Big plans for 2017 to involve a monthly blog, but now in the form of a TinyLetter. You can sign up here: http://tinyletter.com/grahammoliver/letters/2016-2017. I’ll still be copying posts onto this site as well for the eventuality of it becoming a full author site, but who wants to check an individual website in 2017? Not me.
Welcome to 2017. I hope the first few days of the New Year are treating you well! Thanks for checking out what I hope is the first of many monthly letters.
New Year’s in our house is usually spent with Carolina’s family. The holiday holds more significance for them than for most people I grew up around – they have a midnight dinner and make twelve wishes while eating twelve grapes. Last year, I had to be woken up for my grape dosage. This year, I made it to midnight but retreated to bed as soon as the kisses and wishes were over.
2017 promises to be a year of transition, both for our country and in my own life. After five years of graduate school (and only a short gap before that from the tail-end of my long and tortured undergraduate career), I’ll be released into the wild and forced to fend for myself. We’ll see which way the wind blows. I find myself kind of reveling in the ~four part-time job nature of mixing the academic and writing life and look forward to continuing that.
Resolutions: Stop putting two spaces after periods. Bake more. Stand up straighter.
Originally I’d intended to take part of this email talking about my experience focusing on reading books in translation during 2016 for my Ploughshares interview series and for my own betterment, but then my final interview fell through at the last minute and so I had to use that material as a substitution. You can read it here. Summary: Not enough gets translated. What does get translated is not very geographically diverse. The UK and small presses do a lot of the translation heavy lifting. My two 2016 translation recommendations are Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson (Swedish, translator Sarah Death) and Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin (Russian, translator Lisa Hayden). One interesting thing I’m learning as I’m immersing myself more and more in the reviewing world is how distinct some publishers/imprints are. Willful Disregard was published by Other Press, which also published A True Novel–my favorite book of this millenium so far–and is just consistently lined up with the aesthetic I enjoy. Laurus was published by Oneworld, who I haven’t read much by, but they were the UK publishers of The Sellout which was probably my favorite book I read in 2016.
I keep up what I’m reading about on Goodreads. You can check out my profile here. I’m guiltily addicted to the stats it provides: ~28% of the books I read this year were translations. ~18% were memoirs. ~7% I stopped reading before finishing. VIDA count split right down the middle–52% women, 48% men–though I’m not sure if that would’ve held true if I hadn’t reread all of the Harry Potter universe for a trivia contest. ~25% were by Black authors, as that was my other reading theme for 2016. More on that next month.
I love end of the year write-ups and looking back over my own past twelve months. While it’s not tied to the end of the year, but instead the end of the semester, one of my favorite traditions is asking my students for recommendations of what to check out over the break. They tell me to check out singers I’ve never heard of or their one absolute favorite dish at a restaurant or just let me know what their favorite movie is. I give them my own recommendations and spend way too much time thinking about them. It’s a careful line to walk, as giving recommendations always is. Finding things that will pique their interest, that they haven’t already heard of, that aren’t intimidating for one reason or another.
What would your list look like, either for the modern student or your past self? Here’s what i went with:
Books: Between the World and Me, Fun Home, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The fact is the majority of my students don’t read much beyond what they have to. You could call this sad, but I certainly wasn’t reading much at their age either. So, with my three recommendations, my first two are on the shorter side – Coates’s Between the World and Me is only 176 pages and is a good, narrative-based gateway drug to a lot of important conversations going on right now. Plus, we watched a couple of videos of Coates speaking in class. Coates is active on Twitter, and he writes comic books which might make him seem more approachable. Fun Home is a graphic novel, which offers another avenue for entry, and has the Broadway adaptation to boost its signal. AHWOSG has, to be honest, not held up to rereads in recent years, but when I was their age it was a super important book in my life, so I thought to include it.
Movies: Amélie, Spirited Away, What Happened Miss Simone?
Two fun movies that are outside what they might normally be exposed to, one documentary that can serve as a segue to things like 13th (which I thought might be a bit overwhelming to start with).
Podcasts: Code Switch, Radiolab, Welcome to Night Vale
Hey, a pattern. All of my categories have an item that is speaking to issues around race in some way or another. Of course, I want my students to be a part of these conversations, but I also want to show them how a single topic can be talked about in an interesting way from a lot of different media. Code Switch hits race from perspectives as wide-ranging as food, joke explanations, and the sexuality of Juan Gabriel. Radiolab is the podcast that hits me in the emotional epicenter in my gut most often (most recently, their episode “Playing God“). Welcome to Night Vale is just good, fun storytelling in the tradition of HP Lovecraft and HG Wells.
Twitter Accounts: @annehelen, @eveewing, @pastpostcard
I plug Anne Helen Petersen and Eve Ewing to my classes on a regular basis. They’re both PhDs, with published books, who engage with the public via Twitter on a very accessible basis. Petersen writes about celebrities and journalism (here’s her on Tom Hanks or Jennifer Garner, for example) in a super analytical way, which I hope shows the students that they can write about topics that are seen as less serious. Ewing is super wide ranging–a sociologist focused on education, an essayist, and a poet–who spends a lot of time on her platform speaking to people who feel lost in the higher education system. @pastpostcard is just a burst of fun: old British postcards with some of the text copied into the Tweet.
I’ll let you know if I hear from any of them. During the finals, one student said they started to watch Amélie, but they wanted to know if the whole movie was in subtitles. So, yeah.
What veins did you get in to this year? Were they rabbit holes or underground rivers or endless catacombs? How do you decide the next next book/TV show/movie/album you’re going to consume?
I’ll close with a few reading/listening recommendations from the past month:
The new website RADIO GARDEN is just about the coolest thing ever, letting you easily navigate to different radio stations around the world.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama legacy. There’s also an accompanying interview and other pieces in response. He also made an appearance on the Longform podcast to talk about the piece, and it’s a great conversation.
Asma Khalid wrote a long piece about covering the election as a Muslim that’s pretty important reading. Two other related NPR pieces: Megyn Kelly on Fresh Air and Gene Demby on the Charleston Roof trial.
And there it is. I hope this note finds you well, and I hope to hear from you.