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.
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.
We live in a time when immigrants, people of color, refugees, women, disabled people, LGBT people, the poor, and others in the margins are denied their stories—and denied their humanity. Reading about lives different than our own is an act both of empathy and resistance. In my year of reading, I found the following books by women deeply moving and illuminating.
Three novels—Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and Lisa Ko’s The Leavers—depict the pain, joy, and complexities around transracial, transnational adoption, from a kaleidoscope of perspectives.
Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko is epic, Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do is intimate, and Kaitlin Solimine’s novel Empire of Glass is experimental, but each reflect the impact of war and migration over generations—and each are compelling and unforgettable.
Bridget Quinn’s Broad Strokes about 15 female artists from the 17th century to the present, is inspiring, charming, and eye-opening; Ethel Rohan’s novel The Weight of Him, which portrays an Irish father in the aftermath of his son’s suicide, is painful yet big-hearted; the short stories in Laurie Ann Doyle’s World Gone Missing give us the moments of connection that people find even amid great loss; Julie Lythcott-Haim’s searing, lyrical memoir Real American details her experiences as the daughter of an African-American father and white British mother; Kirsten Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This is thought-provoking and poignant; and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What it Means When A Man Falls from the Sky is a witty, devastating collection of short stories. I loved Xhenet Aliu’s Brass, a fierce, funny, and tender debut novel about mothers and daughters that is coming out early next year.
These narratives are individual yet universal in their concerns, timely and timeless, and just what I needed to get through 2017 and beyond.
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.
Once, 10 years ago, Irish-American writer Ethel Rohan overheard two strangers in a bar discussing a friend who had lost her brother to suicide. “The grief may kill her before her weight does,” they said. That phrase stayed with Rohan, and she started writing a novel about it, drawing on her own experiences with suicidal depression, body shame, and loss, as well as research about the shocking prevalence of suicide in Ireland and around the world.
Now, that novel — her first 00 is finally in the world. The Weight of Him tells the story of Billy Brennan, a 400-pound husband and father in rural Ireland who has just lost his oldest son, Michael, to suicide. But instead of letting grief or weight kill him, Billy decides to use them as motivation to change his own life and the lives of those around him. As it charts his efforts to raise awareness about suicide and repair his relationships with his loved ones and himself, the novel is heartbreaking but never sappy, uplifting but never treacly. It’s the kind of book that promises redemption, but only if its messy, flawed characters work hard for it, failing over and over again along the way.
I sat down with Rohan in her San Francisco home to talk about the novel, Ireland, and the power of literary fiction in a world full of political fictions.
The Millions: As a woman, as a feminist, I think of body shame and emotions around weight as pertaining mainly to women, but that’s not really true. How was it writing about the particular issue of weight from a male perspective?
Ethel Rohan: Frankly, with Billy, it almost got to the point, maybe out of necessity but almost naturally, where it wasn’t about gender, it really was about the person, the human being. That did cross my mind sometimes. I had so much fear, honestly, and I think that’s another reason why it took so long. I was just very afraid of the subject matter.
My struggle with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, was a secret until it got to the point where “I am going to die, I need help.” And then it became less of a secret, but still to this day, I have really close friends who have no idea. But I’m ready to own that now, and I realize how important it is for me to raise my voice in that regard. Because when I was there, I would look and I would research, and I was checking stuff online, and I couldn’t find myself in anything I read, because, yes, I was suicidal, but I was highly functioning. Yes, I was able to hold it all together, but at enormous internal cost. I just think it’s important to get that narrative out there, because we don’t see enough of it.
But the idea of body positivity, body shame, all of that. I could only be true to Billy, and I learned about Billy just like any other author does with their character: by putting him in scenes, putting him in situations. What does he say? What does he think? What does he do? All of that, just getting a level of confidence there, where I felt, “Okay, I can’t speak to the topic as a whole, but I can speak to Billy, whom I’ve gotten to know really well, and I can be as honest as I can, authentic as I can, with that.”
