(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