A Year in Reading: Anthony Veasna So

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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.

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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

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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.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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

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

A Year in Reading: Martha Anne Toll

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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.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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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

A Year in Reading: Mamta Chaudhry

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Coronavirus has changed our lives in many ways and it has surely transformed our notion of time, as hours and days blend into each other like the melting timepieces in Dalí’s famous painting, intriguingly titled The Persistence of Memory. Both time and memory are central to my novel, Haunting Paris, where the ghost narrator measures time by a spectral clock, an unearthly calendar, and since we tend to read through the prism of our own preoccupations (okay, obsessions), that inevitably colored much of my reading and re-reading this year.

Naturally I turned once more to Marcel Proust’s iconic work on time and memory, and though I usually pick up the first volume, Swann’s Way, this time I began with the last, Time Regained. It’s interesting how the two different translations of the title—In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past—emphasize time in the first instance, and memory in the second. I’ll confess I prefer the second: though not strictly literal, it is sublimely literary, a phrase from a Shakespeare sonnet that I love. And also it signals the ways in which we restore what is lost to time’s depredations, through the associative nature of memory, whether a madeleine dipped in tea, or stumbling on uneven paving stones. At a time when I’m housebound and only my imagination is free to roam, it is head-spinning to read the phrase, “if our life is vagabond our memory is sedentary” and wonder if in our ceaseless rush forward, these are days, too, that will be indelibly etched in our minds.

The Plague by Albert Camus was sold out and on backorder at my local bookstore. When I finally got my copy, I read it in a very different frame of mind from readings past, when a plague of sorts was only theoretical. It clearly resonates with our present situation:  the initial bafflement, official inaction, fearful acceptance, but also a recognition of being cut off not just from the rest of the world, but from a feeling of normalcy in our own lives. The plague brought in its wake to the city of Oran “that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.” As Camus describes people longing for the doorbell to ring, for someone to arrive on a train, waiting itself becomes the central action when all comings and goings are curtailed or forbidden.

Although travel is out of the question for the foreseeable future, with my trips to India and France canceled I’ve found myself transported there by books. Two novels set in India gave me a different perspective on the land of my birth, one set in a small fishing village in the coastal south (Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi), a part of India less familiar to me; the other in the teeming city of Calcutta where I was born and brought up (A Burning by Megha Majumdar). The former is a story about family secrets and the long shadow they cast on the present, the latter about how increasingly nationalistic political and social forces can destroy an innocent person caught up in a web of circumstance. Amazing how foreign a familiar place can seem.

It’s equally amazing how a foreign country can sometimes feel like home when you have wonderful writers as traveling companions. I’ve long admired her short stories, but I read the novel Green Water, Green Sky by Mavis Gallant for the first time this year (published along with A Fairly Good Time), and it was a wonderful find, a story of an American mother and daughter in Europe and the complicated notions of family whether at home or abroad. As for Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling, if you haven’t yet come across this laugh-out-loud book about food and the French in 1920’s Paris by the legendary writer for The New Yorker, then you’re in for a literary and culinary feast. Every time I read it, I think, c’est délicieux!

Doomscrolling the news left me little time or mental energy to focus on my own writing, but books about books and writers remain catnip to me. My reading list skews more heavily to fiction than non-fiction, but The Library Book by Susan Orlean, about a devastating fire in the Los Angeles public library, reads like fiction, part history, part mystery, but in any case a page-turner, large in sweep and scope. On a smaller scale, an old favorite, Look at Me by Anita Brookner, is also set in a library, and features a librarian whose keen ear and satiric eye turn her into a writer. And I really loved the travails of The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, in which the protagonist is stuck and cannot finish the introduction to an anthology of poetry. I know the feeling.

One thing 2020 emphatically was not: My Year of Rest and Relaxation, as Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel is titled.  It’s been more like my year of unrest and vexation, so I’ve looked for comfort wherever I could: in a well-worn garment, faded and soft, or in binge-watching the Great British Bake-Off even though I’ve never mixed a batch of cake batter, or in reaching for books that calm my soul. I have always found balm in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. With the arrival of Jack, the Gilead trilogy is now a quartet. We already know from the earlier books how the story ends, yet the love story of Jack and Della, revealed mostly through their long, intimate conversations, is compellingly spotlighted, even though as an interracial couple their love is exiled to the shadows. Jack, who refers to himself as the Prince of Darkness, feels he deserves no forgiveness for his scapegrace past; a minister tells him that punishment is in God’s hands, but if He is “showing you a little grace in the meantime, He probably won’t mind if you enjoy it.” This note of grace, characteristic of Marilynne Robinson, is a welcome reminder that now that the longest night of this year is behind us, we can look towards the light.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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

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

A Year in Reading: Davey Davis

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As trans writers, we are expected to reduce our lives to narratives (“born in the wrong body,”) and practices (gratuitous deadnaming) that maximize cis titillation. This expectation hamstrings all of us, not only cliche-ifying even the best of memoir but precluding other forms of storytelling. If the world had its way, trans writers would only produce journeys, and two of the most interesting books I read in 2020 wouldn’t exist. 

