Books of 2011: A Round-Up

Last year, I found it extremely satisfying to put together a list of the ten best new books of 2010 I’d read.  So I decided to do it all over again.  Presenting the ten best new books of 2011 I’ve read:

The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Siddhartha Deb) A few months ago, I went to see Deb and Aatish Taseer discuss the future of India and Pakistan at a Granta magazine event at 192 Books.  It was the most heated (and completely riveting) debate I’ve ever heard on the subject; Taseer and Deb are both very passionate about the subcontinent but think about it very differently.  This book illustrates Deb’s perspective through a compilation of profiles — of Indian call center employees, middle-class engineers, shady magnates, struggling waitresses, Marxist farmers, idealistic inventors, and others.  Deb doesn’t always find clear answers to the very good questions he asks about who the real winners and losers are in India’s recent economic surge.  Nevertheless, his investigations provide a rich picture of what life in today’s global India is like for the filthy rich and the hopelessly destitute, as well as those who fall somewhere in between.

Noon (Aatish Taseer) Although I followed news of the death of Salmaan Tasseer (governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province) rather closely last year, I didn’t know who Aatish Taseer was til I came across an editorial he wrote in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why My Father Hated India.”  After seeing Taseer at 192 Books, I picked up Noon mostly because I was curious to find out more about his life and perspective.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Like its author, the novel’s main character (Rehan Tabassam) is the son of a Pakistani powerbroker and a cultured Indian mother who have a brief affair; he has a privileged upbringing but no real relationship with his father til early adulthood, when he travels to Pakistan seeking out his extended family. The novel’s biggest strength — and weakness — is that it sticks closely to what the narrator perceives and experiences. This means the big political and cultural questions the story touches on are only ever examined fleetingly, as Rehan struggles to sort out his own place as a man, a son, an Indian and a Pakistani.  Though the book seems to fall short of its own ambitions, it still offers a valuable glimpse into two dynamic countries in transition.

Guadalajara (Quim Monzó) Entrancing, fun, and unique. Months after reading this book, I find myself still thinking about the swiftly-drawn characters of these stories and their strange predicaments.

Please Look After Mom (Kyung-sook Shin) I fell for this book immediately when I read it. I fell for this book a second time when I read the responses it evoked from other readers as a judge for the Korean Cultural Service’s essay contest earlier this year. I fell for this book for a third time after discussing it with my mom when her book club read it last month.

Lee Krasner: A Biography (Gail Levin) The Brooklyn-born daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, by the time Lena Krasner was thirteen, she knew she wanted to be a painter. An early abstract impressionist, Krasner was already peers with artists like Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Piet Mondrian, when she met and married Jackson Pollock. As Pollock’s career took off, Krasner directed her considerable energy and talents towards promoting his work and trying to keep his destructive alcoholism in check—while dealing with the frustration of suddenly being known simply as “Mrs. Jackson Pollack” (later critics would acknowledge that the marriage was “at once the greatest single advantage and the greatest handicap to her career”). No portrait of Pollock—or the abstract expressionist movement at large—is complete without a picture of Krasner’s life, but her life story is also very much a story about feminism’s early battles, a struggle best summed up by a few lines of French poet Arthur Rimbaud painted on her wall: “To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must one adore? … What lie must I maintain?”

The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Medicine, Madness, and the Murder of a President (Candice Millard) Candice Millard brings a relatively obscure chapter of history to life in this nonfictional account of the assassination of President James Garfield.  History textbooks don’t have much to say about President Garfield because his time in office was so short, but there’s a lot to admire in his life story, from his stint as his school’s janitor to his abolitionist views and composure through terrible pain on his deathbed. A bit of trivia in the book that especially captured my imagination has to do with Chester Arthur, the man waiting in the wings.  A product of the spoils system, Arthur’s political ascendancy was entirely the result of ass-kissing, and popular sentiment widely regarded him as unworthy of the presidency. Arthur knew this about himself, and as the much-loved President Garfield lay dying in the White House, his vice-president fell into a deep despair.  Then, at his lowest moment, Arthur got a letter from an unmarried 32-year-old invalid named Julia Sand. “Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life,” she wrote.  “If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.  Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you — but not to beg you to resign.  Do what is more difficult & more brave.  Reform!” Arthur was moved by this vote of confidence, and took her advice to heart.  Millard cites Alexancer McClure for this summary of Arthur’s time in office: “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired … more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.”

