1.“Writing poetry after Auschwitz,” the sociologist Theodor Adorno proclaimed in 1951, “is barbaric.” This particular phrase has become so famous because it is both transparently false—ask Levi about that one—and, on a gut level, powerfully true. There is no real connection between aesthetics and reality, and artists are basically foolish if they believe they can alter the course of history. But, if art is in one sense the processing of reality, how can an artist truly hope to process that which, in all its horror and incoherence, resists interpretation?
According to the UNHCR, some 68.5 million people are currently displaced around the world, more than at any time since the end of World War II. Refugees, by definition, are people we become concerned with only when they have been driven from their lives and into our own. As depicted in media, they tend to be denationalized, an essentially undifferentiated mass lacking a past or a future, with only an eternally tragic present. They are defined, wholly, by their displacement. But life is not only catastrophe; it begins before the disruption and, hopefully, continues afterward. Tragedies can define lives when nothing is done to ameliorate them. This, in a sense, is the dilemma that refugees pose for the countries they flee to: Can their new countries do what needs to be done to facilitate a life deserving of a person’s dignity?
Can a novel measure up to the life of even one displaced person? Per W.H. Auden, it seems unlikely. The structure of the novel, which demands drama and plot—action, in other words—is ill-suited to the stuff of life, which is alternately chaotic, incomprehensible, and boring. Even the most straightforward and realistic novel is a combination of the internal and the external, the literal and the metaphorical. And “the trouble,” as Parul Sehgal wrote for the New York Times in 2016, “is that the migrant is not a metaphor.” A number of prize-winning books, as well as some recent translations, have attempted to make sense of the above dicta, and to find some way to make their mark on this reality. Where they succeed depends as much on which side of the above dichotomy—the life or the disruption—as on how they go about it.
2.All for Nothing, originally published in 2006 but newly translated this year by New York Review Books, tells the story of the Georgenhof, an old East Prussian estate that lies “in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.” Walter Kempowski intends to make the building, with its flooded basement and gardens and “battered metal finial in the shape of a mace,” stand out for the reader as surely as it would for a passerby on the road below. It is January 1945, and the von Globigs—mother Katherina, son Peter, dog Jago, as well as Auntie from Silesia, the tutor Dr. Wagner, and the servants from Poland and Ukraine—play host to a trickling of refugees, a political economist and a violinist and an artist on crutches, a number that swells to a flood by the book’s end. Those from the east tell of the approaching Russians, though the threat seems infinitely distant: “a glow like fire on the horizon, and a rumble that rose and fell in the distance.” Their lives go on until, suddenly, they don’t.
This is a novel with the steady rhythm of breathing. It flickers in and out of the past, to peacetime and the war before that; even the Napoleonic conquest hangs over their heads, in the ruins of the old Georgenhof, torched by the French in crazed retreat. Its characters calibrate and recalibrate themselves by the approach of conflict, fleeing to towns that go on as normally as theirs once had, only to fall into disarray and flee elsewhere again. The refugees, as they see themselves, have not been remade because of the realm of violence they have entered. Looking at a photo, Peter thinks: “A perfectly normal woman and perfectly normal daughter.” They possess no special quality that makes them refugees. Their lives have simply been unmade by what we would now call history.
Richard, too, is interested in the things which make and unmake our world. The narrator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is a recently retired classics professor, wiling away a long draw-down in complacent silence. After he comes across a protest by refugees camping in the center of Berlin, he spends much of the book reading, researching laws, compacts, news articles; he even breaks the cardinal law of the internet and reads the comments. This brings him to an intellectual understanding of the predicament of his refugee neighbors. But, as he increasingly discovers, this is not enough, not close. “Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche,” goes one of the book’s best lines, “but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food.”
The majority of Go, Went, Gone is delivered via one-on-one interviews between Richard and the people who, because they have been driven from their home countries or fled poverty and hunger, are known to him as refugees. He asks them all sorts of questions: What country are you from? What people has its home in Niger? What is it like to be a slave? This may sound dry, but it is emphatically not. The stories that emerge are heartbreaking, edifying, and hard to situate. The refugees, whether the Nigerian Rashid, who explains the celebration of Eid, or Karon, who wants to buy a plot of land for his family back in Ghana, are not well-meaning abstractions or straw men. They are people, they have stories, and they tell them. Their uncertain status in no way dictates the content of their lives, in the way that it completely defines them for us. Their statelessness is not an existential threat to our nations, our life ways. It is a transitory condition that cannot hope to encapsulate the full humanity that it disrupts.
Richard, a former citizen of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, cannot believe in the supposed inviolability of borders and the importance of national identities, because he saw both crumble in his own lifetime; he knows the fragility of European self-confidence. “In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, though the view out of the window remained the same.” Erpenbeck guides us through Richard’s internal contradictions—his late wife, a doomed affair and a dully impending future—with the same confidence that the refugees convey their own experiences. Each has lived a life that is, in its own way, a mixture of the emblematic and the extraordinary. “Did it matter,” he wonders, “what something was called?”
Erpenbeck writes about a structure which very much cares what it calls itself. She depicts a purgatorial system that traps the desperate inside of an iron code, where unfathomable punishments are doled out for insignificant transgressions. Refugees, Richard learns, can be refused asylum for not properly registering at their point of entry, for not returning to that point of entry after a mandated period, for taking too many free rides on the bus. “The iron law knows all of this.” Refugees do not have to follow the law: They must surmount it, convincing the residents of their new home that they are not only fleeing violence, or poverty, or hunger, but have done so in total compliance with a law that natives routinely ignore. Riding the bus without a transit pass results in a German getting a fine; for a refugee like Rufu, it can upend their life forever. This is a form of second-class status that applies even to citizens: Think of recent proposals in Denmark, whereby an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, who does not raise their children with properly “Danish” values can lose custody of those children or even go to jail, while a Dane who refuses to celebrate Christmas, or, in the latest legislation, refuses to shake a woman’s hand, remains a Dane. To be stateless, Richard discovers, is to be subject to a law outside the law.
3.The most acclaimed stateless novel, by far, comes from the British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. 2017’s Exit West, bestselling and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, concerns Saeed and Nadia, who meet “in a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace,” that becomes increasingly less so over the course of the book. Their unnamed middle eastern city becomes occupied by fundamentalists and bombarded by government forces, and eventually they make the decision, as a couple, to mirror the title and flee through a magical door in a disused doctor’s office to Greece, England, and eventually the United States. They join a camp on the beach, occupy a tony house in London, work at a food co-op in California. They drift apart, and their relationship falls to pieces by the end.
Hamid’s writing is feather-light, evoking fables and folk tales in its generality. “The city” remains the city, “the militants” never more than militants. The pair might as well be Hansel and Gretel for all we learn about them. His magical realism allows him to easily bridge the West and the rest, and he inserts brief, speculative vignettes that probe how an easier migration between the two might shape lives on both sides of the doors. These characters, whether a lonely Londoner or elderly Mexican painter, are sharply defined, and one wishes Hamid had written the protagonist-less novel he hints at here. A generation of uprooted people deserves a polyphonic rendering to do justice to the multiplicity of its perspectives, an Invisible Cities for all-but-invisible people.
Hamid wants to write both a planet-scale story and a tenderly felt romance, and the result is a book that feels slightly inhuman. His light touch loses control, spiraling into the unlikely and the fantastic. We get a military build-up outside occupied districts in London, Japanese gangsters chasing Filipinos down alleys, a flood of refugees that quickly remakes the societies into which it exits. Every event is titanic in scale, hysterical in effect. None of it hits, and even the knottiest questions dissipate into air. Even the novel’s most reflective portions, which discourse on the nature of identity, the shades of “nativeness” that accompany any place that has seen its own waves of dis- and replacement, feel essentially speculative. His novel about refugees frequently threatens to become an exercise in novels about the idea of being a refugee. He sometimes forgets, to paraphrase Sehgal, that the refugee is not a vessel, not a construct. They are a person.
4.Erpenbeck thanks 13 refugees at the end of her book. Kempowski, who was born in East Prussia and fled the end of the war, writes from his life. Both authors traffic in specificity, and their characters and stories could never be swapped out for other, more generic forms. In Go, Went, Gone we hear the many refugees explain themselves, their histories, their wants and desires, understanding that they share what they think Richard, and by extension the reader, will be able to grasp. They play up certain details, hide others, and must find a way to fit all of them into this new and uncertain world. Richard himself receives an incredible amount of attention: The final moment of the book involves a revealed shame from his own past, connected suddenly with the men around him. But he is folded always back into the world of the refugee, each story bolstering every other.
Kempowski’s Gogolian method eases us into many perspectives, giving us glimpses of just about every character’s interior life. We hear from Peter, Auntie, a Baltic Baron and Jewish hideaway; even the horse and the dog get their say. Every moment is weighted equally, even once they have to flee their homes and suffer random and horrific violence. They, like us, cannot see what is coming. They can only hold on to what matters and search out the life they want to live.
What all these characters are searching for, acknowledged or not, is that exact thing we read novels to escape: banality. Again and again, Erpenbeck’s refugees and the residents of the Georgenhof turn from their extreme, extraordinary circumstances to the basics of life, recalling families, jobs, routines upturned in a flash. Katherina, held by the police, wants only to talk about a romantic weekend with the town mayor. Dr. Wagner spends the final afternoon of his life wondering how he had avoided reading a certain philosopher. Rashid, driven by Christian violence from Nigeria, talks about his mother, his sisters, his father’s funeral. They are consumed by cycles of order and disorder, banality and disruption, but they never stop living, never cease in their personhood.
These novels exist at a fundamental distance, that of the foreigner, the survivor. Richard remains as divided from his many counterparts as Kempowski does from his autobiographical protagonist, separated by birth, language, time. Their authors look onto the subjects with a certain cold acuity. And yet both provide fuller and more humane portraits than Exit West, a book that struggles mightily to embody the specific experience of displacement. The trouble is that Hamid is looking in, too, even if his writing rarely acknowledges it. He wants to represent a reality he can see only in its most general forms. The story that emerges is all cursory forms and incidental outlines, prioritizing the easily categorized—drama, tragedy, narrative—over the unspoken and unplaceable. Worst of all, his protagonists are flat, their relationship uninteresting: Because these characters could never carry a book on their own, their lives only become interesting, and therefore valuable, because they have been disrupted, not despite it. Their dignity arises only when they interact with “us” as readers, citizens, hosts. Everything before then might as well be a product of our imaginations.
I don’t want to argue that books need moral content; they don’t. But for a novel that seeks to probe the causes and consequences of our displaced era, this seems wrongheaded. Everyday life is not simply prelude to disaster, banality not a false state waiting for the hammerblow of history; it is the thing itself. Thinking otherwise is a disaster.
“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” Ever since I turned 40—that is to say, for a week now—this final sentence of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” has been rattling around my head. When I first read it, back in college, it landed like a hard left hook, knocking me flat with recognition. (I can’t be alone in this; Cormac McCarthy nicked the phrasing for the end of Blood Meridian.) Right, I thought. Exactly. But now, revisiting the end of “Indian Camp,”‘ I see that my younger self was missing at least half the point: It’s supposed to be ironic! Of course he’s going to die! In fact, maybe that’s why the line has been on my mind, along with Dante’s “mezzo del camin di nostra vita” and Yeats’s “widening gyre” and Larkin’s “long slide.” For though I’ve managed to avoid until now the garment-rending and gnashing of teeth around birthdays (“Age ain’t nothing but a number,” right?) forty really does feel like a delineation. At 39, rocking the Aaliyah quote is still a youthful caprice. At 41, it’s a midlife crisis.
And the fact that I’m no longer immortal would seem to raise some questions about the pursuit I’ve more or less given my life to: reading. Specifically, if you can’t take it with you, what’s the point? Indeed, I now wonder whether the bouts of reader’s block I suffered in 2014 and 2017 had to do not with technological change or familial or political crisis, but with the comparatively humdrum catastrophe of getting older. Yet 2018 found me rejuvenated as a reader. Maybe there was some compensatory quality-control shift in my “to-read” pile (life’s too short for random Twitter) or maybe it was just dumb luck, but nearly every book I picked up this year seemed proof of its own necessity. So you’ll forgive me if I enthuse here at length.
