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.
“No story is ever told just once… We will return to it an hour later and re-tell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in. In this way history is organized.”In 1978, and again two years later, Michael Ondaatje left his Toronto home and embarked on an ancestral odyssey – destination Ceylon. Now Sri Lanka, it was Ceylon in his youth. It was his childhood. It was the courtship of his parents, the setting for endless hours of family stories, in all their re-tellings. Ceylon was his history, and echoes of it are captured in his 1982 memoir Running in the Family.Asia. An ancient whisper of a word. Wrapped around the island of Ceylon, the seducer of all of Europe. Dutch, English, Portuguese have all fallen for its charms. Ceylon has been “the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword, or bible, or language.”More than traveling from Canada to this storied land, Ondaatje journeyed back through time, through generations. It was a journey to 1970s Sri Lanka, but also to his childhood in the 40s and 50s, and back further still to the land of his parents in the 20s and 30s.To Jaffna in the north he traveled, to the Dutch-built 18th century fortressed home of his Aunt Phyllis and his improbably named Uncle Ned. Phyllis was the keeper of the family stories and she held court telling and re-telling tales of eccentrics long gone. “We are still recovering from her gleeful resume of the life and death of one foul Ondaatje who was ‘savaged to pieces by his own horse.'”In Nuwara Eliya in the 20s and 30s everyone “was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations.” There was Francis, who once attacked his wife in an alcoholic haze. Riddled with guilt, he tried to drown himself in a lake. And he might have succeeded if that part of the lake had more than one foot of water. Francis was the social pivot around which Ondaatje’s father’s society swirled. He hosted parties on the rubber estate where he worked, and lived on a steady diet of Gin and Tonic. Around him, the charmed group was part of a lost world. And when he died, the party was over. “What seemed to follow was a rash of marriages.”Ondaatje’s father Mervyn had a thing about trains. There was the drunken occasion when he stripped naked and leapt from a moving train as it entered a tunnel. And another time when he stopped a moving train by threatening to kill the driver with his army pistol if he didn’t wait for his friend who was stranded in Colombo. But none of his train escapades matches the tale of Mervyn’s ongoing feud with someone through the pages of “comment/complaint” books at a succession of roadside rest-houses.Ondaatje’s mother Doris, whose patience with Mervyn eventually reached an end, could take the smallest incident or reaction and explode it into a myth-making epic. With a husky, wheezing laugh, she could turn one into a footnote to one’s own action. But this kept their generation alive, this oral mythologizing.Running in the Family is storytelling from all angles. There are Ondaatje’s narrative accounts of his visits. There are tales told by his aunts sifted through Ondaatje’s narrative pen. There are direct first person accounts from friends and family who remember the events in question, told in their voices, sometimes vying for the reader’s attention. There are poems and photos to flesh out the picture. But at its heart, this is oral family history. Its focus is small, direct. It’s not meant to be an expansive travelogue of a foreign land, though so strong is Ondaatje’s narration that your senses will be filled with the heat. With the breezes and monsoons. With the luxurious wafting aromas from the kitchens. But it’s the people that linger the most, and we fully understand the effect that all these voices, conjuring up all these ghosts, have on Ondaatje.”During waking hours, at certain times in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from earlier generations that were destroyed.”See Also: A new novel from Ondaatje, Divisadero, has just been published.
