During our school years in Shanghai, we were always reading two books at the same time. One was our textbook, which sat open on the desk, protected by extra covers, lines highlighted and margins filled with tidy handwriting, reflecting our diligence; the other was the book we were actually reading, hidden inside our desks, probably dog-eared and without notes. As our teacher droned on and on, our souls slipped into the worlds of those books: some of us fought to be Kung Fu masters, others fell in love with someone magnificent.
Now, years later, I often hear people say that the books we loved in youth are not good, and that we liked them only because we desperately wanted to escape from the chore of schoolwork. This year, I spent a lot of time rereading the same books I used to sneak into my desk back in old days. And I mean to say this: We don’t need to feel apologetic about loving these books. Most of them still speak to us.
1. Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau
For most of this year, I was translating English Professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, into Chinese. I took the opportunity to reread Thoreau’s major works. Now, it’s safe for me to say that I still admire Thoreau. Not because I, as a city person, fancy the romantic idea of living in the woods, but because I appreciate his moral struggle and his life-long journey to elevate himself.
There have always
been two Thoreaus: one was the hermit by the
lakeside, a moralist who maintained his self-purity by disengaging with the
infected human society; the other was a politically responsible citizen who
would rather go to jail than support the unjust American government by paying
poll-tax and who tirelessly called on his people to do the same, to commit
Walls’s biography inspires me to see the two contradicting images as one. Thoreau saw the interconnectedness of all reality—“A man is a bundle of relations” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)—firstly in nature, where the newly-built hydraulic machinery threatened the lives of innocent fish. He defended the fish in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Later, he extended his defense to include all oppressed forms of life: slaves controlled by their owners, Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants, Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest…He was not merely interested in self-cleansing, either; he aimed to be the “chanticleer” (Walden) who would wake his neighbors with the dawn and remind them to live up to Higher Laws.
a time when we are so easily lost in the trappings of material success, perhaps
we can always turn to Thoreau for insight and courage. As Walls beautifully puts
When [Thoreau] wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he meant not an ascetic’s renunciation, but a redefinition of true wealth as inner rather than outer, aspiring to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art. “There is Thoreau,” said one of his closest friends. “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough.” (Henry David Thoreau: A Life)
2. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami
One often has to defend their love for Haruki Murakami in the same way one must defend their love for J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It is true that there are certain books that you will never truly understand—and, even if you do understand, you will never experience that same electrifying feeling—unless you have read them at a certain age. This speaks to my experience with Norwegian Wood, which we carefully kept away from parents and teachers during adolescence and which offered us an exciting glimpse into what then seemed to us the mysteries of adulthood.
Earlier this year, I reread After the Quake, a collection of stories Murakami wrote after Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake. This time, I must confess that I enjoyed the book even more. I remember I used to adore “Thailand” and “All God’s Children Can Dance,” but now my favorite piece is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.” In this story, an average Japanese salaryman is chosen by Super-Frog to save the metropolis. When this ordinary man doubts himself for lacking any traditional heroic qualities, Super-Frog convinces him otherwise: “Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it’s for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo.” Amanda Lewis, in her essay about Murakami and his un-Japanese style, suggests that Murakami’s exploration of “the needs of the individual” is his refusal of “the essence of the Japanese mind,” which often contains an undertone of “a disregard for the sacredness of human life.” (Amanda Lewis, “The Essence of the Japanese Mind: Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize.”)
I am not saying I like all of Murakami’s works—some of them are disappointing—but the books that enthralled me when I was young—Norwegian Woods, After the Quake, South of the Border, West of the Sun—have quite a lasting charm.
