A Year in Reading the Backlist: Larissa Pham

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In January, I started an MFA in fiction. The idea was that I would learn how to write a novel, which I have been trying to do for some time and am still attempting. Happily, as a result, I’ve been forced to read widely and voraciously—and with an eye toward craft, structure, and form. It’s been a pleasure to read not as a critic, but as a student, trying to see how something so seamless as a book is made. Lately, I’ve tried to read books published more than five years ago, and this year, I found a lot of pleasure in dwelling in the backlist—though I made time for a few new books. Here are some titles out of the 50 (!) I read this year which I particularly enjoyed, with an especial shoutout to the Libby app, without which I would not have survived these pandemic times.

I began the year with Luster, or rather, still feeling the effects of having read Luster at the very end of 2020, which is why I feel I’m still allowed to place it on my 2021 list. I didn’t love the book the way I thought I might—in fact, at first, I didn’t like it at all—but as more time passed after reading, I realized I couldn’t stop thinking about it. My mind returns to it at strange moments; I’ve learned that some of the best books are the ones that linger.

I properly kicked off the year with a reread of Min Jin Lee’s historical epic Pachinko. Even though I knew everything that was going to happen, it wrenched at me; on a re-read, I marveled at Lee’s dramatic pacing and the perils she puts her characters through. Few other novels have seemed to so accurately capture, with both historical sweep and granular detail, the effects of inherited and colonial trauma. Pachinko was followed by The Book of Salt by Monique Truong. One of the books I’m working on is partially set in Vietnam during the ’50s and ’60s. Though Truong’s novel takes place in the Paris of the ’20s and ’30s, I was curious to know about the lives of colonial-era Vietnamese people, and I wanted to see how other writers of historical fiction had handled their material. Truong’s text is a portrait of a man, Binh, a cook working in the house of Gertrude Stein. Though his story is so steeped in the circumstances of history, his narrative is written with such beauty and delicacy that it has the freshness of present life.

Everyone ought to read Alice Munro at least once, preferably in adulthood—this year, I read Dear Life, particularly for its semi-autobiographical stories, which appear in a section at the end of the collection. Munro does this incredible thing with time, where a story begins in one span, events happen briskly, and then, near the end of the story, in the last few pages, the narrative turns on its ear, and a whole, huge arc of time is opened—enough to reveal, or change, a life. Soon after, I read Beloved. Somehow I had gone my whole life without encountering it, and though I’m sad to have read it so late, I was floored by Morrison’s use of poetry and imagery—the scene where Paul D flees north, marked by the blooming of flowers, will stay with me for a long time. And though it’s zeitgeisty, I didn’t realize a movie was coming out later this year—I haven’t seen it yet—I managed to find an old copy of Passing by Nella Larsen, and was surprised by how contemporary it felt. That it resonates with audiences in 2021 makes perfect sense.

Then I descended into what I think of as my autofiction phase. There was The Lover, set in colonial-era Vietnam, which I finally picked up after years of people insisting I read it—and I don’t know why I waited so long, it’s divine—and then, in quick succession, all the Annie Ernaux I could find. A Girl’s Story, Simple Passion, The Years. I was interested in what both authors do with point of view—how the self can be written from within and without.

My first term instructor at Bennington, the poet and novelist Monica Ferrell, recommended How to Breathe Underwater, a collection of short stories by Julie Orringer, which I loved. The stories are so tightly crafted, and yet so awake to alive details, that they work perfectly. In keeping with the underwater theme, I read The Seas because my friend Hannah was reading it too—did everyone read The Seas this summer?—and devoured it. 

While on break for a month (around this time, my book also came out!), I had a moment to read two new books, Second Place by Rachel Cusk and To Write as if Already Dead by Kate Zambreno. I have a tendency to read by author, and had both Cusk and Zambreno deep-dives in 2020. Zambreno’s latest was fantastic, as always, and I was baffled by most of Second Place (The exclamation points! Who the hell is Jeffers!) until about the last 50 pages, when it blew my mind so thoroughly that I had to text everyone I knew telling them Rachel Cusk is a genius. 

And then, somehow, it was June. Louise Erdrich’s The Round House cracked my writing life open. Something about not setting dialogue in quotations, letting the characters narrate for themselves—and the themes of justice and revenge that she explores feel so relevant today. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea—I’ve been interested in post-colonial literature, probably for obvious reasons—was so frank and so devastatingly good that I had to read it again the moment I finished it. As an antidote to Rhys, or perhaps as good medicine, I also read At the Bottom of the River, a slim, absolutely bewitching collection of short stories—maybe even prose poems—by Jamaica Kincaid. They convinced me that a story can travel on the power and pulse of a narrator’s voice alone.

Perhaps the book that changed my writing life the most was To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I had tried for many years to appreciate the Modernists, not quite getting it, and then, somehow, through a mix of structure, experimentation, and enchanting metaphor, Woolf opened the door. I use open a lot to describe how reading affects my writing—it doesn’t create new material as much as it makes new paths for my mind to explore. With new possibilities in hand, I can return to my work with a fresh heart and lifted spirits. The very Woolfian portraits in Beautiful World, Where Are You may have had something to do with this, and my friend Michelle Taylor’s writing on the Modernists, particularly Hope Mirrlees, certainly did.

Two more 2021 books—I reviewed Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So for The Nation, and was so honored to have a chance to write about a Cambodian-American writer whose work revels in character and dialogue, though I’m sorely gutted by our (and literature’s) loss. On a trip to Iowa, I had just finished an e-book of Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette, one of my favorite debuts this year, when we were driving from Grinnell to Iowa City and we were met with a vision of low, blinking red lights, all in unison, all the same height, as far as the eye could see. It’s a scene mirrored in Luchette’s novel: they’re the red lights of a wind farm, the windmills impossibly tall, the distance between them impossibly vast.

This year, I learned to appreciate short books—books that are lean, each moment accounted for. I picked up a copy of Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, on the strength of its cover alone; it’s one of the best things I’ve read this year, though I might be biased as I’ve lately been interested in Bronze Age history (though, it seems, re: Rooney, who hasn’t?). That was followed by Summerwater, also by Sarah Moss, which takes place in one day, though I found Ghost Wall’s spooky mysticism to be more enchanting.  

You’ll notice that this list is mostly fiction—I try to read essays and memoir when as I can, but usually what I encounter in my daily browsing (and procrastinating) is stand-alone pieces. I was lucky enough to get to read Kat Chow’s beautiful memoir Seeing Ghosts, in anticipation of a conversation we had together for her launch events. And I am closing the year with Thin Places by Jordan Kisner, an essay collection that is the most marvelous of its kind, incisive observation and reporting threaded together with insight.

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A Year in Reading: Kyle Winkler

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Welcome to the Year of Horror. No, friends and
neighbors, I’m not talking the pandemical matter. I’m talking about the genre
of horror.

According to my notes, here are some of the standout books of the year. The first book I finished was Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. Turns out, it was the best horror book to start the winter with—it’s cold, unforgiving, paranoiac, and manic. Jones blends the Indigenous experience on the reservation with dark-ass horror tropes. I would venture to say that Jones is the inheritor of Pynchon’s free indirect third person narrative voice. Jones isn’t Tex Avery-zany like Good Ole Pynch, but he’s well-attuned to popular culture the same way. So what you get is a voice-y, kinetic, knowing narrator mentioning music, food, and Wal-Mart-esque purchases, guiding you through the history of five friends’ botched takedown of an elk. The novel is also unusual in that it takes formal risks, too. I shan’t spoil much, but to say that around page 100, the business turns fuliginous. There was a reason this topped so many lists this year.

