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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.”

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

(Previous lists: 20142013,  2011 and 2010)

satinislandSatin 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.

upstairs wifeThe 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.

thehappycityThe 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.

oreoOreo (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.

buriedgiantThe 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.

thefoldedclockThe 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.

ourkidsOur 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.

nowheretobefoundNowhere 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.

greenonblueGreen 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.

betweentheworldBetween 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.

city_on_fireIf you’ve clicked through any “best books of the year” lists– like The New York Times‘, the Wall Street Journal‘s, NPR ‘s, or the Atlantic‘s–  you may have noticed a title which made all of them: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.

The buzz around City on Fire began back in 2013, when Knopf acquired it for nearly $2 million. Once it’s invested big in a book, how does a publisher ensure that it succeeds?

My story on the push to make City on Fire a blockbuster success airs on WNYC today and tomorrow.

 

IMG_3075On a bracingly cold morning this March– exactly 50 years to the day after Kitty Genovese’s death– author Kevin Cook and I met on the block in Kew Gardens where Genovese spent her last living hours.

Cook’s new book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime that Changed America looks back at Genovese’s life and death in detail. His investigation focuses in particular on what happened the night she died.  Spoiler alert: It’s a little more complicated than what you might’ve heard (or read in that intro psychology course, for that matter).

We also stopped in on some longtime residents of the neighborhood.  Carol and Murray Berger moved into a charming home in Kew Gardens in 1957, and have been a vital part of the community ever since.  They were kind enough to invite me in and to share their remembrances of how Genovese’s murder transformed the neighborhood’s reputation.

Take a listen to my piece for WNYC here.  Check out The New Yorker’s take on Cook’s book here.  And see some lovely photos of the Bergers’ home here.

 

I “get” list fatigue—sometimes, around this time of year, lists feel too neat, too easy, too predictable.   This is especially true of lists of books.  As independent publishing house Two Dollar Radio tweeted, “There’s gotta be a better way than everyone circle-jerking over the same blasé dreck.  I mean.  It’s tedious.  And boring.”

That’s definitely the feeling I had last year. Writing “best of” lists of my own favorite books of 2010 and 2011 had been a fun exercise, but when 2012 drew to a close, I didn’t bother to draw up a top ten. It felt like my reading for the year had been dominated by pretty-good-but-not-exactly-amazing books, and well, what’s the point in a list like that?

This December is another story altogether.  Looking back at 2013’s book releases, there are some real standouts—books I loved and savored and couldn’t stop talking about.  I’m happy for an excuse to sing their praises some more!  Without further ado, here are the ten best new books I read in 2013:

The Pomegranate Lady and her Sons (Goli Taraghi) Born in Tehran in 1939, Goli Taraghi was a teenager during Iran’s 1953 coup and a grown woman during the 1979 revolution. Both upheavals feature prominently in her writing, but the stories collected in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sonsare hardly polemical. Political tumult instead merely provides the backdrop for the profound transformations—emotional, psychological, intellectual, and even supernatural—of her characters, young and old.

Equilateral (Ken Kalfus) It is the spring of 1894, and Professor Sanford Thayer is somewhere between Egypt and Libya, deep in the Bahr ar Rimal al ’Azim, the “Great Sand Sea.” He is directing a workforce of 900,000 men on the construction of a project Thayer is certain marks man’s greatest achievement: The creation of a dug-out equilateral triangle 306 miles long on each side. On June 17, when Thayer calculates the Earth will be closest to Mars, 22 million barrels of petroleum pooled into the three sides’ five-mile trenches will be set aflame, sending out a burning geometric greeting to Martian observers, a historic “petition for man’s membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations.”  Thayer is a romantic—he has chosen the equilateral triangle for its poetic qualities (it is the “most visually satisfying, most inspiring” shape, he is convinced), but the logistics of the project are ugly and grueling. Kalfus has crafted a powerful, mesmerizing story about ambition—and its limitations.

The Watch Tower (Elizabeth Harrower) It’s hard to find a book like The Watch Tower these days. First published by Macmillan in 1966, Elizabeth Harrower’s fantastically incisive portrait of domestic cruelty follows the fates of two sisters, Laura and Clare, in 1940s Australia. For all the psychological torment Harrower subjects her protagonists to, Clare’s defiance brings a delectably feminist streak to The Watch Tower. Laura grew up reading books with “rainbow-colored” endings but Clare prefers books about distant lands and lives entirely unlike hers. They support her conviction that there is a way out of her domestic captivity, and arm her to act: “Nothing is this small,” she thinks. She is sure of it.

The Stories of Frederick Busch (edited by Elizabeth Strout)  I picked up this book having no idea what was in store; somehow, I’d never encountered Busch’s writing before.  I was completely floored.  These stories are masterful, compassionate, accessible, and exceedingly well-crafted.  Busch been has been pegged as a “writer’s writer,”—someone who “seemed to impress critics more than the mass audience,” as The New York Times put it.  This is a shame.  These stories are just plain good. (Side note: Busch’s son Benjamin Busch was one of the authors The Takeaway featured in the panels on love and death I produced in Miami last year.  Here him speaking about his father—and many other things—here.)

A Fort of Nine Towers (Qais Akbar Omar) In 1992, when the mujahedeen arrived in Kabul, young Qais Akbar Omar “expected to see heroes in uniforms and shiny boots.” Instead, the Holy Warriors had “beards, mustaches and smelly shoes that wrapped up stinky feet.” Mind-boggling yet matter-of-fact, A Fort of Nine Towers is the memoir of a childhood in ’90s Afghanistan—a riveting story of war as seen through a child’s eyes and summoned from an adult’s memory.

Lost Girls (Robert Kolker) On the morning of May 1, 2010, 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert went missing in the secluded community of Oak Beach, Long Island. By the time police found her remains (a year and a half later), the bodies of four other 20-something women—all Craigslist “escorts”—had also been discovered in the vicinity.  Serial killer stories are all kind of the same.  But the absence of an identifiable killer in this story puts the focus instead on the victims themselves. Maureen, Melissa, Shannan, Megan, and Amber all came from struggling middle- to lower-middle-class families in cities with few employment opportunities. They tried working at Applebee’s, doing secretarial work, selling pizzas, and telemarketing. None of these jobs paid the way selling sex did, though. Part of the tragedy of their stories is the extent to which prostitution appeared to be their best option.

Dissident Gardens (Jonathan Lethem) I stopped reading Jonathan Lethem for a few years because I knew that there was no way another book of his was going to make me feel the way Fortress of Solitude did.  But when I heard he was writing about my beloved Queens, I couldn’t help get a little bit excited.  In the end, Dissident Gardens was exactly the book I wanted to read:  An acerbicly funny, chaotic and somewhat depressing (but ultimately heartfelt) love letter to Queens.

Middle Men (Jim Gavin) Crisscrossing along the highways of Southern California is a legion of men, mostly young, mostly lost. Middle Men, Jim Gavin’s soberly perceptive debut short-story collection, follows these men between jobs, relationships, and friends. There’s Berkeley dropout Bobby, skating from one mental breakdown to the next. There’s 23-year-old Brian, who spends all his money following a girlfriend 10 years his senior from Los Angeles to Bermuda. And there’s Adam, the Yale-educated game-show production assistant waiting to land his big break in stand-up comedy. In Adam’s case, “despite all evidence to the contrary some part of himself—the most vital and destructive part of himself—believed that eventually his talent would be recognized as something pure and triumphant and somehow he would be granted dispensation from the degrading realities that made everyone else around him seem so shameless and corrupt.” If the other men in this volume suspect this about themselves, too, they never hint at it.

She Matters (Susan Sonnenberg) Susan Sonnenberg collects female friends the way some people collect kitchenware; this unusual memoir is both a remembrance of vital friendships as well as a deeply absorbing portrait of the author herself. Most of Sonnenberg’s intense friendships end in misunderstanding and silence.  Sometimes, the culprit is simply life. Priorities shift, lines get crossed, circumstances and people change. But as Sonnenberg reveals more about her formative years, it becomes clear that she is the unwitting engineer of many of these interpersonal collapses. Still, there are beautiful moments documented here—shared artistic journeys with Mary, the painter; deep bonds of respect and trust with C., the acquaintance of youth turned midlife friend; moments of confidence with Marlene, her father’s ex-girlfriend.  The result is a deeply original ode to the friendship of women.

Back to Back (Julia Franck) The first hundred or so pages of this novel set in East Berlin were so brutally spirit-crushing that I tried to weasel out of the review I’d pitched in the first place.   I wrote to my editor to say that while engrossing, the storyline was too bleak and I wanted to drop the book.  “Sounds kind of amazing, to tell you the truth,” he replied.  And so I soldiered on.  What makes Back to Back difficult to read is the suffering of Thomas and Ella, the abused children who are its two main characters.  But Franck writes beautifully and knows exactly what she’s doing.  Thomas and Ella’s cold, party-driven mother, Käthe, is to blame for their neglect; Käthe’s behavior only reinforces Franck’s bigger point about what it’s like to live under an oppressive regime.  By the time I turn in my review, I hope to be able to better articulate exactly why Back to Back works, but trust me—it’s a tremendous book.

Honorable Mentions: Revenge (Yoko Agawa), In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Matt Bell), The Pink Hotel (Anna Stothard) and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Teddy Wayne).