3. The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner
My American friends often find it unbelievable that I read Sound and Fury when I was a teenager. Back then, I read its Chinese translation; Li Wenjun, the translator, carefully inserted footnotes to offer the much-needed context when time-shifting occurs. So I didn’t find it too difficult. This year, to write a script for a Chinese radio show, I reread the book in English. Because I already had the plot in my mind, I was able to appreciate the beauty of Faulkner’s writing.
section stunned me, as it had years ago. What seems like nonsense—long, chaotic
sentences without quotation marks is also pure poetry. Of course, the young
Faulkner—he was only 31 when he wrote this masterpiece—was probably also
showing off his mastery of different prose styles. His genius may overawe all
the aspiring young writers of today. But it is fine to feel intimidated; that
is how we push ourselves to write better.
P.S.: As a woman of color myself, I am aware of the race and gender issues in “the Western canon.” So, I would also like to recommend the best history book I have read this year: A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights Movement by Jeanne Theoharis. Theoharis argues that politicians have twisted the narrative of the civil rights movement. Now, we feel as if American democracy is a self-correcting and self-renewing system. However, the struggle of African Americans is proof of the system’s problems, not of its perfection. By glossing over the complexity of history, the current narrative turns us away from the still-dire racial present. The most deep-rooted racism, Theoharis suggests, doesn’t take the form of violence; it lies in the way parents assert their rights as taxpayers to maintain a dominantly white “neighborhood school.” Racism happens not only in the Deep South but also in New York City, in Los Angeles, in all those big cities which purport to embrace diversity.
Besides, while we appreciate the problems and values of the literature of the past, we can also keep an eye out for the potential classics of the future. I enjoyed reading The Study of Animal Language by Lindsay Stern and 99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai. And I am also looking forward to reading the following books, all of which boast excellent reviews: In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow, The Travelers by Regina Porter, and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Yes, these authors are all my workshop buddies at Iowa, but I will feel honored to have been one of their first readers.
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The Center for Fiction announced its 2019 First Novel Prize Longlist yesterday. The award is given to the “best debut novel published between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of the award year,” and the prize-winning author receives $10,000.
Here is the 2019 longlist (featuring many titles from our 2019 Book Preview) with bonus links when applicable:
The Bobcat by Katherine Forbes Riley
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
The Falconer by Dana Czapnik
Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
Goodnight Stranger by Miciah Bay Gault
The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff
The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
The Paper Wasp by Lauren Acampora
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin
A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar
A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores
Tinfoil Butterfly by Rachel Eve Moulton
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
The 2019 shortlist will be announced in September, and the winner will be announced at The Center for Fiction’s annual Benefit and Awards Dinner in December.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Ocean Vuong, Kristen Arnett, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Alix Ohlin, and more—that are publishing this week.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: “Poet Vuong’s frank first novel (after Night Sky with Exit Wounds) takes the form of a letter from a man to his illiterate mother in which 28-year-old Little Dog, a writer who’s left the impoverished Hartford, Conn., of his youth for New York City, retraces his coming of age. His childhood is marked by abuse from his overworked mother, as well as the traumas he’s inherited from his mother’s and grandmother’s experiences during the Vietnam War. Having left Vietnam with them as a young boy, and after the incarceration of his father, Little Dog’s attempts to assimilate include contending with language barriers and the banal cruelty of the supposedly well-intentioned. He must also adapt to the world as a gay man and as a writer—the novel’s beating heart rests in Little Dog’s first, doomed love affair with another teenage boy, and in his attempts to describe what being a writer truly is. Vuong’s prose shines in the intimate scenes between the young men, but sometimes the lyricism has a straining, vague quality (‘They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they will love it’; ‘But the thing about forever is you can’t take it back’). Nevertheless, this is a haunting meditation on loss, love, and the limits of human connection.”
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mostly Dead Things: “In Arnett’s dark and original debut, Jessa discovers her father dead of a suicide in the family’s Florida taxidermy shop. She also finds a note asking her to take care of the failing business, her mother, and her brother, Milo. Additionally, Jessa mourns the loss of Brynn, her brother’s (now) ex-wife and Jessa’s longtime lover, who left both her and Milo years before. As Jessa grieves over her lost loved ones, she must also deal with her remaining ones: Milo sinks from the world, missing work and barely paying attention to his children, and Jessa’s mother enters a late creative period, using the stuffed and mounted animals from the shop to make elaborate sexual tableaus for a local art gallery. Jessa also begins a romantic relationship with Lucinda, the director of the gallery and benefactor for Jessa’s mother’s newfound (and, for Jessa, ‘perverted’) artistry. Set in a richly rendered Florida and filled with delightfully wry prose and bracing honesty, Arnett’s novel introduces a keenly skillful author with imagination and insight to spare.”
Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Save Me the Plums: “In this endearing memoir, James Beard Award–winning food writer Reichl (Tender at the Bone) tells the story of her 10-year stint (1999–2009) as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. Reichl made it her mission to return a stuffy Gourmet to the artistic and culinary glory she remembered from her childhood, taking it online and replacing high-brow guides to hosting with boundary-pushing cultural exposés and stories on street food. Recipes mark turning points in her story, like the Jeweled Chocolate Cake that won her credibility in the test kitchen (‘the dark, dense, near-bitterness of the cake collided with the crackling sweetness of the praline’ topping); the Thanksgiving Turkey Chili that she and her staff delivered to firefighters in the aftermath of 9/11; and Spicy Chinese Noodles—the midnight dish she often prepared for her son. Gourmet magazine readers will relish the behind-the-scenes peek at the workings of the magazine: Reichl details her decision to run ‘the edgiest article’ in Gourmet’s history, David Foster Wallace’s controversial piece on the ethics of boiling lobsters alive, and shares anecdotes about such writers as the late L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold and novelist Ann Patchett. Reichl’s revealing memoir is a deeply personal look at a food world on the brink of change.”
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In West Mills: “Winslow’s stellar debut follows the residents of a black neighborhood in a tiny North Carolina town over the course of several decades, beginning in 1941 and ending in 1987. At the center of the novel is ornery Azalea, nicknamed Knot. Twenty-six when the novel begins, she has moved to West Mills, where she now teaches in the elementary school, to get away from her middle-class family and to keep her drinking problem a secret from them. She never wants for male companionship, but her two closest friends are men with whom she has no romantic interest. Sweet, stable Otis Lee, who lives next door with beloved, mouthy wife Pep, keeps Knot grounded as she tries to choose between motherhood and independence. Gay bartender Valley, who spends years in D.C. and Europe between stretches in West Mills, provides her with a sense of the world outside. Events in that outside world, including WWII and the civil rights movement, touch lightly on the residents of the town, but most of their attention goes to personal relationships and to holding on to secrets that give them leverage over others. Knot is a wonderful character, with a stubborn commitment to her own desires. Winslow has a finely tuned ear for the way the people of this small town talk, and his unpretentiously poetic prose goes down like a cool drink of water on a hot day.”
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about City of Girls: “Gilbert (The Signature of All Things) begins her beguiling tale of an innocent young woman discovering the excitements and pleasures of 1940 New York City with a light touch, as her heroine, Vivian Morris, romps through the city. Gradually the story deepens into a psychologically keen narrative about Vivian’s search for independence as she indulges her free spirit and sexuality. Freshly expelled from Vassar for not attending any classes, 19-year-old Vivian is sent by her parents to stay with her aunt Peggy Buell in Manhattan. Peg runs a scruffy theater that offers gaudy musical comedies to its unsophisticated patrons. As WWII rages in Europe, Vivian is oblivious to anything but the wonder behind the stage, as she becomes acquainted with the players in a new musical called City of Girls, including the louche leading man with whom she falls in love with passionate abandon. Vivian flits through the nightclubs El Morocco, the Diamond Horseshoe, and the Latin Quarter, where she hears Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Louis Prima. Drinking heavily and scooting into the arms of numerous men, one night at the Stork Club she meets Walter Winchell, the notorious gossip columnist, who plays a pivotal role in the tabloid scandal in which Vivian becomes embroiled. Vivian’s voice—irreverent, witty, robust with slang—gradually darkens with guilt when she receives a devastating comeuppance. Eventually, she arrives at an understanding of the harsh truths of existence as the country plunges into WWII. Vivian—originally reckless and selfish, eventually thoughtful and humane—is the perfect protagonist for this novel, a page-turner with heart complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness.”
