Two books come to mind. One is Richard Powers’ novel The Echo Maker, probably the book I have thought about, talked about, and quoted from the most this year. It concerns, among other things, a guy whose trauma-induced brain damage prevents him from recognizing his own sister. Powers manages to dramatize humanely and poignantly how the postmodern notion of the self as a series of fictions, which might appear to be quite anti-scientific, is actually supported by recent neurological research into the nature of consciousness. The other book is a collection of poems called All You Have to Do Is Ask, by Meredith Walters, which I discovered a few weeks ago, and many poems of which I have already returned to more than several times. The poems are wide-ranging in their subjects (death, airplanes, soldiers, art, starfish, ecological depredation, love), elegant in their forms, exhilarating in their leaps from thought to thought, often funny, and in any given line one senses a mind on an urgent quest to discover what it believes and knows.
Lars Iyer’s Wittgenstein Jr. is the only book I read twice this year. It took me much longer than usual to write the review, because I was afraid I wasn’t doing the book justice. It is an absolutely exquisite, elegant novel, with a cadence and rhythm all its own.
I picked up the galley of Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things with low expectations, because it was just one of those random books that arrive on my doorstep every day and aliens and interstellar travel aren’t usually my thing, and found one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s about a Christian missionary on an alien planet, and it’s a love story, and the last line destroyed me.
Some months later in London I was signing stacks of books in the basement of the wonderful Goldsboro Books, which specializes in signed first editions, when the proprietor wandered downstairs with the Goldsboro edition of The Book of Strange New Things, an exquisite object in white and gold. I am generally immune to the charms of signed first editions, but I ordered it when I returned to New York. A few weeks later, an editor in New York sent me a finished copy of the American version, and now the two hardcovers sit next to one another on my bookshelves, and usually I am ruthless about preserving bookshelf space, but it is impossible to dispose of either edition.
Elena Mauli Shapiro’s second novel, In The Red, was left out in the rain by a UPS delivery guy. By the time it reached me it had turned into a swollen, rain-warped thing. I brought it indoors and let it dry for a few days before I read it.
Shapiro’s novel is spectacular. It’s a dark story about a bright young woman’s descent into a criminal underworld, realism interlaced with fairy tales. The protagonist is the kind of woman who we’re used to seeing as arm candy in gangster films, the kind of woman whose main jobs are to be beautiful and to not notice what’s going on around them.
The book is an expert meditation on money, morality, and belonging, and I found it mesmerizing. I tried to champion it on tour. That was the book I named when people asked what I’d read recently that I’d recommend, unless they asked about books that have science fictional overtones, in which case I went with the Michel Faber.
The book I loved most this year was J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence. Without reservation, I would call Ledgard’s novel a masterpiece. It opens in Somalia, 2012, with a British spy imprisoned by jihadists in a windowless room. Far away, on a distant northern sea, a biomathematician is preparing to descend by submersible to the ocean floor; her area of expertise is the Hadal zone, which encompasses the very deepest parts of the ocean. The imprisoned man and the biomathematician met some months earlier, and are in love; they are hopelessly far apart, but their thoughts return to one another as they go about their days.
When you consider that the Hadal zone exists in trenches and was named for Hades, unexpected parallels between their situations begin to emerge. It’s a book about, well, submergence; a man sealed into a prison from which he might not emerge, a woman descending into the inhospitable dark.
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It’s always a fraught moment when you sit down with a book you’ve been meaning to read for many years. It’s exciting, of course, but you’re aware that the book is not likely to live up to your expectations, and most of the time it doesn’t. Sometimes it does. Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity was first published in 1982; even back then I was a fan of Berman’s idiosyncratic blend of leftist politics with cultural and literary history, but I was too broke to buy new books, and somehow I never got my hands on it in the intervening decades. This year a friend gave me the beautiful Penguin edition, and it lived up to its promise, moving in dizzying, exhilarating fashion from Goethe to Marx to Baudelaire to Petersburg (“The Real and Unreal City”) to “Some Notes on Modernism in New York.” That probably makes it sound off-puttingly formidable, so I’ll repeat Robert Christgau’s words, leading off the review that first made me want the book: what’s most important about it is that it’s a good read. Anyone can toss a bunch of cultural touchstones into a blender and come up with a dense text; very few can make anyone but grad students want to read it. At the beginning of his introduction, Berman says “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” That’s what the book is about, and that sense of adventure, joy, and danger is carried through triumphantly. To give one small example of its effect, I had never been particularly interested in Goethe’s Faust, regarding it as one of those sacred monsters of two centuries ago that inexplicably got everyone excited; now I actually want to read it. And I expect to be rereading Berman every few years from now on.