Then I read a hard-to-find novel by one of my Top Three Authors—Barbara Comyns. Comyns is known primarily for her NYRB reissues like The Vet’s Daughter, The Juniper Tree, or Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (all of which are excellent and worth buying immediately). But the one I got my hands on through interlibrary loan (a much-neglected resource) was The Skin Chairs. And that title’s not a metaphor, y’all. Apparently on Jan. 22, I tweeted: “So the good news is that Comyns’s THE SKIN CHAIRS is delightful and oppressive at the same time. It’s like uplifting mildew.” Plot is worthless here. The aims are the character interactions and just reading Comyns’s mind coruscate with deleterious wit. But here’s the best one I could find: “When her father dies, ten-year-old Frances, her mother and siblings are taken under the wing of their horsey relations, led by the formidable Aunt Lawrence. Living in patronised poverty isn’t fun, but Frances makes friends with Mrs Alexander, who has a collection of monkeys and a yellow motorcar.” A copy of this out of print novel is worth hunting down for passages like the following:

The hospital was nearly two miles away and I ran most of the way and arrived there breathless and untidy, which did not make a good impression when I rushed into the hall demanding to see Jane. A calming-down sort of woman pushed me down on a shiny bench and told me to wait. Sitting opposite to me were two people who appeared as if they were growing there: one an old man with a deep slimy cough, and the other a bearded woman. They did not appeal to me at all; I was particularly put off by the bearded woman, in case the beard was catching.

All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook is a farrago of a book. It’s a collection of highly charged essays. But I won’t even bother with what it purports to be, but just describe what it felt like to me as I read it. A bangarang death tour of the Kentish seaside, visiting has-been actors, ghostly sightings, and ever implied sex-trade. The book is a blister. It’s fun to touch, mess with, and you eventually want to see it explode. But when it does, it’s more of a mess than you expected, hurts, and takes a while to heal. Whether or not you want to read it will depend on your relationship to pain.

Next was a one-two punch of novels that I would call the best two reads of the year from two of my favorite presses (Grindhouse and Apocalypse Party, respectively). First, True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik. I’ve never had such a short book slice a pouch in my skin and crawl inside and use it as a corrupt hideaway. But this book is brutal where it should be gentle, delicate where you’d expect it to be gross, and intelligent in all the places that are barely covered in clothing. It’s a dark horror novella built on the vicious murder spree of a brother and sister, but that should not dissuade you from falling in love with the main characters anyway. Negative Space by B.R. Yeager broke my brain. My favorite book of the year, but I’m speechless/wordless when it comes to how to discuss it. All I can say is that: teenagers have rituals that are unanchored and when acted out enthusiastically will kill the world. I recently read that piety without identity equals nihilism. That about sums it up.

I taught a course on science fiction in the spring, so we read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. This book is one of my favorites. It has some of her best lines (the opening about the wall), some of her best characters (Shevek is sweetly cold but passionate), her best set pieces (when the boys on the anarchist moon of Anarres learn what a prison is and then recreate it for play). And every time I read it, I take a different tack on who’s got the right idea. It’s not simplistic; it’s metamorphic. Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents is, perhaps, the best duology ever written. They’re more properly considered socio-economic thrillers. Butler got more right in these two novels about where America was heading in the next quarter century than any political philosopher of the past 100 years. If there was any novel I felt cheated out of, it’s the third book in what was meant to be a trilogy here. And yet, the two books still give a realistic and brutal portrait of a world myopically walking right into Christian nationalism, fascism, and desperate strongman-hood. Sickening but believable. Read it.

The following two may not seem horrific, but they are. Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is what I call “nightmare fiction.” It’s a person in a situation that on the outside (the reader) is obviously unjust. But everyone around them in the story allows them to suffer unjust guilt. The novel is about women’s prisons, incarceration, and the way any notion of rehabilitation is absolute bullshit. If Foucault was ever right about anything it’s that we live in a disciplinary society. Those who may break the law will never be truly rid of the stain of their crimes, prison or no. Whereas Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is the absolute opposite of this. Prison is the body mangled in war. Joe Bonham is blown apart in World War I and stuck in a hospital room where he has to deal with the reality of his own consciousness. His entire world shrinks down to the memories he has or the sensorium of his torso. No eyes, no ears, no tongue, no nose. He eventually communicates with a nurse by Morse code by banging his head against the pillow. How David Lynch never made this into a movie, I’ll never know. But the book is devastating for its anti-war message, its empathy, its raw, hateful hope, and the lack of commas.

P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout had a scene in it where the main characters traverse a metaphysical crack in space to a place where hateful entities (which are actually KKK members in this universe) make up a kind of evil Voltron. It was the most creative scene I’d read in a long time. Since I released my own cosmic horror novella this past April, I was highly (paranoiacally) aware of this cosmically clever novella. This book pairs well with Lovecraft Country.

The Wingspan of Severed Hands by Joanna Koch is another novella that I was hyper-aware of while reading it because the style is so rhetorically refined and aggressively poetic. (As are most of the books released by Weirdpunk Books.) And then there was the amazing pile of indie horror authors that I’ve made connections with online. Gird yourself for a litany. All of these are great examples of why horror is doing its best work outside the confines of the culture industry’s trope templates. A long, but by no means comprehensive list would include: A Mouth Full of Ashes by Briana Morgan, The Potted Plant by Thomas Gloom, I Hear the Clattering of the Keys by Jamie Stewart, The Bell Chime by Mona Kabbani, Smolder by Michael R. Goodwin, The House on Harlan by Mike Salt, The Miracle Sin by Marcus Hawke, The Fear by Spencer Hamilton, and Take Your Turn, Teddy by Haley Newlin.

I am finishing the year in my first climb up the sewer clown mountain with Stephen King’s IT. What impressed me about this “Moby-Dick of horror” (such a shitty comparison, really) is that King (even at his Reagan-era height of suburban-reader fame) dared not to deliver the usual goods. I would suggest that there’s not much in the King canon that rivals the sweetness and love between big brother Bill and little brother George Denbrough in the first chapter of the book. He foreshadows his recent dip into crime fiction with the Adrian Mellon sections that take the form of the police blotter style. And, in the sections that I found most terrifying, Mike Hanlon’s diary entries record his visits with old time Mainers wherein we intuit the presence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown somewhere in the past, pulling the strings. Yes, terror, gore, and the horror of hatred are woven throughout this novel. But right when you think that the story has flagged or King has spent his gas, another set piece will blow you away. (Junkyard leech attack anyone?) Point being: the imagination is limitless. And some writers plug into that constant image feed with ease. Others, not so much. But the horror waxes and wanes, and the imagination isn’t going anywhere. That is, not until we (eventually, painfully) do.

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A Year in Reading: Carolyn Quimby

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When the world began falling apart, I decided to apply for grad school. I had been hemming and hawing for years about what to go back for. A PhD in English Lit? No for various (though mainly) job-related reasons. An MFA in creative nonfiction? Uh…maybe later. An MLIS? Yes then no; yes then no. I knew I wanted to go back eventually, but I talked myself in circles for years. Then 2020 happened.

I started my MLIS program this summer. My first class involved learning the basics of coding. I read about HTML, CSS, Javascript, MySQL, FTPs, VPNs, and a whole host of other acronyms. It was a far cry from the literary fiction I tend to read—though I found myself enjoying coding more than I thought I would. I felt nostalgia for the baby coding I would do on my secret Xanga as a pre-teen. This fall I’m taking a class all about human information behavior, which requires me to read anywhere from 60 to 120 pages of theory per week. While the class is super interesting, it’s a huge reason why I can’t find the proper brain space for novels. The other reason is that my brain (and attention span) seems to be irreparably broken from the onslaught of the last couple of years, but I digress. My program has been great so far but I’d be lying if I wasn’t looking forward to my breaks during which I plan to inhale as many books as possible.

While I read less for pleasure than ever before, I wasn’t always distracted and the reading wasn’t always bad. I read and reviewed Jo Ann Beard’s Festival Days, and I was reminded why she’s one of the greatest writers working today. As spring bloomed around me, I made my way through Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which was beautifully written and totally engrossing. On the eve of my 30th birthday, I devoured Lily King’s Writers & Lovers and I felt so seen. As 2021 comes to a close, I’m slowly making my way through a few books: Sequoia Nagamatsu’s forthcoming novel, How High We Go in the Dark; Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House; and Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot.