Indie heroine Torrey Peters sidesteps rather than destroys convention with the hotly anticipated Detransition, Baby (One World, 2021), an intelligent and daring subversion of the bourgeois novel about three Brooklynites—cis, trans, and otherwise—trying to create a queer family of their own. Peters’s mastery of her craft is undeniable in that the world she has created recreates the world around it: Baby presupposes the possibility of mainstream conversations about trans people that are almost as sophisticated as the ones we have amongst ourselves. 

“Whip-smart” is just one of the many flattering adjectives and fawning superlatives people are going to overuse for this wise book by a glamorous, fascinating woman, and who can blame them? Its incisive exploration of chasers, divorce, trauma, queer parenting, and detransition itself is going to play a role in defining the literature of 2021 and beyond. 

You’ll have to wait an additional year for Manhunt (Nightfire, 2022), the electrifying debut novel by horror author and critic Gretchen Felker-Martin. At 500+ pages, Manhunt’s breakneck worldbuilding brings to life a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which a viral plague has transformed all cis men into zombies. Following Beth, Fran, and Robbie, trans people fighting to survive (and, in the cases of Beth and Fran, harvest life-saving hormones from zombie testicles), Felker-Martin’s foul-mouthed, operatically visceral writing style foregrounds the gnarly stuff, rendering the occasional glimpses of beauty all the more precious. You’ll feel like you’ve earned every bit of happiness you can wring from its bloodied pages.

Manhunt takes me back to rainy grade-school afternoons at the Butte County Public Library (Raymond Carver branch), where I would curl up in an empty chair and lose time in Stephen King’s own armageddon epic, The Stand, peopled with plague, demons, and desperate humans. Before now, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that imagines people like me in the world that comes next. I definitely haven’t read one by an author with Felker-Martin’s talent for interlacing the terrors that trans people face with the redemption we deserve.

A Year in Reading: Iľja Rákoš

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In contrast to most years and the reassuring ebb and flow of
good fortune and ill—never too good, never too ill—that attends them, this year
produced some honest-to-God awfulness like no other in memory. My life, at least,
had a definable low point: The day I got lost in the neighborhood I’ve lived in
for the better part of two decades.

I’d been out of the hospital following (let’s call it) treatment for COVID-19 about a month. My hospital ward of 50 patients had one oxygen concentrator. Despite my blood-oxygen saturation levels of 90%, that device wasn’t coming my way anytime soon. I checked myself out and went home.

God is good: I got better.

Anyway, I’d been out about a month and had just read a short
interview with the Minister of Health where he claimed that Ukrainian hospitals
had only enough supplemental oxygen for 38% of all hospitalized Covid patients.
(We can argue about this [you will lose], but I maintain there is no more
entertaining or original fiction than that produced by Ministers quoting
statistics.) Rage sufficiently fueled I went out for a walk.

At some point on that walk things went foggy. I found myself
standing on a street I didn’t recognize, shopping in my right hand, on my left a
small boy with an oddly familiar face. We found a bench and sat, the boy
singing the line “do you know the way to San Jose, I’ve been away so long…”
over and over. I dug through the shopping bag. Two bath towels. Half a kilo of
dates and three packages of spices—cumin, berberis, and fennel. A prescription
for eyeglasses.  A kilogram of black
beans. “Black beans won’t aggravate your arthritic knee,” said a voice and the
fog lifted. My five-year-old and I walked home.

The fugue state held no fear, no sense of urgency that I had
to be somewhere other than where I was right at that moment. Since then,
however, things have turned a little shaky. I’ve gotten lost twice more—streets
I’ve walked ten-thousand times rendered into foreign territory—yet it is
difficult to recall other junctures in my life where I had felt that peaceful.
Gone were a head filled with obligations and shattered deadlines. However, just
as gone were a slew of forgotten, crisply imagined paragraphs generated on long
walks, along with all frustration at the weather, the government, the maskless.

Not gone is a kind of fuzzy certainty that I read a lot of
good books this year. My neurologist assures me that I will, in time, remember
them.

That’s the long way around to saying that I can only
recommend, with any confidence seven books that I (re)read this year. I read
more, certainly. The signs are there: Dog-eared pages; old book festival
bookmarks; marginalia in my handwriting, these occasionally in the opaque-to-outsiders
and comforting familiarity of a dead language I’ve battled with for 40-plus
years. The signs are there. It’s the books and any substantive recollection of
what is in most of them them that are obscured.

But the titles below stuck somehow. Others should be on this
list but brainfog (as a friend from back home describes it) prevents
their inclusion. It would be dishonest to say that as I write these paragraphs
that I know why I had thought to recommend them. There is good
news: I get to read them again.

I look forward to that.

*****

The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray – Murray, I have learned, took a lot of heat for this collection of essays first published in 1970. It should take the perceptive reader no more than the length of the first essay to discover why. But if you, like me, are befuddled if not worn down by the “more heat than light” tone of the American socio-cultural dialog and desire some clarity of both thought and prose on the matter, this is your book.

Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen – If Masha Gessen is not on some prohibitive list of leading American public intellectuals then there must not be any such list. Drawing on Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar’s concept of the “Mafia State” to describe post-Communist regimes, Gessen has given us in this brief volume an essential primer for effective civic engagement in the 2020s. Their critique of western institutions is sharp, their credentials to issue it indisputable, and wow, can they write. Clear, crisp prose from a mind that we should all be glad is on our side. A sample:

In the Trump era, there is no past and no future, no history and no vision—only the anxious present. There can be no hopes, dreams, and ideals where there is no shared reality; and there is no political community where there is only the self-obsessed and endlessly self-referential president.

