Best Books I read in 2019

2019 turned out to be an excellent reading year. I would not hesitate to recommend any of the following books to readers who are fine with weird, funny, and often miserably sad stories.

You can watch me in a video talking about this list here:

The Backlist (books that were published before 2019):

You Think It, I’ll Say it, Curtis Sittenfeld
Short stories about middle-aged people, not necessarily nice or pleasant, dealing with relationships. Sittenfeld’s style is always charming; she’s funny but is not easy on her characters. They’re flawed and often vindictive and selfish. But they’re relatable, too. The stories don’t shy away from the politics of the time, which is essential. Ignoring our calamities would make these stories less powerful.

The Mountain Lion, Jean Stafford
A slim novel that bounces between the two main characters, a brother and sister who are bonded and seem throughout to be united in their contempt for other people, especially their mother and older sisters. The portrait of these characters is not to elicit sympathy, but to draw on the deep well of loneliness and a dawning realization of what growing up can mean. Most of the book takes place in the Colorado mountains during the 1930s; the children take dirty trains to visit their uncle there and are surrounded by people far removed from their mother’s pristine, prissy sitting room and the fawning next-door minister who comments on their behavior incessantly. Stafford builds a world that contains the brutal practices of hunting and farming; peril lurks around every corner, but nothing in the outside world can rival the peril of the children’s private thoughts. That’s as much as I want to say about the book without giving up its mysteries. If you want to read it, go in as blindly as possible.

The Blackwater Lightship, Colm Toibin
A novel about a 1990s Irish family, long fallen out, who must come together when one of the siblings is near the end of his life from AIDS. The main character, Helen, must try to put aside deep pain and anger to be with her mother, brother, and grandmother, and in the week they co-habitate, confront the past. The dialog is raw and direct, and the setting, a house on a cliff overlooking the sea, complements the tone.

Mad Boy: An Account of Henry Phipps in the War of 1812, Nick Arvin
A coming of age tale of a boy who’s life is upended when his mother dies and the British are approaching Alexandria in the War of 1812. This book is packed with action, memorable characters, and a sly, sometimes unhinged humor. There’s a core of loneliness that underlies everything, but that’s true of all the best novels.

Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx
The frame of this novel is the history of a single accordion, from its manufacture in Italy to the late twentieth century. But the rollicking heart of this story is of people and their cultures, how this one simple accordion encompasses so many styles of music, all of which are an integral part of the immigrant experience. America is here in messy, hot-hearted, bigoted, hateful and loving expressions. Life and death, disfigurement, addiction, and the private agonies of lost loves are here in Proulx’s frenetic, unsparing style.

Severence, Ling Ma
This is a take on the zombie apocalypse, not generally one of my go-to types of novels, but it branches from there to be a metaphor of the way we’re living now, without a monster (i.e., the monster is us.) The story is told from the perspective of one young woman who before the event worked in bible publishing. When most people die, she goes off trying to find other people.The story is full of lonely people who were untethered from others even before the virus takes over.

The Known World, Edward P. Jones
On the surface, this novel is the story of a short period of time after black slave owner Henry Townsend has died. He was thirty-one, married to a free woman named Caldonia, and they owned thirty-three slaves at the time of his death. Henry was born a slave, but his parents worked hard to buy their own freedom and then Henry’s freedom several years later. This is the barest plot summary possible, because in actuality, the novel contains multitudes.

The Vagrants, Yiyun Li
Set in China in the late 1970s, this novel is about a small province that is shaken by the politics of Beijing. One of the women in town who had been a leader of the Cultural Revolution and all its horrors repents and rebels against the government. She is sentenced to be executed for crimes against the state, and the reverberations of that act are what the novel is about. Her parents are key characters, yet there are many others here and their stories are linked by fate. Such a great work. It would be a good book club discussion novel.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien
Describing this intricate novel is hard. It’s family saga, political history, and culture woven into fiction. When politics are weaponized to tear a nation apart and break people down so that their deepest thoughts and desires must lay hidden in order to adhere to arbitrary and dehumanizing rules of order, the individual is lost and families are broken. That’s what happens to this novel’s characters in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and then the days of the Tienanmen Square massacre. This was a hard novel to stick with, not because the writing isn’t beautiful and effective, but because the characters’ miseries are agonizing to witness. Yet I’m still thinking about it.

