31 December 2016

My Favorite Books of 2016

I am a great fan of Best Of lists, though I prefer the more expansive to the purportedly authoritative, and I'm always frustrated by how rarely translated or indie press works are included, or how small the lists are when they are - here are two good exceptions, one of indie presses, one of translations. Mine is slightly different, in that it's a list of the things that I most loved of books I read, and is not limited to things published this year.

So, without further ado, my 10 favorite things I read in 2016 (listed in the order in which I encountered them):

--A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros
--The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli, Translated by Christina McSweeney
--The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara
--Here, Richard McGuire
--Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage
--The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
--Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay
--Killing and Dying, Adrien Tomine
--Little Labors, Rivka Galchen

--Beauty is a Wound, Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker
--Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
--The Seven Good Years, Etgar Keret, translated by Sondra Silverston, Miriam Shlesinger, Jessica Cohen, Anthony Berris
--Scheherazade Goes West, Fatema Mernissi
--The Moor's Account, Laila Lalami

...and I reread Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, and it's still one of my all-time favorites.

19 August 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

In the middle of the novel, the main character shows a writer some pages of her work, and the writer comments on them, thereby providing us with a neat explanation of what the book that we have been reading has been doing all this time. Very clever, if a little heavy-handed, and it did make me appreciate what are essentially long scenes of conversation between a woman and her mother a bit more.

  Still, the story never really got to me on an emotional level. I didn't quite believe in any of these people. And it seemed a bit unbalanced, occasionally wandering into other plot-lines or reflections (Lucy's relationship to her husband, to a friend, her development as a writer) that often felt tangential and undeveloped.

It was interesting to read this so soon after finishing The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls' memoir of growing up extremely poor, with parents who were willfully disconnected from society, and had, shall we say, a peculiar approach to raising children. My Name is Lucy Barton features a main character who seems to have come from a similarly traumatic and difficult childhood -- although her parents don't seem to have particularly outlandish notions of raising free spirits, they are extremely poor, and occasionally treat their children in ways that will strike most readers as shocking. Walls mostly writes about her past, without saying a lot about how she eventually broke away from her parents, or what happened to her afterwards, or how she interacts with them now. Lucy Barton, on the other hand, is chronicling several days of conversation with her mother as a way of obliquely shedding light on the past, and implicitly considering the kind of relationship they have, and can have, in the present. Very different approaches, and they complement each other in curious ways.

14 June 2016

The Creation of the World, or Globalization, by Jean-Luc Nancy

This is the kind of book that people talk about "thinking with." One of these things that you see cited a few times and think "oh, I should read that," and then you do, and it's nothing like what you had expected. It's not that people project their own ideas onto philosophical works like this, it's more that everyone has their own unique encounter with it, and will probably get something else out of it. It has an argument, though it's a tricky one to pin down, and it's so deeply philosophical in nature that it's hard to translate into more accessible terms. I did not read the book as carefully as I think I should have -- I more just let it wash over me, rather than struggling with it and forcibly trying to get a grip on what it was doing. But I did find myself caught by many of the sentences and individual ideas, and I mostly enjoyed the experience.

It is somewhat astonishing to discover that people still write things like this. I'm glad they do. I'm glad I read this one.

25 April 2016

Going to Meet the Man, by James Baldwin

I am slowly working my way through James Baldwin's works (you may recall that I read Another Country in December ), and I recommend that you do the same. Even when he's not that good, he's still amazing. I was not especially impressed by the first three stories in this collection, but then the book started to pick up steam, and then it soared (culminating in an utterly devastating finale, terrifyingly vivid). How one man could have such profound emotional intelligence, and such an amazing ability to render the smallest details in utterly persuasive prose--the mind boggles. Surprisingly, I think shorter fictions may be Baldwin's strong point -- unexpected, given his ability to create a broad, diverse cast of utterly real characters. You'd think that a novel's ability to hold many different people and spend a lot of time with all of them would be perfect for him, but I think he is better with shorter, more concentrated plots. Not that they must be compressed into an abridged time period; one of the masterful things about some of these stories is the way they ramble restlessly across time, interweaving past and present. But the novella length seems to be the perfect size of story for his particular insights. 
Everyone should read more Baldwin.

20 April 2016

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Look, I'm just not the target audience for this. If you're writing a sentimental story about Nazis and Resistance fighters, I am immediately on my guard, and not very sympathetic to your project.

But I will absolutely grant that the prose is astonishingly effective: arresting images that linger, sometimes unpleasantly so (ie, it gave me nightmares). It is a very readable, skillfully plotted adventure story. It is a crowd-pleaser. A blind French girl who loves snails and Jules Verne? Absolutely.

