Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

One winter I came down with pneumonia twice in five months. The doctors, with my semi-conscious consent, were ready to try anything. One thing they did try was a technique “to warm up the lungs.” It involved a canvas corset that looked like it had been developed in a Victorian brothel and weaponized in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, ca. 1938. The nurses filled the thing with hot paraffin, strapped it on my naked torso, covered me up with furs and, pulling on their coats, left the room with promises to be back in 20-ish minutes. Turns out there’s not much you can do for second-degree paraffin burns beyond trying to cool them down, keep them clean, and try not to pop the blisters. It’s astonishing how much pain you can stand when its infliction is gradual. It’s also astonishing to see how easy it is to forgive when beauty enters the equation. My nurses forgot me in that isolated exam room. They’d been outside, reveling in the season’s first snowfall. I imagine those two young women shivering in their great coats, arms linked, looking up at the sky and smiling. S pervym snegom! The dank caecum of the city where the hospital sat squat, prison-like, was getting its annual winter makeover. Given enough snow, even Soviet brutalist architecture assumes a certain charm. Which is to say that winter is a sacred event in this part of the world. And given that it’s winter about half the year, that’s not nothing. It doesn’t mean, however, that eastern Slavs are incapable of viewing winter’s drawbacks pragmatically. Already treacherous sidewalks don’t become less so with the addition of ice. Municipal negligence of road maintenance, nightmarish driver noncompliance with traffic law, balky central heating—all exacerbated by the interminability of the season—are hardly exclusive properties of the West. The distinction in our perspectives of winter lies, it seems to me, in our arts: for Americans, November/December feels like a Robert Frost poem, for Slavs, a Tolstoyan reckoning or an Andrei Tarkovsky dreamscape, though that’s likely where the difference ends. This, too, is just a guess, but I figure that to all or most of us, East or West, by March, its romance wearing thin, winter feels as cold, dark, and endless as a Donna Tartt novel. Yet, here in Slavic wonderland, despite the difficulties winter presents, when it hits we still rush to greet each other—s pervym snegom! with the first snow!—and are transformed en masse into 9-year-olds by the touch of the big, early flakes. Winter is romance, a chance at renewal, a purifier. We have trouble envisioning how the word “snowflake” could ever be used as a pejorative. Winter stopped Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and whoever might try next. Winter is when the Leshy—the forest demons—go to sleep and finally leave us be: Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin and 12 centuries of folklore don’t lie. All of which came flooding back when I opened this—one of a half-dozen or so indispensable books I read this year—Alex Cigale’s lithe translation of Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was a Soviet writer who was not prolific, was a committed misanthrope, a friend of Kazimir Malevich and an admirer of Vladimir Mayakovsky.  He despised children, but was a talented and successful writer of children’s books.  A four-year-old I know laughs himself silly every time I read him Kharms’s poem “Bulldog and Dachshund.” In the end, Kharms would starve to death in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad. It seems his nurses forgot him, too. The current collection, published by Northwestern University Press, assembles fragments of Kharms’s poetry, dramaturgy, prose, diary entries, literary criticism, private correspondence, largely arranged chronologically—a chronology that only gains in poignancy with a glance at the datestamp accompanying each entry. In 1936, with the Great Terror gunning its engine, Kharms wrote this in his notebook:  I am incapable of thinking smoothly My fear gets in the way It severs my train of thought As though a ray Two or even three times each minute My conscience is contorted by it I am not capable of action. If the prospect of reading a minimalist, absurdist, surrealist Russian intimidates, Cigale’s translation should help allay those fears. His agile rendering of Kharms’s work is as fine a representation in English as I’ve seen of the ambiguity, shading, and tense-shifting that typifies Russian prose, aspects that English translations too often muddle. If Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus light your fire, or if your writing life, however difficult, seems like so much torture, or if you’re intrigued by what a story coming from a man experiencing “the existential nightmare of a decade lived under a suspended death sentence,” sounds like then, winter, that season of reflection, might be just the time to add this collection to your TBR pile. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle Twitter’s got you feeling toxic? TV news doesn’t offer any relief? You find yourself refreshing your website of choice to see whether Robert Mueller has handed down any more indictments? You wonder how it was that “contempt” became the default setting for our public discourse? Save yourself the time, the screen exposure, and the inevitable frustration and wrap your brain around this thesis that, among other matters, convincingly draws a line from Raskolnikov to the Alt-Right and describes the radical left as an “anti-intellectual online movement which has substituted politics with neuroses….” This book is terrifying, outstanding, required reading. The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah An hour later, the nurses come back to my room, giggling, the tell-tale bite of cognac floating with them into the room. Beads of sweat streaming down my face I turn my head to the one I can see