My Year in Books, 2020
(Alphabetical by author. * indicates re-read.)
- The Immortals of Tehran (2020), by Ali Araghi
- Starling Days (2020), by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
- Upright Women Wanted (2020), by Sarah Gailey
- When We Were Magic (2020), by Sarah Gailey
- The True Deceiver (1982), by Tove Jansson
- The Leavers (2017), by Lisa Ko
- Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear (2020), by Matthew Salesses
- The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea (2020), by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
- Love and Other Criminal Behaviors (2020), by Nikki Dolson
- Dark Corners (2019), by Reuben Tihi Hayslett
- Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel (2020), by Julian K. Jarboe
- Tender (2017), by Sofia Samatar
- Inquisition (2018), by Kazim Ali
- The Voice of Sheila Chandra (2020), by Kazim Ali
- Travesty Generator (2019), by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
- Postcolonial Love Poem (2020), by Natalie Diaz
- Boom Box (2019), by Amorak Huey
- Inland Empire (2019), by Leah Huizar
- Claim Your Space (2020), by Minyoung Lee
- It's Not Magic (2019), by Jon Sands
- Homie (2020), by Danez Smith
- Cadence* (2018), by Hannah Stephenson
- Emergency Window (2012), by Ross Sutherland
- Things To Do Before You Leave Town (2009), by Ross Sutherland
- The Slip (2020), by Kary Wayson
- The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal (2020), by the McElroys and Carey Pietsch
Nonfiction, Memoir, and Other
- Lot Six (2020), by David Adjmi
- Human Archipelago (2018), by Teju Cole and Fazal Sheikh
- Stamped From the Beginning (2016), by Ibram X. Kendi
- Keep Moving (2020), by Maggie Smith
Read Aloud With My Kids
My Year in Books, 2019
Novels, Literary Fiction
- Mostly Dead Things (2019), by Kristen Arnett
- Trust Exercise (2019), by Susan Choi
- The Book of X (2019), by Sarah Rose Etter
- How to Set Yourself On Fire (2018), by Julia Dixon Evans
- My Brilliant Friend (2011), by Elena Ferrante
- Cleanness (2020), by Garth Greenwell
- What Belongs to You (2016), by Garth Greenwell
- The Fortunes (2016), by Peter Ho Davies
- A River of Stars (2018), by Vanessa Hua
- Goodbye, Vitamin (2017), by Rachel Khong
- The Golden State (2018), by Lydia Kiesling
- The Education of Margot Sanchez (2017), by Lilliam Rivera
- No One Can Pronounce My Name (2017), by Rakesh Satyal
- Winter (2017), by Ali Smith
- Real Life (2020), by Brandon Taylor
Novels & Novellas, Speculative Fiction
- The Only Harmless Great Thing (2018), by Brooke Bolander
- Tiamat’s Wrath (2019), by James S. A. Corey
- This Is How You Lose the Time War (2019), by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
- The Lilies of the Dawn (2016), by Vanessa Fogg
- Magic for Liars (2019), by Sarah Gailey
- Three Parts Dead (2012), by Max Gladstone
- The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), by Ursula K. Le Guin
- The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974), by Patricia A. McKillip
- Binti: Home (2017), by Nnedi Okorafor
- Dealing in Dreams (2019), by Lilliam Rivera
- Trail of Lightning (2018), by Rebecca Roanhorse
- The Ascent to Godhood (2019), by JY Yang
- The Book of Joan (2017), by Lidia Yuknavitch
- Felt in the Jaw (2017), by Kristen Arnett
- White Dancing Elephants (2018), by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
- Feathered Serpent / Dark Heart of Sky (2018), by David Bowles
- Exhalation (2019), by Ted Chiang
- Stories of Your Life and Others (2002), by Ted Chiang
- Her Body and Other Parties (2017), by Carmen Maria Machado
- Nosy White Woman (2019), by Martha Wilson
- A Fortune for Your Disaster (2019), by Hanif Abdurraqib
- Calling a Wolf a Wolf (2017), by Kaveh Akbar
- If They Come for Us (2018), by Fatimah Asghar
- They Call Me Güero (2018), by David Bowles
- Soft Science (2019), by Franny Choi
- Your Strange Fortune (2019), by Chloe N. Clark
- Our Debatable Bodies (2019), by Marisa Crane
- When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012), by Natalie Diaz
- Unyielding (2019), by Karl Gilman
- Deaf Republic (2019), by Ilya Kaminsky
- Whereas (2017), by Laylee Long Soldier
- Oceanic (2018), by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
- Feed (2019), by Tommy Pico
- Junk (2018), by Tommy Pico
- Nature Poem (2017), by Tommy Pico
- Why Can’t It Be Tenderness (2018), by Michelle Brittan Rosado
- My Private Property (2016), by Mary Ruefle
- The Year of Blue Water (2019), by Yanyi
- The Pedestrians (2014), by Rachel Zucker
- The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited (2019), by the McElroys and Carey Pietsch
- Saga, Vol. 2 (2013), by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
- Saga, Vol. 3 (2014), by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
- Saga, Vol. 4 (2014), by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
- Saga, Vol. 5 (2015), by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
- Saga, Vol. 6 (2016), by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
Nonfiction & Other
- Go Ahead in the Rain (2019), by Hanif Abdurraqib
- The Pretty One (2019), by Keah Brown
- God Land (2019), by Lyz Lenz
- Gmorning, Gnight! (2018), by Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Bluets (2009), by Maggie Nelson
- The Collected Schizophrenias (2019), by Esmé Weijun Wang
Read Aloud with My Kids
- Ramona and Her Father (1977), by Beverly Cleary
- The Dark Is Rising (1973), by Susan Cooper
- Greenwitch (1974), by Susan Cooper
- The Grey King (1975), by Susan Cooper
- Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2009), by Grace Lin
- Esperanza Rising (2000), by Pam Muñoz Ryan
- The Sea of Monsters (2006), by Rick Riordan
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999), by J. K. Rowling
- When You Reach Me (2009), by Rebecca Stead
50 Things That Mattered to Me in 2019
Today is the last day of the year, and it has become a bit of a tradition for me to send out my year-end list on this day. Year-end lists are, of course, always at least a little bit controversial, and I do dislike the idea of being exclusive, or of trying to say that one thing is deserving of your attention and another is not. For me, though, making a list like this is really just an opportunity to reflect on my own year, to look back and remember what moved me and think about why. It’s something I find useful, and I appreciate having space to do it out loud. So, here are fifty things that I experienced in 2019 that mattered to me, in roughly chronological order:
- Christina Xiong’s poem “The Cup in the Sink” puts venom and tenderness side-by-side in a way that is so beautiful and so true.
- Helena Fitzgerald’s newsletter Griefbacon has been a favorite of mine for years, and it has sadly come to an end as of today. One of my favorites from this year was from January, when she wrote about Jenny Lewis and the phenomenon of the Sad Hot Girl Singer.
- Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State had in it perhaps the best depiction of the feeling of parenting a toddler that I’ve ever read. I also loved how it engaged with a part of my home state that’s often overlooked (even by me).
- Hannah Stephenson’s poem “SHOO” is about the difference between “nice” and “kind,” and I loved it.
- Esmé Weijun Wang’s essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias was both intense and nuanced, an intimate and affecting look at mental illness unlike anything I’ve read before.
- The late Stanley Plumly’s poem “At Night”, which was published only about a month before his death, is about memory and mortality. It’s profound, I think, and all the more so for its quietness.