First and foremost, about Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. This Icelandic classic had been on my reading list for almost a decade, but something—its bulk, its ostensible subject (sheep farming), its mythic opening—held me back. Then, this summer, I took a copy to Maine, and as soon as Bjartur of Summerhouses blustered onto the page, the stubbornest hero in all of world literature, I was hooked. As for those sheep: This is a novel about them only in the sense that Lonesome Dove is a novel about cows. And though I love Lonesome Dove, Independent People is much the better book. Laxness’s storytelling offers epic sweep and power, but also, in J.A. Thompson’s stunning translation, modernist depth and daring, along with humor and beauty and pain to rival Tolstoy. In short, Independent People is one of my favorite novels ever.
Also among the best things I read in 2018 were the shorter works that padded out my northern travels: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck. I’m obviously late arriving to the former; there’s not much I can say that you won’t have heard elsewhere, or experienced yourself. (Still: the prose!) Of the latter, I can report that The End of Days is ingenious, as if David Mitchell had attempted Sebald’s The Emigrants. And that Go, Went, Gone, notwithstanding Jonathan Dee’s careful gift-horse inspection in Harper’s, is even better. But for my money, Erpenbeck’s finest novel is Visitation, which manages to pack much of the story of 20th-century Germany into the 190-page description of a country house. In any case, Erpenbeck’s writing, like Robinson’s, seems built to endure.
On the nonfiction front, I spent a week this fall immersed in Thomas de Zengotita’s Politics and Postmodern Theory, a heady, lucid, and ultimately persuasive philosophical recasting of nearly a half-century of academic kulturkampf. Much as Wittgenstein (who gets a chapter here) claimed to resolve certain problems of philosophy by showing them to arise from elementary confusions, de Zengotita seeks to dispel muddles over the legacy of post-structuralism and the Enlightenment thought it ostensibly dismantled. He does so by giving key 20th-century thinkers—Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze, Judith Butler—a rereading that is rigorous, respectful, accessible, and, in important ways, against the grain. As an etiology of the current cultural situation, this book belongs on a shelf with Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism and David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. And, notwithstanding its price tag, anyone who cares deeply about issues of identity and solidarity and being-in-the-world today should heed its lessons.
This was also a year when the new-fiction tables at the bookstore seemed reinvigorated. For my money, the best American novel of 2018 was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, whose urgent blend of social conscience and poetic vision made debates about “reality hunger” and the value of fiction seem not just quaint but fallacious. So, too, with Mathias Énard’s Compass, now in paperback in a crystalline translation by Charlotte Mandell. It would be hard to find a novel more indebted to historical reality, but in its fearless imagination, Compass turns these materials into something properly fictive, rather than factitious—and wholly Énard’s own. And I’d be remiss not to mention Deborah Eisenberg’s story collection Your Duck Is My Duck. Eisenberg writes the American sentence better than anyone else alive, and for anyone who’s followed these stories as they’ve appeared, serially, her brilliance is a given. Read together, though, they’re a jolting reminder of her continued necessity: her resistance to everything that would dull our brains, hearts, and nerves.
And then you could have made a National Book Awards shortlist this year entirely out of debuts. One of the most celebrated was Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man. What I loved about these stories, apart from the Fitzgeraldian grace of Brinkley’s voice, was their tendency to go several steps beyond where a more timid writer might have stopped—to hurl characters and images and incidents well downfield of what the story strictly required and then race to catch up. More important than being uniformly successful, A Lucky Man is uniformly interesting. As is Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. The “unexpected” coda, in my read, put a too-neat bow on things. I’d have enjoyed it even more as an unresolved diptych. But because the novel’s range and hunger are so vast, such asymmetries end up being vital complications of its interests and themes: artifice, power, subjectivity, and truth. They are signs of a writer who aims to do more than simply write what is within her power to know.
Any list of auspicious recent debuts should also include one from the other side of the pond: David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device (from 2017, but still). The novel presents—tantalizingly, for me—as an oral history of the postpunk scene in the Scottish backwater of Airdrie in the early 1980s, yet Keenan’s psychedelic prose and eccentric emphases make it something even more. I was reminded frequently of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and could not fathom why this book was overlooked in the U.S. Hopefully, the publication of a follow-up For the Good Times, will change that.
It was a good year for journalism, too. I’m thinking not of Michael Wolff or (God forbid) Bob Woodward, but of Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times Magazine, and his first book, Boom Town. If there’s one thing less immediately exciting to me than sheep farming, it’s Oklahoma City, which this book promises (threatens?) to explore. On the other hand, I would read Sam Anderson on just about anything. Here, starting with the Flaming Lips, the land-rush of 1889, and the unlikely rise of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, he stages a massive detonation of curiosity, sensibility, and wonder. (Favorite sentence: “Westbrook, meanwhile, started the season Westbrooking as hard as he could possibly Westbrook.”) And as with David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, he leaves you feeling restored to curiosity and wonder yourself.
I’m also thinking of Pam Kelley’s Money Rock, which focuses on the drug trade in 1980s Charlotte. It reminded me, in miniature, of a great book I’d read a few months earlier, David Simon’s sprawling Homicide. Simon and Kelley are sure-handed when sketching the social systems within which we orbit, but what makes these books live is their feel for the human swerve—for Detective Terry McLarney of the Baltimore Homicide Squad or Lamont “Money Rock” Belton, locked up behind the crack game.
This was also the year I started reading J. Anthony Lukas, who, among the ranks of New or New-ish Journalists who emerged in the ’60s, seems to have fallen into comparative neglect. I checked out Nightmare, his book on Nixon, and was edified. Then I moved on to Common Ground, about the struggle to integrate Boston’s school system, and was blown away. With little authorial commentary or judgment, but with exhaustive reporting, Lukas embeds with three families—the Waymons, the McGoffs, and the Drivers—to give us a 360-degree view of a pivotal event in American history. The book has its longeurs, but I can think of few working journalists this side of Adrian Nicole Leblanc who’d be patient enough to bring off its parallactic vision.