The Valley of the Masks (Tarun J. Tejpal) In this haunting, mesmerizing book, Tarun Tejpal creates an entire mini-civilization hidden away somewhere on the Indian subcontinent; the novel is narrated by one of its former inhabitants recounting his life story.  I was particularly taken by the way the book enters into a dialogue with The Mahabharata — the protagonist, tellingly, is given the name “Karna” by his mother — as it considers twisting questions of ethics, morality and how to live.  In some ways, the book’s message against the evils of totalitarianism and the fundamentalist thinking (“quest for perfection”) is a simple, familiar one.  But the combination of discipline and credulity of the book’s narrator, as well as the poetic richness of the elaborate world he inhabits take this book to another plane.

The Sly Company of People Who Care (Rahul Bhattacharya) A rambling, vibrant account of the year a young cricket journalist from Mumbai spends looking for adventure in Guyana. A little unfocused but full of life and thick with sensory description. Bhattacharya dives in deep.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Barbara Demick) This book wasn’t published in 2011, but I’m making an exception.  I happened to read this six months before Kim Jong-il’s death;  nothing I’ve seen or heard about North Korea from any other source (including “Kim Jong-il’s guy in New Jersey”) has been more incredibly eye-opening. Barbara Demick spent years interviewing North Korean refugees — focusing on those who left one particular town, Chongjin — to piece together a detailed picture of life under Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-Il.  Demick’s six main characters each left the country in very different ways for very different reasons. The world they find beyond North Korea’s borders startles, amazes and sometimes confounds them. Demick’s description of a young North Korean girl eating a banana for the first time (in The New Yorker and on The Takeaway) is what first drew my interest to this book, and it proved to be a good measure of what the experience of reading the entire book is like. Nothing to Envy is full of one astonishing — and very real — moment after another. “Horrifying” sums up much of life in North Korea, but the stories in this book demonstrate the tremendous resilience, bravery, romance, and fortitude of its people too.

El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Ioan Grillo)  Take even a cursory look at Mexico’s drug war and you’ll quickly find support for the old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”  Grillo has spent more than a decade in Mexico, and this book piles on one wild – historically verifiable – tale after another.  Though Grillo’s anecdotal style comes off as clumsy once in a while, the conversational tone he takes in his extensive, substantive journalism is refreshing overall.

Finally, here are five books of 2011 I’d like to read but haven’t yet gotten around to:  The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht), Bossypants (Tina Fey), The Folded Earth (Anuradha Roy), Room For Improvement: Notes on a Dozen Lifelong Sports (John Casey), The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides).

Queen of America

My review of Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea appears in The New York Times Book Review today:

Luis Alberto Urrea spent nearly 20 years researching his family history for his enchanting 2005 novel “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.” Out of old letters, historical documents and oral histories emerged the fantastical story of the author’s great-aunt Teresa, a Mexican saint and revolutionary who was the illegitimate daughter of Tomás Urrea, a wealthy landowner, and a Yaqui Indian woman known simply as Cayetana, or the Hummingbird. By the final wrenching pages of that novel, Teresita, as she’s called, has by presidential decree been declared the Most Dangerous Girl in Mexico. Banished from the country, she and her father are put on a train headed north to the United States.

