Letters to Memory

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A Year in Reading: Steph Opitz

Longtime listener, first-time caller. I’m excited to be here talking about my Year in Reading. This was the first full year in almost a decade that I didn’t have a monthly column in Marie Claire magazine to write about forthcoming books. As a result, my reading had less structure than usual. I put down a lot of books that didn’t do it for me, and shuffled and reshuffled my to-be-read pile to my heart’s content. It’s been liberating. But, a new restraint has also entered the scene. My toddler has recently become a book connoisseur. He often hijacks the book I’m reading for himself or replaces it with something he’d prefer to have me read—which is more often than not Bao Phi and illustrator Thi Bui’s A Different Pond, author and illustrator Brian Floca’s Locomotive, or Jane Yolan and illustrator John Schoenherr’s Owl Moon. I’m grateful to the authors and illustrators for providing rich text and complex art that keeps us both rapt after multiple readings.

Before I get to the adult titles I read this year, I’ll start with a confession. When I read poet phenom Carrie Fountain’s young adult debut I’m Not Missing and novelist Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake, I actually didn’t know either was YA. When I got to the end of both, I was like, Huh, I wonder if they had any conversations about billing this as YA? Seems like it could go either way—fans of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles know what I’m talking about—with a teen protagonist going through some real adult shit. Which is to say, if you balk at the YA dubbing you’re missing out. I like to think of a YA designation as a kind of PG-13 designation; it doesn’t mean it’s only for teens, it just means that it’s not inappropriate for teens. As case in point, a transformative book I read earlier this year, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is essential. Every high schooler in the country should be required to read it, and all adults retroactively should, too.

Now, onto the adult books. A book that made me emotional as hell: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. Maggie O’Farrell beautifully flays the moments in her own life that danced with true danger, and asks, What could happen? What did happen? Am I ok? Depending on if you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person, my life has had a lot of unlucky brushes or I’m one of the luckiest people you’ve met. So this particular collection poked at a lot of my most sensitive thoughts. I’d recommend this book to everyone who loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, as this, too, is a penned head nod at the real and invisible scars women carry.

I was lucky to travel a bit this year, and it’s important you know that I don’t believe in vacation reading as a separate genre. Whatever book I might choose to read at the beach, is a beach read. Some of my ““beach”” reading included some amazing LGBTQ titles like John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City, and, the exciting new king of the footnote (I can’t, in good conscious, celebrate David Foster Wallace anymore), Jordy Rosenberg with Confessions of the Fox. On one particular trip, my husband, our four closest friends, and I went on spring break. Without any of our children present, we relished in the unencumbered time to do whatever we wanted—floating in the ocean for hours, sleeping in, happy hours, or reading at a speed that didn’t suggest a child might cut short the reading time at any moment. The only book I ended up reading on this trip, slowly, engrossed by it the way it should be was There, There by Tommy Orange. This book is stunning and made me literally gasp at the end.

I’m an audiobook junkie. I drive a decent amount—commuting to and from work and daycare—so that makes up a significant part of my listening. But I’m not precious about how much time I have. I just get started, even if it’s only a 10-minute drive; it adds up, naysayers! When I’m hooked, I end up putting in headphones and listening while I cook, or while I do laundry. I’ll even uncharacteristically make up errands and chores to keep listening. Some particularly wonderful books that I enjoyed on audio this year are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (one could argue audiobook is the preferred format for this book as the Scottish accents make all the difference), Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother, Luis Alberto Urrea’s House of Broken Angels, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Less is one of the more hyped books in the past few years (I guess a Pulitzer Prize under the belt does that?) but it’s well worth the praise, just stick with it! I’m the queen of ignoring hype for no good reason except for the sake of it. I’m working on it. Which is to say, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee took me a year to get to, a year that I could’ve been living with that book in my brain! I’m glad I rectified it. Circe, too, by Madeline Miller. The description didn’t grab me, and I can’t remember what ultimately made me read it, but that book literally has everything. For these lapses, my New Year’s Resolution is to consider widespread acclaim more carefully, so as not to delay reading some great books.

Perks of my job include being able to sweet talk my way into very early copies of some books. I was able to finagle Miriam Toews and Susan Choi’s forthcoming books, Women Talking and Trust Exercise. And Maryse Meijer’s Northwood (which is now available). All left me dizzy with their strength of voice and inventive forms, dying to find folks who had also had the early preview to hash them out with. JFC, these women can write. I was so deeply affected by all three that I have the chills just typing this out. Peter Geye’s latest novel, Northernmost, doesn’t come out till 2020, so, sorry, sorry, sorry to bring it up now but it’s sexy, thrilling, and Minnesotan—this Minnesotan never gets to say all those words in the same sentence so I’ll beg your pardon for that very early peek. I also recently finished Dani Shapiro’s latest memoir, out in January, Inheritance. Dani’s ability to write in the middle of a moment is unparalleled and this book is no exception; in it she has very recently learned her father is not her biological father. I’m actively wondering if Ancestry.com is going to start giving her a cut of the inevitable sales boost post publication.

