I recently got to spend an evening at Columbia University’s j-school moderating a conversation between novelists Hirsh Sawhney (author of South Haven) and Akhil Sharma (author, most recently, of Family Life) for the South Asian Journalists Association. They’ve both written intensely dark books about death/loss and dysfunctional families, so I’m not sure why we’re all grinning ear to ear, but it was very nice to talk with them.
I interviewed Daniel Mendelsohn for Virginia Magazine. It was a treat to sit down with a critic whose work I’ve admired for a long time and talk about how he approaches his work. The headline comes from his take on Love Actually. I’ve always loathed that movie, but on his urging, I’m going to try to let my guard down next Christmas when it’s on TV.
Do you believe in “guilty pleasures” of cultural consumption?
I really do believe that the high-low distinction is more invidious than not. The aesthetic components of “guilt”-inducing pleasures are usually melodrama and sentimentality. I have a great aversion to the aversion to sentimentality. To me, what made Mad Men unbearable was its own incredible overweening need to be cool. And because it was so cool and so cynical about everything, I just didn’t care about it, whereas in the first five minutes of watching Friday Night Lights, I thought I was going to die if I didn’t know those people were going to be okay.
Why not love something like Love Actually? What’s so terrible about just caving into your crazy human heart every now and then? You don’t always have to be armored.
The radio version of my New Yorker story on South Korean literature airs this week in a special hour I’ve been working on for On the Media, which is all about the state of the publishing industry and the enduring presence of physical books in a digital world.
Check out Laura Marsh’s brilliant look at the subversive history of adult coloring books, Rob Salkowitz on why Amazon might be opening physical bookshops, Bob Garfield’s visit to a massive warehouse selling books by the foot, and more!
This story has been in the making for quite a while.
In 2011, I first got curious about Korean writing in translation; this past fall, thanks to a generous grant from the International Center for Journalists, I was able to follow the story to Seoul and spend two weeks talking to writers, translators, publishers, scholars, and book-lovers.
I’m so happy the resulting piece found a home on The New Yorker’s site.
I’ll be speaking with Anjan Sundaram, author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship tomorrow night at BookCourt in Brooklyn. It’s the South Asian Journalists Association’s first event of 2016– and it’s free. (And there will be wine!)
And just like that– another year grinds to an end. It was a good year in reading. Here, in no particular order, are the ten best books published in 2015 that I read this year.
If you’re in Chicago, tune into The Morning Shift on WBEZ tomorrow around 9:15am CT to hear more on my top five.
UPDATE: Here’s the audio! http://www.wbez.org/programs/morning-shift/2015-12-31/best-novels-2015-114336
Satin Island (Tom McCarthy) I first fell for Tom McCarthy after reading his deranged and brilliant novel Remainder. Satin Island, the story of a “corporate anthropologist” named U, works in the same pleasurably discordant register. U’s primary job is to “unpick the fibre of a culture (ours) its weft and warp– the situations it throws up, the beliefs that underpin and nourish it– and let a client in on how they can best get traction on this fibre” so they can sell their product. The other part, of his job, though, is to write the “Great Report”– the final anthropological assessment of our time. His gradual realization of the the impossibility of that second task is what gives the book its shape. Some of Satin’s Island’s most enjoyable moments take place in the moments when U is avoiding the “Great Report”– when he obsesses over a parachuting accident, or is mesmerized by news coverage of an oil spill, or is (repeatedly) sharply put in his place by the smart, mysterious woman he’s sleeping with. The book is packed with many droll and dark little insights and observations about the modern world. I found it delightful.
The Upstairs Wife (Rafia Zakaria) When the husband of Rafia Zakaria’s Aunt Amina falls in love with an officemate, rather than leaving his wife, he exercises his right under Pakistani law to take a second wife. Zakaria, who is just ten at the time, is perplexed. “I had never known that a man could have two wives,” she writes. According to Quranic law, when one man takes two wives he must do “perfect justice” between them. Pairing scenes from her family’s life with episodes from Pakistani’s history, Zakaria explores just how deeply entangled her family’s fate is with that of her country– and in particular, how Aunt Amina’s fate tracks with those of women across the country. Though Aunt Amina may be the only woman on the lane who has to share her husband, she is hardly the only woman struggling to accept the “perfect justice” accorded her under Pakistani law.
The Happy City (Elvira Navarro) This compact and potent book, set in Madrid, is divided into two parts. In both, Navarrao demonstrates an uncanny talent for depicting the layers of tension that build up in family life– and in particular, the tension between parents and children. The half of the book focuses on the story of a young boy trapped in economic circumstances beyond his control. Chi-Huei spends his early days with his aunt in China; only as an elementary-schooler is he finally reunited with his immediate family in Spain, where his mother and grandfather work long hours running a restaurant to build a better future for the family. But as Navarro reveals, Chi-Huei is ambivalent about their sacrifices and feels trapped by their expectations for his future. The second half of the book focuses on one of Chi-Heui’s classmates, a girl named Sara, who develops an consuming obsession with a vagrant. When her loving parents find out about her new hobby, they grow deeply concerned. The resulting standoff powerfully illustrates the wide chasm between the world of adults and the world of children.