I think the added layer of authenticity that I brought to it was also the other piece of me: I am a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse. So I know body shame really well — not in the same way that Billy does, but that also gave me a level of confidence that I can speak to this. I’m coming at it in a different way for different reasons, but…When I was younger, you know, I’m from a working-class Dublin family, we were poor. We did not have a lot. So one of the easy ways for me to access comfort was food. But there was also that element that Billy struggles with: On one hand, it’s comforting, but then it spills over into a form of self-punishment. And I’ve been there, and I know what that’s like. And that’s also how I misused food.
So I’ve never been fat, but I do know what it’s like to have an unhealthy relationship with food and with your body. And I suppose that then, if you like, the third piece of it all was that my mother was fat, and did struggle with addiction in various forms, including overeating. It was just bringing all of that and hoping that I could do right by the subject matter and by the characters with that knowledge that I had.
TM: You’ve lived in San Francisco now for longer than you lived in Ireland, is that true?
TM: For both of the main thematic issues, obesity and suicide, in this book, it seems like the Irish attitudes that you’re depicting are somewhat different from the American ones. In particular, I was struck by how Billy tries to get publicity for an issue and go on TV, and his family’s reaction was like, “No, we don’t want this attention, we don’t want publicity.” Because from my perspective, that would be a very laudable thing here. That would be the most “useful” thing you could do with your grief — or that’s how it would be perceived. Could you talk a little more about that?
ER: I think it comes down to just how deep that stigma still runs, around suicide in particular, around mental illness in general. I think it does get back to this idea that it’s a weakness, so it would be families not wanting to be seen to be weak, tied up in guilt. Families not wanting to be seen to have done something wrong that led to the suicide. And I think it’s that very Irish and maybe very human survival instinct of “It’s too painful. I don’t want to look at this pain too closely. I want to go on. I just want to try and pick up the pieces as best I can.” I think for [Billy’s wife] Tricia, it was very much like “I’ll never get over this, but all I can do is hope as best I can and just get through each day.”
It’s the shame, and it’s the stigma, and the publicity as well. That’s very Irish, this idea of keeping small and not drawing attention to yourself.
TM: That was the most foreign thing to me.
ER: Yeah! But that rings so true to me. It really is about keeping small. It kind of goes back almost to…it’s a parental ideology, but I think it becomes even bigger if you really want to go back and look at the psychic scars of being a colonized country. It’s just the idea of “Be quiet, don’t cause trouble, stay in your place, knuckle down, just get the work done.” And, as well, I think, an attitude of “If we don’t look at it too hard, it might go away.” I think the Irish are really good with the pain factor, just not looking at things too closely.
My father would have been very, very like that: “I can’t look it’s too painful.” And my mother would have been erasing the voice, “be quiet,” that kind of thing. “Don’t draw attention to yourself, and by God, don’t draw attention to us.” So I think those voices were very much in play, and although they kind of came directly from my parents, I think they came from the culture and from patriarchy right across the board.
She’s unfortunately an all-too-obscure Irish writer and she died a few years ago, but Nuala O’Faolain was an Irish journalist, and she wrote a couple of memoirs, and she said — I read it once and it stayed with me for many, many years. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. — she said, “My Irish childhood took the I away from me. I felt ‘I’ was erased.” Not to point the finger at the Irish, but I think it’s culturally true. It’s one of those hard truths that we need to look at. And I think it does come from being colonized, but it is also like every country in the first world, we’re part of a patriarchal system. And the powerful are controlling everything, and they have the voice, and you just be quiet and stay in your place.
And here we are, 2017, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing.
TM: On that note, how do you see the role of fiction in our new hellscape? [Laughter.]
ER: I have to believe it’s more important than ever. It sounds almost clichéd: What can you do? What should you do? But I have to believe it matters, I really do. Because I know my experience as a reader, and thankfully, there have been studies from way more reputable sources than myself, who have shown that reading does generate empathy. It does allow us to understand, because it humanizes.
I read recently, I want to say the University of Oregon, they did a study where they had a large group and they show them some footage of famine…it was sort of this idea that “Look at all these thousands and thousands that are starving. Can you donate? Can you help?” And they got very little response. And then they brought in another group, and they show them one child starving, and everybody donated.
