Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

I am writing this in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, and that has changed my reflections as I look back on what I read this year. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a book that I read early in January and which I reviewed on this site, Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters. There was a political aspect to Fox’s book that I did not discuss in my review, but which now seems most important. For those who read my review, you will know that I focused mainly on the imprecise use of the word “pretentious,” especially in literary criticism and in social situations. Fox argued that the word is too often used as a vague, dismissive, insult: “Pretension gets sticky with a mess of unpleasant traits; narcissism, lying, ostentation, presumption, snobbery, selfish individualism. These are not synonyms for each other. The pretentious are those who brave being different.” Fox’s argument was well received, though I noticed that some critics pushed back against Fox’s whole-hearted embrace of pretentiousness as a kind of open-minded ambition, and felt compelled to point out the ways in which pretentious behavior can be obnoxious, smug, and self-congratulatory. But I think those reviewers missed Fox’s larger point, which is that “pretentious” and its supposed opposite, “authentic,” have become so politicized that they have lost any nuance of meaning. Rereading Fox’s book, I was struck by the prescience of this paragraph, which was written before Brexit and before Donald Trump was the Republican Party nominee: Politics is a game in which actors assert their authenticity in the face of other actors whom they accuse of bad faith. Think of the embattled conservative candidate who, faced with hard questions about policy or public gaffes, plays the 'biased liberal media' card. Appeals are made to a silent majority sitting in the stalls, drowned out by the hecklers positioned up in the Gods; socialists, liberals, gays, women, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, the BBC, 'the political correctness brigade.' A phantom 'cultural elite' is conjured onstage, working against what 'real,' 'ordinary' people wish. (As if 'real,' 'ordinary' people could not possibly be left-wing, or gay, or interested in equality, or hold different religious beliefs.) It’s nothing more than smoke and mirrors, a game of pretense, but the idea of the 'ordinary' person is a powerful rhetorical image. That pretty much sums up Trump’s political strategy, though Fox, a British writer, was likely thinking of his home country. In the wake of Brexit, I read Zadie Smith’s excellent “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” and then I read it again, after our election. I saw some of my New Yorker blindness in her description of her own “Londoncentric solipsism:” The first instinct of many Remain voters on the left was that this was only about immigration. When the numbers came in and the class and age breakdown became known, a working-class populist revolution came more clearly into view, although of the kind that always perplexes middle-class liberals who tend to be both politically naïve and sentimental about working classes. One can accuse President-elect Trump of many things, but certainly not political naïveté or sentimentality. His vocabulary was always simple, direct, and emotional. He had no qualms riding ugly currents of thought: bigotry, envy, resentment, self-pity, bitterness, nihilism, and hatred. From his stint as a reality television host, he knew they would provoke action. I write these words in anger, and that’s the emotion I’ll probably always associate with this election cycle. Beneath my anger is a sadness that I am reluctant to excavate. The one book that forced me to do that this year was Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. I read it in February and it has stayed with me all year. It’s a memoir about the author’s grief over the deaths of five young, black men that she knew in childhood. One of these young men was her brother. Ward grew up in a rural community in southern Mississippi. Her literary talent led her out of state to college and later, to graduate school in creative writing. But her departure was fraught with guilt and longing: ...I wanted to apply, to leave Mississippi, to escape the narrative I encountered in my family, my community, and my school that I was worthless, a sense that was as ever present as the wet, cloying heat. 'You can’t leave,' my mother said to me. 'You have to help me with your siblings.' When she said that, I felt all the weight of the South pressing down on me, and it was then that I resolved to leave the region for college, but to do it in a way that respected the sacrifices my mother made for me. I studied harder. I read more. How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me? Men We Reaped details Ward's visits home, the summers and holiday breaks destroyed by death. But this is not a gloomy book. Instead, it's as full of  joy, youth, and love, as it is of grief, mourning, and heartbreak. The amount of life in this book makes the amount of loss all the more tragic. Finally, regular readers of this site will know that I’ve spent the year reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and occasionally writing about it here. Rereading one of my favorite books has not only been a pleasure, it’s also forced me to set aside more time for reading, and that has brought a certain amount of calm and perspective into my life. The day after the election, in an attempt to find some equilibrium, I returned to In Search of Lost Time. The scene I read happened to be one in which Baron de Charlus misreads a social situation and as a result, loses the person he loves most dearly. His error is a familiar one: he doesn’t observe or even suspect the simmering resentment of someone else. I found myself underlining many sentences, including this one: “We picture the future as a reflection of the present projected into an empty space, whereas it is the result, often almost immediate, of causes which for the most part escape our notice.” More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? 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Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Kaulie Lewis