When Will There Be Good News, Kate Atkinson
This is my favorite of the Jackson Brodie series, and it features a remarkable teenage protagonist who ends up helping Jackson in one of his darkest moments. Funny, weird, and scary. So good.

Books Published in 2019

Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann
What could have been a gimmicky novel turns out to be a prolonged cry against the modern world and its cruelties, as well as a heartfelt story about a woman’s grief. Yes, the main part of the novel is one sentence, but you quit thinking about that a couple of hundred pages in if you’ve made it that far. The main character is in an anxiety loop she can’t seem to break, and we see her brain jump from memory to worry about her kids to her deep love of her husband to her existential angst about how many chickens we’re eating every day. The effort it must have taken to write and edit this work, and the chance the publisher took to put it out in the world only to almost lose the business over the onerous requirements of being on the Booker Prize shortlist, and the cumulative effect of the work on your own brain as you spend so many hours with this person, make it all worth it. Women’s stories matter.

The Topeka School, Ben Lerner
A challenging novel about a family in Topeka, Kansas, in the last quarter of twentieth century. The parents work for a renowned psychology training institute/mental health hospital called The Foundation and they have a smart and often angry son named Adam. The novel is divided into chapters between Adam, Jane (his mother), and Jonathan (the father), where the main story unspools. There is also an account at the ends of these chapters of a fourth, an outcast named Darren, who bears most of the torment his classmates pile on him.

While this is an insular family saga, it’s also a chilling social commentary, a deep exploration of the limits of language to express existential discord and looming systems collapse. It’s a targeted indictment of politics, systems, and child rearing practices from the 1990s to the current day. The Topkea School manages weave together distinct voices, science, sociology, economic systems, misogyny, and dread. We end up caring deeply for the characters but hurting for our world.

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
At its core, this is a novel about the intense bond between siblings in the aftermath of their family’s disintegration. Set in the late 1960s and beyond in Pennsylvania and New York, the story is told by the brother, Danny, and jumps around in time from his early childhood till late-middle age. He and his older sister, Maeve, have each other to work through their deep longing for lost family, symbolized by a house their father bought as an impetuous grand gesture.

Fleishman is in Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Akner
A raunchy, funny divorce novel on the surface that turns out to be something completely different in the end.

Trust Exercise, Susan Choi
This novel asks readers to abandon preconceived ideas about what a novel should be and allow three characters to share their own specific experiences that (tangentially) center on a failed high school romance. Go into it knowing as little as possible and see what you think.

I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, Emily Nussbaum
Even if you’ve already read Nussbaum’s New Yorker columns faithfully, the new essay, Confessions of a Human Shield, is worth the price of the book. In it, Nussbaum examines her own journey from liking and defending the work of difficult men to understanding how they fit into our current cultural morass. Particularly blistering is her discussion of the fate of Louis CK. It’s an essay of and for our time. The rest of the essays are reviews of television shows like The Sopranos and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. What I like about Nussbaum is her lack of a need to please the reader. These are her opinions and she doesn’t care if you don’t agree.

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, Mira Jacob
A graphic novel about race and identity in Trump’s America, especially if family members can’t see how much harm and hate (which were always here) have emerged to rip apart our communities. I love the book’s drawing style and confessional story.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland; Patrick Radden Keef
This book takes on the difficult task of bringing the politics, sectarianism, will, and folly of the Troubles of Northern Ireland to the page. The muddled history of the times are brought to life with portraits of the people who lived in a climate of secrecy and death sentences for those who betrayed the cause. It is tense and frightening, and shows that domestic terrorism mixed with the harsh brutality of the State caused suffering and needless deaths. How do we reckon with the past while at the same time try to forge a future that sets aside old hatreds? It might be the crux of human existence, and there are lessons within this struggle to apply to the new and the ancient.

Novel with a cliff

Image of book cover: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin is still a favorite.

The Blackwater Lightship is a short novel about a 1990s Irish family, years fallen out, who come together when one of the siblings is near the end of his life from AIDS. The main character, Helen, must try to put aside deep pain and anger to be with her mother, brother, and grandmother, and in the week they co-habitate, confront the past. The dialog is raw and direct, and the setting, a house on a cliff overlooking the sea, complements the tone.

