There are years in which you are a stranger to yourself. This was one of them. I stopped keeping to-do lists, forgot obligations, hit pause on making sense of my life: why I cried when I should have been happy, why I grew angry or listless, why convictions I’d held no longer convinced even me. It was the last year of my third decade on this earth, and it seems that with every passing year I grow increasingly alien to that earth, or it to me. A fragmented year.
This was the year I moved to San Francisco for the third time, ambivalent. A bizarre place. Nowhere else can the simple act of buying snacks or going to a day job trigger in me the question, How to live?, or perhaps, How to live as a human?, or, What is a human?, or, How is humanity defined in a place of enormous income disparity and mind-boggling callousness as well as beauty? I’m not sure we all share the same definition of human these days. I’m not sure that, were I to rap politely on the skulls of those beside me on Valencia Street or in the backseat of my rideshare, I would hear flesh rather than a more synthetic response. A surreal place. In trying to make sense of it, I found conversational partners in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.
This was the year I got engaged, and though publicly I kept it low-key, privately I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. I found dark and delightful and intelligent company in Louse Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Karen Russell’s Orange World, Alex Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Meng Jin’s forthcoming Little Gods. I sobbed through Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea—maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.
This was the year I was so paralyzed by anxiety that only horror could shake me out of it. In the summer, my non-American partner was exiled in Mexico for an unspecified amount of time, awaiting opaque “further processing” on his routine visa run. On my trip back alone, the only book that could distract me was Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone—at least we weren’t being boiled alive or eaten by bears! I read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Megan Gidding’s forthcoming Lakewood, Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Meanwhile, I practiced pacing my apartment while voicing the very worst possibilities: I could quit my job and move to another country! I could sell our needy puppy! I could delete my digital presence and become a hermit! How soothing to twist reality into its most nightmarish shape, and then study it.
This was the year I sought to lose myself in worlds I’d visited before. I reread sagas: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu from the Earthsea Cycle, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske from the Tales of the Kingdom series, and George R. R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (as far as it exists; George, please). The escapism is not lost on me. Closer to home, I reread Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—more than one reread, in the case of certain stories. “As ordinary as it all appears,” Lahiri writes of the immigrant experience of shifting from one world to another, “there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
This was the year I grieved and found solace in books that peered closely at the texture of daily, mundane grief. I read Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, and Miriam Toews’s strangely hilarious All My Puny Sorrows.
This was the year I looked for joy in the last pure place: in syllables. I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, in which syntax is sheer delight. I reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on a solo writing trip to Hiroshima where, alone in my hotel with a sea view and two beds, no one minded if I occasionally threw the book across the room to yell WHAT THE FUCK when metaphors got too good. Intending it as mourning, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved the day the news of her death broke. I felt only elation. It is a perfect book. It is new every single time, as if the language is being birthed in radical shapes as you read—you can’t help but celebrate the life in it.
This was the year I stopped assuming I could see how things would turn out and cozied up to ambiguity. I read books that, rather than force a sweeping lesson, do what good friends do: hold space for complexity. I read Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming Real Life and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, in which endings are not ends. I reread the lyrical puzzle box that is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I read collections whose individual pieces fragmented, overlapped: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. I read Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere and Alexandra Chang’s forthcoming Days of Distraction, their narrators keeping me company in my state of persistent bemusement. Maybe it’s enough, these books say, to live with integrity through a day, a paragraph, a sentence.
This was the year in which I wondered what happens to women’s rage and hurt when it is no longer as fresh as it was in, say, 2016. What happens as time passes, what ferments or crusts or festers. I read Shelly Oria’s Indelible in the Hippocampus and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking. One of the first books I read this year was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, a real mindfuck of a book, too smart and too cynical and too exacting to give its reader the easy gift of catharsis. It won’t let me forget it. I don’t want to forget.
In 2019, I stopped reading more books than I ever have before; life is too fucking short. The books that held my attention this year—that reached out to me—are capsules of strangeness, of varied extremity; what they don’t do is try to convince me that everything is okay. That was a form of companionship I needed very much.