Oreo (Fran Ross) First published in 1974 (and all but ignored in its time), Oreo was writer Fran Ross’s only novel. It’s a completely unique book– a satirical retelling of the Theseus myth featuring a young half-black half-Jewish woman’s search for her father in New York. It’s deeply funny, extremely un-politically correct, a little strange, and very smart. What’s really amazing about Oreo, though, is how ahead of its time it was– and how timely its 2015 re-release is. With its sophisticated attitudes towards femininity and racial hybridity, Oreo reads like a sharp commentary on modern society more than forty years after its publication.
The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro) I understand why lots of people hate this book. It’s weird. The foggy plot and the and the old-timey dialogue at first seem to hold the reader at arm’s length. But don’t be fooled by the quaint imagery of knights and dragons: This is a “literary” novel as much as it is a “fantasy” one. Beneath the surface, The Buried Giant (as its title suggests) is working hard to unravel existential questions about what it means to love another person, how members of a society reconcile with the violence at the core of any political empire, and why our fallible memories can ultimately be both a gift and a curse. Months after I finished reading it, I found its characters and their quest haunting me still.
The Folded Clock: A Diary (Heidi Julavits) When Heidi Julavits rediscovers her childhood diaries, she’s disappointed to realize that they “fail to corroborate the myth I’d concocted for myself,” she writes. “They reveal me to possess the mind, not of a future writer, but of a future paranoid tax auditor,” a little girl who dutifully records her math test scores and frets about science projects. In The Folded Clock, Julavits takes another stab at diary writing– this time, chronicling her adult life as only a real writer can. Gone is the tax accountant’s strict documentation of events. The woman who has replaced her is a lucid essayist with a wide-ranging curiosity and a talent for self-examination. The small details of her days and the texture of her thoughts lead Julavits into larger truths about her life and the choices that have defined her. She notices, she remembers, and she acquires new ways of understanding. Along the way, the reader does too.
Our Kids (Robert Putnam) “This year’s version of The Unwinding” was how I described the book to a friend. In this book, Robert Putnam does a better job at diagnosing problems than offering clear solutions. Still, simply understanding the ways in which kids from poor families and kids from affluent families get vastly different opportunities in American life today is important– and not easy. Putnam does a fine job combining powerful anecdotal and ethnographic evidence with cold, hard data. The picture he ultimately paints is bleak: Our Kids vividly illustrates how the very institutions and community structures that allowed working class kids of the 50s and 60s to climb up the socioeconomic ladder have entirely crumbled. If only there were a clear roadmap for how to fix things.
Nowhere to be Found (Bae Suah) Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found follows an unnamed young woman who, when the story opens in 1988, is employed as a temp worker in a dead-end clerical position at the university. Despite her college credentials, it’s the best job she can get. It’s better than her second job, serving food, mopping floors, and washing dishes at a restaurant behind the Plaza Hotel. It’s also much better than the factory job she works screwing caps of dye onto tubes during the university’s summer break. In any case, father has been imprisoned and her mother drinks too much to hold a job, so the important thing is simply that she work. And work. The dramatic heart of this book is built around an unforgivably frigid winter day when the narrator goes to visit her boyfriend on the army base where he’s completing service. In Sora Kim-Russell’s translation, Suah’s prose is bracingly cold and acrid: “Time pushes away that which is intended, rejects that which is rejected, forgets that which is sung about, and is filled with that which it turns its eyes from, such as the white hairs of a loved one,” the narrator concludes. When I emerged from the subway after reading Nowhere’s final page, it was a 70 degree June day but an icy chill ran through my heart.
Green on Blue (Elliot Ackerman) This is a not your average war novel. Rather than describe the experience of the war in Afghanistan from the perspective of a soldier like himself, Elliot Ackerman– who completed five tours of combat in the Middle East in his twenties– imagines the perspective of a young Afghan orphan working for the Afghan National Army. It’s a startlingly courageous imaginative choice. It’s also a reminder that a writer’s job isn’t simply to faithfully describe what’s visible; it’s the desire to comprehend what’s just out of sight that fuels any story worth telling. Green on Blue is fiction. But of all the accounts of the war in Afghanistan I’ve encountered, this one stands out.
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates) If you didn’t read this book, you made an active decision not to participate in American civic life in 2015. (Seriously.) Between the World and Me appeared in the midst of the greatest reckoning this country has had on questions of race in my lifetime. I’m grateful for all the conversations it sparked.
Runners up: Strangers on a Bridge by James Donovan. After Birth by Elisa Albert.
Biggest disappointment: Purity by Jonathan Franzen.
The book I’m most annoyed I didn’t get to yet: Dreamland by Sam Quinones.
Licensed NYC tour guide Joseph Alexiou walked me along the symphonically stinky Gowanus Canal and discussed his new book, Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal. Hear my WNYC story here.