Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Carmen Maria Machado

I’ve read some stunning short story collections in 2017: Bennett Sims’s cerebral, unsettling White Dialogues; Jenny Zhang’s lush and visceral Sour Heart; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s liminal, searing What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky; and Amy Parker’s beautiful and devastating Beasts and Children. The novels that took off the top of my head were Andrea Lawlor’s sexy, picaresque Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl: Alissa Nutting’s hilarious Made for Love; Kathryn Davis’s uncategorizable Duplex; and Jeff VanderMeer’s inventive, disconcerting Borne. I didn’t have a lot of bandwidth for nonfiction, but when I did, I was unmade by Roxane Gay’s heartbreaking memoir Hunger; Samantha Irby’s tremendously funny essay collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life; and Brian Blanchfield’s brilliant, singular Proxies. [millions_ad] I’ve also gotten a sneak peek at a couple of unreleased books I can’t wait for: Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown, Mark Mayer’s Aerialists, and Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster. 2018 can’t come soon enough. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Garth Greenwell

Early in the year, an editor’s comment on an essay draft sent me back to Émile Zola, whom I hadn’t read since graduate school. And I think even then I only read one novel, L’Assommoir, which somehow didn’t make an overwhelming impression. It made one now, and I spent the first couple of months of 2017 reading novel after novel, in a state of real amazement. Zola is an uneven writer, sometimes careless, and he’s a deeply uncongenial writer for me in the attitude of knowingness he takes toward his characters, his sense that contemporary theories of human behavior adequately explain human beings, without any remainder of mystery. This sense of knowingness results, often enough, in an impression of authorial contempt. In his determination to show the social rot in France’s Second Empire, his plots follow the same monotonous course from bad to worse to devastated. And yet. At his best, Zola gets more reality into his books than any other writer I can think of, and this fidelity to the real—to how laundry is washed and beaten and dried, to how a horse is lowered into a mine—his meticulous, obsessive need to get things right, makes the books absolutely thrilling. And even if his theories deny human mystery, his characters, at least at the books’ finest moments, reclaim it. Nana regarding herself in the mirror, purring like a cat; the anarchist Souvarine stroking a rabbit on his lap; la Mouquette mooning the houses of the rich: these are moments of pure literature, I think, that wondrous excess of behavior and feeling that swamps reductive theory. I was pulled away from Zola, after seven or eight novels, to other projects; I’m itching to get back. Toward the end of the year, a stray reference in Maggie Nelson’s fascinating The Art of Cruelty finally sent me to a book several friends had enthused about over the years: T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death. All of my training in the arts has been musical and literary; I’ve always been (I remain) embarrassed of my ignorance regarding visual art, to which my response is sometimes powerful but never informed. The Sight of Death is a remarkable demonstration of what an exquisitely informed eye can see. Over the course of months, during a residency at the Getty museum in L.A., Clark studies two huge landscapes by Nicolas Poussin—studying them not in his usual scholarly, historically-informed way, but simply by looking. This book is the record of what he sees. The gamble of the project is that something about great art really is inexhaustible: that we can return to a great poem or painting or sonata again and again, always finding ourselves newly challenged. The gamble pays off here, and the gorgeous and generous illustrations allow us to participate in Clark’s looking, to see some shadow of what he sees. Seldom have I been more grateful to a book. [millions_ad] Among new books: Frank Bidart’s Half-Light, which collects 50 years of poetry, is for me the book not just of the year but of the decade. Yiyun Li’s devastating, consoling Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is among the most profound books I’ve ever read about the relationship between life and reading. And finally, two novels that I read in 2017 but that are coming out in 2018: First, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, out in January, is the best new novel I’ve read in a very long time, a gorgeous and profound interrogation of fidelity of all kinds. And Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, out in June, is far too wise to be a debut novel; I’m not sure I know another book that measures so exactly and compassionately the lines of resentment and love that stitch together a family. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Lidia Yuknavitch

This last year has left me so depleted and on the cusp of despair, because TRUMP of course, because death culture, because planet and existence ending policies. And yet I have been astonished. Up against the gloom and grind of current events voices have emerged, and with those voices body stories, singing up and through the horror. These are the books that left me breathless and alive, reminding me that we must endure, go on, spend every last bit of energy working against the grain of forces that might silence us. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: A story that breaks down what we mean when we say family, father, mother, self, and reconstitutes it by illuminating the cracks and fissures that will either break us or lead us to light. Hunger by Roxane Gay: This is a profound body story speaking back to a culture that would disappear that body. If we have hearts left at all, this book is heartspeak, an opportunity to remember how to love into the otherness rather than judge difference as if we have ever had that right. A triumph of a book and a body. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: WHAT a genre busting burst of brilliance! Restored my faith not only in the short story, but also my delight in those writers (nearly always women, writers of color, or LGBTQ writers) willing to risk everything formally on the page. I am on the sidelines cheering with abandon. [millions_ad] What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: I read this book when it first emerged and I will keep reading it every year of my life. It is a secular desire bible. It is desire alive. The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both by Han Kang: I devoured both of these books and then devoured them again. Both contain a raw and riveting helix made from the fantastic threaded through raw reality, with the body as a site of resistance. American War by Omar El Akkad: A splicing and remixing of culture that dislocates "America" from her supposed moorings, themselves constructed fictions. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer: Holy mother of dirt and animals—this book pitches us into a future that is technically already present, and restates our fears and desires inside giant floating bears and beings made from everything about us. Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot: Stories that untell the dominant culture's cover story from the point of view of a First Nation Woman. Absolutely astonishing in its wrestling of hustle and heart. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Jeff VanderMeer

As an omnivore, I define the word “enjoyment” as anything from a heady intellectual excitement at exposure to new ideas or narrative structures all the way to an uneasy/comfortable feeling that lives visceral in the gut and defies analysis. I’m not really interested in imposing my own idea of a good book on what I read—I want the book to imprint itself on me and take me over and change me. I have left off most of thousand or so books I blurbed in 2017, believing their blurbification gave them an unfair advantage. However, I couldn’t resist including blurbed books by Leonora Carrington, Jac Jemc, and Quintan Ana Wikswo. (Since this is The Year of the Machado, I don’t think I need to draw your attention that way—if you haven’t read Her Body and Other Parties, what’s your problem?) I have also included a couple of 2016 titles that I first read this year. As for regrets, my current to-read pile includes Clade by James Bradley, Compass by Mathias Énard, Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Chemistry by Weike Wang, and The Inner Lives of Animals by Peter Wohlleben. My regrets also include a half-dozen much-lauded titles that I would characterize as damp sparklers dressed up as a full fireworks display, but the less said about them the better. Belladonna by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (New Directions) – I place this selection first, out of alphabetical order, because it was my favorite read of 2017 and one of my favorites of this decade. Using as her canvas the life of the elderly ex-psychologist and ex-author Andreas Ban, Belladonna unflinchingly explores the horrors of fascism in Croatia, the break-up of Yugoslavia, World War II crimes against humanity, and the absurdities of aging and of the modern era. Deftly diving into various periods of Ban’s life, Drndić’s accomplishment here is astonishing for several reasons. First, that what easily could be drifty, dreamy, and unfocused is so sharp, structured, and acerbic. Second, that she can deal so nakedly with atrocity and yet say something new and pin the offenders to the wall and somehow not become didactic in the negative sense of that word. To give just one example of the novel’s many strengths, Drndić in chronicling a trip made by Ban to Amsterdam observes of a particularly stupid example of recycling that “people are obedient, they like to separate their trash, to recycle the debris of their own and other people’s lives. Following a diktat, they fly to embrace goodness, which they shift around in their pockets the way men scratch their balls, then they sleep soundly.” Like much of Belladonna, the observation sends up modern life but also has relevance to the terrible history Drndić lays bare. The novel is multi-faceted, sharp, surprising, darkly and grimly hilarious, relevant to our times, and possesses limitless depth. It also bristles with intelligence and defiance in every paragraph, like an exceptionally erudite and alert porcupine. Belladonna deserves major awards consideration, and I don’t mean for “best translation,” although definitely that too—Hawkesworth’s work here is marvelous. (Curmudgeonly aside: Reviewers, please stop comparing authors to W.G. Sebald just because a novel includes a grainy black-and-white photo or two and pays attention to history.) The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press) – This first novel chronicling hilarious and sad misadventures on a college campus in 1995, and then in Hungary for a student work program, delights in large measure due to the unusual narrator and the exasperating relationship at the story’s core. Batuman has a talent for exposing the absurdity of how we conduct ourselves in the world and the ridiculousness of societal rituals. It’s a tribute to Batuman’s formidable magic tricks that although the novel fades a bit in the final fifth, I still enjoyed The Idiot more than almost anything I read in 2017. The Gift by Barbara Browning (Coffee House) – An overlooked gem from the year, The Gift chronicles a woman’s journey through art and experience in the context of the Occupy movement, with observations about our modern attempts to form meaningful connection. As I wrote for Bookforum, “The Gift is unusual novel about the performance of life and the life of performance that tells us empathy and passion are deeply political, and that fiction that flips a finger to the boundary between storytelling and the body is an expression of hope and a way toward a different future. In so many ways, Browning’s creation is a beautiful meditation on art, and a balm for readers in these difficult times.” The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by Leonora Carrington (Dorothy) – The famous surrealist painter and contemporary of Max Ernst also wrote fiction, and this fiction bridged the gap between the surrealists and post-World War II fabulists. Her writings were a huge influence on Angela Carter, and likely allowed Carter to imagine a surrealism wedded to stronger cause-and-effect and something resembling a plot. In short, Carrington is essential to the history and evolution of 20th-century non-realist fiction. Stories like “The Debutante” and “White Rabbits” are strange and timeless and conjure up the universality of fairy tales while being thoroughly modern. The Green Hand and Other Stories by Nicole Claveloux, text translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYBR Classics) – These heady, surreal, transgressive stories from a forgotten imaginative juggernaut in French comics feature talking vegetables, depressed birds, and imagery that will lodge deep in your subconscious. The art style is like some aggressive mash-up of R. Crumb, Moebius, and Jim Woodring, but utterly unique. Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. The Trespasser by Tana French (Viking) – My first experience with French’s fiction, The Trespasser is a layered, complex tale that includes the added frisson of the detective narrator’s justified “paranoia” that the murder squad is out to sabotage her because of her gender. The combination of a fascinating case, a deep dive into the history of the narrator’s colleagues, and the fraught relationship she has with her partner create something special. I’ve now read all of French’s novels and recommend everything she’s written. Her work has contributed greatly to my continuing education as a writer. Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman (Dorothy) – Gladman continues her utterly marvelous tales of the imaginary Ravicka, this time focusing on the mystery of invisible houses that seem to experience spatial dislocation. The narrator pursues this mystery with an implacable logical illogic that is reminiscent less of Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino than of a fabulist J.G. Ballard. Time and space are compressed and expanded in ways that create beautiful glittering structures in the reader’s mind. By the end, your brain has new secret compartments, which will reveal themselves when least expected. The End of My Career by Martha Grover (Perfect Day) – An utterly enthralling and sobering tragicomic memoir of job and life experience that showcases Grover’s perfect sense of pacing and her eye for the absurdities of life and of the institutions of the modern world. Highlights include the essay “Women’s Studies Major” and the title essay. Out from a press in Portland, Ore., this collection deserves a much wider audience. [millions_ad] Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books) – The author demonstrates the power of using a slight speculative element—mysterious doors used by people fleeing civil war to pass into Europe—to create a near-perfect novel about love, loss, and displacement. The novel’s most brilliant extrapolation is in not undermining the emotional resonance of the doors, and their effect on the main characters, with pointless explanation. Instead, Hamid creates a sensitive tapestry that comments on our current situation to devastating and beautiful effect. Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books) – Set in Freedom, Ala., Hartnett’s novel is an exploration of a mother’s death and the lives of animals that manages to be both “funny and heart-breaking” while avoiding the cliché inherent in the bittersweet. The narrator, Elvis Barrett, is endearing and in some ways wise beyond her years—and certainly knows more facts about critters than the average person. Although dead when the novel opens, the mother’s character is vividly portrayed and the family dynamic rather beautifully rendered as well. This is the kind of book I try to resist as a noted curmudgeon, but with not a smidge more sentiment than needed, Rabbit Cake is an instant classic that you could confidently give as a gift to any reader. Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Jacobs’s 2014 Safari Honeymoon was a tour de force about contamination and containment, portraying in lush comic panels relationships between humans and the environment that were horrific, hilarious, and unique. Crawl Space, with its psychedelic chronicle of people discovering a hidden world behind mundane reality, warps and rewires the reader’s brain in ways more about control and damage, while exploring a genuinely unearthly ecosystem of creatures. The Grip of It by Jac Jemc (FSG Originals) – An original ghost story is nearly impossible to write, but somehow Jemc manages to come very close. In part, her clever structure—alternating between the points of view of a husband and wife as they encounter horrors in their new house—helps achieve new effects. But the novel also demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of ghost story tropes in the answers it provides—and doesn’t provide. I found The Grip of It genuinely creepy, in a jaded context in which I’ve been marinating (almost literally, and much to the detriment of my internal organs) in weird fiction for decades. The Answers by Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I love the conceit of Lacey’s second novel, which allows the author to tackle so much that is so relevant about relationships and power structures. A rich creative seeks to have his personal life so structured that different women perform different roles for him. The narrator of the first part of the novel, whose own life is fraught, is hired for one of the roles and from there Lacey pursues the idea about as far as it can go. The novel then opens up to include other points of view. The real genius of the novel is how the central conceit allows Lacey to structure scenes in ingenious ways, creating narrative drive and reader investment for what, on the face of it, might otherwise seem a purely intellectual exercise. The differences between The Answers and her wonderful first novel suggest that Lacey will continue to surprise and is unlikely to repeat herself. Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (The New Press) – Author of the infamous African Psycho and Memoirs of a Porcupine, Mabanckou’s Black Moses is less formally inventive than prior translated works, and perhaps an easier entry point for readers unfamiliar with his fiction. But it is nonetheless riveting and powerful stuff, set in the 1970s and 1980s in Congo-Brazzaville. Tokumisa, whose full name means “Let us thank God, the Black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors,” lives in an orphanage run by a jerk and abused by his fellows. Following his escape, Tokumisa joins a gang and thus begins a dark journey through a criminal underworld, with tragic consequences. Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People by Timothy Morton (Verso Books) – Considered by many to be among the top philosophers in the world, especially among those tackling issues related to human effects on our environment, Morton herein provides an important, spirited, and sometimes frenetic analysis of the foundational assumptions of Marxism and other -isms with regard to nature and culture (whilst also wanting to redefine those terms). Morton makes a compelling case for how our existing ideologies must adapt or change radically to repatriate ourselves with a world in which we are entangled physically but which we have convinced ourselves we are estranged from, or stand apart from, in our minds. If that sounds wordy, it’s because this is a complex topic and Morton is better than I am at expressing complex concepts in ways that are useful to a layperson. Sourdough by Robin Sloan (MCD/FSG) – This satire of the tech industry manages to be both sweet and savory, in telling the story of a woman who inherits the possibly sentient starter for a sourdough recipe. More fairy tale than incisive critique, Sourdough epitomizes the heart-warming story that isn’t saccharine and as such it’s a rare novel indeed in a landscape dominated by more weighty books. But lightness is much more difficult to pull off (without devolving into the trivial), and Sloan manages the magic trick handily. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (Wednesday Books ) – Like a relic from a simpler time, Smith’s novel, originally published in 1948, is a bit of a time capsule, but no less enjoyable for that reason. In charming and disarming prose, 16-year-old Cassandra Mortmain chronicles her family’s life in a crumbling castle. The place was bought by her father at the height of his literary success, but the death of their mother has given him writer’s block. Now they’re penniless and trying to eke out a spartan existence in their huge empty palace (complete with moat). Then Americans buy a neighboring farm and by extension become the Mortmain’s landlord, creating complications. All of the characters—from Cassandra’s siblings to her step-mom and her dad—are expertly drawn and the novel has lovely pacing and astute observation of human behavior. My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston (Pantheon) – By turns subtle and explicit, Statovci’s first novel focuses on the mysteries of a love story across two countries narrated by Bekim, a displaced Yugoslavian living in Finland with a boa constrictor as his sole companion. Investigating his mother’s life (and loves) brings him back to Kosovo, which he hasn’t seen since he was a young child, and the novel opens up to become a haunting and beautifully written exploration of identity, father-son relationships, and history. Did I mention that a sarcastic talking cat also figures prominently? I’ve never read anything quite like this novel, expertly translated, which draws equally on fabulist and realist influences to create a unique tale. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books) – If environmental pollution and climate change require new approaches to narrative, then Schweblin in Fever Dream has hit upon one potent approach. At the crossroads of the surreal and the real, her story about a dying woman and a boy who is not her son manages to convey the confusion and pain of the modern condition in a way I haven’t seen before. A short read, utterly riveting and poignant. Stages of Rot by Linnea Sterte (PEOW) – This first graphic novel by a talented Swedish artist depicts an alternate Earth in which up is down and the small have become the mighty. From giant moths ridden by post-humans to orcas that cruise through the sky, Sterte up-ends the order of the natural world and in doing so makes that world more visible to us. The panels are largely wordless, the story told through the lifecycles and everyday existence of the fantastical creatures on display. The ecosystems she’s created are monstrous and magnificent. Orgs: From Slime Molds to Silicon Valley and Beyond edited by Jenna Sutela (Garrett Publications) – This slim glossy expose of slime mold organization as applied to a (not always subtle) critique of capitalism is oddly charming and especially relevant in how it attempts to map organic systems to the human world. Diagrams and maps along with full-color photos of various weird slime-molds jostle for dominance along with fascinating main text that discusses “Sublime Management” and the biological metaphors inherent in corporate-speak. As a writer who tries to get beyond the human and is invested in exploration of soft tech like mushrooms, I found Orgs very interesting. However, I must point out that a supposedly progressive or leftist approach to the topic might have come in a more eco-friendly container: the glossy paper of this booklet stank of chemicals when I rescued it from the unnecessary shrink-wrap. (Thus, we all live with hypocrisy.) Black Wave by Michelle Tea (Feminist Press) – This skillful, sui generis, and bawdy intertwining of climate change anxiety and queer feminism has no equal or parallel in my experience. Set in a future of impending environmental doom, Tea’s narrator attempts to carve out a life, career, and relationships in a crumbling San Francisco. In a series of brilliant and hilarious set-pieces, sex and drugs and gender issues figure prominently, but also a complex awareness of the precariousness of our modern times. Although the environmental movement has in some ways lagged behind on social justice issues, Tea demonstrates the value of non-cis-gendered voices in this space, and how deviating from predominantly straight white male experiences can radicalize and make new the whole idea of the apocalyptic or mid-apocalyptic novel. Messy, poignant, funny, sad, visionary—Black Wave is pretty much everything. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad) – If everything is political and nothing about our foundational assumptions should remain unexamined, then The Cooking Gene helps hasten the process in an interesting direction, coming at racism, gender, and faith from a different vantage. Twitty’s thorough and thought-provoking book uses recipes for West African Brisket, among others, and trips to Civil War battlefields, synagogues (Twitty is Jewish), and plantations to tell the story of his family’s own personal history and the origins of Southern cooking. He also explores our relationship with animals, where our food really comes from, and how we’ve become disconnected from the natural world. Much of the history of food preparation he uncovers concerns survival and necessity. The author’s loss of his mother while writing the book adds a sadness but also a kind of strength. A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo (Stalking Horse Press) – Taking on all kinds of issues with regard to history and the marginalized, this deep and ultimately cathartic novel, replete with anchoring photographs by the author, chronicles the attempts of a midwife abandoned by her husband to establish a sanctuary for the downtrodden in a deserted plantation. This location, the secrets of the small town nearby, and the lives of those who seek sanctuary come together to create a powerful story about the damage of the past and the power of community. But, honestly, until you live within the intimacy of Wikswo’s prose, you can’t really understand A Long Curving Scar; it tends to defy summary. The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper) – This transformative and ecstatic retelling of the Joan of Arc story in a future dystopian setting of environmental collapse and fascism challenges the reader to confront the iniquities of the present day. This is a phantasmagorical literary opera full of dramatic moments but also quiet scenes of intense realism, and Yuknavitch has created a timely tale that is always disturbing and thought-provoking. Nor, as in some dystopias, does she neglect an searing examination of the role of animals in our lives. I also highly recommend her nonfiction book The Misfit's Manifesto, released late in the year. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Jesmyn Ward

