A Good Country

New Price:
Used Price:

Mentioned in:

A Year in Reading: Shanthi Sekaran

2017. The best I can say for 2017 is that it showed us new and unexpected ways to be punched in the stomach. But there were good things. I’ll focus on the good things. My book came out, for one. My kids grew a few inches. My kids, period. I discovered non-dairy cashew ice cream. I met Eva Longoria. That was cool. I met Mohsin Hamid, whose every book I’ve read, including his latest, Exit West, a spare and sublime fairy tale steeped in the realism of civil war and refugee flight.

2017 was also the year I found two fantastic writing partners. We met almost every Wednesday at a café in Oakland for writing and no talking, followed by lunch and non-stop talking. One of those writers is Nayomi Munaweera, whose first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, I finally got around to reading. You know when your friend writes a play or belts out a song or makes a working beehive out of marzipan and you’re like, “Oh, good God”? I read most of this novel sitting stick-straight, my mouth agape, quietly cursing. Yes, I’d known about the Sri Lankan Civil War, but only vaguely. I knew Tamils were involved, because I’m half Tamil, but that’s where my knowledge ended. This book took my marginal knowledge, fashioned it into a dagger, and drove it straight into my chest. It gives us the stories of both Sinhalese and Tamil families before, after, and during the war. The bloodshed is brutal and perpetrated by both sides, and it spills over family loyalties, inter-community romance, and post-migratory memory.

When it came to reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy’s first novel in 20 years, I thought I was on stronger footing. I know India. I’ve written about India. I know Indian history. But Roy forced me to look at Indian progress in a way that was both uncomfortable and revelatory. She looks past the facades of India’s vast new malls, its gleaming tech centers and hotels; she takes us out the back door to meet the people who’ve been left behind because they don’t fit the contours of shiny new India. Her novel offers up contemporary India on an overladen platter, to be considered not for its particularities, but for its panorama.

While Roy’s novel is about the intentional blindness necessitated by economic development, Chilean author Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red takes on the experience of actually going blind—something that happened to the author herself. What got to me, ironically, was the book’s vision. It’s not often that I read something that provides such pleasure merely through perspective. Lina, the narrator, establishes instant intimacy with her reader, who has no choice but to follow, like someone strapped to a toboggan, hurtling through the viscerality of going blind (suddenly, bloodily) and the interpersonal crises that ensue.

I turned 40 this year. Not much of a surprise there. I pretty much knew it was going to happen. One thing I didn’t expect was a package in the mail with a book in it and no indication of who sent it to me. This wasn’t a galley seeking a blurb. This was an old book, its cover tattered and faded. The edition was printed in 1956. The title was Gift from the Sea: An Answer to the Conflicts in Our Lives,  by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (wife of Charles). It was a beautiful thing to receive, its mystery compounding its beauty. It’s not often I get to read old books; my reading and writing lives are steeped in the contemporary. Gift from the Sea is a sort of manual on living and seeking contentment. But it doesn’t claim to have any answers. It elegantly, and quite humbly, invites its reader to think quietly alongside it, like two people on a beach.

In February, I picked up a book called The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan, an Irish writer who lives in California now. I have a thing for the Irish generally, and for Irish literature, specifically. Rohan’s book takes on the issue of teenage suicide, a growing epidemic in Ireland. The story itself is less about the decision to die than the decision to live. It’s told through the eyes of Billy Brennan, a morbidly obese man whose son has recently killed himself. We meet Billy as he decides to take control of his body, and to stage a long-distance walk to raise awareness for suicide, a notion that some find inspiring and others—including Billy’s own family—find distasteful. What I love most about this book is the way it grapples with the discomforts of tragedy—the embarrassment that often closes a suffocating fist around family trauma. What results is a novel that embraces possibility, and champions a man burdened by grief, but brave enough to naysay the naysayers.

And then there was the day in July when I went to Pegasus Books in Berkeley. I picked up Winter Journal by Paul Auster. To be honest, I picked it up because I’ve always loved the picture on its cover: black and white, taken sometime in the 60s, Auster with that dark-ringed serial killer gaze, his lower lip thrust out brattishly, brooding and Heathcliffian. I turn back to the book now, and try to find the sentences that first grabbed me, that made it impossible to put that book down. Because that’s what happened. I’d never been much of an Auster fan, but there was something about that book. Looking back, I see that there was no single magical sentence, but a propulsion of sentences, a frank and snowballing narrative that was impossible to put down. Written in the second person, the book is a meditation on aging bodies, aging hearts. I took Winter Journal on vacation with me. I read it mostly in a hammock. I didn’t put it down for six days.

Books on aging, books on childhood. Mostly, I read books for children. Hundreds, maybe, each year. I read to my two sons every night. This was the year I finally threw a Power Rangers book in the recycling bin. I hated that book. My four-year-old loved it. I don’t feel guilty. I couldn’t read that book one more time. Not one more time. The children’s books I did love from this year: The Mysterious Benedict Society, Nicholas and the Gang, Wonder, and Frog and Toad Are Friends. I will always, always, go back to Frog and Toad.

And there were so many other books I haven’t even started to talk about: Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua, The End of My Career by Martha Grover, Get It While You Can by Nick Jaina, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, Broad Strokes by Bridget Quinn, A Good Country  by Laleh Khadivi.  The year doesn’t sound so bad, if I look only at the books. Maybe this will be how I survive 2018—looking only at the books, hearing and speaking only their words. But books are physical manifestations of vision’s triumph. The writers above have dared to sift through blindness, to look and to report what they see. And isn’t this what books are? Missives from the front lines? But I need a break. I need to not see. This winter, I will hibernate. I’ll watch pointless comedies. I’ll read horoscopes like they’re The Bible. Maybe I’ll read The Bible. And then I’ll return. 2018. I’ll return, ready to see again.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: R.O. Kwon

The other night, at a party, someone asked if I consider my writing to be political. I said no, but also yes, always, what else can it be, since I’m an immigrant, a woman, and a person of color, living in a time and place in which more or less every aspect of who I am has been politicized. Every day, to pull up the news is to see part, or parts, of myself attacked, threatened, and marginalized.

And it’s not just the news. Not long after the 2016 elections, my parents were in a minor car accident. A car drove into the parking space next to theirs; the stranger’s car scraped my mother’s open door—no big deal, you might think, except that the other driver, the one at fault, lost it. He yelled at my parents. He terrified my mother, one of the gentlest women I know. What did he yell? The tired obvious: “Go back to your country,” he shouted, standing in a parking lot, in my hometown, where my parents have lived the past 25 years. My father shouted back. “This is my country,” he said, sure of himself, defying the racist shit spitting in his face.

As I look back at my year in reading, I’m thinking of my parents. A word about methodology: since any list like this leaves out more than it can include, I’ll call out writers of Asian descent whose fictional worlds have been, for me, lifelines. Also, I prize and require short stories and essays and poems and memoirs, but my first love, my lifelong obsession is the novel, so I’ll limit myself to long-form fiction; finally, I’ll restrict this round-up to books by women because it’s 2017, and, my god, what a year it’s been for us. But dear Umma and Abba: fuck that guy in the parking lot. This is your country, and this write-up’s for you.

All hail Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, a tender, brilliant evocation of one woman’s experience of profound loss and gain. I loved, too, Katie Kitamura’s powerful A Separation, about a woman whose husband goes missing on a Greek island. I read it in one hypnotized go. I know you’ve probably already heard you should read Celeste Ng’s thrilling Little Fires Everywhere, but I can’t help adding to the chorus. In addition to its other signal merits, the book includes one of the best portrayals of artistic ambition I’ve read since I don’t know when.

Some of the writing I most crave, these days, is fiction that finds its way into what’s often called unimaginable. Along these lines, I admired A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi and Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, novels that incisively, wisely imagine the lives of people drawn to religious extremism. Jimin Han’s impressive A Small Revolution brings to life a different kind of terrorist, one so much more prevalent in this gun-crazed country of ours: the angry man who goes on a shooting rampage.

I was riveted by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You and Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, both of which feature those most maligned of women, mothers who leave their sons. In the haunting Lucky Boy, Shanthi Sekaran spotlights a different kind of parent-child split, when an undocumented woman loses her child to foster care. Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is centered upon a sister’s loss, and is by turns startling, harrowing, and compassionate.

Chemistry by Weike Wang is a funny and beguiling account of a graduate student uncertain if she wants to keep pursuing a life in chemistry. There’s also Dina Nayeri’s big-hearted Refuge, about the plight of a geographically divided family, as well as Arundhati Roy’s epic, vital The Ministry of Utmost Unhappiness. Finally, especially in these hateful times, I want everyone to read Min Jin Lee’s much-lauded Pachinko, a novel chronicling some of the challenges endured by Korean immigrants in Japan.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

May Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

| 1

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. For more May titles, check out the Great First-Half 2017 Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments.

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: The seven stories in Murakami’s new collection concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone. In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend. (Emily)
 

Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford: *SIREN* This is the first work of nonfiction by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the extraordinary Bascombe novels. The book, a memoir, explores the lives of Ford’s Arkansas-born mother and father as people and parents, and illustrates a kind of mid-century American life along the way. Ford recently appeared in The Guardian with this recollected gem, which we may assume is exemplary: “Where I was concerned, my mother at best only tolerated (reluctantly) my high school friends, and seemed to prefer I not have any. It was just simpler for her. She consistently disparaged them as if they were criminals (indeed, some were), and would often drive them out of the house because of something they’d said (or she thought they’d said) – usually without ever telling me why.” (Lydia)

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Our own Lepucki has always had keen insight into the psyches of women — particularly so-called “difficult” protagonists. Her first novel, California, may have been about a family surviving the end of society, but it was really a post-apocalyptic domestic drama full of sharp wit and observations. Her sophomore effort is more grounded in reality but equally cutting. Lady is a writer struggling to raise her two kids and finish her memoir when she hires S. to help, but the artist becomes more than just a nanny for Lady’s eldest troubled son. (Tess M.)

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal: Satyal’s novel takes place in a suburb near Cleveland and tells the story of Harit and Ranjana, who are both Indian immigrants experiencing loss. Harit’s sister has passed away and he’s caring for his mother; Ranjana’s son has left to college and she’s worrying her husband is having an affair. These two characters form a friendship amidst grief and self-discovery in a novel that is both heartfelt and funny. (Zoë)
 
 

The Purple Swamp Hen by Penelope Lively: Across her many wonderful books, Lively has ranged from low farce (How It All Began) to high feeling (Moon Tiger), from children’s literature to a memoir on old age. Now comes her fourth story collection, the first in 20 years. The title story draws on reliably entertaining source material: the meretricious lives of Roman rulers. Robert Graves turned to a stammering Claudius for his narrator, Lively to a less exalted personage: a purple swamp hen. Other stories involve trouble: a husband and wife working their way out of it, and a betrayed wife doing her best to cause some for her husband. (Matt)

A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi: This is a follow-up to The Age of Orphans and The Walking, which respectively tell the story of a conscripted Iranian Kurd during the 1920s, and his son, a young man who comes to California following the Revolution. A Good Country follows the latter’s son, a teen surfer in Laguna Beach who becomes radicalized through a complex process of alienation from his community, spurred by global and local events, and eventually travels to Syria with his girlfriend. (Lydia)
 
 

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris: The book after Ferris’s Man Booker shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a collection of short stories. The title story, first published by The New Yorker in 2008, is about a couple who invite a boring couple over to dinner (“even their goddam surprises are predictable,”) only to be surprised when the boring couple manage to surprise by not showing up. The collection pulls together stories that promise the, “deeply felt yearnings, heartbreaking absurdity, and redemptive humor of life,” for which Ferris is so well known. (Claire)

The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description. The novel is the story of Deming Gao, the son of a Chinese-American immigrant mother who, one day, never returns home from work. Adopted by white college professors, Deming is renamed and remade in their image — but his past haunts him. (Nick R.)

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: First published in Kenya to wide acclaim; now published stateside by Oakland-based newcomer Transit Books with an introduction by New Inquiry editor Aaron Bady. Kintu is a retelling of Ugandan history over centuries through a single family. A starred Publishers Weekly review calls it “a masterpiece of cultural memory.” Book Riot put it thus: “passionate, original, and sharply observed, the novel decenters colonialism and makes Ugandan experience primary.” (Lydia)
 

My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: The editor of The New York Times Book Review has kept a “book of books,” or “Bob,” as she calls it, for twenty-eight years. This catalogue of things read has, naturally, taken on a life of its own, coming to serve as a reminder of where its author was in the world and in her career or personal life, and what a particular book had to say to her at that particular moment. Kirkus calls it “a thoughtfully engaging memoir of a life in books.” (Lydia)
 

Isadora by Amelia Gray. The endlessly inventive Gray (whose story “Labyrinth” from The New Yorker is a gem) creates a fictional interpretation of Isadora Duncan, once described as the “woman who put the Modern into Modern Dance.” A dancer who mixed the classical, sacred, and sensual, Duncan is the perfect subject matter for Gray; if a writer can expertly resurrect the Theseus myth at a small-town fair, then she can do justice to a life as inspiring — and tragic — as Duncan’s. (Nick R.)
 
 
 

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul. Ah, the current frontrunner for Most Relatable Title of the Year. The Canadian writer’s debut essay collection is “about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Western culture, addressing sexism, stereotypes, and the universal miseries of life.” Fans of her work online will be eager to see her on the printed page. Canadian journalist (and Koul’s former journalism professor) Kamal Al-Solaylee said of her writing, “To me, she possesses that rarest of gifts: a powerful, identifiable voice that can be heard and appreciated across platforms and word counts.” (Elizabeth)

Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: Newly published in the United States by Cassava Republic Press, this debut novel won Nigeria’s largest award — the $100,000 NLNG prize awarded every four years. The novel received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, with the reviewer describing the book as an “excellent first novel [that] tells of the unlikely romance between a Muslim widow and a dope-dealing street tough amidst the troubles that each faces.”(Lydia)
 
 

Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick: An essay collection on motherhood, motherlands, and home from the editor of Vela, a magazine that publishes travel writing by women. Menkedick’s journalism has appeared in many outlets (read her latest on “The Making of a Mexican-American Dream” in Pacific Standard); these essays are written in a meditative, diaristic register, as she trades a peripatetic existence to return to her family farm in Ohio and prepare for the birth of her first child. (Lydia)

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR