries of language and silence. I listened to Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels which he reads in laugh-out-loud-while-you-cry astonishing family storytelling that I hated to finish. My introduction to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula were also through listening. In an incredibly generous gift to her readers, Morrison narrates these novels herself. I hope I can hold onto the sound of her voice forever. And finally, I read George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss for the first time. The drama! The agony! The misogyny! The biting social commentary! The pathos! Maybe I needed to wait this long to begin my love affair with her. I’m already infatuated with Daniel Deronda and I’ve only just begun.

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