Top Ten Books of 2016

(in a loose order)

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
This novel feels like a beautiful, warm, comfortable coat. Not only is it all of these things, this coat also has tons of little pockets where small little treasures are tucked away. And all the stitching is exquisitely done, and every time you look closely you are amazed by the quality of the material and craftsmanship.

At 600 pages, it’s expansive and wide-ranging, and yet it is also deeply personal and intimate. It’s laugh-out-loud funny very often and so sad throughout.
Here I Am is essentially the story of the dissolution of a marriage, but it’s also about absences in general. Sometimes the holes created by absences are beautiful—at one point Jacob, the husband—invokes Andy Goldsworthy’s art in which he lay in a field while the snow fell creating a snow angel in negative space. Absences can remind us about why we love, why we struggle or wrestle. But often those absences are sad, flaws. Near the beginning of the narrative, Foer takes us back in time into a quiet inn where our now in-the-present sixteen-year-married couple is reveling in their early love, lust, sexuality. They promise never to withhold the truth from each other and then almost immediately do. They continue to withhold while raising three boys, and that absence of truth is, ultimately, their undoing.

Of course, being Foer, these absences aren’t just sad moments in a life of two very real, complicated people. Foer writes out of a sense of Jewishness, and his absences are also about the millions of people whose lives ended and the millions whose lives we’ll never know because of the Holocaust.

“Here I am,” is the phrase Abraham used when God called on him to sacrifice his son and then the same phrase he used when addressing that son he was about to sacrifice. The novel asks a question about how one can be truly present for both of these utterly conflicting pulls, and so it asks how we can be present for all the things that pull us in our lives. Can we be true to ourselves, true to our spouse, our children, our parents all without compromise?

Foer’s answer here seems to be no, and that felt devastating to me.
But even this doesn’t do justice to what this novel is working on: It explores other religious questions, renders the voices of the three sons so beautifully and hysterically, imagines Israel on the brink of destruction, asks us what love is, what it means to live in the world, and so much more.

I didn’t always relate to the protagonists, Julia and Jacob. Jacob especially was maddening to me. At one point late in the novel we readers are let in on one of his secrets he withheld, a stupid, vain secret that feels crazy and utterly wrongheaded, and I wanted to shake him. But Foer doesn’t apologize for him or make it easy to be critical. We care about what happens to him—the stakes are real; the emotions powerful.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
My main feeling after reading this memoir was an inspiration to write myself. Nelson explores the ways bodies change—such as her partner’s transition from female to male or her own body’s changes as it goes through pregnancy and birth. Nelson’s ruminations are deeply insightful, radical, poetic, and provocative. I intend to reread this one.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I had a hard time putting this book down. It was vast and intimate. It covered a lot of ground in exploring issues of immigration, Blackness in America, love and relationships, and more. The characters are complicated and real, flawed and easy to care about. It’s political but never feels didactic or pat. This was easily one of the best books I read this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Language Learner

inspired by Sherman Alexie

Kindergarten

“Hello Sara, what word would you like today?”

What word? What word? Whichever word I choose, Mrs. Derhammer will write in her neat, circular kindergarten teacher’s script on a crisp, clean card. This will be my word to add to my collection of words. What word do I want today? Will it be cauliflower? Elephant? Maybe the word Joanne used yesterday; that was a fun word!

“Fuh-see-shus.”

“’Facetious?’” She prints it out carefully, spelling it as she goes: “F-A-C-E-T-I-O-U-S. Facetious.”

She hands me the card, and I grip it tightly in my warm, little hand, reading the letters over and over.

Fourth Grade

Mrs. Abbott herds us all to the back rug after recess to read to us. It’s my favorite time of the day. The girls sit together and play with each other’s hair, quietly braiding. Boys sprawl out on the floor. But everyone listens.

She’s been reading us a historical novel called My Brother Sam is Dead. The protagonist is a young boy who is caught in the middle of the Revolutionary War. Mrs. Abbott’s voice fills with intensity as she describes his hiding from a hoard of “Redcoats” who have taken over the street out front of his house. The British have captured a slave, a man who was charged with fighting for the colonists, and his allegiance and color offend the British. The author describes in gruesome detail how the British behead the man. Around me, the boys respond raucously: They laugh and cry out, “That’s boge!” I sit silently, staring at the floor; tears leak silently out of my eyes and splash onto the dirty orange carpet.