The most exciting literary discovery I made this past year was Andrey Platonov, who died in obscurity the year I was born. His major works were first published in the ’80s, and reliable texts only appeared in the ’90s; since then his reputation has grown to the point that he is frequently considered the greatest Russian prose writer of the twentieth century. His masterpiece is The Foundation Pit, which boils all the utopianism and horror of the forced collectivization and industrialization of the early 1930s into 150 tightly written pages about a laid-off worker, a bear, and a little girl, among other unforgettable characters. (You can read more about the book at Languagehat.) English-speaking readers are lucky to have the superb translation by Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, published last year by New York Review Books; the novel was so important to Chandler that he translated it twice, this NYRB version superseding a 1996 one he did for Harvill Press. Platonov’s other major novel is Chevengur, a sprawling work (three times as long as The Foundation Pit) whose inherent tragedy is leavened by picaresque humor; I’m happy to report Chandler and Meerson are working on a translation of that as well, and I look forward to reading it when it appears. Platonov’s brilliant short works can be sampled in the collection Soul, also published by NYRB.
Anyone interested in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and ’60s should read Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok, which is, like Berman’s, one of the best works of cultural history I’ve read in many years. After I finished it, I felt as if I’d been reading a great, tragic novel; Zubok’s work is thoroughly reliable (every paragraph has several footnotes referencing histories, diaries, and other sources) but gripping and full of the kind of human insight you don’t usually get from academic history. Michael Scammell, in his review, complained that Zubok slighted dissident heroes like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel, but their stories are so familiar it’s hard to see what yet another account could provide; the people Zubok writes about were hoping to create an intellectual and artistic renaissance within a country whose leadership turned out to be unwilling to countenance it, so that it all dissipated into the stagnation of the Brezhnev years. For a while, though, it seemed as if anything was possible.
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2016 was the year I fell in love with reading again. Sometime during college, when close reading put every sentence under a fluorescent light, I started analyzing language instead of getting lost in it. I thought I would return to reading after I graduated, but then I became a copyeditor, where my job was to find every grammatical blemish and factual imperfection. It’s hard to enjoy a book when you profoundly disagree with how a writer uses punctuation (I’m looking at you, Hanya Yanagihara). The very thing that had gotten me into my major and career was now a chore. Yet I wanted to be a reader, so I compulsively bought books that would topple off my nightstand, a reminder I was getting through more Netflix than novels. I didn’t know what I needed to read, but my friends did, and their passionate recommendations for things I would normally never read reminded me why I sometimes find more solace or excitement in a book than anything.
My friend Jen is not just an A Little Life fan, though she has read it four times; she is an evangelist. So I wasn’t surprised when it showed up on my doorstep as a Christmas gift last year. Getting through a 720-page book wasn’t an enjoyable experience for a slow reader like me, especially when nothing seemed to happen except trauma. When the ultimate trauma transpired, I was so angry that I rage-cried and would’ve thrown the hardcover across the room if it weren’t two pounds. I told Jen I hated it — at least I thought I did. But after I finished, I couldn’t stop discussing it or reading Hanya Yanagihara interviews. I even had a dinner date with my friend Susan, another great reader, to discuss why I hated it, but midway through she asked me, “Is it possible you actually loved it?” She was right; I had mistaken my intense passion for hatred when it was really love. Yes, nothing happened, Yanagihara doesn’t understand pronouns, and the ending was infuriating, but I couldn’t remember the last time a book had completely consumed me like that.
When my YA book club picked The Royal We for February, I internally groaned. I had always found the royal family ridiculous, so why would I want to read a fictionalized account of Kate Middleton and Prince William’s courtship if Kate were American? But the book ended up being one of the most damned delightful things I’d read all year, the literary equivalent of the frappucino you told yourself you were too sophisticated for but still secretly loved. Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan deliver on all the royal intrigue and scandal, from frosty Queen Elizabeth II to sexy bad boy Prince Harry, but really it’s the romance that makes all the royal drama worth it, like Richard Curtis meets Buckingham Palace. The novel made me miss the U.K. and the British friends I made while a University of Edinburgh student so much that I planned a solo trip to London that summer. I even visited an extremely obscure museum that I read about in the book, the Sir John Soane’s Museum; I recommend it for oddity alone.
I also have my book club to thank for one of the craziest reading experiences I had this year — getting through the entire four-book Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater in a weekend. I have a reputation for never actually finishing the book, so when we decided to read a series in preparation for the release of The Raven King, I knew I was screwed. I expected I’d hate this bizarre mashup of Welsh myth, psychics, and prep school, but I was so enthralled by the world building, strong relationships, and ultimate metaphor for growing up that I stayed up until 3 a.m. two nights in a row. The books are also so creepy, with the protagonists wandering through catacombs and whatnot, that I had to keep every light on in my apartment. I told Stiefvater this in person when my book club attended a YA book festival in Charleston, YALL Fest, and she was so excited that she highfived me with a Sharpie in hand.
These books have nothing in common with each other, other than how I found myself fully engrossed while reading them. But they remind me that sometimes the best reading experiences are the ones we least expect. So I plan to read boldly and bravely because I’ll need some good escapism these next four years.
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