Missionaries by Phil Klay – They say that organized religion has a lot in common with making war— plodding, chaotic enterprises led by egomaniacs and driven in equal measure by true belief and opportunism. In Missionaries, Klay draws on that characterization and freshens it up with personal insight into the particular and abstract motives that fuel the urge to make war or to be just close enough to it to profit from the carnage. One take: this is a story about war and geopolitics in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Venezuela. Another take: This is a hard look at human nature and its attempts at establishing political order—a phenomenon long marked by graphic violence, personal betrayal, and pathetic frailty. Concocted of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, the Old Testament, 21st-century geopolitics, and Rage Against the Machine, Missionaries is that rare kind of muscular fiction that manages to heal even as it wounds.

To Remain Nameless by Brad Fox – This debut novel beautifully navigates the difficulty of telling a thoroughly modern story built on an ancient conceptual superstructure—that of hope, grace, and the urge to do the right thing. Fox’s characters circle the earth in pursuit of a righteous objective whose elusiveness can never supplant its desirability—precisely, the ache to accomplish something meaningful with the time given us. Tess and Laura have seen the world, perhaps too much of it, and have now entered a period of reflection, of reassessment, and of labor pains coming two minutes apart. (There’s nothing quite like the arrival of a baby to help recast the grandest of abstract global ambitions down to the particular.) Told with casual authority and a smart, tension-building economy, Fox has given us a novel for our age: a world of hurt, crushing need all around, and no work more vital than that of keeping hope alive. Thanks to Rescue Press for recognizing the need, and finding the place, for storytelling like this.

Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman – The concept of faith gets a bad shake in contemporary culture. In Europe, they’ve replaced it with naïve empiricism. In the east, it’s buried in self-mystification or impenetrable ritual. In America, they’ve sugared it up and rendered it in soft focus. Inevitabilities, one and all. The good thing is that this has created a place in the world for the verse of Christian Wiman—poetry where spiritual, non-empirical conviction, aka ‘faith’, comes out swinging, raging off the page and reinforcing the homely dignity of just being alive, created in God’s image, and not about to go out without a fight. Not for the faint of heart. One couplet:

O God / Make of my anguish / more than I can make.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – For a collection that “the philosopher king” never wrote as such, in a format he never intended, the marginalia and aphorisms of Marcus Aurelius have stood the test of time. These snippets—their generosity, their foresight, their maturity, their grace—have carried me through Covid recovery. Meditations should be required reading for any person who seeks public office or, really, any sphere of human agency.

Isaiah by Isaiah – When I was a child, my pastor sussed out some ability in me for memorization and began assigning me big chunks of the Old Book. Whole chapters of the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms for recitation. That was 47 years ago. This October, COVID hit me particularly hard and I was shuttled off to a Ukrainian triage hospital for treatment in conditions I wouldn’t subject a rabid dog to. In the place I was assigned to there was no prospect of receiving timely medical care, but there was no alternative—no other available beds anywhere. I was in a room with four more sick, hacking men, all of us over 50. There were no plastic barriers, masks, or other precautions taken. Just lie there, (try to) breathe each other’s air, eat your cornmeal in the a.m. But Isaiah—poetry of nearly three millennia past of a rigor and beauty that is incomparable—was in my head and on my lips. Its recollection, its recitation, was essential to my return home. Prove me wrong. Better yet, find it in the Authorized Version in English, aka “The King James Bible,” and prove yourself wrong.

+RIP John le Carré, aka David Cornwell+

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A Year in Reading: Vanessa Veselka

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I grew up in New York and all year thought of the library across the street from my childhood with its library flag and librarian who told our four-grade class that Turkish fairytales started with Once there was and twice there wasn’t… This is how I hope we will speak of 2020. I have been lucky where others haven’t, but because I am a human, I don’t feel spared. This may also be because I work at a nursing home workers’ union and the wrongness of what we do to poor people is on full display.

At the height of the pandemic in New
York, I desperately missed the city and wanted to move back, but it is still
true that I cannot afford to live in the city I grew up in. Some of the books I
read this year, I first read there years ago.

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

After several attempts at age twelve, I succeeded in reading all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels over two weeks in my late teens. Reading them altogether they became one novel, full of wide-open-beavers, overlooked-novelists, spree-shooters, spaceships, and a deep and sometimes illustrated critique of patriotism, capitalism, and war.

This year, I reread Slaughterhouse-Five and am finally able to separate it from all others. The novel is drawn from Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war during the fire-bombing of Dresden.

Disorientation is common repeated trauma. The simple fact that someone was alive yesterday and yet is not alive today, was in line at the grocery store Friday talking too loudly on their cell phone, and silent forever today, is uncommunicable. This is probably why there are spacemen shaped like toilet plungers from a planet called Tralfamadore. The wide-open beavers and spree shooters, it seems, are in Breakfast of Champions.