So it’s the idea of what’s happening right now in the U.S. is so huge. I’m one, I can’t make a difference. Whereas if you looked at one particular person, be it Muslim or whoever else, and they tell you their story and they tell you their fears and say, “Help protect us. Stand up for us.” That, I think, is going to be much more powerful, and I think that’s what books do. A particular protagonist, it humanizes, it makes it very personal, and it just gives you a window into experiences. Because I think a lot of what’s happening now is, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, this idea of “It’s not affecting me, so while I might be upset that there might be lies, there might be collusion, or whatever else, especially if I’m white and middle class, it’s not going to affect me, so let’s just hope.” It’s that deflection again. It’s just: “Hope it all goes away.”
TM: “Don’t look at it.”
ER: “Hopefully this is just a little blip.” Whereas if you’re directly in the line of fire…you know. So I think fiction does have that power to humanize, to generate empathy, and to just make us understand what it’s like. What it’s like to be poor, what it’s like to be marginalized, what it’s like to be terrified, what it’s like to be the recipient, the subject, of racism, bigotry, all of that that we can’t appreciate if we don’t experience it.
TM: I think this book in particular is about going from a feeling of powerlessness and in many ways being very objectively, factually powerless — once Michael has killed himself, there’s nothing you can do to bring him back — but it is about figuring out, through all your messy emotions and all the things that you can’t control, what you can do.
ER: Yeah. And I think that’s something throughout my life that’s helped me survive. As a kid, as an adult: What can I do? Because it would be very easy to buckle beneath all the things I couldn’t control that were happening outside of me and that I was suffering from.
I didn’t think this book would be that idea of…because I’m asking that, and so many people I know are asking that: What can I do? And I think we each have to find our answer to that, and it could be something tiny. Like you said, with Billy and the grief, if you can’t bring Michael back — and I knew that pain, when you just want to bring people back and you can’t — it’s like, “Okay, what can I do?”
TM: I sort of felt that way when Trump got elected. I went into the same sort of magical thinking people have when they lose a loved one, where I was like, “Okay, we just need to make this not have happened. Reality just needs to change.”
ER: Yeah, it’s just like, “What is the one thing that would have…?” There’s just so much, and it’s heartbreaking. And part of the grief process is letting go of that incredible ache to just turn back time. How many of us, for many different reasons, would give anything to turn back time? It makes you realize how human you are, and we do have limits, but we are also, for the most part, way more powerful than we realize. And that’s something that I’m really holding onto right now.
I remember vividly being a kid in school and learning about the Holocaust, and my question back then was “What would I do? Who would I have been?” And I couldn’t understand it, I couldn’t fathom how it could happen. And now here I am.
TM: I know, and it’s like, “Oh, this is exactly how it happened.”
ER: Exactly! And I see how messy and complicated…you don’t know what to believe. Like, your question: How powerful do I think fiction is? Fiction got us where we are. But it was dishonest fiction, whereas hopefully — I like this! — hopefully the antidote to that is honest fiction. Or at least one of them. It will only do so much, but it could just keep stoking the fire within each of us, and then we could put it into more actual terms.
TM: Narrative does get its hooks into people in a way that facts don’t.
ER: And Trump used it. Look how he used it. But that’s the key. It’s dishonest narrative, and it’s such an impure intent and purpose behind it. And I do believe in the power of honest fiction and narrative where the intent is to humanize, to engender compassion and empathy and understanding. Just kind of like a walk in somebody’s shoes. I didn’t know! I didn’t make that connection! But that makes me hopeful that…If we want to know how powerful narrative is, look what he’s doing. One of the first things he’s trying to do is shut down journalism and writers, because he, like every other dictator and fascist before him, they know the power of the written word and of the media and journalism.
Because sometimes when you’re down there, you’re wondering what you’re doing. And with this book, I almost gave up so many times, and it was fear. Beyond the usual writerly fear of self-doubt and failure, it was the subject matter. Why am I telling it? What am I going to accomplish? And all of that. But it would not let me be. Billy would not let me be, and all of the characters — Tricia, all of them, who for some readers may not be likable — I loved them all. They stay with me, and I stuck with them, and here we are.