Crowd-Sourced Short Story Recommendations

Illustration of The Semplica Girl Diaries by George Saunders

This list was culled from a twitter feed by Lisa Lucas, who asked people to respond with their ONE favorite short story. I entered these into a spread sheet and should have separated first and last names, but I didn’t and so you have the odd name format. The original tweet thread is here: Lisa Lucas’s thread about short stories

Mambo Sauce | Acker, Camille
Zimmer Land | Adjei-Brenyah, Nana Kwame
Do You Know Where I Am | Alexie, Sherman
The Future Looks Good | Arimah, Lesley Nneka
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky | Arimah, Lesley Nneka
Safe Passage | Ausubel, Ramona
Paul’s Case | Cather, Willa
Sonny’s Blues | Baldwin, James
The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D | Ballard, J.G.
The Lesson | Bambara, Toni Cade
The Johnson Girls | Bambara, Toni Cade
The Persimmon Tree | Barnard, Marjorie
The School | Barthelme, Donald
Fiber | Bass, Rick
Sign of My Own | Bender, Aimee
Quiet Please | Bender, Aimee
Loser | Bender, Aimee
Dr. H.A. Moynihan | Berlin, Lucia
The Immortal | Borges, Jorge Luis
The Library of Babel | Borges, Luis
Distant Episode | Bowles, Paul
The Veldt | Bradbury, Ray
All in a Summer Day | Bradbury, Ray
There Will Come Soft Rains | Bradbury, Ray
Pacific Radio Fire | Brautigan, Richard
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye | Byatt, A.S.
Racine and the Tablecloth | Byatt, A.S.
Distance of the Moon | Calvino, Italo
The Fat Man in History | Carey, Peter
Bicycles Muscles Cigarettes | Carver, Raymond
A Small, Good Think | Carver, Raymond
The Bees | Chaon, Dan
Why I Live at the PO | Welty, Eudora
The Man in a Case | Chekhov, Anton
Gooseberries | Chekhov, Anton
About Love | Chekhov, Anton
The Lady With the Little Dog | Chekhov, Anton
The Wife of His Youth | Chestnutt, Charles
Hell is the Absence of God | Chiang, Ted
Story of Your Life | Chiang, Ted
Omphales | Chiang, Ted
Story of An Hour | Chopin, Kate
One Holy Night | Cisneros, Sandra
Eleven | Cisneros, Sandra
The Southern Thruway | Cortazar, Julio
White Angel | Cunningham, Michael
The Point | D’Ambrosio, Charles D.
End of a Struggle | Davila, Amparo
The Necklace | DeMaupassant, Guy
The Breakthrough | du Maurier, Daphne
Paper Lantern | Dybek, Stuart
We Didn’t | Dybek, Stuart
Black Box | Egan, Jennifer
Twilight of the Superheroes | Eisenberg, Deborah
Flying Home | Ellison, Ralph
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank | Englander, Nathan
Robert E. Lee is Dead | Evans, Danielle
A Rose for Emily | Faulkner, William
The Machine Stops | Forster, E.M.
American Hippo | Gailey, Sarah
The Goldfish Pool | Gaiman, Neil
Girl on the Plane | Gaitskill, Mary
A Romantic Weekend | Gaitskill, Mary
The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street | Gallant, Mavis
The Pedersen Kid | Gass, William
Betty and Veronica | Geddes, Luke
A Jar of Emeralds | Giles, Molly
The Yellow Wallpaper | Gilman, Charlotte Perkins
City Visit | Haslett, Adam
Collected Likenesses | Hatley, Jamey
A Full-Service Shelter | Hempel, Amy
Sing For It | Hempel, Amy
In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried | Hempel, Amy
My Father’s Mask | Hill, Joe
The Lottery | Jackson, Shirley
Like Mother Used to Make | Jackson, Shirley
The Tooth | Jackson, Shirley
Elizabeth | Jackson, Shirley
The Open Window | Jackson, Shirley
The Beast in the Jungle | James, Henry
Interesting Facts | Johnson, Adam
China | Johnson, Charles
Emergency | Johnson, Denis
Car Crash While Hitchhiking | Johnson, Denis