Tamara Shopsin’s, Arbitrary Stupid Goal, is a memoir about growing up in an iconic, family-run restaurant in Greenwich Village. It captures the neighborhood of those years, still sheltered by rent-control, and filled with diverse, aggressively eccentric people. At the memoir’s heart is the world created by Kenny and Eve Shopsin, and Shopsin’s General Store, a place where conversation has always been a contact-sport.

In full disclosure, I was afraid to read Arbitrary Stupid Goal when it came out because I knew the place and people well. It is also part of my childhood. But it was an arbitrary stupid fear. The book is magnificent. Shopsin’s storytelling is disciplined and economical; she pushes right up to the edge of a universal truth then leaves you to throw your own self over the cliff. Kenny Shopsin used to yell across the restaurant, “I’m not a cook! I’m a fucking philosopher!” Tamara Shopsin is as well.  

Along the lines of philosophy and memory and ethics, I was reading The Essential Talmud when its author, rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a revered Talmudic scholar, died. One of the things I find beautiful about the Talmud is its devotion to preserving minority opinions. Its referees, the rabbis and sages, settle disputes, but leave room for arguing over the calls, because you may not have the full view; what’s right in this moment of seeing a situation may turn out not to be right. The Essential Talmud is an elegantly organized overview of the Talmud’s history and the types of disputes it takes up.

I also read The Midrash Says: The Book of Beraishis and others in that collection. Like the Talmud, Midrash is set of Jewish texts that underpin Rabbinic Judaism. While the Talmud takes up arguments over the infinite and the infinitesimal though, Midrash reads more like Torah fanfiction. It fills in back-stories and spends time in weird places with side characters; it repairs holes in the logic and answers nitpicky questions from rabbis. Humanity and humor and everyday bad decisions come to light. Where the Torah describes Abraham giving up idol-worshiping, and the Talmud digs in on the parameters of idolatry, Midrash tells us that Abraham’s father was an idol maker—and as we all know, sons often rebel against fathers. 

When the stories seem the most
reprehensible, Midrash expands into them, adding layers. Abraham simply
misunderstood God and he was never being asked to slaughter his son; Hagar was
not abandoned and ended up back with Abraham. As if tracing a ghostly body of
ethical longing with a human desire to repair and understand, Midrash points
toward the story that should have been. It marks, marking all the places where
we are uncomfortable with what happened, where the stories we tell ourselves,
that we were right, that we did right, don’t add up, responding to generations
of questioners asking: How can that be fair?

Everything else I read this year was a “How-To” book, as in, How-To: withhold Labor and topple the robber barons sucking the life out of the working-class of this country. They were No Short Cuts and A Collective Bargain by Jane McAlevey, Upheaval in the Quiet Zone by Leon Fink, and Confessions of a Union Buster by Martin Jay Levitt.

McAlevey’s work in general focuses on the power of the strike, and how to organize a super-majorities of workers militant enough to transform their relationship to capitalism. She has a great critique of “mobilizing” (as opposed to organizing) and shows how the move to advocacy models within unions cuts workers off from their true base of power. So there.

A Collective Bargain opens with a quote from Confessions of a Union Buster, so I went back and reread that one.  What union-busters do to people’s minds and lives and relationships is hard to explain with the full force of how it is experienced by workers. The author, Martin Jay Levitt, says it best:

The enemy was the collective spirit. I got ahold of that spirit and while it was a seedling I poisoned it; I choked it; I bludgeoned it if I had to, anything to be sure it would never blossom into a united workforce…

When John Lennon started organizing with the 1972 voter-registration drive to take out Nixon, he began to have elaborate fantasize about the FBI following him and tapping his phone. The FBI was behind every tree, putting people around him that weren’t who they said they were, having fake human interactions because they were infiltrators that had no skin in the emotional game (See: Dwayne Hoover in Breakfast of Champions). But even Lennon thought might just be on a megalomaniacal bender. After all, he was smoking an enormous amount pot that year, and anyway, he was a frikkin’ Beatle – so come at me, man!

Only everything Lennon was imagining turned out to be true.
And they were setting him up for drug charges. But knowing he was not crazy,
and that what he thought was happening actually was happening, that was worth a
lot.

This is how many union organizers felt when Confessions of a Union Buster came out.

The book the describes what had been only felt, a
coordinated, campaign of psychological warfare inflicted on poor people to keep them
from demanding a $0.25 an hour raise. It demystified the tactics of that only
the FBI, or a million-dollar campaign in the hands of experienced union busters
can provide.

The story of how the book came to be is also great. Levitt, after
decades of crushing the collective spirit wherever he found it, was struggling
with alcoholism and hit bottom. As part of his recovery, he had to make amends
for being a horrible person, so he contacted the ALF-CIO and asked what he
could do to make things right. They didn’t believe him and suspected this was
just another devious attempt to ruin workers’ lives. Write a book, they said.
Do speaking tours. And he did. 

I also skimmed Upheaval in the Quiet Zone this year, which is the story of how the most militant hospital workers’ union in the country began. I reread it because I needed to be reminded that healthcare workers had no collective bargaining rights. They had to strike to get them and all of their strikes were illegal.

In the dreamland between memory and extraction capital, the labor of the workplace and the labor of giving birth, is Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation. In it, there is a plague of sleeplessness. Nightmares scour the psyche of American citizens and people begin to die of sleep deprivation. The nation mobilizes to address the crisis but there seems to be no cure for the horrors plaguing the American unconscious until they figure out how to extract the dreams of babies and inject it into adults. This is where the novella starts. It continues with the genius of all of Russell’s work, weird, original, and offering a deep wisdom into the human experience on every page.