New this week: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson; The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky; All That’s Left to Tell by Daniel Lowe; The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan; The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble; and Be My Wolff by Emma Richler. For more on these and other new titles, go read our most recent book preview.
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. For more February titles — and there are a ton — check out the Great First-Half 2017 Preview.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: Millions staffer and author of Millions Original Epic Fail O’Connell brings his superb writing and signature wit and empathy to a nonfiction exploration of the transhumanist movement, complete with cryogenic freezing, robots, and an unlikely presidential bid from the first transhumanist candidate. O’Connell’s sensibility — his humanity, if you will — and his subject matter are a match made in heaven. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, but don’t take my non-impartial word for it: Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood have plugged it too. (Lydia)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: The Oakland-based Li delivers this memoir of chronic depression and a life lived with books. Weaving sharp literary criticism with a perceptive narrative about her life as an immigrant in America, Your Life isn’t as interested in exploring how literature helps us make sense of ourselves as it is in how literature situates us amongst others. (Ismail)
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Pulitzer Prize Winner Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees has already received starred pre-publication reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, among others. Nguyen’s brilliant new work of fiction offers vivid and intimate portrayals of characters and explores identity, war, and loss in stories collected over a period of two decades. (Zoë)
Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson: Well, it sounds like it’s got it all: the Badlands, the Twin Towers, Elvis’s resurrected twin brother, all put together to create what Jonathan Lethem called “a playlist for the dying American century.” He told Granta this was the best novel he read all year. (Lydia)
Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay: A significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay is best-known for his novel Home to Harlem — which was criticized by W.E.B. Dubois for portraying black people (i.e. Harlem nightlife) as prurient — “after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.” The novel went on to win the prestigious (if short-lived) Harmon Gold Medal and is widely praised for its sensual and brutal accuracy. In 2009, UPenn English professor Jean-Christophe Cloutier discovered the unpublished Amiable with Big Teeth in the papers of notorious, groundbreaking publisher Samuel Roth. A collaboration between Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, a long-awaited, edited, scholarly edition of the novel will be released by Penguin in February. (Sonya)
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: This sequel to the Nobel Prize-winning South African author’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus picks up shortly after Simón and Inés flee from authorities with their adopted son, David. Childhood was a sometimes thin-feeling allegory of immigration that found Coetzee meditating with some of his perennial concerns — cultural memory, language, naming, and state violence — at the expense of his characters. In Schooldays, the allegorical element recedes somewhat into the background as Coetzee tells the story of David’s enrollment in a dance school, his discovery of his passion for dancing, and his disturbing encounters with adult authority. This one was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. (Ismail)
A Separation by Katie Kitamura: A sere and unsettling portrait of a marriage come undone, critics are hailing Kitamura’s third book as “mesmerizing” and “magnificent.” The narrator, a translator, goes to a remote part of Greece in search of her serially unfaithful husband, only to be further unmoored from any sense that she (and in turn the reader) had of the contours of their shared life. Blurbed by no fewer than six literary heavyweights — Rivka Galchen, Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard — A Separation looks poised to be the literary Gone Girl of 2017. (Kirstin B.)
The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan: Set in rural Ireland, the accomplished short-story writer’s debut novel takes on suicide, grief, overeating, and getting on. A novel that “that speaks to the essential core of our shared human experience,” says Robert Olen Butler. (Lydia)
Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: A debut about motherhood, art, and living across cultures focusing on a young Japanese woman who abandons her son. Alexander Chee says it is “the kind of novel our century deserves.” (Lydia)
Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: Academic and Twitter eminence McMillan Cottom tackles a subject that, given a recent spate of lawsuits, investigations, and closings, was front-page news for a good part of 2016. Drawing on interviews with students, activists, and executives at for-profit colleges and universities, Lower Ed aims to connect the rise of such institutions with ballooning levels of debt and larger trends of income inequality across the U.S. (Kirstin B.)