Not to be too contrarian, but sometimes I like people to be wrong. Is that terrible? Maybe it’s terrible. Either way, when everyone I knew said, "just try reading Elena Ferrante, she’s amazing, incredible, you’ll love her, you won’t even look up until you’re through, how lucky are you the fourth book is out, you didn’t even have to wait, I wish I was reading them for the first time again," I decided I didn’t want them to be right. Ferrante? Not my style, I said. Alas, 2016 was the year I finally read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and got just as swept up as everyone said I would. I made the mistake of beginning My Brilliant Friend on a plane, headed out to visit friends in San Francisco. Rudely but predictably, I spent the rest of the trip curled up on somebody else’s couch, far more engaged with the novels than I was with my real-life companions and hosts. Day outings were almost painful; I practically had to be dragged out of my imaginary Naples to drive out to a vineyard or to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Dramatics aside, the Neapolitan novels stunned me. Lila, Lenu, the reality and complexity of their world, and the incredibly insightful, moving, and painful female friendship at its heart, were more than enough to knock me over. I’ve rarely been so glad to be so wrong. After recovering from my obsessive tear through Ferrante -- and it did require an actual recovery process, it felt like weeks before the novels really left me --  I took up The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion. Since this was also the year I went back to school for a master’s in journalism, Didion’s biography was both an interesting, inspiring read and a welcome relief from the AP Stylebook and The Elements of Journalism. As far as literary biographies go, it’s difficult to imagine much better than The Last Love Song, a writer’s take on a writer’s writer. And, in an election year that seemed to make less sense with every passing day, Didion’s fascination with the flaws in the national narrative seemed somehow appropriate, disheartening, and bracing, all at once. Political Fictions, indeed. But my most impactful and longest-lasting read this year was Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection, The Givenness of Things. I thought it would be a light read, something I could pick up and set down again and again, the way I often read collections. An essay while I’m waiting at the doctor’s office, while I take an evening bath, while I wait for dinner to finish, while I wait for a friend to call. Something to pass the time, to broaden the horizon but not too much. I quickly realized my mistake; I should have known better. These are not essays to read when you have a spare minute, they're essays to wrestle with. Robinson has never written anything “light,” really, but this collection is particularly heavy. The essays are almost meaty, thick with her usual intelligence and insight, quiet and calm on the surface but deep in both feeling and meaning. I couldn't walk away from these and come back to find them unchanged. This is the best kind of reading, and the slowest. I’ve been digesting Robinson’s collection on and off all year, coming back to think through each piece one more time, uncovering another bit of wisdom and then another. I found Robinson’s essays most comforting and challenging this November, for reasons that are probably obvious. One piece in particular stuck with me, and I revisited it again and again. Simply titled “Fear,” it served as a much needed reminder that, though “contemporary America is full of fear,” “we owe it to [each other] to be calm and clear, to hold fast to what is good, and to hate the thought that we may leave behind an impoverished or a lethal heritage.” That’s the thought that will carry me through 2016 and that has me ready for whatever 2017 brings. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