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A Year in Reading: Sejal Shah

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It’s been a hard year to read (for me, to focus) even with many astounding-sounding books and also a challenging year to publish a book (which I also did). In the hardest parts of the pandemic, I retreated to the bathtub with Epsom salts. Reading in the bathtub helped me get through many difficult times and years: since my twenties, it’s been a reliable way to self-soothe.

This
is not comprehensive, but here’s some of what I read, in and out of the tub,
with a focus on nonfiction and essays.

In the beginning of the year, I read Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book. Even though I know a lot of writers, there’s so much I didn’t know about publishing a book. I started an internship at Beacon Press in college, but decided it was too much time to be unpaid. Would it have better prepared me to understand the business? I’ll never know. What I do know is that I’m grateful for this book. Maum’s book dealt with all parts of the process: blurbs, galleys, agents, websites. I especially appreciated the section on handling email (and Paul W. Morris’s contribution to how he deals with email, Boomerang, scheduling, color-coding).

Maum also includes specific advice from and for queer writers, women, and writers of color, all of which I found helpful. In the final chapter, publishing professionals and authors share their best take-aways for debut authors. Julie Buntin, editor of Book Deal (and also my former student from a zillion years ago), wisely noted “It’s a kind of trauma, making that part of yourself public. Being a writer in the world, it’s a privilege, but it’s not gentle. It’s a really heavy experience.” That resonated. If you or someone you love has a book forthcoming, please get this guide!

Also in January, I read Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning in preparation for interviewing Cathy Park Hong–the first interview I’d done in years. I found the range of her essays and their subjects astonishing, invigorating, and inspiring. Like many of us, I was waiting for this book and its fighting words. In the first essay, “United”: “This country insists that our racial identity is beside the point, that it has nothing to do with being bullied, or passed over for promotion, or cut off every time we talk. Our race has nothing to do with this country, even, which is why we’re often listed as “Other” in polls.” And from “The Indebted,” the final essay in the book: “At what cost do I have this life? At what toll have I been granted this safety?”

I
can’t remember what I read in February.

At the start of the pandemic, I fell back on rereading as talisman and comfort. I reread bell hooks’s title essay, ‘”talking back” from her 1989 book, talking back; thinking feminist, thinking black. There is a tradition of women writing and claiming speech, particularly for Black women, that I took refuge in: “in black communities (and diverse ethnic communities), women have not been silent.” hooks’ essay reminded me, through all the various stresses on mind and body, to keep going.

I reread Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and looked at the images, the white space. A favorite sentence: “The route is often associative.” And “Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight.”

From James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, I reread “Stranger in the Village” and  “Autobiographical Notes.” From the latter: “I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” Underlined. This felt helpful to reread this year.

In March or April, I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. There were few continuous narratives I was able to pick up and stay with this year: I loved falling into the structure and world of Machado’s book, fairy tales, prologue, multiple epigraphs. Even though it’s about an abusive relationship, it’s also about how to free ourselves.

I devoured Mia Birdsong’s How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community: I’ve been recommending this book to everyone. Oakland activist and author (and former Rochesterian!) Birdsong has written a tremendous guide for how to live more connected lives, investing in friendships and community.

Also, this spring, I read Sopan Deb’s wry and poignant debut, Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me, a memoir about family, forgiveness, learning to see our parents as people, and also about depression, trauma, estrangement, comedy, and love.

In June, I read Donovan Hohn’s The Inner Coast: Essays (Norton, 2020). I had read and admired Hohn’s poems many years ago in an anthology that included poems we had written as high school students. This year, we both published books during a pandemic consisting of essays written over twenty years. Hohn’s far-ranging and meditative essays explore landscapes, ecology, friendships, family, and how we come to know ourselves. His introduction notes: “We are born into stories already in progress.” I was struck by how Hohn began his book including the reader–how we locate and make sense of our place in the world.

Sometime this summer, I bought Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, edited by Alice Wong). I read and kept returning to Ellen Samuels’s “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” maybe because of what time has felt like during the pandemic and also the reality of how exhausted I felt doing even a virtual book tour. Zoom made some events more accessible, but disabilities and neurodiversity don’t disappear just because there’s no travel involved. In a pandemic, so much was harder. Samuels notes, “Disability and illness have the power to extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings.” I’m looking forward to reading more.

In July, I prepped for my first time teaching graduate students and teaching online for The Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA. For an RWW class, I co-taught Deborah A. Miranda’s Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Heyday Press) with my friend Wendy Call who had previously taught and loved the book. When I read Bad Indians, I thought I didn’t know a book could do this. Miranda created a collage memoir using family photographs, historical documents, real and invented elementary-school assignments, Blood Quantum charts, newspaper articles, lyric essays, oral history, journal entries, poetry, and a table of contents stretching from 1776 to the present. When she came to visit our class, I was star-struck. Miranda’s memoir broke rules in the very best way making me rethink what I wanted to in my writing, how our stories can be a way to counteract lies, to show a culture even through a genocide.

