Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: The Book Report

Welcome to a very special episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! In this episode, Janet and Mike get into the holiday spirit by discussing their literary regrets. Also, check out their Christmas trees! Discussed in this episode: "My Way" by Paul Anka, Festivus, Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dune by Frank Herbert (which still sucks), Dune (dir. David Lynch), unearned positive reviews, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, book critic detectives, The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Elena Ferrante. Cut for time from this episode: We riffed on Dune for a good 15 minutes. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Saeed Jones

Trying to make sense of the books I loved in the last year and why is a bit like trying to divine the logic that guided me into past relationships. The books -- each a kind of lover -- all just...made sense at the time. I don’t have favorite lovers, just current ones. Right now, I’m cheating on all of you with Helen Oyeyemi's novel Mr. Fox. Like her excellent Boy, Snow, Bird -- another recent paramour of mine -- the magical realism in Mr. Fox pulled me into its grasp one page at a time, seducing me so effectively I didn’t realize I had walked into a heart-shaped trap until it was too late. My relationship with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was so brutal I spent the entire summer in France trying to get my groove back. Reading a galley of Alexander Chee's forthcoming epic The Queen of The Night helped a great deal. But then I returned to New York City in the fall and couldn’t walk down a single sidewalk in the city without meeting someone else who’d also been seduced then wrecked by A Little Life. There should be a recovery group, ALL-Anonymous, for people who, like me, didn’t know that a book could be so gorgeously wrought and exacting at the same time. That book hurt me; I’m not sure if this is a recommendation or confession. Some lovers sent me running into the arms of old haunts. Reading Eula Biss's On Immunity forced me to think about the self in relation to others. If the borders of our bodies are in fact porous, what do we owe one another? I expected a book about disease and instead Bliss’s brilliant meditation urged me to consider morals in a challenging, beautiful way. And so from that lover, only one ghost would do: I got my hands on a copy of Melville House’s James Baldwin: The Last Interview. The conversations the book captures speak to the self’s relationship with racism, America’s most infectious disease, and I just don’t know what to do with the fact that everything Baldwin says feels so hauntingly contemporary -- except know it and honor it. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Joyce Carol Oates

Among the most engaging new books I've perused in recent months are C.K. Williams's Selected Later Poems -- beautifully intricate, contentious, strikingly ardent poems by one of our great contemporary poets; The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson -- a treasure trove of contemporary American writing, fiction, poetry, non-fiction that should be required reading for new and emerging writers; 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories -- a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection assembled by Lorrie Moore containing little-known stories by classic writers and with an emphasis upon the very new; and Tracy Daugherty's meticulously researched, warmly sympathetic biography of Joan Didion, The Last Love Song. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Katrina Dodson

