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!
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.
I talked to Harryette Mullen, author of the afterword of the new edition of the book, and to Danzy Senna, author of the book’s new introduction, plus novelist Mat Johnson, and Duke African-American studies professor Mark Anthony Neal– all of whom are big fans of this strange and singular book.
Warning: Their excitement for Oreo is contagious.
When I was in Florida for the Miami Book Fair this past November, I got the chance to see The Takeaway’s Miami affiliate, WLRN, launch a cool crowd-sourced short story project on Twitter. They recruited Junot Diaz to supply their story with an opening line, sent it out over Twitter, and then watched as listeners pieced together a narrative. It was a real, live, many-headed story — messy but compelling.
Inspired by WLRN’s success, last week, my WNYC colleagues and I decided to attempt a similar project– this time with poetry rather than prose.
The inauguration provided a theme. The Takeaway invited poet Kwame Dawes to kick things off with a discussion of inaugural poetry last Wednesday. In that interview, Dawes presented the first (original) line for what would become our crowd-sourced poem: Say nation. In the wake of quarrels, say hope. We Tweeted out the line and asked listeners to follow up with subsequent lines of their own using the hashtag #prezpoem.
Almost immediately, the lines started pouring in. By the end of the week, we’d recieved hundreds of Tweets. On Friday, Dawes returned to the program to survey the lines– and to share the poem he’d assembled from them. (He was joined by poet Elizabeth Alexander, who delivered the 2009 inaugural poem — and who had some very smart things to say about poetry and politics. Hear their whole interview here.)
But it didn’t stop there. For me, the best part of the project was the grand finale, which aired this morning. After picking out a couple dozen of the strongest Tweets, I asked their authors to send audio of themselves reading their line (plus a few stanzas before and after). Piecing together the lines with the help of The Takeaway’s resident audio wizard Jay Cowit, a gorgeous audio poetry mash-up emerged.
This is what audio of the final poem sounded like. And this is what the final text of the poem looked like:
A People’s Poem for the Inauguration
Say that freedom, both the blessing and right,
remain the provenance of open minds.
Acknowledge the dreams that birthed a great nation — say “freedom.”
Speak it into action and watch our dreams reshape the future.
And heart in hand, for the sake of the young,
of the old,
of all those who
wade thru injustice’s tide, say “freedom.”
Say and shout and sing! Progress is a storm and our voices the thunder.
Say “peace” for the hearts of a nation’s people, in times of grief.
Say one, say all. To abandon hope is to further the fall
Say “take my hand” to the downtrodden, the lost.
Sing harmonies that blend in a spectrum of love.
In the dark of failures, say “try”; encourage, persist to light.
Say friend, my hand for your strength, your eyes for my light as we forward together.
Say hope is ours.
Wash away morose pessimism and the failings of the nascent.
Remember our virtue; remember our lofty intent.
In the wake of the struggle, speak, so that together we all may speak courage.
Say “hope,” eyes turned not to the gauzy sky
nor to the brassy gates of power
but to the frost-bitten grass beneath our feet.
I need to hear, again, those antiquated words
in this new light.