Each year I read more books than I can possibly review -- here are 5 of the finest and most memorable of that bunch. They are worth your money, your time, and your attention. Charles of the Desert: A Life in Verse by William Woolfitt. A book of poems that fictionalizes the life of Trappist monk Charles de Foucauld. Beautiful verse, full of pieces like “The Pangs of Wanting:” “I deliver my body to the church, / though I cannot imagine what penance might relieve / these pangs of wanting.” Later: “I take first communion...My tongue licks up the bread: a whisper / of paper on my teeth...His torn body in my stomach, / his blood in my spit, I almost vomit; I almost sing.” More collections about God like this one would be very welcomed. The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson is the type of writer who makes me want to slow down, sit down, and calm down. A taste of Robinson’s Calvinism with a side of subordinate clauses does good for my Catholic sense (which is superstitious and supernatural). She makes me think. And realize my inadequacies: “We can never know what it is we only think we know, or what we know truly, intuitively, and cannot prove. Our circumstance is itself a very profound mystery.” The Multitude by Hannah Faith Notess. For fans of the mystical and mysterious. A little Emily Dickinson, some Denise Levertov, and a touch of Anne Sexton. Loved poems like “Philippians:” “I used to forget my Greek New Testament on purpose, / so the future seminarians would share with me. / They smelled like sweat and prayer / and oatmeal cookies, and trying too hard / to get God to love them.” A gifted poet delivers lines like these: “How many times / has the thing I wanted stayed hidden from me, / obscured by my longing?” The People of the Broken Neck by Silas Dent Zobal. A searing debut novel: terse sentences juxtaposed with ambiguous, surreal descriptions of violence and the after-effects of trauma. The story of Iraq veteran Dominick Clarke Sawyer, a former Army Ranger whose “deep mysterious ache of love for [his children] hurt like something huge he’d swallowed.” Hallucinating and harried, he is being hunted by an FBI agent -- first in central Pennsylvania, and then on the road. A literary thriller somewhere between Phil Klay and Dennis Lehane. Bringing Back the Bones: New and Selected Poems by Gary Fincke. My mentor at Susquehanna University, but someone whose work I would have flocked toward anyway. Poems like “The Sorrows” capture atmospheric moments of lament: Sunday afternoons, women stay in the kitchen where they “sighed and rustled” while listing their sorrows and respective cures -- worlds away from the men in the “lamp-lit living room,” who listened still, “nodding at the nostrums offered by the tongues / of the unseen / As if the sorrows were soothed by the lost dialect / of the soul / Which whispered to the enormous ache of the imminent."  A handful of these poems break me, including “Specificity,” an elegy for the poet Len Roberts, that ends after a memorial service: I sit with my wife who orders a glass of Chambord for a small, expensive pleasure in a well-decorated room, the possibility of happiness surprising us in the way hummingbirds do, stuck in the air, just now, outside this window, attracted to the joy of sweetness despite the clear foreshadowing of their tiny, sprinting hearts. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Zoë Ruiz

During the first half of the year, I read poetry.  While I stayed at Rachel McLeod Kaminer’s downtown loft, I picked up Patti Smith’s Early Work: 1970-1979 and Louise Mathias's The Traps from her bookshelf, and later in the year, read Kaminer’s collection As in the Dark, Descend. In San Francisco, McSweeney’s editor Andi Winnette handed me Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, an Index. Lindenberg’s partner went on a trip to research volcanoes in Japan and then disappeared. He never returned. She lost him and she wrote these poems. While in Connecticut, I read Gary Young’s Adversary and when I was back in California, I read Young’s Even So. I read Love Sonnets and Elegies by Louise Labé and I didn’t think I’d particularly enjoy love sonnets by a woman from the 16th century but I did. I liked reading her yearning. It made that kind of ache seem timeless. I spent hours late at night reading the manga Lone Wolf and Cub, a tale of violent revenge set in Japan’s Edo period. The lead character is a former shogun’s executioner who lives a life as an assassin and cares for his toddler-aged son. Father and son, together they travel the country, carrying out murders. As this 28-volume tale unfolds, the plot thickens and more becomes at stake, but I only read up to volume 13 because I became distracted by life. There is a strong likelihood that I will spend the second half of December fiendishly finishing this blood-filled story. Not only are the illustrations of the landscape beautiful and many of the lines read like poetry, but I’m slightly in love with this story. I read What Becomes Us by my former professor Micah Perks. The language in this story is lively and reads fast, and the story centers on Evie who is pregnant with twins and leaves her abusive husband on the West Coast to start a new life on the East Coast. The town she moves to is community-oriented but also strange and a bit creepy. As Evie’s hunger for love, food, and more takes her over, she begins to have visions of historical figure Mary Rowlandson. During King Philip’s War, Mary Rowlandson was held captive and wrote a narrative about her experience; this captivity narrative was the first prose book published by a woman in the Americas. After I finished What Becomes Us, I read The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. I read Natashia Deón’s critically acclaimed debut novel Grace, which is an epic novel that masterfully and keenly tells the story of Naomi and her daughter, Josey, as well as the stories of the men and women they encounter. All of Deón’s characters are alive and complex and her language is filled with rich images that delight, surprise, and many times hurt. Grace brings the history of slavery in the United States very close to the reader and in doing so, offers the reader space to imagine the dreams and visions of the people who lived this