December 31, 2020 § Leave a comment
For the third straight year, presented in the approximate order I finished them, here is an unasked-for list of my favorite books that I read for the first time this year.
DREYER’S ENGLISH by Benjamin Dreyer. A guide to grammar, punctuation, and style written by the Random House copy chief, who approaches his subject with a keen wit and a sensibility that in the object of clarity, not every rule is meant to be steadfast.
NINTH STREET WOMEN by Mary Gabriel. Intimate in its details yet vast in its scope, this 944-page tome looks at the careers of five painters who scratched for their places in the gallery, and the conversation, amid the male-dominated world of mid-20th century American abstract art.
THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt. One of the more thrilling campus novels, with an interesting backstory, this paperback was a fun book to carry in my hoodie and read when I was out and about, back when we did such things.
MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE by Jane Alison. An analysis of plot structure and the variety of patterns that a narrative can follow, backed up by the author’s close and insightful reading of example texts, opens up a trove of strategies for the writer looking to advance their prose.
THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai. A novel about AIDS and its immediate and everlasting impact on a community. With characters seeking hope and forgiveness against a climate of dread and judgment, the friendships are some of the most believably rendered I’ve read in fiction.
NOTES OF A CROCODILE by Qiu Miaojin. A novel of intense young love and desire among Taiwanese college students, cleverly structured and freshly irreverent against the backdrop of post-martial-law Taiwan.
SONTAG by Benjamin Moser. A richly researched biography of a writer who refused to be reduced, one that elevates its subject by keeping a balanced focus on the passions that drove her: love, curiosity, and a hunger for an erotics of art.
THE GREEN HOUR by Frederic Tuten. Fluidly written novel about an art historian pursuing her romantic obsessions in Paris, cliched in just about every possible way, and yet despite its melodramatic twists I found quite an enjoyable read.
BORROWED FINERY by Paula Fox. A memoir of the novelist’s childhood and early adulthood, when she was raised by a succession of odd guardians until her volatile, wayward parents barge back into her life. The narrative looks in unexpected places and avoids tropes.
CROOKED HALLELUJAH by Kelli Jo Ford. Set against a vividly rendered landscape, this novel uses snappy language to tell about four generations of hard-bitten Cherokee women as they run from brush fires, look for escaped mules, and deal with unreliable men.
LATER by Paul Lisicky. A memoir of the writer’s years spent in Provincetown, Mass.; the friends, artists, and lovers he meets there; and the community’s response as the AIDS crisis swells in the 1990s. An honest book about the struggle to both live fully and survive.
INSIDE by Alix Ohlin. A novel about strangers and the psychology of connection, loss, forgiveness, and redemption. Set across continents and decades, it brings together a series of characters who might otherwise have nothing to do with each other in an artful and effortless way.
BROWN ALBUM by Porochista Khakpour. Frank and lyrical essays of the experiences of growing up as an Iranian-American immigrant, and the dismaying challenges that arise in a society that assigns you an identity before you are given a chance to develop your own.
YOU WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN by Mary South. Remarkably fresh stories that get ahead of modern trends and tropes with savage humor, pinning down uncanny situations that are familiar yet nameless, taking a razor to the kinds of real-life characters who suck the air out of the room.
NIGHTS WHEN NOTHING HAPPENED by Simon Han. A story of a Chinese immigrant family in Plano, Texas, this novel manages to evoke the silences of nighttime through its gentle register and yet artfully haunts its neighborhoods with the horrors of rumor, kid logic, and racism.
FLIGHTS by Olga Tokarczuk. Wryly observed meditations on travel, airplanes, and the spaces and headspaces that we occupy in between other spaces. This turned to be a well-timed read as it evoked the kind of feelings that were denied to those of us who stayed home this year.
My top three might be the Makkai, the Tokarczuk, and the Gabriel, all of which coincidentally have bright yellow covers.
I also dug into Shirley Jackson for the first time (apart from “The Lottery”), and Arthur Koestler, Doris Lessing, and Graham Greene. I re-read THE PILGRIM HAWK, THE JOY LUCK CLUB, and Camus’s THE STRANGER, which felt aptly lonely and disorienting.
I read 41 books in all, which is more than usual for me, though at one point it felt like I might break 50. No bowling leagues, no travelling, and I didn’t watch sports because they didn’t feel worth the stakes. So I puttered around on my novel and read books.
Our first full year owning Federal Street Books—a store whose crowded shelves and cramped aisles invite one to get lost and wander into other people’s spaces—was interrupted by a pandemic that made that very activity dangerous and irresponsible. We got a harbinger of what was coming when my wife picked up a bag of books that someone left to “donate” and got her hand bitten by a brown recluse spider. (It was very painful, but she recovered.)
Stories meant so much more this year, they provided what rare chance we were afforded to get out of our doom-clouded heads. Through books this year I got to visit Chicago, Algeria, Texas, Taiwan, Uganda, and a host of other places. I miss overhearing conversations in bars, the lacquer-scent of a bowling alley. This year’s voyage required so much imagination, and now I fear imagination has taken over in a darker direction—people are imagining their own election results, their own narratives of evil, and talking themselves into comfort with living in a different reality from the rest of us. I want the idea of fiction to return to the page and the screen, where it belongs, to remind us of what we can do, not what can happen to us. I want to go home.
November 29, 2020 § Leave a comment
I enjoyed Simon Han’s debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened, about an immigrant Chinese family living in the suburbs of Plano, Texas, in the early aughts. I got to know Han a little when I met him at Bread Loaf in 2018, but I don’t remember if he spoke much about his project then.
As the title suggests, many scenes in the book take place at night, and the gentle register of Han’s prose evokes an effort to avoid disturbance. The Cheng family has two children, older brother Jack and younger sister Annabel. Liang is a portrait photographer and Patty works long hours in the semiconductor business. Annabel has taken to sleepwalking, and her brother must set out into the neighborhood in the wee hours to find her.
Much like Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, the characters are trying to maneuver through a suburban landscape that promises safety on the surface, but that gloss only makes it harder to spot the dangers that lurk. A disruption occurs in the middle of Nights When Nothing Happened that amounts to the book’s only real plot point, and as in Little Fires, rumor, misunderstanding, and racism contribute to a tense confrontation with the potential to harm lives.
As though we are trying to pay mind to a sleepwalker, the book is artfully devoid of clamorous sentences. Rather, Han creates uncanny moments of silence with his language, opting for his sentences to be let down softly.
But tonight the moon was missing, and the sky had never seemed so big. Big and black and interrupted by roofs and satellite dishes and crosses. Starless and full of folds, blue-black hiding spots. Liang’s shirt clung to him with sweat. He imagined the wind ferrying warmth from the Panhandle, swirling with the evaporated salt spray of the Gulf. How long had it been since he’d breathed air with conviction. There was no such thing as a Texas sky; there was only sky.
There is also a significant amount of dialogue spoken by children—more than is typically attempted in a novel for adult readers. Many of these lines are spoken to each other, with no adult present—and it seems like each line isn’t meant to direct us anywhere, but is there to dizzy the reader with its range of interpretations heard through the sonic fuzz of kid logic.
“Not today,” she said to Elsie. “I’ll break my arm after Thanksgiving.”
“Do you… have to?”
“I got to do it before Christmas. Then Santa will give me a big and beautiful cast greener than Kermit. And you can put your stickers on it.”
Elsie was on the verge of tears. “But I wanted to put my stickers on m lunch box.”
“Hey.” Annabel was almost a heard shorter than Elsie, but when she brought her hand up to the girl’s face, Elsie winced. “It hurts so so so much to break my arm. I’ll feel better with your stickers.” Annabel gave the girl’s cheeks a light sweep. “You’re my friend, right?”
You can read the first chapter of Nights When Nothing Happened at Electric Literature.
At NPR, you’ll find Scott Simon’s interview with the author as well as this thoughtful review by Leland Cheuk. Lastly, Han has an essay at The Paris Review blog that gives context to the immigrant experience in Plano.
April 22, 2020 § Leave a comment
At Greenboro Review, UNC MFA candidate Chris Swensen does a deep dive into my story “Dixie Whistle,” which appeared in the Spring issue (#107). The story is not available online, but you get a pretty good idea of what it’s about from Swensen’s thoughtful reading.
I am extremely proud of the story, and received a lot of good feedback on it (in workshops and following its publication). But I have been hesitant to promote it too much given its ugly and problematic title. The very day that I received my extra contributor’s copies in the mail was the day The Dixie Chicks announced they were dropping “Dixie” from their name. That word romanticizes the confederacy and connotes segregationist policies in a way that I, a writer from the north, did not take seriously when I waggishly used it as part of Candy’s CB handle. (She thinks it up on the fly when her mother drives past a Winn-Dixie grocery store.)
The story is not about the Confederacy, nor segregation, though it is set in Georgia in 1980, the Dukes of Hazzard years, when such truculent ideas were still very much romanticized. Dixie was tossed around with a lot more abandon then, in names and brands and popular culture, and while that might make Candy’s choice of handle realistic (and fittingly and absurdly naive, as part of my intention), the writer is not excused for abandoning what he should know just because he is writing about a time in the past. To me, the name aptly pinned the clumsy ways in which we adopt false identities whenever we look for our place in a new setting–much as we do in the present day on the internet, perpetually striving to stay “on brand,” putting on personas that are meant to attract attention from strangers.
While nobody has criticized me for my use of the word yet, I am aware that to many others it is weighted with greater serious than I gave it. I hope people still read the story, and am glad that Greensboro Review took time to write about it.
January 1, 2020 § Leave a comment
For the second straight year, my unasked-for list of books I enjoyed:
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. Graceful, complex stories about young black men in Brooklyn and the Bronx navigating the codes of masculinity and expectation that come with existing as a young man of color in the 21st century.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. What is disguised as a book about writerly advice shines best in personal essays about making it as a human observer in a world of glittering surfaces, and the spectacle of life experience informing art.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer. An alternately sad and hilarious novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, it uses its humor and swift narration adeptly to reveal truths about aging, love, relationships, and failure.
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken. Concerning an obscure regional sport beloved by me, it finds new wonder in ascribing its invention to a fiery matriarch with a century’s worth of colorful descendants. The book is about family, and how myths and legends survive.
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai. Layered, patient stories that demonstrate how art can celebrate humanity across dark eras, finding grace and beauty in the slightest folds.
Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin. A novel of sisters and artists and the disparate paths they take, it naturally threads together compassion with cruelty, desire with sacrifice, ambition with ambivalence.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. A young man’s letters to his mother, who cannot read them, composed of sentences gently stirred into small miracles to evoke the shared pain of generations.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. A tight, fierce book about institutional cruelty, written in wise and subtle language, unapologetic and never obvious where it is headed.
All told I finished the year having read thirty-four books, four of which were re-reads. I read more Roxane Gay, Lucia Berlin, and Sam Lipsyte; enjoyed digging more into Baldwin, Didion, and Modiano; tried out Tania James, Danielle Evans, and Jenny Zhang. I found myself juggling more reading toward the end of the year; at the moment I have ten in progress, which has to be a record for me. This is what happens after you buy a bookstore. I discovered that mass-market paperback novels are great to have in your hoodie pocket or to peek at during downtime. There is a concerted effort out there to keep us distracted and depressed, but when you read a book, you at least retain your agency.
Meanwhile I have a story coming out in The Greensboro Review in the spring. An actual print journal with no internet analogue, so you won’t find a link to it here. There is something remarkably fresh and concrete about that. Over the summer I attended a writers’ conference and took a wonderful workshop with Joy Williams, where she punched me in the arm and generously offered feedback on two stories in addition to the one I workshopped. One of those was the story that will be in The Greensboro Review.
I am thinking more about the decision of writing and publishing, of what my writing should say, what deserves to exist out there with my name on it, rather than just publishing for some fleeting sense of achievement. My stories are getting longer, and starting to explore comparable themes–talking to each other–which is why I haven’t been submitting anything else, and I’m comfortable with that, with not having to refresh Submittable or look for some scoreboard of acceptance and approval.
And maybe by the end of the next decade, I’ll stop trying to be perfect and get my novel written.
November 23, 2019 § 2 Comments
Following a confluence of circumstances that allowed it to happen, my wife H. and I purchased Federal Street Books, a used bookshop in our town of Greenfield, Mass. After about six weeks’ worth of reorganizing and clearing our old inventory, we reopened the store on October 12.
I am still writing and still working full-time at the dictionary. This side hustle gives me a way to contribute at the retail end of the literary community as well.
The response from the community has been encouragingly positive. You can visit the store’s site or read about our adventure in the Greenfield Recorder.
June 14, 2019 § Leave a comment
“Pipes. I think it was broken pipes. I should have written it down so I don’t use it again.”
Next week is the annual Juniper Summer Writing Institute, held down the road at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This will be my first year participating, and I will be workshopping fiction in a class with the incomparable Joy Williams. I can’t wait to get started.
The above is from “Flour,” from The Paris Review #224 (Spring 2018).
March 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last August, at Bread Loaf, I was privileged to share a workshop with Kelli Jo Ford, a writer of sharp-edged prose about Cherokee women and families. And I got to read a portion of her novel-in-stories, Crooked Hallelujah, about a family of hard-bitten women in Oklahoma and Texas and the men who love them and let them down, balancing the older generations’ connection to things earth-bestowed against the youngers’ comfort with modern America’s blighting institutions. It’s all written in the snappy language demanded of the exhausted and the fighting, where the sentences tumble over one another like a rolling plain and divert at unexpected places like rivers. A story from that collection, “Book of the Generations,” was published last year in The Missouri Review:
Lula held herself something like together with a religion so stifling and frightening that Justine, the youngest and always the most bullheaded, never knew if she was fighting against her mother or God himself, or if there was even a difference. Still, her father was a betrayal of the knife-in-the-heart variety—something far beyond all their fighting—and here he was on a cool spring evening, right between them.
“He’s in Texas. Near Fort Worth,” Justine said. She bit her lip. “He asked me to go to Six Flags with him. Just for the weekend. He has a little boy now, I guess.”
She almost hoped Lula would hit her, but Lula stared into the hills. It wasn’t clear she had heard, so Justine’s mouth kept moving.
“Six Flags is an amusement park. With roller coasters. I know you might think it’s too worldly, but I can wear a long skirt on the rides and all. It’s sort of like a big old playground!” Justine forced a smile. She pushed a strand of hair back into her bun, waited. “I’m sorry, Mama.”
And another story from that collection, “Hybrid Vigor,” was published in The Paris Review earlier this year and was just awarded the Plimpton Prize (a merit that earned the attention of Lyle Lovett). This is going to be a sensational book, raw and honest and riveting, and important.
January 20, 2019 § Leave a comment
A few weeks ago I received a copy of Black Warrior Review in the mail, and in a strange convergence of my life as a writer-reader and my day job, I noticed a nonfiction piece by Krys Malcolm Belc entitled “First Seen in Print in 1987, According to Merriam Webster.”
It’s a 13-page piece in 11 sections, with each page headed by a different word from that year, followed by a short essay obviously prompted by that word. The words tie in to an overall personal narrative, written in the second person by a transgender man to his lover.
Here’s an excerpt from the part under the heading ‘BFF’:
Where we went to school the library was always crowded, even on a Friday night. People watched me visit you at work. You’ve always loved to work the latest shift, making money while others relax. Running out the door in your scrubs while I give the kids their after-dinner baths. Saying goodbye as I say goodnight.
At the BWR website, Belc explains in a craft essay how he was inspired to write the piece, describing his birth certificate from 1987, which of course details the birth of a person he no longer is: “The world happened to me as the person on the paper, not the person I am today, for nearly thirty years.” Belc selected words that Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler feature identified as showing their dates of first use as his birth year. The other words include beer goggles, messenger bag, degenderize, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.
Time Traveler has become very popular since we introduced it a couple years ago, and I like to think of it as a sort of fossil record for words. Scrolling through, you see trends: depression words in the 1930s, space-age words in the ’60s, words pertaining to AIDS in the ’80s, etc.
Reading his piece, I was struck by how Belc used the selected words essentially as memory triggers to chart out his own story, as he puts it, “to map myself onto my former self, and to use a form that organically allowed me to do that.”
As someone who defines words for a living and then writes creatively in my off hours, I have always thought of my relationship to words as two-sided: while some days I am trying to shape them, force them to do new things, others I must retreat and observe them candidly. But to look at a word candidly, and to tell its story candidly, requires ignoring the memories you attach to that word. I remember learning the word ‘come’ in nursery school. I remember pointing to it on the blackboard for the teacher. I remember how I learned the word ‘squalor’: not from Salinger and Esmé, but from the news article about a friend who murdered his mother and younger brother.
Belc’s stunning piece reminds us that there are words in our life stories that mark moments, words that lodge in our consciousness in a way that prevents them from ever being neutral, so they can no longer ever be “just words.”
December 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
I got away from writing about the books I read and enjoyed this year, so here is a list in digest form as I shared it on Twitter.
Probably my greatest literary achievement was attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in August, where I met about a half-dozen of the authors mentioned here and either bought and read their books in anticipation of meeting with them or in the months following.
THE IDIOT by Elif Batuman. A look inside the mind of an inquisitive Harvard freshman becomes a thorough meditation about the apartness of worlds and lands, the fractured nature of language, and the perplexity of love.
THE SPORT OF KINGS by C.E. Morgan. A novel about legacy, horse racing, and race relations spanning generations of a Kentucky family, vast in scope yet with scenes sculpted with delicacy and a playfully expansive vocabulary.
CLASS A by Lucas Mann. A chronicle of the 2010 season of the Single-A Clinton, Iowa LumberKings, and the dynamic that exists between athletes with their eyes set on major-league gold and the fans who cling to small-town hopefulness.
MARLENA by Julie Buntin. About navigating the waters of a volatile friendship ending in tragedy and the haunting of one’s psyche into adulthood.
FLÂNEUSE by Lauren Elkin. A a fascinating and whimsical tour through Paris and other literary cities through the eyes of the resilient women (writers and characters) sauntering through them.
FARMER by Jim Harrison, a quiet book about manhood and loneliness and the search for fraudulent ecstasies amid restricted promise.
HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson. A strange story born out of a mysterious place, “chastened …by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.”
THE EMPATHY EXAMS by Leslie Jamison. Wise essays exploring, among other things, pain and how we react to it in ourselves and in others, along with a generous engagement with the strange that reminded me of the best of Didion.
THERE THERE by Tommy Orange. A tense and layered story about the contemporary Native American experience, the struggle to belong, and the violence undercurrent in lives torn between identities.
NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS by Kirstin Valdez Quade. Stories set in the American Southwest that look at the spaces between families and generations and the challenge of faith and traditions among them.
SICK by Porochista Khakpour. An honest memoir of illness and its bafflements both natural and institutional, set against the larger story of one writer’s search for herself through cities, relationships, friend circles, and her own artistic ambitions.
IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS by Kristen Radtke. A graphic exploration of places buried, ruined, and abandoned, and uncovering the stories smothered underneath, prompted by the unexpected death of the author’s beloved uncle.
SIGNS AND WONDERS by Alix Ohlin. Richly drawn character-driven stories about the complicated and often damaged relations among intelligent creatures and their families.
STEPHEN FLORIDA by Gabe Habash. A lucidly crafted portrait of a college wrestler in North Dakota, and a darkly rendered critique about the constrictions of competition and obsession.
INSURRECTIONS by Rion Amilcar Scott. Wisely crafted stories in a range of styles that forge links between generations and neighbors in the black community of a Maryland town under the shadow cast by its history.
HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD by Ottessa Moshfegh. Stories featuring humans unafraid to peel their scabs and revel in the bloodiness of their wounds as a means of escaping the confines of the body and their own angst.
ONCE I WAS COOL by Megan Stielstra. Confessional essays at once chatty and thoughtful about testing boundaries, responsibilities, and the warped evolution of the adult self.
THE STORY OF MY TEETH by Valeria Luiselli. An imaginative tale as impressive for its wicked topography and seamless integration of philosophical theory as it is for the raconteurial wanderings of its memorable protagonist.