I’ve been meaning to do a rundown of my “year in reading” (a concept celebrated to perfection by The Millions, but available to anyone who’s read a book) for the past few weeks, and have forgotten every time until now. Which is probably fortuitous, because we’re a lot closer to the end of the year, and thus to the possibility of capturing it in its entirety, like a Pokémon.
I keep a running list of books I’ve finished every year, shared only with myself and one friend, with stars applied haphazardly to either 1. books I recommend to my friend, 2. books I particularly enjoyed, or 3. books I felt like I should have enjoyed more, though I try not to do that, since the list is basically a diary, not an exercise in intellectual peacocking.
As I was scrolling through this year’s list today, I found myself totally enervated by the idea of just stating everything, or giving any play at all to books I didn’t enjoy. Those authors don’t need the negativity for one thing, but also why bother? Who care what I didn’t like? Even diaristically, that isn’t compelling; I only enjoy picking apart problematic books on a craft level, to help myself learn to avoid the issues that bothered me in someone else’s work. (And indeed they may only bother me: other people might like them.)
So what did I like? What were the themes? I read both of the currently-available Vera Kelly spy novels by Rosalie Knecht (the third one is coming out next year!) and they are delightful, suspenseful, and driven by a very complex and lovable main character. Well-embedded in their context, the near-history feels alive rather than campy or nostalgic. As a theme, I guess this is “highly addictive series,” to which I of course must add the Murderbot Diaries books by Martha Wells, though I read most of those last year, and only got the new one, Fugitive Telemetry, this year.
I read a lot of slightly older books which were exquisite and funny and sad: Mating by Norman Rush and The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, for instance, both of which offer endings that (in very different ways) change your entire experience of the book. This is such a ballsy and audacious move, and they both do it so artfully. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, which I had never read before but could see myself reading again and again. The Door by Magda Szabó, which is absolutely devastating and crystalline in its construction. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson was one of the only books I read in the summer that actually made me happy; I read other books in that time that I liked quite a lot, but they did not do the job The Summer Book did of opening up a salty, wind-swept world for me to step into; a cozy and much-needed cabin in which to sleep.
Science fiction that was actually research for my friend Jaime’s book (I mean, she read these books for research and then I stole her syllabus, so to speak): Solaris by Stanisław Lem, which offers a concept at once precise and wide open (living planet; spacemen who are offered manifestations of their greatest regrets or greatest lost loves, depending on your interpretation) and Sphere by Michael Crichton which is basically Solaris-lite (and underwater) but no less amusing for all that. Oh, also, this was not from Jaime’s research, but I did read the beguiling and post-apocalyptic In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, originally because I couldn’t stop watching that super dirty Harry Styles music video (no complaints), but ultimately for itself; it also pairs well, ethically, with Solaris, now that I think about it.
A quick recitation of books, now, with nothing particular in common except I enjoyed them and they are coming to mind: No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, Writers & Lovers by Lily King, The Removed by Brandon Hobson, The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard, The Vietri Project by Nicole DeRobertis-Theye, The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart, The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison, The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel, Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, Harrow by Joy Williams, Assembly by Natasha Brown, Tiny by Mairead Case. Actually these books do have a clear commonality: they are all new. This is not all the new books I’ve read this year, or all the books I’ve liked, but as predicted I’m not keen to keep emptily listing titles, so some you’ll just have to imagine for yourself
Right now I’m reading In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin (translated expertly by Sophie R. Lewis) which is a searing and potent memoir about being attacked by a bear while conducting anthropological research in Siberia. The book is precise in its depictions of place, even when that place is the inside of a bear’s mouth. It doesn’t dwell overlong in any one location though; the narrative floats free with the narrator’s mind. I am not done yet, so I can’t really speak to the book as a whole, but it’s definitely unique.
At this point I feel compelled to mention, also, that hey, I have a novel coming out next year, and I suppose End of the World House is in fact what I read more often this year than anything, between larger edits and copy edits/page proofs. This book means a great deal to me, both as an adventure in form and as a personal exploration of humanity, friendship, and what capitalism does to art and the soul. It’s complex but also, I hope, exciting, and it would be very helpful to me (should you be interested in reading it) if you pre-ordered it, because for whatever reason publisher like to see if books will succeed before they actually emerge into the world, and if that is stressful as a write (it is), it’s also just a fact.
(In general, the vista of book publicity before me is both exciting and bracing; once you’ve done it a couple of times you have a sense of what’s coming for you, but there are always unexpected turns, and there is always the exhaustion you can’t quite hold in your mind once it’s gone, the great wearying effect of holding your breath for months on end.)
(So anyway, apologies in advance for any future self-aggrandizing; if I don’t aggrandize the self, who will? Are you saying I could just live a peaceful life with no expectation or care of the judgments of people external to me? Are you saying the flowers will bloom in either case, and that my senses will neither heighten nor dull as a result of any one particular future?)
(Wild if true.)
This may be the last comic I draw this year, though if I get bored (or a good idea), we’ll see. Just a fair warning that the days are getting colder and the tree is decorated and the gifts are purchased and I never intended to send out a card and we have eggnog in the fridge and way too much stovetop popcorn to be getting on with. Last night I tried to make us a cocktail that included egg white and, never having done so before, did not anticipate the egg creating such a little shock bomb in the shaker (though, in retrospect, it makes sense), and so the first batch exploded directly in my face, into my eyes and hair and all over my clothes, and I was left garbling and blubbering in the kitchen, rinsing my eyes out under the faucet while Dave rushed in to clean up after me, and in the end the cocktails were honestly quite good, but that has been the feel of this whole year: little shock bombs right in the face. And so here we are at the end of it, the year leaking out through the cracks and the edges, and next year who can say what will come, what my mind will do, or what yours will, but let’s hope for beautiful ideas, and for the flowers to bloom in any case.