This year, my pleasure reading happened in fits and starts, in between ominous deadlines and periods of resting my brain with easy sitcoms (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Mindy Project, Seinfeld). In January, I was most thankful for Roxane Gay’s company in Bad Feminist, as I was in the final sprint of two years spent translating The Complete Stories, by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, while processing an explosive breakup and the Charlie Hebdo shooting in a place where I hardly spoke to another human for two weeks. In those essays and in Gay’s columns throughout this year of turbulent events, I have found wise and generous ways of navigating vulnerability, messiness, violence, and troubling clashes of opinion. Reading in the nowhere space of airplanes leaves a satisfyingly concentrated imprint on you. Two books to be absorbed in focused bursts are Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green. I read both on a flight to Hawaii in February, for a birthday trip after turning in the Lispector manuscript and before heading back into edits and my long-derailed dissertation. Citizen, which mixes poems, visual art, and brief pieces somewhere between prose poem and essay, made me hyperaware of everyone around me in the airport and on the plane, as it tracks those barely perceptible charges of racial prejudice and consciousness of difference that seep into our everyday interactions. It also made me obsessed with Serena Williams, in time to jump into conversations about the U.S. Open and Drake. Self-Portrait in Green, translated by Jordan Stump, was a different revelation, a crypto-memoir that swings in fragments between France and an African country that evokes Senegal. It swept me into a dream saturated in green hues (banana leaves; a woman’s bright dress; a series of mysterious, seductive yet melancholy green women) and cut with powerful, sensual images that recall the films of Claire Denis, with whom NDiaye has collaborated. March through October became a torrent of Elena Ferrante, when I wasn’t wringing my hands and hunching my shoulders over work. I’m not earning any originality points for this pick, as one among hordes of women (and quite a few men) who’ve gotten drunk on any or all of the anonymous Italian writer’s seven novels to date -- though I think of the Neapolitan Novels as four installments of one very long book. I’ve been surprised and excited to encounter this writing from inside women’s lives and bodies that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. I also struck up an admiring acquaintance with Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, whose work has led me to read Primo Levi and Pier Paolo Pasolini. I finished my dissertation, exhaled, and hit the road with Patti Smith in October. I listened to her narrate M Train two times over as I drove alone from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back, for a family visit and a reading. Besides Horses, the thing I love best about Patti is her uninhibited worship of heroes and talismans, intertwined with a romantic idealism usually found only in teenagers. She collects stones from a prison in French Guiana to bring to Jean Genet, swoons into a bed at Frida Kahlo’s Mexico City house-museum, joins the elusive Continental Drift Club out of a fixation on the explorer Alfred Wegener’s boots, and still fantasizes about a café of her own at the age of 67. Though the hardcover has pleasingly silken pages and includes the photographs she describes taking, I prefer the audiobook because it makes you feel like you’re hanging out with Patti, listening to her tell stories in her craggy, wry, cowboy-from-New Jersey voice, saying words like “yelluh” and “worter.” The end of this year has taken a decidedly witchy turn. I first discovered John Keene through his translation of Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer and was eager to read his fiction in Counternarratives. Who knows what book of spells Keene used to conjure these hypnotic, quasi-historical tales involving mystical convergences? Together they form a composite portrait of colonialism, slavery, and their influence in the New World, jumping between Brazil, North America, Haiti, and elsewhere, in the 17th to 20th centuries. My favorite story, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows,” is populated by Haitian witches and Catholic nuns in Kentucky. Sometimes when you go around calling something “one of my favorite books,” to the point that you name your Wi-Fi network after the title character, but can only recall it in vague outlines, it’s time to check in again. So I reread Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman, described in the 1999 NYRB reissue as “an aging spinster’s struggle to break away from her controlling family.” An admirable cause, obviously, but I’d always liked Warner’s own description of it as a “story about a witch.” Yet I had forgotten how long we have to suffer with Laura, “Aunt Lolly,” under the thumb of her uptight aristocratic family in decline (think Downton Abbey but shabbier) before she decides that single ladies have rights too and moves to the rural village of Great Mop. Never have I experienced a more tranquil, nature-loving account of meeting Satan, aka the Loving Huntsman, and joining a mild-mannered community of witches. In one of her nonchalant conversations with Satan, Lolly explains, “That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.” More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Chris Kraus

I read and re-read Fred Moten’s The Little Edges this summer, dipping in and out of poems, intrigued and amazed by how they could be at the same time so elusive and eloquent, mysterious and clear. And then I discovered Vincent Katz’s hugely impressive translations of The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, published in 2004. Like Catullus, Propertius was a powerful influence on New York School writers, a classical model for a first-person poetic narration that mixed high and low; sophisticated literary allusion and direct address. Katz’s translations are less sensational than those of his 20th-century predecessors, less concerned with the shock-value of Propertius’s odes to his courtesan girlfriend than with how the poems work on a metrical level, graphing emotional states. Similarly, Gary Indiana’s memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, published this fall by Rizzoli, offers a new model for what a "memoir" can be. Foraging across screen memories of childhood -- “my memory,” as he writes, “is a viscid, opaque continuum of fragments” -- Indiana soon abandons the enterprise. Instead, he gives an account of a life-long friendship and a series of visits to an increasingly "open" and neoliberalized Cuba. As he writes: “Of course it’s coming, coming here, coming soon, the gathering tsunami of Our Kind of Capitalism. iPad, iPod, YouTube, Buy It, Love It, Fuck It, Dump It, Buy a New One. The people who sell all this shit say it’s what people want, and they’re not wrong. But if people knew what they were in for, their heads would explode.” Finally, I was excited to read Joni Murphy’s new novel Double Teenage that will come out from Bookthug, Toronto next year. Murphy traces the lives of two women who grew up in Las Cruces, N.M., and separately flee for points north. From the micro-inflictions of "self-harm" to the systemic violence around them, they struggle to make sense of their surroundings through sex, romance, and drugs; fashion, literature, theater, critical theory, and art. Double Teenage seems like the definitive book of The Young Girl as defined by Tiqqun. It’s also a definitive book about NAFTA, the Ciudad Juarez femicides, spectacular serial killings, and media’s comforting lull. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Claire Vaye Watkins

