December 22


I forgot my own name today. Which is just where I’m starting. Tomorrow I’ll forget the name of the restaurant on the corner and the Greek goddess of love. The next day I’ll forget the oceans and arithmetic. There will be nowhere to sail, nothing to count. The names of clouds are next to go—no rain, so life itself begins to falter. The crops wither. Animals wearily circle their last resting place. The earth cracks and there’s a landslide of names. We don’t know what to call each other any more but here’s a cave, here’s some ice water, here’s my hand.

the ice booms
as we cross it

December 21

I read somewhere around 65 books this year, not counting the 90+ poetry books I read this winter and spring when I was judging the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards contest. Most of the 65 were not poetry books because I was pretty much poetried out at that point. Mostly they were novels because that’s most of what I read most of the time and always has been since I started in on the complete works of Carolyn Keene (composite fictional author of the Nancy Drew books) when I was six and got obsessed with long stories about things that didn’t really happen.

(It’s strange to me when I talk about the books I’ve been reading and someone looks surprised: “Oh, so you mostly read novels?” Well YEAH doesn’t everyone? It’s always shocking to realize that everyone is not exactly like me.)

Because I’m always kind of jealous of the people who get to make those “best of the year” lists and always think I could do a better job if only anyone cared about my opinion, here is my petty, resentful list of my favorite 13 books I read this year.

My only criterion was that they had to be books I read for the first time this year, which is actually a significant limitation because about half of what I read are re-reads, and frequently they are re-re- or re-re-re- or re-re……re-reads. The books I really love I basically never stop rereading. I am still rereading some books I read for the first time at seven or eight. It’s still always worth it.

These are listed pretty much in the order I read them, not ranked in any way because that’s just exhausting. Also…13? What’s that about?

  • Born a Crime, Trevor Noah. If you’re interested in the human effect of legally mandated and bureaucratized racism, and also you would like to read about the most badass mother in the history of badass mothers, this one is for you. Note: Not a novel!
  • The Philosopher’s Flight, Tom Miller. Steampunk magic, alternate history, gender politics, telekinesis…there is really not anything irresistibly interesting that got left out of this book.
  • Brass, Xhenet Aliu. Set in a town not far away from the one I grew up in, powerfully evoked the familiar world of depressed New England former mill towns and their European immigrant populations and made me realize how much I had loved them all along.
  • The Power, Naomi Alderman. Yes, this is the one you’ve heard about. It’s as good as everyone says. Both compellingly readable and philosophically rigorous. Will not leave your head ever.
  • How to Stop Time, Matt Haig. Movingly and believably explores what it would be like to live a really (really, really, impossibly) long time…when everyone else you know doesn’t.
  • Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday. On everyone’s favorites list though I was prepared not to like it because it’s partly a roman à clef about Philip Roth and his 25-year-old lover (yes, the author) which sounds horrible, doesn’t it? But brilliantly, it’s ALSO about a man of Middle Eastern origin being unjustly detained and interrogated in an airport because…because it works, that’s why.
  • The Changeling, Victor LaValle. I know I loved this book when I was reading it; in its weird mix of realism and fantasy it is not unlike Murakami; but like many dreamlike books this one had faded in my mind to the rich texture of a barely-remembered but compelling dream. There are way worse things you could have in your mind.
  • The Expendable Man, Dorothy Hughes. Written in the 50s, a noir thriller that makes a stunning point, as salient today as then, by withholding one fact from the reader for the first couple of chapters to convince you to suspect someone completely innocent just because he is convinced, correctly, that he will be suspected.
  • Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman. If you’ve been looking for a dystopian novel that manages to also be an intense primer in evolutionary biology and also is kind of a love story and also (somehow) is really funny, you’ve come to the right place.
  • Severance, Ling Ma. This book might haunt me more than anything else I read this year. It’s a combination Bildungsroman/zombie apocalypse story and it works so much better than you could ever imagine. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder nervously whether you might be coming down with the fatal brain-eating disease that’s killing everyone in the world and if so, how much longer you should keep going in to your empty office and doing your stupid job.
  • A Terrible Country, Keith Gessen. I can’t stop thinking about this one either. It takes place in Moscow, where I spent a few months almost thirty years ago, but a post-Communist Moscow that is almost but not entirely unlike the Moscow I knew. And it has a denouement that, unlike the denouements of most novels for the last century or so, involves a stunning moral downfall that you don’t see coming until it’s already bashed your heart to pieces.
  • The Library Book, Susan Orlean. Hey, another book that’s not a novel! Or even fiction! But Susan Orlean writes like a novelist whose plot and characters just happen to mirror the real world so maybe it doesn’t count. Also, I loved being immersed again in the world that I left behind when I finished library school and didn’t get (or try to get) a job in a library.
  • Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver. Technically I have not actually finished this book yet, but I think I’ve read enough at this point to put it on my favorites list. The narrator/main character, unlike any of the other main characters in any of these books, is a woman not too far off my own age and her life is both disturbingly like and disturbingly unlike mine. Oh, also it takes place in one house in two different times of history and involves Victorian acolytes of Darwin, so I was never not going to like it.

