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.
This year a group of friends and I started a book club because we wanted to talk about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. It so happened that we also love karaoke, so we became a karaoke book club: we talk about writing and desire and friendship and then we go and sing our hearts out. This pairing works beautifully and maybe it’s because we want to be in a moment, like Ferrante Fever. I’ve been thinking about how much immersion matters, how I’m reading for what books can make me feel, especially a particular collusion of sadness and rage, sparked by longing. This takes many forms: rawness, interiority, yelling, even silence. It has to do with characters working against histories and structures that often seem impossible to break.
Elena Ferrante’s Elena and Lila are trying to figure out their own selves, at times creative and wild, within harsh patriarchal and provincial structures.
Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes gives us a part of American history that’s often overlooked: the Asian-American experience through the building of the transcontinental railroad, early Hollywood, and more. The rage here, like the prose, is transcendent.
Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History pushes against the tide of forgetting, against the smoothing over of the past, against moving on. Death and Satan argue over a man’s soul and every page is a reckoning.
Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is gorgeous, suffused with sorrow and the weight of obligation and time, as it considers what might and will happen to a young ambitious woman.
And with all of this rage and sorrow and longing, there is laughter in these books. Maybe it’s what we need to do right now as part of taking care of ourselves: we listen, learn, rave, and cry, and then we laugh (which is to sing) because we have to, somehow, get through what we’re going through.
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I started my first-ever vegetable garden this year at a small cottage my husband and I are fixing up an hour and a half outside New York City. I had no idea what I was doing and the anxiety of inexperience led me to nearly replace my habitual novel and short-story reading with a compost heap of gardening and how-to books. Here’s what I learned: I am on trend. The marketplace is soggy with pretty guides for beginners by green-thumb gurus and back-to-the-land life stylists. And the books are so pretty! I bought and read a lot of these books as if they contained the secret map to finding the secret garden. But, to be honest, I still can’t say I know much about growing food. And though I made some salads, my garden is not aesthetically pleasing. This is just to say, that a lot of these books are heavy on the glossy photographs and inconsistent on advice. I learned from these books that the way you learn to garden is to try and fail at gardening. I was great at Japanese eggplant, not so great with heirloom tomatoes. I smothered the broccoli by planting the cucumber too close, but I grew lovely peppers. Not a single garden book warned me about the aggressive, almost pernicious, nature of the cucumber. I did find one book more straightforward and informative than the rest. Brett L. Markham’s Mini-Gardening: Self-Sufficiency on a ¼ Acre. It’s the book I will look at again next year. It’s more of a basic agriculture book than a plant-this-vegetable-next-to-that-vegetable book. Besides gardening, most of my 2011 reading was research focused. I had my nose buried in Edgar Allan Poe and Poe-related scholarship for a book I’m working on, all the research is stuff that’s been around, except for Mat Johnson’s excellent novel Pym. Pym takes a depressingly hilarious look at race in America by following an African-American scholar who is fixated on Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, on a wild-Poe chase to Antarctica.
I do want to mention one book that had nothing to do with my laughable attempts at agriculture or my Poe studies, and that’s Edmund De Waal’s memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes. De Waal is a world-famous ceramicist who inherited a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke from his great uncle Iggie. He becomes fixated on uncovering the story behind the delicate wood and ivory carvings and determines to trace their history through his family. His research leads him back several centuries and ends up taking the reader on an introspective, tragic, and ultimately romantic journey through many eras, wars, and the Holocaust. Along the way his family ancestors rub shoulders and make appearances in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, in a painting by Renoir, and in the work of other artist intelligentsia from the Belle Époque. It’s a remarkable secret history discovered through De Waal’s love of objects. I was swept away by this book and that just doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to these days.
While writing this I also realized that 2011 was the rare year for me where I read more non-fiction than fiction. And by rare, I probably mean that it was a unique event in my life. It was unsettling. My favorite novel I read this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. (I know, I know. It came out a while ago, and everyone loves it, and the Pulitzer). I found the book to be breathtaking and also unsettling – particularly Egan’s global warming future forecasting – perhaps this aspect of Goon Squad also encouraged my decision to start growing food. So I guess this year in reading taught me that I need more goon squads and less green thumbs in my life. I’m just no good without a good story.
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