The Half Has Never Been Told is a mighty story. The book chronicles the conditions the enslaved suffered under, and then details how that system of torture was necessary to the very founding of the United States, and how it was instrumental to the modern world we know. Like the best books do, it made me understand the world differently. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Eve L. Ewing

This year, especially the tail end of it, has been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to good reading. I've felt sort of like how I feel at a dessert buffet—pressed to try everything, distressed that I can't possibly have room for it all, and urged to make space to just enjoy what I can without being sorrowful over what I can't. This is especially the case because in 2017 I was pushing to complete two books of my own—Electric Arches, which I was editing throughout February, and my second book When the Bell Stops Ringing: Race, History, and Discourse Amid Chicago's School Closures, which I have been writing since last fall in a process that feels roughly like army crawling across a gravel floor. Given that—and the overall dismal state of affairs beyond my own front door—I suppose I could have spent the year bent on escapism. Instead, I found myself drawn to authors whose work could sharpen my thinking about the world's miseries rather than pretending to offer me an exit route away from them. Who knows why. I spent a February in Georgia revisiting Patricia Smith’s incredible collection Blood Dazzler as I thought about the ways poetry can help us document and respond to horrific social failures. The book is a phenomenally imaginative recounting of the Katrina aftermath and it's helped me think through what documentation looks like in my own work. After this year, when people ask me if I've read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I can finally say an enthusiastic yes! Since I'm a fan of Haruki Murakami’s work and a runner, I get that question fairly often and have always felt a little chagrined about it. What an odd and compelling book. Like any great book about the daily routines of a disciplined person who is very good at what they do, it has lots of relevance for people who are not runners or writers, because really it's about setting oneself toward a seemingly ridiculous task and making it happen. I ran two half-marathons this year (my knees are not happy about it) and I found myself internally fixating on Murakami's image of the body not as an extension of the self but as a machine that I'm tasked with operating, easing its reticent mechanics into one more step. I also made time for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi this year, and it made me think about the way our tender places can be linked to trauma that lies beyond our immediate scope of knowing. It made me think about the nature of diaspora a little differently, the nature of kinship, and the silent wounds we care from year to year without ever knowing who hurt us. The brilliant Safia Elhillo gave us The January Children this year. It's a book that offers so much formal innovation and a new way of using music and popular stardom as an access point for thinking about memory and loss—both in the sense of losing something and of being perennially lost, suspended between here and there, unable to ground one's feet for long. It's a theme Safia has long explored in a way that has earned her a space as an incredibly important contemporary poet, and this collection was right on time. [millions_ad] Parable of the Sower, man. Parable of the dang sower. This book really messed me up this year (in the best possible way). Octavia Butler’s work is so prescient, and—beyond the "ain't it spooky" comparisons many have drawn between the waking nightmare of 2017 and the world of the novel, which was written in 1993—leaves us with lots of questions about the kind of world we want to live in and some provocative emotional tools for how we might get there. It's also just a fast-paced, engaging narrative work. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Ahmed Saadawi

In the past year I have read several books related to my writing project, most of them connected with old documents and newspapers, as well as some classical works, many short stories and foreign novels translated into Arabic. On the Iraqi front, perhaps the most important books I have read during the year are: 1. Loliana, a novel by Nizar Abdel Sattar. Abdel Sattar is a distinguished writer who is outside the media spotlight. This novel is beautiful and distinctive. In it, the writer goes over two decades in the lives of Christian families in the city of Mosul, before the Islamic State period and the displacement that ensued. So it is not strange that he dedicates the novel to “those who carried the cross and left Mosul on July 19, 2014.” There's skill in the narration and a touch of magical realism in the overview of the folk worlds of the Christian families. An engaging and enjoyable novel. 2. The Efficacy of Literary Imagination (Fa'iliyyat al-Khayal al-Adabi) by Said al-Ghanmi. Ghanmi has one of the most brilliant minds in Iraq and has written several books on translation from English, literary criticism, and cultural theory. This fine book offers a literary analysis of myth and religion in the Middle East. It is innovative and original reading, written in an enjoyable narrative style. 3. Under the Devil's Sky (Tahta Sama' al-Shaytan), the memoirs of Qays Hassan. In this book Qays Hassan describes episodes from the life of a young Iraqi born in the 1960s, in the form of letters addressed to his hypothetical young son in an attempt to explain the troubles Iraq has been through. It's an interesting narrative overview of the most important junctures in Iraqi life over three decades. [millions_ad] 4. To Those Who Dare to Be Rational (Liman Yajru' ala al-Aqlaniyya) by Maytham al-Hilo. In this interesting and enjoyable book, the doctor/author lays out his critique of religion and the Islamic tradition and proposes a modern concept of religion. Dr. Hilo set up a Facebook group by the same title many years ago and its page has attracted a large readership and much interest among intellectuals and young liberals and secularists. In this book he has brought together the articles he has published on Facebook, and it is a valuable addition to the movement that is critical of manifestations of Islamic religious fanaticism in Iraq and the Arab world in general. A book that deserves to be read and admired. 