Passed On

The ring was found months later.  Ice melted,
then returned.  Cold hands slipped
inside forgotten pockets, brushed stone, gold.
And memory like a hungry fish nipped.

As a child I’d admired the rings my mom
wore, bands of gold, rubies and diamonds;
two—distinct yet twinned. “A gift of love from
your dad when you were born: Two girls, two bands.”

Two rings, two stories: My dad’s truth, mom’s myth–
all of it complicated by divorce.
Why would she lie, years later, burnish with
nobility and love what was quite coarse:
One ring, thought lost, insurance paid: now two?
Two passed on.  Story created anew.


Fruitvale Station, New Years Morning 2009

Fruitvale Station, New Years Morning 2009
after Herman Melville

A shattering came; and after the train–
usually asleep at this time
a city was undone
(Sure, it was not the first one.)
concrete platform, blood in the grime.

The unrest of all grew
The crowds of the night surged
But videos and eyes could not see
how he was no longer he
He faded—the train’s clacking dirge.

So, then Fruitvales’s a tomb—
the throes of the city below.
Some forget, others never:
a mural, the shrine, an endeavor
to eternalize a people’s woe.

2018 Notable Books

2018 notable books

I had enough notable reads of 2018 that compiling this list has been a struggle.  I’ve decided to organize them into categories which may or may not be useful.  Below are 18 of the 58 books I read this year that most moved, engaged, delighted, or provoked me. 


 The Overstory, Richard Powers

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.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

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.

Ka Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, John Crowley

Crowley absolutely and remarkably brought me into the world and mind of a crow. This alone–this feeling of a crow ethnography–shows its masterfulness, but it is also beautifully written with so many small passages that spoke to me on a philosophical level. I feel somehow subtly changed from reading this novel despite the fact that, at times, it felt slow and boring.

Outline/Transit/Kudos, Rachel Cusk

            I’m including all three of these books here as one, since all three books, though they stand alone and can be read without the others, also all seem part of the same writing and storytelling experiment: A narrator (Faye) interacts with a variety of people; only through their words, their stories do we learn anything about Faye and her life.  We get almost none of Faye’s point of view or subjectivity; instead those she interacts with are presented to us at face value with all their detail, nuance, and flaws.

In the first novel, Outline, Faye travels to Greece to teach a writing seminar, and her advice to her students is to pay attention to what they see as they move through their day.  This advice seems to be the point of all three novels—in the paying attention is where all the stories lie.

 The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

This book is worth the hype and awards it’s garnered: It’s complex with solid world-building and interesting, multi-faceted characters. Sometimes it’s hard–the abuse and horrors are daunting–but it feels worth it, and it’s not without flaws (hard to talk about without spoiling certain aspects of the plot, but I’ll say simply that the three point-of-view characters could have been better intertwined.) Regardless, I’m excited to read the next books in the series. (Months later I still haven’t…)

Half a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Sprawling, expansive, vivid, and exhausting: Half a Yellow Sun explores the Nigerian Civil war–or Biafran war–through an intimate look at three different point-of-view characters, an educated and wealthy young woman, her house servant, and her twin sister’s British-born lover. The novel paints a complex portrait of these three and their intertwined lives and also details the horrors of the Biafran experience fighting for independence against the Nigerian government. Adichie never talks down to us by giving simplistic exposition, which I admired about the book. And I also felt exhausted by it since I have so little context about this particular moment in history. This is fine–“exhausting” here isn’t a negative quality of the book exactly. Instead it’s a book that demands attention, openness, and a willingness to be led through a great deal of horror and misery. It offers little that is uplifting, which, truly, is also not a negative quality of the book; rather it’s a simple fact: This was a brutal time in history, and Adichie is a strong enough writer to know that anything simple or pat would be off-putting. Still…it’s a hard book to say I loved given this despite its obvious mastery and engaging story-telling.

Vida, Marge Piercy

I was very easily enmeshed in this book: The nuance and detail made it feel intimate, and the subject matter–a woman living underground to escape a heavy jail sentence from her revolutionary activities–made it exciting. I didn’t always like Vida or agree with her positions, but even these moments where I was frustrated with her came from the fact that I was reading a finely written novel–here was someone, after all, who could annoy me or make me want to argue, you know, like real life people I love.  I have minor complaints about missteps or details I couldn’t believe, which felt glaring given how precise and finely-wrought everything else was.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

I mostly read this book because so many of my students were, but it ended up being a top read for me this year.  Starr is a bright and observant high school student living in two different worlds, the Black neighborhood where she was born and raised and the mostly white private school she attends outside the city.  When her childhood friend is shot and killed by a police officer in front of her, the differences between her worlds become starker, and her struggles to decide the right course of action come to the fore.