history, dreams and visions that people in power suppressed and tried to erase from our history and imagination. In April, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies was published by Harvard University Press and the book was shortlisted for the National Book Award for nonfiction. Nguyen wrote a critical text that examines war and memory and forgetting, and this academic book is accessible to nonacademic readers. For years, I told myself I wasn’t smart enough to comprehend theoretical and academic texts, but after reading and line-editing Nugyen’s book, I realized that not only are some academic works accessible and comprehendible, but their analysis of relevant topics are crucial in helping me understand the world in which I live. I suppose I believe that if I fully understand power structures, then I can strategically fight against them. I read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and after I finished the book, I read interviews with her from 2014 and listened to recordings of her reading excerpts of Citizen. In September, she became a MacArthur Fellow and that same month in a Buzzfeed interview said, “As citizens, we’re being asked to be in collusion with the murder of black people, to not regard it as a state of emergency, and to continue in our normal course of business.” This year, she encouraged us as American citizens to acknowledge that we are in state of emergency. In October, I read headlines that she was using the MacArthur grant to study whiteness and that she stated, “It’s important that people begin to understand that whiteness is not inevitable, and that white dominance is not inevitable.” In 2017, I want to read books that help further the idea that both whiteness and white dominance are not inevitable, and I want to read books that help me understand how exactly we got to the place that we are in now. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

I’m writing this in November, which is the month when I go through the notebook where I keep track of all the books I read, study the titles with a little star next to them, and try to remember which of these struck me the most. The three that remain most vividly in memory from this past year are a book about the shipping industry, a surrealist novel from a small press, and a work of speculative fiction about the Second American Civil War, the premise of which seemed horribly topical when I read it back in September and hasn't become less troubling since. 1. The Shipping Industry The British journalist Rose George's Ninety Percent of Everything has one of those wildly unwieldy subtitles that haunt the non-fiction section -- Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, Food on Your Plate -- but unwieldy or not, the subtitle does sum up the situation fairly nearly, and it’s an elegantly written and deeply researched book. George goes to sea aboard a container ship, the Maersk Kendal, and in so doing steps into a world mostly closed to outsiders. Standing on the dock at Felixstowe in the U.K., looking up at the towering hull of the ship, she reflects on the oddly invisible nature of the industry relative to its importance: These ships and boxes belong to a business that feeds, clothes, warms, and supplies us. They have fueled if not created globalization. They are the reason behind your cheap T-shirt and reasonably priced television. But who looks behind a television now and sees the ship that brought it? Who cares about the men who steered your breakfast cereal through winter storms? How ironic that the more ships have grown in size and consequence, the less space they take up in our imagination. “Are you reading that for research?” a couple of people asked, when they saw me reading it. “Yes,” I said, which wasn’t untrue, but also easier than explaining that I've always been interested in the shipping industry, which is probably not terribly uncommon among people who grew up by the ocean and hold childhood memories of grey horizons with container ships passing, floating citadels crossing unimaginable distances. I’ve spent a lot of time in hotel rooms over these past couple years, and the one I liked best was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, because the view was of the docks across the street, where another Maersk ship was being loaded when I went to bed. The ship was gone by morning. 2. A Surrealist Novel From a Small Press The only thing I don’t like about Christopher Boucher's work is that it’s almost impossible to do it justice when I’m trying to explain it to people. (I praised his first novel, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, at some length back in 2011. It was about a man whose girlfriend gives birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle.) His second novel, Golden Delicious, is in more or less the same surrealist vein and infused with the same strange brilliance, but this time it’s a kind of meta-novel, which is to say that the characters know they're in a novel. Their novel’s Reader is a character, with whom the protagonist goes on bicycle rides. The protagonist doesn't have a name, but he does have a pet sentence. If you ride your bike to the edge of town, you’ll reach the margins, which are sometimes a little sketchy. The language in Boucher’s novel isn’t just alive; it gets into fights. (“Shortly after that, two clauses got in a fight in the margin across the street. This would happen every once in a while -- you’d hear the wild, high squeal and pitter-patter of language chasing language through trees.”) Sentences sometimes skitter away, as in: “Just then a small sentence scampered across the page. My Mom lunged at it, picked it up by the scruff of its vowel and tossed it into the margin.” The whole thing’s a bit convoluted, peculiar, often very funny, and also deeply, improbably moving, because here, as in Boucher’s debut novel, the entire high-wire act is in service to a deadly serious story about belonging, and about the agonies and joys of being in a family. 