In August, I wrote my first-ever blurb for a slim and gorgeous, prescient book of poetry: Familiars (Alice Greene & Co, 2020), Holly Wren Spaulding’s collection about the natural world. Her poems are reminders to slow down, to look at the world disappearing around us: that we are that world, that we must act. Spaulding’s spare poems are divided into three parts: each part has three sections, each title is one word. Beech, Lark, Vine, Acorn, Heather, Hazel, Sycamore, Ash. Like many, I spend too much time on devices, lost in space. I lose track of the body in space, what it means to walk, what we learn from trees. Reading Familiars brought me back to attention.

In August, I also read Apocalypse, Darling, Barrie Jean Borich’s concise and lyrical meditation on post-industrial landscapes, family, and navigating identities.

In September, I read Heather Lanier’s Raising a Rare Girl: A Memoir about her daughter who is born with a rare genetic syndrome. It’s about navigating life, medicine, family, and our ideas of what our lives might be. I read this book and my heart felt bigger. I felt less alone in my own struggles that are not about raising a rare girl. I felt less alone reading her book and to have some companionship this year was such a comfort. I sent it to my friend Geeta Kothari who echoed my love for it. I didn’t read it a second time to study how the narrative worked: I was just grateful to be able to slip into someone else’s story and learn about their world, another way to travel.

Also, in September, I began poet Jaswinder Bolina’s debut collection, Of Color: a sharp and thoughtful volume of essays. I also listened to some of the essays via audiobook (“Writing Like a White Guy” is one of my favorites.) I have been happy to see the number of essay collections published this year, especially by writers of color.

At various points this year, I read and underlined parts of The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity (Louise DeSalvo). I’m sure my family would say that I don’t need a guide to writing slower. Writing my first book took twenty years! I don’t want to be a slower writer, but I want to better understand, in my writing and in my teaching, how time functions. There are short, accessible chapters on important topics: practice, decisions, game plans, process journals, and managing work. My friend Geeta recommended it as did Wendy.

Another recommendation came from Geeta from earlier in the year: Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. Art, capitalism, social media. I found Odell’s book far more persuasive than The Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix.

In October, I read Michele Morano’s Like Love: this wonderful essay collection is about love and unconsummated romance, infatuations and other attractions. Part of the sadness in launching a book during a pandemic was the halt of travel plans. Like Love gave me a chance to travel with Morano and through some of my personal histories of love and landscapes.

Around the election I sat in via Zoom, on Wendy’s capstone class in which she was teaching Shailja Patel’s Migritude, a beautiful and complex hybrid text published a decade ago by Kaya Press. I was taken with Migritude’s power to enact how personal and colonial history are intertwined through the composition of the text. Migritude grew out of performance and includes a foreword, poetry, images, a shadow book, a timeline, and interviews, all of which provide context, create meaning. It reminded me of Bad Indians–these two books breaking apart the usual order of things so we can see cracks in that order, in the histories and framing. How the stories we tell implicate us. On the back cover it’s classified as Non-Fiction / Poetry / Performance / African Studies / South Asian Studies. It’s beyond classification in the best way.

Later in November, I read World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed, 2020). So much to love in this book by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, beginning with the subtitle. Her nature essays brought back some of the wonder of childhood for me with her focus on small moments and the specificity of her lens. Some essay titles and subjects: Peacock, Catalpa Tree, Monsoon, Vampire Squid, Dragon Fruit, Ribbon Eel. It’s also beautifully illustrated with whimsical images.

In December, I ended the year with rereading and new-to-me essays for a writing workshop with Kim Chang. We reread Toni Morrison’s “The Site of Memory,” an essay I first encountered in the nineties; Paisley Rekdal’s “Bad Vacation with Tasaday Tribe or How My Grandfather Acquired the Laundromat” from The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee (2002), a couple of essays from Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land (2010). New to me was Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route.

Toward solstice, I found solace in returning to Emily Arnason Casey’s collection, Made Holy: Essays (2019), and its focus on love, loss, addiction, interior and exterior landscapes like her childhood one from Minnesota. Casey catalogues what we hold onto from childhood, what we keep, but don’t display, what is in our homes and what we seek out around us. These essays are quiet and powerful.

I’m grateful to have finished my virtual book tour. So many books came out in 2020. Now I just want to read. I hope it gets easier. I’m looking forward to starting or finishing these books of nonfiction in 2021: Just Us; Girlhood; The Body Papers; The Memory Eaters; Pain Studies; Tomboyland; Caste; Notes on a Silencing; Mill Town; The Magical Language of Others; Later; This Way Back; The Unreality of Memory; Having and Being Had; Wow, No Thank You; Brown Album; Words for the Unbearable: A Journey Through Loss. Poetry: Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World & The Galleons. For fiction: Days of Distraction, The Office of Historical Corrections; Real Life; The Secret Lives of Church Ladies; Each of Us Killers; Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories; Death, Desire, and Other Destinations; I Have the Answer; Meet Behind Mars; How Much of These Hills Is Gold; And I Do Not Forgive You.

All I
long for these days are pajamas or baths. It’s time to break up with my social
media accounts and reread How to Do
Nothing. Or maybe just get better at doing nothing.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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

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

A Year in Reading: Silvia Killingsworth

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There were two kinds of readers this year: people who dove into pandemic fiction, and people who said, “Uhh, things are bad enough, no thanks.” I am in the former camp and I devoured Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I already owned a copy because I am nothing if not an ambitious book collector.