It is also a rather simplistic and cliché take on the Second World War. This is very obviously a made up story that is set in WWII for added thrills, and not out of a genuine engagement with the realities of that time period. And -- this will probably make me seem totally insufferable, and is maybe really weird -- but, knowing French and German, I found myself frequently bothered by the fact that all of this was clearly created and imagined in English. These are sentences that simply wouldn't happen in those languages. Which contributed to my sense of falsity - it's not a story that is genuinely rooted in the lifeworlds of the characters.

I'm not entirely surprised that it won a Pulitzer, and oddly enough, it in no way diminished by interest in reading yesterday's winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer!

08 April 2016

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk got a lot of attention when it came out 2 years ago, and deservedly so. It's one of these curious hybrids -- the author guides you through a surprising constellation of intriguing things, which are all connected in some way, but mostly through her. When Helen Macdonald's father passes away, she copes with her grief by training a goshawk. In the process, she revisits T. H. White's book, The Goshawk, which then takes her down a rabbit hole of learning more about White himself (a somewhat gloomy adventure), and reflecting on his work, and his relationship to himself and his hawk, as a way of reflecting, too, on herself, and her relationship to her hawk and the process of training it, and on the art of falconry, and how humans relate to and write about animals, and all kinds of other things.

I experienced the text as an audiobook, and on the one hand, it was the best way to do so, because it's read by Macdonald, and her voice is melodious and wonderful and she reads it beautifully. Listening to her descriptions of nature as you're driving by Midwestern fields glistening after an afternoon rainstorm, or blanketed in their strange morning fogs, is pretty much perfect. On the other hand, it's the worst way to do so, because the book's intense focus on particular moments, coupled with its overall meandering structure, makes you want to pause, re-read, flip back a few pages, savor. Find some way to do both, friends!

Perhaps that would have made me love it more; if I could have basked in it a bit, and kept better track of the various threads. Or perhaps I would have come to find it slightly precious and overwritten, or gotten a bit (more) tired of the T. H. White bits. Hard to say.

In any case, it's certainly a worthwhile read: a poignant account of grief, an interesting investigation of the relationships between human and animals, and the animal as a category, plus, who would've thunk it, a surprisingly fascinating (albeit depressing) précis of T. H. White biographies.

30 March 2016

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

I listened to this as an audiobook, which, despite the marvelous voice of Juliet Stevenson (who seems to have 18th and 19th century British literature on lockdown, along with plenty of contemporary fiction as well), was not really the best way to experience it. You want to see Austen's sentences on the page to properly appreciate them, and to re-read the good bits. But most of my leisure reading these days has to be done in audiobook form, unfortunately, so, that's what it is. Please, leave your recommendations for especially good ones in the comments.

I've been meaning to read Persuasion for awhile (mostly because I want to read D.A Miller's Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style and I've decided that I needed to get through all of Austen first). To be honest, I also barely remember Mansfield Park, and should maybe revisit it. There is something intriguing about these Austen B-list (Northanger Abbey, which I taught earlier this semester, seems to be back in vogue, so it's not necessarily a stable distinction). What really struck me this time around, in both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, was just how boring and awful the heroines lives seemed to be. More so in Persuasion, and I suspect this is why people love it less -- it's a pretty misanthropic, pessimistic book. Most everyone in it is either straight-up awful or just sort of unimpressive, except for Anne of course. Even her love interest is a bit bland. Then again, novels that are about smart, interesting people trapped in a dull world, surrounded by idiots and bores, will probably always be loved by someone.

The other thing I found myself thinking about was how Austen's books seem really interested in delusion and misunderstanding, and especially in self-deception. Someone must have done a study on this? I am particularly intrigued by the connections between that, the representation of love, and the representation of literature (because Austen always has a few shout-outs to novels, or comments about what is good or bad about them). My next book, perhaps...

28 March 2016

A House of My Own, by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros' Loose Woman was a major influence on me as a teenager. A voice I both identified with and aspired to be: a tough, smart, independent woman; one who enjoyed solitude but also relished a good time; who never defined herself by her relationships, despite being a romantic who seemed to fall in love fairly often; who seemed both rooted and cosmopolitan, an immigrant everywhere; who was alive to injustice and full of grievances for the wrongs suffered by women, but also treasured her femininity and saw it as a strength. I certainly read her other books, and am fairly sure that I enjoyed them -- but I confess that it is less her writing that I remember than some kind of sense of her as a person, someone whom I felt like I knew and understood and also wanted to be. So of course I was interested in reading this collection of essays. But what an additional treat I found -- not only does this book collect many wonderful pieces of hers in one place (and with gorgeous color photographs!), but each has a little introduction where she reflects briefly on the piece and the moment of writing it, and how she has grown and changed since. The result, for me, was this incredible palimpsest: as I read her, reflecting back on an earlier moment in her life, I found myself thinking back as well, to the moment in my life when I had read some of her earlier writings, and who I was then, and how I have changed, and how her writing has shaped me.