We like to go on about why we read, the power of literature, etc. Literature can transform indifference into empathy, we insist, transubstantiate ink on bleached papyrus into flesh and blood. It’s all very “Kumbayah” and, coming from writers, a tad grandiose. A little defensive, even. “It may look like I’m diddling unwashed in my pajamas in a room by myself -- but no! I’m weaving an immortal thread on the great tapestry of the human experience!” Delusions of grandeur are comfy, but this year they’ve forsaken me. This year I’ve picked up lots of books and found not the transcendent but the smug, the affected, the dull. It started to feel like “the power of literature” was a product I’d been sold, which I was now employed in schilling. Teaching will do this. But then came Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. What I found in Bynum’s second novel was not the Power of Literature™ but something less leaden, more meringue. As I read, an old feeling came to me from back before I treated Literature like medicine or a communion wafer. It was joy! And the best kind of sadness! Plus heaps and heaps of laughter! I read with the same studious fervor with which my sister and I once stayed up late listening to the radio, teaching ourselves the freaky subspecialties of punk and metal -- a memory Bynum’s “Creep” excavated for me. Her chapters (stories? who cares!) kept doing this, dredging up parts of myself I’d completely forgotten. So I deem Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles the best book I read this year, for reminding me of my favorite reason to read: pure joy. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Nell Zink

2015 was the year I first read William Styron and enjoyed Jonathan Franzen, two impassioned existentialists whose characters -- machines célibataires initially persuaded of the arability of signs -- fail at their world-building, not even spectacularly but in ways that embarrass even themselves, coming to rest at last on the eternally naked but fertile earth of the female sex. Such novels are jungles, with flaws that are numerous, open-mouthed, and hungry. So instead I will recommend two short masterpieces: The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, and Daniel Kehlmann’s Ich und Kaminski. If Styron and Franzen are high romantic symphonies, Drury and Kehlmann are baroque airs -- instantly accessible and timeless, capturing known worlds rather than jury rigging the new. My lasting joy in The End of Vandalism (1994) hinges on its portrayal of a certain kind of archetypal small-town egomaniac it is a punishment to know. I struggled and failed in my novel Mislaid to sketch this person in the character of Lomax, but here he is in the hulking, self-pitying “Tiny,” quick to offend and just as quick to forgive (himself). I love his patient and gentle antagonist, Sheriff Dan. Drury lands line after line of laconic idiom with the artlessness of true art. Ich und Kaminski (2003) is told in a first-person voice whose transparent self-deception is the air we breathe. Art historian/reviewer Sebastian is under contract/freelancing to write a book-length biography/magazine profile of an epoch-making/insignificant world famous/forgotten abstract expressionist/dabbler in watercolor landscapes, best known for his progressive partial blindness. Assisted by a girlfriend who is seeing someone else but never got her keys back, he reunites the painter with the love of his life. Sebastian’s fall is long, awkward, and embarrassing, but he never knows he’s falling. As it is for most of us, blessed as we are not to live in existentialist novels, it’s the hard landing that gets his attention -- right in time for him to get up and dust himself off. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Celeste Ng