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden | Johnson, Denis
Control Negro | Johnson, Jocelyn Nicole
The Girl Who Raised Pigeons | Jones, Edward P.
The Devis Swims Across the Anacostia River | Jones, Edward P.
Marie | Jones, Edward P.
The Dead | Joyce, James
Araby | Joyce, James
The Dead BY | Joyce, James
A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear | Kennedy, Cate
Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters  | Kim, Alice Sola
Girl | Kincaid, Jamaica
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption | King, Stephen
You, Disappearing | Kleeman, Alex
A Temporary Matter | Lahiri, Jhumpa
The Third and Final Continent | Lahiri, Jhumpa
White Noise | Lanagan, Margot
The Boat | Le, Nam
Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice | Le, Nam
The Ones who Walk Away from Omolas | LeGuin, Ursula K.
Stone Animals | Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners | Link, Kelly
The Paper Menagerie | Liu, Ken
Real Women Have Bodies | Machado, Carmen Maria
Help Me Follow My Sister Into the Land of the Dead | Machado, Carmen Maria
The Husband Stitch | Machado, Carmen Maria
I Only Came to Use the Phone | Marquez, Gabriel Garcia
A Tree A Rock A Cloud | McCullers, Carson
The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas | McKnight, Reginald
A Magic of Bags | Mecca, Jamilah
Patriotism | Mishima, Yukio
Death of a Chieftain | Montague, John
Boys | Moody, Rick
People Like That are the Only People Here | Moore, Lorrie
Vissi d’arte | Moore, Lorrie
Dance in America | Moore, Lorrie
Peole Like Us Are the Only People Here | Moore, Lorrie
The Way of the Apple Worm | Muller, Herta
Passion | Munro, Alice
Vandals | Munro, Alice
Meneseteung | Munro, Alice
The Bear Came Over the Mountain | Munro, Alice
Queenie | Munro, Alice
Gravel | Munro, Alice
Fiction | Munro, Alice
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage | Munro, Alice
In the Land of Men | Nelson, Antonya
The Gift of the Magi | O Henry
A View of the Woods | O’Connor, Flannery
Good Country People | O’Connor, Flannery
A Good Man is Hard to Find | O’Connor, Flannery
Guests of the Nation | O’Connor, Frank
My First Confession | O’Connor, Frank
I Stand Here Ironing | Olsen, Tillie
Ineffectual Tribute to Len | Orner, Peter
Geese | Packer, Z.Z.
Wants | Paley, Grace
Goodbye and Good Luck | Paley, Grace
Solo on the Drums | Petry, Ann
The Tell-Tale Heart | Poe, Edgar Allen
The Cask of Amontillado | Poe, Edgar Allen
Brokeback Mountain | Proulx, Annie
The Ascent BY | Rash, Ron
Cat Person | Roupenian, Katie
Kindred Spirits | Rowell, Rainbow
Reeling for the Empire | Russell, Karen
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves | Russell, Karen
Empire | Russell, Karen
Orange World | Russell, Karen
Proving Up | Russell, Karen
All the Names They Used for God | Sachdeva, Anjali
For Esme, with Love and Squalor | Salinger, J.D.
The Last Wish | Sapkowski, Andrzej
Tenth of December | Saunders, George
Escape from Spiderhead | Saunders, George
Sea Oak | Saunders, George
The Semplica Girl Diaries | Saunders, George
Love and Hydrogen | Shepard, Jim
Gimple the Fool | Singer, IB
The Prairie Wife | Sittenfeld, Curtis
The Old Forest | Taylor, Peter
The Death of Ivan Ilyich | Tolstoy, Leo
Mrs. Silly | Trever, William
Opa-Locka | Vandenberg, Lauren
Harrison Bergeron | Vonnegut, Kurt
The Quiet Man | Walsh, Maurice
Aftermath | Waters, Mary Yukari
The Blind Country | Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine | Wells, H.G.
A Worn Path | Welty, Eudora
The Best of Betty | Willet, Jincy
The Wedding | Williams, Joy
Bullet in the Brain | Wolff, Tobias

