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.


The New Jim Crow Book Review

Growing up, I thought very little about prisons or the people locked up in this country.  If I did, it might have been in a very Hollywood or crime show kind of way: “Bad” people are locked up in order to keep the rest of society safe.  It wasn’t until I began volunteering in prisons when I was in college through a course I took that I thought about the reality of our criminal justice system.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know, but the picture it paints is a scathing critique of our heavily racialized criminal justice system.  In the introduction, Alexander tells us her book is for two groups of people, either the people who maybe don’t know much about how mass incarceration works in this country but are open to criticisms of it being racist and corrupt or people who already know the realities of the system but want the facts and details to bolster their arguments when talking with people who still think that we only lock up “bad” people to keep the rest of society safe, and the fact that we lock up so many brown and Black men has more to do with their criminal behavior and poor lifestyle choices than anything inherently wrong with our system.

I am part of this second group of people, and so reading this book certainly gave me the statistics and stories to counter the prevailing narrative of mass incarceration in this country.  And I couldn’t have read it at a more critical point in our nation’s story, this point of a wider conversation about how “Black lives matter” in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York.  It feels like I’ve had far too many conversations lately in which perhaps well-meaning, “color blind” people argue that, while it’s sad that these men died, they shouldn’t have been engaged in illegal activity, and, if there is a widespread fear of Black men, it’s justified given the violence and criminality of impoverished urban areas.

Alexander debunks this notion and shows how American’s “war on drugs” parallels other moments in our nation’s history, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow.

She begins with a discussion of Reconstruction and helps us to understand how so many white folks came to side with the wealthy landowners who sought to keep Black men and women oppressed post-slavery.  She argues that poor whites were as much a pawn in the game, that they were equally under the thumb of the owning class and so had to be taught to hate Blacks, otherwise the poor and oppressed would vastly outnumber those in power.  This history continues today, with the myth of the American Dream.  Poor and working-class people must believe that they can “make it” in a system that is stacked against them, and they must believe that anyone who doesn’t “make it” is simply lazy, criminal, or otherwise undeserving.  This myth helps to perpetuate a system which seeks to lock up vast numbers of poor Black and brown men.

Alexander provides a number of studies which find that illegal drug use is pretty much equal across racial groups and that, if there is a disparity, it tends towards white people using more than others.  However the United States is the most incarcerating nation in the world, and the vast majority of folks locked up are people of color.  “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.  And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”

Alexander further demonstrates how the war on drugs was specifically leveraged against our nation’s most marginalized groups with mandatory minimum sentencing and disparate sentences for crack cocaine use versus powdered cocaine use (the former being primarily a drug used by poor, Black communities, the latter largely used by wealthier, whiter folks).  The drug war and mass incarceration is extremely lucrative, and Alexander takes us through all the ways that states stand to gain from militarizing their police force and locking people up.  One flaw in the book is that she says relatively little about how prisons are big business in this country.  She touches on it by noting towards the end of the book how many people would be unemployed if we cut our prison population dramatically.  I feel it’s worth noting that lots of people have a vested interest in making sure we lock folks up, not just the states and local jurisdictions who get paid by the feds if they make drug arrests or get to garnish property even if they don’t convict.  A number of major corporations use prison labor, and private prisons are some of the best selling stock on Wall Street.

Alexander goes on to detail all the ways that, once someone is in the system, even if they’ve never served jail time, they are at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

Thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence.  The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch.  Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time.  And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences–sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murders. 

Many states bar felons from ever voting, which means that a huge portion of the Black electorate is underrepresented, and employers may legally discriminate against anyone with a record, meaning that these people find it very hard to ever find meaningful employment, thus leading to a vicious cycle of recidivism.

If there’s any doubt that the criminal justice system disproportionately harms Black men, consider the issue of alcohol abuse and drunk driving.  By the end of the eighties,

drunk drivers were responsible for approximately 22,000 deaths annually, while overall alcohol-related deaths were close to 100,000 a year…The total of all drug-related deaths due to AIDS, drug overdose, or the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, was estimated at 21,000 annually–less than the number of deaths directly caused by drunk drivers, and a small fraction of the number of alcohol-related deaths that occur every year. 

However, sentences punishing drunk drivers are typically two days for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense; while someone convicted of possession of a tiny amount of crack cocaine serves a minimum of five years in federal prison.  Why are these sentences so different?  Why, even though drunk driving is far more likely to result in death, are drunk drivers so leniently dealt with? Drunk drivers are predominately white and male.

White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk drivers were being adopted…Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death then the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person function and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling.  People charged with drug offense, though, are disproportionately poor people of color.  They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison. 

Alexander’s book is engaging and enraging.  She cites a number of studies and covers a lot of ground.  She also roots her critique in personal stories to help heighten the emotional pull of her anger.  She lays out her argument very clearly, and I have the hope that other people besides her two groups she intends as her audience would read it; I wish I could hand it to every person who ever argued with me about my volunteering in prison by saying that prisoners don’t deserve theatre workshops or every person I’ve argued with recently who, in the guise of colorblindness, condemn the protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement.  Ideally, policy makers would hear Alexander’s call as well.  As a nation, things are going to have to change if we want to truly claim racial equality.

One fact that she cites that’s worth mentioning is that the less educated a person is, the more likely they are to favor a punitive approach to crime.  Hopefully, we become more educated as a nation and, instead of claiming colorblindness, which Alexander says, as an ideal, “is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion,” and begin to dissect the ways our criminal justice is deeply racist and deeply flawed.

Top Ten Books of 2014

I had a hard time identifying my top ten books of the year. In part, this is because I was a tough customer: Being a new mom meant that I read less than last year, and it also meant that a book had to be really good to capture my attention, since my mind was so thoroughly exhausted and entranced by my new baby.  So I definitely had fewer books this year that I loved.  I had some clear favorites, but then beyond these were a whole bunch of books that I loved but that didn’t necessarily stand out.  Choosing from these books to make a nice even “top ten” was hard.  I’m sure I could have a whole bunch of “honorable mentions,” but I’ll keep the list a tidy ten.

In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

This book was the best book I’ve read in a long time; I am surprised it didn’t win any awards this year. (See review below.)

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

What makes this book stand out among the many that I read this year is its voice. The narrator has Tourette syndrome, and his tics are funny and illuminating, often shedding light on the strange sounds of words or their relationships to other words; there’s a poetry to the language of his malady, and I laughed out loud many times while reading this. The novel is a crime novel, which is not really a genre I get excited about, and, I have to admit that I wasn’t as interested in the unwinding of the mystery as perhaps other readers might be, but it was still a remarkable read.

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

I liked Motherless Brooklyn so much that I decided to read Lethem’s later novel. This is a bildungsroman of sorts that spans several decades starting in the 1970s in Brooklyn. The protagonist is the white son of counter-culturalists who are some of the first whites to move into the lower-income Black Gowanus neighborhood. Despite his befriending of the hip, biracial son of a great soul singer, the protagonist, Dylan, is bullied and teased for being white. The novel follows his friendship with Mingus as the two delve into comic books, music, graffiti, and sex, and it explores race politics, gentrification, art, and more.  And, oh yeah, there’s this little supernatural element thrown in; this fantastical element only lightly affects the plot and in some ways reads more like allegory than anything, but it means that Fortress of Solitude is not just a typical, straightforward coming-of-age novel.

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

Aging, struggling Alan Clay finds himself in Saudi Arabia to sell holographic technology to the King.  Though he and his associates must wait endlessly to meet with a representative for the King in what becomes a Kafkaesque situation, he still hopes that this sale will stave off financial ruin and help fund his daughter’s college tuition.  Clay is the ultimate old-school American businessman: He believed in the promise of entrepreneurship and started his own bike manufacturing company.  But times have changed, and now manufacturing is being outsourced, and more and more Americans are unsure how they fit in the changing economy.  This is the context for Egger’s novel, which is full of these larger scale ruminations about our social landscape while still being an intimate, sometimes sad, sometimes funny portrait of a man who is very human.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

This book wasn’t much more than just a really good story with developed, interesting characters, but it caught me right off.  It helps that I love baseball, in part because it’s such a mental and psychological game, and Harbach’s novel spends a lot of time exploring the psychology of baseball.  It’s not just about baseball though, which is why a reader who isn’t interested in the sport could find this compelling as well.  It has unconventional (and conventional) romances, delves into father/daughter relationships, and explores college life. The characters are flawed but likeable and realistic, and the story unfolds in interesting ways.

Runaway by Alice Munro

I feel like I need not say much about Alice Munro since she’s so prolific and so widely loved.  That said, I sheepishly admit that this was the first complete collection of stories of hers that I’ve read, and I understand the heaps of praise she’s garnered.  Her writing is so precise and seemingly simple.  Her characters are everyday people–in this collection mostly young women–who are in everyday situations, but she brings such honesty and love to these people that even the simplest story seems a revelation.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

I was deeply moved by the movie based on this book when it came out in 2007.  I finally got around to reading the book.  The backstory is astounding: Bauby, at the age of forty-three had a stroke.  His mind remained alert while his body was almost completely paralyzed, forcing him into a condition called “locked-in syndrome.”  He still had control of his eye movements and so used these to write this small memoir: his assistant would run through a list of letters, and when she got to the letter he wanted next, he would move his eye.  He tells his story here but does more than that: He ruminates on his memories, contemplates his children, admires beautiful women, all the while working to craft poetry out of a terrible, devastating situation.  It’s a beautiful book.

Man V. Nature by Diane Cook

This collection of stories is often surreal and funny: In the opening story, widows are imprisoned while they await a new husband to select them for remarriage.  Another story involves the final days for a wealthy man living in his mansion while the waters rise around him as the world ends, and my favorite story, “Somebody’s Baby” is about a neighborhood where a man steals babies.  Cook’s voice is deadpan but also observant.  Many of the stories feel allegorical and about bigger ideas, though they stand on their own as simply good stories too.  In “Somebody’s Baby,” for instance, Linda is distraught about the kidnapping of her brand new baby daughter, and yet the neighbors all assure her that she can just have another, that everyone knows the man takes babies, and there’s really nothing to do but accept it.   This story has a sadness to it, not only because babies are being stolen, but because I know that many people live in this world with the reality that their babies could be taken by war, disease, or poverty, and “there’s nothing to do but accept it.”

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Frances and her mother have fallen on hard times after World War I and so must take in boarders in order to make ends meet.  This is, at first, an uncomfortable situation, but Frances eventually grows close to Lilian, the young wife.  Lilian seems to be unhappily married to Len, and their marriage becomes further complicated by Lilian’s growing feelings for Frances, an unconventional young woman.  Like The Art of Fielding, this is mostly just an intriguing story with well-developed characters.  It has some plot twists, but that’s not really what makes the book (in the way that the plot twists make Waters’s Fingersmith).  It also raises interesting questions about class and social convention.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

See review below.

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.

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.