This is a novel that deals with timely issues in a complicated and smart way and should be required reading for all young white people.

I am not without minor quibbles: Some of the conflict feels overly contrived or not quite coherent, but this all feels fairly insignificant in the light of what is a well-written, smart, and moving book.

Home, Marilynne Robinson

This is one of the those books where nothing much happens, and yet the gravity of the characters’ lives feels enough that it doesn’t matter that there is so little plot. It is subtle and sad and moving.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This was my last completed book of the year, and I can’t say what exactly about it drew me in, but I felt captivated for nearly the entire 770 pages.  I think I’m attracted to books that help create a world so outside my own, and this did that; though it’s set in our present time and country (mostly), it details lifestyles and milieus so far removed from my own experiences—the world of a teenager living in Las Vegas strung out on drugs and alcohol, the world of furniture restoration, art dealers, shady underworld criminals.  What connects all these disparate threads is a small inadvertently stolen painting by a Dutch master and the young man whose world has been turned upside down by a single act of terrorism.  The novel has nothing startling or new in its writing; it’s just a thoroughly engaging story.

Children’s Books

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

This is a book that is often overlooked in the Dahl oeuvre, and I can’t figure out why.  In my opinion, it is his best.  Unlike his other books, this gives us nothing fantastical, and yet it is magical and fantastic in its believability.  It has none of the mean-spiritedness of some of his other books.  Instead it is a story of a boy who thinks he has the best father in the world, and he is likely right.  His father, however, has a secret, which it is best to not know too much about as you begin reading.


American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes

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?


Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Damning, depressing, and inflaming: This is a seriously researched ethnography which indicts the private rental market and its inherent function of making money off of America’s poor in perpetuating poverty. Desmond’s thesis is that eviction is not a result of a poverty; rather evictions cause poverty by creating instability in multiple regards.

Fiction: Rereads

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

            Prescient, scary, enraging.  I read this ages ago when I was in high school or early college and have, like so many, been watching the show more recently.  The book is coolly and poetically written and worth a read.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

            Best to not know much about this one going into it, so, loosely: a tale of grifters in Victorian England trying to get rich or get free.  Twisty and turny, fun and engaging.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

McCann’s jumping off point is the day in August 1974 when Philip Petit tightrope-walked the World Trade Center.  This audacious and bold act redefined public space and showed us how connected we are.  Here is a series of intertwining stories about lives connected around that event.

Investing in Public Schools: An Open Letter

Dear Progressive, Privileged Friends,

I went into teaching eighteen years ago because I believe deeply in the power of education to make a difference in our world.  It often seems to me that the only way to make a change is to truly understand–empathy and intelligence are the possibilities of a great education.

I think you agree with me, but we all too often disagree about what exactly this means.

As someone who has worked as a public school teacher now for nearly two decades, I have come to believe that we need to protect public schools, but all too often the conversations we are having are about how much the public schools disappoint–you would rather homeschool or send your kids to a private school.

And I am with you to a certain degree–plenty about how we do school in this country disappoints me too, but mostly I am sad: sad about the systemic failure that seems to be happening despite all the people who seem to care about powerful education.  I live in a city that offers our kids “schools of choice,” and the district I teach in, just across the Bay, also offers “schools of choice,” which means that one’s neighborhood is no longer the determining factor in where a kid goes to school as a way to account for the extent to which our cities are still segregated, to ensure an excellent education for all students regardless of neighborhood or family income.

But desegregation is not what is happening, which is obviously a systemic failure.  This failure has made it possible for, for instance, what is happening in my neighborhood: the Sequoia and Global Family dichotomy.  Here are two schools that are about two miles apart, potentially, in a more traditional model of schooling, a distance that would draw students from the same neighborhood, and yet the two schools are very different demographically.  Global Family is 92% Latino, 4% Black, and .4% White. It is 98% “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Sequoia, on the other hand, is 29% White, 22% Black, 19% Latino, and 12% Asian. Forty percent of its students are “socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

The segregation is not stark, and, to be fair Global Family is a dual immersion English/Spanish school, so obviously it is going to appeal to Spanish-speaking families, which may account for its large Latino population.

But, still, this feels off to me–it doesn’t feel like what Schools of  Choice was designed to address, in that one school can be 98% poor and scoring very low on the standardized test scores (a dubious measure of success to be sure, but, of course, even us progressives who know the limitations of these test scores can’t help but notice them and, even unconsciously let them affect our perception of the school’s quality)  at 14% and 10% proficient in language arts and math respectively; whereas Sequoia’s proficiency rates are 49% in both subject areas. Sequoia is considered “highly desirable;” Global Family is not.

Districts such as this one where I live and the one where I teach–districts who espouse values of rigor and social justice, equity and diversity–shouldn’t have let this happen.  But it has happened–our schools reflect and reproduce social inequity.

So where do you come into this?

I’m writing to you, my progressive and privileged friends,  in the first place because, like I said, I know you care about social justice.  If you live in an urban area, you may likely recognize your district in the one I’m describing, even if the particulars aren’t exactly alike, and, especially given the ways that cities have been changing in the last couple decades, you are likely concerned with issues of gentrification; you, like me, may even feel some responsibility for the fact that, simply because of the color of your skin or relative economic privilege you yourself are contributing to gentrification and the fact that more and more low-income folks of color are being pushed out of their homes.  If you have school-aged children or ever plan to have children, you are inherently part of this conversation.

So as someone who is inherently part of this conversation, I hope you’re thinking about what we can do about this inequity.

My answer is that you need to invest in your public schools.

One of the things that makes Sequoia so sought after is that new families recognize the value of its very committed family base; for instance, despite the larger financial woes of the district, families joined together to help raise money for a music program.  While counting on funding from families cannot be an answer if we care about serving well even the poorest kids, the spirit behind that—invested families working to make the school better because they see a shared value, a shared purpose—is an important example of the kind of investment all schools need.  Sequoia is a perfect example of how, when community members feel invested in the school they make it better, and that, in turn, improves the community.

Sequoia is also recognized for its leadership and the spirit of the kids, which obviously comes from quality teachers.  Academic research shows that quality teachers are one of the key factors in student achievement. And, while districts need to think about their policies of hiring and placement, community investment goes a long way to addressing this particular issue as well.  For years I was part of a teacher-led think tank, Teacher Leadership Institute, and we looked at the question of teacher attrition, which has a pronounced negative effect on “low-performing” schools that mostly serve poor kids. Our research showed that only one in five teachers stays in teaching longer than five years, and when we studied why, the primary answer was the workload—specifically, teachers don’t mind working hard, but they want to feel like their hard work is getting them or their students somewhere.  If they feel like it’s not, they burn out. So then, at some point a certain kind of inertia takes over: a school may be “low-performing.” Teachers burn out quicker, but then it becomes harder for the school to attract highly-qualified veteran teachers, highly-qualified veteran leadership…and so then fewer families want that school, or the families that do attend that school are poor, lack resources to advocate, don’t feel empowered to organize for change the way, say, Sequoia families did to create that music program.

Meanwhile, the wealthier, more resourced families are looking elsewhere.  They pull out. They divest by sending their kids to private school. The vicious cycle continues.

I suppose it’s not any one family’s responsibility to step up and invest in the school, but if it’s no one family’s responsibility, then it becomes no one’s responsibility: the inertia is in place.  The school suffers, the district lacks equity.

Progressive, privileged friends, I understand your concerns.  I really do. I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about what good education looks like, and I know the power of an engaged, rigorous, relevant classroom.  When it comes time to send my kid to kindergarten and beyond, I worry about how I’ll be as a parent because I have such high expectations for teachers–I know what we’re capable of.  And, just like every parent, I want the best for my kid. The parents of children at Global Family want their kids to feel smart and capable, want their kids to be their best selves. They may not always have the resources to advocate for this; they often don’t have models from their own lives of what invigorating and rigorous education looks like, but regardless, their children deserve to be inspired by school in the same way that my kid deserves that and your kid deserves that.  Privilege does not make our kids more deserving.

All too often we are thinking only about our kid, not about all kids.  Investing and integrating benefit all children–test scores and graduation rates increase in integrated schools, and isn’t part of what we want for our children that they feel themselves as connected to a larger whole, not somehow separate from or above others because of their privilege?  Even small children can begin to understand the ideas of social justice inherent in this.

Given this, dear friends, I think it’s also useful to really actively work to redefine what we see as “quality education.”  Test scores aren’t the only factor. Is the school diverse? Will your kid get a number of different points of view from kids of varying backgrounds and life experiences?  How will they learn to be connected to and part of their community? Powerful learning is bigger than the individual lessons the teacher imparts. These are important qualities in our kids’ schooling in part because school is the primary way they will get these lessons.  As an individual parent, I can work to instill a love of reading in my kid. I can encourage their creativity and provide resources for these pursuits. I can work to teach them how to communicate well–all of which schools should strive for as well. It is however much harder as a family to provide my kid a number of diverse points of view or life experiences.  It is much harder to create the conditions through which my kid can learn to communicate and negotiate across differences, discovering all the things that make him like his peers and all the things that make him unique. All too often, families who divest from the local public schools and send their kids to private schools are choosing a more heterogeneous and privileged environment.  What does that teach children?

This isn’t just a local issue.  The national conversation about public schools has encouraged divestment.  Our current Secretary of Education made her mark being an advocate for private school vouchers and charter schools at a time when more and more public school teachers feel beleaguered by lack of resources, low pay, and general waning support for the work they do serving the vast majority of school-aged children.  In practice, in seems we can’t have both a strong, invested public school system and robust support for private school vouchers.

Of course, there are many ways to be engaged in your community and even ways to help support your local public schools even if you don’t send your kid there.  But schooling is so universal, and schools tend to be a place where many of our cultural values get debated and worked out. Talking about the politics of schooling is a conversation about race, class, justice, and all the things we want to pass on to our future generations.  My hope is you’ll be part of this conversation in ways that make our world better for everyone.

Best Books of 2017, Special Rereading Edition

This year, in advance of teaching a new class, I read a bunch of books I had already read in order to prepare to teach them.  Of course they made my “best of” list because that is the whole reason I am teaching them and therefore rereading, so this list is a little longer than normal because I’d like to also honor new books.

Favorite Books, Reread:

Beloved, Toni Morrison

I’ve always been a reader, but this was the first book I read as a freshman in college whose narrative structure so kicked my ass in a way that amazed and delighted me that it’s continued to be one of my all-time favorite books and the book I’ve most dreamed about teaching.  I’ve now read it five times, and knowing the deep sadness at the heart of the story didn’t diminish it in the least.  In some ways it made it even more powerful and heart-rending.  Morrison’s prose is luminous, vivid, and profound.  So many stories are packed in here, but it’s ultimately about the power of self-love and the utter destructiveness of slavery in its ability to undermine that self love.  If you have not yet read Beloved, it’s time!

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Also profound and heart-wrenching, Ellison’s novel is the story of an evolution of a consciousness.  It draws on stories from the South of Brer Rabbit, the trickster figure who subverts his oppressors while “yes”ing them to their destruction.  It’s brutal and brilliant.  It’s rooted in a particular historical moment and also so current.

Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer

    Alex is our hysterical Ukrainian narrator full of malapropisms and mistranslated idioms.  He is hired by American Jonathan to find Jonathan’s history in a tiny, potentially nonexistent Ukrainian town.  That history reaches back to the beginnings of World War II and the atrocities committed against the Jews there, and so the quest’s center is loss and sadness.  Foer also takes us back through the long, long history before World War II that brought us to Jonathan’s grandfather, a story full of magic, the absurd, and long dream-like passages.  Despite its grave subject matter, it’s often very funny and full of poetry.