Review: Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise

** spoiler alert ** Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise asks readers to abandon preconceived ideas about what a novel should be and allow three characters to share their own specific experiences that (tangentially) center on a failed high school romance. There have been some recent examples of this type of multi-perspective novel, including Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. These types of novels require a concerted effort to understand what core truth will hold its parts together. And Susan Choi’s novel fits into the category, though not as successfully.
The first half of the novel is about Sarah, one of the teens in love, who attends a prestigious arts high school. She meets David; they have a powerful sexual connection but are unequipped to relate beyond the physical, and things fizzle after they have a public act of sexual congress in their school hallway.

This third-person narrative is about Sarah’s breakup agony and her pain when beloved drama teacher Mr. Kingsley mines the Sarah/David relationship with some repetitive trust exercises the whole class must watch, “So much of what they do, with Mr. Kingsley, is restraint in the name of release. It seems they have to throttle their emotions to have complete access to them.” (These excruciating scenes recall the brainwashing episode in the movie The Master, where nascent Scientologists make Joaquin Phoenix run into a wall over and over again). Eventually, Sarah is demoted to the crew that takes care of the costumes and lighting. In her castigation, Sarah is out of Kingsley’s protective embrace and left to the wiles of a troupe of students from England, and their teacher, Martin, who were invited to put on Voltaire’s Candide and end up scandalizing the program with a bawdy performance that causes the show to be cancelled.
The writing in this first part is stylized and energetic, “By and large, the girls grow increasingly serious as the boys grow increasingly ludicrous. The girls no longer walk, they glide, they skim, they slice” and Sarah’s honest observations about the limits of the teenage perspective and the perils of thwarted romance leave readers with an assumed understanding of the facts.

The second part of the novel knocks those facts down. Here, a character only barely mentioned, Karen, is out to avenge herself because she’d been unfairly excised in Sarah’s published novel. That’s right, Part One is not an omniscient close narration of Sarah’s story, but Sarah’s own words ripped from her life, molded into art, by her. In Karen’s view, Karen and Sarah were in a friendship that has been unfairly kept from Sarah’s novel. Karen regards herself as a person with impeccable memory and precise language. She relies on dictionary definitions and word origins to bolster her arguments; they are proof that she is the better thinker, that she knows herself better than Sarah knows Sarah via the novel. Yet Karen reveals that she has read only 131 pages of Sarah’s book, which, if true, means that she isn’t responding to the text as much as she is the erasure of the friendship and the weight it deserves.

Carefully recalling the details of both stories, the “real” novel becomes more metafictional exercise than cohesive story. While it is supposedly a correction to the record from the artifices of Sarah’s novel, Karen’s account farcically manipulates the characters, twelve years later, into performing in a bad play. To achieve this, Karen finesses an alcoholic, abased David into letting her manage the details of his theater productions; she insinuates herself into a starring role in the play; she lures novelist Sarah to come be her dresser for old time’s sake; she eagerly awaits the arrival of playwright Martin, the former teacher from the fiasco that was Candide. For Karen had had a sexual relationship with Martin, who had been over forty at the time she was sixteen, and after he returned to England, stopped communicating with her. As payback, she will surprise him as his co-star. And she has a surprise for Sarah, also payback for being abandoned by Sarah in their lives and in Sarah’s novel. Karen’s accounting of all this feels like bent nails cobbling together a manic convergence of all the pain from her past. Karen will not be a side character. No way.

Karen’s final paragraph could have been the end of the book, but Choi wasn’t content to stop there. Instead, a third voice emerges, one not yet heard from in either Sarah’s or Karen’s sections. And while the facts of Karen’s story aren’t pushed aside, this new perspective adds confusion that destabilizes Choi’s novel further. At minimum, a successful reading experience asks that the reader be gratified that the effort yields some satisfaction, if not enjoyment. A challenging text can be a revelation, even if it requires some thumbing back through the pages. Yet if there are no markers to a truth, it is nothing in the end more than a game. That is the fate of Trust Exercise. A strong first half buffeted by a frenetic rebuttal might have been enough. But some of the power of that interplay was blurred by the coda.

Colm Toibin on The Novel

“The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place…. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.”

