You Should Have Left: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann — I loved this novel which, to me, felt like the Platonic ideal of the innermost story of House of Leaves, a terrible book nobody good ever finished and which buried its one promising narrative under piles of pretentious dude shit that wasn’t cute when I was in college and sue me for not wanting to turn a book upside down just to keep track of who your main character is fucking, anyway.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli — Recommended by my friend Paige, this book was an odd reading experience. Every other chapter swung me from love to hate, from thinking it was incredible and insightful to finding it horrible and dull. I sent Paige a screenshot of a paragraph saying it was one of the best things ever written; I sent Paige a message saying I hadn’t then read the following paragraph and I take back everything. I wanted to put it down and I relished every word. It’s surreal, packed with parables and anecdotes and a love for language and linguistics that’s deliciously rare, and one of the most unique books I’ve come across.
Without Protection by Gala Mukomolova — Gala is one of the first contemporary Russian poets I ever found online, a chance to finally talk to a peer about writing and immigration and pelmeni and strange parents and queerness and the complicated threads we leave everywhere that tie us to our past and have them reply, “Da, ponemaju vsjo.” We’ve since found many others like us — shout out here to The Cheburashki — but Gala’s words are particularly dear to me for reasons both inside and outside of their inherent brilliance. Without Protection is her first full-length; it’s beyond powerful.
You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” And Other Stories by Kristen Roupenian — My husband has a phone alarm set for January 2020 that says something along the lines of “check if anyone still cares about ‘Cat Person'” and the joke’s on him — it’s going to be me. I wasn’t smitten with the viral story about millennial dating when it ran in The New Yorker in 2017 but I bought Roupenian’s collection anyway. It starts out as I expected, with millennial dating. It was fine. And then shit got weird. I mean, weird. Monster curses! Body-horror spells! More… dating? Turns out Roupenian is a graduate of the science fiction & fantasy workshop Clarion West, and also a fucking genius.
Sour Heart: Stories by Jenny Zhang — I had the honor of doing a reading with Jenny several years ago, though I fainted right before her set and spent it sitting outside against a wall, wiping vomit off my dress and false eyelashes off the ground while my husband insisted I looked totally fine and could go back in, for sure. I think Jenny might appreciate such an intro to her story collection, which deals with immigration and family and loss and gain and promise and sacrifice and the brutal, beautiful messiness of being a human from one place creating lives in another.
Ghost Wall: A Novel by Sarah Moss — I often say that my favorite genre is “non-fictiony fiction,” meaning the kind of fiction where it’s clear the author went down some kind of research hole that utterly fascinated them but, because they are a fiction writer and not, say, a journalist, turned their up-all-night discoveries into a story. And I mean a story that sings, not like that one ridiculously long chapter from Notre Dame de Paris that describes the city’s buildings to such a dull extent that you wonder if you’re reading a novel or a Wikipedia article. Moss’ Ghost Wall, which I consumed in one sitting, is most certainly the former and, moreover, combines two of my favorite things: the horror genre and bog bodies. BOG BODIES! Read this one.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang is a book that I started earlier in the spring and finished in May and I’m still not certain how to even begin to tackle the material. I feel funny saying that I “enjoyed” a book that personally chronicles a woman’s exhausting experience with psychosis and a perpetually shifting reality, but in truth, I did tremendously enjoy it. Or, rather, it feels more human to say I enjoyed learning more about what it is to live with schizophrenia, a diagnosis that has always both intrigued and terrified me in equal measure, I suppose, because of the streak of mental illness that runs through my own family. Intimate, candid, and immediately compelling, these vivid, tangled essays provided perspectives into both chronic and mental illness and insights that were surprising, terrifying, but also wonderfully illuminating, sometimes even quite empowering.