3. A Novel That Isn’t Out Yet It is arguably slightly obnoxious to recommend novels that aren’t out yet, but the book that I found the most haunting this year doesn't actually come out until April. Omar El Akkad is a Canadian journalist who’s covered topics ranging from terrorism to the gradual disappearance of Louisiana beneath the water. His debut novel, American War, opens with the outbreak of the Second American Civil War in 2074. Sarat Chestnut is six years old when the war begins, and El Akkad follows her through her years in a displaced persons camp and into the war's aftermath. The war’s ostensible trigger is the South’s refusal to stop using banned fossil fuels, but it seems clear that this is essentially a pretext; the problem was never really oil, the problem was that two incompatible cultures have emerged in one country and the Red and Blue states have found themselves on a collision course. (Seems improbable, I know, but stay with me here.) The premise is harrowing, the prose is stark and beautiful, the plotting is impeccable, and there's something utterly heartbreaking in El Akkad's subtle rendition of the ways in which war shapes the human soul. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Mauro Javier Cardenas

A footnote alerted me to the existence of Douglas Porpora's How Holocausts Happens: The United States in Central America, which I will be rerereading for years. Porpora demonstrates how easy it is for citizens to shirk responsibility for horrendous acts enacted by their government and asks whether the United States became a party to a genocide-like event in Central America (the answer is yes). Everything that is happening to us in Central America, Óscar Martínez writes in A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America, is tangled up with the United States. In this collection, Martinez, a journalist whose acerbic prose enlivens its dire subjects, covers stories that illuminate why so many Central Americans are willing to risk their lives to cross the border to the United States (and why, instead of calling them illegal or undocumented, we should be calling them refugees). I’ve been reading Tony Tulathimutte and Karan Mahajan for years, and like any decent fan, I’ve been waiting for the so-called general public to catch on. Tony’s a prose stylist who, because he does not have (to paraphrase from a Latin American saying) hairs on his tongue, gleefully pierces through the varieties of American hypocrisy, as he does in Private Citizens, his first novel, although he isn’t after satire, but after character, which of course could be described as a summation of hypocrisies. When I think of Karan I think of Saul Bellow, and when I think of Karan’s The Association of Small Bombs I think of the richness of his moment by moment narration, as in, for instance, the sequence of disorientation of Mansoor, who, after surviving a detonation, flees the bomb scene (his friends were dead in any case), runs away from someone who offers to help (what if he’s a kidnapper!), and chides himself for not asking a woman for help instead (safer). In Seeing Red, Lina Meruane’s propulsive prose doesn’t just pursue her rage against the onset of her blindness, but its undercurrents as well. I’m being devoured by a delicate, carnivorous flower, she says. I’ve come to tell you that I need you, she says, and I don’t want to need you ever again. A Nobel Prize winner doesn’t need my shoutout, but Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, an oral history of Russia after the end of communism, which contains sections that resemble the ensemble of voices in JR by William Gaddis, is so extraordinary that it made me want to spend the next 10 years recording monologues by my fellow Americans. Another master of other people’s monologues is Rachel Cusk. In Outline and Transit, the first two novels of her trilogy, a narrator who has been astonished into silence by the loss that comes with adult relationships explores the confounding landscape of being alone/not alone through the monologues of acquaintances, former lovers, people in planes, students. One day literature professors will map out the intricate interconnectedness of her monologues. I’ll conclude my incomplete 2016 list (where’s The Last Wolf by László Krasznahorkai? I'll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos?) with a random passage from Transit: "I had started to desire power, because what I now realized was that other people had it all along, and that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will." More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Megan Abbott

For those of us who read incessantly -- books often serving as a kind of muzzy hideyhole from the world, our lives -- our reading memories of 2016 may be forever tied to the presidential campaign. Pre-nomination, post-conventions, pre-Access Hollywood, post-James Comey, pre-November 8th, and The After. So it is for me and the three books I want to talk about, each one tentacled to the election, but far more for the intensity of feeling the election induced: In the middle of May (Ted Cruz withdraws, Donald Trump secures the needed number of delegates), which feels like a lifetime ago, I read The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky a humming wonder of a novel about Leah, a writer, stifled in her current life and marriage, who travels to San Francisco when a coworker from a decade ago suddenly dies. In late October, a tense and hopeful time, the ground shifting every day beneath one’s feet, I sunk into The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. A luminous non-fiction meditation on loneliness and its “potential beauty,” Laing considers the way it “drive[s] creativity of all kinds,” as explored through the lives of artists including Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. The dire week after the election, when every day seems to wrench and pull at so many of us, I read without stopping an advance copy of All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg (out in March 2017), a funny, startling, melancholy stunner of a novel about Andrea, an artist no longer doing her art, a sister and daughter and friend and colleague and New Yorker trying to find her way and figure out what it means to be an adult. These are books of aloneness -- women alone, artists alone, women artists alone, doing or not doing art. And they are books of connecting -- painfully, tentatively, transcendently, warily, fleetingly, bravely. Reading them as the nation seemed to jolt and bob and weave and hurtle, I felt my nerve endings exposed, every feeling a soft suffusion in the chest. “What does it feel like to be lonely?” Laing asks in The Lonely City. “It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” Leah and Andrea, Dermansky and Attenberg’s heroines, are both hungry, and their hunger is rendered painful, consuming, transformational. It enables them to see the hunger in loved ones, strangers, celebrities, servicepeople, everyone -- even, or especially, when it’s hurtful to do so. “What is it about the pain of others?” Laing asks. “Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger's body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of colored pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.” Reading these words before November 8th and after is the same, yet different. All three books remind us how painful it is to feel so much and how critical it is, maybe now more than ever, to feel so much. How challenging it can be to connect to others -- especially when we feel pushed out or when we are the ones doing the pushing -- and how important it is to keep on trying, through art or friendship or activism or simple empathy. These are all books that reach their hand out and say: This is hard, all of it, but we have to. We have to. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Jacqueline Woodson

2016 was a strange year in so many ways.  We were at once confused and hopeful about the coming elections, I was traveling way too much -- first because of the National Book Award for my memoir Brown Girl Dreaming and then for my novel Another Brooklyn.  I was talking about writing more than I was writing and that was making me cranky.  I was away from my family and that was making THEM cranky. Then we were planning our trip abroad and gut renovation so we were all scattered and crazed.  Reading became a balm for all of us.  In the days I was home, time was spent reading to my eight-year-old.  He had turned a corner as a reader and listener so we moved from the younger graphics -- mainly his favorite book of all time: The Crock Ate My Homework -- to deeper books like Jason Reynolds’s As Brave As You and later, Ghost, both of which are so brilliantly written that I often tried to move bedtime up a bit to get back to our nightly readings.  At the same time, my daughter was grumbling her way through the (still assigned!) Lord of the Flies, (poor child, I felt her pain!) and finding comfort in Edwidge Danticat’s Krik Krak.  Krik Krak for my daughter, was the Danticat gateway.  She went on to devour Brother, I’m Dying, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and Untwine.  I was more than thrilled to see these books stacked beside her bed and, in the morning, one or the other of them brought down to the breakfast table.  Losing a teenager to Danticat is not really losing a teenager.  The child that re-emerged was a bit deeper, a bit kinder.  Then there was my partner -- a doctor by day and a reader by night.  The stack of books grew high beside her bed, got hauled up to the library, only to be replaced by a new stack.  The book she loved the most was Carolina De Robertis's The God’s Of Tango. It came with us to France this summer and got passed around our extended family.  Not one of the people who opened that book didn’t love it.  I’d have to say The Gods of Tango is on the list of amazing books written in my lifetime. I would love to spend the rest of this commentary telling anyone who wants to listen about The Gods of Tango but I won’t.  Just read it. Or listen to it on audio. Or do both.  The same of anything Ann Patchett puts a pen to.  Commonwealth – Wow!!  State of Wonder -- Jeez -- how did she do that?!  Bel Canto -- What…?! Audio was big for me this year.  Spending so much time on planes and trains, the words of other writers were healing, reminding me of why I write.  So I plowed through Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill, Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Here’s the truth about me -- while my partner will read a book she doesn’t really like until the last word, I will not finish a book I don’t love to the bone. Life is too short. There are far too many good books out there. I’m looking forward to finishing more of the ones I love. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Bich Minh Nguyen