- All My Relations is a podcast about Native issues, hosted by Dr. Adrienne Keene and Matika Wilbur. I found the first season interesting and educational, and I’m looking forward to what’s yet to come.
- Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest was some of the best music writing I’ve ever read, giving both historical context and deeply personal reflections on one of the most influential hip-hop groups of the 1990s.
- M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language” is remarkable for how it makes English strange, revealing and inverting the colonial gaze.
- In their essay “Impostor/Abuser: Power Dynamics in Publishing”, Sarah Gailey talked about how impostor syndrome can keep you from recognizing and taking responsibility for the power you have, and how that can be dangerous.
- The poems in Ilya Kaminsky’s book Deaf Republic were kind of terrifying, in the most necessary way.
- I listened to Scene On Radio’s two podcast series Seeing White and MEN, which go deep into racism and misogyny, respectively. If you want to understand the fundamental tensions of our time, these are essential listening.
- This interview between Carmen Maria Machado and Theodore McCombs is one of the wildest things I read all year, and the less I say, the better.
- Literary interview podcasts are a mainstay of my listening, and a new favorite which started this year is The Poet Salon. The conversations are engaging and smart and a lot of fun. If you, like me, are still missing The Poetry Gods, this goes a long way toward filling that hole.
- This episode of The Cut on Tuesdays is about the friendship between Nicole Cliffe and Daniel M. Lavery, and listening to it just made me happy.
- Cathy Ulrich is one of my favorite flash fiction writers. Her story “The Hole in the Center of Everything” has this haunted quality that she does so well.
- Engaging with masculinity was something of a theme for me this year, both in understanding how masculinity can be toxic and in looking for healthy forms of masculinity. One essay that stood out to me was Mark Greene’s “Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendship of Boys?”
- This song (and video) by David Sikabwe was just so adorable.
- When I started reading Rakesh Satyal’s novel No One Can Pronounce My Name, I thought I knew what it was going to be—another harrowing story of immigrant trauma. I turned out to be wrong in the most delightful way. What a wonderful, funny, big-hearted, lovely story it turned out to be.
- Maggie Tokuda-Hall wrote about fertility and violation and baking and control and it was beautiful and heartbreaking and enraging. (CW: sexual violence)
- I liked Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s poem “The moon is showing” because it is about butts, and because of the way it moves from emotion to emotion, from humor to sensuality to shame to transcendance.
- Emma Hunsinger’s New Yorker cartoon “How to Draw a Horse” is so sweet and lovely, gentle to her younger self.
- Jonny Sun, who many of us know for his particularly wonderful Twitter presence or for his book Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, gave a lovely TED talk this year about loneliness and vulnerability and connection.
- Yanyi’s book The Year of Blue Water resists categorization—it’s poetry and it’s essay and it’s both and neither. I appreciated how the book is confident in being wholly itself.
- Sarah Gailey’s novel Magic for Liars is a detective story set in a magical high school, and it is so good.
- One of my favorite literary podcasts, Storyological, had its final episode this year, which I was sad about, but which was also perhaps the best possible conclusion to a show I loved.
- Katie Ford’s poem “Sonnet 31” has this feeling of ambivalence to it, by which I mean not that it is apathetic but rather that it is pulled equally in two directions, and it is that tension in which we live, I think.
- Natalie Eilbert’s poem “Crescent Moons” is about the aftermath of sexual assault, and it is breathtaking in its immediacy and potency.
- I got to see more movies this year than I had gotten to in a while, and probably the one that has stuck with me the most is The Farewell. To me, this film was quintessentially Asian American in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced before, and it was wonderful getting to see it.
- I’ve been enjoying US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith’s podcast The Slowdown for a while now. Over the summer, she read A. A. Milne’s poem “Spring Morning”, which has this lovely innocence to it, a sense of wonder that I recognized and that I try to hold onto when I’m out in the world.
- In her poem “Litany”, Chloe N. Clark writes “maybe what I want most is to grow / back into exclamations,” which is one of the things I want, too.
- CJ Hauser’s essay “The Crane Wife” is about self-erasure and leaving a bad relationship and finding her way toward herself.
- I think the book that I loved the most this year, the most beautiful book I read, was Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s time-traveling, lesbian, spy-vs-spy, epistolary novel This Is How You Lose the Time War. That description, while accurate, cannot contain how simply gorgeous this story is.
- Sarah Rose Etter’s novel The Book of X is about a woman born with a literal knot in her body. The writing is so physical, and the story is surreal, grotesque, even gross at times. For all that it is a fantastic story, though, it is one that embodies truths about being a woman in the world that resonate deeply.
- Danez Smith’s poem “acknowledgments” has in it the lines “& how many times have you loved me without my asking? / how often have i loved a thing because you loved it? / including me.” It’s one of the poems about love that felt most true and memorable to me this year.
- In her debut essay collection, The Pretty One, my friend Keah Brown discusses disability, pop culture, representation, and her own journey to self-love. I’m so happy that this book is in the world.
- Tommy Pico’s fourth “Teebs” book, Feed is perhaps my favorite of the tetralogy. It has all of the fire, humor, and insight that the previous three have, but it also has certain sweetness to it that complemented the other emotions, rounding it in a way that felt authentic and complete.
- There has been a lot of good music this year, but the album that I have listened to the most was without question the Steven Universe The Movie soundtrack. Partly this is because it’s music I can listen to with my kids, partly it’s because I like to sing along. But mainly it’s because that show and the movie are just wonderful portrayals of friendship and family, and I love the way it makes me feel.
- In September, Mother Jones published an interview between an anonymous staffer and her mother, about the mother’s abortion. I don’t think abortion is a topic that ever will be an easy topic, and maybe it shouldn’t be. The way this conversation humanizes the discussion is, I think, necessary.
- There is a moment in Lucy Dacus’ cover of "Dancing in the Dark where everything pauses for just a brief second of silence, and it was probably the most transcendent moment of music for me this whole year.
- I got to read an advance copy of Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming novel Real Life, and it is everything that I would have dreamed a Brandon Taylor novel would be. It is a campus novel, a story about what we ask of each other, how we do and don’t see each other. It’s brutal at times, intimate at others, and beautiful throughout.
- One of my favorite narrative podcasts for the past few years has been the McElroys’ role-playing show The Adventure Zone. Their second big series wrapped up this year, and, yes, the finale did make me cry.
- Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s poem “If In Its Advance the Plague Begins to Fiercen” stretches language but the message is still quite clear.
- One of my favorite new podcasts and a consistent source of joy lately has been McKenzie Goodwin and Chuck Tingle’s show My Friend Chuck. It’s funny, generous of spirit, inclusive, and just decent. Just two buckaroos proving love is real.
- Ross Sutherland’s experimental audio fiction podcast Imaginary Advice released its fifth anniversary episode this fall, an audio version of a novelization of the 1995 Jackie Chan film Rumble in the Bronx. It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, and it is also truly sublime.
- As I do every year, I attended the Medium Festival of Photography this October. Of all the work I saw at this year’s festival, it was Anna Grevenitis’ series Regard that has stuck with me the most. In this series, Grevenitis makes images in collaboration with her daughter—who has Down syndrome—inverting the gaze and challenging the viewer, exerting control over the image and the perspective.
- What’s Good, Man? is a new podcast by rappers Guante and tony the scribe in which they discuss masculinity, and particularly ways that men can engage with healthier forms of masculinity. We so often hear that men need to have these conversations more often, so it’s nice to see two men doing this work, and doing it well.
