I reviewed Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria for the Washington Post– and just so happened to be in D.C. the day it was published. Read the whole piece here.
When you’ve been writing about books all year, it’s an easy thing to do. When you haven’t been keeping detailed notes on your own reading, it’s a little harder. My review output has slowed in the last few years, so list-making is more of a challenge, but this year I decided to try to sum up 2019’s books anyway.
This year’s reading was Anglo- and Euro-centric: I read Jean Rhys and Sam Selvon for the first time, worked through Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, and picked up new fiction from Guy Gunaratne and John Lanchester. The basic idea was to get to know my new country of residence a little better through some of its writers. (Did it work? Maybe. To better understand this country I should probably just watch more television.)
Anyway: Here’s my stab at this year’s best-of list, featuring, in no particular order, my ten favorite books published in 2019.
The Capital by Robert Menasse, translated by Jamie Bulloch
About a decade ago, Robert Menasse had a thought: “It’s a scandal that I know far too little about how the EU functions, and why it doesn’t function, when it’s the most important topic of my lifetime.” To remedy this, Menasse moved to Brussels, immersing himself in the bureaucratic grind of the European Union. The resulting novel is an acerbic office satire, replete with roller suitcases, failed workplace affairs, and aimless ambition. But it’s more than that: The Capital also offers a powerful moral defense of the EU. If a thoroughly entertaining and frighteningly perceptive look at the failures of European politics is what you’re after, this is your book.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
You may have heard about the controversy over the Booker judges’ decision to award this year’s prize to both Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s Testaments this year. In all likelihood that was all you heard about this book—which is a shame. I wish more had been written and said about the book itself and its contribution to a long-running literary conversation about race in England. Girl, Woman, Other is a lovely, life-affirming novel, a celebration of contemporary black British female experience told through the eyes of a dozen characters from all walks of life—playwrights to house cleaners, teachers to investment bankers. I found its cheerful fearlessness completely refreshing.
Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M. Low
It took me several attempts to get past the first few pages of this newly issued translation of Ginzberg’s 1961 novel, which begins with the young narrator, Elsa taking a walk with her mother through their Italian village. Her mother does all the talking; in the entire first chapter, Elsa speaks barely a few sentences. “Couldn’t we sometimes have the miracle of a word from you?” her mother asks. The imbalance of the exchange is the point: Ginzburg’s narrator is always off to the side, observing. What does fascism to do ordinary people—to their family histories, to the fabric of their small towns, to their understanding of their own place in the world? This is the question that Ginzburg tries to whittle away at through her account of Elsa’s family. In his introduction to this new edition, Colm Tóibín describes the book as a sepia photograph, which is accurate, but which also suggests a certain sentimentality. This sells the book short. Voices in the Evening is as elegantly melancholic as it is darkly instructive.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
The career of Ben Lerner’s mother, feminist psychotherapist Harriet Lerner, looms large in this novel. The fictionalized Harriet is a therapist and best-selling author Jane Gordon—a woman whose work has made her the subject of a campaign of hate from abusers Lerner simply calls “the Men.” Will Jane’s son Adam grow up to be one of them? Adam is a strident but sensitive nerd, a weight-lifting poet and Kansas debate champion. Sometimes he does his mother proud. Sometimes, she’s not sure if she can save him. This is a book about masculinity—its fragile side, its toxic side, its vulnerable side. But what I enjoyed most were Lerner’s ruminations on the 90s. His depiction of competitive extemporaneous speaking tournaments is spot-on (as a former high school extemper, I smiled and cringed!), as is his portrait of white suburban middle-class high school life of that era. But his sketch of a creepy young Kris Kobach-like character—Adam’s speech coach—stayed with me most of all.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede knows the drill all too well: Another frantic phone call from her little sister, another heavy dead body, another cover-up for her to be complicit in. Seductive Ayoola attracts all the men—and then she stabs them with her father’s ornate nine-inch curved-blade knife. But when her sister goes after Korede’s handsome, gentle colleague, Tade, something shifts. Simple and sharp, pulpy and fast-paced, this book from 31-year-old Nigerian-British rising star Oyinkan Braithwaite is all murder and little mystery. Its charm lies in the girlish directness of Braithwaite’s narrator Korede, and its messy sisterly amorality.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
This brilliantly-researched history of the Troubles centers around the death of 38-year-old Jean McConville, a Protestant-born Catholic-converted widowed mother of ten who was marched out of her home by masked men one night in 1972 while her children watched in horror. She was never seen again. Keefe is a gifted storyteller—and, as it turns out, a capable detective, too. Mining the controversial Belfast Project interviews at Burns Library in Boston College, he slowly pieces together the shadowy events surrounding McConville’s disappearance. He also lays out a complicated but compelling portrait of IRA firebrand Delours Price. These two women couldn’t be more different from one another, and their stories couldn’t be more painfully intertwined.