The Artist of Disappearance

I reviewed The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai for Newsweek/The Daily Beast:

Regret, disappointment, and despair color the lives of the characters of The Artist of Disappearance, author Anita Desai’s latest book, which is made up of three novellas. In these stories, Desai casts her gaze backward to conjure a fading era. Though “details of time and place are left deliberately vague” (as Desai notes in a recent interview), the India of this volume is clearly not the “new India” of booming economic growth and rapidly shifting fortunes; it is an older India of fading dynasties and postcolonial habits.

The Best Blurb I Never Had

Making the rounds this week is a wonderful Los Angeles Review of Books essay about the time a young writer named Joan Williams asked William Faulkner for a blurb for her book.  Glen David Gold’s line-read of Faulkner’s grizzly reply touches on many things that interest me, like the life of Faulkner (especially, his UVa writer-in-residence years), the highlights and low-lights of literary friendships and favors, the fine art of blurb-making and ellipses insertion (a craft I learned many years ago as an intern in Granta’s offices), the horror of transactional relationships, the lost art of letter-writing, and (spoiler alert!) what happens when an older, famous writer strikes up a relationship with a young, unestablished one.

Some years ago, a prize-winning writer who you probably have heard of emailed me.  I was in the middle of an onerous task at a corporate job I wasn’t suited for when the message flashed across my screen.  “Please forgive the intrusion,” it began. I almost fell out of my chair.  This writer — who had been assigned reading for me in college a few years before — called my writing “smart” and “interesting.”  He wanted to know what else I was working on.

What followed was not my ticket to fame or the start of a steamy affair (either which would have made a much better story than the one I’m telling now).  To my regret, it was not the start of a lasting literary friendship, either.  We exchanged emails — some earnest, some chatty (his were filled with profanities) — about life and writing, and the writing life, while I got started on a freelance assignment he’d set up for me.  We planned to meet for coffee but he was traveling extensively, and anyway, I didn’t want to meet until I had made some headway on the freelance assignment — or had other “smart” and “interesting” work to show him.

We never did get coffee.  I happened to be visiting my parents in Virginia during the short window he was in New York, but the real problem was that I wasn’t sure if I was exactly who the famous writer hoped I was.  I had just finished graduate school, where I had read things, and developed ideas (a “promiscuous mind” full of them, as the only graduate school professor to give me less than an A put it) but I wasn’t sure, exactly, what it was I was supposed to be writing about — or doing, for that matter — next.  For lack of any better plan, I threw myself into my full-time job and the busy social life of a single girl living in downtown Manhattan.  I hoped things would make more sense eventually.  When they did, maybe I would write about it.

In the meantime, my pen pal’s emails were getting ever-so-slightly more familiar and affectionate — nothing untoward, but there was a shift in tone.  I studied his words with even more scrutiny than I’d given them in college.  I read parts of his messages to my older brother on the phone.  “Sly dog,” my brother said.  I started flinching every time I saw the famous writer’s byline.  Writers:  They’re just like us (this was a concept I mastered when I was an intern at Us Weekly).  They Google strangers.  They don’t know what they’re looking for.  They don’t know what they mean.  Our correspondence tapered off.

A few more years have gone by and to my surprise and relief, things do make more sense, as I’d hoped they would.  I’m happy with my new, different job, my boyfriend and my outer-borough life.   And the writing?  It’s coming along — slowly.  I’m finding my footing.  Maybe I should be in more of a hurry, but I’m not. “How much of a balancing act to determine your real value to another person,” Gold writes.  Let me add: Or indeed, to yourself.

Last Man in Tower

“It’s your society. Keep it clean.”

So reads a sign in the elevator of Tower A of the fictional Vishram Society apartment complex in Mumbai — the “rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey building” that serves as the focal point of Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga’s new novel. Decades of monsoons and erosion have left the building standing “in reasonable chance of complete collapse.” But, Adiga writes, “no one, either in Vishram Society or in the neighborhood at large, really believes that it will fall. Vishram is a building like the people living in it, middle class to its core.”

I reviewed Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga for The Second Pass — the full review is online here.

Stone Arabia

“Do you need an audience to create work or does not having an audience liberate you and make you a truer artist?” This is the question twenty-something Brooklynite Ada poses on her blog before she leaves Greenpoint to interview her eccentric uncle Nik in Los Angeles for the documentary she’s making. Ada’s film will be called Garageland, she writes, and it “will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.” Turn that question inside-out, and it is just as relevant to Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s third novel: How is fame constructed? Do the famous make themselves for us, their fans and consumers, or do we make them? What do their narratives truly represent, and who do their stories belong to?

My review of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia is now up at The Millions.

The Hours

For a little more than a year now, I’ve been working the early early shift.  Most days, I leave my apartment at 3 a.m. to be at my desk by 3:30 a.m.   At least once a week, I’m in an hour before that.  “I don’t know how you do it,” people tell me.  When I think about the fact that the Dalai Lama typically wakes up at least 45 minutes later than I do, I don’t know either.

But secretly, I’ve come to really enjoy the shift. I like slipping out of my apartment building before anyone is awake to greet Carlos, the calm and collected driver who works for the car service contracted by my office.  As he drives his Benz (yes, I ride a Benz to work!) through the deserted streets, we complain about how tired we are.  We talk about politics, money, Moammar Gadhafi, the weather, and our weekends as I scan the latest headlines on my phone.  Sipping my tea and looking out at the Manhattan skyline, I brace myself for the day ahead.

Most days, my shift goes quickly.  A deadline every half-hour keeps me on my toes.  After the show ends, I stumble out into the sunshine, the day entirely open to me. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop and read.  Sometimes I sit in the park.   Sometimes I meet underemployed friends for dawdling, decadent lunches.   Sometimes I go for a run along the West Side Highway, or to an early afternoon yoga class.   There’s hardly anyone at the gym when I get there, and while the lunch rush swells in and out, I take my time.

I take naps. I stay up too late.  I fall asleep on the subway on my way home from work every single day.  I’ve learned to loop my purse around my arms as soon as I sit down so that once I’m asleep it’s not a temptation for anyone else riding a mid-afternoon Queens-bound train.  Once in a while, I oversleep and miss my stop.  I walk the extra avenues home in the bright mid-morning light cursing myself.

Strangely, I haven’t overslept my shift once.

A few weeks after I started this job, my coworker Sitara emailed out a poem called “Four a.m.” by Wislawa Szymborska.  It remains tacked up to the wall of my work-station:

The hour between night and day.
The hour between toss and turn.
The hour of thirty-year-olds.

The hour swept clean for rooster’s crowing.
The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.
Empty hour.
Hollow. Vain.
Rock bottom of all the other hours. No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we’re happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we’ve got to go on living.

I won’t dispute it: 4 a.m. is the rock-bottom hour.  But I’ve grown to savor the luxury of the many other free hours my work schedule affords.  Once work is out of the way, the entire day is mine, and there are always more than enough ways to spend it.  After next week, I start a new shift.  I’ll be saying goodbye to my morning crew buddies (hands down, the coolest kids I’ve ever worked with) to take up a new daytime role.   I’ll arrive at the office after the sun’s come up and leave before the sun goes down like most people do.  “Let five a.m. come!” I thought to myself when my boss delivered the news.  We’ve got to go on living.

Please Look After Mom Essay Contest

After I reviewed Please Look After Mom this past spring, I was contacted by the Korean Cultural Service of New York to serve as a judge for an essay contest they’d decided to host based on readers’ responses to the book.

It was both an honor and a pleasure to read the contest entries and experience Kyung-sook Shin’s novel anew through some of her fans.

The Korean Cultural Service announced the winners a few weeks ago, and has now published a collection of selected essays.  You can download a PDF the collection — which includes all the winning essays and a short essay I was asked to write about judging the contest — here.

Ten Years Later

For a week or two now, it’s been inescapable: “Where were you when?”

My own September 11th story is unremarkable.  At the time, I was in my first semester of college at the University of Virginia.  I was in my dorm room, getting ready for class when my roommate’s best friend called.  Her voice was so emotional I could barely understand what she was saying.  Plane? Towers? Even after I turned on the TV, it didn’t make sense. All I really remember about the rest of the day is pressing redial on my phone again and again, trying to reach my brother, who lived in Manhattan at the time, or my mother, who was visiting him that week. My roommate’s parents worked in the Pentagon, and she couldn’t reach them either.  I remember walking around Alderman Road and seeing everyone doing the same thing: dialing their cellphones again and again.

My mom and brother were fine — and so were my roommate’s parents.  Everyone was a bit shaken but slowly, in media coverage and in our conversations with one another, a narrative began to emerge. The next day I attended a teach-in featuring Politics professors like R. K. Ramazani, Peter Ochs, and Michael J. Smith (who would later become my thesis adviser).  The next week, I talked to minority groups on campus.  A few months later, I visited my brother in New York.  He told me about how his law school roommate, a volunteer firefighter (who would later be the best man at his wedding), had gone down to the World Trade Center site on 9/11.  We went to an exhibit of September 11th photos taken by ordinary New Yorkers and hung by clothespins on the small walls of a downtown gallery. As we walked through the city, my brother pointed out which streets had been filled with dust.  I spent too long staring at a makeshift memorial in Grand Central.  It still didn’t make sense.

It surprises me how much September 11th has entered my career. I’ve spoken with the city medical examiner about identifying victim’s remains from the WTC rubble; I’ve spoken with first responders and post-traumatic stress counselors about 9/11 survivors, interviewed the founder of Stop the Islamization of America and spoken with members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I’ve worked on coverage of the controversial Muslim community center project in lower Manhattan and of Osama bin Laden’s death.  In recent weeks, I resisted the coming tenth anniversary because it felt like over the years, we (and especially those of us who work in the media) haven’t ever paused from remembering that day. Mark Lilla summed it up sharply in New York magazine: “Remembrance became a narcotic that turned a prosperous nation at peace into a debt-ridden wayward giant lumbering around the world, willfully ignorant of its folly, its speech slurred and incomprehensible to anyone but itself.”

Still, seeing the lights this weekend — the two beams where the towers were, reaching into the sky; and the red, white and blue tiers of the Empire State Building — I was moved by the city’s stubborn memory, and the brighter part of “never forget” that represents an affirmation.  As Mayor Bloomberg put it:

We had to show the world that – in everyday lives – terror could not diminish our tolerance.  Hate could not defeat our hope.  And fanaticism could not destroy our freedom. Each of us did that in a million little ways – in the flags we waved and the blood we gave and the donations we made. We did it in time by volunteering – as rescue and recovery workers, social workers and medical professionals, as caterers and caregivers. We did it in the way we treated each other – with a new-found sense of solidarity. People of every color, of every country, speaking every language, practicing every religion, holding every belief, and yet we were all New Yorkers first – proud of our city, and determined to bring it back.

I wasn’t a New Yorker on September 11th, but now that I live in this city too, I’ve seen those little acts of goodwill and humanity — ordinary acts of kindness and courage — day in and day out.  They give me hope.

Guadalajara

Three pages into Quim Monzó’s new short story collection, the opening tale’s seven-year-old protagonist makes a startling discovery: everyone over the age of nine in his family of carpenters is missing the ring finger of his left hand, and it’s not by accident. Welcome to “Family Life,” which fits within the morbid boundaries of Guadalajara—a realm where fables are subverted, where rote tasks lead to existential confrontations, where absurdity masks philosophical heft, and where grim uncertainty and playful possibility coexist.  Armand is terrified, and perhaps the reader should be too: in Monzó’s hands, the possibilities are limitless—and entirely unpredictable.

Head over to Words Without Borders for my full review of Guadalajara, Quim Monzó’s delightfully subversive collection of short stories.