- One of the most talked-about new audio dramas in the past few months (at least, that I’ve seen) has been James Kim’s series MOONFACE. The series starts in media res in a sex club, so you will know right away whether or not it’s for you. For me, I thought that it was brilliant in both concept and execution, telling the story of a young gay Korean American man who literally doesn’t speak the same language as his mother, and who is struggling to make something out of his life.
- I’ve mentioned masculinity several times in this list already. Well, one of the people I’ve looked to a lot recently as a role model for a gentler masculinity is Mr. Rogers, and so Carvell Wallace‘s new podcast Finding Fred has been wonderful for me. In this series, Wallace looks at Mr. Rogers’ life and philosophy, and wrestles with how to apply those teachings as an adult in the world today. It’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what I needed to hear.
- Finally, just this week I listened to the full 7-episode run of the audio drama The Tower, which follows a woman’s journey as she climbs a seemingly endless tower. I thought the writing and performances were top-notch, and I found the story haunting. I just love the way podcasts are continuing to grow as a medium, and this is a great example of what’s happening right now.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. If you’re reading this then you got through 2019, and that matters to me, too. I don’t know what 2020 will bring, but I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that our work pays off, that we can find respite and joy, and that we all get what we need. I hope that you—you—get what you need.
53 Things That Mattered to Me in 2018
It’s been a hell of a year, hasn’t it? But then, it seems like we say that every year nowadays. The last few years it has felt not just that things are awful but that the rate of awfulness has accelerated. It is exactly that feeling that makes it all the more important to me to spend time thinking about the things that were good, the things that mattered. Here are some things that mattered to me this year. Please note, this list only reflects my own limited, incomplete, personal experiences. I didn’t see everything that could be seen this year, and not everything that I saw this year was released this year. These were things that stood out to me in 2018; I’d love to know what stood out to you, especially where our lists differ.
- One of the first things I shared in my weekly round-ups this year was this Steven Universe-inspired ballet piece, with dancer Juliet Doherty. I remember showing it to my dance-obsessed daughter, six years old at the time, and the way her eyes lit up as she watched.
- Amal El-Mohtar’s poem “Thunderstorm in Glasgow, July 25, 2013,” beautifully illustrated by Molly Crabapple. When I first read it, what struck me was how language informs identity. Now, I see too how it shows the separations between people, the barriers and the otherness.
- I read Erin Horáková’s 2017 piece “Kirk Drift” in February, and it did something I would not have expected after a lifetime as a Trekkie: it changed the way I think about Star Trek.
- Natalie Eilbert’s book Indictus was a searing collections of poems about trauma. It was so alive, so kinetic in its language. Troubling, but in a deeply necessary way.
- Everything Devin Kelly writes, whether essay, poem, or story, has at its core this searching, longing, tender quality. He wrote a piece about Goose from Top Gun that was also about his father, and about masculinity, and which I loved.
- L. D. Burnett, a historian and professor, wrote a piece called “Keeper of the Stories,” examining both the struggles of her Dust-Bowl-migrant family, and their complicity in the Japanese American Internment. It’s the kind of honesty in history that I still find to be unfortunately rare, but that I think we desperately need more of.
- 2018 was my year of superhero movies, the year I decided to finally catch up on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. I watched 18 MCU movies this year, and there were a lot that I liked quite a bit, but Black Panther stood out in that crowd for a lot of reasons, not least because it had characters saying things I’ve never heard in a blockbuster before.
- Rivers Solomon’s 2017 debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts was intense and amazing, both an excellent example of a long science fiction tradition and something that pushed the genre in new directions.
- I think I started listening to The Adventure Zone’s “Balance” arc last year, but I finished it in March and it has remained one of my favorite pieces of fantasy I experienced all year. God, I just love those boys.
- Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel Pachinko was both grand in scope and intimate, deeply empathetic, and taught me about a community I knew very little about before: Koreans living in Japan.
- I've read a lot of poems about injustice and our nation's disregard for black lives, but I'm not sure I've read any quite so tender and haunting as those in Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead.
- It’s been really wonderful reading so much speculative fiction by writers of color this year. One that stood out to me was Elaine Cuyegkeng’s 2017 story “These Constellations Will Be Yours,” about colonialism and forced servitude and revolution.
- Like just about everybody, I loved Paddington 2. Not just because it was a respite from the stress of the world, but because it was unabashedly itself, a children’s movie for children in an era when darkness or sarcasm seem to be more the rule in kids’ entertainment.
- I just adored Hannah Stephenson’s new chapbook Cadence, a collection of poems about new motherhood and all of the wonder and anxiety that comes with the care of a new life.
- Maggie Nelson’s 2015 memoir The Argonauts was by turns vexing, hilarious, troubling, heartbreaking, and throughout so deeply intelligent. Nelson insists on complicating every narrative, every system, every way of being. Perhaps this could be a lonely thing—it is for me, at times—but reading this was so affirming as well.
- Brandy Jensen’s “How to Poach an Egg and Leave a Marriage,” especially for this line: “Chasing the egg around the pot will only remind you of how often you run away from things, only to eventually coincide with yourself. You will wonder if it’s the running or the coinciding that makes you most miserable, and before you know it the eggs will be overdone.”
- I thought Franny Choi’s chapbook Death by Sex Machine was so interesting, both formally inventive and thematically resonant. Using artificial intelligence as a metaphor for the otherness of race and gender is just so, so smart.
- The most consistently entertaining and hilarious podcast I started listening to this year was definitely Drunk Safari. As host Maggie Tokuda-Hall puts it: “Essential animal facts as brought to you by dilletantes.”
- Another podcast I started listening to this year was Commonplace, and by far the episode that has most stuck with me was “Inside Commonplace.” Getting the behind-the-scenes conversations about the show, as well as the conversation between host Rachel Zucker and her husband, really showed me a lot about what an interview show can be.
- Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel wasn’t just beautiful and insightful—though it certainly was those things. It was also the single most inspiring book I read all year, the kind that helped me keep going.
- In May, Laura Turner wrote about being pregnant after three miscarriages, about the anxiety of it. It was a beautiful piece, I thought.
- Then in August, she shared her son’s birth story. That was beautiful, too, and made me so happy.
- Probably my favorite album of the year was Lucy Dacus’s Historian. I came back to those songs over and over again, particularly the song “The Shell” and its line “You don't want to be a leader / Doesn't mean you don't know the way.”
- Jerry Takigawa’s “Balancing Culture” photographs, about the Japanese American Internment, won the Curator’s Choice Award from Center Santa Fe this year, which is how I found them. I love them for their strong visual compositions, and for the personal nature of the exploration.
- Kathy Fish’s poem “Collective Nouns for Humans In the Wild” was published in 2017. It’s just as heartbreaking this year.
- Many of the poems in Ada Limón’s The Carrying have a heaviness to them, but there’s a core of resilience in them as well, and Limón passes that feeling along to us, showing us the reasons to keep carrying on, showing us how.
- I’m not going to be able to sum up Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries in just one or two sentences. It has in it trauma and mental illness. It is a Native story. It is about writing your way towards yourself. But it’s more than any or all of that, too.
- One of my absolute favorite podcasts is David Naimon’s Between the Covers, and I was very happy to see his conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin be turned into a book. I particularly enjoyed the introductions David added to introduce each section, which provided context and deepened the experience.
- I’ve been heartened to see a number of pieces this year engaging with complicated topics with a lot of nuance, acknowledging the messiness of the questions involved and the lack of clear, simple answers. One of those was Connie Wang’s “I've Written About Cultural Appropriation For 10 Years. Here's What I Got Wrong.”
- R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries was utterly gorgeous in its prose, and I found it resonant in how it looked at the ways in which we form personal narratives, both how we attempt to invent ourselves and how we see (or fail to see) the others in our lives.
- Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know is without question one of the best and most personally important books I read this year. What an amazingly honest, open, full-hearted story Nicole has given us about adoption, about heritage, about self-understanding, about family, and how families are both made and inherited. I’m just so happy this book exists.
- Kirsten Tradowsky’s “Time Echo” paintings really interested me. I find the finished paintings aesthetically interesting, particularly in their gesture, but I think that the process behind them is what really nails it for me, the way that Tradowsky blurs details mirroring the way memory blurs details.
- I have to admit that I never listened to Superchunk before this year, but What a Time to Be Alive was a great place to start. I’d describe the songs as “defiantly joyful,” I think.
- I often find myself thinking that Fred Rogers’ existence is proof that the world can never be all bad. Watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? made me cry a lot, of course.
- Brandon Taylor’s piece about his mother was so moving, so beautiful. I’m so grateful for him.
- Lyz Lenz’s essay “Why Writing Matters In the Age of Despair” was a potent reminder of the necessity of documenting and commenting on these times.
- Innuendo Studio’s video “Lady Eboshi Is Wrong” was really good. It’s about the difference between empathy and agreement, a particularly important distinction right now, I think.
- I really like Mikey Neumann’s Movies With Mikey videos. I think they’re some of the most insightful film criticism out there right now. His video “Get Off the Floor” showed us more of himself, shared his personal story, and that’s something that more and more I’m finding to be admirable and even necessary from cultural commenters.
- Crazy Rich Asians showed me just how much I needed a movie like this, where Asians and Asian Americans get to just be people.
- A story that has stuck with me since I heard it on the podcast The Other Stories is Mary J. Breen’s “Pieces of String Too Short to Be of Any Use.” There’s something about the idea of a story that engages with regret but refuses nostalgia that feels very right to me.
- The movie Eighth Grade was just about the perfect encapsulation of the most awkward part of adolescence. It’s such a strange thing, too, to be able to connect so deeply to both sides of the teen/parent struggle.
- I love how José Olivarez’s debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal encompasses both fire and tenderness, poems about race and place, but also about love in many forms.
- Gretchen Felker-Martin’s essay “You Called for Me” showed me something new about the classic anime Akira, which I first watched when I wasn’t too much older than my son is now. Teaching him how to process his emotions, how to avoid the isolation that masculinity so often demands of boys and men, is something that’s important to me, and this essay gets at just why it’s important.
- I always love when Noah Cho writes about food, and his “Bad Kimchi” column at Catapult is just great. I particularly loved the first installment, “The Love of Korean Cooking I Share With My White Mother.”
- Sarah Gailey’s short story “STET” grabbed my eye at first for its experimental form, but what made it stick was the potency of its emotion.
- I heard The Heart podcast’s 2017 series “No” when it was rebroadcast on Radiolab in October this year. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything that engaged with the concept of consent in such a concrete way, and I really think that it’s something everybody should listen to.
- KangHee Kim’s “Street Errands” photographs are so weird and just love them so much. I can’t stop thinking about them.
- I don’t know who Noah and PJ are but their first wedding dance just made (and makes) me radiantly happy.
- This Ask Polly column from November about shame and art and treating yourself well and being where you are was just wonderful, I thought.
- I did not expect after the first chapter that I would love Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA fantasy novel In Other Lands but by the end I really, really did.
- Shivanee Ramlochan’s book of poems Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was pretty amazing. Not just for how it blends together the myths and religions and folklore found in Trinidad, but for how it makes something powerful out of traumatic experiences.
- Before last year I really thought I was done with Spider-Man movies. And then after last year I thought that there was no way I’d be able to love a Spider-Man movie more than I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, especially not another origin story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proved me utterly wrong. The climactic scene where Miles Morales takes his leap of faith was breathtaking in every way.
- A while back, maybe two or three years ago, I had this idea to write a story set in a fantasy world but using the conventions and themes of literary fiction. I never wrote it, of course. But reading Kelly Link’s short story collection Get In Trouble, I feel like I don’t have to, because she’s done it so much more brilliantly than I ever could. I don’t understand how these stories do what they do—it just feels like magic. Which is fitting.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. I saw how many people worked so hard this year. I’m hopeful for how that work will bear fruit in the new year.
58 Things That Mattered to Me in 2017
Every Friday—or, at least, as many Fridays as I can manage—I write a list of things that mattered to me over the preceding week, and then I share that list on social media. I started doing this last summer, just as a way of shouting out the people who helped make my life a little better, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing from the beginning. It helps keep me positive and makes me consider a bit more closely the pieces of media and culture that I consume. This year, though, it felt a little more urgent to me to make these lists, a little more defiant, perhaps. It feels a little grandiose to say that these lists were an act of resistance, but if nothing else, 2017 has given me a lot of opportunity to think about what kind of world I’d like to live in, and what I can contribute. It’s a small thing, these lists, but they help me, and I hope that other people find them useful as well.
Over the course of this year, I shared over 200 essays, poems, articles, and bits of pop culture in my weekly round-ups. But there were others that didn’t quite fit, or for which I couldn’t find a link. And, looking back, some have stuck with me more than others. But I wanted to take some time and share some of the things that did stick. It’s not an exhaustive list of everything I read or saw or did in 2017, nor of everything that was good or important. Some of the things were new when I encountered them, some were quite old, but they were all new to me, and perhaps they’ll be new to you as well. In any event, here are 58 things that mattered to me this year, presented in roughly chronological order:
“When I think of wearing a kimono, I think of every way I have failed.” Rowan Hisayo Buchanan wrote that line in her essay “The Woman Scared of Her Own Kimono,” and it summed up a lot about my own relationship to my ancestral culture. I read a lot of essays about diasporic and mixed-race experiences in 2017, but this was one of the first, and one of those that I continued to think of most over the course of the year.
There was a lot on Thundercat’s album Drunk that I liked, but hearing Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins show up in the song “Show You the Way” brought me back to my childhood in the best possible way.
The first time I read Eve Ewing’s poem “to the notebook kid” I thought about it from the perspective of the student she describes, dreaming past the situation he’s in. The second time, I thought about it from the perspective of the teacher who sees that kid, and I thought about the students I worked with way back when. Every time I’ve read it, there’s been something new to it. That’s something, I think.
So much has been written about Moonlight and there were so many memorable things about it. What I think about most is the ache and hunger in Black’s eyes when he looks at Kevin as they talk in the diner.
I loved Moana for a lot of reasons: for the music, for getting to see a Disney story led by a woman of color, for that woman getting to have her own story without reference to a love interest. But, honestly, the thing I love most is hearing my now-three-year-old daughter belting “I am Moana!!!!” at the top of her lungs.
“You May Want to Marry My Husband,” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is perhaps the most romantic, tenderest, and most devastating thing I’ve ever read about love.
I like Noah Cho a lot, just as a person, and I have liked having the chance to talk to him and get to know him better this year. His piece “How My Parents Met” was wonderful, full of both warmth and longing.
Alyssa Wong’s short story “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” was nominated for a Hugo this year. The story was fantastic, and also introduced me to her bibliography, something I’m glad about.
“How to Write Iranian-American, or the Last Essay,” by Porochista Khakpour. It’s about the way that the world will take from you, and try to make you into what it needs from you, when you are a marginalized person. I wonder how many people reading this saw themselves in it, and how many saw something entirely new to them.
Levar Burton launched a new podcast this year that people described as “Reading Rainbow for adults.” Levar Burton Reads was that, and it was delightful. It also gave me the spark for what may be my next project, but that’s another story and shall be told another time.
One of the best and most exciting things about podcasts is the possibility of giving you a look into worlds and experiences that might otherwise be inaccessible to you. Or, conversely, the prospect of seeing your own community presented and represented in a way you never have before. For me, Ear Hustle was the former, presenting slices of life from inside San Quentin prison. But I have to imagine that for some other people it must have been the latter as well, not least for the inmates themselves. Anyway, it was really good.
I enjoyed a lot of Devin Gael Kelly’s writing this year, and I’m very much looking forward to his new book of poems, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen. The first piece of his that I read—this year or ever—was his essay “Running Toward My Father,” which was beautiful.
I got to see a lot of acts of protest and resistance this year, both in person and online. The most beautiful was this one.
Another new podcast to me this year was WMFA. I really enjoyed the conversations and the focus on craft. One episode I especially enjoyed was the episode with Hanif Abdurraqib. On a personal note, I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the show’s host, Courtney Balestier, with whom I’m now collaborating on a new project.
My kids and I have been watching Steven Universe together for a while now, and it’s one of my favorite things. The official soundtrack was released over the summer, and it’s become a sing-along staple in our family.
If you’ve listened to my podcast or even just hung around me for any length of time, you’ll know that Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You was life-changing for me. This year she released her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, and it was absolutely a highlight of my reading year.
I’m not sure I can quite articulate why I loved this breakdown of Sammo Hung's movies as much as I did, but I really did.
In “If What I Mean Is Hummingbird, If What I Mean Is Fall Into My Mouth,” Natalie Diaz wrote about language and identity and history and poetry, and it was pretty amazing.
We got my son a Switch for his birthday, though I admit that I was as excited to play with it myself as I was to give it to him. The opening scene of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, when Link walks up to the overlook and the music comes up for the first time, transported me. More than that, though, getting to play through at the same time as my son, and connecting with him over our experiences in the game, was something I’ve been waiting for for a long time.
“The Paper Menagerie,” by Ken Liu, was such a wonderful story. In looking over this list, it seems that some common themes came up for me this year, in particular family and culture and language. God this was good.
When I talked with Maggie Smith about her book for my podcast this year, she told me about Katherine Fahey’s “crankie” animations, in particular one called “Francis Whitmore’s Wife.” Beautiful and haunting.
Spider-Man: Homecoming was fun, too, and I think it’s safe to say that it was my favorite Spider-Man movie ever. The scene that sticks in my mind the most, though, wasn't fun. It comes toward the end of the movie, when Peter is stuck under a pile of rubble. At first he calls out for someone to help him, but no one is there and he has to find the strength to get out on his own. More than any other Spider-Man movie I can recall, this one really drives home that Peter Parker really is a kid.
I read and talked a lot about food as a cultural touchstone and food as heritage this year (and last year, if memory serves). Dongwon Song’s essay “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Damn Eyeball” was particularly good on that topic.
“The Story of the DuckTales Theme, History’s Catchiest Single Minute of Music,” by Darryn King, was a great piece of nostalgia for me. And getting to watch the new series (and sing the theme song) with my kids was great.
“A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home,” by Jamila Osman, about home, connection to place, to land, to people, about family, about loss. Such a beautiful piece.
I’m not sure if “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is exactly my favorite of Amal El-Mohtar’s short stories, only because I don’t think I could pick a favorite—I’ve loved every single one I’ve read, each in its own way. But it was the first one I read, and the one that led me to all the others I read this year, so it has a certain exalted position in my mind.
It’s kind of remarkable to me how before last year I’d never read any fiction that resonated with me in terms of Asian-American representation. You can see from this list that this is no longer the case. I first encountered Laura Chow Reeve’s story “1000-Year-Old Ghosts” on Levar Burton Reads, and I just loved the mixture of magic and food and family.
I read the first two books of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy back-to-back, after the second one came out last year. The concluding volume, The Stone Sky, finished the story off in a way that couldn’t have been more perfect, for me anyway.
I started listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat last spring, and it carried me through most of the year. I loved (and continue to love) that music dearly, but by the time the show swept through the Tonys I had more or less resigned myself to the idea that I’d never get to see it in person. But, in a total surprise to me, J and ten or so of our family members pooled their resources to get me tickets to see the touring production in Los Angeles, which they gave me for my birthday. We went to see it in September, and I started crying as soon as the house lights dimmed, and kept crying through most of the first act, and then cried again at “Burn” and then all the way through the finale. It was, without exaggeration, the best gift I’ve ever received.
UNC law professor Eric Muller did a limited-run podcast this year called Scapegoat Cities, about the Japanese-American Internment. I found it gratifying that someone would take the time to tell these stories, which are beginning to be lost from living memory. And they were done quite well, too, I thought.
I have gotten pretty down on tech lately, which I suppose is odd for a person who makes his living as an electrical engineer. But there are still ways that technology and scientific endeavors manage to bring a sense of wonder to me, and one time that happened this year was getting to look through these photographs from the Cassini mission.
I love Mallory Ortberg’s writing in a way that makes me vibrate with happiness every time I get to read something new from her. Her Shatner Chatner newsletter (and the subsequent website) brought me so much joy over the course of the year. But for all that, the piece of hers that I loved the most this year was “When Every Bra Size is Wrong.” Because getting the chance to be happy for someone who makes you happy is simply wonderful.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Nicole Chung this year, who edited my first-ever paid essay. The reason I was so excited is in part because of pieces like this: “On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump.” I admire the hell out of her.
Speaking of people I admire, Martha Crawford wrote some amazing personal essays for her blog this year, of which my favorite was definitely “Dancing in the Graveyard,” about dreams, symbols, the collective unconscious, mortality, and Geoffrey Holder.
After the announcement that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel, I went back and read his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, a story that I found haunting and tricky in all of the ways that I love about Ishiguro’s writing. But the thing I think most about Ishiguro’s Nobel is actually not about him at all, but rather a Twitter thread that Kenny Coble posted about what Ishiguro’s work meant to him.
The first line of Tricia Gahagan’s artist statement for her photo series “11:11 Mirroring Consciousness” reads “How often do we pause and pay attention to the messages the world is mirroring back to us?” The photographs themselves made me gasp when I first saw them. The images were so perfect for my aesthetic, but also not something I think I could ever have done.
There’s a scene somewhere in the middle of The Florida Project where Moonee and one of her friends come out from under a tree where they’ve been sheltering from the rain, and step into a green pasture where some cows are placidly chewing. I recognized something in the color and the sudden quiet and calm, a sense of awe and the sublime that I used to feel when I was a kid, but which I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe at the time.
I saw Christina Riley at the Medium Festival this year, where she was participating in the portfolio reviews. It was great catching up with her, and seeing the prototype of the book she’s making of her “Born” series, a series I’ve been watching take shape for some time now, and about which I’m very excited.
Dimas Ilaw wrote about the nightmare happening in the Philippines in his piece “The Shape of the Darkness As It Overtakes Us.” It puts into perspective our own political situation, and shows us what the stakes are. He tells us, too, about both the necessity and limitations of hope, and the value of continuing to make art in such an environment.
Isobel O’Hare’s erasure poems “What We Know About Men” took powerful men’s statements about their alleged sexual harassment and assault, and transformed them into something else. That’s a powerful act, I think, and one I’m heartened by.
