reading when the world crumbles

This was not a good year for reading for me. I read a lot, but it was almost every time hard to settle on a book to read, to find something that fit my mood even though I didn’t know what my mood was, to choose a book that wasn’t too heavy to get through but wasn’t too frivolous.

What a luxury it is to be able to set aside time to read, when other people are facing the horrors of not being able to get into this country to be reunited with their families or to be safe from persecution and poverty and illness, when others are here but cannot leave and are scared to open their doors for fear of being dragged away from their homes, when others are reliving sexual assault and harassment and humiliation from yesterday or decades ago.

But what a necessity it is to find the time to read, when that’s how you find yourself in this world, when that’s how to understand the stories other people have to tell, when that’s where you explore how you feel and what can be.

Reading might sometimes be a retreat, but it’s not a moving backwards away from the battle, but an oasis for refueling for the next day.

So what did I read this year? Lots and lots of books by women (87% of the novels I read were written by women), not enough books by writers of color (only 20%). I read way more Afro-futurism than I have before (Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson) and I did a lot more rereading that I usually do (Station Eleven again, Song of Solomon, Tana French, Tony Hillerman).

I discovered two authors who were new to me and proceeded to devour everything they’ve written. Denise Mina writes astonishingly good mysteries that are in part about who dunnit, but are mostly about being a working class woman in Glasgow trying to make your way in the world. I started with the Alex Morrow series (which focuses on a detective, but isn’t very police proceduralish), then moved back to the Paddy Meehan books (set in the 80s with a young woman striving to become a journalist and is great for newspaper culture), then ended up with her first books, the Garnethill trilogy. When I was trying to choose which books to highlight as the ones that really stuck with me this year, I decided I couldn’t really do all of Mina’s books, so it’s the Garnethill ones that I settled on. There’s some aspects of them that feel a bit weaker in some ways, but the characters are so very present and the themes of recovering from abuse and balancing between revenge and cure are powerful. Mina’s most recent book is excellent, too, and you might at first glance think it’s weirdly (for her) a book focused on men, but you’d be wrong; her female characters might figure in what the men think is the background but what she and we know is central to life.

The other new-to-me author was Ann Leckie, and the first book in her Radch trilogy, Ancillary Justice is blow-you-out-the-world good. Sci-fi opera, kind of, but really an investigation of gender and what makes a person a person and the relationship between humans and technology and revenge and justice. My 16yo son had been recommending it to me for ages, and when I started it in July, I found it initially so confusing in such a compelling way that I couldn’t put it down. And when it went on sale in late November, I bought it and reread it, and then the 2nd and 3rd without a pause, and they were just as good the second time around. Her most recent one, Provenance, was also great, if in a lighter style than the earlier ones; the focus on manipulating the history of objects from the past to give present owners legitimacy is particularly enticing for those of us in the cultural heritage fields.

I don’t know why I hadn’t read Mary McCarthy’s The Group before (or any of her other novels) but I’m so glad I finally did. It was hard at first—these women and their tiny little constricted lives!—and then it became increasingly clear that the story of the book was the nature of realizing that constriction and trying to move out of it. And another new-to-me-and-not-to-everyone-else was Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Why did I not read this earlier? It’s powerful and lyrical and so very intense in the layers of pain and love and aching for family.

Three others that have stuck with me, and I expect will continue to do so, were all focused on the interplay of past and present in African-American lives. In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the lead character moves back and forth in time; in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (which I read in grad school and reread along with my 16yo), the lead moves across land to try to recover his family history; in James McBride’s A Song Yet Sung, the mysterious young woman at the center of the story’s movement is an escaped slave who hears and shapes the future.

I didn’t consciously choose most of these books to talk to me about the world I’m struggling with today, but they are the books I read that have hit me the hardest—they are the books I couldn’t bear to put down and couldn’t leave behind when they ended.

The full, annotated list of what I read is here, and I’m already onto starting my 2018 list. Here’s to the luxury and necessity of reading—

2 thoughts on “reading when the world crumbles

  1. love this! was just trying to remember what book you told me to drop everything and read and here it is on your list! (Ancillary Justice!)

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