to tell her that “it really hurts.” The other one, behind me unpiling furs, fussing with the snaps on the corset says, “just a sec.” I hear a sharp intake of breath as she whispers, “Oh, my God,” and runs out of the room. It’s probably a good thing that Sonia Shah’s exposé of Big Pharma sat on my shelf unread for so long. This immaculately researched, exhaustively referenced, and rage-inducing study chronicles the deeply disturbing abuse of the poorest of the poor in the service of reliable data for clinical drug trials. And, well, profits. I don’t know if I could have taken it when it was first published a decade ago. A bioethicist quoted in the book states succinctly the matter at the heart of the problem: “The data [guinea pigging the poor] is valuable either academically or commercially.” So what’s the good news? The book is 10 years old so perhaps the systematic and cynical targeting, dehumanizing, and embittering of the poor has decreased in its intensity. Or increased. It’s one or the other. Right? Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum The Holodomor Museum is about a 15-minute bus ride from my flat. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election. That was called “The Orange Revolution” because we all wore orange at the behest of a populist—and attractive—politician. I still have my orange down jacket. I slept in it in the tent city that went up downtown, shutting Kyiv—and effectively the country—down. Got pneumonia that year, too. Also got a new election with a different result and a president who promised to “put the bandits in prison!” but didn’t. He also promised to raise the issue of the Holodomor—the Soviet program of collectivization that killed millions of Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, in 1931 to 33—at the U.N. He’d get them to call it "genocide." He made good on that, though he accomplished almost nothing else in the remainder of his five-year term. Not one corrupt official went to prison, but we got a Holodomor Museum. Ukraine is Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock. [millions_ad] A teaser from the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s lucid examination of the artificial (enforced) Soviet famines of the 1930s:  “Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses.” This is not a history for the faint of heart. It is the documentation of a crime: the premeditated, targeted murder by starvation of five million people in just over two years. A sobering investigation of the human capacity for evil, it also serves as an indirect indictment of that niche within Western academia that has labored to relegate the slaughter to the status of an historical footnote. Applebaum’s dependably lucid argumentation and nimble prose makes for a substantial, if deeply troubling, read. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla I’m trying to figure out what I dislike about Lilla’s charge that the liberal cause has dismantled itself.  But it’s hard to resist an argument whose core tenet is “the common good,” a phrase that is found in one form or another on practically every page of this short book. To the oft-heard insistence that “there is no right or left any longer, just capital,” Lilla offers convincing proof that there is an American Right and it has a concrete image of society that it holds to. Contrast that with the Left, which has drifted demonstrably from its core message and abdicated “the contest for the American imagination.”  The upshot according to Lilla: it’s hard to envision a political entity as rudderless as the Democratic Party winning many elections for a good, long while. And yet, one wonders. Would there have been any measure of the kinds of civil rights advances we’ve seen in the last 2- years if they hadn’t been championed by the Left? Lilla’s unclear about which “identities” he would rather the Left had left off its to-do list. The Once and Future Liberal is an excellent argument starter. The Given World by Marian Palaia The thing about this debut novel is that it compels you to pay attention. It would be easy to get lost in prose this gorgeous, lives this palpable, and a story this heartbreaking, and end up at, “Pretty good. I liked it. Four stars.” But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. A word like verisimilitude isn’t enough to describe why The Given World works so well. It’s more than authenticity, there is an intimacy in the telling, as if you found yourself sitting down on the back porch with a friend of years, and she decides to tell you a story over beers. It’s a story about a young woman who seems to believe that the only acceptable alternative to shooting yourself in the foot is shooting yourself in the head, and yet, she makes her way. This is grown-up fiction that has not yet consented to leave me at peace. A haunting, formidable debut. The books above were those that helped me get through the year. The purifiers. Books that managed to assure me that where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more.  Tyrants, robber barons, cynics, and cyber-bullies don’t stand a chance when confronted with intelligence fueled by grace. And grace takes work. Good news: winter is on its way. Lots of time to read, to prepare for spring, that awful season when the river ice breaks up and the bodies begin to surface. Finally, what follows is a listing of every book that made good use of my brain and heart in 2017. I highly recommend every one. Emperor of the Earth by Czeslaw Miłosz – Essays on life, society, art by the Nobel laureate Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin – A Scottish girl’s fight to survive, set in Edinburgh. A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre – Kim Philby, deception in the spy game. Thrilling. The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Don’t let the title trigger you. Smart. Human Acts by Han Kang – Political turmoil in South Korea. Outstanding. But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer – If you love jazz. If you don’t, have you considered therapy? Feral by George Monbiot – Could a romantic vision of the environment save the planet? Maybe. The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph – Oh, the blessing of an old-style liberal arts education. Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – Can faith still work? Survey says: Yes! The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Radioactive love from a banned Uzbek writer Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Erudite, trenchant, and certainly right, Taleb makes a case for beneficial chaos, only he calls it “antifragility.” Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Short stories that are too good for anthologies. Outstanding, each one. 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 (Canadian) Reading: Claire Cameron

