A Year in Reading: Lan Samantha Chang

December 16, 2009 | 3 books mentioned

covercovercoverThe most memorable book I read last summer was Yiyun Li’s visionary novel, The Vagrants. I had read and admired her story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, but I was not prepared for the novel. It’s emotionally brutal—a novel of China’s post-Mao era that doesn’t squander its extraordinary authority on a falsely redemptive plot or a reportorial nod to the future. It reads as if the writer deliberately and strategically cast aside all human experience irrelevant to its dark and unrelenting vision.

My family and I spent two months this early autumn in France. During our time there, I read and reread books set in Paris, from Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. The book that most surprised me was The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve read her essay on writing novels a million times, and I’d somehow assumed that the fiction itself would be less interesting. As it turns out, the novel is gorgeous, moving, and revelatory. The book tells the story of a love affair and its consequences in a time when such affairs were socially, physically, and emotionally perilous. Really, it’s about passion—and the consequences of passion in a world not long ago.

Right now I’m rereading The Brothers Karamazov for the fourth time. I highly recommend the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation. This book is so long, and contains such startling characters, and explores its message in so many ways, that I don’t seem to be able to hold all of it in my head at the same time. So each time I reread it I actually do feel I’m rediscovering it, and each time I’m in awe of the work.

More from A Year in Reading

is Director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her novel All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost is forthcoming in September 2010.

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