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Patsy: “A Jamaican woman abandons her daughter for a chance to reunite with her childhood friend turned lover in this wrenching second novel from Dennis-Benn (Here Comes the Sun). Adoring letters from Cicely, who left several years earlier, inspire Patsy to emigrate from Jamaica to America, but when she arrives in New York in 1998, her dreams of a romantic reunion are dashed by the discovery that Cicely has married an abusive husband. Forced to set out on her own, Patsy finds work as a bathroom attendant and a nanny. Meanwhile, Tru, her six-year-old daughter, is still in Jamaica under the care of her father, who helps to ease the girl’s devastation by teaching her to play soccer, a game she excels at. Though Patsy has decided that ‘the absence of a mother is more dignified than the presence of a distant one,’ as she settles into a sustainable life over the next decade, Tru struggles with depression and self-harm. Patsy’s ambivalence about motherhood transforms this otherwise familiar immigrant narrative into an immersive study in unintended consequences, where even the push Patsy’s new girlfriend gives her to try and make amends, by sending a gift to Tru, leads to disaster. Out of that debacle, though, a chance for rapprochement appears, one that sets the stage for Tru to turn her athletic talent into the kind of life her mother is still grasping at. This is a marvelous novel.”
Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dual Citizens: “Ohlin’s third novel (after Inside) is the engrossing, intricate tale of half-sisters Lark and Robin Brossard. In their Montreal childhood, Lark, a few years older, stands in for Robin’s mother, Marianne, who is mostly absent. Creative Robin is an excellent pianist while Lark is a quiet scholar. Lark wins a scholarship to a college near Boston, and her time there is the only period she isn’t tasked with being her sister’s keeper—until Robin appears at her doorstep during Lark’s second year. Lark becomes Robin’s guardian and the sisters move to New York: Lark to graduate film school as she hones her documentary filmmaking prowess and Robin to Juilliard for piano. Most of Lark’s time is spent working as an assistant for a reclusive director (who becomes her lover) and worrying after Robin, who drops out of school and aimlessly wanders. Later, in her mid-30s, Lark is desperate for a child, but her director-lover already has a grown daughter. When an accident upends Lark’s life, their roles reverse and Robin becomes caretaker of her sister. Ohlin smartly chooses a broad scope and expertly weaves Lark and Robin’s disparate lives into a singular thread, making for an exceptional depiction of the bond between sisters.”
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Most Fun We Ever Had: “Lombardo’s impressive debut follows the Sorenson clan—physician David, wife Marilyn, and their four daughters: Wendy, Violet, Liza, and Grace—through the 1970s to 2017. David and Marilyn raised the family in a rambling suburban Chicago house that belonged to Marilyn’s father. The daughters find varying degrees of success in their professional lives but fail to find the passion and romance that their parents continue to have in their own marriage. Wendy is a wealthy widow with a foul mouth and a drinking problem. Violet is a former lawyer turned stay-at-home mother of two young sons. At 32, Liza is a tenured professor with a depressive boyfriend. The baby of the family, 20-something Grace, is the only one of the daughters to have moved away, and now lives in Oregon. The daughters’ lives are in various stages of tumult: Wendy locates Jonah, the teenage son Violet gave up for adoption years prior; Violet struggles to integrate Jonah into her perfectly controlled life; Liza is shocked to discover she is pregnant; and Grace lies about being in law school after she was rejected. Lombardo captures the complexity of a large family with characters who light up the page with their competition, secrets, and worries. Despite its length and number of plotlines, the momentum never flags, making for a rich and rewarding family saga.”