It’s the end of the teens! In honor of 2020, I decided to go back through all the books I read this decade and choose my favorite reads that were published in this decade. Most of these are books I’ve reviewed previously, though many of them a while ago. The list includes nonfiction and poetry but mostly literary fiction. The books that made my list are ones that still continue to impact me in some way, the ones that, when I think about them, even years later, I remember the power of reading them either because of their ideas, the artfulness of the writing, or both. Many of these are books that somehow or other make it into the classes I teach as well. I’ve listed them here in order of publication date.
The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander, 2010
Growing up, I thought very little about prisons or the people locked up in this country. If I did, it might have been in a very Hollywood or crime show kind of way: “Bad” people are locked up in order to keep the rest of society safe. It wasn’t until I began volunteering in prisons when I was in college through a course I took that I thought about the reality of our criminal justice system.
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know, but the picture it paints is a scathing critique of our heavily racialized criminal justice system. In the introduction, Alexander tells us her book is for two groups of people, either the people who maybe don’t know much about how mass incarceration works in this country but are open to criticisms of it being racist and corrupt or people who already know the realities of the system but want the facts and details to bolster their arguments when talking with people who still think that we only lock up “bad” people to keep the rest of society safe, and the fact that we lock up so many brown and Black men has more to do with their criminal behavior and poor lifestyle choices than anything inherently wrong with our system.
I am part of this second group of people, and so reading this book certainly gave me the statistics and stories to counter the prevailing narrative of mass incarceration in this country. And I couldn’t have read it at a more critical point in our nation’s story, this point of a wider conversation about how “Black lives matter” in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. It feels like I’ve had far too many conversations lately in which perhaps well-meaning, “color blind” people argue that, while it’s sad that these men died, they shouldn’t have been engaged in illegal activity, and, if there is a widespread fear of Black men, it’s justified given the violence and criminality of impoverished urban areas.
Alexander debunks this notion and shows how American’s “war on drugs” parallels other moments in our nation’s history, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow.
She begins with a discussion of Reconstruction and helps us to understand how so many white folks came to side with the wealthy landowners who sought to keep Black men and women oppressed post-slavery. She argues that poor whites were as much a pawn in the game, that they were equally under the thumb of the owning class and so had to be taught to hate Blacks, otherwise the poor and oppressed would vastly outnumber those in power. This history continues today, with the myth of the American Dream. Poor and working-class people must believe that they can “make it” in a system that is stacked against them, and they must believe that anyone who doesn’t “make it” is simply lazy, criminal, or otherwise undeserving. This myth helps to perpetuate a system which seeks to lock up vast numbers of poor Black and brown men.
Alexander provides a number of studies which find that illegal drug use is pretty much equal across racial groups and that, if there is a disparity, it tends towards white people using more than others. However the United States is the most incarcerating nation in the world, and the vast majority of folks locked up are people of color. “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”
Alexander further demonstrates how the war on drugs was specifically leveraged against our nation’s most marginalized groups with mandatory minimum sentencing and disparate sentences for crack cocaine use versus powdered cocaine use (the former being primarily a drug used by poor, Black communities, the latter largely used by wealthier, whiter folks). The drug war and mass incarceration is extremely lucrative, and Alexander takes us through all the ways that states stand to gain from militarizing their police force and locking people up. One flaw in the book is that she says relatively little about how prisons are big business in this country. She touches on it by noting towards the end of the book how many people would be unemployed if we cut our prison population dramatically. I feel it’s worth noting that lots of people have a vested interest in making sure we lock folks up, not just the states and local jurisdictions who get paid by the feds if they make drug arrests or get to garnish property even if they don’t convict. A number of major corporations use prison labor, and private prisons are some of the best-selling stock on Wall Street.
Alexander goes on to detail all the ways that, once someone is in the system, even if they’ve never served jail time, they are at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives.
“Thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences–sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murders.”
