“Why do we read?” That was the journal prompt given one day to seniors at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. I spent a year at the school reporting my first book, The New Kids. During that time I heard many, many journal prompts, but this one made a lasting impression, in part because of one student’s answer. “We read to survive in the world,” wrote Hasanatu, who had grown up in Sierra Leone during the war, “because when we know how to read, we can have gob.”
Hasanatu had learned how to read only recently, around the same time that she learned how to write. Sometimes she read for fun — she liked Superfudge by Judy Blume — but reading had a more practical purpose, too. She read to learn English, to sharpen her language and communication skills, to propel her forward toward college, and, yes, toward a good job. She also read to find answers to pressing questions. For instance, she wanted to know why it seemed that only African Muslims practice female circumcision? She spent days in the library investigating.
For me, the question “What are you reading” inevitably leads to the question, “Why do we read?” This year, I’ve been reading mostly for entertainment and escape — more like I used to read as a kid. In past years, I’ve found myself reading books on a theme, usually related to whatever I’m working on at the moment. Before writing The New Kids, I read and revisited books about the immigrant/outsider experience: What Is the What and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Outcasts United by Warren St. John, and Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. (I wrote about a few of those books here.)
If I had known about The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s slim and elegant novel about a young girl who washes ashore in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam with her father by boat, I would have read it before writing my own book. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t know about it — I was able to read it without taking endless mental notes. I was pleased to discover that the author has a connection to western Massachusetts (where I recently moved with my husband), also home to Tracy Kidder, whose book Home Town gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of Northampton.
Leaving New York City helped rekindle my interest in books about my former home, which I sometimes miss. I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, not just for its memorable characters and pervasive sense of nostalgia, but for Egan’s wonderful inventiveness with language. I also ate up Amy Sohn’s bitchy Prospect Park West — especially the parts where she imagines dialogue for the “character” of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works at the Park Slope Food Coop.
On the subject of Park Slope, I finally got to read the works of some of my friends from the neighborhood’s own Brooklyn Writers Space. Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook written as a collection of pithy essays, in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Bryan Charles’ memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, is about his first few years living in New York City, where he worked in a cubicle on the seventieth floor of the World Trade Center up until and on the day of 9/11. Michael Chabon described the book as “a sneakily disturbing, disarmingly profound, casually devastating memoir, taut and adept, that cracked me up even at its saddest moments.” I think he nailed it.
Speaking of Chabon, I finally read Wonder Boys, which has one of the best last lines of any book that I can remember. I also read Emma Donoghue’s Room, which ruined a recent family weekend vacation (I wouldn’t talk to anyone until I finished), and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another creepy book. This one is a young-adult novel — featuring some beautifully haunting vintage photos — about an abandoned orphanage filled with some very weird kids.
Last but not least, I revisited a few old favorites, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, the first western I ever read, and Black Hole, the first graphic novel I ever read. The former is an epic adventure about a couple of aging Texas cowboys who embark on a perilous journey to settle amid the wilderness of Montana. The latter is a grotesque modern fable about a bunch of teenagers in 1970s Seattle, where a sexually transmitted “bug” is causing some horrific mutations among the locals.
Two titles you wouldn’t find side-by-side on most bookshelves, but I see a connection. As Hasanatu said, we read to survive in the world, but sometimes we just like reading about survival.
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Nearly ten years ago, I interviewed Jonathan Franzen, then primarily known less for his fiction—he’d published two great but largely unread novels—and more for a brilliant, cranky essay on writing (and reading), generally referred to as “the Harper’s Essay.” Over the course of a day, Franzen talked, with unflinching honesty, about the difficulties—and exhilarations—of writing The Corrections, which was due to be published three months hence. He had, he explained, become so consumed with writing a “big” novel, an important novel, that he spent years writing and discarding chapters, plot threads, characters, perpetually unsatisfied. His frustrations and ambitions rang eerily true for me, for numerous reasons, not the least of which being that I was working on a novel that, I knew, would be large in scope, so large that I began to hyperventilate when I allowed my mind to linger too long on it.