–Colm Toibin (from Mark Athitakis’ Fiction Notes blog) #books #purpose

March 2018 Wrap-up

Force of Nature by Jane Harper. A follow-up to Harper’s The Dry, an Aaron Faulk mystery set in Australia. Force of Nature does not quite live up to the first book in the series, but it’s still a solid mystery with good characterization and plot.

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Connell. A family saga and romance that gives readers a multi-perspective experience. It might not all come together, but the individual chapters show us the characters’ inner lives and overall, it’s a fun and sweet book.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag. Best read of the month. This a novella about a Bangladesh family who comes into some wealth after living in sparse poverty for decades, and what happens to the family’s disposition when they’ve grown accustomed to doing and buying whatever they desire. Do not read any spoilers for this book, just jump in. This book appears to be the only of Shanbhag’s works that have been translated into English. I hope that soon more work will be available.

Hoping for a more productive reading month in April.

February 2018 Wrap-up

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. Published in the mid-1980s, this is a well-crafted family saga about a widow and her three self-concerned children. She wants to return to her childhood village for a last remembrance, and none of her adult children will come with her. Over the course of several months, we are allowed to look back at her life during wartime, new marriage, true love, and the devastating loss of her parents. The back story is rich and interesting; the modern story, less so. All in all, it is a fine book, but unremarkable.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro. This novel is a booktube darling, but it is a book where a greater context, how the characters fit into the modern post-9/11 world, is lacking. A woman isn’t terribly satisfied with her lackluster marriage (kind husband who doesn’t know how to communicate his needs nor be curious enough to ask her, and the main character, who forbears and then withdraws.) The second she meets a writer who can talk to her via email about theology and literature, she is snagged into a cozy world of infidelity. The letters they write back and forth aren’t particularly interesting. She shows him poetry (which I like) and he makes some comments. In the long run, the relationship peters out and she writes a sermon about it, a sermon I found unpersuasive.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti. A teenage daughter slowly learns about the fate of her dead mother and the ribald life of her father, Samuel. He has been shot twelve times, and each bullet hole symbolizes one of the adventurous stories. He is a criminal, unconcerned with society, unable to make many friends, and trying to hold on to his daughter. The action scenes are fun to read. Overall, the book comes together, though again, I like the old timelines better than the contemporary one.

Who is Rich? by Matthew Klam. Here’s a novel of infidelity that is truly mired in the politics and social class struggle of 2012. It’s the summer before the presidential election, so the world hasn’t yet been inflicted with Trumpism, but you can feel it coming when the protagonist has an affair with a funder of right-wing causes that have insinuated themselves into U.S. politics. The characters are richly drawn and the main character is deeply flawed and guilt ridden. He’s a one-hit wonder cartoonist, teaching at a writing conference. If you’ve ever been surrounded by writers, you will recognize some of these types of people, some talented, some not, but a good portion who are neurotic and jealous of the success of others, and scared of losing luster. It’s a funny novel, but also buttressed by deep melancholy. And it’s a more moral novel than Fire Sermon.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. The purpose of this novel is not to adjudicate the corruption of the legal system of the South, but to show how being falsely convicted and jailed for a rape can harm the already tenuous bonds of a rocky marriage. It is not perfect, but deeply moving and honest. The couple, Roy and Celestine, grapple with realities as best they can, neither failing but neither succeeding.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Fourteen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. A memoir that expertly weaves together chance encounters and illnesses that could have caused the author, O’Farrell, to die. These range from an almost-drowning to encephalitis. The chapters are not arranged chronologically, but they do all culminate in a devastating final essay about O’Farrell’s daughter. This is some of the best writing I’ve read in a long time.


Page 112 evaulation: Thoughts

Shawn the Book Maniac came up with a fascinating tag for his booktube channel that is based on a French prize wherein the judges bestow their prize solely on the text of page 112 of the submitted materials. He has several variations on the tag and one is the ‘totally blind’ version where his viewers send him the text of page 112 for three books and then he decides whether or not he’d read the book on that page alone. It’s fun to watch his reaction to the texts and think about how subjective reading tastes are.

