By now the overlap between writers and drug addicts is pretty well-known, but it wasn’t so well-known back when Thomas De Quincey wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater. In the essay, De Quincey admitted that not only was he addicted to opium, he suspected he’d ingested more of the substance than any other man save Coleridge. (Incidentally, we reviewed a novel by Year in Reading alumnus Jeet Thayil that largely took place in an opium den.)
When I think of all the books I read and loved this year -- and there have been so many -- I think the one I found most striking was Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers. It was the sheer originality of the thing, the absolutely unique style and voice. It might fairly be described as a western for people who think they don’t like westerns. Two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, make their living as hired killers in the employ of a shadowy man known only as the Commodore, on the Gold Rush-era western frontier. But while Charlie enjoys killing, Eli, the narrator, is troubled by their ever-rising body count, and finds himself beginning to question the Commodore’s explanations for why the men they’re hired to kill have been marked for death. It’s a mesmerizing, precisely-written, sad, and very violent tale, with unexpected flashes of humor. Others: Susanna Moore's The Life of Objects was a marvel of clarity and beauty, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I'd somehow never read The Great Gatsby before this year. I almost wrote "I don't know why it took me so long," but obviously I do know what took me so long: I was busy reading other books. The elegance of the work stays with me, its clockwork plot. I've been reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald's life this year, thinking about talent and dissipation. Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis was profoundly beautiful and disturbing and continues to haunt me. Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker was a delight. It's hard to imagine two books less similar than Necropolis and Angelmaker, but the common thread, I realize, is that both writers are willing to take considerable risks. They walk their respective tightropes successfully. I loved Lauren Groff's Arcadia. Her novel is impressive in the way that The Great Gatsby is impressive: you recognize, reading it, that you're in the presence of a writer with absolute command over her material. It's a beautifully written book. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis was the most satisfying shock in my reading this year. Maybe because I’m translating Beowulf each day and working on such short lines, I loved the manic freedom of Jeet’s sentences. The world he describes, of opium dens, is fascinating, and he was electric on stage in Australia and the Netherlands reciting his poetry and rapping the lyrics from his band. A great writer and performer. And I just have to say the very best performance I’ve ever seen on stage by any writer was by Jeanette Winterson this summer at the Edinburgh Lit Festival. Even impromptu, in response to audience questions, she was able to say the most beautiful things in perfect sentences. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I'm getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many "best of the year" lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst). So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort? We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year's pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The "10 best books of 2012" list is so small next to this. And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we've asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks. With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one. As in prior years, the names of our 2012 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way. Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures. Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl. Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex. Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction. Rob Delaney, comedian and writer. Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World. Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns. Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh. Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings. Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia. David Vann, author of Dirt. Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life. Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti. Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men. Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning. Bill Morris, author of All Souls' Day, staff writer for The Millions. Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading. Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions. Edan Lepucki, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull. David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate. Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth. Chris Ware, author of Building Stories. Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee. Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate. Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org. Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights. Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds. Ed Park, author of Personal Days. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen. Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings. Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?. Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies. Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them. Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins. Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City. Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions. Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions. Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Alix Ohlin, author of Inside. Lars Iyer, author of Exodus. Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues. Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here. Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends. Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River. Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence. Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes. Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man. Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood. Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief. Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator. Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis. Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions. Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True. Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines. Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast. Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory. Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee
In the fifth episode of the hit sitcom New Girl, a self-styled stud tries to impress an Indian-American woman by declaring that he loves India. When pressed for details, he stumbles his way through the following catalogue: I love Slumdog. I love naan. I love pepper. I love Ben Kingsley, the stories of Rudyard Kipling. I have respect for cows, of course. I love the Taj Mahal, Deepak Chopra, anyone named Patel. I love monsoons. I love cobras in baskets...I love mango chutney, really, any type of chutney. The point is clear: the average American’s knowledge of Indian culture is superficial, stereotypical, and offensive. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the joke -- and an Indian-American woman in a leading role on primetime TV -- confirms how much Indian culture has permeated American pop culture. This should not be surprising: With a population that increased to 2.8 million from 1.7 million between 2000 and 2010, Indians are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America. They may also be one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in literary fiction -- in America and the larger Anglophone world. Fiction written in English by authors of Indian descent has been critically acclaimed and commercially successful for decades. Now a new wave of talent has arrived: In 2012, the Indian-American writers Rajesh Parameswaran and Tania James published their debut short story collections -- I Am An Executioner: Love Stories and Aerogrammes, respectively -- while British-Indian author Hari Kunzru published his fourth novel, Gods Without Men: While it may be too soon for these authors to have achieved the heavyweight status of a Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, their imaginative, provocative, and well-crafted books suggest the continuation of a literary legacy and a move into “post-post-colonial,” “post-ethnic” territory. Parameswaran, James, and Kunzru inherit three decades of Anglo-Indian literary success. Rushdie’s magical realist novel Midnight’s Children, about a boy born on the precise moment of Indian Independence, won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. His most notorious novel The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death threat from Ayatollah Khomeini that sparked international controversy and massive sales, an experience upon which he reflects in his memoir Joseph Anton, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. In recent years, the Booker has gone to Arundati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, a hybrid of Invisible Man and Native Son set on the subcontinent. And as recently announced, the six authors shortlisted for the 2012 Booker includes Jeet Thayil, born in India, raised in Hong Kong, India and the U.S., and the author of the novel Narcopolis, about a 1970s opium den. The new wave is also indebted to Lahiri, who rocked the American lit establishment -- and book clubs nationwide -- with Interpreter of Maladies, an understated, pitch-perfect short story collection that captured the domestic dramas and existential malaise of upper class Indian Americans, mostly in bourgeois Boston. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was followed by the novel, The Namesake, later a Mira Nair-directed movie, and Unaccustomed Earth, another stunning and more ambitious story collection that cemented Lahiri’s reputation as the marquee Indian-American fiction writer and a master of short fiction. Beyond heritage, Parameswaran, Kunzru, and James have similar pedigrees. Parameswaran went to Yale for college and law school, Kunzru went to Oxford, and James went to college at Harvard and grad school at Columbia. (Rushdie went to Cambridge). Too old to be wunderkind, all are still young by literary standards: James is 31, Parameswaran is 40, and Kunzru is 43. And while they hail from Michigan and Texas, Kentucky, and London, all three now live in the New York area. Perhaps a brunch is in order? True to their heritage, all three address issues of Indian identity. In the central storyline of Gods, an Indian-American man marries a Jewish-American woman and the incipient tensions in their marriage combust after their son disappears. In “Ethnic Ken,” a story in Aerogrammes, an Indian-American girl plays with a brown-skinned version of Barbie’s boyfriend; the doll apparently cost half the price of the “regular” Ken. In one of the many tragicomic stories in Executioner, an unemployed Indian computer salesman pretends to be a doctor -- the paradigmatic profession for high-status Indian Americans -- with ghastly consequences. In their treatment of ethnicity, all three books join Lahiri in a subgenre that one of James’s characters, an aspiring screenwriter, calls “not quite Bollywood, not quite Hollywood: Indians in America or England Torn Between Identities.” Nevertheless, all three authors transcend the stereotypical expectations of “ethnic” fiction, including the notion that characters must share their author’s ethnicity. Several