Format breakdown: 11 novels, 1 memoir, 1 work of creative nonfiction
Genre breakdown of the novels: 6 speculative fiction; 3 contemporary realism; 1 thriller; 1 hybrid contemporary/historical realism

This actually seems like a pretty good representation of the kinds of things I read in the proportions I read them.

With regard to how much science fiction I read, I would just like to say that I think we’ve gotten to the point in history where science fiction seems so relevant to the range of our possible futures that it almost feels irresponsible to avoid it. (Also, it makes my brain feel good.)

Suggestions for next year’s reading welcomed in the comments.

December 20

I’ll tell something like a story.

Green and wonderful, the bird—whose Latin name I have forgotten, and also whose common name—sang in a bush full of poisonous red berries. We watched it through binoculars from the charabanc. You sketched it in pencil, lightly but with zest. The twentieth century edged on. I wore a cerulean scarf; later that afternoon you pulled it deliberately tighter around my neck, trying me. We were wading in a warm lake, water lapping against our knees as if it were testing our reflexes. We had known each other for approximately two hundred conversations. Blue spread everywhere, out to and beyond the horizon, up to and beyond the sky. Later still, in a den of iniquity, we joined in the singing of bawdy songs full of words I barely knew, whose melodies seemed to me—at that precarious time of my life—very like the melodies of the green bird, whose green I can still see when I close my eyes, here on a planet so far away from it.

cats’ eyes
the eye
of the storm

it won’t stop raining I’m a cloud

I tell it

December 19

I never knew till lately that there was so much middle of the night. I dream, I think, I think about dreaming, I dream about thinking. It all happens inside my head. Nothing’s outside my head anymore. I need something solid, three dimensional, but then I’d have to decide what kind of solidity I need and then it’s back to my head again. Should I go outside, but it’s ten below, but it’s two am, but I’m alone. I’m trying to let the words out but they’re stopping in my mouth or really somewhere even short of that. It’s like a swarm of bees in there, giving each other conflicting directions to the flowers. 

a wandering dog
nothing much
to be explained

December 18

The owl is hooting, high in the tree right outside my window. Up and down the street dogs are barking restlessly in response. It’s eight days before Christmas. The presents are wrapped and under the tree. My stomach is growling. A comet is flying by. Subject verb object, subject verb object. Subject. Verb. Object.

last night I had
the strangest dream

December 17

Our ability to remember the past but not the future can be understood as a buildup of correlations between interacting particles. When you read a message on a piece of paper, your brain becomes correlated with it through the photons that reach your eyes. Only from that moment on will you be capable of remembering what the message says.

Natalie Wolchover, “New Quantum Theory Could Explain the Flow of Time,” Quanta Magazine

When we examine the problem closely, we find that “time” is not the unitary phenomenon we may have supposed it to be. This can be illustrated with some simple experiments: for example, when a stream of images is shown over and over in succession, an oddball image thrown into the series appears to last for a longer period, although presented for the same physical duration. 

David Eagleman, “Brain Time” in What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science

snow globe
a theory
about loneliness

before love she sets the thermostat a little lower

afternoon drowsiness
one more world
before it snows

December 13

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

On the one hand there’s me, and on the other there’s you. For a while it seemed that these disparate systems could be reconciled theoretically, but as it turned out, they belong to two different worlds entirely, two universes that are spinning away from each other, two realities that will never collide again.

lies down in a snowdrift a theory of motion

December 12

The minute (it seemed) I learned to read, my mother exhumed her old books from my grandparents’ basement and a few minutes later (it seemed) I had read them all. Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, Trixie Belden: A throng of intrepid, sensible girls with perfect middle-class manners, politely but eagerly scouring the world for clues. And finding them! So many clues! I was desperate to find clues, desperate for a mystery. I eavesdropped whenever possible. Skulked around opening dresser drawers. Rifled through the mail, learned to steam open envelopes. Turned books on their side and shook them, hoping for something to drop out—a ransom note, plans for a bank robbery, a lost will. But there was never anything in my child’s life worth the name of mystery. That all came much later.

deep in the brambles I hear my heart rustling

December 11

Oh! I forgot to tell you that I went to Paris this summer!

I was all set to show you photos of it but the uploader isn’t working for inscrutable reasons of its own. So I guess I have to resort to words.

