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.

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Letter to the Editor

Dear New York Times:

I’m dismayed by the Ethicist’s advice from January 10 regarding public schooling choices http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/do-we-have-to-send-our-kid-to-a-bad-public-school.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fthe-ethicist&action=click&contentCollection=magazine&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection&_r=0  in part because he accepts the assumptions that the letter writer makes in suggesting that something is “seriously wrong” with the neighborhood public school because of test scores. As a veteran public school teacher, I know that standardized test scores are only one measure of a school’s quality, and a questionable measure at that. Since the letter writer says the school seems “perfectly fine,” the Ethicist should at least be encouraging more questions: Are the teachers kind, caring, and empathetic? Is the student body diverse? Does the school serve a number of bilingual students? (We know, for instance, that bilingual children take much longer to achieve proficiency on standardized tests, yet bilingualism is an asset, not a deficit.) The ethics around school choice should be viewed with more complexity; to only look at standardized test scores as a measure of the quality of an education seems shortsighted.

 

On the Train

I had gotten on the train at the end of the line stop, and as usual, only one or two other people were in the car with me. I sat and graded papers while the edges of San Francisco whizzed by below.

We pulled into the Glen Park stop, and a man, woman, and small child got on the train along with a few other people. The little boy was crying, but I didn’t initially pay them any mind. However, the man had a loud, booming voice, and so, though they were several rows behind me, when he started yelling at this boy, three years old at the most, to “shut the fuck up” I couldn’t help but hear.

He continued to yell at the boy, “Shut the fuck up. Don’t be a fucking baby.” And the boy just cried harder and harder.

Everyone else on the train had on their earphones and were engrossed in whatever was happening on their phones. I was utterly unable to pull myself away from the boy’s sobs to concentrate on my work, so I turned around and glared at the man. He was big and heavily muscled. The woman he was with was too skinny. Her teeth were rotted away, and she seemed not in control of herself. She sat, impassive to the boy and to her partner’s hollering, holding her head.

The man kept yelling. The boy sobbed, his little body shaking with gasps, tears and snot running down his face. I found I was staring. I was too upset. I finally said, “He’s just a little boy.”

The man looked at me and said, “What the fuck you lookin at?” I said again, “He’s just a little boy.”

The man got up out of his seat and came over to me. He loomed over me and yelled, “You push that baby out of your pussy?” I said, “He’s just a little boy.”

The man asked again, “You push him out your pussy?”

I said, “No, of course not, but he’s just a little boy.”

Every muscle in the man’s arms tensed. His face broke, livid with rage. I was vaguely aware of the fact that no one on the train was looking at us. Though this large man stood over me, appearing ready to hit me, everyone ignored what was happening.

The man struggled to control his rage and said, “You mind your own fucking business. You didn’t push that baby out of your pussy, and so you have nothing to do with what’s going on.”

I said one last time, quietly now, “He’s just a little boy.”

The man turned and went back to where the woman and still-crying child were. He told the boy again to shut the fuck up. The train pulled into the next stop, and the man grabbed him and hurried off the train, the woman trailing behind.

I sat, doing nothing, unable to think. I shook with fear and rage and considered trying to contact the train operator, but what would I say? What would the train operator do? Should I call the police? What would the police do? In the end, I did nothing. I went back to grading papers.

Cross Country

We fought all the way across the country. It started almost immediately the first night after he picked me up from the airport in Los Angeles.

He drove his new Honda Civic up the hill to his home in Running Springs, a bedroom community outside San Bernadino, as fast as he could, showing off its handling of the tight curves, its kick. He was so proud of his first real adult car bought with his first real teaching job.

We stopped at a lookout to take in the view, all the lights and life. After five months apart, I had longed for this intimacy, this actual physical closeness. We’d talked nearly every day on the phone in that time, both of us feeling the ache of the distance, how much seemed to be passing in the other’s life without being able to be present. He heard all my hardships of student teaching, counseled when I needed it or just empathized and listened when I needed that. And I’d listened while he talked about his own struggles: leaving his life to be near his daughter in what we both thought was soulless Southern California, but also about his joys—the passion he had for teaching middle school math, the connections he was making with his students. We’d had to make due with telephone calls and letters; we’d created an emotional intimacy where there was no physical one, and we’d built up a great well of sexual longing.

But now, here, on top of this mountain, I felt tension. Though he’d struggled to make this place his home, he was leaving a job he loved because I didn’t want to be in Southern California. More importantly, he was leaving his daughter. San Francisco was much closer than Michigan, but still it would be several hours away. We were supposed to pack up the car in the morning and leave, first for the Bay Area to square away a place to live and look for jobs, then to Michigan where we could save money before our move. We only had this one night on the mountain for me to see his life that he’d made for himself all the way across the country, and most of it was already in boxes. His friend and roommate had already moved out. The house felt dingy and desolate.