I was on book tour for much of the year. And when I tour, I read. I'm not sure how many books I got through exactly, but I read about quantum gravity, a few different translations of Beowulf, microbiology, and cave art. I read Elon Musk’s biography, meaning I can now more accurately predict the size and shape the coming apocalypse. I read many, many novels. In looking at my read pile, I decided I needed a focus and narrowed in on Canadian books. But I immediately ran into a problem. What makes a book Canadian? Margaret Atwood published Survival in 1972, a thematic guide to Canadian literature that searched for ways to define our national literature. Back then, American and British novels tended to dominate our bookshelves. Bookstores often had a curious shelf labelled Canadiana, where the local authors were tucked away. We spent the next few decades searching for reasons to see ourselves as distinct. We often did this by pointing out who we were. When I was growing up in the '80s, one of my favorite games was to name famous people who were actually Canadian and I still do this—Sandra Oh, Michael J. Fox, Drake, Pamela Anderson, and William Shatner. We hide so easily among others. Since then, our ideas, our identities, and our writing have all expanded. Canadian literature, or CanLit, has its own hashtag (#canlit), but that’s about the only straightforward thing I can say about it. Now that it undoubtedly exists, we spend our time arguing about what it might be. The central question, as writer Russell Smith asked, "is it a literature that is made here, or set here, or addresses uniquely Canadian themes?" But for many, CanLit also stands for what needs to change. It's a shorthand for an out-dated colonial point of view, structural racism and sexisim, a lack of diversity and opportunity. So after thinking it through, I've decided why the books on my list are Canadian: They have little or nothing in common. Each is different from the other. There are no similar themes that stand out.  The authors have their own identities that are best defined by them. If you asked each author if they are Canadian, I think they would answer yes—but likely with some kind of qualification, caveat, or hyphen. They might include a second citizenship, language, culture, or country. And maybe two or three. [millions_ad] I'm aware that this isn't exactly a clear definition. I don't need it to be. And similarly, I don't think CanLit is a particularly useful term anymore. We've grown beyond the need to agonize about what we are. But more, the act of defining artistic work involves creating a boundary. Who gets to draw that literary line? I hope that no person nor group would assume that they have the ability to define our books. I will be wary if they do. So, here are a few of my favorite novels published this year, written by authors who, when asked if they are Canadian, would probably answer, "yeah, and...," and start telling a long and complicated and fascinating story about their identity: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill When I interviewed O’Neill earlier in the year, I confessed to a certain kind of creative jealously. I’d like to say that I’ve since matured, however I’m a writer. Her prose sparkles, her way with the metaphor is unparalleled, and this, her third novel, has an intricate construction. You know when someone folds paper, cuts little holes in it, and—like magic—smooths out a perfect snowflake? Reading it feels like that, except add in some cigarettes, sex, and swearing. O'Neill often writes about Montreal, which in her words is, “totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty.” Also a perfect description of this book. Brother by David Chariandy A perfectly sculpted novel, each word is placed with a heart full of hip hop. It tells the story of an enduring love between two brothers, Michael and Francis, who live in the suburbs of Toronto (though the T-word is never mentioned). The book gives voice to black and brown men with beautiful and complex emotional lives. As said in The Walrus, the novel shows, “a very different picture than what CanLit usually peddles: comfortable and self-soothing narratives about our supposedly progressive cities.” Brother is already out in Canada. It just won one of our biggest awards, the Writers' Trust Roger Fiction Prize. It will be out in July. American War by Omar El Akkad A novel that follows the life of Sarat Chestnut, who is six years old, in 2074, when a second civil war breaks out. Set in what used to be the South, it is told from that perspective. I went to the same Canadian university as El Akkad and asked about this choice. He explained that his work as a reporter often took him to the South. He would find himself talking to a certain kind of person, "incredibly hospitable, would give you the shirt off their back. But also deeply tied to some very old traditions, some of them good, some of them terrible, and god help you if you challenge those traditions." He went on to explain that he was born in Egypt and grew up in the Middle East, "incredibly generous people who are also tied to some very old traditions, and god help you if you challenge those traditions." In my view, that insight lays the framework for this brilliant book. The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall This novel came out in Canada in 2016 and in the U.S. this fall, but in our post-Harvey Weinstein world it feels more timely and urgent than ever. A family saga set in Connecticut, a respected teacher at a prep school is accused of sexual assault. The story follows the people who are closest to him, family and close friends. Without ever getting preachy, it draws an elegant line between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. I compared it to The Ice Storm or Ordinary People, but it has more contemporary companions, too, in The Interestings or The Woman Upstairs. 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: Zoë Ruiz

I’m currently reading Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s essay collection Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, which was chosen by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Contest. I’ve been an admirer of Sloan’s essays since her first collection, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, was published. I read Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and now I’m rereading Citizen. Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker writes, “‘Citizen’ opens with a series of vignettes, written in the second person, that recount persistent, everyday acts of racism of a kind that accumulate until they become a poisonous scourge.” As I reread, I am paying attention to form and how Rankine accomplishes the feeling of accumulation in the book. Lit Hub’s article “The Classes 25 Famous Writers Teach” includes courses taught by Rankine and Viet Thanh Nguyen, and I plan to read texts from their classes next year. This year, I read Nguyen’s short story collection, The Refugees, which received many glowing reviews. In her New Yorker review, Joyce Carol Oates writes, “Viet Thanh Nguyen, one of our great chroniclers of displacement, appears to value the term ‘refugee’ precisely for the punitive violence it betrays.” She also writes, “Nguyen leaves us with a harrowing vision of the sprawling tragedies of wartime, and of the moral duplicities of which we are capable.” In May, I attended “An Evening with the National Book Awards” at The Skirball Center, featuring Nguyen, Karan Mahajan, and Robin Coste Lewis. After the event, I went to the Los Angeles Public Library and checked out Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, which was the 2015 National Book Award winner in poetry. I also checked out Jennifer Richter’s poetry collections Threshold and No Acute Distress because I registered for Richter’s poetry course at Oregon State University. Richter’s first book of poems, Threshold, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. As a reader and writer who is interested in chronic illness and motherhood, I found her most recent collection, No Acute Distress, compelling. In the fall, I took Richter’s poetry craft course on hybrid forms and reread Gary Young’s book of prose poems No Other Life. Reading his work for my first term at graduate school seem like an intense moment of synchronicity. Young was one of my mentors as an undergraduate and this summer I had read with him at Bookshop Santa Cruz in celebration of the anthology Golden State 2017, edited by Lisa Locascio. I read Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments, a book of aphorisms that are witty, dark, and poignant, and found the aphorisms about desire and ambition particularly captivating. In order to learn more about Manguso’s writing process and the book, I attended the panel “Outlaws and Renegades: Innovative Short Forms” at Wordstock and listened to podcast interviews with her on Otherppl with Brad Listi and Beautiful Writers. Her previous books OngoingnessThe Guardians, and Two Types of Decay are now on my bookshelf, and I look forward to reading them 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 [millions_ad]
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

I tend to buy used books in bunches, which means the haul from some expeditions stays buried for weeks, months, years even. For this entry, I highlight three finds that, breaking custom, I bought and read almost immediately this year: Hugo Charteris’s The Tide Is Right, Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool, and A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo. Given that I opened each without delay, I was tickled to find a common thread—postponement—running through all three. The publications of the first two novels were deferred for different reasons—libel, indecency—while the biographical “quest” sought to unearth the out-of-print or never-published works of a singular, and singularly impossible, writer who died penniless and unrecognized. All are urbane works shadowed by a sense of life’s and art’s precariousness. Upon hearing that The Tide Is Right, his 1957 novel about the squabbles of a Scottish aristocratic family, would be dropped by his publisher for its libelous potential, Charteris considered changing the setting to Wales. The house still balked, and it wouldn’t be until 1991 that the novel found its way ashore. The Tide Is Right, opens with an early morning tableau set along an icy bay that is as chilling as it is mystifying. This initial sense of inscrutable menace persists throughout, even as the scene shifts from wild landscapes to drawing rooms. The plot concerns the Mackeans, whose patriarch, a “sort of archetypal Highland god-figure,” has died. The new laird is Alan Mackean, whose myopia and “partiality for rubber-shoes, big soft concealing chairs” produces an effect “of almost hermetic escape and indifference." That indifference largely extends to his wife, Augustine, whose “capacity for silence when any normal person would have spoken sometimes came as near to gaining his attention as anything in which he had no vested interest ever did.” Alan is heirless, and the next in line is his more spirited cousin, Duncan, a spendthrift with an inferiority complex. Alan intuits, if not acknowledges, the danger Duncan represents: “Two hundred years ago do you know what Duncan would have [done]? He would have rubbed me out. Like that.” But in modern Scotland? Such an action seems unlikely in these less rugged times, and yet its possibility hovers over every guarded utterance. When a visiting Londoner claims to grasp the family dynamic clearly, he is quickly disabused: “…if you tried for forty bloody blue moons you couldn’t see—except like a sort of aerial photograph taken through pink fog.” As that outsider (and stand-in for our readerly ignorance) will later realize, “whoever he spoke to seemed to know, guess, feel more.” One never quite gets one’s footing in this elemental novel of half-voiced thoughts, a dizzying reinforced by the setting, with its “deserted footbridges…double planks suspended on iron hawsers [that] remained motionless and fragile above pressures and pace which could have crushed them inaudibly in black jaws of granite.” Don’t look down. Our second waylaid work is Cyril Connolly’s only novel—originally planned as part of a trilogy on English snobbishness. It was to be published by an English house until a senior partner intervened, supposedly ruffled by the book’s lesbian characters. The Rock Pool did come out in France (in 1936), but wouldn’t appear in England until a decade later, prompting Connolly to chide: “…I think that the chill wind that blows from English publishers, with their black suits and thin umbrellas, and their habit of beginning every sentence with ‘We are afraid,’ has nipped off more promising buds than it has strengthened.” Like the heroes of most thwarted bildungsromans, The Rock Pool’s Edgar Naylor is a vague creature, “neither very intelligent nor especially likeable.” He is delineated only by borrowed affects: “Oxford had fostered, the one through the dons, the other through the undergraduates, two separate veins of pedantry and lechery, which, united when drunk and when sober divided, were the most definite things you noticed about him.” An apprentice stock-broker and would-be writer—he is contemplating a biography of Samuel Rogers, the banker-bard of St. James’s Place—he travels to Trou-sur-Mer, (literally hole-on-the-sea) on the French Riviera, “a microcosm cut off from the ocean by the retreating economic tide.” There Naylor hopes to “derive a pleasant sense of power” by “looking down knowingly into his Rock Pool, poking it and observing the curious creatures he might stir up.” Instead, attracted to and repulsed by the town’s bohemian clan—its artists, drunks, eccentrics, frauds—he falls headlong into the hole. He experiences a coming-of-age on steroids: “Here life was too crude, too brutal, he had run in a couple of weeks the course in dissolution which for the ordinary eupeptic professional man is spread over a period of years.” Connolly depicts the sordid exaltedness of Trou’s inhabitants, who “rather resembled beautiful cave-dwellers supporting in hieratic and traditional raggedness a dying religion while underneath them when on nothing but bribery, politics, and the making of money.” Despite Naylor’s ardent participation in the debauch, his best efforts to ascend the squalid heights, he remains firmly rooted to the world below. In the saddest part of the bleak comedy, Trou’s true denizens instinctively sense in  him “some ancient enemy of youth and spirit.” [millions_ad] Without further delay, we come to The Quest for Corvo. Symons’s hunt for the dubiously titled Baron Corvo (or Frederick Rolfe) begins when a friend (and rare book dealer) gives him a copy Hadrian the Seventh, Rolfe’s self-portrait as a pope: “How was it that I had never heard of a man who had it in his power to write such a book as Hadrian the Seventh?” It turns out that the writer had other, darker powers. Symons’s friend shows him letters from Rolfe’s last years, in which the destitute author attempts to lure a well-heeled debauchee to Venice, where he will guide him, for a fee, through the city’s depravity: What shocked me about these letters was not the confession they made of perverse sexual indulgence: that phenomenon surprises no historian. But that a man of education, ideas, something near genius, should have enjoyed without remorse the destruction of the innocence of youth; that he should have been willing for a price to traffic in his knowledge of the dark byways of that Italian city; that he could have pursued the paths of lusts with such frenzied tenacity: these things shocked me into anger and pity. But they also intrigued Symons even more. Thus begins an “experimental biography” in which he relates both the story of Rolfe’s life and  that of his dogged investigative efforts. Rolfe, who died in Venice in 1913, was an entertaining, strange novelist; historian of medieval Italy; and failed priest. He was also a penurious spendthrift who, once funded, would engage in an expensive and “elaborate idleness;” a sponger, certainly, but one who endured long periods of abject poverty; a paranoid convinced that “others, far less gifted than he, were enjoying the pleasant fruits of a world in which he had no share.” Before the inevitable falling out, he would entertain his friends and patrons with his erudition and outlandish tales of being buried alive, pursued by Jesuit kidnappers, or communicating with cats in their secret language. Like Saul Bellow’s Herzog, he composed acidic letters to any and all—he thought of these missives, “whether to a publisher or to a cobbler” as literature. “I’m going to flick that gentleman with my satire,” he would crow to a friend before undertaking such an endeavor, a collaborator who attested that Rolfe was never “happier than when he had to answer an unpleasant letter.” This aggression masked a profound vulnerability, as the following passage about Nicholas Crabbe, the protagonist of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, makes clear: Have you, o most affable reader, ever dissected a crab? If not, pray do so at once, if possible, plunging him first into boiling water for five whole minutes and evitate unnecessary barbarity. Life the lid of his shell, and look inside. You will find it filled with a substance like new cheese; and a magnifying-glass will shew you that this is held together by a network ramification infinitely closer and finer than spiders’ webs. Under his shell, in fact, your crab is soft as butter, and just one labyrinthine mass of the most sensitive of nerves. From which pleasing experiment you should learn to be as merciful as. God to all poor sinners born between the twenty-first of June and the twenty-fourth of July...They are the cleverest, tenderest, unhappiest, most dreadful of all men. That is first-class horoscope writing. Symons’s quest culminates in a sad irony. Towards the end of the biography, we find Symons sharing sumptuous meals with a wealthy admirer of Rolfe’s who is willing to expend considerable resources to track down any surviving manuscripts. The munificent, Renaissance-style patron whom Rolfe searched for all his life arrives too late. 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: Hannah Gersen

I started the year by finishing Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which left me, as Anne Carson memorably put it, in “the Desert of After Proust." I would start other novels, but nothing held my attention. Instead, I read a lot of magazine articles, worked on my own fiction, and developed a mild jigsaw puzzle addiction. The malaise finally lifted with a streak of memoirs and novels that I later realized were all about being in your 40s, or approaching them. I’m 39, so I guess I come by my interest in this subject honestly. As I read them, I felt a little like a middle school kid reading books set in high school, hoping for some insight into what was immediately ahead. In no particular order, these Books of Midlife were: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy; Hourglass by Dani Shapiro; Between Them by Richard Ford; Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer; Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam; The Weekend Effect by Katrina Onstad; Vacationland by John Hodgman; The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs; and Still Here by Lara Vapnyar, which includes the memorable piece of dialogue about the perils of age 39: “That’s a crazy age,” he continued with the hint of a smirk. “Kind of like puberty for adults. When you’re forty, you’re branded as what you really are, no wiggle room after that—you gotta accept the facts. People do a lot of crazy shit right before they turn forty.” [millions_ad] Some may quibble with my list, wondering how Richard Ford’s portrait of his parents or Nina Rigg’s memoir of dying of cancer count as Books of Midlife. Another odd choice is The Weekend Effect, which is borderline self-help about how to reclaim your leisure time. All I can say is that to me, three hallmarks of getting older are 1) coming to a new understanding of your parents; 2) feeling your own mortality; and 3) wanting to make the most of your free time. After a year of breaking news alerts, I also found myself drawn to nonfiction that helped me to put our political moment into a larger context: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon; Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks; Future Sex by Emily Witt; And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy by Adrian Shirk; We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and Somebody With a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill. Most of these books are essay collections, and most of the writing contained within them was completed well before the 2016 election. It was fascinating to see the way that many of these writers anticipated our current political situation. Their blind spots were equally interesting. I feel bad for the new fiction I read this year, because I was always comparing it to Proust, and nothing could really stand up to that epic reading experience. However, there was one novel that swept me up with its passion, intelligence, and spiritual reach: Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, which will be published in January 2018. I look forward to reading it again next 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: Brandon Taylor

I started the year thinking about plagues and calamities. Like many people, I felt particularly disturbed by the growing gap between what I felt was my lived reality and what was being reported in the news or in print. I read The Plague by Albert Camus, and I was so disturbed and invigorated by it that I read it both slowly and too quickly. That is, I’d read passages and put the book down, intending to leave it for several days because I felt overwhelmed by it, but sure enough, before the hour was up, I was back at it. The Plague is a novel about an actual plague that befalls a small, seaside town. But it is also a novel about the plague of misinformation that can attach itself to a city or a state, how we often delude ourselves into thinking that catastrophe always lurks elsewhere. It’s a long, slow year of horrifying realizations, all of which have come to me refracted through the chilling, prescient lens of Camus’s gaze. This year, I also read a series of fragmentary books that make me feel as though we’re in some sort of liminal space, where familiar narrative structures are busting up. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, and even Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard. What I find interesting about each of the books is that they seem to resist cohering into what we’ve come to understand as a contemporary novel. That is, they’re seeking a kind of fidelity to experience itself rather than a kind of facsimile of life which is meant to give the impression of experience. I’ve found it all very interesting and raw, but I don’t quite know what to do with it or how to define it, but perhaps that’s just the point. [millions_ad] Also at the start of the year, I read André Aciman’s Enigma Variations, a book that also defies easy categorization. It’s a novel, but it’s also linked novellas. It’s a book that distills a man’s life into exquisite, gorgeous moments. We see him as a young man returning to the island of his childhood, touching familiar hurts, old heartbreaks. We see him older, frustrated in love and life. He falls in with someone at his local tennis club. He attends dinner parties. And all the while, Aciman’s keen eye for the fleeting moment, the interrupted gaze, the fateful turning away, never misses a gesture. And of course, in recent months, I’ve revisited his book Call Me by Your Name, what with the release of the film. It’s a novel to which I owe so much of my life and my understanding myself—in way, it’s been a bit like the narrator in the first part of Enigma Variations, checking old wounds to make sure the pain is still there. I think this year my reading has been largely governed by what’s familiar to me. I’ve run toward it and away from it. I’ve tried out new authors, new voices, new styles. I’ve tried to see familiar books again in new ways. I’ve tried to read with keener eyes and better questions. I’ve tried to read, if not broadly, then at least deeply. 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: Julie Buntin

On the first day of 2017 I finished The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I was in Tokyo, and still believed that Donald Trump would be impeached, that someone (who?) was going to call bullshit, that we would get a second chance. Stone Diaries follows Daisy Goodwill from birth to the end of her life, and infuses even the minute details of her existence—recipes, letters, addresses—with poignancy and grace. Reading it felt like an antidote to the way women had been undermined by the election results. The ending delivered me so fully into the world that the hours I lived after closing the book have the clarity of something written—the watery sunlight, the moment, in a crowd of hundreds at Meiji Shrine, I realized that the policemen were not carrying guns. Months later, on tour in Michigan, I mentioned the novel to a Canadian friend, how much I loved it, how profoundly it made me want to write. I hated that book, he said. I had to read it in school. My friend is a sensitive reader, and yes I know this reaction isn’t fair, but I remember looking at him and thinking, would you have still hated it, if it were about a man? In 2017, years of work come to fruition all at once. My first novel came out. Two books I edited, and love and admire deeply—Exes by Max Winter, and Large Animals by Jess Arndt—were published. Catapult’s creative writing program doubled its classes offerings. Something about all of that, or maybe it was the news, or maybe it was getting off Zoloft and going back on it, or maybe trying to keep my head above water at work while promoting a book, or maybe it’s that I got a little obsessed with my Goodreads reviews—I don’t know. Internally, I suffered a small collapse. It’s not a very interesting story—and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a non-problem. I finally got to hold so much of what I’d been fighting for in my hands, and in response, that inner voice, the most sacred part of me, went quiet. All year, I’ve been trying to wake my voice back up. I’m still trying. I throw books at the silence, and it helps. If you’re feeling quiet, too, in the face of the world right now, consider the titles below a prescription. I’m tired of men, so I won’t talk about what they wrote in 2017, not even the books by them that I loved. Instead, a partial list of books I read by women, most released into the estranging darkness of this year, many of them debuts. The ones that made me laugh (and in a few cases, also cry): Rachel Khong’s glorious Goodbye Vitamin, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Edan Lepucki’s Woman No 17, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Weike Wang’s Chemistry. The ones that haunt me still: Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket, Kristen Radtke’s breathtaking Imagine Wanting Only Wanting This, Josephine Rowe’s A Loving, Faithful Animal, Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming to Save Us, Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow, Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark. The ones that were extremely sexy: Jardine Libaire’s White Fur, Jamie Quatro’s forthcoming Fire Sermon. As a writer, I found something to envy in every single one of these books; as a reader, I was simply grateful. There were others, too. I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, in Bruges, after a photoshoot that embarrassed me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I developed some kind of aspirational writer crush on Danzy Senna after an event in Martha’s Vineyard and read New People in an exhilarating two-day burst; I’m reading Caucasia now. I had never been to Belgium before, never been to Martha’s Vineyard—how strange to be welcomed to these places thanks to a book I wrote when I was a different person. I spent a lot of this year feeling like a liar. I picked up Sallie Tisdale’s Violation, on a recommendation from Chloe Caldwell, and am shocked that we don’t talk about her more—her essay on abortion, “Fetus Dreams,” should be taught in schools. I didn’t read as much nonfiction as I normally do, but particularly loved The Middlepause by the infinitely wise Marina Benjamin, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I read What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, on my phone during my commute. Poetry-wise, I was stunned by Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone. I read Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce three times, and returned to Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, a gift from my friend Steph Opitz, again and again—as if both books were lifelines, which, I suppose, they are. I am forgetting things. Forgetting books I loved—I’ll look at this later and want to shake myself. Just now, I’m remembering that this is the year I had an affair with wry, elegant Anita Brookner, that I read Iris Murdoch because my husband made me and he was right, that I returned to Wuthering Heights because of an assignment and found it maddening and melodramatic and irresistible. I read Jean Rhys—Good Morning, Midnight—for the second time in a hotel bathtub in London, drinking wine. I decided I couldn’t write a prep school novel after reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, because she did it better than any of us ever will. I received my first blurb requests and resisted the urge to write back to the editors, to the authors, asking, are you sure? There are some good, good books coming next year—by writers like Meaghan O’Connell, Lucy Tan, Zulema Summerfield, Jana Casale, Rachel Lyon, Danielle Lazarin. [millions_ad] I’ve spent my entire career employed by bookstores or indie presses or nonprofits devoted to indie presses, and yet I read very little by small presses in 2017, which I hadn’t realized until just this moment. An assignment for the rest of the year. That, and reading the things I bought and never got to—Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; American Street by Ibi Zoboi. So, where to end? When I think of what I read in 2017, the work by women that inspired and motivated and moved me, there’s one book I haven’t mentioned yet. Over and over again, I read Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir, All You Can Ever Know, watching it evolve from proposal, to partial, to the honest and vulnerable and vital book it is now—both the chronicle of Nicole’s own adoption, and a larger story about identity and family. It is many things—but above all else, it’s a fierce and urgent story by a woman whose voice we need. Something to throw at the silence, I think. Something for 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
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Paul Yoon

This year I read too many wonderful books to name all of them here, but some highlights were: Katie Kitamura’s intoxicating A Separation, which is such a wild and yet disciplined exploration of the idea of the traveler and of grief. Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage came out last year, but it is a book I hold close to me these days, a miracle of a novel, one of the most humane, visceral, gut-wrenching and precise stories I have ever read. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life exploded in my head and I’m still reeling from the effects of living that journey. I absolutely loved Jenny Erpenbeck’s new one, Go, Went, Gone. She is one of my favorites, one of those rare writers who, I think, can write a narrative where you feel layers, not only the layers of a character’s life, but literally the layers of sky, the earth, soil and history and the future. Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance will haunt me forever, a narrative that continues to astound me, and I think a near perfect portrayal of aloneness and solitude and deep longing. Finally, I just finished a book coming out next year, Happiness, by the great Aminatta Forna. It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift. It was what I needed. Readers are in for a treat. 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 [millions_ad]
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Matthew Klam

New People, by Danzy Senna, is brutally honest and at times quite funny, and speaks about race in a way that's new, in the form of a half-crazed, biracial runaway bride story. We meet the young couple, Maria and Khalil, as undergrads at Stanford. "We're like a Woody Allen movie, with melanin," Khalil says. Each of them could pass for white or Hispanic. Maria carries with her a certain angst because, "the face doesn't match the race," and she's not alone. There is a struggle in many of the characters in this book to be black enough. When we meet Kahlil, he's the cool black guy in an all white fraternity, the Hootie in the Blowfish. But Maria helps wake him up politically, takes him to his first step show, teaches him when to chant, The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. Khalil ends up getting so in touch with his blackness that it nauseates Maria, so she prank calls him, trying to sound like the KKK: "We're gonna string you up and light you on fire." But he doesn't recognize her voice, and her plan backfires when he takes the threat so seriously that he becomes an ardent, tiresome political activist. Years pass. They move to Brooklyn. For the rest of their lives together, she can't bring herself to admit that it was her on the phone, pretending to be some kind of maniac. [millions_ad] And the fact is, they are beautiful together. And so what if the sex feels wooden, if she feels toward Khalil the way she might feel toward a brother? They're so admired for their beauty that a filmmaker asks them to participate in a documentary about race. All the while, Maria tries like hell to make sense of herself. As the date of their wedding approaches, she struggles to understand the impact she has on the world around her. In one hilarious scene, she's mistaken for a nanny, as some privileged white mother simply hands her a strange baby to take care of, and disappears for hours. Should Maria go through with the wedding? She is plagued with doubt. This book asks, "What if you're not happy even though you found the 'perfect' person? What if, instead of going through with it, you run away?" 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: Jenny Zhang