Top Ten Books of 2015

I read fewer books this year than in years past, mainly because I’m now the mother of a toddler.  That said, here are my ten favorite books I read in 2015 (in only a little bit of an order–roughly the best of the best at the top):

Enon Paul Harding: “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.

H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald: 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…”

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander: See review below.

Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates: Coates wrote this slim book as a letter to his son after the cop who shot and killed Michael Brown was acquitted, and his son, who had been so full of hope for justice, left the room to cry alone in his bedroom.  Half memoir, half reflective essay on current events, Between the World and Me follows in the tradition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and has similar urgency, pain, and complexity.  Coates remembers growing up scared much of the time in Baltimore–scared of cops, scared of other Black boys who seemed to know the price of racism; he reminisces on his time at Howard University, where he discovered all the complexity of what it means to be Black, and he mourns the death of a friend of his at the hands of a police officer who was also acquitted, all while exploring the question of how to live in a Black body.

Ways of Going Home Alejandro Zambra: What stays with me most about this little novel and why it made my list is not so much the storyline–in fact the story is a bit fuzzy in my memory–instead it is the ways Zambra explores the difficulty, impossibility even, of telling “the truth.”  The novel starts with a young boy in Chile during the Pinochet regime.  He gets roped into a kind of childhood ploy of following and spying on the uncle of a girl he meets during an earthquake; though he doesn’t know why he’s doing it, he attempts to be the best spy he can be.  The novel then switches, and now we’re with the author, who is trying to write a story about a boy growing up during the Pinochet regime.  It’s hard to tell what is true in the world of the book and what is part of the story being written, and some of this confusingness captures that difficulty of truth, a concept which feels particularly salient in a country and era where nothing was true.  More than any other book I read this year, Zambra’s novel, despite what might seem like futility in the nature of writing due to its slipperiness, made me want to write.

Sweet Tooth Ian McEwan: This is not my favorite McEwan novel–Saturday and Atonement have that distinction–but it is still reliably McEwan–engrossing story, characters I cared about and rooted for, cleverness, and some trickery.  It’s got espionage, romance, and more: What’s not to love?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Karen Joy Fowler: Rosemary is distraught when her sister Fern disappears, and then her brother also goes missing, finding it too difficult to live in the home of their psychologist parents.  If you can help knowing too much more about the plot of this novel, I recommend it; though it’s not so much the plot that makes it a thrilling read.  Instead, this is a book that examines the psychology of what it means to be human and how much of who we are is determined by nature versus nurture.

Not That Kind of Girl Lena Dunham: I love Lena Dunham. I feel like I have to qualify my love of her because she’s so polarizing, and, let’s be frank, sometimes her outrageous honesty feels awkward and embarrassing, but I love her. I love Girls (though I feel sad that the girls don’t seem to love each other so much), and I loved Tiny Furniture. And now I love Not That Kind of Girl. The subtitle is “A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned,’” which is almost reason enough to love the book, the quotation marks around “learned” playing on the kinds of memoirs that are self-consciously knowing and worldly. Dunham talks about sex and all the messy stuff around sex, her family and childhood, her work and inspiration, and her struggles with anxiety. She is laugh-out-loud funny and irreverent and smart. I love her lists, such as “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously” (including “You should come over. My dad is super funny.”) and “My Top Ten Health Concerns” (“The surface of my tongue is insane. It looks like a cartoon of the moon. It just can’t be right.”) Her openness (Some might see it as over sharing) to me feels like the kind of punk rock feminism I grew up with—the idea that naming what scares us or shames us can be powerful and that telling our stories in our most authentic voices, no matter how fucked up they are, can be build connection. This collection of essays is not for everyone, but I found it fun, thought-provoking, and real (even when not necessarily relatable).

Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel: The Georgia Flu has killed the vast majority of people on the planet.  Folks struggle to survive in a world where modern technology has become obsolete, mere curiosities in museums.  But what is survival without joy?  Hence we follow the lives of a troupe of traveling musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare and various symphonies.  The narrative intertwines the stories of a handful of characters before and after the plague in a way that feels moving and believable.  The picture of this particular dystopia is scarily realistic but also hopeful.