The newest podcast I’ve been listening to—and one of my favorites—is Carvell Wallace’s show Closer Than They Appear. In it, Wallace talks to celebrities, family members, old friends, doctors, journalists and others about the state of America. That description makes it sound like any number of other articles and books and podcasts out there, but the way he does it is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard, personal and honest and both broad and specific.
Both J and I cried when we watched Coco. Whew, what a beautiful movie.
I’ve only read one of J. Y. Yang’s Tensorate novellas so far: The Black Tides of Heaven. The world-building, the sibling relationship, the presentation of gender, it’s all so fresh and well done, and it has me very excited to read The Red Threads of Fortune, not to mention the ones that are still forthcoming.
I’ve been wrestling with Sofia Samatar’s essay “Why You Left Social Media: A Guesswork” for several weeks now. I think there’s an essential truth in there that I’m maybe just not ready for yet, but I think I’ll get there.
There’s a scene in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird in which Sister Sarah Joan, one of the nuns at the Catholic school the title character attends, is talking to Lady Bird about her college application essay. She suggests that Lady Bird must love Sacramento, which Lady Bird finds surprising. She (Lady Bird) replies “I guess I pay attention,” to which Sister Sarah Joan asks, “Are those not the same thing?” I loved the whole movie, but I especially loved that scene.
Just this week, J and I took a short trip up to San Francisco by ourselves, and while we were there we saw Call Me By Your Name. We both loved the movie. The conversation between Elio and his dad (if you’ve seen the movie, you know which one I mean) just destroyed me.
Finally, one of my favorite things in the world is reading to my kids, and this year I’ve gotten to revisit some of my own childhood favorites with them—The Lord of the Rings with my nine-year-old son and The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web with my six-year-old daughter were particularly fun for me (and them). Earlier tonight as I’m writing this, my son and I finished the last Harry Potter novel. It was wonderful.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me. I know that there’s a lot of work to do in 2018, but I feel that we’re up to the task. I’m looking forward to it. Here’s wishing you (and all of us) a safe, happy, and prosperous new year.
Everything I Never Told You
By Celeste Ng
There’s a scene about a third of the way into Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You that just about sums up, for me, the experience of reading it. The family members around whom the narrative revolves are still reeling from the death of the middle daughter, Lydia—I’m not giving anything away here; you find out about Lydia’s death in literally the first sentence of the book—and two police officers have arrived at their home to ask a few more questions. Marilyn Lee, the mother, begins shouting at the police, becoming angry and accusatory. James Lee, her husband, tries to calm her down and apologizes to the officers.
Now, this is a dynamic in family dramas that is familiar almost to the point of cliche—the hysterical mother, the conciliatory father—but reading it in this book was electrifying to me because of one detail that colors every interaction in the story, and which made it all so perfectly tangible for me: James is an Asian-American man, Marilyn is a white woman.
Suddenly the whole thing takes on a whole new dimension. Here’s a man who has spent his entire life being ridiculed and excluded, who wants so desperately to fit in and be “normal” that he’s dedicated his life to teaching college students about cowboy imagery. And here’s a woman who, dreaming of being a doctor in her youth, has spent years sublimating her rage at the condescension of men. I wondered as I read this, would a mainstream audience—and by that I meant a white audience—understand this? Is this something that is only obvious to someone like me?
After the officers leave, though, Marilyn accuses James of kowtowing and all of the subtext becomes text. No one is going to miss that. At least, I hope not.
And so it goes for the book as a whole, as well. In so many ways it is a familiar story. Literary fiction on the whole is thick with themes of family tragedy, of longing, of failed communication, and in that way Everything I Never Told You is perfectly representative of the genre. But by putting that story in the context of interracial marriage, and particularly with this racial mix, it becomes something new, something I can’t recall ever seeing before.
I almost feel a little guilty at how thrilling it was for me to read this book. Almost. But it’s not as though I haven’t also gushed over books where none of the characters looked like me. I recognize bits of myself all the time in other stories, but here it felt like a little whisper, the author saying, “I know you. That thing you felt—I felt it, too.” It’s not something I’m used to. Not this thing.
And there was so much I felt as I read this book. The intimacy of the narrative, the way each member of the Lee family is shaped by each other, by their histories, and by the way the rest of the world treats them, it all had me desperately pulling for them, which made each missed opportunity all the more heartbreaking. And if I saw echoes of myself in James Lee’s longing for inclusion, and then in each of his children’s lives as well, how much more infuriating did that make it when they were small to each other, when they hurt each other, when they were self-absorbed or oblivious? How much did it sting to reckon with the ways I must have failed to be the man I ought to be for my own family, good intentions or not?
It’s only February yet, but if Everything I Never Told You is not my favorite book this year, it will have wound up being an amazing year for me as a reader, because topping this experience is going to take some doing.
Started: 2/18/2016 | Finished: 2/25/2016
City of Blades
By Robert Jackson Bennett
One of the things I love about science fiction and fantasy—not the only thing, but one of them—is that they are really the genres most suited to exploring big ideas. You want to see what a world would look like where gods walked among us, where religion was not a matter of faith but of unassailable fact? Boom, you can do it. You want to see what would happen when such a world has its gods taken away? No problem. You want to see how people survive and adapt and get stuck and move on in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war? Not only can you do this, but you can make it as broad or as specific as you want. There are no boundaries beyond what you can imagine.
I’d say that Robert Jackson Bennett had a lot to live up to in writing a sequel to his 2014 book City of Stairs. It’s a book whose style and premise were unlike just about anything I’ve read before; a book with ideas that, though big, never overshadowed its wonderful characters; a book that was insightful and imaginitive and also a lot of fun to read. For all that, City of Blades may be even better.
Picking up about five years after the events of City of Stairs, City of Blades leaves the previous book’s protagonist, Shara, and instead follows one of the supporting characters, General Turyin Mulaghesh. Pulled out of retirement, Mulaghesh is sent to find a missing agent, who herself had been sent to investigate some strange occurrences in a city that was once the seat of the deity of war and death. As her mission unfolds, Mulaghesh finds that many things are not as dead as they seem, including her own past.
As before, the detective-story structure of Bennett’s book gives a strong feeling of exploration and discovery, and the world he has imagined lets him grapple with some pretty big concepts. What kind of world is left behind in the wake of huge, earth-shattering change? Where is the line between atrocity and necessity? Can we atone for the sins of our pasts? How much will we sacrifice in order to do what’s right, or what needs to be done, and are those the same things? Do old wounds ever really heal? Yet the book is anything but didactic. Like the best examples of the genre, it manages to be high-concept and fun, alien and familiar, plot-driven and well-characterized all at the same time. I haven’t had a chance to read his older works yet, but with this series Bennett has managed to cement a place as one of my favorite contemporary fantasy writers.
The third book is scheduled to come out next year, and I’m quite looking forward to picking it up. Until then, I’m happy to give this book (and its predecessor) my full-throated recommendation.
Started: 2/10/2016 | Finished: 2/17/2016
February Book Reviews
Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson: I have to admit that I had never heard of Jacqueline Woodson before the 2014 National Book Awards and what happened before her acceptance speech. This is to my own detriment, because, damn, what a writer. Feathers is a great example of how, done well, YA is a genre that is every bit as resonant and powerful as any other. The story is set in the early 1970’s, the main character, Frannie, is a sixth-grader in an urban middle school who is dealing with a lot of the same issues that we all recognize from that time in our lives: changing relationships with friends; the beginnings of awareness of adult life and concerns, especially with respect to one’s parents; the academic and social challenges of school. These are pretty universal themes, but the story is specific, and this is, I think, the source of its power. Because I obviously have no idea what it would be like to be a young black girl growing up in the 1970’s, attending an all-black middle school in a depressed part of the city. But I do know what it was like to be a young Asian boy growing up in the 1980’s, living in an affluent, mostly white town and being neither affluent nor white. And there are a lot of points of contact between the life I had at that age and Frannie’s life in this book, which helps make the parts where our experiences differed more accessible to me. (And this is to say nothing of the simple power of seeing one’s own experience represented, for those readers whose lives were like Frannie’s.) I’ve got a shelf of books set aside for when my kids are ready for them; this one is on that shelf, and I can’t wait to be able to talk with them about it. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell: It was an interesting experience reading The Bone Clocks relatively soon after Cloud Atlas; I often have trouble retaining details after I’ve finished a book, so if more time had passed I’m not sure if I would have noticed the callbacks and references in the newer book. As it is, I’m sure I missed some. Mitchell has referred to the shared universe of his novels as an “uber-novel,” and I hear that his latest book, Slade House, continues adding chapters to that story. For myself, I’m sort of stuck in between with this book. When I finished Cloud Atlas I was impressed by the ambition of the work but left unsure about whether it actually did anything for me, what it was saying or doing. Now that I’ve read The Bone Clocks and gotten a little more context, I’m starting to get a sense of Mitchell’s concerns, but I still don’t know whether the experience is one that I value a lot. Taken as a high-brow fantasy novel, there’s certainly a lot I could credit here: he builds an interesting world, and I think he does a good job of exploring the consequences of that world for his character, what immortality looks like, how the temptation to evil works, and so on. And the way he gives us such a close perspective on his characters—who are, I think, very well realized—is immersive enough to make me feel that connection with them that is necessary for a good book. Still, there’s something unsatisfying in it, for me at least. Taken together with Cloud Atlas, this book seems to show a certain obsession with mortality, with decay, with dystopia. I can’t say I blame Mitchell there, since my own obsessive nature focuses in that direction, too, but something about the way this book ends makes me wonder what the point of it all is. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie: One of the things about genre fiction that often gets overlooked by a certain type of literary snob is that, in many ways, genre allows a more effective medium for engaging in social commentary than so-called literary fiction. That’s not to say that all genre fiction is great at this—certainly there are many examples of ham-fisted diatribes dressed up in SF or fantasy clothes—but when done right, genre tropes and conventions provide a space for the commentary to operate within without drawing too much explicit attention to itself. That is, socially minded science fiction and fantasy can be more subversive. That’s mostly what I’m thinking about with Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series; here we have what is ostensibly a far-future space opera, but it’s really a very contemporary piece. It’s about a particular political moment that is happening right now, and in telling us a story about sentient starships and incomprehensible aliens and a space emperor whose consciousness is spread across multiple bodies, what Leckie delivers is a cogent and powerful examination of privilege and power dynamics and personhood. This series explores bias and struggle along multiple axes: race, class, gender, culture, and more. And it packages it all up in a story about war and diplomacy in the distant future. This gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while: that the greatest impediment to social justice is the inability for any person to ever live another person’s experience, to really know how someone else feels. And that the true power of art is that it allows us these points of connection, of being able to see things from another perspective. In this series, Leckie will challenge you, challenge the way you think and the things you take for granted, and she will do it in a way that is nonetheless remarkably entertaining. This is vital reading. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Updraft, by Fran Wilde: Speaking of Ann Leckie, I heard about Fran Wilde’s book Updraft via a recommendation on Leckie’s blog. So if you don’t trust my judgment, you can at least trust hers. I can say for sure that I wasn’t let down. One of the things that reading this book got me thinking about was the ways in which the human experience can be translated to so many different forms, different places and cultures, and still be recognizable and relatable. In this story, all of humanity (as far as we know) live on towers of living bone, which constantly grow and force people to ascend in order to survive. Below the towers, dense and deadly fogs swirl. Between them lurk invisible monsters that prey on the unwary. Trade and communication and travel between the towers is accomplished by flight using manmade wings. Now, that’s pretty far from the life you and I live, but you take that setting and add in a harsh coming-of-age story, and even though I can’t relate to flying tests or echolocation lessons or glider knife fights, there’s still something in there that I can recognize. I have no idea where this series is going to go from here (this is a self-contained story but the author is planning more in the same setting) but it’ll certainly be interesting to find out. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro: OK, so I have to admit: I have a bit of a crush on Kazuo Ishiguro. I mean, it makes sense, right? Here’s a guy who was born in Japan, raised in England by Japanese parents, who writes stories that are as British as anything Forster or Waugh or McEwan ever wrote. According to his Wikipedia page, in an interview he once said, “If I wrote under a pseudonym and got somebody else to pose for my jacket photographs, I’m sure nobody would think of saying, ‘This guy reminds me of that Japanese writer.’” You can see why this would resonate with me, right? And I love that he’s willing to write stories that blur the lines between lit-fic and genre. With Never Let Me Go he turns what seems to be a story about a boarding school into something science fictional and much darker. Here he writes a fable about a post-Arthurian Britain that reads a bit like Malory but also functions as an allegory for how societies forget the atrocities in their pasts. There’s a pretty powerful message in that allegory, but what I found worked best for me were the little character moments, particularly between the main protagonists, an elderly couple who are traveling to visit their son. Stylistically, The Buried Giant is rather broad, as you’d expect reading the sort of medieval legend this is, but the way Ishiguro manages to show the small intimacies between wife and husband, two people who’ve known each other a lifetime, it’s pretty wonderful. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown has been getting a lot of talk in SFF crowds since it came out last fall, and rightly so. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been comparing it to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or to Jane Austen or Patrick O’Brian, and certainly all of these comparisons are apt. I’d also throw in Stephanie Burgis’s Kat, Incorrigble books, which not only shares the Regency-era English setting, but also the frustrating way that no one ever listens to the protagonist. (In both Burgis’s books and this one there’s a narrative reason for this—in the former case it’s to highlight the unfairness of adolescence and in this one it’s because of racism toward the book’s black main character—but it’s still frustrating.) In any event, I am apparently a total sucker for anything set in this time period, fantasy or not. Those of you who don’t find the idea of English manners and magic spells terribly amusing may not find this up to their tastes, but I had a lot of fun reading Sorcerer to the Crown. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace: It’s a little difficult for me to describe this book in a way that makes sense, what with the way it blends genres and never fully explains itself. It’s part post-apocalyptic dystopian SF, part ghost story, and (sort of) part Greek myth. And it opens with a knife fight. I mentioned to the people who recommended it to me that I’ve been getting a little exhausted by bleak, brutal fiction lately, and certainly this had some of that same effect on me. The title character, Wasp, is an eighteen-year-old girl who hunts ghosts, a job she was raised for since infancy, which she received by killing her predecessor, and which she only keeps by killing the “upstarts” who would take her place. Bargaining for a way to escape her situation, she agrees to help a ghost enter the underworld and find the ghost of his friend, lost to him for hundreds of years. A lot of stuff is never really explained—why are there ghosts? What exactly happened in the war that destroyed civilization? Why are ghosts attracted to salt, and how does the Archivist’s magic work? Or is it magic?—but even though I was curious about these things, they’re not really the point. What you really have here is a story about struggle, about loyalty, about overcoming, about agency. And, telling that story, it comes to a really beautiful and moving conclusion. It’s an odd story, but it’s worth a look. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs
By Sally Mann
If you are—as I am—a photographer whose work focuses on your own children, it is more or less impossible to escape the shadow of Sally Mann. Mann was not the first artist to turn her lens on her family, but she was unquestionably one of the best. She is to the family genre what Ansel Adams was to black-and-white landscapes: the progenitor (or at least the catalyst) of a whole family of photographic tropes, an inspiration to generations of following artists, imitated to the point of cliché but seldom equaled, let alone surpassed.