In talking to friends about Common Ground, I kept hearing memories of its ubiquity on the coffeetables and library shelves of the 1980s, yet no one my age seemed to have read it. Like Homicide, it hangs in that long middle age where books slowly live or die—not news anymore, but not yet old enough to fall out of print, or to become a “classic.” Recommending these books feels like it might actually make a difference between the two. So here are a few more shout-outs: 1) John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure, from 1996. Anyone who relishes, as I do, the fundamental sanity of Lanchester’s essays will be surprised by the demented glee of his first novel. Its prophetic sendup of foodie affectation throws Proust into a blender with Humbert Humbert and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume—and is maybe the funniest English novel since The Information. 2) Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, from 2001. I ran down a copy in preparation for interviewing Cercas and ended up thinking this may be my favorite of his books: a story of survival during the Spanish Civil War and of an attempt to recover the truth half a century later. In it, the heroic and the mock-heroic achieve perfect balance. 3) Emma Richler, Be My Wolff, from last year. Impressed by the beauty of Richler’s writing and the uncommon intelligence of her characters, I sent in a blurb for this one just under the deadline for publication, but still 50 pages from the end. When I finally got around to finishing it early this year, I found I’d missed the best part. I love this novel’s passionate idiosyncrasies.
And finally…back to Scandinavia. In August, while luxuriating in Independent People, I was asked to review CoDEX 1962, a trilogy by the Icelandic writer Sjón. This in turn forced me to put aside the introduction I’d been working on for the Danish Nobel Prize-winner Henrik Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per…which meant a further delay in finishing Book 6 of the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. With more than 3000 pages of Nordic writing before me, I felt certain warning signals flashing. As Knausgaard writes (of being 40), “Why had I chosen to organize my life this way?” The truth is that there was no organization involved, just a random clumping of the reading list, and I’m happy to report that things are now back to normal. But once I got past the anxiety, I actually enjoyed my two solid months of Nordic fiction. I wasn’t totally convinced by CoDEX 1962, but a couple of Sjón’s shorter novels killed me—especially Moonstone, a coming-of-age story set in Rekjavik in the cataclysmic early days of cinema. And though most of Pontoppidan’s corpus hasn’t been translated into English, the novellas The Royal Guest, The Polar Bear, and The Apothecary’s Daughters, make fascinating companions to Joyce, Conrad, and Chekhov…if you can find them. (Lucky Per will be republished by Everyman’s Library in April.) As for Knausgaard, the final volume of My Struggle is one of the more uneven of the six, and I’m still digesting the whole. But at this point almost a decade of my life is bound up with these books. All these books, really. And that strange adjacency of real, finite life and the limitless life of the imagination…well, maybe that’s been the point all along.
More from A Year in Reading 2018
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I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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After considering 108 titles, the Man Booker International Prize announced their 13-title longlist. The prize, which awards translated works of literature, considers both novels and short story collections translated into English and published in the UK.
Here the 2018 longlist (with bonus links where available):
The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet (Where Randomness and Madness Reign)
The Imposter by Javier Cercas
Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (The Millions’ review)
The White Book by Han Kang
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz
The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai (our review of Krasznahorkai’s collection)
Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina
The Flying Mountain by Christoph Ransmayr
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Saadawi’s 2017 Year in Reading entry)
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra
“People have always moved. The story of humanity is essentially a story of movement.”
—Patrick Kingsley, The New Odyssey
Some of the romance of my life in Rome was the view out my apartment’s windows: two medieval churches, cobblestone roads, the Colosseum if I stuck my head out, and Colle Oppio park that rolled off the Esquiline Hill. The park’s current manifestation was envisioned by the Fascists, and it’s easy to find fasces scraped from fountains when you know what to look for. Perhaps starting a week after it opened, the park has suffered the usual Italian neglect. Long grasses scratch at trellises meant for flowers, a bare-bottomed fountain makes a good play-space for children and in August the grass burns to dust. Romans would go there to walk their dogs, tourists to see the ruins of Trajan’s baths, and migrants to live.
In the park on sunny days, I saw clothes drying on fences and African men playing soccer. Occasionally I saw some men pass through holes in a chain-link fence and disappear behind the tall semi-circular walls of the decaying brick baths. I think they slept above the ruins of Nero’s Golden Palace, but I don’t know. From all points of the park, from above and below the hill, the group of individuals remained hidden. In a way they were easy not to see, because if I knew more about their privations and struggles in Italy or about their crossings, their stories would haunt me, would spoil some of the insistent beauty of the city.
Early in Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel Go, Went, Gone, Richard, a recently retired classics professor, is struck by his inability to see. It is when he is watching TV that he realizes refugees are staging a hunger strike in the Berlin city square he had passed through earlier that day. On TV he sees they have made a sign which reads, “We become visible,” and learns that they refuse to give their names. He wonders why he hadn’t seen the demonstration and reminds himself “his going hungry would do nothing to help these starving men.” He had his share of adversity growing up after the war in East Berlin.
Out of this incident Richard begins to nurture an interest in the refugees. He doesn’t entertain a do-good morality about his involvement in their lives. It starts off as something to keep him busy in retirement, a way to be less lonely. He’s accustomed to “projects,” research, and he initially treats his curiosity in the refugees as such. This is a man who thinks about his lover and dead wife in the same breath without seeming to feel any guilt. Richard is a wonderful and complex character, at once meticulous in his investigation of the refugees’ lives and stolidly distant from his emotions and people, which gives him room to grow.
He tracks down a group of refugees that he can talk to at an abandoned nursing home where they have been moved by the state. The conversations Richard initiates are grounded in fastidiously designed questions that could fall under the heading Border Crossing, with “border” defined as widely as Erpenbeck defines it, geographical, historical, mythological, between layers, below surfaces, between skin colors. He wants “to investigate how one makes the transition from a full, readily comprehensible existence to the life of a refugee, which is open in all directions—drafty.” As Richard learns the difficult stories of how the refugees got to Europe, so do we. And by the light of these stories, we see the individuals. Rufu and Rashid escaped from Libya over the Mediterranean; Rashid’s boat tipped over; senseless European laws tie Ithemba and Osarobo to Italy because that is where they first landed in Europe and applied for asylum.
Parallel to the unraveling of the refugees’ stories, Richard learns about Germany’s and Europe’s refugee policies. Through Richard’s thoughts and reactions, Erpenbeck makes caustically apparent that the atrocities the refugees faced getting to Europe are a fraction of their struggles. Patrick Kingsley points out in his book The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis, “In a way the refugee crisis is something of a misnomer. There is a crisis, but it’s one caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than by the refugees themselves.” Erpenbeck rubs salt in this critique by casting a shadow of Germany’s past over the current crisis:
Richard asks himself whether forty heavily armed men are really necessary to remove twelve African refugees from a residential facility, not to mention the other 150 or so police officers waiting in the squad cars for their signal. Tomorrow—this is already clear to him—the newspaper will report on the high cost of this deployment, and this country of bookkeepers will be aghast and blame the objects of the transport for the expense, as used to happen in other periods of German history, with regard to other transports.
That line gives me shivers each time.
Another image from Rome: Before I left Italy, my husband was arrested by a municipal vigile urbano for taking photos of a Bangladeshi street seller being arrested near the Colosseum. My husband’s instinct to record the incident pissed the vigile off. The vigile let go of his arrestee and lunged for Simon. A few hours later, in the jail for foreigners, the vigile referred to the refugees who were packed into the cells as animali, animals.
This vigile and those “heavily armed men” are a working arm of what Erpenbeck calls the “iron law:” the Dublin Treaties, the agreements between the refugees and the Berlin Senate, the heavy-duty high wall of bureaucracy. Because even though I’ve never heard anyone but a power-tripping vigile express his perspective so bluntly, the idea that refugees have lives that are somehow less valuable is obvious in the EU’s refugee policies and people’s reactions, which include but are not limited to the laws that make it impossible for refugees to work and the fact that so many in Italy are living in unlivable conditions. Even Richard has to be “reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.”
Perhaps all this makes it seem like the novel is a political treatise, but it is Richard’s subtle transformation and Erpenbeck’s liquid prose style that make this book glow above and beyond the content. Erpenbeck’s mastery of language and image ripples through her pages. The body of a man drowned in the lake behind Richard’s house recurs throughout and expands in meaning each time he enters Richard’s mind. Her prose is so controlled and flowing—and superbly translated by Susan Bernofsky. Her chapters are compact lessons in form and function, some long, most short, all well-contained. I could go on, but you should find out for yourself.
George Orwell in his 1939 essay “Marrakech” writes about the experience of not seeing the native Moroccans in Morocco. He proposes that one way colonialism functions is by making invisible the people who have been colonized. “The people have brown faces—besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names?” Through the essay Orwell catches himself not seeing people: their skulls in the ground, a hungry man as he feeds bread to a gazelle, old women bent below loads of twigs on their backs. The not-seeing becomes seeing.
Seeing alone is not necessarily helping. Three years ago I left Rome to live in New York City where the policies regarding immigration and poverty are no better than Europe’s, even before the advent of Donald Trump’s presidency (although deporting 200,000 people at one fell swoop is particularly low). But all helping begins with seeing; gradually Richard begins to help the refugees; he drives Ithemba to an appointment with his lawyer, he registers a refugee protest in his name, he tries to teach Osarobo music. And at the end of the novel, Richard’s life has widened so profoundly that he now has room to accommodate, physically and emotionally, those he has met who have nowhere else to go. Empathy is a powerful emotion. May it lead the way, a small flame in the dark.
2017, I resented you and your Twitter feeds, the obscenity of your news stream. The skyrocketing of petulance and greed. The normalization of hate. It was a year of half-read books: too difficult to concentrate. But books, they were also, for me, bright stars against the dark night of our political nadir. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book tore a hole in my soul. A semi-autobiographical novel about the break-up of a marriage: think Scenes from a Marriage, think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set with West Virginia as its backdrop. The sad, clever, and at times woefully misguided Scott chronicles the fallout of his marriage to Sarah, ICU nurse and self-appointed caretaker of helpless things. It’s a sad beautiful song of bleakness and alienation lined with sunbursts of tenderness and redemption.
I loved Jess Arndt’s slender gem of a story collection, Large Animals, for its ways of seeing. Arndt’s uncanny observations give life to desire, to despair, to the smallest things. In her stories, the mundane is drawn anew—waves appear “like sandwich foil that had been crumpled up and hucked away,” a refrigerator’s shelves, like a rib cage. The embodied sensuality lies in stark contrast to the narrators’ struggles with the physical encumbrance of inhabiting a body with breasts, and fantasies and fears associated with having them surgically removed.
I’ve spent months teasing out relationships of teenage girls in my fiction, and sought out other fictions that depict the young girl with complexity: their surly, backbiting, tender, loyal, and vulnerable ways, the ferocity of their attachments. Megan Abbott’s Dare Me did this brilliantly well; I am loath to admit I so enjoyed a book about a team of high school cheerleaders, but, oh, I did. The girls are drawn with such intelligence and wit.
Edith-May, loner and protagonist of Coco Picard’s graphic novel Chronicles of Fortune would hate cheerleaders, I imagine, as much she hates bachelorette parties, and for this (and many other reasons) I adore her. “If I have to eat a penis lollipop I’ll die,” Edith-May tells her roommates (who consist of a mountain that’s grown in her city apartment and a crocodile she took in from the roof). Edith May’s superhero alter ego comes to life after the death of her mother, though she only appears at night and suffers from ennui. Together they encounter ghosts and healers and moth populations and find ways to grieve. Kate Zambreno’s powerful, lyric processing of her mother’s death in Book of Mutter is an artful encomium and stunning homage of a book that at its center conjures Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” I’m in awe of Vivian Gornick as a thinker and reader and of her powers of observation with regard to the city (New York) and of her love/hate relationship with her mother in Fierce Attachments. I’m still not over Patty Yumi Cottrell’s beautiful and devastating Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, whose narrator returns home after her brother’s suicide in an attempt to piece together his reasons and instead finds her parents inhospitable and in denial. And last in this line of loss is the first Elena Ferrante I’ve read—Days of Abandonment—consumed in what now seems like a prolonged summer haze.
Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is a brilliant book of interlinked stories that revel in wordplay, and that depict the lives of temporary workers in the UAE and their families and their interchangeable identities in the eyes of the state. In contrast, these characters are so vivid on the page—a woman tapes together workers who have fallen from tops of buildings; a son throws his grandfather’s ashes into a river; a suitcase sprouts legs, a man devours, and in devouring, becomes a plane. Dispensability is key, too, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which tracks a group of refugees housed in Berlin through the vantage point of their tutor, a recently retired college professor. We see Richard’s privileged life and its relative continuity (despite the fall of the Berlin Wall), his companionship of friends who are like family and have grown old with him, and the stark contrast this poses to the lives of the refugees he befriends and attempts to help. They’re survivors of genocide and oppression who escaped via harrowing journeys. They are subject to bureaucracy without rights, subject to prejudice against their skin color and origins, shuffled at the whims of the state, condemned for the burden they pose while not being allowed to work or to settle there. The disregard for the men’s lives is staggering—as is their suffering, the ways state’s intercession only perpetuates the shuffle and undercuts their humanity. Go, Went Gone, is an important book. It’s impossible to read and not take a long, hard look at how we’re all implicated.
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I was pregnant with my second child for most of the year and I was also working from home, which meant I was very sedentary and slothful, and able to spend a lot of time reading articles that made me miserable. And since I was working on a book, and the pace and nature of that work were utterly different from any other kind of work I’ve done, I was grumpy and anxious a lot of the time even without reading anything at all. And I worried about being miserable and anxious and grumpy, and sedentary and slothful, wondering what it would do to the fetus, and whether the fetus would want to be around someone like me.
The reading I did while gestating the baby and my book was catch-as-catch-can and felt mostly like a reprieve and a cheat when I should have been working or doing something civic-minded. Books and the time they went with are blurring together for some reason. I think I read and was ruined by Housekeeping last year, but I can’t be certain it wasn’t this year. I think I read Private Citizens this year and found it spiky and perfect, but I’m not actually sure I didn’t read it in 2016. I do know this year I read The Idiot, which is among other things a delightful evocation of ostensibly fruitless but formative romantic pining, and Sport of Kings, which is absurdly ambitious and devastating. I read The Regional Office Is Under Attack, which is weird and transporting. I gratefully blew off my work for New People, The Windfall, Marlena, The Reef, Hunger, and Conversations with Friends. I read White Tears and The Changeling and Frankenstein in Baghdad on the bus to the OBGYN and marveled at the ways great writers are documenting the effects of the unholy past on the unholy present. I read 10:04 in a lovingly serene and receptive state after spending $60 to float in a very salty pool in the dark (I was trying to make the fetus turn head-down). When I was freaked out about everything the only book that sort of soothed me was the phenomenal new translation of The Odyssey, which is modern but not jarringly so, and highlights the sense of human continuity we apprehend from an ancient text. I re-read Off Course, a wonderful California novel that has become one of my favorite books in the last few years. I re-read A Suitable Boy to get ready for A Suitable Girl, which is allegedly arriving in 2018 and which I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life. I read The Golden Road, Caille Millner’s gemlike memoir about growing up. I read a Word document containing the first half of Michelle Dean’s excellent forthcoming literary history Sharp, and I’m clamoring for the rest of it. I read a Word document containing the entirety of Meaghan O’Connell’s forthcoming essay collection, And Now We Have Everything, and it is a stunningly insightful book that I’m hesitant to say is about motherhood because it might turn away people who might otherwise profit from it. I loved my colleagues Edan and Claire and Sonya’s novels Woman No. 17 and The Last Neanderthal and The Loved Ones, which are about motherhood (and fatherhood, and daughterhood, and a lot of other things too). More mothers: I cried over Mr. Splitfoot in an airplane after reading Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story” in The New Yorker. The book I thought about most during my gestational period was Mathias Énard’s Compass, which is a love story of a different kind. I don’t think I’ve read another book so deft in transmitting both the desire and the violence that are bound up in the production of knowledge, another complicated act of creation.
In October I had the baby. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone have a baby just to shake things up, but babies have a way of returning you to your body and adjusting your relationship to time that I’d hazard is difficult to find elsewhere in the arena of positive experiences. First you have the singular experience of giving birth; then you have the physical reminders of that experience, and a baby. If you are lucky you get good hormones (if you are spectacularly lucky you get paid leave, or have a spouse who does). The morning she was born I looked at the baby lying in her bassinet and felt like the cat who swallowed the canary, or a very satisfied hen. Animal similes suggest themselves because it is an animal time: you smell blood and leave trails of it on the hospital floor; milk oozes. You feel waves of such elemental fatigue that rational thought and speech seem like fripperies for a younger species. Even now, nine weeks later, sneezing reminds me viscerally of what the flesh endured.
This is what I mean when I say the experience returns you to your body. If it’s your second child, it also makes you a time traveler. I spent my first child’s infancy desperate to slow down time, to fully inhabit this utterly strange nesting season of my life and hers before we were both launched into the future. When the second baby was born I got the unhoped-for chance to live in that season again. I had forgotten so much: the comically furtive and then plucky look a newborn gets when she is near the breast, and the bizarre thing her eyes do when she’s eating—zipping back and forth like a barcode scanner apprehending some ancient sequence. The sound she makes after sneezing, like a little wheeze from an oboe.