Flight Behavior Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s latest has engaging, believable, and complex characters in a story that is mostly the same though a little didactic.  The novel starts with Dellarobia, smart, restless, and stuck in a marriage she never truly desired, on her way to an affair.  Before she fully throws herself into this first straying, she catches a miraculous sight: millions of butterflies roosting in her Appalachian woods.  This personal, private moment becomes something bigger than Dellarobia, as the town gets swept up in the monarch craze.  The butterflies’ migration to this part of Tennessee is a sign of impending disaster from climate change, and the novel charges headlong into the science and politics of global warming, leaving the reader to feel a bit doomed.  I appreciate that Kingsolver isn’t trying to leave us with a heartwarming, feel-good story: We should feel implicated.  That said, it starts to feel a bit preachy–Kingsolver has a moral lesson for us.  It’s an important one, and, while there’s not a lot of nuance to this lesson, the rest of the novel has enough layers and textures that it made my top ten list.

Book Review: In the Light of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman

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 Freedom to Create

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Leaving the Atocha Station is the second book I’ve read recently that has a definitive quirky hipsterism to it; the first was Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Both books have a first-person narration by an overly self-conscious young person who, in their hyper self-awareness, is both funny and off-putting. We relate to Lerner’s Adam and Heti’s Sheila (presumably herself) in that all of us have moments where we fear we are simply frauds. Adam and Sheila have their heightened sense of fraudulence further compounded by the fact that both are artists—writers (Adam is a poet who is in Spain on a fellowship supposedly writing a long historical poem on Franco and fascism, and Sheila has been working on writing a (terrible sounding) play forever)–and they fear that, in reality, they have nothing to say despite their surface credentials.
And yet, while we relate, both characters are somewhat annoying. Sheila is most annoying when she indulges in shameful rape fantasies that involve a man she is convinced is too hot for her, and Adam is annoying because he lies, wallows in a great deal of self-pity, and seems to have disdain for the women he’s involved with despite the fact that they put up with his jealousy and paranoia.
Both books are at their best when they step outside of the personal narrative to explore larger ideas. Leaving the Atocha Station is, in these moments, a rumination on language and language’s ability (or inability) to communicate the singular internal life of any person. Adam is, after all, not quite fluent in Spanish, and his translations of conversations help shed light on the ephemeral nature of language and how our relationships to the stories we tell ourselves shape our own experience of reality: “She described to me the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl whenever she thinks of it; he had been young when he died but seemed old to her now, or he had been old when he died but in her memories grew younger. She began to quote the cliches people had offered her about what time would do, how he was in a better place, or maybe she was just offering these cliches to me without irony…The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn’t deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole; although here I was basically guessing: all I knew was painting was mentioned with some bitterness or regret.”
The novel also has some beautiful moments of poetry, usually the result of Adam’s drug-induced haziness, and I was moved by Adam’s reaction to the March 11 Madrid train bombings, his shock and fear coupled simultaneously with his own critical and personal cerebral interaction with what has happened: “Why I thought, why everybody thought, that dying in a terrorist attack was more bound up with the inexorable logic of History than dying in a car crash or from lung caner, I couldn’t really say. I told Teresa that it derived from our impoverished sense of the political, that we could not think of the car or cigarette as Titadine because that would force us to confront our economic mode.”
Heti similarly plays with larger ideas: At its heart the novel seems to be asking the question “How can a person be truly free to create art?” Two of her friends have an ugly painting contest, and one friend thinks “freedom…is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever [one] wants…” But she goes on to explain, “That’s not freedom! That’s control, or power. Whereas…Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish.” The whole novel, which seems to actually be memoir (though I know it’s dangerous to conflate the author’s life with her character’s) is itself a pushing the boundaries of that freedom, hence the embarrassing rape fantasies and self-deprecation.
This narrative self-deprecation seems intentional on both authors’ parts, and, while I can respect the honesty that comes with these kinds of unreliable anti-heroes, it’s hard to hang out in their company for long stretches.
Despite that, both novels feel successful to me. They both were engaging and entertaining, and Adam and Sheila are postmodern Holden Caulfields: We relate to their struggles, and that relating can make us feel uncomfortable but can also hold up a mirror for us to reflect on the larger questions at the heart of being alive.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2013

2013 was an interesting year for books. I read some really incredible books but also had long spells where nothing I read pleased me. Despite the fact that I’m in a speculative fiction book group, the majority of the books I loved this year were books that did realism particularly well. Below are some obvious notable exceptions to this, but it seems that the books that most spoke to me were powerfully rooted in real and relatable human experiences. I reread two books that I’d read a long time ago (something I rarely do) and remembered again why I loved them. They even made this list.