Many states bar felons from ever voting, which means that a huge portion of the Black electorate is underrepresented, and employers may legally discriminate against anyone with a record, meaning that these people find it very hard to ever find meaningful employment, thus leading to a vicious cycle of recidivism.
If there’s any doubt that the criminal justice system disproportionately harms Black men, consider the issue of alcohol abuse and drunk driving. By the end of the eighties,
“drunk drivers were responsible for approximately 22,000 deaths annually, while overall alcohol-related deaths were close to 100,000 a year…The total of all drug-related deaths due to AIDS, drug overdose, or the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, was estimated at 21,000 annually–less than the number of deaths directly caused by drunk drivers, and a small fraction of the number of alcohol-related deaths that occur every year.”
However, sentences punishing drunk drivers are typically two days for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense; while someone convicted of possession of a tiny amount of crack cocaine serves a minimum of five years in federal prison. Why are these sentences so different? Why, even though drunk driving is far more likely to result in death, are drunk drivers so leniently dealt with? Drunk drivers are predominately white and male.
“White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk drivers were being adopted…Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death then the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person function and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offense, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.”
Alexander’s book is engaging and enraging. She cites a number of studies and covers a lot of ground. She also roots her critique in personal stories to help heighten the emotional pull of her anger. She lays out her argument very clearly, and I have the hope that other people besides her two groups she intends as her audience would read it; I wish I could hand it to every person who ever argued with me about my volunteering in prison by saying that prisoners don’t deserve theatre workshops or every person I’ve argued with recently who, in the guise of colorblindness, condemn the protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement. Ideally, policy makers would hear Alexander’s call as well. As a nation, things are going to have to change if we want to truly claim racial equality.
One fact that she cites that’s worth mentioning is that the less educated a person is, the more likely they are to favor a punitive approach to crime. Hopefully, we become more educated as a nation and, instead of claiming colorblindness, which Alexander says, as an ideal, “is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion,” and begin to dissect the ways our criminal justice is deeply racist and deeply flawed.
Room Emma Donoghue, 2010
This is a novel that it’s better not to know too much about, so avoid the dust-jacket if possible; allow the story to unfold as you read. The narrator is five year-old Jack, and he’s precocious and clever, and it’s a delight to read the world through his narrative. He describes life in “Room” with his Ma, and, despite the bond between the two and all the incredible, engaging ways his mom has devised to raise him to be thoughtful and intelligent, it soon becomes clear that something about their life is not quite right. Seeing the world through Jack’s eyes gives us insight into what it means to be social creatures, how much we take for granted, and how important love and care are for healthy development. It’s also a commentary on modern media and commercialism; though it’s never didactic. Emma Donoghue’s novel is highly engaging, emotional, and gripping.
The Marriage Plot Jeffrey Eugenides, 2011
The Marriage Plot is a thinking person’s love story. Which is to say, it’s not much of a love story in the traditional sense, but it is about romance and relationships, and it all is very smart and engaging.
Eugenides riffs on all those Victorian-era romance novels consumed with “the marriage plot:” “Will the unlikely protagonist get the one they truly love in the end?”: Austen and Eliot and even Anna Karenina. The riffing is self-conscious and up front, which is part of the fun of the novel. Madeline Hanna is finishing her English degree at Brown. She is in love with these stories, and she is also in love with Leonard, whom she meets in a semiotics class where all her notions of love and relationships get deconstructed. Leonard is a brilliant scientist, but his manic depression haunts his and Madeline’s relationship; while Mitchell, a young man in pursuit of religious and spiritual truth, loves Madeline, who sees him only as a friend.
Because all Eugenides’s characters are thoughtful and intelligent, they understand that love is more complex than the old storybook versions of love (though Austen, Eliot, and any of the good older writers also got this). He further complicates what is already complicated by showing us love and relationships through the eyes of feminist and deconstructionist theories, by layering these different ways of telling the story of love, and by upending the usual storybook ending.