I don’t remember now if we had sex or not. What I do remember is that I stubbed my toe violently on his bathroom door, practically shredding the nail off, and when I hollered and cursed, he told me I was overreacting.

Things got worse in San Francisco. We were staying with his much older cousin in Sonoma. The room they gave us had two single beds that we had to push together if we wanted to make love or even just cuddle at night. It was uncomfortable of course with the large crack that would open up into a gap doing either of these, and the one time we were intimate, after a huge, crying fight, I knelt on one of the single beds to pleasure him; that was it. We mostly didn’t touch.

San Francisco had too much traffic and too little of everything else we wanted. We couldn’t find any of the culture we’d heard so much about and ended up stuck in his new Honda Civic, driving around or sitting in traffic, trying to imagine where we could possibly live that wouldn’t make our commutes to the Peninsula, where he was hoping to get a job at a corporate charter school, too horrific. We answered ads on Craigslist for one bedrooms, knowing full well that no one in their right mind would rent to two people if they could help it, especially not two people with a cat. So he kept telling everyone that “the cat didn’t have to come.” The cat was mine and, besides him, the love of my life. We fought endlessly about the cat and about everything else.

We’d fought before this, of course. A year prior we’d even broken up when it seemed we couldn’t figure out how to fit our lives together. But after he moved to California, he told me he realized that I was the person he wanted to spend his life with, that he would do what it took to make it work. Now that we were fighting, I felt the same desperation I had felt previously, that nothing I could do would be the right thing to turn us back around, and I didn’t know how to get unstuck.

I went to a job interview in San Francisco at a k-12 charter school. I’d never worn a suit before. I’d bought this one with my mom for just this reason. I’d thought about how to cover up my tattoos and unshaven legs, and I’d hung the suit in the bathroom with the shower on as hot as I could get it to help the material relax any wrinkles from being in my suitcase. Afterward, when I took off my jacket, I noticed I reeked of the sourness of fear and too much emotion. I didn’t get the job.

We made it to Salt Lake City where we stayed in a hostel. We didn’t explore the city at all. We had sex, perhaps the only good sex of the entire trip, in that private hostel room. But in the morning, I realized I’d bled all over the sheets starting my period, and we stuffed the sheets into a broom closet on the way out.

In Colorado, he made fun of me for liking country music, continued to insult my family from the South, no matter how much I asked him to stop calling them ignorant, racist rednecks, and told me that it was painful for him to listen to me talk because I sounded like an idiot.

But then we finally made it to Michigan. I had been staying in a beautiful room painted a seaside-cabin aqua color, and the house had a screened-in porch that looked out over the flower-filled yards of the old Ann Arbor neighborhood and a swing tied to a giant tree in the back yard. We were going to share this room for just two months, our first try at living together. I’d planned gatherings for my friends to re-meet him. I’d hoped to make this a glorious stretch of time to say our goodbyes to the town I’d come to love before leaving for San Francisco.

He spent one night with me that first night. I tried to make love, but it didn’t work; he didn’t work. After this, he retreated to his parents’ home in the suburbs of Detroit. He didn’t come to the party I’d organized so that he could see my community again. We all drank beer and swung on the swing in the hot, muggy summer air without him. I cried that night, tried to call him. He didn’t return my calls.

Finally, he invited me to dinner and a movie with his family. We went to see Chicken Run, but he dragged us several rows ahead of his parents and sister because he said he was embarrassed by my smell, and he didn’t want his parents to have to experience it. I helped cook dinner for his family, my mom’s grilled eggplant recipe. While I was cooking, his sister pulled me into his parents’ room and took out the ring that had been his grandparents and was promised to him for his wife. When he followed us, she said to him that she was jealous that the ring, the family heirloom, was his and not hers, and he said to her, “Take it. I don’t need it.” She gave him an astonished look and then looked at me. She tried to protest, and he insisted that she take it, that there was no woman that he’d ever want to give it to. She looked at me awkwardly and even put the ring on my finger to see if it fit. He walked out of the room saying it was hers.

Two nights later, I lay in my bed trying to read Crime and Punishment. I was only a handful of pages in but had no idea what was going on; my brain was too focused on how alone I felt, on how this was not the summer I’d planned for us. It was midnight when he came in. He opened the door of the bedroom, looked at me and said, “I don’t love you anymore. I’m leaving.” He gathered up the few things he had there, and that was it. He didn’t look back. He got into his new Honda Civic and drove away.