Since, during this period, I felt I had a legitimate excuse to not read every dire news item for at least a couple of weeks, and since I experienced a wonderful if brief disinclination to open Twitter, and since sometimes I got to sit in clean linen sheets that are my prized possession and nurse a tiny brown-furred baby, I fell in love both with the baby and with every book I touched. I started re-reading Mating when I was waiting to give birth and finished it the week after. I read it for the first time three years ago when my older daughter was born and felt so incredibly altered by it then, and I slipped back into that state immediately. Right after Mating I read Mortals, and after Mortals, I read Chemistry, and forthcoming novels The Parking Lot Attendant and That Kind of Mother, and I loved them all too.
Being with the baby and reading deeply and more or less avoiding the things that make me miserable was such an unanticipated return to Eden that even the bad things I now remembered about having a baby were good: the strange combination of agitation and dullness that enswaddled me when the sun went down and made me weep; the sudden urge to throw beloved visitors out of the house; visions of stumbling, of soft skulls crushed against sharp corners; fear of contagion; agonizing knowledge of other babies crying and drowning and suffering while your own baby snuffles contentedly in a fleece bag.
But even when the blues fluoresced what registered was not the badness of the thoughts, but their intensity. The shitty hospital food you eat after expelling a baby is the best food you’ve ever had because you had a baby and you didn’t die. And like a person on drugs who knows a cigarette is going to taste amazing or a song will sound so good, an exhausted, oozing postpartum woman can do her own kind of thrill-seeking. I re-read Under the Volcano, which really popped in my altered state. It’s a hard book to follow but I found to my delight that I’ve now read it enough I’m no longer spending a lot of time trying to understand what is going on. Its insane, calamitous beauty was perfect for my technicolor emotional state; rather than despairing over my inability to form a sentence I put myself in the hands of a pro, shaking though Malcolm Lowry’s were as he wrote.
It hasn’t all been déjà vu. There have been new things, some of them bad: namely the feeling of being driven absolutely bananas by my poor sweet firstborn, who is no longer tiny and blameless and new, but a harum-scarum toddler who jumps on the bed and windmills her arms and kicks and screams WAKE UP MAMA and refuses to put on her jacket. On this front one of the random galleys that pile up in the vestibule was a surprise hit—a children’s book from the Feminist Press called How Mamas Love Their Babies. My daughter loves this book, which has beautiful photo collage illustrations. It is a progressive book that encourages workers’ solidarity in a way I was not necessarily prepared to address with a just-turned-three-year-old but am now trying to do in my poky fashion (“Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes. It’s hard work!” the book reads, and my child peers inquisitively at a photo of platform lucite heels). It also helps me: I look at myself in the mirror and note that some genetic vandal has lately streaked what looks like raspberry jam across the skin of my hips and one (!) breast (“Some mamas care for their babies inside their own bodies,” the book reminds me). When the baby was three weeks old I got pneumonia, and that was a bad new sensation too, although even that interlude had its attractions. I discovered coconut water, and read Swamplandia in a febrile, almost louche state of abandon in my increasingly musty sheets, a perfect complement to the novel’s climate—its rotting house and the visions and moods of its protagonists.
During early nights of nursing I read a galley of a memoir by a writer who also got good hormones and who became addicted to having babies, having five in fairly rapid succession. If nothing else, I understood the irrational drive to overabundance. In the first weeks of this new baby’s life I astonished myself by wanting more, more, more. Around week five I actually googled “is it morally wrong to have a third child,” and if you are a well-fed, utilities-using first-worlder like me, yes, not to mention yes, in philosophical terms (not to mention we can’t afford it, not to mention it would surely drive me batshit). Everything you read about life on this planet, including some of the novels I read this year, suggests you should not have children, and if you must, that you should have only as many as you have arms to carry them away from danger. Even that formulation is a consoling fallacy.
Things are less technicolor now, but the hormones are still there, propping me up. (I read over this and see they’ve even led me to write a somewhat revisionist history of what the past few weeks have been like.) Last week, week eight, I finally read Open City, which is a few years old but speaks to the state of the world today in a way that is depressing. I love how it is a novel of serious ideas and style, but is also approachable and pleasure-making for its reader. I love that it is a humane book even as it is gimlet-eyed. Now I’m reading Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and finding it similarly humane and gimlet-eyed and serious and pleasure-making. It is about the state of the world at this moment. It also speaks to the double consciousness of people like its protagonist, who are living not necessarily with suffering but with a metastasizing awareness of suffering, and how it changes them, and this is on my mind. The novel also seems to be about time and space and how people are altered when their time and space are altered. It’s about the difference, not between “us” and “them,” but between “you” and “you.” I’m thinking about that too as I time travel this winter.
I know I need to prepare for the moment when all this gladness provided gratis by Mother Nature will deflate and disappear like a wet paper bag. And there will be a time—I feel it coming on as I type this and hope the baby stays asleep in her bouncer—when the deep satisfaction of one kind of generative act, this bodily one, will be supplanted with the need for other kinds of creation. I think Cole and Erpenbeck’s novels will help me with these eventualities. I’m counting on them, and on all the beautiful things I hope to read next year. You know what they say about books: they’re like babies; when you have one you’re never alone.
This year I read too many wonderful books to name all of them here, but some highlights were: Katie Kitamura’s intoxicating A Separation, which is such a wild and yet disciplined exploration of the idea of the traveler and of grief. Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage came out last year, but it is a book I hold close to me these days, a miracle of a novel, one of the most humane, visceral, gut-wrenching and precise stories I have ever read. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life exploded in my head and I’m still reeling from the effects of living that journey. I absolutely loved Jenny Erpenbeck’s new one, Go, Went, Gone. She is one of my favorites, one of those rare writers who, I think, can write a narrative where you feel layers, not only the layers of a character’s life, but literally the layers of sky, the earth, soil and history and the future. Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance will haunt me forever, a narrative that continues to astound me, and I think a near perfect portrayal of aloneness and solitude and deep longing. Finally, I just finished a book coming out next year, Happiness, by the great Aminatta Forna. It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift. It was what I needed. Readers are in for a treat.