The rest of my fiction list from this year is pretty erratic: The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey, a copy of which I had purchased years ago wanting to understand an ex-boyfriend (the relationship was over before I had time to read it). Having now read it, I feel I understand him and all passionately outdoorsy men about 10% more, but more than anything it made me long to visit the Southwest. Luster, by Raven Leilani, purchased on my Kindle after reading the famous Jazmine Hughes “Whew” review in The New York Times, was a lot more local. I was worried at first it would be too sexy for me, but what I loved was how unsexily domestic it got. (That’s me: unsexily domestic.)

In a nice bit of calendrical kismet, I read my friend Daniel Riley’s Barcelona Days, which takes place over a long Memorial Day weekend, on Memorial Day weekend this year. Reading it felt like watching a movie about good friends from college having a life-changing few days in a beautiful city. Dan has such a gift for capturing everything both clever and mundane in his scenes and dialogue. Later in the summer I read Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, both of which are deeply interior novels that do an incredible job of crafting stories around characters who are not present.

I finally got around to Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, purchased instantly upon the endorsement of Alex Balk four years ago. I was halfway through before I realized this wasn’t a novel so much as it was a collection of short stories. I think? Safe to say, it’s a work of fiction, but, like, in the Rachel Cusk school of fiction. Also in this fiction-but-prrrrobably-not-fiction vein was Lauren Oyler’s debut novel, Fake Accounts, which comes out in February of next year. It’s like if Ben Lerner were a clever young woman, compulsively versed in Twitter and casually familiar with Berlin. Something for everyone to love and hate.

In the non-fiction realm, this year marked the ten-year anniversary of the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which means I got to buy a hardcover version. I always make room for colleagues past and present: Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser and Sarah Frier’s No Filter were both fun business books that made me glad I don’t work in tech or startups.

I did not read a lot of paper books with my eyes, I confess. My husband is an avid (read: every single night before bed) listener of audiobooks. He prefers Bosch novels and Stephen King tomes, and sometimes we listen to them on long drives—one of our favorites is King’s Bag of Bones. I also made a new best friend, though she doesn’t know it: Samantha Irby. I listened to all three of her books (Wow, No Thank You, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and Meaty) in the shower. Don’t make me do the math on how many showers—a ritual is a ritual. Before that, it was No One Will Tell You This But Me, by Bess Kalb. Before that, I used to commute to work 40 minutes each way, so that gave me lots of time to listen to Jessica Simpson’s Open Book.

As for what’s on my nightstand now, it’s The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown. If seasons three and four of “The Crown” on Netflix were the main course, this is the liquid nitrogen ice cream for dessert: technically impressive and utterly unnecessary, but deliciously indulgent.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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

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

A Year in Reading: Joseph Lee

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When I think about
the books I read at the beginning of this year, I think about the train. On my
morning commutes out to New Jersey, I usually did work, preparing for class and
grading papers. On the way back, I liked to reward myself by reading. I’d keep
reading on the uptown subway to my tutoring job, enjoying the empty afternoon
trains. On the way home in the evenings, I’d read standing up, holding the book
in one hand and the pole in the other.

 
 

During those train rides, I read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which had me both impatiently trying to finish a section before my stop and pausing every few paragraphs to appreciate the incredible writing. I was reading on a downtown A train when I heard a woman talking about how disgusting Chinese people were and that’s why we all had the virus. That was in February. I also read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman on the train, a wonderful book I remember finishing in between stops on the Upper West Side.

In March, I read Cathy Park Hong’s amazing essay collection Minor Feelings. Every page—from describing the pain of seeing a parent’s helplessness in the face of racism to unpacking Asian American privilege to moments of unexpected humor—felt like a gift.

I’m lucky that I’ve
been able to work mostly from home, but I find it hard to read now. I don’t
know if I got so used to reading on the train or reading is just one of the
many things lost to this year, but I’ve only read a few books since March.

I re-read Tommy Orange’s There There, one of my favorite books from the last few years. I also read Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. I taught a few of her poems this semester and my students loved exploring and discussing the seemingly endless layers. There are so many new books by Native authors this year that I want to read. Next year, I hope.

I’m also incredibly
lucky to have taught writing classes this year. I probably read more student
writing than anything else this year and I’m thankful for every single line of
my students’ brilliant essays and poems. They write with so much hope and
openness.  

Lately, I’ve found comfort in two cookbooks, the Xi’an Famous Foods cookbook and The Nom Wah Cookbook. Sometimes I just flip through them, thinking about eating everything. I’ve only made a few of the recipes, but I love the stories interspersed among the photos and recipes. The Nom Wah cookbook is filled with stories from Chinatown figures and institutions, all of which make me miss walking around Chinatown. I just keep dreaming of the day when we can all hang out in a giant dim sum hall again, sharing a table with strangers as the carts rattle by.