Early in 2015, I was lucky enough to do an event with Joan Wickersham at a new indie bookstore in Boston, Papercuts JP. So her memoir The Suicide Index was one of the first books I read this year, and at year’s end, it’s still haunting me. It’s a painful book but also a beautiful one, in which Wickersham tries to make sense of her father’s unexpected suicide -- but it’s also a meditation on loss, the secrets kept within a family, and continuing to live and find meaning even in the face of unimaginable grief. 2015 was also the year I caved in and read Elena Ferrante. Her novels had been recommended to me so many times -- by so many people -- I was sure they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But the first page of My Brilliant Friend sucked me in, just like everyone said it would. How is it possible that a novel about two girls living in mid-20th-century Naples can be so relevant to lives in the 21st century -- especially the lives of women? I’ve never read novels like this and am so glad they exist. Don’t be put off by the list of characters at the beginning; just dive in and let the voice carry you. And when you hit that gut-punch of a last line, be prepared to run out and get the next book. I don’t know why it took me so long to pick up Alyssa Harad’s memoir Coming to My Senses -- it’s been out for a few years and is squarely in my wheelhouse, as I’m fascinated by scent -- but once I did, this fall, I sank into it like a warm bubble bath. Harad tells the story of her growing obsession with perfume, in luscious language that will have you shivering with delight. I mean: “Bal à Versaille eau de parfum is famously rich and dirty: huge, overblown roses and rotting cherries smoked with incense and mellow, rotting manure. The eau de cologne is just plain dirty and is best worn by very wicked old women.” How can you not want to keep reading after that? Finally, last year I read Heap House, the first book in Edward Carey’s middle-grade/YA Iremonger Trilogy; this year, the last two volumes (Foulsham and Lungdon) came out. The best description I have is if Edward Gorey and Joan Aiken collaborated on a novel, which I mean as high praise: it’s weird and wonderful and thought-provoking and just plain fun. Clod -- not a typo, there -- is a scion of the Iremonger family, who live in a garbage-filled wasteland called the Heaps, outside an alternate Victorian London. Every Iremonger is given an object at birth, from which they must never part -- but Clod can hear something the others can’t: each object has a name, which it repeats over and over. Add a spunky housemaid heroine named Lucy Pennant, a mysterious disease that turns people into objects (and vice versa), and Carey’s own evocative black-and-white drawings, and if you aren’t intrigued enough to run out and treat yourself to this series, please check for your pulse. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Claire Messud

One of the great pleasures of this year for me was the last volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, The Story of the Lost Child. It’s not to be read on its own, though -- you’ve got to devour the other three books first. Ferrante builds her rich and textured world over time, and this last volume would not, I think, truly make sense without the others. I also highly recommend the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s response to Albert Camus’s The Stranger: entitled The Meursault Investigation, it retells the iconic story from an Algerian’s perspective, and gives us a view of contemporary Algerian life in the bargain. The Sympathizer, a terrific first novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, was another of my year’s discoveries: narrated by a Vietnamese double-agent who ends up in the United States, the book is rich, surprising, and often darkly funny. And last, but by no means least, while helping my teenage daughter to find some great books she might enjoy, I’ve had the joy of rediscovering some old favorites, including Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and -- delicious, always inappropriate, and oddly perspicacious – André Gide’s The Counterfeiters. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Angela Flournoy

In January I vowed to purchase and read as much poetry as I read fiction. I traveled more this year than ever before, mostly in support of my novel, and poetry became a way to keep good words on my person without lugging around a heavy hardcover. For a fiction writer like me, who loves clause-heavy sentences and a good, chunky paragraph, poetry reminds me that every word and every sound can and should be considered. The poetry I read, in the order acquired: Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones Citizen, by Claudia Rankine Blue Yodel, by Ansel Elkins Hemming the Water, by Yona Harvey Gabriel, by Edward Hirsch How to Be Drawn, by Terrance Hayes [Insert] Boy, by Danez Smith Boy With Thorn, by Rickey Laurentiis Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón An unexpected and wonderful thing happened as a result of putting my first book out this year: I read a good amount of 2015 releases. It usually takes me a while to learn about new books, and longer still to read them, but there’s only so many times you can see your book alongside other good-looking ones in bookstores and in the press before you pick them up and see what’s what. Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon Diamond Head, by Cecily Wong Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, by Julie Iromuanya Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson Bright Lines, by Tanwi Nandini Islam The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.