Temporary People

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A Year in Reading: Shanthi Sekaran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

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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A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

It’s been a somewhat slow, muddy-brained reading year for me—likely due to the intense distractions of both ugly news media and challenging life happenings. But thankfully and nonetheless, some wonderful books got read (intentional passive voice, enacting the struggle here via syntax). In fact, since I needed a strategy this year—to battle the muddy distractedness—a handful of books even got read twice.

Two unexpected favorites were Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, both of which I began reading as if venturing into a musty basement, pinching my nose and bracing myself for dead rodents. In other words, I went in with all the baggage of a latecomer (to the hype), primed to find these seminal autobiographical novels both overrated and so socio-politically regressive that I would be unable to read them without a screen of irony. But in fact, nothing, not even cultural evolution, can stamp out beautiful writing; and one thing I’ve been most drawn to in fiction these days is a palpable sense of an author’s skin in the game.  With both Plath and Miller, one cannot deny the precariously and deeply lived lives incarnated in these pages.  In addition, Tropic sent me off to read Anaïs Nin’s gorgeous diaries (the years when she and Miller were intimates) which then sent me back to re-read Tropic.

Two other so-called classics I loved this year were The French Lieutenant’s Woman—John Fowles’s wonderful narrator, breaking the fourth wall and recounting the story of Victorian sexuality as much as that of Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff—and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Of this pair, it was the D.H. Lawrence that got read twice—once in print, once via audio (you’ve just got to hear Mellors’s Derbyshire dialect, as read by Emilia Fox, in your ear).  Next up, to square the circle, I’ll be tracking down Anaïs Nin’s D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study.

I am deeply grateful for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I felt was written for “people like me,” who are, unfortunately, legion: we know this-and-that about the vast injustices of mass incarceration but needed Alexander to write the book that would coherently map out the cause and effect and thus activate us more concretely (I hope to have more to say/write about this next year).  Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy ditto—a book that, in addition to educating you, will do that impossible thing: remind you that good, smart people set themselves to the hardest uphill life work imaginable and do this work regardless—regardless, that is, of all the shit that paralyzes people like me.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life made such an impression I can hardly talk about it.  This one, too, I began rereading the minute I read the last word.  It’s puzzle-piece, helix-like form left me in awe, and I dare say it is the most truly feminist novel I have read in a long time.  It might take me a while to figure out what I mean by that, but I’m comfortable putting it out there.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn deserves every ounce of praise and honor it’s received.  I’ve been telling people that if you liked the Elena Ferrante books, you’ll love Another Brooklyn.

Oh, and did I mention I was a judge for the Center for Fiction’s first novel award?  This meant reading cartons-full of debut novels this summer—which was a great privilege, and also rather brain-breaking for this slow reader.  You can see the shortlist here, but I’d like to shout-out a few that did not make the list: Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People (a tour-de-force of raw originality), Matthew Klam’s Who Is Rich? (characters you will love to hate and maybe even just love), and Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (devastating, unflinching; a young-writer-to-watch).

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

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