Franzen, of course, found his way out, in part, he explained, by turning away from the sorts of big novels he tended to favor, as both reader and writer, and toward the more slender volumes on his shelves, the Gatsbys and suchlike. Ultimately, he conceived of The Corrections, less as one massive tome, and more as a series of smaller novels. Franzen’s cure, in a way, became my own. I didn’t put down those big social novels, but I did look at them in a different light, as a series of component parts, and a few months later my own novel began to slide into place.
This fall, like everyone else on the planet, I burned dinner, let my two-year-old cry, stopped answering the phone, and missed any number of subway and bus stops, as I completely gave myself over to Freedom. But I was also, in a neat coincidence, starting work on my own second novel, an even larger and more nerve-wracking endeavor than the first, and so I found myself thinking about that long-ago interview—the advice he’d unknowingly doled out—and picking up some of the shorter novels on my bookshelves, including many old favorites, such as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, both of which I re-read every year or so, marveling at their perfection, and Jean Rhys’s 1928 novel Quartet, which I’d not so much as glanced at since I was about 23.
Brief, brutal, and mildly baffling, Quartet follows a young—or, well, young-ish—former chorus girl, Marya Zelli, over the year following her Polish husband’s imprisonment for theft. Left in Paris with no money and no real way of making a living—she hails from shabby genteel English stock—Marya sells everything she owns, falls ill, and is taken in by the Heidlers, a wealthy British couple whose interest in her stems, she soon discovers, from the husband’s desire to make her his mistress. It’s not giving much away to reveal that she succumbs—you know she will from the moment they meet—because the real pleasure of the novel lies less in the plot (there isn’t much of one) and more in Rhys’ dark humor, unsparing accounts of Marya’s existential despair as she wanders “like a grey ghost…in a vague, shadowy world,” and genius for portraying a character with the smallest and most specific strokes (Lois Heidler, clutching her giant handbag, bears “the expression of the woman who is wondering how she is going to manage about the extra person to dinner… Obviously of the species wife.”).
For the 21st Century reader there’s also, of course, the odd and undeniable pleasure of reading about Paris—the expatriates of the Montparnasse–in the 1920s from a perspective rather more raw than that of, say, Hemingway. Rhys’ characters—be they would-be painters or Midwestern divorcees—appear to be on the verge of collapse—emotional, physical, financial, artistic–as if they were, to a one, harbingers of the financial failures that would devastate the global economy a year after the novel’s publication. At 23, Quartet struck me as a frank exploration of the vulnerability of a lone woman in a society geared toward monogamy and family. Fifteen years later, it reads as something much larger: an exposure of said society’s cracks and fissures, of the ways in which it has failed that lone woman, and, in doing so, has descended into a sort of moral decay. The residents of Paris wander its streets, devoid of money or purpose, resentful of the prosperous few, filled with the “devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence.” Not so different, I suppose, from New York—or Des Moines, or Fort Worth, or Sacramento—right now.
Some other books I’ve loved this year: Ada Leverson’s satirical novel, Love’s Shadow, originally published in 1908, and recently reissued by Bloomsbury, which covers similar territory to Quartet, but in a deeply comic manner. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which also made me burn dinner, allow my children to play with knives, etc. (Why, I’ve wondered, was Egan not on the cover of Time magazine? Her novel speaks equally to present-day truths about America.) Two new memoirs with very long titles, though I am not normally a memoir person: Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (which I loved so much, I have forced it on everyone I know) and Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, which is ostensibly about September 11, but really a kind of contemporary kunstleroman, about becoming a writer in the rather toxic contemporary literary climate. And three not-new collections of poetry: Sarah Vap’s American Spikenard, Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling, and David Young’s translation of the Chinese poet Du Fu, which is worth reading for the introduction alone.
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