During our school years in Shanghai, we were always reading two books at the same time. One was our textbook, which sat open on the desk, protected by extra covers, lines highlighted and margins filled with tidy handwriting, reflecting our diligence; the other was the book we were actually reading, hidden inside our desks, probably dog-eared and without notes. As our teacher droned on and on, our souls slipped into the worlds of those books: some of us fought to be Kung Fu masters, others fell in love with someone magnificent.
Now, years later, I often hear people say that the books we loved in youth are not good, and that we liked them only because we desperately wanted to escape from the chore of schoolwork. This year, I spent a lot of time rereading the same books I used to sneak into my desk back in old days. And I mean to say this: We don’t need to feel apologetic about loving these books. Most of them still speak to us.
1. Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau
For most of this year, I was translating English Professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, into Chinese. I took the opportunity to reread Thoreau’s major works. Now, it’s safe for me to say that I still admire Thoreau. Not because I, as a city person, fancy the romantic idea of living in the woods, but because I appreciate his moral struggle and his life-long journey to elevate himself.
There have always
been two Thoreaus: one was the hermit by the
lakeside, a moralist who maintained his self-purity by disengaging with the
infected human society; the other was a politically responsible citizen who
would rather go to jail than support the unjust American government by paying
poll-tax and who tirelessly called on his people to do the same, to commit
Walls’s biography inspires me to see the two contradicting images as one. Thoreau saw the interconnectedness of all reality—“A man is a bundle of relations” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)—firstly in nature, where the newly-built hydraulic machinery threatened the lives of innocent fish. He defended the fish in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Later, he extended his defense to include all oppressed forms of life: slaves controlled by their owners, Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants, Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest…He was not merely interested in self-cleansing, either; he aimed to be the “chanticleer” (Walden) who would wake his neighbors with the dawn and remind them to live up to Higher Laws.
a time when we are so easily lost in the trappings of material success, perhaps
we can always turn to Thoreau for insight and courage. As Walls beautifully puts
When [Thoreau] wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he meant not an ascetic’s renunciation, but a redefinition of true wealth as inner rather than outer, aspiring to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art. “There is Thoreau,” said one of his closest friends. “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough.” (Henry David Thoreau: A Life)
2. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami
One often has to defend their love for Haruki Murakami in the same way one must defend their love for J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It is true that there are certain books that you will never truly understand—and, even if you do understand, you will never experience that same electrifying feeling—unless you have read them at a certain age. This speaks to my experience with Norwegian Wood, which we carefully kept away from parents and teachers during adolescence and which offered us an exciting glimpse into what then seemed to us the mysteries of adulthood.
Earlier this year, I reread After the Quake, a collection of stories Murakami wrote after Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake. This time, I must confess that I enjoyed the book even more. I remember I used to adore “Thailand” and “All God’s Children Can Dance,” but now my favorite piece is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.” In this story, an average Japanese salaryman is chosen by Super-Frog to save the metropolis. When this ordinary man doubts himself for lacking any traditional heroic qualities, Super-Frog convinces him otherwise: “Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it’s for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo.” Amanda Lewis, in her essay about Murakami and his un-Japanese style, suggests that Murakami’s exploration of “the needs of the individual” is his refusal of “the essence of the Japanese mind,” which often contains an undertone of “a disregard for the sacredness of human life.” (Amanda Lewis, “The Essence of the Japanese Mind: Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize.”)
I am not saying I like all of Murakami’s works—some of them are disappointing—but the books that enthralled me when I was young—Norwegian Woods, After the Quake, South of the Border, West of the Sun—have quite a lasting charm.
3. The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner
My American friends often find it unbelievable that I read Sound and Fury when I was a teenager. Back then, I read its Chinese translation; Li Wenjun, the translator, carefully inserted footnotes to offer the much-needed context when time-shifting occurs. So I didn’t find it too difficult. This year, to write a script for a Chinese radio show, I reread the book in English. Because I already had the plot in my mind, I was able to appreciate the beauty of Faulkner’s writing.
section stunned me, as it had years ago. What seems like nonsense—long, chaotic
sentences without quotation marks is also pure poetry. Of course, the young
Faulkner—he was only 31 when he wrote this masterpiece—was probably also
showing off his mastery of different prose styles. His genius may overawe all
the aspiring young writers of today. But it is fine to feel intimidated; that
is how we push ourselves to write better.