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

Few writers I’ve read are capable of the luminosity that McCarthy is capable of. All the Pretty Horses is almost unbearably beautiful, even when it’s angry or violent or sad. It’s the story of John Grady, a sixteen year old from Texas, who, because he doesn’t want to give up a ranch way of life, saddles up his horse, Redbo, and rides with his best friend to Mexico to discover their fates. Grady is, deep down, good, and All the Pretty Horses is, like much of McCarthy’s other work, an exploration of what goodness is worth in a world that sometimes swallows up goodness whole. Near the end, McCarthy writes of Grady, “[H]e felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.”

Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler

Sarah Canary tells the story of a stranger, a mostly mute woman who can nonetheless sing like a Canary, who appears in the woods near a camp set up by the Chinese migrant laborers who are building a railroad along the Pacific Coast. Fowler uses this historical context to engage with bigger ideas about otherness and feminism. This is also a science fiction—a first contact—story. If you’re not a fan of science-fiction, don’t be scared off by this: the book’s fantastical elements are incredibly subtle and even open to interpretation.

Canada, Richard Ford

Canada is successful because of Ford’s intense realism. He takes the seemingly improbable—two crimes, one more improbable than the other—and makes them and the narrator’s reactions to them utterly realistic. The novel is told by the grown Dell Parsons looking back on his life and what came out of these two crimes. Despite that adult hindsight, Ford does well at capturing the young man’s naivety and confusion.

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

This collection of short stories, set in and around my hometown in Southwest Michigan, is mostly about folks who have run out of luck. The characters face poverty, drug addiction, and other trauma, and yet Campbell can’t help evoking a sense of hope and joy.

White Noise, Don Delillo

White Noise best captures Delillo’s wry, satirical humor. When a black cloud of chemicals appears over the Midwestern college town where Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies, he becomes obsessed with death, an obsession that seemed to have been there all along. Delillo is a master of satire: the novel questions our current consumer culture and challenges the notion that we can buy our way out of unhappiness.

The Shining, Stephen King

I first read The Shining in college and loved it. I still think the book is far better than the movie, which is quite a feat given the classic terror-filled joy of watching it. But King does such a good job taking us inside the heads of all his characters, particularly Danny, who is far wiser than he appears in the Kubrick version, as Jack is far more complicated than the sinister, sneering Jack Nicholson.

The 25th Hour, David Benioff

Here’s another book that I first saw as a movie years ago when Spike Lee adapted it. Benioff’s story is a mediation on the nature of crime and how possible it is to live as a good person in the world despite making choices that society deems criminal. It’s also a story about facing ends. Benioff’s writing is lucid, and he does an amazing job taking us into the inner world of three friends on the edge of a major change in their world.

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this book since I’d had friends tell me it is peopled by unlikeable characters. And this is true to a certain extent, but perhaps they’re only unlikeable in that Franzen shows us this family in an epic sweep of years by focusing on the moments when they are most falling apart or in personal crisis. This could have been a hard book to love for this, but his characters are so believable and human throughout it all. The story covers a lot of ground and is conscious of its historical context, from the early days of punk through Clinton-era environmental politics, it, in some ways, captures a large part of the American story.

Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman

Reviewed below.

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Another book that covers an epic sweep of years, this one also spans two continents. It begins in 1960s India with two brothers who are powerfully close yet different enough that the trajectories of their lives become radically different. One brother gets involved with the communist revolutionary movement of the time, and the other brother leaves for the United States to pursue his studies. This book is as much a story of these two brothers as it is a story about motherhood and fatherhood and the powerful effects of grief. Lahiri is unsentimental and takes risks at times with characters who she must have known would be unlikeable, but the power of the story she’s crafted makes it possible to empathize and relate to everyone, even those characters you resist as a reader.

Book Review: Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black came to my attention because of the Netflix show of the same name. I devoured the show’s first season and, anxious for more, decided to read Kerman’s memoir.

The show is not without its critics, which are justified in their complaints about the show: It can play into racist tropes; it puts at its heart and encourages us to root for a protagonist who is supremely privileged compared to her poorer, darker peers; it creates outrageous situations that seem implausible. All this is true, and yet, I love the show because of the ways it does humanize women in prison and sheds light on the bizarre, often immoral power dynamics between guards and inmates.

I spent years volunteering in prisons, co-facilitating theatre workshops and advocating formreform to the prison industrial complex that exists in America, so I’m drawn to prisoners’ stories, especially those that fall outside the standard Oz mentality of what prison is like.

