January 10, 2023
Reading something new about sickness at a.p. Berlin, April 23, 2022.
I read more books this year than I have any year prior. I aimed for sixty again and made it to sixty two. I didn’t plan on it, but I was unemployed for exactly five months of the year, and I also don’t remember the first few months of the year. I didn’t know it at the time, or didn’t understand it at the time, but I was sick, longer-term sick than I have been before, if we discount mental health, which I will discount for now. This was a different kind of sickness, regardless, one I am not ready to write about, except to say that during the worst parts, I had brain fog that was almost physical, the way I could feel it settle over me like an egg cracked atop my head, and I could not stand up without getting very dizzy and having to sit back down.
The books I read in January, thus, I hardly remember reading. I do remember waiting a long time in line for a PCR test, further east in the county than I had been prior, and reading The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink as I took baby steps, one at a time, up a massive hill. I didn’t have Covid then, but I was very weak and had a cough that felt like it reached somewhere deep inside of me. I remember reading The Wallcreeper next to tiny succulents that crept down the concrete barrier wall next to me, and having the distinct feeling that not enough books are horny anymore, and that I like reading horny books. When I read horny books, I feel the same way I did when I was a child playing the Sims 2 and watching my Sims kiss one another: carnal, delighted, slightly guilty, like I am getting away with something good. Even now, twenty years later, my navel kicks a certain way when my Sims, with marginally better graphics, move toward one another. I churn through books in January without remembering a damn thing: My Body by Emily Ratjakowski, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. I edit my master’s thesis and hand it in without remembering much of the revision process at all. I begin, and nurse throughout the year (am still nursing), The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, a book that gives me hope. I write a love letter and mail it in a stupor.
Exactly halfway through February something cataclysmic happens, an understanding. I reread two books this month: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, two books I want to write alongside. I read No. 91/92 by Lauren Elkin, and parts of it prickle me and make me sad. I finish it quickly so that I don’t feel sad anymore, except that the cataclysmic thing has made me sad in ways I can’t unmake it, still, even now, as I write about it ten months later.
In March, I am unemployed and I go through books like Hi-Chews. (I also consume Hi-Chews in the afternoon, when I am tired and can hardly make it through the day. They give me a little bit of energy.) We get a new couch at the end of February, a couch big enough for Jeremy and I to sit on it together without touching, and I mark my spot and read most books there. Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King makes me feel warm. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, one I can’t put down; it feels good to read something sprawling that takes place over a long time, a thick paperback, the kind of book in physical form that reminds me of my mother and her books. Maybe it feels that way because I begin it while she’s visiting, the first week of the month, a trip planned before I knew I was sick and wouldn’t be working. She makes pierogies on our kitchen table, strains berry sauce through cheesecloth into a red bowl. The Invisible Kingdom by Meghan O’Rourke comes through my library holds list at the best, or worst, time, and I hurry through it because I don’t want to think about sickness and myself. The whole year, I am trying to understand my body, understand the new things happening within it; the sick has forced a new connection to my body, one in which I must treat it as something to protect. Once my body was a thing I had to protect from myself, and now my body is a thing I have to protect from other things. March is technicolor spring in California, the dust rubbed off, clouds tumbling close at the top of the hill at Cabrillo, hermit crabs scuttling in the tide pools, a hike below one of the wooden bridges with Mar. We have a slew of visitors in March, all planned before the cataclysmic thing, and I squeeze reading between the guests, between planning an exhibition in Berlin. I try to read There Are No Accidents by Jessie Singer while I am waiting to be called for jury duty, but then I am in jury selection for a murder trial (I don’t make it) and I can’t finish the book before it’s due back to the library.
