Hello sports* fans, can you believe it’s already December? I cannot.
Every winter I look forward to The Millions’s ‘Year in Reading’ posts, and so this year I thought I’d write one of my own, just for you. If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s not quite a best-of list; it’s a series of short essays that writers can use however they want to reflect on what they’ve read that year, and how that reading has chimed with their experience of being alive. Sometimes that takes the form of recommendations, but sometimes not. (After all, you probably wouldn’t recommend every quality of your life in the past year, now would you? That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth talking about.)
The very first book I read this year is still one of my favorites: Michelle Tea’s Black Wave. On New Year’s Eve, Dave and I went to the wedding of our dear friends L & B, who had decided to move up their plans after the election, in case the laws about gay marriage changed. I remember all of us crying on election night; when they came over I had been in bed with no pants on, drinking whiskey and watching The Crown. After they called I put back on my pants, and we drank whiskey together, and cried together, and ate the cake I’d bought that said “A Woman’s Place is in the White House.” We smeared out the frosting.
The wedding, on the other hand, was fantastic and joyful. It took place at the Wishing Shrine of El Tiradito, which is one of Tucson’s strange little wonders. We then all had dinner and drinks and went dancing until late at night—actually, to be honest, a lot of people stayed out later than us, but Dave and I took a taxi home just before midnight, so we also didn’t have to deal with post-midnight traffic. (I feel no shame about this! I felt so smart!) In the morning I woke up with just enough of a hangover to be foggy and loose in my body, but not ill. I was happy, and ready to live another year. And Black Wave was what I was reading. It’s a dystopian novel that transcends those boundaries; a queer love story that jumps through time and metafiction without losing atmosphere or growing annoying—either intellectually or didactically. The novel feels personal and intimate, both; bracing and tender, both. I took a bubble bath in our giant tub and drank herbal tea, and outside the sky was clouded over, so everything felt slightly broken, but mending. I finished the book in a single day.
The next book I read was a re-read: Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. I’m not going to go over every single title I read, because for one thing the year isn’t over, and for another thing my list is already almost 60 titles long. I know I already talked about reading Eichmann on this blog, but it’s a strong indication of where my mind was, early in the year. Reading Black Wave I was healing; reading Eichmann I was getting ready.
A lot of people have said this was a tough year for books, meaning that people were stressed and tired and distracted and not reading that much. Or maybe just not buying books that much: either way, not a lot of titles took off. But I think it was a great year for books as art, and a number of them made a huge impression on me.
Isadora by Amelia Gray is a strange and luminous novel about Isadora Duncan in the days after her children died in an accident. But it isn’t a plain grief metaphor: it’s an exploration of how much our art and intentions live inside the body, and whether they can live beyond us once our bodies (and the bodies of our family) die. I read this book very slowly, and with occasional frustration, but it is incredible in its intellect and its empathy, and I strongly recommend it.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris is one of the most compelling and peculiar graphic novels I’ve read in ages.
Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin reads in exactly the way its title promises.
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard is a thrilling look into a magical New York City that is somehow both an examination of inherited privilege and a twisty fantastical tale.
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting is ONE OF THE WEIRDEST BOOKS IN THE WORLD and therefore one of the best.
And now I really am just listing, aren’t I? I adored Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman, both of which crack open the experience of early college life with pathos and humor. I found Batuman’s language-obsessed letter-writing protagonist a little too relatable, but that’s a criticism of me as a 19-year-old, not of the book.
I loved Marlena by Julie Buntin and Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki and Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong and All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg and The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt and A Separation by Katie Kitamura, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitacker, and Felt in the Jaw by Kristen Arnett and I would read all of those books again.
While I was at the Jentel Arts residency in Wyoming I read a lot of backlist work that I absolutely adored, including the epic (but epically devour-able) A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, Loitering with Intent by the always wonderful Muriel Spark, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Golden Days by Carolyn See, and The Lover by Margeurite Duras, which I can barely believe I’d never read before. Despite all the incredible books that came out this year, it can be soothing to read backwards for awhile, and remind yourself that what is new is not all there is; and that being the best at being new is not always the right goal.
I think I should stop now, because this is more recommendations than a person can really handle in one blow, even though the longer I make this list, the better it reflects the overwhelmed and over-brimming nature of my mind, right now. I have often felt, in these past twelve months, as if my brain is slightly swollen. I listen to too many podcasts. Too often flip between watching a TV show and checking Twitter. (Yes, I know, this is pathological.) I feel like I’m being over-written by narratives, but I can’t stop seeking them out. I’m looking, I guess, for the right narrative: the one that will make me feel like it’s all ok.
That story might not exist, but I’ll keep looking. Even if, next year I try to keep my mind a little cleaner, so I can find the stories inside myself, and keep writing books as well as reading them. I have projects that I want to dive into so deeply the world around disappears. I have a book coming out. And the world will keep spinning.
And in the meantime, I’m reading The Power by Naomi Alderman, and kind of wishing that I had an electric skein in my collarbone; that there was a physical manifestation of my anger and my pain that came from nowhere and changed the world. But so far, there isn’t.
Not so far.
*weird animal comics