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Year in Reading: Katherine Hill

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I had a head start on staying home. My baby was born in late December 2019, and by March, her previously hyper-social dad and I had already mastered grocery delivery and hand sanitizer and long Brooklyn walks and holidays alone. We knew, too, that not commuting did not mean more time, or even if it did, it certainly did not mean more reading. At the beginning of 2020, we were deep into the process of discovering that time and space could rearrange themselves to accommodate previously unimaginable new futures, futures in which I was elated to wake up at 6am after going to sleep at 2, and no longer interested in buying clothes for myself but very interested in folding laundry, and that none of this meant that anyone would actually read more books. I keep a yearly log, so I knew I was falling behind, but I didn’t care. I flagrantly let myself off the hook. In the middle of a global pandemic, I was successfully sustaining new life. I nursed, I scrolled, I responded to every innocent email or text with a picture of my baby. 

Books, or pieces of them, snuck in occasionally, as I guess they always do, even for those who claim we’ve failed. 

In the beginning, high on oxytocin and maternity leave, there were the books I’d been meaning to read forever: Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, Henry Green’s Loving, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head. Reckless love affairs all over mid-century Europe, while a baby sucked my breast. I often fell asleep reading, but I felt good about my life choices. Sally Rooney crashed the syllabus at one point. I’d read Conversations with Friends while on IVF drugs the previous spring and it had made me feel young and sexy again in the middle of my painful fertility crisis. Normal People kept the fantasy alive in 2020. 

When it’s hard to read or even hold a book because there’s a baby in your hands already, poetry fits the available fingers. Line by line, page by page, I absorbed the exquisite dialogues and border-crossings of my Adelphi University colleagues: Documents by Jan-Henry Gray and Passeggiate by Judith Baumel. I also finally picked up The Archivist, by a third colleague, Martha Cooley. I must’ve been saving it for the real-world release of T.S. Eliot’s long-sequestered letters to Emily Hale, which made headlines early this year, and which feature imaginatively in Cooley’s devastating novel.

The slim, three-volume memoir of the late Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen (ChildhoodYouth, and Dependency in Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favela Goldman’s translation) captivated me in the darkest depths of New York’s lockdown. The self-portrait of an artist, lover, and addict (what’s the difference, really), it took me back to my last international trip, to Copenhagen and the island of Bornholm the previous summer, a carefree time Ditlevsen could’ve told me would be short-lived: “Time passed and my childhood grew thin and flat, paperlike.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it was impossible not to seek out contemporary Black writers working at various angles against racism. Jesmyn Ward’s odyssey of the rural poor in Sing, Unburied, Sing; Tayari Jones’s upwardly mobile love triangle in An American Marriage; Tyehimba Jess’s Olio of first-generation freed voices; the many lives at home and abroad of Patricia Spears Jones’s A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems; and the paradigm-challenging arguments of Karen Fields and Barbara Fields’s Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, have all stayed with me. As Jones writes with earnest irony: “Who cares about Dream? / Important, subject. // Action. Where is action? If we weep too much, / we go crazy. If we don’t weep, we go crazy.”

Later in the summer, Hannah Gersen’s shape-shifting novel manuscript (appropriately still untitled), gave me a serious contact high. A utopian novel masquerading as a friendship novel masquerading as a thriller, it also made me want to reorganize my life around mushrooms. 

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, on my bedside table forever, finally made it between the sheets in August. Like Ditlevsen, Berlin brings a startling post-grief, post-addiction clarity to her slender stories of rich and poor lives in Chile, Mexico, and the Western United States: “The day my father killed off my mother was the day he stopped knowing me. After that he ordered me around like a secretary or a servant. One day I finally asked him where I was. I had run off.”

By September, it was back to the aggressive unsentimentality of Elena Ferrante. I devoured The Lying Life of Adults, and returned to portions of the Neapolitan Quartet, which, thanks to The Ferrante Letters, my writing-group-turned-book with Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, and Jill Richards, has become something of an annual tradition, like renting a lake house with old friends or unearthing the heavy winter coat.  

The fall was a hodgepodge of story sampling, from Laura van den Berg’s I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, her most haunting work to date; Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s wry, tender, practically omniscient Truthtelling; Michael Croley’s Any Other Place, a timeless collection of small-town blues; and John L’Heureux’s The Heart is a Full-Wild Beast, a radically humane book I first started reading in the middle of a pretty good holiday party a week before my daughter was born.

Throughout the year, I should confess, the books most read were for babies, the trippier the better. Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny are not the repetitive dust-magnets I remember, but wild holodecks of metamorphosis and intertextuality. This Is Not a Book is a sublime sequence of visual jokes, with silent text discovered by the reader. Peck Peck Peck continues the time-honored tradition of building a story around a sequence of holes. And The House in the Night takes joyful flight just before bed, but without any sense of false comfort. However desultory my reading was this year, my daughter met hers with urgency, kissing, biting, scratching, hooting, and touching faces on every page.  

Once a year in Sweden, a veteran writer wins the Nobel, and every year I think to myself I finally ought to read this person. This year, I actually did. Louise Glück turned out to be the perfect poet for this relentlessly grieving year, a year (well, more) of wreckage we have to haul ourselves out from below. Using the language of flowers, The Wild Iris articulates exactly this kind of pain. It also dares, against all reasonable odds, to hope:

You who do not rememberpassage from the other worldI tell you I could speak again: whateverreturns from oblivion returnsto find a voice: from the center of my life camea great fountain, deep blueshadows on azure seawater.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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

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