But it gives an awful lot of weight to one page that may or may not be indicative of the greater novel or even the author’s body of work as a whole. The thrill of choosing what book to read next is based on so many influences. I would hate to write off an author entirely based on three hundred words.

The motto of this exercise should be, “They’re only books.” I do enjoy these videos and hope they keep going for as long as it’s fun for the booktuber.

Link to Shawn’s latest 112 video where I submitted three excerpts. 

January 2018 Wrap-up

Glory be! This has been an incredible reading month. The world might be grinding down to pure misery, but the worlds of the books I read are complex and weird and in one case, pious. Also, all women authors. Take that, New York Times By the Book.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Remarkably progressive for its time and laden with characters, both children and adults, upper and lower classes, as they fret and wait to see if England will fight against Hitler. Yes, it’s soapy and some of my friends didn’t think there was a plot, but for me it was so satisfying to be in the heads of all these characters, so well developed and individualized. I can’t erase the pure pleasure of this book and I intend to keep going.

Improvement by Joan Silber
This slight novel connects several characters over decades and shows them in various states of moral ambivalence and one fateful decision that will affect them all. The metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings to change the course of history is worn out, but in this novel, the idea does apply.

The Bell by Iris Murdoch
An unhappily married couple ends up hanging out with a small lay community in 1950s Britain. The community is connected to an abbey where cloistered nuns live inside the walls. Sexuality, morality, fidelity, and thwarted maturation are themes, and there’s wit and passion and dysfunction galore. Can love survive such a state? Can the mystery of ritual bring inner peace? Can the bell bring everyone together or rend the idea of communion?

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel is masterful in building immersive worlds inside her novels, and this one is no exception. It’s perhaps overlong, but the main story is rolled out meticulously over 400+ pages. The element that works best is the abject loneliness of Alison, the novel’s sad, bereft, and ultimately outcast protagonist. She’s a psychic whose life is possessed by terrible ‘fiends’, grotesque and surprisingly corporeal holograms from her past. There’s also the post-9/11 anti-immigrant politics of Britain and the acknowledgment of the earth’s climate changing for worse. This was written in 2006 and all the gloom of those years has only multiplied to our current political disasters, making the novel prescient. Uplifting, it’s not. But Mantel’s talent for detail and human interaction rises up and makes it perhaps a perfect encapsulation of our time.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
This isn’t a murder mystery. It’s the anatomy of murders you read about on the first page, the first line, even, of this novel. But the detached, clinical, fable-like language used to explain the actions of nanny against children, mother and father against nanny, the strata of classes in Paris that strangle any chance the nanny has to treat her severe untreated mental health issues, is key, and for me gratuitously leaves the ultimate victims, the dead children, as nothing more than blanks to project fears upon by the other characters. You know those kids are going to die on the very first page, they’re already dead, and their humanity within the novel’s world is elided. Furthermore, we are made to spend so much time inside the mind of the mother and then don’t get to see her in the aftermath, nor her husband. It’s as though they were killed, too. It doesn’t matter that they were made to look utterly selfish and clueless, but we still were owed the chance to see them through the crime. After all the buildup, this is terribly dissatisfying.

Best Reads of 2017

Not all of these books were written in 2017. Here are the ones I enjoyed most.
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This is a retelling of Patroclus and Achilles and Achilles’ extreme spite.
  • The Leavers by Lisa Ko. A novel about a Chinese immigrant and her son, and how they are separated and must cope.
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Two sisters in 1700s Africa are split up and this novel tells us what happens to their family lines. Emotionally resonant in a short work.
  • House of Names by Colm Toibin. A retelling of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Full of rage and murder.
  • Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. The Osage Indians of Oklahoma strike oil and then are systematically murdered for their fortunes. A true story.
  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. A Victorian era novel about friendship, faith, and science. It’s warm and unexpected.
  • Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li. This is an essay collection about the writer’s battles with depression, strained family relationships, and her love of literature. It’s not chronological, and can be disorienting. Just go with it to see the way a brilliant woman thinks about her life.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This is the story of immigrants from South Korea (then, Korea) to China. It’s a generational family saga.
  • Re-reads: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields; Commonwealth by Ann Patchett; The Red Pony by John Steinbeck; Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
  • Classics: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell; The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell; Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens.