The Year in Reading (and Writing) 2019

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.


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