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. Find more September titles at our Great Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Ward returns with her first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. Ward’s two books between, a memoir (Men We Reaped) and a book of essays she edited (The Fire This Time), deal head-on with racism in America and the woeful ways it’s still deeply embedded in our society. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s southern-steeped voice is just as keen and continues to take on the South’s murky history, this time through the young Jojo as he travels with his drug-addicted mother and baby sister as they go to pick up his father just released from prison. (Anne)
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Krauss’s fourth novel follows the lives of two Americans in Israel in alternating chapters. The first character, Jules Epstein, is a recently-divorced, retired lawyer drawn to a rabbi; the second, a novelist named Nicole, is recruited by a mysterious literature professor working on a project about Franz Kafka. Krauss’s novel A History of Love has been rightly praised, but this new book might send people back to her equally intriguing debut, Man Walks into a Room, another investigation of what happens when our lives are radically transformed. (Nick R.)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: With her 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, Ng proved she is a powerful storyteller of multifaceted families and the women within them forced to make difficult decisions. Her sophomore effort tangles multiple families in a drama of class and race in a Cleveland suburb. When single mother and artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, she rents from the well-off Richardson family. Of course, the initial fascination with the Warrens turns sour when they are pitted against the Richardsons in a town rift about a family adopting a Chinese-American child. (Tess)
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride: McBride returns to fiction for the first time since winning the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, his masterly novel about the exploits of the doomed abolitionist John Brown and his entourage. McBride’s new book, Five-Carat Soul, is a collection of stories told through the eyes of an antique toy dealer who makes the score of a lifetime; the poor kids in a neighborhood band called the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band; a mixed-race child who believes he’s the son of Abraham Lincoln; a boxer; a lion; a doctoral student who uncovers a beautifully complicated war story. Five-Carat Soul will thrill fans of McBride’s unmistakable fictional voice. (Bill)
Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander: Though the latest by Englander takes place on three different continents, at heart it’s a novel about the conflicts of modern Israel. Z, or rather Prisoner Z, has been held at a black site in the desert for close to 12 years, where the only company he’s allowed is a single guard. The one official who knows about him is a comatose figure named The General. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn who Z really is: an American operative who compromised Israeli state secrets. (Thom)
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix): Why does writing this vivid take so long to find its way West? Equal parts lament, paean, and family saga, Szabó’s 1969 novel (and 2007 Prix Cévennes winner) in Len Rix’s legato English translation captures handily the “double tragedy of eastern Europe”—razed by Nazis and rebuilt by Communists. The unquiet spirits of post-war Budapest put meat on the bones of the Soviet joke that “only the past is unpredictable,” and one less-than-silent witness of the sins and slights of a shattered community harbors no illusions about permitting the living to exist peaceably in the soft-focus sentimentality of their survival. (Il’ja)
Letters to Memory by Karen Tei Yamashita: The author of Brazil-Maru, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, and Tropic of Orange mines her family’s history with archival materials from a Japanese internment camp, creating a hybrid work of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir that features recreated correspondence between composite characters from a range of academic disciplines. (Lydia)
Sourdough by Robin Sloan: If Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was any indication, Sloan has a knack for putting the weird and wonderful back into the tech world. Protagonist Lois Clary is a San Francisco software engineer who find herself given the responsibility of keeping a secret sourdough starter alive. The addled coder soon turns into the most sought-after baker in the Bay Area, ruffling a few industry feathers along the way, until she’s invited to join an emerging food and tech scene. It all sounds too wacky to be good, but Sloan’s signature humor makes it a promising second novel. (Tess)
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke: I heard Locke—award-winning author of Pleasantville, a writer on Fox’s Empire, and a native of Texas—say that she wanted to write something about the black experience in the South that wasn’t only about prejudice, but showed that complexity and love and joy exist even in oppressive systems. I may be paraphrasing poorly, but I’m excited to read her book, which is about a black Texas Ranger trying to solve the murders of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman. (Janet)
Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún (translated by Sophie Hughes): A work of historical fiction based on the life and family of Hans Ertl, cameraman to Leni Riefenstahl and photographer of Rommel, who settles in Bolivia after the war. The novel is set in the 1950s and 60s, and follows Ertl and his children on a disastrous mission into the Amazon. Kirkus calls it “A one-sitting tale of fragmented relationships with a broad scope, delivered with grace and power.” (Lydia)
A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe: Rowe’s two previous books—How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake—were collections that walked the line between short fiction and prose poetry. A Loving, Faithful Animal, her exquisite first novel, is concerned with the long shadow of war across generations. Rowe tells the story of a fractured family in 1990s Australia after the father, a Vietnam War veteran, leaves home. (Emily)
After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun: The sequel to Nigerians in Space, the afrofuturist novel The Guardian described as “an exquisite blend of unpredictable twists and lightening-speed plot.” After the Flare finds the world plunged into chaos following a devastating solar storm, after which only the Nigerian space program is functional. A group of scientists have to contend with looming space disaster and Boko Haram in a sequel that a starred Kirkus reviews calls “spectacularly imagined.” (Lydia)
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky): German author Erpenbeck’s fiction takes deep root in personal history. To research her first novel she re-enrolled in high school. Visitation followed the history of a piece of land in her family, as it was divided and passed between past owners, as a lens for looking at the travails faced during WWII. With Go, Went, Gone Erpenbeck turns to the current refugee crisis—in the book a retired professor becomes involved assisting refugees and spends his evenings documenting their stories. Erpenbeck’s own work with refugees inspired the stories woven into her narrative; “the fusion of the found and the invented yields an indistinguishable amalgam,” according to the Goethe Institute. (Anne)
Border by Kapka Kassabova: When Kassabova was a child growing up in Iron Curtain-era Bulgaria, the country’s isolated southern borderland—where Bulgaria meets Turkey and Greece—was rumored to be a relatively easy crossing point into the West, and so the region swarmed with migrants, soldiers, and spies. In Border, a work of narrative reportage, Kassabova returns to a region whose natural beauty is matched only by the complexity of its political and cultural landscapes: the Communist-era spies have long since departed, but the borderland, Mark Mazower wrote recently in The Guardian, remains “an environment that does not spare the unlucky or the vulnerable.” (Emily)
A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré: The first George Smiley novel in a quarter of a century, from the master of spy fiction. Enough said. (Lydia)