The Marriage Plot is largely a novel of ideas, but it also has Eugenides’s attention to detail and character development. Each character is so finely drawn that you end up feeling like their friend and rooting for them despite their foibles and flaws. Eugenides takes us to the East Coast in the 80s, to Europe, and India; he shows us Mother Theresa’s charitable work, Christian mysticism, radical feminism, and even yeast biology. Aside from Austen, Tolstoy, and Eliot, he references Derrida, Salinger, and Talking Heads.
Many critics have written the novel off as pretentious, but I found it accessible and believable despite some of the high-mindedness. I also appreciated getting the three characters’ points of view, and I enjoyed the way the narrative twisted and turned in time.
The Marriage Plot confirms me as a fan of Eugenides: I’ve enjoyed all three of his novels, and, while all of them are very different, they all, The Marriage Plot included, are thoughtful and thought-provoking.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet David Mitchell, 2011
It’s no wonder everyone is talking about this book! It is a seriously remarkable feat: Mitchell is able to so absolutely bring us into a distant world–the late 1700s Dutch colonial settlement in Japan–in a way that feels intimate, exciting, and moving. And he doesn’t dumb down his use of vernacular or cultural references. In that sense, it’s a dense read–he’s got over 20 characters “with speaking parts;” he has several locations and points of view, and he even uses Japanese calendar references for time. So, while I had to reread parts or go back and try to connect the dots, the language is engulfing, poetic, and beautiful, and I came to feel like the characters and I were friends. It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and it’s worthy of all the praise it’s getting.
Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013
I had a hard time putting this book down. It was vast and intimate. It covered a lot of ground in exploring issues of immigration, Blackness in America, love and relationships, and more. The characters are complicated and real, flawed and easy to care about. It’s political but never feels didactic or pat. This was easily one of the best books I read in 2016.
Enon Paul Harding, 2013
“Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception. My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago. She was thirteen. My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward.” So begins Enon by Paul Harding. Poetically written and devastating, Enon follows Charlie’s journey through grief in the year following this tragedy. Most of the novel unfolds as memories—Charlie’s memories of being a child growing up in Enon and, more importantly, memories of sharing that childhood with Kate—and as hallucinations and dreams as Charlie becomes more and more dependent on pills and whiskey as a way to live along the edges of death, close to where he imagines Kate. Enon is beautiful and sad. I cried through much of it, fully believing the grief of losing one’s only child. It’s also often startling and illuminating. This is not a read for someone who needs heavy plot, but the poetry of the language and the intensity of emotion made for a perfect book in my opinion.
The Flamethrowers Rachel Kushner, 2013
This novel, set in a variety of places, most prominently New York City and Italian subcultural and revolutionary scenes of the 1970s, feels both very strange and unfamiliar and also deeply resonant and relatable. This is the force of Kushner’s prose—to render slightly foreign worlds such as the Salt Flats racing scene or the work of a rubber harvester in Brazil familiar and profoundly interesting.
The novel is primarily narrated by a young woman nicknamed “Reno” for her place of origin. We never learn her name because she has yet to make one for herself, which is ultimately her goal. She desires to be an artist, photographing and filming these moments in time that transport the viewer—such as the aftermath of her motorcycle crash on the Salt Flats, but also mundanity—mafia chauffeurs awaiting their charges in the heat—and she falls in with an older, more recognized crew of artists living in New York City, and she falls in love with one of them, Sandro, the wayward son of a moneyed Italian motorcycle dynasty.
Kushner shows us all these people who are searching or damaged. Oftentimes they are funny; oftentimes they are maddening. A recurring archetype in the novel is the older man who deeply loves his own voice and wants nothing more than to endlessly hold forth. Sometimes those stories and views are outrageous, unbelievable; we, of course, are privy to these men’s stories as we listen in with Reno, and while these characters are often infuriating, their stories, sometimes given whole swaths of the novel, are fascinating, especially Ronnie, Sandro’s best friend whom Reno is slightly secretly in love with: He at one point tells a long and detailed story that may or may not be true about getting hit in the head as a boy and wandering dazed and memoryless until he is recruited to be a cabin boy on a sailboat with a wealthy couple whom he travels with for weeks until he suddenly remembers who he is.