I also leaned heavily on audiobooks this year to squeeze in reading whenever I could. In no particular order, here are some books I listened to and enjoyed this year: Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close; Hilarie Burton’s The Rural Diaries; Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and Sutton Foster’s Hooked. They kept me company as I took my daily walks, ran errands, cleaned the apartment, and took long post-vaccine road trips to visit friends and family. While I can’t listen to all kinds of books (i.e., literary fiction or anything heavily plotted are no gos), I am grateful for audiobooks and their ever-increasing presence in my reading life.

In many ways, 2021 seemed just as strange and unmoored as 2020. Of course, I wish I had read more—though that’s the case even during my most prolific reading years. There’s simply never enough time to read everything we want. In 2022, I vow to put down the books I’m not enjoying and make my way through the unread books I already own. If the last two years have shown us anything, there’s no guarantees or certainty in life, so read the book or don’t; apply to grad school or don’t; take the road trip or don’t. And when all else fails, try an audiobook.

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A Year in Reading: Jennifer S. Cheng

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The facts of motherhood, along with the pandemic, have made reading not only a rarer pleasure but a balm for times of graceless dissonance. There is a reason why my artist-mother-pandemic-support group regularly shares textual fragments and book recommendations—older and newer—to such an extent that our biweekly in-person gatherings have become a kind of book club. We share them the way we do precarious home spaces, bowls of miso broth, mushroom rice, spontaneous gifts of kaga plum jam and embroidery thread: with incredible care and tenderness, owing to the sparing nature of joy and togetherness in these years. This list, then, culled to 10 entries, is a history of care and tenderness these past several months. It traces a web of connections against the distances of the moment. I assemble this list especially for Vivian, Mia, and Heidi.

1. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: a place to begin, though most of my reading of this book happened in 2020. I am still making my way through the final chapters, sleepily, sporadically, hoping, perhaps, to make its pages last through the entirety of the pandemic—a through-line that I can wrap around me like a blanket. I have such gratitude for the profound listening and being within these pages, ear to earth, which, at the beginning of our world-wide calamity, helped to locate me inside an ethos of tending, attending, and care.

2. Poetics of Relation by Édouard Glissant: this one, a private return, a re-reading, on which I pin a series of orbitals. The epigraph from Derek Walcott reads “Sea is History.”Later, in the section “Repetitions”: “This flood of convergences… When you awaken an observation, a certainty, a hope, they are already struggling somewhere, elsewhere, in another form. Repetition, moreover, is an acknowledged form of consciousness…” And here, from my favorite essay, “For Opacity”: “Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity… Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components. For the time being, perhaps, give up this old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures.” In my notes I have written down a list of words and phrases: multiplicity, diffracts, decentered, open sea, unknown, fluidity, relation, accumulation of sediments, poetics as epistemology, trembling knowledge, archipelagic thought, errantry, traces.

3. Asemic: The Art of Writing by Peter Schwenger: to speak of convergences—in late spring, I happened upon poet Carolina Ebeid’s Instagram post about an upcoming class co-taught with artist Maia Ruth Lee. I heart-poundingly noted the words “Asemic Writing” because in the previous week I’d found myself, by way of what I call “poetic rituals,” experimenting with a kind of mark-making that resembled writing but was empty of actual meaning. Something about the language of grief. Something about language for when language is impossible. In the final assignment, Carolina and Maia asked the class to wrap and bind an object, paying attention to materials and gestures. I wrapped a scrap of textile around a tiny, speckled river stone, and around that I wrapped little sheaths of asemic mark-making I’d made, binding it all together with pieces of leftover embroidery thread as I went. To wrap something so small required all my attention and forgiveness. The process was not linear but recursive. At one point, I used my teeth.

(Asterisks: Renee Gladman’s Prose Architectures and Danielle Vogel’s Narrative and Nests, an earlier incarnation of her beautiful book Edges and Fray. Around this time I shared some of Vogel’s work with Mia, who found her way to Edges and Fray, which informed the class she was teaching, in which I was a participant… Here, we might mention weaving, a language of repeated returns. At some point, we began writing and stitching asemic letters to one another.)

4. Keeping / the window open: Interviews, statements, alarms, excursions by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, edited by Ben Lerner: or, more specifically, the excerpt from Rosmarie Waldrop’s Against Language?. My interest here was always poetry, poetics, gardening the gap, e.g. “All mystical sects know the concept of the sanctum silentium which…is…part of their cognitive method”; “anything that exists hides”; “But since the silent poem is not possible, Mallarmé has to make do with approximations.” What particularities of meaning do silence, blank space, lacunae carry in this moment?

5. Since last year, perhaps in search of grounding, rootedness, I have been particularly drawn to nonfiction on the natural environment. In the summer I read Underland by Robert Macfarlane while my partner, toddler, and I drove for uncountable hours amid a global-warming heatwave to see our families in Texas, stopping at Joshua Tree and the rocks of Arizona and Utah. It was a stressful trip for many reasons. My only tether to a state of being resembling peace was sketching the passing landscape from the car as my child slept, before it got too dark, and making detailed drawings of rocks I’d picked up on short walks in the dry heat. What I am trying to say is that my experience of reading about deep time and deep earth in Underland is inextricable from this practice of mark-making; my memories of the book will always recall streaks of charcoal pencils, dust of red rocks imprinted on my palm. Later, I would text an excerpt to the group: “In the Celtic Christian tradition, ‘thin places’ are those sites in a landscape where the borders between worlds or epochs feel at their most fragile. Such locations were, for the peregrini or wandering devouts of circa AD 500 to 1000, often to be found on westerly headlands, islands, caves, coasts and other brinks.” Someone in the group would respond with gratitude for the ways we were overlapping and touching in this thin place.

6. Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan: is a book I only just finished reading, the first in a series edited by Youmna Chlala and Ken Chen called Spatial Species. The text examines a phenomenon of aloneness. The text examines space, place, and landscape, in relation to a constellation of questions and anxieties. It brings together the spectral presence of a glacier; bewilderments of the Alaskan landscape; the artwork, writing, and scholarship of figures like Lorna Simpson, Matthew Henson, Fred Moten, Jean Toomer, Saidiya Hartman; memories of the narrator’s past relationships with women; the space of boredom; the space of relation; the space of interiority; and alongside/against/through all this, an experience and meaning of Blackness. Among the passages I marked and starred: “When I paint the walls, the change in space says something to the idea of an hour. Or, what I wanted to say was that this has never been a book about glaciers so much as its about landscape, which can be an internal experience Black women who have been called ‘strange’ by their sisters have had collectively, and alone.”

7. Art and Faith by Makoto Fujimura: at the beginning of our text group in early 2020, someone shared a different book by Fujimura, who is an artist and person of faith, and almost unthinkingly, I passed the title along to my older brother simply because he had recently given up his livelihood as an engineer to become a missionary. Even in childhood, my brother and I were opposites that repelled, negotiating the world in totally divergent directions without ever meeting. Unexpectedly, the ethos that Fujimura brings to both art and faith has become a kind of bridge between us. In Art and Faith, Fujimura proposes a theology of art-making. Attention is a form of worship, Fujimura says. He describes how as a child, “moments of creative discovery seemed sacred to me, even if I did not fully understand them.” Furthermore: art-making is a form of knowing, rooted in intuition, feeling, and the body—by nature it is anti-capitalist. Beauty is superfluous, pleasure is superfluous, making is superfluous, Fujimura says, in the way that “God creates out of love, not necessity.” Even the story of Creation, he writes, “is more about poetic utterance of love rather than about industrial efficiency, a mechanism for being, as many Western commentators may assume.” All I have been wanting, I am realizing, is to be eternally inside the space of process, never ceding to the purview of product.

8. At some point, Vivian mentioned Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and intergenerational trauma. Mia had read it a while back. Heidi began listening to it on tape the morning I was halfway through; I kept reading until the end because it was too disorienting to put the book down. A certain liminal space can be ruptured open when one is attempting to replace the threads of a novel’s world with those of the real world. Over warm broth, the four of us talked about the book and shared stories from our own matrilineal inheritances, our own negotiations of identity and displacement. Every time I read a novel with Asian characters, I am startled by my emotions while reading. It’s not as if I weren’t emotionally immersed in books I read growing up—on the contrary—but encountering all the subtle layers of familiarity and intimacy transforms the reading experience in a way I hadn’t known.