Man Walks Into a  Room, Nicole Krauss

    Samson Greene is found wandering the Nevada desert near death and delirious.  A tumor is removed from his brain, saving his life but also destroying all memories after the age of twelve.  So, despite being a thirty-eight year old man with a life, a wife and a job as professor at a New York school, all he has access to is his boyhood.  Krauss uses this jumping off point to explore the power of memory and how we become who we become.  But then she goes further: A revolutionary scientist has a vision to test the limits of selfhood and empathy–is it possible to truly understand another person?  The novel dips into entirely plausible science fiction that provokes interesting questions.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

When I first read this as a high school senior, it made very little impression.  I reread it more out of a sense of duty (“This is often on the AP test; I should at least see if it’s interesting to teach…”), and I get the challenges of it–it’s not a perfect book by any stretch.  It opens with a long, boring-ish rumination on the shipping world, and, of course, Conrad has been criticized for his racism in his characterization of the Africans in the story, criticism that is warranted and interesting to pursue as a teacher.  Despite these shortcomings, I found myself engrossed in the nightmarish, evocative prose and the moral questions the book raises.  I reread it on the heels of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost about the terrors in the Belgian Congo, and Conrad’s novel is an interesting companion to this book.

Favorite Books, New Reads:

The Sympathizer, Viet Than Nguyen

    This novel deserves all the acclaim it earned.  It is funny, strange, and historical.  It’s narrated by a slightly unreliable narrator who is a double agent for the Vietnamese communists while living in Los Angeles.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

When this book initially came out, it got a lot of coverage: Here’s the story of a woman who dies but then is repeatedly reborn until she gets it right.  I had heard it was good, but I wasn’t sure how Atkinson would pull it off–wouldn’t it get boring reading the same story over and over?  Needless to say, since it’s on my list, she pulls it off.  Parts are repeated, but Atkinson knows how to pace appropriately, and it’s interesting to see the small changes that are made that this time save our protagonist so that she may live further on until her next death and rebirth.

Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrotta

I felt absorbed in this book: It raises genuinely interesting questions about sex and relationships in an age of porn, parenting, identity politics, and more. Even if it felt clunky at times, it was a highly engaging read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

I am so glad I read this book despite not loving her earlier novel, Salvage the Bones.  Moral of the story: it’s worth giving authors second chances.  We meet Jojo, one of three narrators of the novel, on his thirteenth birthday.  He’s trying hard to be a man, which means helping to slaughter the goat that will be his birthday feast, but, as he has vague mystical powers, including the ability to hear the thoughts of animals, this goat included, the slaughtering drives him away in terror.  Jojo’s gift is a family inheritance–his grandfather and grandmother also have access to magic, and his mother, one of the other narrators of the novel, enjoys getting high so that she can see her long-dead brother who visits her during these times.  Her addiction and terrible parenting make her a hard character to empathize with, and Ward doesn’t do much to endear her to us, which, to me, felt a small fault of the novel.  And yet there’s so much that’s beautiful and sad and moving here, that it’s easily one of the best books I read this year.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Atwood tells the story of real-life servant Grace Marks who was found guilty of the murder of her master and fellow servant.  Atwood attempts to make sense of her history: Did she actually do it, or was she set up by the other servant who was condemned along with her and hanged?  Along the way, we get Atwood’s particular sharp voice, feminism, and insight.  It’s a deeply engaging story despite how much we know up front.

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney

Conversations With Friends is, as the name would suggest, full of great talkers, talkers who can mesmerize with their insight and erudition. However, being a great talker doesn’t mean one is also an honest talker or even good at relationships. This is the crux of Sally Rooney’s novel then: witty, interesting conversation mostly between people who are trying to figure out how to be in relationship to one another and often failing at it.

Twenty-one year-old college student, Frances, our first-person narrator, is best friends and sometimes lovers with striking, irreverent, and intelligent Bobbi, who revels in the way she makes people feel uncomfortable around their accepting of middle-class social norms. Frances is used to being overshadowed by Bobbi despite the fact that Frances herself is a brilliant poet and intelligent in her own right.

When the two women are courted by a famous, older writer and photographer and brought into the folds of her life and social world, Frances naturally assumes that Bobbi is really the focus of this woman, Melissa’s, interest, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when Frances’s crush on Melissa’s semi-famous actor husband ends up being reciprocated. The two fall into a secret, illicit affair complicating Frances’s relationship to Bobbi.

While the storyline, on its surface, reads like a soap opera, Rooney’s writing elevates it above mere drama. All the characters are complicated and messy in interesting ways. They have blind spots and moments of utter clarity. What makes it a novel worth reading is that it’s not just this dramatic storyline but often a novel of ideas: Why monogamy? What is love? What is the line between friendship and romance? Is it possible to be authentically in relationship to someone, or will those relationships always be shaped by societal expectations and conventions?

And Rooney never tries too hard to answer these questions. Instead we’re offered this moment with these characters, and we’re left to wonder. As I neared the end of the novel, I felt a bit of a loss at the idea of no longer getting to be part of these lives. I would have kept reading.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene

Is it possible to be neutral in a warzone? Thomas Fowler, a journalist, is stationed in Vietnam in the early 1950s during the era in which the Vietnamese were trying to throw off their French colonial rule, thereby involving the United States more and more in the struggle for power. He’s not the titular quiet American; he’s British and is able to use this identity to claim neutrality despite the various warring factions. The quiet American is Alden Pyle; he’s young and naïve, and yet his political idealism leads him to be more of a dangerous figure than Fowler originally takes him for.

Pyle is not only dangerous politically; he’s also dangerous to Fowler as he’s fallen for his mistress, a Vietnamese woman Fowler fears he will never be able to make truly happy given that he’s older than her and already married.

This struggle for the beautiful Phuong comprises the heart of the novel’s plot, and yet the heart of the book really is Fowler’s evolution as he comes to realize that he cannot be neutral.

So many aspects of this book could have put me off: The context was mostly lost on me, and Greene does no dumbing down or explaining of the politics and history; he writes with an implicit belief that we understand who the various players were. Consequently, to keep up, I had to do independent research along the way.

Further, Fowler’s view of Phuong is troubling: It’s sexism borne of racism in that he sees her as simple and consequently less deserving of a real love that comes from a meeting of the minds. Greene does not seem to endorse this view. I read Fowler as ultimately a cynic, someone who’s blocked himself from truly caring about the people in the country where he lives as a way to shield himself, and this view slowly comes undone as the novel progress. Still, the ways Phuong is talked about is off-putting.

Regardless of what would be marks against the book, I found myself repeatedly moved by it. The prose is simple and yet beautiful, and Greene constantly surprised me with quiet little insights. It is often meditative and sometimes strange, but all this works for it. This is my first Greene, and I will likely read more.

We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

I was given this novel by a friend from my hometown, Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Bulawayo emigrated from Zimbabwe and where she sets the second half of this coming of age story that feels lightly autobiographical, at least in that it follows a girl’s life in Zimbabwe before coming to Michigan.

Rich Land

Your house then smelled of lake and damp and cold.
At five, you’d left us, landed elsewhere: Here–
mismatched furniture, a fridge of beer,
a house of bachelors and Playboys stored
in the bathroom.  It was a farmhouse, old,
no farm now, but woods.  A concrete dam near
to “waterfall,” stray cat, huge tree:  Five years
will will magic even when life’s on hold.
But memory evades truth.  I search maps
to rediscover that place you went–where?
I mix up homes; nostalgic sadness paints
in certain colors.  I ask–to fill gaps:
“Why?”   “Her choice.  I just wanted to be fair.
I thought all I had to do was to wait.”


Top Ten Books of 2016

(in a loose order)

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
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 Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
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.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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 this year.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
The sadness of this book has stayed with me a day after finishing it. This is a recommendation. Perrotta has so gently suggested such a deep chasm of grief that comes from losing, continuing to search for that which is lost, and finding just emptiness. But there’s also something hopeful about that continuing to search that almost all the characters hold on to.

I said “gentle,” and it surprises me the subtlety of a book whose origins are with a Rapture-like event that causes a small but notable portion of the world’s population to vanish into thin air with no warning. And, while the book is about life three years after this event, it’s not really about this disappearance (in fact the book begins three years on); it’s not a religious book or a science fiction book. It’s just about what people do to move on in their lives–people, like Nora Durst, who lost her entire family, two small children and husband; or people like Kevin Garvey, who lost no one save his wife, Laurie, who three years later leaves him and their teenage children behind to join a cult, the Guilty Remnant, who in all their actions–wearing white, smoking, stalking in their eternal silence–seek to remind everyone that life simply cannot go on as normal.

Other cults and fanatics spring up too as one would expect in a world hit by such an unexplainable loss: a cult organized around a man who gives burden-relieving hugs; the Barefoot People, who are mostly hippies but with bullseyes painted on their foreheads, and a former preacher who, feeling like he was passed over by a God Rapturing undeserving folks home, becomes a zealot in his quest to prove this disappearance couldn’t possibly have been the Rapture, else why would a lesbian or an adulterer have been chosen but not him?

The narrative follows several different point of view characters and shows us their daily struggles and sadness. We empathize with them all. There are no bad guys. The book doesn’t even really feel allegorical–a condemnation of suburban consumerism or lives devoid of meaning and purpose; though it could easily suggest all that. It’s just these people–delicately wrought and human, sad and seeking.

Zero K by Don DeLillo
So much of this is clever, funny, and provocative. It deals with such big questions–death, consciousness, language, self–without being heavy-handed. The narrator’s father and his wife have hidden themselves away in a secluded underground complex in the middle of the desert where they plan to be medically killed and then uploaded into the cloud in order to eventually be reborn and have eternal life. This science is the invention of a strange cult-like organization that provides this service for the very rich.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Luminous and wise and beautifully sad: A letter written by an elderly and dying father to his young son about his life as a small town preacher, this is a novel about forgiveness and acceptance.

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
This is a strange book, and it took a while to get into—the story opens with a long adventure in a car, a relatively new invention, and the driver is full of trepidation and ignorance about how the car works. This part seemed farcical at times and dragged on, but as the novel advances, it picks up speed. The driver of the car is on a quest for an artifact he is sure he can find which will prove once and for all if God exists, a quest that feels particularly urgent given his deep desperation for meaning in the face of profound loss he experienced in his life. The story is told in three loosely connected parts that all explore the purpose of allegory and storytelling in our attempts to make meaning of our lives. It also explores questions of the existence of God, why we suffer if God exists. In this way, Martel revisits ideas he explores in Life of Pi, and yet this novel feels entirely new and different. The second part of the book involves a wife’s request for an autopsy of her husband who has died, and the third part tells the story of a man’s friendship with an orangutan. At times it is sad, at times odd, but throughout it feels beautiful and moving.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Having seen and been deeply disturbed by the movie when I was in high school, I hadn’t necessarily been excited about reading this, except that a lot of my students read it, and I was drawn to what I’d heard about the use of an invented vernacular. The language is indeed a draw, and in fact helps soften the blow of the violence which, in the movie, is so unrelenting. Perhaps this softening is a bit of a cop out since the violence of the narrator’s life is so much the point, but I appreciated that Burgess doesn’t seem to revel in the violence (the way maybe Kubrick does is in the movie). The book raises so many questions that I continue to think about—where do violence tendencies come from? How do we raise “good” human beings? How much does the state and society have to do with our choices and how we develop? Can we make people be good? And parts of the prose are surprisingly deeply beautiful. All this is good enough that it still makes my list despite the terrible ending that Kubrick left out of his American version of the movie, a fact that riled Burgess, who is perhaps right to be so riled by such a profound editorial decision, and yet, ultimately Kubrick was right to cut it: Burgess’s ending is far too pat, simplistic, and unbelievable. He seems to suggest that the only way really to end violence is just to grow up and that the very fact of youth causes the desire for violence, neither of which follow from a book that posits that actually all these things are far more complicated.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
McEwan is at his best when he’s avoiding the misanthropy he is so capable of and exploring, instead, the inner motivations of people to live good lives. The Children Act follows the story of a judge ruling on the case of a young Jehovah’s Witness who has refused medical treatment for his leukemia. The novel has a lot more going on, and McEwan doesn’t provide simple answers. It’s a fairly quick read despite the gravity of the complications.

King Leopold’s Ghost Adam Hochschild
This had been sitting on my shelf for years, and then, after reading a poorly written reimagined history of the Congo that was inspired by Hochschild’s book, I decided to just go to this true history of King Leopold’s colonial hold over the Congo. It’s a hard book to love in that it is brutal and real, but I learned a lot, and it reads like a novel, full of a complete cast of characters, including true life Kurtzes and men who fought to end the terror of Leopold’s reign and the awfulness of the rubber harvest. Leopold was able to gain so much power in the Congo under the guise of altruism, ostensibly to end the Arab slave trade along the Eastern coast of Africa, and a good number of people fell for it and felt that Belgium’s rule in Africa was a benevolent influence despite profound evidence to the contrary. Anyone interested in understanding the power of colonialism should read this book.

Honorable Mention: The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan, Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson, Recollections of My Life as a Woman by Diane di Prima, Tenth of December by George Saunders