Sixth Grade

I discover a stack of notes thrown in the trash. They’re intricately folded in that secret way that girls have for letters for their friends or for love letters, and the handwriting is big and loopy. I am immediately enraptured with the mystery of finding this correspondence, and I harvest them all from the trash.

At home, I pour over these letters from Tammy Simpson to Blake Slaughter. Tammy is a tough eighth grader who once threatened to beat me up thinking I was my twin sister who was dating her “little brother” who she thought was too good for Stacey. Since then I’ve been half terrified of her and half in awe of her. She has brassy red hair that’s curly and teased up big and stiff. Her cat’s-green eyes are always rimmed in heavy black eyeliner, and her pegged jeans are artfully torn at the knees.  Blake is in my grade, but he’s always seemed older. He has always been the tallest in the class, and he had an earring way back in fourth grade. I’ve always thought he was cute, and we “went together” for a day in fifth grade until he broke up with me for being “too straight,” too shy to sit with him at lunch, too afraid to kiss him.

I can’t tell if the letters are love letters or break up letters. And I don’t know why they’re in the trash: Is their relationship over now, or was one of them just cleaning out a cluttered backpack? Tammy writes of how much she hates her life, how she wants to kill herself, how Blake is the only reason she doesn’t. She repeatedly, flirtatiously, calls him her “little prick,” which seems like an insult to me even though I don’t know what it means. She keeps telling him she loves him and she hates him.

I am enthralled by the intensity of it all. What is her life like? What must it be like to want to die? What must it be like to only want to live for love?

In a notebook that I buy just for this purpose, I begin to write a story, a book, I tell myself, with a central character inspired by Tammy. The story opens with the protagonist walking alone by herself along a nighttime road lit by the purple fluorescent glow of street lights. I don’t know where the story is going, but I know I want it to say something about loneliness and the pain of troubled families, and love, things I don’t truly understand. I never finish it.

Tenth Grade

All of us have congregated in the upstairs hallway before school starts in our big, sprawling crowd, spread out on the floor. Andy comes over to relive the all-ages punk show at Club Soda that we were at the evening before. He bought a few zines, and he’s particularly excited about one called Fiat Lux. It was written by a guy named Lonewolf who was traveling with the headlining band, Once Again. He loans it to me, and I start to read it as I sit in my desk first period.

Ms. Jilek is taking role and getting the day’s lesson ready. All around me, students are chatting, but I find myself immersed in Lonewolf’s writing. The zine is a personal zine, all about how he has a terminal illness and will die young. He has decided that he wants to live a full life despite this. He dropped out of school. He traveled to Europe and hitchhiked around. He trainhopped all over America. He studied philosophy and read continually. And as I read, I feel a pit developing in my gut, and I feel myself floating away from this honors English class, away from Ms. Jilek and her matching earring/pin set and her denim jumper and her fluffy, curled, grey hair; away from students lamenting too much homework or talking about the parties of the weekend.

I suddenly feel very cold and very afraid. I have never lived. I will never really live. I have just been going through the motions. I have been going to school to get good grades so that I can have a comfortable life. But what will it all mean? In that instant, reading about a young man facing his young death, I know I will die. I feel it palpably, and I want to get up and run out of the classroom.

Of course I don’t. I sit and go through the lesson. But somehow this moment stays with me. It lives in my backpack tucked in with all the homework crammed in. It lives in my thoughts at night when I try to sleep. It lives in the poetry I try to write in my journal.

Twelfth Grade

It’s a beautiful spring morning, but I feel dreadful. I spent the night throwing up, feverish and shivering. Normally I wouldn’t go to school feeling like this, but I have no choice. It’s the advanced placement English literature test, the test I have been preparing all year for, and there are no make-ups. This is my only chance.

I drag myself to school, wait in line outside the library. All the students around me buzz with nervous energy, but my mind is a fog, and I feel queasy. We eventually are checked in, herded to our seats, and given our tests to begin. Several times throughout the test, I have to get up and run to the bathroom to throw up. (How can I still be throwing up? I can’t possibly have anything else in my stomach to heave up!)

Despite this, I fall in love with the short story we are to analyze, “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros. I make sure to memorize the name of the author and title of the book so I can buy it later.

Months later in summer, I get my score report: a five: the highest score possible.

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.