As I did in 2005 and 2006, I’ve decided to open this year looking ahead to some of the exciting or intriguing titles that we’ll be talking about over the next few months.Possibly the biggest literary arrival of this young year will be that of Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest later this month. Unfortunately for some fans, the book is not the long hoped for sequel to Harlot’s Ghost, a book that Mailer abandoned for this one, according to an interview. With this effort Mailer treads into charged territory, chronicling the early life of Adolf Hitler from the point of view of the devil or something like it. The curious can read an excerpt of the book that appeared in the January issue of Esquire.Also coming right around the corner is House of Meetings by Martin Amis. The book came out in the UK in September where John Banville in The Independent named it a “Book of the Year.” The reviews have been generally good. The Observer called it a “compact tour de force.” The Guardian was slightly more skeptical saying that the book is “an attempt to compress the past 60 years of Russian history into 200 pages, delivered as the monologue of someone whose name we’re never told; an ambitious plan, held together by the sound of a voice.”Also this month, Paul Auster’s latest book Travels in the Scriptorium comes out. It sounds like another inscrutable, postmodern tale from Auster, this time starring a protagonist named Mr. Blank. In this case, Auster’s inward looking tendencies are amplified as the book references many of his previous works. At both Condalmo and Strange Horizons, this particular Auster experiment has been deemed less successful.Louis Begley, author of About Schmidt, has Matters of Honor coming out this month. It starts with three unlikely roommates at Harvard in the 1950s and goes on to trace how the diverging outcomes of their lives came to be. If that sounds like a tired old tale, PW makes the same observation but then brushes it aside: “It’s a story covered by everyone from Cheever to Roth, but Begley finds new and wonderful nuances within it.”Colum McCann’s fourth novel Zoli will hit shelves soon. The book is named for a Roma (or Gypsy) woman in Slovakia who we follow from her harrowing childhood during World War II to her becoming something of local literary celebrity. Through it all, however, she is unable to escape what her heritage signifies in her Communist bloc country. The book has been out for several months in Ireland and the UK where The Guardian hailed McCann’s “near pitch-perfect control of character and narrative.” For those who want a taste, a pdf excerpt from the book is available.Another big name with a new book out this year is Jane Smiley, whose Ten Days in the Hills arrives in February. Hills is being billed as Smiley’s “LA Novel” (note that Jonathan Lethem’s “LA Novel” arrives in March). PW sums it all up rather well: “Smiley delivers a delightful, subtly observant sendup of Tinseltown folly, yet she treats her characters, their concern with compelling surfaces and their perpetual quest to capture reality through artifice, with warmth and seriousness. In their shallowness, she finds a kind of profundity.” On the other hand, I’m not convinced that the world needs another literary look at the Hollywood-caricature side of LA.February will also see the arrival of Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio. This is Alarcon’s first novel, following his collection of stories, War by Candlelight, which was a finalist for the 2006 PEN Hemingway Award. Alarcon likely came to many readers’ attention in 2003, when his story “City of Clowns” was featured in the New Yorker debut fiction issue. This new book scored a blurb from Edward P. Jones – “Mr. Alarcon, like the best storytellers, reveals to us that the world we have secreted in our hearts spins in a bigger universe with other hearts just as good and just as bad as our own.” – always a good sign.Also in February, a new book will arrive from Nuruddin Farah, quite likely the best known Somali novelist and the winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998. Knots is about Cambara, a Somalian woman who has emigrated to Canada, where a crisis sends her on a journey back to Somalia. Farah is known for his strong female protagonists and this book appears to be no exception. Knots gets a glowing review from PW – “Despite its heavy subject, joy suffuses the novel” – and Farah will likely continue to be discussed as a potential Nobel winner.It would be strange to read a book by Jonathan Lethem that wasn’t deeply rooted in his hometown of Brooklyn, but readers will get that chance in March when You Don’t Love Me Yet arrives. The book is set in Los Angeles, but, while Fortress of Solitude had some amusing LA moments set in the office of a Hollywood agent, this new book concerns itself with the city’s grungier east side neighborhoods, home to a star-crossed indie rock band whose members are classic LA misfits. Early accounts at PW and this bookseller’s blog have found the book to be funny and entertaining but not up to par with the author’s earlier efforts.If you’ll indulge me in allowing a little non-fiction to sneak into this post, please note that William T. Vollmann has a new book coming out in March called Poor People, a rather slim tome, weighing in it at just 464 pages. This is the book that Vollmann mentioned when Ed and Scott saw him read back in spring 2005. From Scott’s post: “Vollman is currently working on a book about the experiences of poor people in different countries. He says he asks everyone why they think they are poor, and the answers greatly vary. He says most of the Thais told him it’s because they were bad in a previous life. Most of the Mexicans he spoke to told him it was because the rich stole from them.”A book by Columbian writer Laura Restrepo will hit American shores in March. Delirium was originally written in 2004 and follows the life of a struggling literature professor who must investigate what has caused his wife to go insane. The book bears an impressive array of blurbs befitting a writer of Restrepo’s stature (if not