This story of Ronnie’s is partly told as performance art. In fact, the novel is peopled with folks whose lives are, in the living, intended as a kind of art. Kushner has empathy for this way of being all the while showing how frustrating it can be to actually have an authentic and sincere relationship with people who take this as their ultimate mode of being.
Kushner’s writing is vivid and immediate. At one point in my reading, I realized how deeply enthralled I was and wanted to understand what she had done as an artist to bring me so fully in. The writing is unobtrusive but somehow perfect, and, mostly, I think she writes with such specific honesty that all characters become so interesting. At one point, the older art crew scoffs at a young woman who has shown up to an art exhibit in pants with a see-through butt because “it is so done.” Reno’s response is, “But it’s new to her, I should have said but didn’t. She’s on her timeline, Gloria, not yours or anyone else’s.” This is how the whole novel feels: New because it’s Kushner’s vision alone.
H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald, 2014
When Helen Macdonald’s father died, she fell into deep grief. She decides to raise a goshawk, something she’d always dreamed of doing, as a way to cope with this grief, and this is a memoir of that period of time. It details her training of Mabel and, more importantly, explores her own escape into wildness as a way to hide from the world in the wake of her father’s death. It is also, in part, a biography of T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King and who was also a falconer. As a child, Macdonald had been seduced and puzzled by White’s book about training a goshawk, and she seeks to understand his very strange relationship to his hawk, Gos, through her writing. Macdonald is honest about her own inner workings and insightful about the relationship between human civilization and the wild. She’s also a brilliant writer, which is what makes this book so appealing—I have little to no interest in falconry, nor am I familiar with White or his work, and yet this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Consider, for example, this passage when she meets her hawk for the first time:
“…[A]nd amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers…”
In the Light of What We Know Zia Haider Rahman, 2014
Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem says that “within any given system, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true.”
In The Light of What We Know takes this theorem as its metaphorical heart in order to explore the nature of personal identity, memory and its effects on who we become, and how we make the choices we make: In looking at who we are, pinning down exactly what brought us to this point is slipperier than we know, and, further, perhaps we can’t ever truly understand who we are in the first place. “The farthest reaches of what we can ever know fall far short of the limits of what is true.” Rahman’s novel explores issues of race and class, science, international politics, mathematics, and more. Each chapter begins with several epigraphs, ranging from literary—Somerset Maugham or Ford Madox Ford—to scientific, to political, including the definition of rape, and these quotations help establish the complicated themes and ideas that the book works through. And, being a book of ideas as well as compelling, complicated, and interesting characters, it is easily the best book I have read so far this year, perhaps one of the best books I have ever read.
In 2008 an old friend, looking thin, unkempt, and shaky, shows up on the doorstep of our narrator, a banker who is embroiled in the fallout from the financial collapse related to the housing market. Zafar, the friend, is a mathematician who has also been involved in the news-grabbing headlines of the day: the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan, and both men find themselves at a crossroads in their lives where they are trying to understand how the choices they have made in the past have brought them to their current (unhappy) place in the world.
The narrator, who remains nameless throughout, intertwines his story with Zafar’s story, much of it culled from recordings of their conversations and from Zafar’s own notebooks. Zafar’s story reaches as far back as his impoverished childhood when he emigrated from Bangladesh to Britain and follows his path to Oxford, where he meets the narrator, and then to Afghanistan. Zafar is like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, haunted and compelled to tell his story, seeking forgiveness, or at least understanding, for the sin that he has committed. The difference between Coleridge’s character and Zafar is that it’s not clear whether Zafar is truly seeking atonement or is simply justifying his course of action.