 

A month later I would buy my own Honda. It was used, but I named it Esperanza anyway. I packed everything I owned into it, including my cat, and drove across the country to the San Francisco Bay Area to take the middle school teaching job I had committed to. For a while, I expected to run into him wherever I went or see him driving his Honda Civic on the freeway. It turns out he never made it West.

Dear New York Times

As a progressive educator of thirteen years, I agree with Hacker and Dreifus in “Who’s Minding the Schools” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/the-common-core-whos-minding-the-schools.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 ) when they conclude that teachers should be “allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.” That said, it’s not like the Common Core creates standards where none existed before; for my entire teaching career in California, I’ve been beholden to standards—state rather than national, but standards nonetheless. And, for the most part, I greatly prefer the Common Core standards to the California State Standards. The former are much more holistic and critical-thinking based than the latter. While the state standards were almost a checklist of facts the students should know, the Common Core standards approach learning more as habits of mind, ways to think and learn. This is a progressive approach to education. Yes, these standards are more challenging, but this is a challenge I welcome.

 

My ten favorite books of the year

My ten favorite books of the year (in no particular order), with reviews if applicable:

 The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides: Reviewed below

The Pale King, David Foster Wallace

The City and the City, China Mieville

The Name of the World, Denis Johnson: The Name of the World is a gorgeous, compact, lucid little novel about a man who has lost his family.  This tragic event is far enough in the past that it’s not really what the story is about even while it’s everything the story is about.  It’s a novel in which nothing much happens and lots of things happen, and it feels like life.

Johnson’s storytelling is so lush and vividly depicted that the entire book is highly cinematic.  It is sad and beautiful and hopeful.

One of my favorite scenes involves the protagonist, Mike, visiting a Midwestern church.  Johnson describes the “nearly three hundred people, all singing beautifully.  I wondered what it must sound like out in the empty green fields under the cloudless blue sky, how heartrendingly small even such a crowd of voices must sound rising up into the infinite indifference of outer space.  I felt lonely for us all, and abruptly I knew there was no God.  A tight winding of chains had burst.  Someone had unstuck my eyes.  A huge ringing in my head had stopped.  This is what the grand and lovely multitude of singers did to me…I sang, too, and nobody stopped me…For exactly an hour by my watch, we praised the empty universe.  I felt our hearts going up and up into an endless interval with nothing to get in the way.  All my happy liberated soul came out my throat.”

Despair, Vladimir Nabokov

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, Leo Tolstoy

The Sea, John Banville: The Sea by John Banville is exactly the kind of book that I am prone to love: the lyrical, poetic inner workings of a person’s mind meant to highlight the complexity of memory and the impact of the passing of time.  And, for the most part, I really liked the novel, but it fell short of “love,” and I think this is because Banville did too good a job writing it.

The novel is narrated by a middle aged man—Max?—who has recently lost his wife to cancer.  He can no longer live in the house he shared with her, so, in his grief, he sojourns to the place on the sea where he spent his childhood and had his first loves.  The story is his remembering: his childhood and the tragedy that befell the family of his first girlfriend, Chloe Grace, and his wife and her slow demise.

The prose is vivid and carefully composed.  The memories shine or blur as needed to show the allure and trickery of the past.  But our narrator is almost too well rendered by Banville: He’s so lost in his grief that the tragedy of the far past pales when put side by side with the grief of the loss of his wife.  His drunken distance and remove end up keeping the readers at a distance.  The tragedy of the Graces, foreshadowed on the first page, ends up falling flat when it is finally revealed to us at the very end of the novel.  It no longer holds much emotional weight for our narrator, so it doesn’t end up having any emotional weight for us, the readers, either.

I’m excited to read other works by Banville.  It’s clear that he is a meticulous writer of gravity, but, at least in The Sea, a little less poetry and a little more urgency would have gone a long way.

Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie: “Joseph Anton” is the name Salman Rushdie took while living in hiding under the fatwa issued in reaction to his book The Satanic Verses, and this is his memoir of that time.  I found most fascinating his discussion of his early life–his arrival in Britain to attend boarding school at the age of 14 and what that immigration and uprootedness meant to him–and his thinking about the writing of “The Satanic Verses” and its historical roots.  The descriptions of life under the fatwa are also very moving–Rushdie’s ideas on the role literature and free speech play in forming a free society are particularly eloquent and inspiring–however he catalogs every detail of his clandestine life to the point where some of the memories start to feel repetitive.  Also his discussions of his relationships to various authors–supporters and detractors alike–and his romantic life, while interesting, at time come across as self-aggrandizing.  I’m a big Rushdie fan and enjoyed most when he’s talking literature, but I felt he could have used a more aggressive editor.

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie: Reviewed below

The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis