I was on The Takeaway today sharing my summer reading recommendations with host Tanzina Vega. My picks: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, There There by Tommy Orange, Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, Banthology, edited by Sarah Cleave, Air Traffic by Gregory Pardlo, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Listen here for more about what makes these books so great.
My review of The Heart is a Shifting Sea by Elizabeth Flock ran in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review– the Pleasure Reading issue. A snippet:
The journalist Elizabeth Flock was in her early 20s when she moved to Mumbai. Though she was wary of overromanticizing India, she was immediately taken with what appeared to be an Indian attitude toward romance itself. “In Mumbai, people seemed to practice a showy, imaginative kind of love,” she writes in “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea.” She wondered if there was wisdom to this brand of passion: “When I arrived in Mumbai after my dad’s third divorce, the city seemed to hold some answers.”
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.
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.
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.
New reviews for The Daily Beast! Check out my takes on new books about a white supremacist’s murder in Mississippi, hardscrabble homesteaders in Appalachian North Carolina, and a female Iraq War commander’s return to her home in Italy.
Every year feels like a ‘busy year,’ but this year felt like an especially busy ‘busy year.’ And although I read less this year than I did last year or the year before, I read more deliberately. I took fewer reviewing assignments and read more for leisure. I caught up on some 2013 titles I’d missed like The Unwinding, The Girls of Atomic City, and The Skies Belong to Us (all first-rate reads). And I made time to read about some of my own personal obsessions. While training for the New York City Marathon I indulged in the distance-running cult-classic Once a Runner at the recommendation of my WNYC colleague Jim O’Grady. And after moving deeper into Western Queens, I geeked out on the history and flavor of my new neighborhood in Dan Karatzas’ highly informative Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City and Matthew Burgess’s vividly gritty Dogfight.
But old habits die hard and I read more than my share of new releases too– enough to report that 2014 had some standouts. Last year’s picks were mostly works of fiction (as has been the case in years past like 2011 and 2010), but this year my taste veered more towards non-fiction. Still, what all of these books have in common is that they’re deep dives with compelling characters and stories. In no particular order, here are my top ten books of 2014:
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade (Walter Kirn) The first time I heard Clark Rockefeller’s name was when I worked at CNN. He’d just kidnapped his daughter in connection with the messy divorce he was going through with his wife– a wealthy McKinsey executive with degrees from Stanford and Harvard– and I’d been assigned to work on a brief piece about the perplexing and abrupt unraveling of their life together. But the story kept getting weirder. Rockefeller, as it turned out, was actually a German-born conman whose real name was Christian Karl Gerhartsreite– a man eventually linked to the 1985 murder of his landlord’s son. In this memoir of sorts, writer Walter Kirn (the screenwriter behind Up in the Air) retells the strange story of his own friendship with Rockefeller. On one level, Blood Will Out chronicles Rockefeller’s trial, but the court testimony is really just a backdrop for Kirn’s own meditations about what it means to be the kind of person capable of forming a 15-year friendship with a sociopath. Kirn’s willingness to face his own flaws is a large part of what makes this book captivating. It also helps that Kirn has a dark sense of humor about all this. By the end of the trial, he’s settled on a nickname for Rockefeller more fitting than any of the half-dozen aliases the conman picked for himself: “Hannibal Mitty.” The runner-up? “Gatsby the Ripper.”
Unspeakable (Meghan Daum) Though Daum is a veteran essayist, my introduction to her came in a recent New Yorker essay she published called “Difference Maker.” It’s about all the young people whose lives she’s tried to help through various volunteer stints– and about the ways her idealism has fallen short. It wasn’t just polished (in the way all New Yorker pieces are), it was downright piercing. And there was much more of her smart, smart writing in this collection. Daum is not afraid to venture deep into the dark places in her own mind and heart; still, these essays always seem to end on an optimistic note. It’s so subtle that you never feel as though she’s forcing things into some predetermined worldview– you just come away with the feeling that you’ve spent time with someone who has reckoned with her demons and weaknesses but still has a hopeful, open heart.
Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty (Daniel Schulman) It’s easy to see the Koch brothers as caricatures. But it’s not particularly useful to look at them that way– they are, after all, among the country’s wealthiest and most powerful men. If you want to know how the Koch brothers became the Koch brothers– and how our country produced these men and what they believe they stand for– read Sons of Wichita. Schulman painstakingly takes the reader through their childhood, teasing out the way their father’s attempts to make his boys into tough, independent young men shaped a fierce rivalry between them, and how that rivalry shapes their pursuits to this day.