Paris looks exactly like Paris. It’s a shock, seeing as how so many places don’t really look like themselves these days, except maybe for a little bit in the middle. You can see the sky everywhere in Paris because they don’t believe in tall buildings. They also don’t really believe in ugly buildings. They have some, but they don’t believe in them.

Paris also tastes exactly like Paris. I went into a little bit of mourning when I came back to America because it had become clear to me how terribly wrong almost everything about our food is, from the ingredients to the preparation to the quantity to the places we eat it to the amount of time we take to eat it. I’m not sure how sanguine I can be about the future of a country that doesn’t even know how to eat.

I understand spoken French on about the level of a three- to five-year-old child, though I don’t speak it nearly that well. One of the things I want to do someday is stay in France until I can speak the language like a grownup or at least a middle-schooler.

My sister and I stayed in the 11th arrondissement, which is now my favorite arrondissement, in the Airbnb apartment of a woman whose furnishings were so exactly to our taste and so perfectly French that we want to be Céline when we grow up. Or maybe just we want to be ourselves, but in the 11th arrondissement.

That’s all I’ve got today, no poetry, maybe tomorrow.


December 10

I’ve been reading a lot of dystopian novels lately for some strange reason (also popping beta blockers and reading up on the immigration policies of any country that seems like it might be marginally more sane than my own, though let me tell you those get rarer by the day). What’s interesting about dystopian novels is that, though they propose a dozen different ways for the world to end, some quite baroque and imaginative, they are not really about how everyone dies. They’re about how people manage to live. They’re exploratory proposals for a hypothetical future where at least some of us come out on the other side of the disaster.

comparing a lily with a double helix

rising seas time packed in water

as cold as you can get a burning bush


December 8

glass shards that’s for remembrance

I spent all day walking around downtown doing my Christmas shopping, which I like to do all in one day because it makes me feel more like an elderly lady from a small town in England who goes in to London once a year to do her shopping and then staggers home on the train with a load of parcels, “parcels” I tell you not “bags” or “packages,” and possibly sees a murder happening in a car of a train going the opposite direction and then, mirabile dictu (this is the kind of thing I’m pretty sure elderly ladies from small towns in England say all the time), manages to solve the murder. Ok, so that was Miss Marple, but my point stands: All at once, in the town center, is the best way to do your Christmas shopping. If we were meant to do our shopping online or in big box stores, we wouldn’t have been given souls, not that I believe we actually were given souls or that there is any such thing as a soul or anyone to do the giving, but you know what I mean.

a snow globe
in a snow globe
in an evidence locker

Other Christmas traditions I feel strongly that everyone who observes Christmas should observe:

  • You must have a real Christmas tree. Don’t fight me on this because you will lose.
  • You should hang up a stocking no matter how old you are. True, there’s no such thing as Santa—I figured this out through sheer force of logic when I was three and still don’t understand how anyone maintains faith in Santa for longer than that—but either someone who lives with you should fill the stocking for you or you should fill it for yourself because you deserve to reach deep into a woolly toe for a treat on Christmas morning.
  • You should sing Christmas carols at some point during the season, I don’t care how, why, or with whom, but I’m pretty sure that something about singing Good King Wenceslas winds your brain up for another year. And you don’t want your brain to just wind down in the middle of the year, do you?

a squirrel scrambling
across the roof…
I still feel imaginary

December 7

I’m thinking of this blog, this month, as an Advent calendar, a thing I have a slight obsession with because I like to count and I like Christmas. If you do one thing every day in the month of December you can feel time obligingly passing and heading like an arrow straight for Christmas, and also then you have done twenty-five things, which is satisfying because it’s five squared, a substantial round but also square number.

four calling birds the smoke rises faster than I can count it

December 6

The first time I meet the daughter, we’re eating grocery store sushi—in fact, we’re eating it in the grocery store, under dim fluorescent lights, next to a window looking out on the falling dark of early autumn. Our reflections take shape in the window as the dark grows.

not a family anymore
all at once
the geese rise

The nine-year-old is suspicious of me; she doesn’t have any more idea than I do what I’m doing here. I’ve forgotten how to make conversation with a nine-year-old. I keep asking her the annoying, dumb grown-up questions I swore I would never ask and she keeps giving me the annoying, dumb answers I deserve. To add insult to injury, both she and her father are more proficient with their chopsticks than I am.

fumbling for my pepper spray the way leaves redden

Hoping for distraction, we open our fortune cookies, but none of the futures we find there are even wrong enough to laugh about. Embarrassed, we look away from each other, toward the dark window, where we see only our own blurred reflections, trapped here in the present, forming a wavering triangle.

not the underworld
just the silence
of no more cicadas

“What are we doing next?” she asks, and her father, crumpling his fortune, tells her, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

unearthing potatoes it will only get colder