It’s not exactly accurate to say I’m a fan of Sally Mann’s work. Rather let’s say that nearly everything I’ve done photographically is somehow informed by, inspired by, measured against her work. Her family work, of course, but her landscapes as well, her obsession with rootedness, with legacy, with personal history, with connection, with decay. If there’s ever been any single photographer in whose work I most saw my own ideas and emotions reflected, it’s her. (I can feel a slight sneer from an imaginary reviewer at this revelation. Of course some Dad With A Camera, some guy with his portfolio of longing-filled images of beautiful, serious-eyed children, of course he would cite Sally Mann as his biggest influence. Is it a cliché? Perhaps. It doesn’t make it any less true.)
There was never any question that I would read her memoir.
What does one look for when reading the story of one’s hero, told in her own words? (Is that the right word for what she is to me? My hero?) Affirmation, perhaps? Some sign of convergent evolution, some hint that I’m on the right track? Or maybe just the same thing I hold so dear when I look at her photographs: that inkling that someone, somewhere, thinks and feels the way I do. The little spark of recognition that makes me feel a little less isolated.
Did I find that? Did I ever.
On mark-making and legacy:
When an animal, a rabbit, say, beds down in a protecting fencerow, the weight and warmth of his curled body leaves a mirroring mark upon the ground. The grasses often appear to have been woven into a birdlike nest, and perhaps were indeed caught and pulled around by the delicate claws as he turned in a circle before subsiding into rest. This soft bowl in the grasses, this body-formed evidence of hare, has a name, an obsolete but beautiful word: meuse. (Enticingly close to Muse, daughter of Memory, and source of inspiration.) Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form, but when I gently press my hand into the rabbit’s downy, rounded meuse it makes me wonder: will all the marks I have left on the world someday be tied up in a box?
On the pain of place:
In Wales, for example, Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad). But, and this is important, it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.
On self-confidence (or the lack thereof):
Every time it’s the same. It’s easy to prove to myself that good pictures are elusive, but I can never quite believe they’re also inevitable. It would be a lot easier for me to believe they were if I also believed that they came as the result of my obvious talent, that I was extraordinary in some way. Artists go out of their way to reinforce the perception that good art is made by singular people, people with an exceptional gift. But I don’t believe that I am that exceptional, so what is this that I’m making?
On beauty and sadness:
As for me, I see both the beauty and the dark side of things; the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as well. And I see them at the same time, at once ecstatic at the beauty of things, and chary of that ecstasy. The Japanese have a phrase for this dual perception: mono no aware. It means “beauty tinged with sadness,” for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay. For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.
I could go on and on. If I were the type to write in books, my copy of Hold Still would be underlined and highlighted on nearly every page. She says not just the things I would say, but she says them the way I would say them (if I might flatter myself to be nearly the writer she is).
What stands out to me even more than the similarities, though, are the differences. Mann and I both come from a rural area, but she grew up on a Virginia farm while I grew up in a woodsy California neighborhood. She describes herself as a young girl as “feral” and “naked,” while I was straight-laced and buttoned-up. She was raised in relative wealth and privilege; when I was a child, we had to make do much of the time. It was no surprise that she went to school for the arts; it was no surprise that I studied engineering. Somehow, though, we both seem to have arrived at the same set of obsessions. How does that happen? What does it mean?
It’s not a perfect book. Or rather, it didn’t sit perfectly with me. At times when she speaks in defense of her family images she seems to want things both ways. To be sure, I agree when she argues that her children shouldn’t be judged by the photographs, because photographs aren’t people. But then, she also comes close to saying that critics shouldn’t say that her photographs don’t show “mean” or “cold” children because her children aren’t mean or cold.
And though I find it admirable that she tries to reckon with the racial legacy of the South she loves, and with her own history with race and privilege, I can’t help feeling a certain ambivalence about how she approaches the topic. She admits the hypocrisy of the situation, but can’t quite extricate herself from it:
Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raise by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly †insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them. This reflects one side of the fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private. Could the feelings exchanged between two individuals so hypocritically divided ever have been honest, untained by guilt or resentment?
I think so. Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me.
She is open in her criticism of the system of racial segregation she grew up in. She acknowledges her part in it, how she benefited from it, how her biases blinded her in her youth. But I’m torn between finding her candor laudable and seeing some bit of self-congratulation in it. At that, though, I felt the same ambivalence in her, a desire to see herself in a good light tempered with a hint of self-loathing in having to make the story about herself. Where that leaves me, I’m not sure. I might squirm a bit at a white, affluent Southerner talking about race from a position of power, but I’d likely find it odd, too, if she simply didn’t bring it up at all. You can draw your own conclusions; I’m sure she’d want no less.
And in that, perhaps it’s no different from the rest of the book. Mann never presents herself as anything other than the same sort of fallible human that we all are. Her art, not to mention the deeply insightful and lyrical writing in this book, might raise expectations for those of us in her audience, and so often those expectations are borne out. But looking for The Answers from any person is on some level a fool’s errand, and what we get from this book is still remarkable and resonant, even if the person painted by its portrait isn’t perfect. Hold Still is an exceptional articulation of the inner life of an artist who, though she wouldn’t admit to it, is a genius. After this book, I continue to labor in her shadow, and I suspect I always will. I hope someday I’ll be able to contribute something half as meaningful.
Started: 10/28/2015 | Finished: 11/21/2015
The Land Across
By Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe has written some of my favorite books, books that I consider to be among the finest American novels in any genre. Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus are fantastic works that I have returned to many times, each time finding something new. And his three-series, twelve-volume epic starting with The Book of the New Sun is truly a masterpiece. But as much as I love some of his stories, others—like 1984’s Free Live Free or the 2004 duology The Wizard Knight—left me flat. So I always look forward to reading a new Wolfe novel, but I’m also always a little apprehensive about which experience I’m going to get. The Land Across, unfortunately, was in the latter category.
The story follows its narrator—a travel writer whose name is eventually revealed to be Grafton—as he journeys to an obscure Eastern European country, intent on being the first person to write a travel guide about the place. He is immediately taken into custody by the Stasi-esque national police as he crosses the border, and as the book continues he finds himself involved in a cloak-and-dagger plot involving forces both political and apparently supernatural.
Because this is a Wolfe novel, nothing is ever quite spelled out, and it’s clear that Grafton isn’t telling us the whole story. I ended up as impressed as I always am by the technical skill of Wolfe’s writing, but still fairly confused about what the hell actually happened. I haven’t read Kafka before, but that name has been thrown around a lot in other reviews I’ve seen, referencing the style and dialogue and intrigue, and the pervasive feeling of strangeness throughout the book—the writer I was most strongly reminded of was Milan Kundera. (I’ve only read one Kundera novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what happened in that book either.)
But this is how it goes when a Wolfe book doesn’t land for me: I end up assuming that I must have just missed something, or didn’t work hard enough to figure it out. So in terms of a recommendation, I’m not sure where that leaves me. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book, but it nevertheless still struck me as good. Maybe you’ll have better luck with it than I did.
Started: 10/4/2015 | Finished: 10/15/2015