A Year in Reading: Jennifer Egan

Angela Davis-Gardner’s Butterfly’s Child was my surprise book crush of 2011. I say “surprise” because the title did not attract me, and I put off reading it. But I found the novel immediately riveting — to the point that it often eclipsed a family vacation to Ireland last August. “Butterfly” is the protagonist of Puccini’s famous opera, whose mixed-race son, Benji, Davis-Gardner follows to America, along with his father, Pinkerton, and Pinkerton’s new wife. In exploring Benji’s struggles to define himself, racially and culturally, against a relatively homogeneous late 19th-century American landscape, Davis-Gardner also renders up a stringent, poignant account of Midwestern farm life — particularly the burdens and hardships it placed upon women. But Davis-Gardner’s plans are more elaborate and subversive than that a mere reimagining of a tangent of Butterfly’s story; the novel is finally an ingenious study of the dangers and distortions inherent in mythmaking. Butterfly’s Child is a shimmering performance, revealing itself as gradually and seductively as the geishas whose secretive subculture Davis-Gardner authoritatively renders. I found myself talking about the novel obsessively with my husband, who hadn’t even read it, which makes me think it would be an excellent choice for book clubs. Bottom line: this tour de force deserved many more readers than it found last spring, and I’m hopeful that they’ll embrace it in spring 2012, when it comes out in paperback.

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A Year in Reading: Jennifer Egan

I had the pleasure of being a National Book Awards judge this year, and I’m proud to have helped choose our winner, Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), and finalists Mary Jo Campbell (American Salvage), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Jayne Anne Phillips (Lark and Termite), and Marcel Theroux (Far North)

For this list, though, I’m returning to the comparatively tiny amount of reading I did this year BEFORE beginning to read the NBA submissions in May. I’ve been on an epic poetry kick inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is of course superb. Still, the work I got most thoroughly lost in was Lord George Gordon Byron’s Don Juan. Many editions are abridged, but there’s no reason not to take in the whole rollicking extravaganza: 17 cantos and counting… the work was unfinished when Byron died and ends mid-canto. Cut corners and you’ll risk missing the pirate scene, or Don Juan’s affair with Catherine the Great of Russia, or the part when he’s sold as a slave and then disguised as a member of a Sultan’s harem, or the shipwreck, or the ghost scene, or the battle… You get the picture; this mock epic is so crammed with adventure and wildness and great poetry that it will make your head spin. But none of that is the best part. The real achievement of Don Juan is the voice, unprecedented for its time: loose, casual, and utterly modern–full of asides about Byron’s daily life, his writing struggles, not to mention a lot of bitchy remarks about his peers, Coleridge especially. It’s an artifact so imbued with the essence of its maker that you can practically smell his sweat on its pages. And I call that a good thing.

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