P.S.: As a woman of color myself, I am aware of the race and gender issues in “the Western canon.” So, I would also like to recommend the best history book I have read this year: A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights Movement by Jeanne Theoharis. Theoharis argues that politicians have twisted the narrative of the civil rights movement. Now, we feel as if American democracy is a self-correcting and self-renewing system. However, the struggle of African Americans is proof of the system’s problems, not of its perfection. By glossing over the complexity of history, the current narrative turns us away from the still-dire racial present. The most deep-rooted racism, Theoharis suggests, doesn’t take the form of violence; it lies in the way parents assert their rights as taxpayers to maintain a dominantly white “neighborhood school.” Racism happens not only in the Deep South but also in New York City, in Los Angeles, in all those big cities which purport to embrace diversity.
Besides, while we appreciate the problems and values of the literature of the past, we can also keep an eye out for the potential classics of the future. I enjoyed reading The Study of Animal Language by Lindsay Stern and 99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai. And I am also looking forward to reading the following books, all of which boast excellent reviews: In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow, The Travelers by Regina Porter, and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Yes, these authors are all my workshop buddies at Iowa, but I will feel honored to have been one of their first readers.
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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Benjamin Dreyer, Juliet Lapidos, Ben Winters and more—that are publishing this week.
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Dreyer’s English by Benjamin DreyerHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dreyer’s English: “Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, presents a splendid book that is part manual, part memoir, and chockfull of suggestions for tightening and clarifying prose. These begin with his first challenge to writers: ‘Go a week without writing ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ ‘really,’ ‘quite,’ and ‘in fact.’ ’ (‘Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually,’ ’ he says.) Dreyer goes on to write with authority and humor about commonly confused or misspelled words, punctuation rules, and ‘trimmables,’ or redundant phrases (the most memorable he ever encountered was, “He implied without quite saying”; Dreyer was so ‘delighted’ he ‘scarcely had the heart’ to eliminate it from the manuscript). But Dreyer’s most effective material comprises his recollections of working with authors, including Richard Russo, who after noticing a maxim posted in Dreyer’s office from the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs—’Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style’—later called him to ask, ‘Would you say I am an author? Do I have a style?’ This work is that rare writing handbook that writers might actually want to read straight through, rather than simply consult.”
Talent by Juliet LapidosHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Talent: “In her snappy debut, Lapidos questions cultural obsessions with productivity and maximized potential that date back to Jesus’s parable of the talents. A graduate student at Collegiate University (a thinly veiled Yale) and on the cusp of thirty, Anna struggles to complete her languishing dissertation on artistic inspiration, already looking ahead to ‘the life of a professor emerita” before her career has even begun. A chance encounter with Helen Langley at the grocery store puts her in ‘physical proximity to genetic proximity to fame’: Helen is the niece of Frederick Langley, a deceased author of some renown who stopped writing after a promising early career. Helen is involved in a legal battle with Collegiate over its possession of Langley’s unpublished notebooks, which the idling graduate student hopes to mine for material to kick-start her dissertation. The novel proceeds briskly as Anna delves into Frederick’s papers to explain his premature retirement and as the impoverished Helen angles to secure the valuable manuscripts. Anna’s voice is sharp and humorous, capturing the jaded graduate student’s mix of posturing, snark, and self-loathing, but Frederick isn’t as enigmatic as he’s intended to be, and his scheming niece Helen is insufficiently drawn, which weakens the pull of the literary mystery. However, the novel is redeemed by its intelligent musings on the responsibilities of literary culture: what do talented authors owe their readers and themselves?”
Golden State by Ben WintersHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Golden State: “This disappointing postapocalyptic thriller from Edgar winner Winters (Underground Airlines) boasts an irresistible setup: in the near future, California is a sovereign state governed by absolute truth, and telling a lie can result in jail time or worse. Laszlo Ratesic, a veteran police officer whose innate ability to know when someone is lying helps him piece together unsolved crimes, investigates the death of a construction worker who fell off of a roof during a job. The seemingly accidental fatality is filled with anomalies, which leads Ratesic and the young female officer he’s mentoring to uncover a grand-scale conspiracy with staggering implications. While the story, in which every second of the populace’s lives is meticulously recorded, is tonally comparable to Orwell’s 1984, the thematic impact simply isn’t there. Some of the societal elements seem contrived, such as how every citizen must archive every single life event in a journal, and the reveal at the end is too nebulous to be completely effective. Winters’s exploration into the nature of truth will grip many readers, but this ambitious novel misses the mark.”
The Weight of a Piano by Chris CanderHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Weight of a Piano: “In her elegiac and evocative novel, Cander (Whisper Hollow) explores the legacy of loss, the intersections of art and music, and what happens when physical objects assume outsized symbolism. As a young girl in the Soviet Union in 1962, Katya admires her neighbor’s Blüthner piano; when he leaves it to her after his death, Katya pursues her musical passions and becomes obsessed with maintaining possession of the piano, even when given the opportunity to flee as a dissident. In California in 2012, Clara is a 26-year-old auto mechanic. Her boyfriend has just ended their relationship and demanded that she move out—along with the Blüthner that is her only remaining link to her dead parents. When a piano-moving accident leaves Clara with a broken hand and unable to work, she impulsively puts the piano for sale on Craigslist—and the response she receives sends her deep into the barren beauty of Death Valley and into a new relationship that may shed light on her family history, and on the cursed history of that piano. Reminiscent of Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, Cander’s novel delves into the often unexplainable genesis of artistic inspiration and examines how family legacy—the physical objects people inherit, the genetic traits people carry on, and the generational lore people internalize—can both ignite imagination and limit its scope. Cander brilliantly and convincingly expresses music and visual art in her writing, capturing both within a near-alien but surprisingly stunning landscape.”
99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan KochaiHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about 99 Nights in Logar: “Kochai’s debut is an imaginative, enthralling, and lyrical exploration of coming home—and coming-of-age—set amid the political tensions of modern Afghanistan. Twelve-year-old Marwand returns to his family’s village of Logar in 2005—and on the very first day, has the tip of his index finger bitten off by the compound’s fearsome guard dog, Budabash. Marwand, with his cousin, two ‘little uncles’” and younger brother, then vow ‘jihad against Budabash’—as soon as they can find the runaway hound. The seemingly Huck Finn–like tale, however, slowly evolves into a mesmerizing collection of stories, first narrated by Marwand (who recounts the vicious beating he gave an old mutt when the family first settled in Afghanistan in 1999) and set against the backdrop of a war-torn region. Through nightly conversations in the family compound, Marwand discovers that talk ‘always seemed to circle back to war.’ His 99-day-long search for the devil dog Budabash is filled with the stories of events both real and imagined: a family wedding, a mysterious illness that takes down the household, and finally the dreamlike clash between Marwand and Budabash. Kochai is a masterful storyteller, and will leave readers eager for the next tale.”
The Eulogist by Terry GambleHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Eulogist: “Gamble’s third novel (after Good Family) concerns the lives of the Givens siblings, Irish immigrants who start over in 1819 Cincinnati. Olivia, the book’s strong-willed narrator, takes a shine to like-minded doctor Silas Orpheus, who admires her distaste for religion and allows her to surreptitiously dissect corpses with him. Olivia’s older brother, James, a successful candle maker who married rich, is initially reluctant to give his blessing for their marriage, as Silas’s disreputable brother, Eugene, sends a slave, Tilly, in lieu of a proper dowry. Olivia and Tilly become friendly, and Tilly helps her set up her own business doing hair. Olivia’s ambivalence toward slavery dissipates when Silas dies and she meets Eugene’s family on their Kentucky property. When Olivia enlists the help of her younger brother, Erasmus, now a Methodist preacher living on a river encampment, to help lead one of the slaves to freedom, Eugene retaliates by demanding that Tilly be returned. Since Ohio is a free state, an ill-fated trial ensues. Olivia and her family are thereafter pulled into the movement to smuggle slaves to freedom. Gamble adeptly chronicles Olivia’s transformation from a free-thinking but unaffected young woman into a determined widow who wants to indirectly avenge Tilly. This is a standout depiction of family dynamics, and will appeal to fans of fiction set in pre–Civil War America.”
Also on shelves: Hear Our Defeats by Laurent Gaudé and Castle on the River Vistula by Michelle Tea (which you can read an excerpt of here).