We are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas) This sprawling novel follows the lives of three generations of an Irish-American immigrant family settled in New York. Eileen Tumulty doesn’t have an easy childhood in Woodside, Queens, but when she climbs her way up into the community of Jackson Heights with her marriage to Ed Leary, a quiet scientist, she feels confident that a better life is in reach. It is– but tragedy lies ahead too. Thomas plots the gradual shifts that take place both in the minds and hearts of his characters as well as on the streets of their neighborhood with patience and control.
Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia (Mariusz Szczygiel) Truth is stranger than fiction. Reporter Mariusz Szczygiel defty proves this in a series of short inquiries mapping the history of the Czech Republic. There is, for example the story of the Bata men, Tomáš and his half-brother Jan, who turned a smaller cobbler’s workshop in Zlín into a vast shoe empire built on idiosyncratic corporate maxims. Or the story of Kafka’s 80-some-year-old niece, Věra S., who, in her prime would loan out her name to colleagues not allowed to publish, but in her old age, is fiercely protective of her privacy. My own personal favorite tale in this volume was about the herculean erection and then subsequently equally herculean demolishment of a 100-foot-high statue of Stalin in Prague—a project no one, really, wants to remember at all. After the statue—the largest ever monument to Stalin—is gone, “Not a single line about the monument’s destruction appears in the press.” Szczygiel depicts a country whose citizens display uncommon resourcefulness and resilience in the face of the absurd.
Praying Drunk (Kyle Minor) Repetition—of words, phrases, and entire thoughts—is what gives prayer its force, so it’s only fitting that in Praying Drunk, preacher-turned-novelist Kyle Minor uses repetition to deepen the power of his sad, soulful stories. Plot lines appear again and again, as do characters. Part of the reason repetition is so effective in Praying Drunk is because the scenes, characters, and moments that flash past again and again are so searing in the first place. “Another suicide,” is the first sentence of Minor’s story “There is Nothing But Sadness.” But there’s really more than one suicide in that story, and by this point in the collection the reader has watched more than one of these characters die before in a previous story. Minor’s writing evokes the circling habits of memory itself—the mind’s inability to resist picking up the jagged fragments of a tragedy for inspection again and again. The lesson is clear: the habits the mind takes up long outlive memories of the experiences that built those habits in the first place. Better pray.
The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas (Anand Girdhardas) Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, a Texas auto body repairman named Mark Stroman walked into a gas station just outside Dallas and shot the man behind the counter in the face, a Bangladeshi immigrant named Rais Bhuiyan. It wasn’t the first-time Stroman, an avowed “American terrorist,” targeted a brown-skinned gas station attendant. He had already killed Waqar Hasan, also a convenience-store worker. Eleven days later, he’d go on to shoot and kill another gas station owner, an Indian-American Hindu named Vasudev Patel. Of all the men Stroman targeted, only one, Rais Bhuiyan, would survived his attack. Searching for meaning in the aftermath of the assault, Bhuiyan found forgiveness for his attacker. Mark Stroman had been sentenced to death, but Bhuiyan began to campaign to save his life. New York Times Columnist Anand Giridharadas chronicles the entanglement of Bhuiyan and Stroman’s fates in “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas.”
The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj (Anne de Courcy) At the height of the British Raj, some of the empire’s most eligible young men were stationed in India, where intellectually challenging work and good pay attracted Oxbridge’s finest. But strict British anti-miscegenation laws limited their opportunities for finding a spouse. Enter the Fishing Fleet– boatfuls of young women who came to India to seek their fortune, too. In her lively history, de Courcy focuses particularly on 20th-century husband hunters, those whose journey was part of “the last flowering of the British Raj” before India’s independence. Their colorful diary entries and letters provide a lens into the courtship rituals and, more broadly, extravagant existence and comically overwrought regal rituals of the ruling class.
On Such a Full Sea (Chang-rae Lee) This dystopian novel imagines a time in the future where problems like income inequality, climate change and food insecurity have deepened dramatically, changing the fabric of society entirely. In fiction-logic, it’s totally plausible; any way you look at it, it’s completely terrifying. Lee uses this setting as the backdrop for a classic tale of lovers torn apart. I was entirely enchanted by the dark spell this book casts.
Without You There Is No Us (Suki Kim) I booked an interview with Suki Kim for The Takeaway purely as an excuse to read her book. I wasn’t disappointed on either count– the book, which details her time working as an instructor at university in Pyongyang run by Christian missionaries, is extraordinary; hearing her reflections on the process of writing the book was fascinating. “Heart-breaking” is an adjective I could use to describe pretty much every book I’ve read about North Korea but it’s all the more applicable to Without You There Is No Us because Kim’s relationship with her material is so personal. There’s her family’s own backstory– the uncles and cousins abducted into North Korea to be never heard from again. And then there’s the bond she forms with her students, these bright, hopeful, and deeply misled young men whose lives are constrained beyond their comprehension.