And Orange is the New Black, the memoir, is highly fulfilling in this regard. Detractors of the show should read Kerman’s book: It is much more humanizing, big-hearted, and moving than the series, and it is a book that truly makes the readers stop and question what we as a nation are doing incarcerating so many Americans for non-violent, drug-related offenses, disproportionately parceled out to poor people of color.

Further, Piper Kerman is a far more interesting protagonist than Piper Kernan of the show. She is stoic, sharp, and compassionate, much more aware than the deer-in-headlights, privileged Kernan presented by Netflix.

The biggest difference between the show and the memoir is that the memoir presents the community of women at the federal institution at Danbury as much tighter-knit and much more important to Kerman’s sanity in getting through her sentence. (In the show, the relationships are often either hostile and violent or overtly sexual.) The descriptions of the relationships between the women, who range from young college-educated folks like Kerman to older women doing more serious time to women of all ages caught up in cycles of poverty and the drug trade, are quite moving. Kerman describes, for instance, the day her bunkie, Miss Natalie, a dignified older woman of Jamaican descent, finally gets her GED, and it brought me to tears. She also shares with us the celebrations for inmates’ birthdays, which include ingeniously crafted prison food and handmade gifts, or the celebrations around women getting out, and it’s clear that this community of women, many of whom society has deemed worthless, is a type of family that helps all the inmates get through their sentences.

These connections also help Kerman understand what she, as a drug mule, contributed to the suffering of others: addicts whose habits she indirectly helped sustain or the role that drug dealers play in further destroying communities that have been torn apart by drugs. She writes, “The vilest thing I had located, within myself and within the system that held me prisoner, was an indifference to the suffering of others…If there was one thing that I had learned in the Camp, it was that I was in fact good…I was more than capable of helping other people. I was eager to offer what I had, which was more than I had realized…Best of all, I had found other women here in prison who could teach me how to be better.”

Kerman also has support of her family and friends on the outside, something she is quick to point out is, sadly, not the case for many of the women doing time with her. Her outside community provides her unwavering support, providing her with books, magazine subscriptions, money, and more.

Ultimately, Orange is the New Black is intended as much as a call to action against such laws as mandatory minimums and the whole mentality of warehousing prisoners as it is a personal account of one woman’s time in prison. In the reader’s guide to the paperback edition, Kerman is blunt in saying, “The popular image of prison, Oz and Cops, is very narrow—and intended to justify the strengths of the prison system and its out-of-control growth. If everyone in prison is an uncontrollable and irredeemably violent person, then it’s totally justified to have a massive and massively expensive prison system because, you know, public safety at any cost. But if in fact everyone in prison is not irredeemably violent, if their lives have meaning and value, then suddenly you really call into question whether our government is doing the right thing.”

This memoir very much forces readers to ask this question. I appreciate this intention, and it makes for a powerful read: we get to, for a short while, share a life we would never hope to have, and we come away edified and better for it.

Books I Think You Should Read

I got a new computer and so have been sorting through all my files, including the book reviews I’ve written over the years.  In so doing, I decided to share with you seven books that I think you should read!

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell

Black Swan Green is the story of Jason Taylor’s thirteenth year. He is targeted by bullies because of his stammer, a budding poet surrounded by boys who perceive writing poetry as being “too gay,” and a son in a slowly dissolving marriage.

David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical novel is masterful in that it so absolutely captures his protagonist’s voice in a way that resonates and evokes the fear and wonder of being thirteen while at the same time being unique, humorous, and wise. Like Mitchell’s other novels, Black Swan Green has a very particular vernacular. This one captures 1980s England, and we feel enmeshed in this other world even if we’ve never visited it. Many of Mitchell’s sentences are whole novels in and of themselves, and his invented vocabulary is perfectly onomatopoeic. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

I have a lot to say about this book, but let me start by saying this: You should read it. To repeat: You. Should. Read. It.

The novel is loosely based on the day that Philippe Petit tightrope walked the World Trade Center; he’s the heart of the novel, and he kind of steals the show. This was, after all, such a glorious, crazy, hopeful act, and McCann’s writing captures all that breathlessly. But there’s more. Because this act was about a bold reclaiming of public space, and because McCann is writing post-9/11, there’s an intensity and urgency to the stories he’s telling about the ways that our lives rub up against other lives and the role that art plays in connecting us. We get a glimpse into the life of a photographer of underground graffiti, the mind of a hacker who falls in love with an unknown woman whom he talks to on the phone as she watches Petit dance on the tightrope, and an Irish priest whose love for even the most disenfranchised transforms them too.
McCann’s prose is startling and exuberant. He knows how to let his language soar and how to communicate the everyday of language and life too. As you are reading, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in the hands of a master. Enjoy it!

