Gaze into the self, if you dare

Today my dad is coming to visit for the weekend: we originally planned to have him come for Thanksgiving, but it turned out the flights cost literally $400 less a week later, and decided not to stand on ceremony. Of course, with a holiday like Thanksgiving, the ceremony is sort of the point: it gives structure to the course of events, which we shall have to design for ourselves, which is harder in these winter days when you always feel you are barreling messily through the Jell-O of time. (We’ll figure it out! Apparently Tucson has organized an outdoors skating rink for the next month and I am extremely curious to see how they pull that off, given that it was 70 degrees out yesterday.)

Speaking, however, of time and formlessness, I just deleted a bunch of spam comments, and was charmed to see that the spam writers have moved into a stream of consciousness style. There are epochs to spam comments, I think: straightforward, porn-based, pretending to be a person interested in Your Site’s Great Content, etc. But these were uniformly in the voice of someone spiraling away from sanity due to the world’s innate horror, a la a Samuel Beckett narrator. A few plum lines (all emphasis theirs):

That, I will. RAPIDLY as well as EFFECTIVELY.


Right away I am going to do my breakfast

I mean, thank heavens they are going to do their breakfast right away! I think this is a person or a robot that needs to eat, that will level out as soon as they get some blood sugar! Which is indeed quite relatable! We are all the spam bot.

Anyway, I did not as such write a Year in Reading this year (here’s last year’s if you’re curious, and this years are happening now! Always worth a look), but I thought I would briefly look back on some of what I’ve read, simply to give this piece of writing some of the structure it and I would otherwise lack, as we press desperately onward towards the future. I have already read over 100 books this year, which is a personal record (possibly matched during grad school years, but I don’t think I was keeping track then so I can’t be sure): I take comfort in knowing that, upon quitting my day job and my horse, I did in fact do at least some of what I intended to do with my increased attention: read a lot.

Though I rarely go into a year thinking this way, themes tend to emerge in what keeps my attention: last year, it was primarily Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark; this year it was literary horror (among other things), probably owing to a massive re-read of Shirley Jackson that I did mid-year. While on vacation in Hawaii, I read Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl, a true beach read for the ages if what you want is to stir the very tar-iest parts of your spirit which yearn for the natural world and the past, yet can never, never again access them. (It is an oral history of Chernobyl, so masterfully put together, so beautiful, wrenching, and humane it could be read anywhere. I read it on the beach after snorkeling.) It’s also very scary, in its way.

(While at a residency earlier this year, me and the other residents watched the HBO miniseries Chernobyl which was based on this book, which led me back to the book, and which has one of the more haunted televisual scores I’ve ever encountered. So I guess we can’t go around saying TV never did anything good for books.)

I read Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, which is at once a novel about the Donner Party, the myth of the Wendigo, and a medical mystery. It’s very good. I also read John Langan’s The Fisherman, which is totally different despite also being deeply mythic and horrifying. I read The Silk Road by Kathryn Davis, which is not as such a horror novel except, you know, existentially.

I’m now looking back at my list of Books Read This Year (I highly recommend keeping a list, by the way; it’s nice to be able to remember titles and authors and an order of events; I always think I’ll remember on my own, but I never do), and I’m stunned that some of them actually were, yes, this year: I remember reading Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor—I mean, I better; I recommend it to people all the time as one of the most joyous excursions into the borderlands of gender and queer theory and personhood that could possibly exist—but I thought I read it last year. That said, I read I Love Dick by Chris Kraus right afterwards (it did not feel as joyful! I understand why this book was sea-changing in its time but I felt MORALLY GRIMY in there) and that does feel like something that happened recently. (The two novels make a very interesting counterpoint, given their theoretical preoccupations and formal innovations.)

I read All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung and cried in the bath. I read The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (never sleep on a book recommendation from Kelly Link!) while wrapped up in a blanket on the couch, and felt for a brief moment like the world could go horribly wrong but then also turn out right (plus: goblins!). I read The Heavens by Sandra Newman and was blown away. I re-read Erika Swyler’s Light From Other Stars to prepare for an interview with her, and fell just as deeply in love as the first time. I read In the Distance by Hernan Diaz, and then many months later I read The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú and split in half thinking about the desert, the border, the west.

Now’s as good a time as any to remind my family members not to shop for themselves until after the holidays. OK? Thanks.

I have been writing and revising a novel this year, and in the middle of this I read The Conversations, which is a dialogue about art between the novelist Michael Ondaatje and the film editor Walter Murch, which captured my brain for weeks and which I have not yet stopped thinking about.

I read Trust Exercise by Susan Choi and talked about it with everyone I know, and celebrated when she won the National Book Award for Fiction. I read Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita and marveled that it could possibly have been her first novel; she is a genius. I read Old Filth by Jane Gardam while sitting on a stony beach on Fishers Island, watching the waves come in. I read The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg while sitting in a tiny mobile bathtub in our backyard, which Dave got me for my birthday so we could sit outside even in the heat of summer; in fact I read many of books that way and it is my favorite thing, without which I feel I would surely perish. Now it’s winter, and I’m reading in the inside bath: for example, The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada and Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, which I also partially read while sitting outside under the mesquite tree, before it got too cold.

I read a lot of other things, some of which I loved, some I hated. Some I felt inspired by, some I have already forgotten, except that I wrote down their titles and authors on my list and so can get a flash of recognition when I see them in print. I have a bunch of library books and several ARCs I’m really excited to read, including Shiner by Amy Jo Burns (out 5/12/2020) and Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar (out 4/28/2020). I have already pre-ordered Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want (out 7/7/2020). The end of the Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel is out next year.

There is a lot to live for in this beautiful bad world.