Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 in Reading

Sometime in the middle of June residency, while attending an editor panel, I decided that I was going to read 50 books this year. I was not on track to do that on the day I decided. I was probably on track to read somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 or so, which is what I've done the last two years, and that isn't so awful, but I decided in that moment that in order to prove myself serious about writing (the words spoken by an editor at the panel), I was going to do it.

We're almost to 2014 and I'm almost to 50. I have about half of one audiobook left and I'll be done. I'm going to go ahead and assume I can find five hours between now and January to make that happen. I thought it would be fitting to reflect on what I've read. When I think of this year I'll always think of marking time in books. Plus, I enjoy The Millions' Year in Reading series, so this is my nod.

Let's talk audiobooks, first. Yes, I count them. The words go into my brain. (Let's not have a debate about what counts, okay? People have enough things to feel bad about in the world without wondering if something "counts" or not.) Audiobooks get me out and exercising when I think I get more time with a story. My favorite audiobooks this year were both favorites because of who was reading them. I let Jake Gyllenhaal read The Great Gatsby to me so I'd have the whole story in my mind again when I went to see the movie. And I let Meryl Streep read me Heartburn by Nora Ephron. Two reasons: one, I wanted to listen to Meryl talk to me while I ran on the treadmill (duh), and two, I've never read anything by Nora Ephron. Though I found the book to be slightly dated, it was charming and enjoyable. Gatsby and Jake didn't do me wrong either. Hello.

Every year I try to read a few classics, just for good measure. When I started my MFA program, I used to make myself read one free Kindle classic for every new book I purchased so I could save money on books. I've gotten away from that a little bit, but this year I did read a few. The first was Persuasion, by Jane Austen, which I think cured me once and for all of the notion that I might be an Austen fan. I keep trying, and I keep not being the kind of girl who likes anything by Austen except Northanger Abbey. But I also read (and loved) Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which sent me down a rabbit hole of looking for other Kafka things I have not read. Spoiler alert: there are many. (And, which, coincidentally, reminds me that you should read this Murakami short story in The New Yorker which is a play on The Metamorphosis.) But it wasn't a big year in big, old books. Next year's fat, old book goal: Middlemarch.

As ever, I read--and loved--a bunch of nonfiction books about food. In the sciency/learning department, I was all about Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss, and I enjoyed Cooked by Michael Pollan, which seemed like the less-uptight follow-up to In Defense of Food, which you already know I love and make everyone in my life read. I reviewed Provence, 1970 for Bookslut; it was a sweet little book about a bunch of American chefs and food writers gathering in France in the '70s to debate the direction of American cooking (this making me both want to travel and eat more), and I rounded out the year in food books by spending my long drive to Palm Springs listening to an entire audio book about cheese: Michael Paterniti's The Telling Room. The Telling Room is good, if a little long, but it ranks with my favorite light nonfiction reads of the year.

I read a lot of other nonfiction books for class, mostly, two of the best and most disparate being Aleksander Hemon's The Book of My Lives and Denis Johnson's Seek. Both were intense reads, but worth it. Hemon's ends with probably the saddest piece of writing I've ever read--an essay called "The Aquarium"--it's heavy, but it's also where I think he does his best and most piercing work. Johnnson's collection of essays interests me because he often plays with perspective--bringing himself into and out of the picture as he reports on his surroundings. These are serious books, but they're both written so well.

This summer I made it a point to read as much of my professors' work as I could. I started by reading Elizabeth Crane's wonderfully quirky novel, We Only Know So Much, followed by Tod Goldberg's gritty collections Simplify and Other Resort Cities. Simplify, especially, blew me away. I continued by Elizabeth Crane kick by reading her short story collections: When The Messenger is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. All of them, great. (Clearly, I am a fan.) I read Rob Roberge's The Cost of Living, which, hooo-boy, he goes there, and then some. As always, I was inspired by Rob's fearlessness and his clean, precise prose. And this fall I read Mark Haskell Smith's Raw, which made me laugh (at myself, painfully, sometimes), and I read David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading, which made me so grateful that people are making the case for books. I was just so happy that I got to learn and be around all these people who are so smart. I used these books like independent study as I was starting to feel the panic of school ending.

One of the little joys of my MFA program--and by extension, other places I go as a result--is getting to meet other authors and read their books. That isn't yet lost on this small town girl. I enjoyed Jim Gavin's short story collection Middle Men, which celebrates the working man and the ordinary. I met Gavin, along with Laila Lalami (whose novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, I also enjoyed) and Hector Tobar at my residency in Palm Springs in June. Tobar's LA novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, is probably the best novel I read all year. It was great to get to talk to all three of these authors and ask them about writing their books this summer. Eric and I also both read and loved Paul Tremblay's witty narcoleptic detective novel, The Little Sleep. It was a pleasure to meet Paul--a fellow high school teacher--at the LA Times Festival of Books.

But 2013 was about two things for me, very specifically. Short fiction and reviewing. I never appreciated short stories before, but I discovered them in 2013. Big time. I read Lorrie Moore's Self-Help, George Saunder's Tenth of December, Jamie Quatro's I Want to Show You More, and Aimee Bender's The Girl in The Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures, among others. My vision of short stories is completely different now, which is a good thing, right? (Since I just turned in a thesis full of them...) Before 2013 I didn't think short stories could be fun. I had High School English Teacher Syndrome. Holt Literature and Language Arts had convinced me that short stories were things that could be fit into textbooks, reduced to snippets of literature to torture adolescents, followed, always, by insipid questions about the biography of the author, words like symbolism and theme. 2013 showed me that the short story form is about so many imaginative things. It's a form full of possibility and so open to play. I'm sorry to be cliché: my eyes have so been opened.

My reviews really dovetail with the whole short fiction thing, anyway, since that's what I've ended up reviewing most. But the book that had the most impact on me in 2013 was John Leonard's Reading for My Life. It was assigned to me in nonfiction class (recommended? suggested? I feel like I can't really call it assigned...) once my professor, David Ulin, agreed to work with me on book reviews. Leonard's posthumous collection of book and media reviews showed me, in practice, something that David says all the time. That critical work can be creative work. And reading it helped me see that a critic's reviews end up being a reflection of his life--a biography--in books. Something about that is so beautiful. From the moment I read it, I knew that I was headed in the right direction with my critical work. This is what I'm meant to be doing. I can't get enough of it. And my review work started to take off after that mentorship and study. The books I reviewed professionally this year: Aimee Bender's The Color Master, Luke Barr's Provence, 1970, Cris Mazza's Something Wrong With Her, Kate Milliken's If I'd Known You Were Coming (a favorite), Ethel Rohan's Goodnight Nobody, Jessica Keener's Women in Bed, Kelly Luce's Three Scenarios in Which Hana Saksaki Grows a Tail (another wow), these have all been opportunities to stretch myself and grow as a reader, as a critic, and as a short story writer.

2013 was about learning that I had more time to read than I thought. It wasn't really so hard to read 50 books. And look at all these great things I got to put in my brain.

You can find me on Goodreads to see everything else that I read this year that wouldn't fit into this post. (Like We The Animals by Justin Torres. Where was that supposed to go in my neatly organized blog thing? But it was so good!) And I keep my list of books on the blog here

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