This year a group of friends and I started a book club because we wanted to talk about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. It so happened that we also love karaoke, so we became a karaoke book club: we talk about writing and desire and friendship and then we go and sing our hearts out. This pairing works beautifully and maybe it’s because we want to be in a moment, like Ferrante Fever. I’ve been thinking about how much immersion matters, how I’m reading for what books can make me feel, especially a particular collusion of sadness and rage, sparked by longing. This takes many forms: rawness, interiority, yelling, even silence. It has to do with characters working against histories and structures that often seem impossible to break. Elena Ferrante’s Elena and Lila are trying to figure out their own selves, at times creative and wild, within harsh patriarchal and provincial structures. Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes gives us a part of American history that’s often overlooked: the Asian-American experience through the building of the transcontinental railroad, early Hollywood, and more. The rage here, like the prose, is transcendent. Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History pushes against the tide of forgetting, against the smoothing over of the past, against moving on. Death and Satan argue over a man’s soul and every page is a reckoning. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is gorgeous, suffused with sorrow and the weight of obligation and time, as it considers what might and will happen to a young ambitious woman. And with all of this rage and sorrow and longing, there is laughter in these books. Maybe it’s what we need to do right now as part of taking care of ourselves: we listen, learn, rave, and cry, and then we laugh (which is to sing) because we have to, somehow, get through what we’re going through. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Sally Rooney

This January, I finally read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, a grim and angry novel to begin a grim and angry year. First published in 1939, the frisson of suppressed brutality its narrator encounters everywhere has started to feel claustrophobically familiar now. In some ways, it’s a novel about precariousness -- economic, social, psychological, historical -- and about its exhausting effects on the human soul. I think Rhys had a special genius for understanding the subtle relationship between her characters’ inner lives and the grinding machinery of world history. It’s a gift I searched for often in my reading this year. I found it again in Jane Bowles, whose singular novel Two Serious Ladies (1943) I discovered this spring. Written in a kind of flat and gloriously weird prose, the novel loosely follows two women as they throw themselves into destructive crusades against social convention. The private lives of individuals are probably always subject to the public machinations of power, but maybe this is most obvious in periods of historical crisis. At one point in the novel, overhearing a conversation between two young Marxist radicals, the protagonist Miss Goering remarks: “You...are interested in winning a very correct and intelligent fight. I am far more interested in what is making this fight so hard to win.” Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden (1967) is a quiet, intimate novel about friendship, sex, and social class. I read it under beating sun in Porto this summer and it charmed me almost to tears. Featuring a wry, self-aware protagonist, a glamorous cast of secondary characters, and cheerfully staunch leftist politics, it seems to me an unfortunately neglected novel of mid-20th-century Britain, and a forerunner of much of the great feminist fiction that followed. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a copy of Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (2015, translated by Megan McDowell), a startling and gorgeous collection of short fiction. Zambra’s observations are forensic, his prose is masterfully direct, and his interrogation of form, voice, and identity feels urgent rather than playful. I practically swallowed the book whole. I’m already looking forward to reading the rest of Zambra’s work, starting right now with his new book Multiple Choice (2016). At one point in Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys’s narrator declares: “I want a long, calm book about people with large incomes -- a book like a flat green meadow and the sheep feeding in it.” I confess that I shared this desire often in 2016. I reread not only Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, but also Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, as well as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. A wealth of writing exists on all these novels and I have nothing insightful to add here, except that they consoled me somewhat while the world descended into catastrophe. Great writing can do more, but sometimes consolation is no small task. More from A Year in Reading 2016 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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005