Do you watch Midsomer Murders? My dad and I love to watch that show together. If you’re a fan, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz seems like a good book to tell you to read. I struggle to explain the details because I hate to prep people for a plot twist, but this one is [chef’s kiss]. I hadn’t previously deliberately read many mysteries or thrillers, despite my penchant for them in movies and TV. So this year I dabbled, and I’ll give a shout out to Mira Grant whose book Into the Drowning Deep scared me so effectively and thoroughly I may never get into the ocean again.

Other books that made deep impressions on me this year: Karen Tei Yamishita’s Letters to Memory, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything, Neal Thompson’s Kickflip Boys, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (as a Fu megafan, I was thrilled and satiated to read her latest). In Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, the title story is so realistic that I still feel sad for the protagonist and her deep misreading of an encounter.

While I’m wrapping up and wondering what book(s) I’m forgetting here, the book I spent the most time with this year and am better for is Ada Limón’s The Carrying. Ada’s work is a gift. I will fight anyone who says they don’t want to read it because they’re not a poetry person (and by “fight,” I mean direct you to your local indie or library to flip through the pages and convert you).

On deck? I’m chomping at the bit for early copies of Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse and Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, both out next year. I’m also reading all the titles of folks coming to Wordplay, May 11-12 in Minneapolis (we’ll be releasing the full line-up of authors on January 17). And, meanwhile, I’m considering becoming a person who buys lottery tickets so I can get a producer credit on Dan Sheenan’s Restless Souls, a book that is so gorgeously cinematic it boggles the mind that it has not yet been made into a movie.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Jeff Chang

This past year, I spent a huge portion of my non-work-related waking hours immersed in the national output of nonfiction books. Instead of reading for writing projects, as was my annual routine for many years, I was reading to determine a winner. But in a year that left so many of us battle-weary, the idea of winning seemed beside the point, perhaps even part of the problem. I wanted books to tell me that truth, reason, and probity will endure, and that people—some a lot like us and some more like us than we would have ever guessed—persevere. The books did and we do, over and over again. So here’s a tribute to some of the non-winners.

The Apparitionists by Peter Manseau
This account of the work and criminal trial of “spirit photographer” William Mumler is fascinating for reasons historic and contemporary. In the years following the Civil War, as a nation mourned its dead and longed for a lost innocence, Americans turned to religion and religion turned to the supernatural. Mumler’s most explosive portrait work challenged photography’s verities by claiming to represent images of the dead returning to comfort the living. Unlike Kevin Young’s Bunk, which roams widely to uncover racialized Othering as the deep stream of our attraction to spectacular hoaxes, Manseau’s book sticks closely to the facts of Mumler’s case. But in our own era of war, “fake news,” and spiritual unrest, the story feels more than merely suggestive.

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
This unusual book brings together the case of the murderous pedophile Ricky Langley with the author’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse. As Marzano-Lesnevich, who is training to become a public defender, dives into the research on Langley’s case, she is drawn back into her own personal and family traumas. At that point it becomes a powerful #metoo story and a deep meditation on the stories we tell each other in order to continue. It ponders the incompleteness of the law as remedy, and how the process of finding truth enables and suppresses. And it also plumbs the depths of our current discussion—now that the horrors of powerful men, including some of our former heroes, have been publicly named—about whether redemption is possible or desirable.

The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum
What if science and art were not only compatible, but inseparable? Prum argues that the way we receive Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution—that only the fittest can survive—is incomplete, even dangerously so, as in the rise of the racist pseudo-science of eugencics. Darwin, Prum notes, actually argued that such a selection process would never explain nature’s diversity. Instead, bird sex, like human sex, is not merely functional and utilitarian, but about pleasure and taste. He moves on to consider surprising new directions for evolutionary history, such as how it might understand queerness, the end of patriarchy, and the centrality of arts and culture. “Beauty happens,” Prum writes, and thank goodness for that.

Letters to Memory by Karen Tei Yamashita
Gifted—or burdened—with the papers of her aunts and parents and grandparents, all survivors of the World War II Japanese American concentration camps, Karen Tei Yamashita constructs a structurally cunning, richly literary, and deeply moving tribute to the lives of her kin. The book unfolds as a series of letters to a set of imagined muses, all of which reference her family’s real letters. Some detail a story of her idealistic young aunt, who is afforded a temporary freedom as a witness in a government case, and the family locked away in the camps. What are her obligations to them? Is it folly or selfishness that makes her think she may be of more help to them on the outside? These letters remind us that, once perpetrated, injustice cannot be reduced or forgotten.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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

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

September Prevew: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semiannual 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-MaruThrough 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)
 
 
 
 
 
 

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