On the surface, the two men seem similar: Both are Oxford-educated South Asians who chose high-powered careers yet have struggled with love and find themselves now discontent and trying to make sense of that discontent. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that key differences are at play in the men’s stories. The narrator comes from considerable privilege. His family is wealthy and connected, and he makes the point that he was able to buy his luxurious house even before he made it big selling mortgage-backed securities.
Zafar, on the other hand, grew up in poverty; his immigrant parents worked menial jobs, and he always felt out of place in the elite world he eventually finds himself in. His observations on class go beyond bitterness; he is an astute thinker about the intersections of race and class, and some of the scenes in the novel that explore reactions to him as a Bangladeshi are told with an appropriately scathing awareness.
Zafar is deeply angry at the U.S. and British involvement in Afghanistan, skeptical of any humanitarian rhetoric and convinced that the politics at work are merely the play of very wealthy Westerners attempting to grab more power. However, he, like any realistic human being, is an unreliable narrator of his own story. “No one can tell their own story…They’re the most untrue stories of all, the stories we write ourselves by our own hand in the first person where our own dishonesty is hidden from us.” Despite his anger and resentment, he also puts those he disdains on a pedestal.
This contradiction in some ways is at the heart of his story: He falls in love with Emily Hampton-Wyvern before he even meets her, upon simply hearing her name, a name that suggests status, power, wealth. Emily embodies Zafar’s view of the British: beautiful yet aloof and unattainable, unable ever to apologize for her wrongdoings, unaware due to her enormous privilege, perhaps, that she has done anything wrong. Zafar’s relationship with Emily eventually brings him to Afghanistan and to the sin his narrative unfolds.
The end of the novel and the final unwrapping of Zafar’s narrative is the only less than perfect aspect of the story. It feels a little too much like the finale of a children’s crime story, Scooby Doo for instance, in which all the pieces of the puzzle are suddenly laid out for us the readers so that we get to see all behind the scenes that we had not seen before. However, by this point, Rahman’s narrative has been so complex, interesting, and provocative that, as a reader, I easily forgave this clunkiness. Even the less than perfect ending lends itself to thought and contemplation, and one is left with more questions than answers, perfectly appropriate given how little we can truly know about the nature of life.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, 2015
My main feeling after reading this memoir was an inspiration to write myself. Nelson explores the ways bodies change—such as her partner’s transition from female to male or her own body’s changes as it goes through pregnancy and birth. Nelson’s ruminations are deeply insightful, radical, poetic, and provocative. I intend to reread this one.
Autumn Ali Smith, 2016
I loved this book so much I almost didn’t want to read it! I took it in small doses, like poetry.
Here I Am Jonathan Safran Foer, 2016
This novel feels like a beautiful, warm, comfortable coat. Not only is it all of these things, this coat also has tons of little pockets where small little treasures are tucked away. And all the stitching is exquisitely done, and every time you look closely you are amazed by the quality of the material and craftsmanship.
At 600 pages, it’s expansive and wide-ranging, and yet it is also deeply personal and intimate. It’s laugh-out-loud funny very often and so sad throughout.
Here I Am is essentially the story of the dissolution of a marriage, but it’s also about absences in general. Sometimes the holes created by absences are beautiful—at one point Jacob, the husband—invokes Andy Goldsworthy’s art in which he lay in a field while the snow fell creating a snow angel in negative space. Absences can remind us about why we love, why we struggle or wrestle. But often those absences are sad, flaws. Near the beginning of the narrative, Foer takes us back in time into a quiet inn where our now in-the-present sixteen-year-married couple is reveling in their early love, lust, sexuality. They promise never to withhold the truth from each other and then almost immediately do. They continue to withhold while raising three boys, and that absence of truth is, ultimately, their undoing.
Of course, being Foer, these absences aren’t just sad moments in a life of two very real, complicated people. Foer writes out of a sense of Jewishness, and his absences are also about the millions of people whose lives ended and the millions whose lives we’ll never know because of the Holocaust.
“Here I am,” is the phrase Abraham used when God called on him to sacrifice his son and then the same phrase he used when addressing that son he was about to sacrifice. The novel asks a question about how one can be truly present for both of these utterly conflicting pulls, and so it asks how we can be present for all the things that pull us in our lives. Can we be true to ourselves, true to our spouse, our children, our parents all without compromise?
Foer’s answer here seems to be no, and that felt devastating to me.
But even this doesn’t do justice to what this novel is working on: It explores other religious questions, renders the voices of the three sons so beautifully and hysterically, imagines Israel on the brink of destruction, asks us what love is, what it means to live in the world, and so much more.
I didn’t always relate to the protagonists, Julia and Jacob. Jacob especially was maddening to me. At one point late in the novel we readers are let in on one of his secrets he withheld, a stupid, vain secret that feels crazy and utterly wrongheaded, and I wanted to shake him. But Foer doesn’t apologize for him or make it easy to be critical. We care about what happens to him—the stakes are real; the emotions powerful.
The Idiot Elif Batuman, 2017
I really loved this book! It’s laugh-out-loud funny and full of personality and ideas. You should read it! This was probably my favorite book of the year. The first person narrator, Selin, is a totally believable mix of adrift and full of purpose as she navigates her freshman year at Harvard, falling in love with a slightly older man, and travel abroad.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin Terrance Hayes, 2018
Every sonnet in this collection has the same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” Written after the election of 2016, these sonnets mourn the state of our country and present the grief, fear, and anger of being a Black man in America at this moment in time. Hayes is often funny, and his playing with sounds such as assonance and puns is clever and heartrending. The American sonnet form is the ghost of the more formal Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet, and the looseness feels fresh and easy while at the same time being carefully crafted.
Here’s a favorite for its mixture of humor, pathos, and resonance:
I’m not sure how to hold my face when I dance:
In an expression of determination or euphoria?
And how should I look at my partner: in her eyes
Or at her body? Should I mirror the rhythm of her hips,
Or should I take the lead? I hear Jimi Hendrix
Was also unsure in dance despite being beautiful
And especially attuned. Most black men know this
About him. He understood the rhythm of a delta
Farmer on guitar in a juke joint circa 1933, as well
As the rhythm of your standard Negro bohemian on guitar
In a New York apartment amid daydreams of jumping
Through windows, ballads of footwork, Monk orchestras,
Miles with strings. Whatever. I’m just saying,
I don’t know how to hold myself when I dance. Do you?
The Overstory Richard Powers, 2018
This was my favorite book I read in 2018. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that surprised and captured me as much as this one. Richard Powers has done something significant in The Overstory: It is at once vast and intimate, philosophical and thrilling.
The novel opens with a chapter that is startling in its approach: It quickly zooms out, like a telescope, through decades in only a handful of pages using the life of a single tree as its focal point, sketching in the lives of the Hoel family who planted the tree as a way of rooting the story. It thematically sets up what is to come: the lifespan of a tree is vaster than human experience can understand; tree have ancient wisdom, and they will remember long after we humans have forgotten.
Then Powers shifts. The chapters that follow delve into the lives of the characters we will follow for the rest of this dense five hundred page novel. We are introduced to them, again, somewhat telescopically, through their formative years, sometimes going back a generation or two as a way to set the stage. Each is introduced through a tree which signifies something important in their lives (and here’s where I appreciate that I read the digital version of this novel–each person’s chapter begins only with a black and white sketch of their tree, no words. So I came to think of each character as a reflection of their tree.)
Powers takes us to the moments when all of these characters’ lives will intersect–sometimes deeply and profoundly, sometimes only peripherally. The third and final part of the novel is this story: Their interweaving.
This part is about the relationships of humans and trees: How is it that we humans have allowed the vast destruction of lives that are so essential to the well-being of the planet? And what are we going to do about it? Powers does not give us simple answers, and nothing is easily wrapped up. The novel is often sad and troubling, and also equally uplifting and inspiring.
The biggest takeaway for me is that I have become much more aware of how much I take trees for granted, and I have slowly started noticing them more.