I hardly remember the first half of April, but I like Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy by Larissa Pham. I spend the last two weeks of April in Berlin, and in Berlin I duck in and out of bookstores by myself, with Mike and Will, with Rae. (Before the trip, I take two buses to my favorite bookstore in San Diego, the Book Catapult, and buy Invisible Cities by Calvino and Exposition by Nathalie Leger.) Springtime in Berlin is beautiful, also technicolor, and I wear clothes I don’t get to wear in San Diego, jackets and jumpsuits and tights and an old cashmere beanie. I look like myself. My MFA cohort takes up residence in the loft of a.p. Berlin, assembling our thesis show, and we all read aloud and then raffle away the work for free. (We launch our book, Everything Must Go!, at a.p.) The book covers are much more aesthetically pleasing across the Atlantic, and I buy a tiny David Graeber book, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, and Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body. I cannot bring myself to read on the train in Berlin, because I do not know the language and I do not want to miss a stop. I walk a lot. I make pictures with my tiny camera. I spend two consecutive afternoons napping with the window cracked and my tights hanging from the window’s handle. We visit artists and visit writers and sit outside in the green. My favorite bookstore is the Hopscotch Reading Room, where I buy issue #2 of the magazine Conduit (published summer 1994), because it contains two poems by David Berman.
I read a lot in May, back home on my couch, where I am tired and feel a bit like a washcloth wrung out, but I am sick and the books do not tickle me or break through my skin at all. When I look at my little tallies I hardly remember reading the books, except Body Work by Melissa Febos, which is helpful and not helpful in a year too close to write about yet. The whole year, writing and I sort of stare at one another, neither of us giving in. Without being too graphic (all of it is too graphic), the whole year is spent bleeding too much, from an orifice that is supposed to bleed a normal amount, and parts of my body keep falling out of me, into the toilet, tiny bits. But I cannot make things fall onto the page correctly, and it makes me angry and sad. I am too dizzy and fatigued to ride my bike, either, and so there is nowhere for any of my misplaced energy to go.
At the beginning of June I get a new IUD, cervix softened with misoprostol. The day would have been my dead dog’s twenty-first birthday, except that he is dead. I read a book about the IUD that gives me many mixed feelings, Blackfishing the IUD by Caren Beilin, because I loved my last IUD, a lower dosage one, loved it enough to order seconds and thirds, and the doctors have vaguely forced my hand into this higher dosage one that will eventually give me cystic acne on strange parts of my body but will help, maybe, with all the blood. Jeremy and I go to Seattle for a few days and spend a rainy afternoon going from bookstore to bookstore. I buy Sabrina Imbler’s Dyke at Elliott Bay and read it later that month, hiding it from my grandfather so that he does not see it. I buy Reverse Cowgirl by McKenzie Wark, one of my favorite books of the year, and read it on humid train rides to and from New York.
At the other used bookstore in Seattle, one that houses many cats, Jeremy buys me a collection of Raymond Carver stories and a copy of The Communist Manifesto. I spend three weeks on the east coast without him, mostly in New Jersey and the city, a few days in Ithaca. I brought my copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with me; I’ve tried reading it again at times and have never finished it, but I go back to the last appendix quite often. I take Arbitrary Stupid Goal off Maria’s shelf while I am staying at her apartment and reread it; it was her copy I borrowed years ago when I read it the first time. I take myself up to Central Park and read Raymond Carver stories and feel a deep, screwed sense of calm. Mike finds me in the nice park in Carroll Gardens, reading the Carver book by holding it aloft to block out the last of the sun. The three weeks I spend on the east coast are some of the nicest of the year; I am unemployed but have two job interviews while out there, and I get the job, and so the three weeks feel unencumbered, like summer did in college. I read aloud the essay I wrote for New Jersey Fan Club, and my mom and Ellie are there, and I forgot that I had written about my mother and so I am reading something about her, essentially, to her. I love her. My voice catches. I feel lucky to have read my own words aloud this year, twice, and lucky that people listened.
The trip to the east coast gives me Covid; I start my new job a week later than planned, and I am back to commuting, taking the rapid bus two stops, and sweating in the park. I love working in Balboa Park, San Diego’s version of Central Park, and walking past old buildings, a giant old tree, something different blooming every month. My bus trip is too short for reading; at first, I keep forgetting to pull the cord, because the rapid bus is so fast. But my shifts at work are not long, and I sit on benches near the reflecting pool and read before work, or after work. In August, I babysit for my next door neighbor in addition to working at the museum, long sweaty days we begin at the small park near our house. He really loves dinosaurs, so we go to the library and sit on the floor and pick out books about dinosaurs and then read them aloud at home. I only finish three books: Afterglow (a dog memoir) by Eileen Myles (a long, slow, meandering reread that takes months), This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, and The Natural Mother of the Child by Kris Malcolm Belc, an accidental trio of books about family.
The months, once I begin working again, lose their sharpness and clarity; they become closer to one another. It doesn’t help that I work weekends, so that during the rest of the week I am back on the couch and resting, like earlier in the year. In September, the books I read vary from one another: The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, Dirtbag, Massachusetts, by Isaac Fitzgerald, The Red Zone by Chloe Caldwell (books about periods are important, but everything I read about menstruation in my year of excessive menstruation makes me feel even more like something is wrong with me, that I cannot find anything that feels how I feel), We Do What We Do in the Dark by Michelle Hart (one of my favorites for how quiet and piercing it is), and an old teen thriller from the Point horror series. I technically graduate from my master’s program this year; the diploma arrives wrinkled in September, and I become the first person in my family with a master’s degree. Each year for my master’s, I had to devise a reading plan for the following year, a map, and this is the first year without it, and it feels aimless and strange, stumbling around and reading based on what the library spits out at me from my holds.
October: I begin working in the library at the museum one day a week, in addition to working at the front desk. Mostly I am creating piles of photo books, sorting; my arms are full of books and it smells like home. Back in April, when we visited Siddharta at Hopscotch Reading Room, I had the overwhelming feeling that I needed to work with books, that bookselling had been such an important part of working at the bookstore for me, that books have been missing from my life. When I am in the library, I feel like myself again; small parts of former selves revisit me this year. I begin to turn toward photography again, curiously; I want to write about it, and make pictures. I read Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany, via inter-library loan, and connect to it so much that I order a copy. Delany’s concept of contact, of how we live in cities and how we live in relation to one another, is what I have been looking for, what I did not know I was missing.
In November I turn twenty-nine. Six days before that, I hit the anniversary of the excess bleeding; I have been sick for a year. The University of California grad student strike begins on my birthday, and so I spend it on the picket line. (Jeremy is a union steward; the strike hangs heavy over the year. A shared birthday gift for the two of us: a signed copy of Fight Like Hell by Kim Kelly.) Two weeks after me, Jeremy spends his birthday on the picket line. I read Stay True by Hua Hsu (it tickles me to read books that take place, even partially, in San Diego), and The Novelist by Jordan Castro. And I read, twice, A Horse at Night: On Writing, by Amina Cain, a book I am supposed to have written a review about by now, but have not finished. But it is a book that infuses my other reading, makes me feel like I am paying attention to things in a new way. I read it sitting on my desk chair, feet up on our guest bed, by the light of my malfunctioning green banker’s lamp.
The strike continues into December, continues while we are in New Jersey for my brother’s wedding, where I make a lot of pictures and read Oranges by John McPhee on the plane, an old copy that must’ve been dug out of library storage for me. In one night, back in San Diego, like eating a tiny chocolate truffle, or maybe a piece of hard cheese, Aug 9 — Fog, by Kathryn Scanlan. And the last book I finish this year: Hard to Say Not Knowing, Raegan Bird’s novella, which I have had the pleasure of reading, in bits and pieces, in our writing group, and am so pleased, so happy, to receive a dummy of in the mail, and read in one luscious afternoon, on our couch. What a joy, to see words and paragraphs and pages as they’ve been whittled into something sharp and precise and strange and perfect. This is the note to leave the year on: words I have carefully pored over, mine and others’, coming back at the end, or at the beginning.