stories in Executioner and Aerogrammes feature non-Indian characters. And the Indian-American protagonist in Gods shares a stage with non-Indians including an 18th-century Spaniard, a 19th-century Mormon, and a contemporary (Caucasian) British rock star. Even among the Indian characters, there is diversity: James’s Indian characters speak Malayalam, the language of the state of Kerala, Kunzru’s Indian characters speak Punjabi, spoken in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, and Parameswaran’s titular executioner speaks in a parody of Indian-accented English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanors.” Such simple differences may remind Western readers that India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot and internationally engaged country, not a monolithic, homogenous, insular place. As if to distance themselves from ethnicity and nationality, all three authors experiment with non-human characters. The narrator of one story in Executioner is an elephant; another is a murderous, guilt-stricken tiger, a literal version of Adiga’s titular “white tiger.” A story in Aerogrammes concerns a chimpanzee that nearly convinces a woman he is human. Strangest of all, Gods opens with a cryptic fable with characters named Cottontail Rabbit, Gila Monster, Southern Fox, and the protagonist Coyote, who sets up a meth lab in the desert. Take that, Kipling. Regardless of species, all three books grapple with physical, emotional, and existential despair, albeit in different tones and moods. Gods is cerebral, somber, and grim. As he did in the reverse outsourcing fable Transmission, Kunzru assaults his characters until they break, and relents only after they have lost nearly everything. (For the film, perhaps Werner Herzog or P.T. Anderson could direct?) By contrast, Aerogrammes is sweet, sad, and painfully earnest. Characters are naïve, blind, or delusional, whether it’s the Indian wrestlers who don’t realize the sport is supposed to be fake, or the boy who refuses accept his mother’s new husband. There’s pain suffering in Executioner, too but it’s often undercut by humor or an authorial wink, either implied or in meta-fictional parentheses or footnotes. While Aerogrammes essentially falls into the category of realist fiction, Parameswaran and Kunzru flirt with other genres. Besides the two talking animal stories, Executioner includes a spy thriller, “Narrative of Agent 974702,” and a science fiction tale, “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319)." Perhaps most fantastical -- yet paradoxically most credible -- is the cult at the center of Gods, a desert commune that fuses Christianity, Buddhism, New Age, and Alien Worship into an explosive whole. Then again, as Kunzru semi-subtly implies, such a group is not so different than the Europeans who Christianized Native Americans or Mormons who found Zion in the American West. While fundamentally contemporary, all three books derive depth from history. In Executioner, the meta-fictional tale “Four Rajeshes” concerns a railway clerk in colonial India at the turn of the 20th century and his version of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. The opening story in Aerogrammes features a pair of Indian wrestlers who arrive in England in 1910 to engage in literal and figurative battles with their colonial overlords. Perhaps because it is a novel, Gods is even more historically ambitious, with a storyline that spans more than 200 years. Ultimately, all three authors use history to transcend personal experience, shattering the expectation that “ethnic” fiction must be autobiographical. In a way, they all respond to the question that Rushdie poses in Joseph Anton when recalling his inspiration for writing The Satanic Verses: The great question of how the world joins up -- not only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live. In terms of style and structure, Aerogrammes is the most conventional of the three. The plainspoken prose obeys the aesthetic in which the writer’s voice is secondary to the story. The nine stories are more or less uniform length, each about 20 pages. Ultimately, James seems to value cohesion and consistency over shock and surprise. Parameswaran takes the opposite tack. His voice is always strong and varies widely from story to story; some seem like the work of different authors. If the books were Beatles albums, Aerogrammes would be Rubber Soul, the harmonious whole with songs of essentially equal weight, and Executioner would be The White Album, a hectic hodgepodge of competing voices. (Speaking of The Beatles, didn’t they help bring Indian music and spirituality into Western popular culture?) Gods splits the difference between these two extremes. Like Executioner, it’s grandiose, sprawling, and dense. With its multiple points of view, multiple settings, and non-linear structure, it often reads like a collection of loosely linked stories. Some plots literally converge; others merely inform each other. Yet over 369 pages, Kunzru maintains cohesion. Part of this may stem from his use of the close third person point of view (which James does in most of her stories). It may also be a matter of experience; perhaps on their fourth books, James and Parameswaran may find a similar balance of ambition and unity. For all the merits of these books, the question remains: is this literary boomlet an anomaly, a coincidence, or a harbinger? Will these books be a curiosity or a gateway to wider American interest in Indian culture? Will more Indian Americans join Govs. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley as high-profile politicians? Will we see more Indians Americans in popular entertainment: TV, movies, sports? In a poignant scene in Interpreter of Maladies that sums up the cultural barriers at the heart of the book, an American woman tries to buy Hot Mix, an Indian snack. The Indian clerk dismisses her with four words: “Too spicy for you.” Perhaps one day, that scene will seem outmoded, if not unfathomable.