Room, Emma Donoghue

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.

Saturday, Ian McEwan

Saturday is McEwan at his finest. The novel begins with Henry Perowne waking earlier than usual on a Saturday morning to witness a strange sight out his window. The narration follows him through to his very late falling asleep at the end of that Saturday. This “day in the life” echoes Virgina Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and, like Woolf, McEwan’s novel is filled with the complex and human inner monologue of Perowne, a neurosurgeon, as he goes about his day contemplating a world on the brink of war with Iraq and the relative nature of good and evil. The novel would be excellent even if nothing happened, as it displays how rich all the happenings of a single human life are; however things do happen. Dramatic events unfold, and the Perownes are faced with their own mortality.

Summertime, J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee’s new novel is not just an interesting conceit. It is a luminous, complicated picture of the life of an artist and writer.

But let’s start with conceit, which is fun and intriguing: A biographer is writing the biography of the late J.M. Coetzee. This isn’t that biography; rather it’s notes from interviews the biographer collected from a handful of people who knew Coetzee, mostly women who held some kind of romantic interest for him, discussing their relationship and the kind of man that he was. To be clear, this is fiction: For instance, much of the narrative discusses Coetzee’s relationship living with his aging father, yet accounts suggest this is not factually accurate. Further, what emerges is a not very flattering portrait of a man who seemed to only dabble in writing and wasn’t taken seriously as an author–his real-life Nobel Prize and two Booker Prizes dispute this characterization; though his winning the Nobel as well as the real titles of his books are mentioned. Certainly much of the fiction is mixed up with fact, and the piecing out what is “real” is one intriguing aspect of the narrative: After all, don’t we all have versions of ourselves we believe in, which may or may not coincide with the ways others perceive us? In taking on this conceit, Coetzee acknowledges that one’s public life is a complicated affair, and that trying to write one’s life story is even more complicated.

Beyond this idea, the book is beautifully written. A brief exchange between cousins reflecting on growing up in the rural regions of South Africa evoked such nostalgia in me for a childhood I never had, and the book has such a longing melancholy that, while at the same time it seems to be describing the life of a man who barely lived, it encourages such a fierce desire to live.

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

This may be a perfect novel! It’s the story of a day in the lives of three women, with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway a fourth character of sorts, all woven together brilliantly in a way that shows us both our connection to the larger ebb and flow of life as well as the idea that we all have our own unique experiences.

In the style of Woolf, Cunningham creates a rich interior world for his characters, showing that we are not just what we do in the world but also what we’ve done, how our memories have shaped us, and how we think as we move through our lives. The novel is infused with such beauty and sadness as we watch Virginia Woolf create Mrs. Dalloway and struggle with the mental illness that eventually drives her to suicide. Clarissa, like her namesake “Mrs. Dalloway” prepares for a party for her brilliant writer friend who is dying of AIDS as she remembers their fleeting romance as young people. And Laura Brown finds herself caught in the role that she should be playing as a wife and mother of the 1950s, as she desires brilliance, romance, or just the chance to read all day.

The movie does an excellent job of capturing the melancholy, beauty, and feel of the novel, but the novel should not be missed as Cunningham’s prose is detailed and finely textured. And then go read Mrs. Dalloway!

The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

This is a provocative novel that posits a very real course for American history. Of course, now in 2009, it’s easy to say that America should have been involved in World War II if for no other reason than to end Nazism and fascism, but questions of going to war are always far more complicated. So when Roth imagines a past for America with no World War II involvement, he makes it highly plausible, and, as the novel unfolds, the history that he re-imagines feels eerily resonant.

Charles Lindberg, a charismatic, larger-than-life figure becomes president, defeating FDR for a third term, much because of his good looks and heroic charm and also because he can package and sell Antisemitism to a nation full of fear. But what makes this book a great read is not this highly fascinating scenario, but the narration. The narrator is a nine year-old boy, who experiences the upheaval in his world with fear and curiosity, all of which brings a charming and humorous view. Philip is surrounded by a well-informed and political family, so we learn about the fate of the nation as he does through newscasts he overhears when he’s supposed to be sleeping and his parents’ hushed, worried discussions at night.

The only negative of this book is an ending with a silly attempt to justify Lindberg’s Antisemitism in a way that almost lets him off the hook rather than acknowledging that plenty of very powerful people have all kinds of oppressive views.