here, then overseas), including raves from Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harold Bloom, and Vikram Seth.We’ll also see a new novel from Kurt Andersen co-founder of the influential magazine Spy and host of the public radio show Studio 360. Heyday is set in the mid-19th century and it follows an immigrant, recently arrived on bustling American shores, who falls in with a group heading west, lured by the California Gold Rush. Random House calls the book “an enthralling, old-fashioned yarn interwoven with a bracingly modern novel of ideas.” A short story about two of the book’s main characters appeared in Metropolis in 2003.Debut novelist Joshua Ferris already has a backer in Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who says Then We Came To The End is “a humane and affecting book.” Mark also included the novel in his contribution to the Year in Reading series where he said that this “hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change [his] mind about MFAs.” Of course, Mark is fully aware that we all might not share his particular tastes, so he convinced publisher Little, Brown to let him publish the book’s first chapter at TEV, where you can now check it out for yourself.Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver also has a new book coming in March, The Post-Birthday World. PW describes as “impressive if exhausting” this novel that explores what might have been if its children’s book illustrator protagonist had given into temptation and pursued an affair. Following the success of Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and the subsequent re-release of her back catalog, The Post-Birthday World marks her first new effort since hitting the literary big time.The Savage Detectives, originally published in 1998 by the late Roberto Bolano, will arrive in April. The book has already appeared in other languages, which is how Francois of Tabula Rasa came to read it. he shared his reactions with us as a part of the Year in Reading series: “Pure bliss! In turn coming-of-age story, roman noir, literary quest, this is a real tour de force, reminiscent of Julio Cortazar and Jack Kerouac while remaining deeply original. Bolano passed away in 2003. He was fifty years old, and I just can’t help thinking about what else might have been coming from him.” New Directions, meanwhile, will publish a translation of Bolano’s novella Amulet in January.There’s not much available yet on Dani Shapiro’s new book arriving in April. Buzz Girl notes that Black and White is “about mothers and daughters set in New York and Maine.” The book follows Shapiro’s well received 2003 book Family History.The biggest literary month of 2007 might be May which will start with the much anticipated, much delayed publication of Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon’s first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a thriller set in an imaginary world inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s short-lived plan during WWII to create a Jewish homeland in Alaska, rather than the Middle East. Sounds interesting, no? We’ve been following this book for quite some time now, as it was originally set to be released nearly a year ago. But Chabon put the brakes on the project when he decided it was moving along too fast.Yet another big name author with a new book out this year is Haruki Murakami, whose book After Dark hits shelves in May. The book was originally published in Japan in 2004, and has already been translated into some other languages, including Dutch. In keeping with the title, the novel tracks a number of nocturnal characters who dwell in Tokyo and have the sorts of encounters that tend to occur in the wee hours of the morning. Murakami’s typical melding of dream and reality will be familiar to readers of this new novel as well. Still, I join Scott Esposito in hoping that Murakami breaks new ground with this new book.Also in May: the arrival of Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Not much available on this one yet, save a stray synopsis or two. The novel begins with a family on a farm in northern California in the 1970s and moves to the casinos of Nevada, at which point a “traumatic event” breaks the family apart. The pieces are put back together in the novel’s second part, which takes place “in the stark landscape of south-central France.” Like I said, not much to go on just yet.Susanna Moore, best known for her novel In the Cut, has a new book coming out in May. The Big Girls is based on Moore’s experience teaching writing in a federal prison in New York, and one early look at the novel found it to be, as one might expect, fairly disturbing. It’ll be interesting to see other opinions of what sounds like a very emotionally charged book.The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins will arrive in June. Wiggins’ last book, Evidence of Things Unseen, was a National Book Award finalist in 2003. This new book is a historical novel about the Old West photographer Edward Curtis.I’ll close the list with two additional non-fiction books that I’m particularly looking forward to. Pete Dexter has a collection of his old newspaper columns coming out called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. A number of the columns are from his time in Philadelphia, which should be of particular interest for me, since the city is now my home. In addition, I’ve always felt that the old school newspaperman’s sensibility that Dexter brings to his fiction is one of his most appealing qualities as a writer, so I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to delve into the pure stuff, as it were. Another journalist whose new collection is, for me, hotly anticipated is Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski is a Polish writer who, to me, is unsurpassed in his chronicling of the so-called Third World and its forgotten wars and struggles. I don’t yet know what his latest, Travels with Herodotus, will cover, but I know I’ll be reading it.While long, this list is by no means exhaustive, so please use the comments to share what you’re looking forward to reading in 2007.