I spent two weeks in the psych ward immediately following a suicide attempt when I was 28 years old; my memories of that time are a collection of amorphous moments of cloudy despair alternating with slices of razor-sharp fury and crystalline focus. I was not experiencing a psychotic break; I wasn’t hallucinating, my reality wasn’t (exactly) fracturing–my experience was not even close to that of the author’s, but I wasn’t myself while I was there. I had a very hard time finding my way back. In the course of these writings, the author shared some things that helped her when she felt herself starting to slip, and I feel that had I access to such ideas, they might also have helped me. When she starts to feel the onset of what she describes as a sort of psychic detachment, “episodes that preclude psychosis, or even mild psychosis–the episodes in which I must tread carefully to keep myself where I am,” she implements small, symbolic systems of defense or spiritual safeguards that have a connection to the “sacred arts”. The solace granted by these practices is not through the beliefs accompanying them, but rather the actions they recommend. “To say this prayer–burn this candle–perform this ritual–create this salt or honey jar–is to have something to do when it seems nothing can be done.” If the delusions come to call, she has a ribbon she will tie around her ankle: “If I must live with a slippery mind,” she muses as the last essay concludes, “I want to know how to tether it, too.”
The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert. I like books in which people spend time thinking about things; especially when it’s the writers themselves thinking about things, and even more so when those things being pondered are related to their craft. They are the kinds of conversations and connections and observations that I’d like to share with people, if I weren’t so self-conscious about sharing (or having an opinion or talking to people at all…) and so instead I read about these internal conversations in the form of brilliantly inquisitive and obsessive essays, written by other people. Even on the subjects and anecdotes I related to or connected with, though, it was on the level, I felt, of a lower life form. Elisa Gabbert writes like the accomplished, sophisticated interesting-in-all-ways person that I wish I was, and I felt like I was an amoeba trying to relate to some sort of higher being, complete with halo and wings. Even if I thought I was relating exactly to a particular thought, was I really? Would I even know, middling mediocre hack that I am? The more I read, the more unsure of myself I grew…and yet, I could not stop reading. Elisa Gabbert, I am sure that you are a very nice person and it was not your intent that I feel this way. I loved this book, even though I did not love the way I felt about myself when I read it.
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin is apparently “far too bewildering” for one reviewer on Amazon and if that’s not your thing, then you may want to skip this slim book of surreal, unsettling stories. To be fair to the stories, though, I think this reviewer might have had a very low tolerance for the bizarre. There are no happy endings (and very few happy beginnings or middles) and really, several stories don’t even quite have a proper ending, happy or otherwise– rather just an abrupt stopping point or a vague notion that the story may continue forever, whether or not we are still present and reading. Many of the tales are dark and violent, brutal and heartbreaking, but the one I loved was not particularly shocking or tragic. It involved the theme of familial bonds: one adult brother’s bemused and at times perplexed recounting of another brother’s depression, in the midst of a family that seems to be thriving and in which everyone else appears to be hunky-dory. I don’t think I’m remembering it exactly as I read it, but at one point, in a brief and sudden flash, the successful brother, at a family barbecue full of mirth and merriment, experiences an unexpected moment of (was it sadness? anxiety? maybe more of a nothingness? A nothingness that might last forever? I can’t recall) but I remember feeling… vindicated, and a bit vindictive, when my first thought was “so then…now you know how it feels.” I’m neither a masterful enough reader nor writer to say if that was a bit of subtlety on the part of the author, or if she aggressively smacked us over the head with the notion, but I felt what I felt, and I loved that profound punctuation in what was otherwise one of the more reserved, not particularly ambitious feeling stories in the collection. It elevated it somehow, to something extraordinary.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Sometimes I like to read trashy books. And when there are obscenely rich people in the story, spending their money in stupidly extravagant ways, that is the maybe best kind of trash. It’s particularly good for in-flight reading. I usually leave these books in the lodgings I stayed at, for someone else’s trashy enjoyment. You can find my copy of Crazy Rich Asians in the bar of The Rosemary hotel in L.A.
Veronica by Nicholas Christopher – I was first introduced to the work of Nicholas Christopher a couple years ago via the dazzling experiences that was his ’00 novel A Trip to the Stars. Veronica was published 4 years earlier, but it didn’t find its way to me until last month. I was entirely swept off my feet by this magical, mystical, synchronistic story. Not that comparison is necessary, but because I think if you like one book, you should definitely read the other: while both books are visionary in their own right, I found A Trip to the Stars to be a more complex and epic tale than Veronica, which feels more intimate to me, though it’s also sweeping and breathtakingly creative. I fear I’m turning into a terrible book reviewer when I repeatedly find myself saying, “the less I tell you about this, the more you’ll enjoy it,” but it’s true. Approach Veronica like you’ve just stepped out onto the streets of Manhattan on a snowy winter night. Your eyes are drawn to a mysterious woman searching for her keys in the snow. She knows you’re watching her and, from this point, nothing is ever going to be the same.
MEM by Bethany C. Morrow – Speculative science fiction about identity and memory set in Jazz Age Montreal. What’s not to love? I’m fascinated by memory, by how we remember, how memory is intimately connected to all our senses, how the act of remembering itself alters our memories, and I devoured this beautiful novel.
Alien Virus Love Disaster by Abbey Mei Otis – Intensely creative, utterly strange and surreal, and very very dark, I’m reluctant to try to categorize these beautifully written short stories. Science/speculative fiction-y, but boxing them in like that feels like a disservice. There’s a twisted magic realism at work here and all sorts of very shrewd commentary on the human condition. I know I’m generalizing about sci fi here, but these aren’t tales of people who’ve advanced to live forever above the clouds, traveled to colonies on mars or the moon, or commune with alien life forms. These are gritty stories about people who still live on the ground to live beneath the people who live above the clouds – where sex robots fall from the sky and people rejected by their advanced moon or martian societies and banished to live back on earth. This is a world where mortgages are paid off by blood sacrifice, loss drives people to become feral (and then some), people escape into virtual reality that occupying alien populations are paying voyeurs, and, as is the case so often for so many of us, in fiction or very real life, where people are yearning, striving, clawing, and even bleeding in effort to find ways to connect. I want more.
Betwixt-And-Between: Essays on the Writing Life by Jenny Boully – Writing about writing that reads like dreaming someone else’s dreams. I love this collection of essays, which are as much about being a writer, the act of writing, and the power of the written word as they are about time and memory and the messy complexities of being passionately alive.
“I have a suspicion that in this life, mirrors are not meant for looking into but rather for looking out of. I only have to master this kind of looking, and then I will be able to see what the outside has to offer, instead of only seeing myself looking outward ad infinitum. Sometimes, I have a paranoia that I am not living this life but another one that was invented for me, and this is only a long daydream, the kind where only bad things happen. But when do the daydreams begin and the dreams end, and where does the sky end and the prairie grass begin? There are stars in the grass…”
Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler – I’ve been on such a lengthy and satisfying short story kick, I was delighted when a lovely friend told me that Octavia Butler had published her own collection of short stories. I picked up a copy straight away and enjoyed it from cover to cover – and not just the stories, but how Butler took a moment at the end of each of them to reflect on them with brief afterwards. There is some seriously visionary content happening in these stories – even more so when you realize most were written in the late 70s and 80s and are reminded how little today is actually original. Apologies to Ms Butler if this offends the ghost of a brilliant novelist, but I would happily watch TV series based on “Bloodchild,” “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” “Speechsounds,” or “Amnesty.” Actually, I just want more of “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” and “Amnesty” in any form. I also particularly appreciated “Positive Obsession” and “Furor Scribendi,” one an autobiographical essay about Butler determination to become a professional writer, the other an essay about the challenges of writing and six rules for new or struggling writers, which boil down to one radiant piece of guidance for so many dreams: Persist.