5. The Garden of Widows (Hadiqat al-Aramil), short stories by Diaa Jubaili. Jubaili, the author of this collection of 16 short stories, is one of the most active young writers in Iraq and has already published several novels and story collections. These enjoyable and original stories are set in parts of the ancient southern Iraqi city of Basra and are a mixture of folk stories and fantasy. Jubaili likes to blend in elements from well-known works of literature, such as George Orwell’s books and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, creating beautiful and revealing paradoxes. Interesting and enjoyable. This piece was translated by Jonathan Wright. Wright studied Arabic at Oxford University and has spent much of the past three decades in the Arab world, mostly as a journalist with Reuters. He is the translator of Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and was one of Publishers Weekly’s Ten Best Books of 2014. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Louise Erdrich

Maybe I would characterize 2016 as a movie car chase, and 2017 as the reveal where all of us anonymous motorists who got side-swiped, flipped, forced off bridges and into concrete abutments, rise out of the wreckage yelling for real. My list is composed of books to read to your fellow travelers as you sit, shaken but alive, beneath a tree. You will need a moment before setting out to put an end to the damn movie and fix the world. Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy by Melvin Konner This year was a promotional campaign for this book.  The writer is a professor in the Program of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University.  His conclusions give me, well, hope.  Let me simply quote from the introduction: “Sex scandals, financial corruption, and violence are all overwhelmingly male.  This is not, I will argue, mainly because men happened to be in charge and had the chance to do these things.  It is mainly because they are men.  And the motives and inclinations that led them into positions where they could abuse power are the same ones that long enabled them to keep women out.  But this is over.” So say we all. Whereas by Layli Long Soldier Using the language of the colonizer to talk about what it means to be colonized, Long Soldier takes us down some rough roads.  But also there are strands of sheer delight—her devotion to meticulous emotional description, sharp irony, and perfectly recapped incident make this a book to carry through your day.  I would open it when waiting for, say, a tire to be fixed, or in a clinic waiting room.  Never disappointed. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman I wish the title was The World Without Some of Us, but the idea is a great thought experiment.  What would earth be like if we all disappeared (let’s just say instantaneously and without foreknowledge or pain).  I know, still not a cheerful thought, but oddly I found real comfort in this altogether humane and fascinating tour of a planet that has shrugged off all human presence.  This book made me long to visit the places Weisman visits in his quest for natural antiquity.  As Weisman’s premise looks increasingly possible with news of this year’s record carbon spew, I read it with increased gravity.  This is a wise and beautiful book. Her Body and Other Parties  by Carmen Maria Machado Remember all of the scary stories from your preteen days and then add every gory movie you have watched since then and sift this into the brain of a masterful young writer.  Machado’s writing is full of repressed physical energy and the raw juice of annihilating female fury.  The body is the subject, the culprit, the innocent.  Standard accessories like ribbons become frightful.  She does unimaginable things with a prom dress.  But these stories are also funny—which really made me uneasy—because I could hear in my laugh that same squawk a tiny dog makes in moments of duress. [millions_ad] Nomadland by Jessica Bruder Maybe it is that the economic nomads Bruder writes about, people who live in cars and RVs and follow jobs that make my bones ache just to think about them, have the most remarkably upbeat personalities.  Maybe it’s because I feel like I know or could be any one of them.  Maybe it is because many are drawn to my hometown neck of the Red River and work the sugar beet harvest in a cold dusty wind that I know well.  This is an important book.  Bruder writes about economic refugees who downsize from regular houses into minivans, downsize from regular jobs with benefits into utter uncertainty.  They refuse to be apathetic about life, but their treatment at the hands of pittance wage employers like Amazon (free OTC painkillers for elderly warehouse workers) is brutal.  The book is a calmly stated chronicle of devastation.  But told as as story after story, it is also a riveting collection of tales about irresistible people—quirky, valiant people who deserve respect and a decent life. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie I did a lot of driving this year and Sherman’s book—furious, compelling, beautiful, and horrifying by turns—took my daughter and I through North Dakota and then up to Canada.  Because Alexie is a masterful storyteller, champion slam poet, and truly great improv performer, this audiobook is one of the best I’ve ever listened to.  No bells and whistles and production—just raw Sherman—sometimes breaking into tears, sometimes making us cry.  Sherman had brain surgery and I think he is the first in the world to make it laugh-out-loud funny.  That’s the other thing that is tremendously valuable—funny gets you through a lot. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Janet Potter

The two most memorable things I read in 2017 were text messages. One came in early February, and told me that my sister-in-law had cancer. I read it on the red line on my way home from work. The second came two weeks later, and told me that my dad had kidney disease. I read it when I was at lunch with coworkers, and pulled my phone out to see how long we’d been gone. In the months since then, I’ve read far less than I usually do. I’ve done far less of everything, it seems. Fun things feel pointless, and intellectually engaging things are too hard, leaving me to fill my time with celebrity gossip, HGTV, and red wine. I haven’t felt like myself, essentially, in nine months. I feel walled off from the people around me by my own preoccupation. As updates come in on the twin emergencies in our family, I’m unable to shake off a feeling of constant tension. I would feel guilty if I did. The only book I loved this year was A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry. Although I’d been meaning to read his fiction for years, I started this book (according to my Goodreads activity) the day after my sister’s diagnosis. I had some idea that reading about a small farming community in Kentucky, written by the octogenarian poet-farmer-essayist-novelist Berry, would be comforting. I had no idea how deeply I’d identify with the character of a 60-year-old tobacco farmer. All of Berry’s fiction—a smattering of novels, novellas, and short stories—take place in the same fictional town of Port William, Ky., which is based on Berry’s own hometown. It’s a small town, and each work focuses on a different family or generation or set of friends, so that reading them as a whole brings the entire interconnected community to life. [millions_ad] If there’s a main character in the books, or a character who comes closest to being Berry’s mouthpiece, it’s Mat Feltner. Mat comes from a long line of Port Williams farmers, and that line continues after him. He is hard-working, wise, and kind. A Place on Earth takes place in 1945, and Mat’s son, Virgil, is off fighting the war. Early in the book, Mat and his wife receive a letter that says Virgil is missing in action. Mat, his wife, and their daughter-in-law enter that state of waiting and worrying that was instantly recognizable to me. It’s dread—when the worst case scenario looms over you, and seems likely, but you hold it at bay until absolutely necessary, and in the meantime you have to live your normal life. Midway through the book, Burley Coulter, one of the Feltners’ neighbors, writes a letter to his nephew Nathan, who is also fighting in the war. He talks about how badly the community feels for the Feltner family, how distant Mat has been, but how he doesn’t know how to act or help. People know how to support a grieving family, but not a family living in dread. The Feltners were my closest companions in that time. Looking for bucolic escape, I had found fellow travelers through a long, foggy night. As I continue to read through Berry’s fiction, the Feltner family’s grief is present but not prevalent. They endured hardship and kept going. My family’s health concerns, while still ongoing, are not currently critical. But for the moment in time that they were, and A Place on Earth came to me, Mat Feltner will always be my favorite Port William character, and one of my favorite characters in all of literature. We went through something together. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

One thing you could always say for me: I was a finisher. I may not have been a great reader, but by God I was dogged, and if I made it through the opening 10th of a book, then I was going all the way to the end. Though this started as merely an inclination, it eventually became a rule, for reasons I can't quite understand. There are, after all, so many books that deserve abandonment, and to this day I admire readers like my wife, who can jump ship after 80 pages. But I suppose my years as an altar boy left their mark, both in a too-easy conflation of negligence and sin and in a deeper, anthropomorphic sense that even a bad book might at the last minute change into something singular and not-to-be-missed. "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life," as Grace Paley put it, in her own American idiom. And if I was to be the little god of the worlds I made when turning the pages, then who was I to let a little boredom or disappointment turn me away? I mean, isn't the real God, if there is one, a finisher, too? This isn't to say there weren't challenges. The Book of Disquiet took me over a year, and several running starts. Ditto Being & Time. Proust I read over four summers, and though there was never a moment when he sunk me in the swamps of saudade, or gave me whatever is German for brain-freeze, it took a certain monogamous willfulness to return to, say, The Fugitive when fresher titles beckoned from the shelf. But then came baby #3. Let's call her N. She was not, exactly, planned on, though for several consecutive springs when my manic phase rolled in I had this sense that my own open destiny would probably include throwing myself out of the fatherhood plane one more time. Capping the family at two kids would have felt like stopping Proust after book six, somehow. I hasten to say of baby N, as of Proust: totally worth it. Except that all of a sudden I couldn't finish anything. When N was born, back in February, The Great War raged in Robert Musil’s diary. Socialism, in G.D.H. Cole’s five-volume history, had entered its anarchist phase. Now, in December, poor Robert Musil still hasn't reached an armistice, while socialism retains a markedly anarchist flavor. Here was me in the first few months after the delivery: I would open a novel, read along perfectly happily for a day or two, and then let it drop. I was waiting for the thing that would sweep me up and carry me through. But perhaps my reading list was too ambitious for my circumstances. (Like, who outside of grad school reads Musil at the same time as G.D.H. Cole?) I told myself I would move, temporarily, to something more sensible. But to no avail. My study grew littered with dog-eared New Yorkers, foreshortened short stories, longreads I sputtered out halfway through. Many of which I enjoyed, and hope to finish in the near future. For now, though, my year in reading comes back to me as a mixtape, as hip-hop: a swirl of enticing samples. Bits and pieces of Laura Oldfield Ford’s ’zine cycle, Savage Messiah. Phosphorescent sentences from Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo. Andrew O'Hagan’s essay on Satoshi Nakamoto. Ian Frazier’s on New Jersey Route 3. The poem "Far Rockaway" by Delmore Schwartz. The part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything when Antinous Bellori spots some angels in the woods. The part of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil where Virgil arrives in Brundisium and the translation hasn't yet gone bananas. The unimprovable first paragraph of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. And Joseph Conrad’s "The Secret Sharer," whose allegorical valences were not lost on me. Here I was looking down from the deck of a ship, not quite where I ever thought I'd be, while down there in the water, untethered but unreachable, swam another, truer self. [millions_ad] Okay, so I guess I did finish the Conrad. And by summer there were other things, small things, I was managing to see to the end. Like several short stories by Mavis Gallant, including "Speck's Idea," probably the single most perfect piece of fiction I read this year. Gallant at her best is every bit the equal of Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, or Joy Williams. Whose story "Stuff" was another highlight. As was Claire Vaye Watkins’s "I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness," from the Granta "Best of Young American Novelists" issue. Or like the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free. Several years ago, I thought I noticed a turn in Smith's nonfiction, a loosening of the burdens of her remarkable erudition, like an astronaut swapping out the gravity boots, or like a swimmer kicking off from land. The places she now consistently reaches in her essays—on Joni Mitchell and Get Out and Anomalisa and joy—are not only nearer to the distant philosophical goalposts of the true and the just and the beautiful...they get us there with truth and justice and beauty of their own, and with an extraordinary, dab-worthy grace. In short, I feel lucky to be alive at a time when these essays are being written. People must have felt similarly fortunate reading A Room of One’s Own a century ago, or hearing it in its original form, as lectures. I somehow made it to 38 without having read it, and in a weird way, I'm glad I did. In a college classroom, I might not have understood it as I did this summer in Maine, as a book not only about feminism, or art (as if these were ever "only"), but about how to live, for everyone, everywhere. That was a good week for finishing things, come to think of it, because I also, finally, tackled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, those sterling examples of love as an act of ruthless attention. And I read much of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, a monument of narrative nonfiction that belongs on the national required reading list. There was, too, the compellingly terrible first couple hundred pages of Harlot’s Ghost, part of an ongoing personal Norman Mailer project I probably won't complete short of a vasectomy. There are times these days when I find bad writing as exciting as good writing. Maybe more. And apparently it's not just me, because Mailer seems to bring the best out of his critics. Witness Elizabeth Hardwick, in her long-overdue Collected Essays: "the demonic, original clutter of Mailer's high style." Or witness Jonathan Lethem: "If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, 'the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,' then Mailer's gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox." Other, more recent titles I should mention: Ben Blum’s Ranger Games, a gripping and thoughtful blend of memoir and true-crime. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I can't make up my mind about—usually a good sign. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s "My President Was Black," with its arresting final cadences. I had read, and felt conflicted about, the epilogue to Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power when it appeared as a stand-alone in The Atlantic. (This is how I read now: epilogue first). If the evidence was hard to reproach, the rhetoric seemed to me flawed. But the book as a whole makes the argument far more persuasively, and—I know this is a little contrarian—I think it's a more fully realized piece of analysis than Between the World and Me. Coates is that rare thing in our public life: a writer willing to let us see him becoming. We'll need more of that in the year to come. And finally, while on the subject of public life and presidents and the winter that is now upon us, I suppose it's time—with apologies to any of his supporters left reading The Millions—to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named. For, as much as I've been pinning my distractibility on baby N (which would suggest I only have to persevere till she sleeps through the night), a novelist friend of mine recently proposed a counter-explanation. "Oh, yeah, man, that's not you, it's everyone," he said. "All of our colleagues, everyone I talk to, my mom and stepdad, their neighbors...It's been everyone's worst year in reading." His argument was that we're so inundated just at present with narrative and fantasy—with one particular person's narrative and fantasy—that the last thing we want in our reading lives is more imagination. If democracy dies in darkness, then dispense with the dreaming. Just give me the facts. Now, if I were a Trumpist, I'd probably say "just give me a break." There goes the liberal culture industry again, blaming him for their own failings, for every last thing they don't like. To which I simply ask: aren't you, too, tired of it? The insults, the feuds, the hysterical touchiness, the drag masculinity, the swamping of the drain, the bull in the nuclear china shop? Not to mention the buck stopping perpetually elsewhere. If politics has become a reality show, we've progressed in the last 18 months from the guilty pleasure of The Apprentice to the absurdity of The Celebrity Apprentice to, like, Season 7 of Real Housewives...and did anyone not stuck on an airplane even watch Season 7 of Real Housewives? Haven't you, too, found far more of your brain given over to Donald Trump than you should have give over to even a good president? Or to put it another way: isn't one definition of "a good president" "one you don't have to constantly keep your eye on?" Speaking personally, I'm realizing that I read just as much this year as any year...it's just that hundreds of my hours were given over to news, lest I fail to be aware of some developing crisis. And in the station wagon of representative government, the driver's not supposed to be hunched over his twitter feed, leaving everyone else to watch out for hazards. We - I mean to include Trump voters here, too - deserve better. We deserve, at a minimum, adult hands on the wheel. As to what duties an informed citizenry does have, in this or any other time, it's worth asking: is newspaper prose plus a handful of cultural swatches anyone's definition of an inner life? Will even the richest fragments be enough to shield us from ruin? Somehow, I don't think so. In the short run, the con man who now has the car keys may have exposed our gullibility, sending all of us scrambling to find out things we never had to know before. But the long-term damage may be to a quantity so abused as to have fallen into shame and disrepute: the capacity for belief. We will need, if we are to stitch ourselves together again, to find stories that bridge the unbridgeable, stories that make sense of the senseless, or simply present it in all its mystery, stories that respect the difference between facts and truth - stories worth believing in. In some small way, then, seeing a novel or a poem or a work of imaginative nonfiction through to completion may turn out to be not an irrelevance but an act of subversion. Or better yet: preparation. Here's to being a better finisher in 2018. More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005