Granta 147: 40th Anniversary Special edited by Sigrid Rausing
I bought this on a whim—the sight of its cover made me nostalgic for the summer I spent lurking in the shelves of Granta’s back-catalog in London as a college intern at the magazine. But picking it up was a fine idea: Every single story in here is very, very good—a profound reminder of just how much world-class talent Granta has published in the last four decades. Kazuo Ishiburo tells the tender story of a Japanese boy and his aging grandfather in “The Summer After the War”; Amitav Ghosh arrives at a surprising consideration of colonialism in “The Imam and the Indian”; Philip Roth pays wistful tribute his father in “His Roth.” But my favorite might be “The Snow in Ghana,” in which Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński considers the futility of trying to make one’s experience known: “Something, the most important, the most significant thing, will remain unsaid.”
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple
How did corporations become all-powerful, and will their unchecked dominance be the ruin of us all? This comprehensive investigation into the rise of the East India Company heads back to 1599 to try to answer that question, as well as a few others about state-sanctioned greed, political violence, and the underpinnings of the British Raj. After outlining the conditions that made the birth of the East India Company possible in the first place, Dalrymple moves region by region, trade agreement by trade agreement (and then, battle by battle) charting how—one nawab after another—the Indian sub-continent fell under its sway. It’s a fascinating study in the many ways in which power can be abused. Every historian of India has his or her biases and the second time I saw the word “effete” used to describe a Mughal Prince I had to roll my eyes. But to his credit, Dalrymple is unsparing of British elite too: One military commander’s son is described simply as “the notably unintelligent Governor Madras.”
Spring by Ali Smith
The third installment in Ali Smith’s quartet of seasonal novels reads like a lucid dream. The plot circles around the adventures of Brit, a young employee of an Immigration Removal Center, and a mysterious little girl named Florence who takes Brit on a journey of discovery. As in the other books in this series, Spring fuses its powerful political indignation with a blurry magical realism. The result is a reading experience nearly as disorienting as the times we live in.
Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain by Fintan O’Toole
There is a long tradition of heroic failure in English history: The Charge of the Light Brigade is just one of the many examples Fintan O’Toole cites in this sharp critique. “Someone had blundered,” obviously, as the Tennyson poem notes— but that’s not the point, is it? O’Toole is an astute political observer of British politics; his political and psychological analysis of the Brexit mess is essential reading. He’s also very funny, and not afraid to push a riff a little too far (I’m thinking here of the extended bit on Fifty Shades of Gray). This was technically published in late November of 2018, but it’s too good to overlook, and just as relevant a year later.
Honorable mentions: She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey; The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson
Biggest disappointment: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The book I’m most annoyed I didn’t get around to yet: The Nowhere Man by Kamala Markandaya
I recently had the chance to sit down with Abdellah Taïa and Chiké Frankie Edozien at the CUNY Graduate Center for an evening of discussion put together by Words Without Borders, Belladonna* Series, and Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. It was an absolute honor––Taïa and Edozien are talented, fiercely passionate writers whose work challenges political and social boundaries. Video of the event is now available and you should also check out their work!
I wrote about the poems of the “The Red Years,” by Bandi, which are being translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl for US publication, for The New Yorker.
When Mark Twain died, in 1910, his literary output slowed but did not cease. In the decades since, Twain’s posthumously published works have included a novel, two short-story collections, four essay collections, a book of letters, a book of notes, a translation of a German children’s story, and a three-volume, twenty-three-hundred-page autobiography. This month, Doubleday will add one more work to the list: “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine,” a children’s book.
I wrote about The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea for The New Yorker. The book and its backstory are pretty fascinating:
The story goes something like this: nearly thirty years ago, a talented North Korean propagandist secretly began writing fiction critical of the North Korean regime. When a catastrophic famine beset North Korea in the mid-nineties, the propagandist’s misgivings about his country’s leadership deepened. Over the next several years, he chronicled the deprivation and disillusionment of his countrymen in a series of stories that he shared with no one. Roughly two decades later, a close relative defected to South Korea, and the writer saw an opportunity to get his work across the border. In 2014, a book of his stories was published in South Korea under the pen name Bandi, which means “firefly.” It is believed to be the first work of dissident fiction by a living North Korean writer ever smuggled out of that country.
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!
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.