9. Names for Light by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint: I started reading this last week. I am moved by: the shapes and sizes of its textual blocks; the naming of family history, which one might call biomythography; the page that starts “This place repeated enough times begins to sound like displaced” and ends “Displaced is where we moved to, displaced is where I grew up, displaced is where I am from.”

10. Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. I save this one for last because it has been a guiding spirit through the year. Something of its temperament makes it a soothing companion. It isn’t only her hermitic way of life—it’s also the vulnerability of the epistolary form as a way of inhabiting distances, and it’s the exquisite care with which she attends to world and word, Self and Other. The tone of her address, whether to friend or cousin or mentor, merges tenderness and boldness all at once. She is unafraid in navigating by her interior language. Death and loss perforate the epistles, along with generous reports of seasonal flora, careful gifts of pressed yarrow or geranium leaf, beautifully precise textures of daily domestic life. The letters contain sentences like “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations” and “These behaviors of the year hurt almost like music, shifting when it ease us most.” In a time when every small utterance can feel like a missive I am either sending out or catching in my hands, I am somehow consoled when Emily observes that letters contain something of the infinite “because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend… there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone.”

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A Year in Reading: Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.

The Year (More or Less) in Reading

My fairly new home of Portland threads through this note (which in editing looks more like an unintentional literary travelogue), so I’ll start my reflection on standout reads of the past year locally with Mat Johnson’s Loving Day. As with Pym, he shows his ability to write heartaching prose while casually inserting the spectral, the surreal into the everyday. And more of that everyday appears in Chris Stuck’s Give My Love to the Savages, a collection that reads like James Alan McPherson writing in this new millennium with a bit of encouragement from Johnson. But Stuck smartly and sharply makes the body and mind familiar through exposure, the full self on display in heightened inescapable ways that are hilarious and harrowing and entirely his own. I took Chuck Palahniuk’s advice to Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. You should, too.

I headed a little east toward the Oregon high desert to enjoy the hell out of Jeremy Robert Johnson’s The Loop. His earlier offering, Skullcrack City, was a batshitcrazy (okay, um, that last word didn’t redline in this doc so I must’ve reviewed it on this machine) pair of stories in one that crashed into each other in a way that might’ve birthed his latest. The Loop is a wild and frighteningly probable nightmare with an amazing teen hero named Lucy who I instantly thought of when hearing Jade share the incomparable Stephen Graham Jones’s gift of My Heart Is a Chainsaw. And though I’d already been through it twice, I wanted to write a super tight review to send off to PANK, so I took another run through his game-changing The Only Good Indians. Speaking of Indians, Oklahoma was the site of multiple iterations of Apocalypse, past, present, future, and Cherokee. Mary and the Trail of Tears by Andrea Rogers is an outstanding MG book on a brutal moment in their history that’s a necessary and wonderful read. Two thousand twenty-one NBA Finalist Brandon Hobson’s The Removed deals with dark and Darkening Land, moving over both in loving and crushing embraces, stopping along the roads at places lots of us lived in younger days and ways. Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah blew me away with its instantly encircling stories that vest you in minute one. Bonus; I finally learned how to spell “a-whole-nother.” Thanks, Kelli Jo! 

Marcie Rendon’s Cash Blackbear books Murder on the Red River and Girl Gone Missing, murder mysteries set up north, left me wanting more and I hear there’s now a third book on the way. Can’t wait. Such a smart and eminently readable series. Shane Hawk’s debut Anoka horror collection and Clifford Taylor’s spiritual Memory of Souls showcased just a taste of what Indigenous writing encompasses. 

Returning to my tour of a neo-settled unsettling south brought me to Andy Davidson’s The Boatman’s Daughter. Think Cormac McCarthy writing Ozark fan fiction. A few states east, Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me was a crushingly Florida return to form that had been just out of reach in his last couple of offerings.

I traveled back north along with Chester Himes in Cotton Comes to Harlem, classic, funny, and sharp. To keep an eye and edge on my own writing, a couple of crafty genre works were Walter Mosley’s Elements of Fiction and Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. The artsy side was satisfied by Richard Hugo’s essential The Triggering Town, which happily reminded me that sometimes words hit the page more for their sounds than their wordiness, and the logic of the music in those words can make much more sense than the logic of their textual meaning. Speaking of sorcery, I detoured on my westward way home, arriving on the Alberta prairies to read Wayne Arthurson’s novella The Red Chesterfield a couple of times; will probably make it an annual thing like Katherine Dunn’s also magical Geek Love, after I read it again next week. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to drink tea (tea!) and eat Russian wedding cookies. Under a blanket. WTF.   

That cozy feeling led me back to some classics here at home. Some of Patricia Highsmith’s sublime shorts collected in Eleven. Tillie Olsen’s extraordinary work gathered in Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works. Continuing pandemic in the U.S. urged me to reinfect with Camus’s The Plague, but after a couple dozen pages I opted to brighten things up with a reread of The Stranger. A revival of unrest and injustice in Portland led me to more Camus, so I took in The Rebel, too. 

It’s quiet now except for Crow O’Clock outside my window. Seems to get dark here around 4:30 in the afternoon. Not much else to do except read, I guess.

Thank god.

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A Year in Reading: Santiago Jose Sanchez

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I read very little this year. I was living by myself for the first time and learning that the longer you’re alone the harder it is to not be alone. When I wasn’t on my phone for six hours a day, I was stoned out of my mind and streaming every single episode of Survivor I could find online. For much of the summer and early fall, as I finished my first novel, I avoided reading altogether to protect this book from my bottomless need for comparison; it’s impossible, when you’re an immigrant, to not notice everything you’re not. But now that my novel has sold, I feel ready to take risks as I haven’t since my early 20s. I want more books, more sex, more writing, more love. There is so much more to life than protecting myself from—and I hate to say this—myself. The following are the few books that managed to draw me into the world, when all I wanted was to curl into a ball and forget I was human.

Akhil Sharma’s Family Life—January, my first book of the year. Sharma’s deceptively simple sentences and bewildering transitions were a map for huge grief at a time when my mind was with my grandmother in Colombia—bedridden for years, mostly mute—and all the stories of love and hate my mother had shared with me over the holidays.

Larry Kramer’s Faggots, which I read with my friends, Carl and Ryan, as part of our short-lived gay book club. We were trying our best to stay in touch; Carl was back in Little Rock, and Ryan in Philadelphia. I forget who picked this one, but it was so fun, so sloppy, so full of poppers and dildos and beach orgies that it was a joy to read, especially as February in Iowa City made the world white, then whiter.

My pick was Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends. The three of us followed Brontez online, and we often shared his posts in our group chat. Ping-ponging between lovers and memories of lovers, this book was a celebration of how faggots make lives out of who and what we can get our hands on. I took a selfie with the book covering my bare ass for Brontez, starting a new friendship.

Next was Peter Kispert’s debut collection, I Know You Know Who I Am. I saw so much of myself in these characters, and the calculated, often misguided, risks they took for connection.

Our fourth book and final pick was Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, a devastating story of queer womanhood in Jamaica. For several weeks, I treaded slowly through the pain these women were forced to withstand. As for Carl and Ryan, they took months to finish it, and when they finally did it was November, and I had forgotten everything but the painful image of Thandi—a teenager and artist—rubbing bleaching creams onto her skin, wrapping herself in saran wrap, and throwing a sweater on to keep her secret safe.

T. Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through was the most genius thing I ever read about art, sex, and queer community. Posting picture after picture from its passages to my social media, like they were lyrics or poems, I felt 15 again.

Then, for several months, and for no apparent reason—or for every imaginable reason—I struggled to read a complete book. Several people I knew were reading Shirly Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and so I checked a copy out from the library, adored its first 50 pages and never picked it up again, realizing that even if I was reading the same book as some acquaintances, I was still alone. I turned to Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth, which was as funny and unsettling as her debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, and though I still think of this unhinged mother and her chaotic little lovely son, I only got halfway through this book. I read a few essays from Larissa Pham’s Pop Song, about running, photography, and the color blue, which I’d seen Larissa write over the years and though I really shouldn’t be surprised by her genius—since we’ve been best friends since college—I was.

In May, I was so manic and restless that I ordered every single book by Carl Phillips through my university’s interlibrary loans. Everyone I’d known in Iowa City for the last three years was moving away, and it felt like my life was vanishing before my eyes. I would have to start again somewhere else, and after so many of these dislocations, I wasn’t afraid, exactly, as much as I was tired, and though I didn’t get through all of them, Pale Colors in a Tall Field, Silverchest, and Double Shadow, in particular, beamed a light into my life when I needed it most.

In June, as I packed my apartment into boxes and left everything ready for a swift move when I returned at the end of the summer, I read Donika Kelly’s Bestiary and The Renunciations, back to back, and sometimes aloud. They were like hot rocks, I couldn’t put them down even if they were searing my hands; I wanted more, the way some pains make us insatiable.

A sweaty room with no A/C in New York City was my home for July. I was teaching an online workshop for queer high schoolers, and I prepared for class everyday by rereading sections of Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World, the only book on craft I keep nearby. A manifesto and practical guide, this book is a reminder that craft and workshop are malleable forms we can change to better reflect how we—those othered and marginalized—tell our stories.

In Colombia, at the farm my mother bought without telling anyone, I read a galley of Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City. When his best friend gets married, Young, a gay 20-something in Seoul, preoccupies himself with his mother’s ailing health and his relationships with a series of men, shuffling between familial and erotic love. This book was hilarious and heartbreaking, bitchy and profoundly poignant—everything I wanted my own gay book about mothers and lovers to be. Meanwhile, on the farm, every other conversation with my mother was about her upcoming retirement, which, inevitably, led to a discussion of what she would do if and when her husband died first. As we mapped out her life in all its possible iterations, she kept reminding me that she never talked to my older brother about her health, even if he was the doctor, because you know how he is, and so this too, I learned, would be part of my role as her easy gay son. The weight of this obligation was lessened those days I spent with Young at his mother’s hospital bedside.

At the end of the summer, I moved an hour west of Iowa City to Grinnell where I started a fellowship. Alone in this new town, I locked myself in my empty office for hours to finish my novel. I tried reading Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, but it was impossible to get through more than a page or two before I felt compelled to write, such was the beauty of these luminous books that they made my own words feel vital. The only book I was able to finish during this time was Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red. After a stroke leaves her blind, a young Chilean writer finds herself increasingly trapped within her body and life. Her voice—wet, dark, pulsing—held me spellbound. I often paused in the middle of a page to convince myself I wasn’t losing my own vision.

When my book sold, I returned to reading. I ripped through an early copy of Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez, a masterfully plotted novel, bold, and surprising book about two siblings in Brooklyn and the revolutionary mother who abandoned them. I breezed through Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, which I was anticipating since A Separation. Every single line of this novel held the charge of an existential threat. My friend laughed because I was taking a picture of almost every page, but I knew that what I held in my hands was a masterclass on bringing characters within an inch of unraveling. The next book I picked up was Red Pill by Hari Kunzru, and I couldn’t help imagining Kunzru and Kitamura, the power couple of literary psychological thrillers, sharing pages with each other. In my head, I spun a fantasy of love and collaboration. I decided: My next lover would be a writer. And then I remembered that not so long ago, at the beginning of this year, I’d dated another writer, who was so talented, that once, when they edited a paragraph for me, I felt like an idiot for days after.

As the months got colder and I got lonelier and my therapist upped my Lexapro prescription, adding Wellbutrin for good measure, I began flirting shamelessly and idly with guys in big cities, wishing I was anywhere but where I was, and this was how I struck up a friendship with Mark Doten. He sent me a copy of Dennis Cooper’s I Wished, which he’d edited. This was my first time reading Cooper. I had heard of him over the years, but he kept getting lost in the notes I kept on my phone of books to read. In this slim, unruly book, Dennis Cooper returns to write about George Miles—the lover/man/boy/idea-of-a-person he has memorialized in five other novels. My first boyfriend, Ed, who I’d met at 13, was so much like George, that I could not stop thinking that I needed to write more about him. I had to write two, three, five books about his hunger and madness, his idiocy and pride.

In the last two weeks, I’ve started Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgard, Sisters by Daisy Johnson, A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux, and The Art of Revision by Peter Ho Davies. I’d forgotten how much I loved reading several books at once. It brings out the way writers, no matter where they are, are all speaking to each other, and reaffirms my optimistic belief that we’re never just writing for ourselves. I want to say it’s like a party then. Everyone’s invited. Here’s Annie building suspense by telling us everything about her teenage life before getting to what happened at the summer camp; there’s Peter sharing the time his father intervened in a hate crime. Everyone is telling the story of how they came to know themselves more deeply, how they did or didn’t make sense of the world, and—my personal favorite—how those stories were later revised. I’m walking across the room to Roland, saying hello; he’s just as engaging now as he was a decade ago. Like at any party, I bring whatever conversation I just had into the next. I make connections between unlikely friends. It can feel like work, but I’m not jealous of anyone, only happy they’re here, that they came. And sometimes, just for a moment, when I step back and look across the room, I feel like I understand my place in the world. I’m right where I should be. Then when I’m bored, hungry, horny, I leave. Before I go—won’t you sit next to me? Tell me whom and what you love?

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A Year in Reading: Julietta Singh

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How to Hold a Body

I spent most of this year reading through Canadian archives in pursuit of a strange new project, a search for traces of women who lived, worked, and studied in my childhood home before me. I have been trying to imagine through what logics I might say that their lives have shaped my own, what forms of ethical belonging and attachment we might invent to sustain life. I’m reaching for other women across time and text, across histories of race, class, and disability, envisioning a single brick and mortal space as a portal through which I might understand my connection and responsibility to place and people differently. 

My search has been mostly virtual because I’ve remained in a certain state of seclusion this past year, with a nine-year old unvaccinated whirlwind in my midst, trying, like all of us, to live safely together. In the face of so many tangible enclosures produced through the pandemic, my reading life this year has been attuned to affective openings, to women writers making space for each other and for other possible worlds. I’ve spent the year remembering that literature has, across my life, been a space for kinship, for breathing. 

At the turn of the new year, I lifted Dionne Brand’s No Language Is Neutral off the shelf, a collection I hadn’t read since 1999, when I was young, lost, and wanting, and did not know how to hold the heft of the world. I lit a candle, smoked a bowl, and opened that thin collection to discover these words: “this is you girl, this cut of road up/to Blanchicheuse, this every turn a piece/of blue and earth carrying on, beating, rock and/ocean this wearing away, smoothing the insides/pearl and shell and coral”… this is you girl felt like a hailing, the most intimate ecological invitation I had ever received, an aperture into queer love through which I blinked and blinked and blinked. 

In the half-cold Virginia winter, I read Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem and was felled by its everything. Grieving and revolutionary, the body here is a warrior that holds colonialism and its undoing in its bones. For all of its Indigenous love, it also asks us—through our different languages, histories, and geographies—to break down this neocolonial world and build another. I did not know Diaz when I read this book, but her words felt like sister words. Two seasons later, when she appeared one late autumn evening at my doorstep and broke me from my pandemic enclosure, she reminded me that where we discover ourselves in words is also where we ground ourselves in the world. 

In the darker months, I picked up Ada Limon’s The Carrying, which articulated so stunningly that what we do not carry also has weight, the heft of which can bend us into other shapes and configurations. I spent some time with her work after this, traveling through her collections in reverse to see how she had arrived here, to this place where my reading her made such perfect sense, where our paths became concert. I felt a deep pleasure at the late discovery that Diaz and Limon had exchanged letter poems released under the title “Envelopes of Air,” where the thickening of female friendship and the poetry of political critique are sutured spheres.  

I kept returning this year to how literature offers a sense of what you wish to have, or what you wished to have had, or what you wish for others to have. Come spring, I sat on the back porch with the greening elm tree and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, taken by how a book that so starkly details the violence inflicted on Asian American bodies manages also to portray the bonds and struggles of feminist friendship forged through art. When the book shifts into an intimate reach for the brilliant writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who was raped and murdered in Manhattan in 1982, it’s as though these two writers are stitching themselves together. An impossible reach across time, but together they tell a story that has not yet been heard about the precarity of being a minoritized woman artist, and about how we might continue to hold each other across all thresholds, including our violent deaths. 

Launched back in the classroom this autumn, I took refuge in feminist classics as I struggled with the fact of being so tangibly back in the world. Rereading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was attuned to things I hadn’t considered before, dynamics of care that hadn’t yet landed for me. I’ve always thought of Phoebe, the protagonist’s best friend, as merely the gateway into the story, the one who offers our protagonist the attention she needs to tell us her story. But this time around, I noticed how Phoebe in her “hungry listening” is fueled by the possibilities of what Janie’s adventures might open for her own life. Phoebe, who is “eager to feel and do through Janie.” Phoebe, who while listening “couldn’t help moving her feet.” Phoebe, whose body is readying itself for the stories of other lives lived, whose body holds the eagerness and promise of what those stories might make possible for herself and for us. 

Rereading Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, I was likewise struck by what Mala, a woman so violently dehumanized by the force of colonial patriarchy, continues to make possible for others. In one incredible scene, she offers her transfeminine nurse Ty a dress to wear, and when Ty dons the dress, Mala simply turns away and carries on with her business. It takes Ty a moment to realize that Mala is not failing to bear witness, but rather offering the greatest gesture of feminist friendship: the creation of space and opportunity to let others thrive. 

In mid-October, I sat by the seaside on my birthday reading Divya Victor’s Curb. At the point of contact between water and land, I held tightly to this book that is all about location, those coordinates at which minoritized lives are subjected to violence, stamped out through hatred and misrecognition. Reading by the sea, where the landscape is all smooth and swell, the curbs emerged as both weapons and thresholds, wounds and possibilities. There, we find the poetic coordinates of hate crimes, but we find also the promise of desi sisters wandering the world on “anywhere walks” and learning to fight it through their “anywhere mouths.” Always at the edge of war and friendship, Curb reminds us that in brutality we still manage to lift, salvage, hold the beautiful things, not least of which each other. 

When Natalie Diaz appeared at my door in mid-November as a stranger-friend, I wanted to show her the spectacular orange burst of maple leaves outside my window. Instead, we joked about being different kinds of Indians, indelibly linked through colonialism’s power to name and consume, until our laughter loosened with a coming familiarity. Before she left, she asked if I could show her the mangle of my foot, a once broken appendage that healed so abundantly it took on the shape of a new thing. As I peeled off my sock, she wrapped her hand around the calcified swell, her palm shelling my creature-foot. One appendage becoming flesh home to another, as if to explain: this is how to hold a body—we harbor the breaks, then build the belonging-world.

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A Year in Reading Subtitles: Rabeah Ghaffari

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In February of 2020, just one month before the pandemic reached a global pitch, totally unaware of what was coming, I took off for Merida in the Yucatan region of Mexico for what I thought would be a short visit to my mother who had been living there for some time. Unable to return after the lockdown, I ended up quarantining with her in a grand old colonial home in the historic center of town. Days, weeks, and months bled into one another, and we fell into a routine of cooking, talking, bickering, swimming, doting on the dog, driving to Costco, reading, taking walks, exercising, bickering while swimming, and talking about future meals while eating the one in front of us. When we ran out of topics to argue about, I would say things like, “Mom did you know I was born on the same day as Caligula? Thank God I don’t have any siblings, right?” To which she said, “Honey, thank God you don’t have a horse.” One day, as I walked across the interior courtyard of the house in a bikini top with shorts and a handkerchief wrapped around my head, I muttered to myself, “What if The Decameron but make it Grey Gardens?” I was thankful that we did not have any cats or horses. The world outside had faded into a fiction. Albeit a terrible one that was too real for so many who suffered the worst of it. 

By the end of 2020, it was clear that I would be living in Mexico. And thus began my odyssey of binge watching mostly Spanish language telenovelas to accelerate my language skills. This was not unlike in 1979, when just three months before the revolution in Iran, I came to America with my parents to stay for a year but never left. The chaos and terror that unfolded back there became like a fiction to me. I began my American life with television. It was how I started to learn the language, a language that would become like a first one for me and eventually lead me into a world of literature and finally writing a novel myself, about Iran, a place and language I had left behind. Twice now I had escaped the worst of a global event. It occurred to me that there is a fine line between luck and loss.   

My Mexican telenovela binge began with Rosario Tijeras. A show that at first blush is only a paltry three seasons—but each season has 70 episodes. I watched it in a month. Please don’t do the math.  It takes place in Mexico City. Rosario, a teen when the show starts, lives in a dangerous barrio with her mother and younger brother. She has an older brother, named Brandon for some reason, who doesn’t live at home.  Rosario earns her tijeras (scissors) moniker because she knows her way around some scissors. She lops off the hair of a school principal who insults her and stabs her rapist in the groin with them. She ends up in a love triangle with two rich boys, then in another one with one of the rich boys and a narcotraficante. The brutality of her environment and her fearless street smarts leads her to become a sicaria as she buries family members and seeks vengeance on those who wronged her and those she cares about. She has multiple tearful monologues to gravestones and various statues of the Virgin Mary. The grand finale has her running away from a crowd of worshippers with a statue of the Virgin Mary that had been rigged with a bomb. Rosario Tijeras is a show about all of the wars we wage: in class, in power, for vengeance, and, finally and perhaps most importantly, for love. I learned many colloquial words like chamba (work), carnal (friend or blood relative), chamaco (kid), or phrases like, no manches (really?), no manches wey (no way!), baja tus armas! (lower your weapons), or calle sus ojos! (close your eyes), which is the Spanish equivalent of the sanitized English exclamation, “shut the front door!” I was exhausted by the end of the 197th episode and its highly emotional ending. All the main characters had died. And it made perfect sense for a show whose theme song starts with the words: “An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. This is how this permanent war is lived.”  

Bereft at the loss of my Rosario Tijeras and unwilling to commit to another show with hundreds of episodes (for mental health reasons), I bravely moved onto El Dragon: Return of the Warrior. A modest two seasons with almost 40 episodes each. It tells the story of a Mexican national, Miguel Garza, who is a financier and, for some reason, a samurai warrior in Tokyo. He returns to Mexico (now a ronin) to take over the family drug cartel business when his grandfather falls ill. The samurai businessman-narcotraficante crossover concept is *chef’s kiss*. Besides the high drama of family strife, power struggles, and a budding romance after the loss of a great love, there is the story of Miguel and his childhood friend Hector who is a journalist seeking justice for the senseless murder of his sister caught in the crossfire of the drug war. Miguel believes he can legitimize the cartel business by bringing it into the world of finance (no manches?) and Hector believes he can bring about justice by exposing the corrupt power players involved in it. Everybody dies. 

After El Dragon I had some brief affairs with shorter shows like Monarca, a Salma Hayek produced drama about a tequila family empire, which I like to call Sucesión. And Ingobernable, about the first lady of Mexico accused of murdering her husband, el presidente. She goes on the run and finds unlikely allies in the underworld. It stars the reigning queen of telenovelas (and orginal Queen of the South) Kate del Castillo known Stateside as the woman who introduced Sean Penn to El Chapo. Then there was the Narcos franchise, which has the most beautiful theme song ever written for a TV show: “Tuyo” (Yours) by Rodrigo Amarante, who said he wrote the song with the idea that it was the kind of song Pablo Escobar’s mother might have listened to while raising him. Then came the sleek fair from Spain like La Casa de Papel (popular Stateside by the name Money Heist). For those who watched it dubbed, all I can say is you cowards, reading is fundamental! Also, I began to count the number of times someone yelled ja! (now!). It was a lot. I puttered around the house yelling ja! to myself. Then there was Elite, a high school drama about a murder, a promising young scholarship student, and rich children behaving badly but not as bad as their parents. I followed this with one season wonders like Toy Boy (what if Magic Mike but make it Ibiza?) and White Lines (what if Less Than Zero but make it Ibiza?). At this point I was done binging. It was time to get back to reality. 

One afternoon, my mother was driving back from running errands and asked if there was a parking space in front of my house. I peeked out the front door and saw one. She was only a few blocks away so I stood in the space waiting for her. A woman drove up to take the spot but I shook my head “no.” She rolled down her window and yelled out, “la calle no es tuya pendeja!” (The street is not yours asshole!) and I was so elated that I understood her, I smiled and said “gracias!” Suffice it to say that I’m on my way to becoming a Spanish speaker. It’s a beautiful language. It’s commanding and fraught with a colonialist past. It’s been taken and made into the image of each country that it colonized. No two Spanish speaking countries speak it the same. It is the mother tongue of almost a half billion people. I’ll probably spend the new year working with a tutor (I’m done being at the mercy of that Duolingo owl) and building up the courage to speak it badly. Mexicans are unbelievably gracious, especially when it comes to helping you out with their language. Who knows, maybe this will be the year I can actually attempt to read in Spanish. It would be thrilling to read one of my favorite books Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada in its original language. And maybe down the line I can even tackle Cien Años de Soledad. I’ve certainly ingested enough TV series that I am now writing one myself. Expats but make it Merida. And as for novel writing, I find myself looking back at life in New York City where I lived for 40 years and suddenly its crystalized into a fiction. 

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A Year in Reading: Melissa Febos

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WINTER

We moved from Brooklyn to Iowa City in mid-2020, so it was my first winter in the Midwest, and the coldest temperatures I have ever encountered (no one was more shocked than our elderly and sparsely furred Chihuahua). In the earliest part of the year, in the wake of the election, after months of running as though I were training for a nonexistent marathon and watching old episodes of Bake Off to quiet my anxiety, I went to an artist residency. It was a weird and sort of desperate thing to do in the middle of a global pandemic, in the middle of winter. After a blissful few days, my retreat was diverted by a medical crisis and I ended up with family in Boston for a a stretch of stricken weeks, unable to walk, cultivating a new relationship to pain. Pain is anathema to close reading, and so mostly, I read the closed captions on garbage movies and Reddit threads about sciatica and spinal discs. Reading was re-reading, and in the months that followed included the magnificent Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong (roundly loved by my all-writer Zoom book club), Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, Anne Boyer’s The Undying, and perennial re-reads Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, The Father by Sharon Olds, Monument by Natasha Trethewey.

SPRING

On the last day of March, I published my third book, Girlhood, and for a couple of months mostly read from that into my computer’s camera. Far-flung friends appeared through that portal and their faces filled me with a kind of aching joy. I re-read my brilliant wife’s brilliant second book, The Renunciations, which came out in May. I also managed to work in a bunch of excellent forthcoming books: Lydia Conklin’s story collection Rainbow Rainbow (out in May 2022), Jami Attenberg’s memoir (out this January) I Came All this Way to Meet You, Sasha LaPointe’s debut memoir Red Paint, Melissa Chadburn’s forthcoming debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove (out in April 2022), as well as Larissa Pham’s Pop Song, Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America, and five excellent novels: The Very Nice Box by Eve Gleichman and Laura Blackett, Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters, The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton (which felt as though it was written precisely for my pleasurable reading tastes), and Vanessa Veselka’s epic The Great Offshore Grounds.

SUMMER

I vowed to read solely for pleasure for the month of June and succeeded at that. Mostly, it was mysteries and mystery-adjacent novels, which are my go-to pleasure reading genre (my favorites over the years are compiled here), including but not limited to, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (another perennial re-read), which we listened to on audio as my then-fiancé and I drove from Iowa to Cape Cod. Once we got there, we spent weeks doing nothing but napping, eating, going for long slow walks, and getting married in a tiny elopement ceremony. Among the books that spun my limited attention like sugar: Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin; The Book of Lamps and Banners by Elizabeth Hand (the latest installment in her Cass Neary series); The Less Dead by Denise Mina; Something in the Water, Mr. Nobody, and The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman; Fierce Little Thing by Miranda Beverly-Whittmore; The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker; The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (for the umpteenth time); Bad Habits by Amy Gentry; True Story by Kate Reed Petty; The Turnout by Megan Abbott; and One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston. In July and August, slowed by the Iowa summer heat (which is less publicized but just as pronounced as its winter cold), I read The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel, Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar, Horsepower by Joy Priest, A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, Self Care by Leigh Stein, Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler, Consent by Vanessa Springora, I Hope We Choose Love by Kai Cheng Thom, The Hard Crowd by Rachel Kushner, The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy, Intimations by Zadie Smith, Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald, Excluded by Julia Serano, Toufah by Toufah Jallow, My Body by Emily Ratajkowski, The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonia Renee Taylor, and the unputdownable noir memoir Tell Me Everything by Erika Krouse (out in March). I also worked my way through copyedits of proofs of my fourth book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative (also out in March).

FALL

Fall is my favorite season because it fills me with my favorite feelings: hope, nostalgia, a kind of supercharged melancholy, gratitude. Also, it is the time of my favorite clothes: boots and jackets and sweaters. Also: show me the libra who doesn’t love autumn, doesn’t love a celebration and especially one in her honor. My second pandemic birthday was a good one, spent eating sheet cake and visiting the nearby raptor center. All of this bounty creates in me a voracious reading appetite, so, like most falls, mine was a glut that began with two massive and exquisite biographies: Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford and Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee. Both were alternately tragic and hilarious, and brimming with historical literary gossip. I also read the delectable We Do What We Do in the Dark by Michelle Hart (out in May), Mrs. March by Virginia Feito, Who Is Maud Dixon by Alexandra Andrews (I’m still sad to have finished this book), as well as Funny Weather and Everybody by Olivia Laing, Bright Archive by Sarah Minor, Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej (out in May), Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Hideout by Louisa Luna, The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, A Separation and Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, Hamnet and I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney, and Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen.

WINTER

It has been, in some ways, one of the most bountiful years of my life, and in others, the absolute loneliest. My lonelinesses have always been treated best by books. I am immensely grateful to these authors and the ones not mentioned for keeping me company with their words when I could not see so many of my beloveds, and for making the sometimes unbearable bearable.

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A Year in Reading: Obi Kaufmann

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Notes on reading as a spiritual practice: It is how I plug into something larger than myself, in a realm of pure mind where abstract squiggles of printed ink lines compose vistas and suggest resonant relations and patterns of humanity that were previously unknown to my conscious self. An experience that regularly approaches revelation. I read in a very specific way: always sitting up at a table in natural, morning light, red pen in hand. I torture my books. Dog-eared and marked up, my library is full of well-worn veterans, soggy with attention, respected, and fully wrung out of all their watery information. I savor the independent agency of the book, out in the wild where I become a hunter of sorts, on a game trail. As Carl Jung suggested, “people don’t have thoughts, thoughts have people,” and I have a relationship with this media that demands as much from me as I do of it. My library is not a collection of precious objects but of precious, thoughts-made-real. My library is not the safe-box repository for western culture. These are not sacred texts; this is digestible material that amounts to food. And so, too, does the practice require daily attention. It is a fitness that demands maintenance. I read about 10 books a month. Mostly nonfiction. I read real books. My disdain for monitors grows and the smell of paper and the gravity of the bound thing is an antidote to so much hot air that passes as narrative or composition in the farting world of social media. I read as a civic duty: at the community level, I am a strong advocate for the presence of local, independent bookstores, and on the historical level, I fear that literacy itself may exist within a bounded, temporal horizon and that by engaging the privilege of literature, we fight the encroaching darkness. 

2021 was another wonderful year of reading and I have selected a dozen of my favorite books that I thoroughly enjoyed and am sure will, if they have not done so already, quickly and by any measure, each qualify as classics. By their nature, lists imply hierarchy and that is a conceit I will have to live with, although I am unprepared to measure the quality of this list from some arbitrary best-work, number one, that then descends on some aesthetic staircase of meager opinion. This is only a survey of work that each offered me a map, in its own way, to get me out of a maze I may not have even realized I was in.

12. Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens (2010, Toronto: McCelland & Stewart Ltd.)

A man of such singular style and intellect, Christopher Hitchens was a nearly mythical force for justice as it can best be expressed through the vocation of the journalistic arts. From the philosophical to the political, this man’s telling of his own life’s story is often as funny as it is biting, as emotional as it is sobering, and as critical as it is self-aware. Hitchens was a paradox of a man, firmly rooted and cognizant of the time in which lived. His memoir is a deftly conceived portrait of the world in the framed space between the 20th and the 21st centuries with a wit that is as unique as it is universal.

11. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert (2021, New York: Crown)

One of the great science writers of our age, Elizabeth Kolbert returns to offer another truly salient bit of clear thinking designed to serve civilization in a specific way. The simple premise of the book is to lay out examples of challenges caused within and across the biosphere that are arising or that have arisen from previously applied, so-called solutions to those problems. From cascading feedback loops inside of now-collapsing ecosystems where an alien species, for example, was introduced to solve for the presence of another alien species, exacerbating the problem, to the farcical idea that through geo-engineering we might mechanically solve for climate change and sidestep the causes of the crises, Kolbert simply and keenly lays out many pressing, global problems made by people trying to solve problems and we had better take heed.

10. The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann (2018, New York: Vintage Books)

I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. By describing the ideological conflict between two scientists who you have never heard of but were keenly important to shaping how we think about environmental issues today, Charles Mann presents a juicy story full of 20th-century intrigue and even suspense. By presenting historical context for the idea of techno-fixes (the so-called wizarding thought of the book’s title) as opposed to precautionary doom-saying (wizarding’s prophesying counterview), we deliberate between what the author calls the hard path and the soft path. These two ethical postures towards ecological well-being and humanity’s responsibility to it are direly important to not only consider but to get right, and with more than a century of data that is here well presented, we may be armed with the necessary tools to do so.

09. We are the Land: A History of Native California by Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr. (2021, Oakland: University of California Press)

Recognizing and reckoning with the two truths of California’s modern day indigenous sovereignties is key to not only realizing racial justice but environmental justice in the 21st century. Those two truths are 1) that a genocide did happen here, and 2) it was unsuccessful as the vital world of native Californian culture and community is still alive and very much present and deserves maximum representation. Akins and Bauer present a new, unflinching and yet powerfully sensitive account of the past 500 years of colonial violence that concludes with a moving testament of self-determination and revitalization. 

08. 1984 by George Orwell (originally 1949 by Harcourt Inc., 160th printing of the mass-market edition, 2021, New York: Signet Classics)

I was never assigned this book in school and I am glad that now, approaching 50 years old, I have scoured it for the very first time. The adjective Orwellian is thrown around and so often, I suspect, that those who use the word, don’t really understand it. More so even than the unparalleled insight into the nature of authoritarian control, I found a story full of rich symbolism, lovingly crafted prose, and delicate observations. In truth, we all carry around Big Brother in our hearts, and dystopia is a perspective on reality more than it is anything objectively real. Perhaps the biggest insight of Orwellian thought is that the road to avoiding such a reality is laid out in a symbolic reality that is actually a well-trod path, full of recognizable patterns, warnings that exist outside of any specific history. 

07. Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is by Gretel Ehrlich (2021, New York: Pantheon Books)

Unsolaced is not a word. It is better than a word. Gretel Ehrlich crafts languages as a metalsmith molds raw ingots of ore toward her personal utility. In this, her 14th book, the veteran writer of the West seems to revisit all of her previous work to present a shining diamond of semi-autobiographic, always-poetic wonder, as open as the Montana range that is her first love. This book is a cup of black coffee followed by shot of bourbon. It’ll keep you up all night with its strange song that is peaceful and expansive, but also always unsettled and searching.

06. Foraged Flora: A Year of Gathering and Arranging Wild Plants and Flowers by Louesa Roebuck and Sarah Lonsdale (2016, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press)

This is not an art book like any other. This is not a coffee table book like any other. There is a universe of beauty laid out here that amounts to something new and ancient, full of love and life (but also of death), that is comfortable to sit with and do nothing, and yet reminds me of everything. It is Zen but it is rooted in the world of form and growth, reveling in both. It is fine with its contradictions. It thrives there, dynamic and at times angry. This is not a book about flower decoration, this is a book about love, and it can hurt and it can make all things bare their truth. This is a book about witnessing reality and forcing one’s self to be okay with what happens next.   

05. Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation\ by Paul Hawken (2021, New York: Penguin Books)

I’ve read a lot of Paul Hawken and this book is what all the others have been leading up to. If there was one book published this year that should be taught in all the schools and free copies of which should be mailed to every house like the phone book used to be, this is it. It is all laid out here. It is the IPCC report with actionable line-items like a bill of goods, or a recipe for the very best kind of cake—a cake that can protect the world from itself. Reading it is to rejoice in the unity of knowledge and to realize that to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Studying this book is studying the human mind’s collective ability for pattern recognition and problem solving. These are our greatest evolutionarily endowed gifts that together have the potential to transform any challenge, regardless of scale into an opportunity.

04. On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein (2019, New York: Simon & Schuster)

I have so many friends who are wearing themselves out, riddled with climate anxiety. Oh, who am I kidding? I regularly do that to myself. One respite that I take is turning to qualified, experienced, and expert journalists who I trust to tell me how it is and, more importantly, how it came to be. Naomi Klein may be the world’s greatest climate journalist, and this book does more than what its title claims. The Green New Deal is more that a political blink that happened a couple of years ago, it is a deep groundswell that will be rebranded and reincarnated again and is already, in so many ways, being enacted now, simply because our choices are running thin. From the front lines of standing witness to the crisis, Klein is careful to offer a prescription of self-care, so that we, our individual selves, might survive our own, private climate revolution.

03. Deep Hanging Out: Wanderings and Wonderment in Native California by Malcolm Margolin (2021, Berkeley: Heyday)

I first read the The Ohlone Way, Malcolm Margolin’s classic account of indigenous, human culture around the San Francisco Bay Area, when I was a teenager and it sent me on a life trajectory, orienting me in a manner that I maintain to this day, so many decades later. This book, in many ways, is a follow up to that classic that was first published nearly 50 years ago. The collection of writings includes many personal reflections to that original work and upgrades the author’s own thinking toward native California culture in a contemporary context. There is a soft prescience at work here, hidden in the plain writing and the straightforward and calm presentation, about an arc of justice that emerges with fair representation.   

02. The Green New Deal: Why the Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth by Jeremy Rikfin (2020, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin)

Often subtitles for books are written by the publisher and the authors rarely get a say in them, and I wonder if that is the case here. This book is not about the collapse of our civilization but a calm and metered, economic analysis of market forces that are already being brought to bare on what Rifkin calls the third, Industrial revolution, which is built on big data informing a new logistics-based infrastructure, an energy internet of sustainably acquired and distributed electric power, and a communications revolution. This book is a must read, full of sound principles, clearly laid out and time tested, spiked with a good dose of common sense.  I would’ve titled the book “An Internet of Things: The Economic Reality of the Twenty-First Century and the Inevitable Emergence of a New and Sustainable Industrial Revolution.”

01. The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, Selected and with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth (2017, Berkeley: Counterpoint)

Wendell Berry is on my very short list of the world’s most important thinkers and the sole occupant in a subsection of genius vocations called Agrarian Philosophy. What does it mean to tend the land with great skill? What does it mean to solve for pattern when faced with an ecological challenge? What does a reciprocal relationship with nature mean, and how can that relationship reinforce nature’s own proclivity towards regeneration and abundance? As Wendell Berry plainly lays out in approachable (and apparently written sans computer, in pencil drafted) essay after essay, the answer to these questions and many others is clear: everything.   

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005