Sally Mann

Rebecca's 2016 Year in Reading

When Shari suggested we follow The Millions' lead by writing about our 2016 Year in Reading, I thought it was a really fun idea. Until I realized I had almost no memory of what I'd read last year. For nearly forever, I've envied people who keep journals of books they've read. Every year I think I should do it, too, and then I tell myself it's far too late to start; after all, I'll never capture the previous decades of writing, so what's the point of starting now?

Apparently one point is that when I sit down to write about my prior year in reading, I wouldn't have to wrack my brains to remember if I'd read anything at all. Fortunately, among my other sins, I'm a book hoarder (aren't we all?), so I was able to do a little literary archeology by digging through the dusty stacks of books on the shelves near the bed, on the desk, on the floor.

Last year was a tough reading year for me. Life got in the way. I was busy, yes, but that's never stopped me from reading before. And yet... how can I say this? I physically couldn't read. I would have an unscheduled hour and a delectable book in front of me and I would stare at the cover, riffle the pages, flip to the back cover. And then my gaze would drift to the window and then to the cat on the sofa, or maybe just to the design of the fabric on the sofa, and the hour would pass without a word read.

This didn't stop me from coveting, borrowing, and buying books. Oh no. But it did make my list of actually read and loved books for 2016 a bit scanty. And still, scanty as the list is, I see there really were some gems, some unforgettables, despite the missing list. Here are eight that I was lucky to have actually read (listed in alphabetical order so as not to have to choose a favorite). (And by the way, thanks to the inspiration of several book list keeping friends, I've started one for 2017...)

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Bright Scythe by Tomas Tranströmer - I'd heard Tomas Tranströmer's name for years, but it's a sad fact that I didn't actually read any of his books until after he was gone from our world. But it's never too late to fall in love with a poet, and thank goodness for a wise friend who read my mind and sent me a copy of Bright Scythe for my birthday last year. Beautifully translated by Patty Crane, the poems are stark, precise, yet somehow spacious, and filled with a moonlit longing, a bittersweet nostalgia. Some of my favorite poems in this book are "Tracks," "The Station," (yup, I have a thing about trains) and "Romanesque Arches," but it's the poem "Vermeer" that I return to most and its comforting final lines: "'The clear sky has leaned against the wall. / It's like a prayer to the emptiness. / And the emptiness turns its face to us / and whispers / 'I am not empty, I am open.'"

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón - This is a sort of magical book of poems, a book that simultaneously fills you with awe at the beauty and almost conversational ease of the poems while also making you feel emboldened to write your own poems. At least, that's how it made me feel. I read an Ada Limón poem and think, "That is just so entirely perfect and true, and I can see how I can do that, too." Of course, it's not that easy and I have nothing on Ada, but it's a joy to be able to read a book of poetry from first page to last and come away feeling lifted to a fresh place where you can see the path so clearly, a summit and then a vista below you. I won't even try to list my favorite poems in this book. Start with the very first one, "How to Triumph Like a Girl," printed on the inside flap of the jacket, and go from there.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast - You probably all read this book before I did, but if by any chance you haven't, go do it. Roz Chast is hilarious. No really. I don't laugh out loud at books ever, but I laugh at Roz. We have collections of her cartoons and we raised our daughter (perhaps unwisely) with Roz's sense of desperate, grim, and sideways humor. This book, of course, is sad, a memoir of the last years of her parents' lives and Roz's role as their reluctant but loving caretaker. And still it manages to be funny, and real, and full of love. 

Float by Anne Carson - Anne Carson dazzles me, and her most recent book, Float, is particularly dazzling. The book is divided into 22 separate chapbooks that you can shuffle and deal to yourself as a sort of Tarot deck. There's poetry here. And drama ("Pinplay: A Version of Euripides' Bacchae"). And pieces that are called lectures ("Uncle Falling"), but might be poems. And pieces that are lists ("Maintenance"), but might be poems. And pieces that are prose ("Cassandra Float Can"), but might be poems. Poems in translation. Poems that have been reordered. I spent a long lazy afternoon reading through them all, stacking them in order of ones I liked best. The next time I sat with them, I found my order was different. One time, I read "How to Like 'If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso' by Gertrude Stein" while I listened to a recording of Gertrude Stein reading her poem. For a moment that was my favorite piece in the collection. Until I read another one.

Hold Still by Sally Mann - This may have been one of the first books in this list that I read in 2016, so my memories of it are slightly vague, and I appear to have lent my copy to someone so I can't skim through it as I write here, but maybe it tells you how much I liked this book that it managed to make find a place here even though the object itself wasn't lying around to remind me of itself. Hold Still is a memoir of a photographer, so it talks a good deal about photography, but it's far more personal than that, ranging from family history (and tragedy) to motherhood to writing and living, and being a working artist. It's a big, thick memoir, but it felt like a page-turner to me. I didn't come away loving Sally Mann. In fact, I felt suspicious of her for some reason, removed and wary. But I was fascinated by her, and amazed at her candor, and I didn't want the book to end.

The Lost Men by Kelly Tyler-Lewis - Two things you need to know about me are that I hate cold weather and I'm obsessed with Antarctica. That's me in a nutshell, completely contradictory. Last spring, I did a series of found poems based on the memoir of Earnest Shackleton, who is famous for his nearly disastrous 1914 Antarctic expedition where his ship was frozen in the ice pack and then sunk, stranding his crew on the ice with seemingly no way to get home. Get home they did, and that story is told gloriously in his own account (South). The Lost Men tells the story of the less known but equally harrowing and far less successful journey of the crew of the ship Aurora, who supported Shackleton's expedition by setting up food and supply depots along the second half of Shackleton's planned route across Antarctica. What they couldn't know as they struggled through truly horrendous and deadly conditions is that Shackleton was never going to need those depots. The story is engaging enough on its own, but Kelly Tyler-Lewis does a remarkable job of pulling together quotes and documents to give a vivid and complete picture of the awfulness of their task.

M Train by Patti Smith - I don't drink coffee, but by the end of this book I almost wanted to. Patti Smith spends most of her time in this memoir sitting in cafes, writing in cafes, dreaming of owning a cafe, opening a cafe, abandoning a cafe, and thinking about her next cup of coffee in a cafe. And still there was so much more to this book. This is a book about writing, books, and the love of words. It's about photography and the sacredness of objects and places. It's a book about home, finding it, making it, sacrificing for it. It's a book about travel. It's a book about love and grief. It was sad. It was beautiful. It was funny. It was fascinating. It was touching. This is the one and only audio book I "read" this year. Patti Smith reads it herself, and I can't imagine anyone doing a better job.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout - Sometimes I read novels, too. Honest. And this one was definitely among my favorites of the year. This book is so gentle and so quiet, you may think that nothing much is going on, and I guess that's part of the point. That outward stillness disguises intense internal motion, an energetically beating heart. I can like a plotty story as much as anyone (see The Lost Men, above), but I have a special fondness for stories that are very still, that seem to go nowhere yet somehow travel great distances. My Name is Lucy Barton is like that. Much of it takes place in a hospital room over the course of several days. The light from the windows travels across the hospital room's walls as the day transpires. There's talk--and silence--between Lucy and her visiting mother. Hardly anything happens. And yet connections happen, surprises happen, and life quietly happens. And I can't forget it.