Not every reader can have such a wonderful experience with this book. But I nonetheless want to buy a copy for every woman I know (I already bought one for my partner's mother). Such wisdom, such grace, such strength. I could hardly love this book more if I tried.

14 February 2016

Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss

I love Valentine's Day. Although I have historically dated people who refuse to celebrate it (or who have to work so that other people can celebrate it -- shout out to all the servers busting their asses for what are generally seriously sub-par tips today), I like to honor it in little ways, generally by cooking myself a nice dinner, and watching a good movie or reading something romantic. This year, an afternoon on the couch reading a beautiful book and listening to Herb Kent play love dusties on the radio seemed like a good way to go.

I say this partly to give you a sense of what I was looking for when I read this book, which may explain why I felt slightly disappointed. This is not really a love story about Pierre or Marie, at least, not after the first 40 pages. It's more like a notebook full of stuff related to radioactivity, chief of which is Maria Skłodowska's life story. I'm cool with that idea, my gripe is that it wasn't presented or organized as effectively as one might like. You're humming along with the story of Pierre and Marie, and suddenly, there's a detour into Oppenheimer and Irving Lowen and Hiroshima. Woah. What? Yes, they are related to the topic, and I fully appreciate the sense that they belong in this book, if that's what the book wants to do, I just didn't realize that that's what it was doing, so it came across more like a rather rude intrusion.

The focus of the narrative ultimately seems to be a sketched out assemblage, more than anything else. It's a somewhat cursory account of Marie's life* and the asides, too, are brief, more suggestive than developed. The idea is neat, I just think that more needed to be done with it.

Meanwhile, though, the artwork is gorgeous. A really interesting combination of styles and techniques, drawings, paintings, photographs. Really lovely stuff. It may not be the love story you'd hoped for, but it is nonetheless a pleasure to page through on a snowy Valentine's Day afternoon.

*But if you are interested in Marie Skłodowska-Curie's life, I highly recommend Barbara Goldsmith's incredible biography, Obsessive Genius. 

29 January 2016

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

This book will sneak up on you. It seems like a perfectly typical Coming to America story -- a very pleasant one, but totally stock and largely forget-able -- until you suddenly realize that it is a quiet, subtle, but utterly brilliant character study. You have to marvel at Toibin's ability to create this woman who is intelligent, tough, and independent, but whose life never seems to be entirely under her own control. We often admire novels for showing us how a given character is a product of History -- this one presents us with a woman who is trying to find her way among a thicket of social norms and expectations. Not in that dreary, oppressed by sexism and conformism sort of way, but in a far more subtle, and interesting, push and pull of expectation, ambition, convenience, and inertia. So much of your life is barely up to you, even -- or perhaps especially -- the seemingly most 'major' parts of it. The brilliance of Toibin's book is that he manages to illuminate the way that even the most strong-willed and independent person can be carried along by life, taken in unexpected directions.

05 January 2016

An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day, by Alexander Beecroft

When I pledged to post more, you may have thought it was going to be about things that were of interest to you, but this likely won't be, sorry. Not that it's not interesting, it's just rather specialized. But it's good for me to write this stuff out, so here we go. Apologies. Kinda.

A grandly ambitious and highly thought-provoking book. Beecroft's main idea is to use ecology (rather than say, economics) as an analogy for world literary systems, because it allows for greater complexity and a richer sense of different interacting parts. His second key idea is to create a typology of 6 ecologies (epichoric, panchoric, cosmopolitan, vernacular, national, and global), spanning from the very small-scale and local to the global. Interestingly (and this is where things get a bit tricky), these ecologies are really modes of reading or interpretation, though they also sometimes seem to be modes of production -- the distinction gets a bit fuzzy. But these two ideas are in and of themselves intriguing and worthwhile contributions to the field, offering an interesting new framework that may prove useful to people (like me) who are trying to think new models of world literature.

One does wonder (well, I do) about how useful analogies or models _really_ are in literary studies, and I have to admit that I cringed a little when one chapter began explaining why concepts from population genetics are so relevant to understanding literary fields. To Beecroft's credit, he is not so deeply wedded to his framework that he is unable to perceive that sometimes things don't develop the way you'd expect, but it's a tricky negotiation, arguing why a model that is in some ways basically a shaky analogy with limited predictive powers is a useful tool. The opening makes a very generous move, suggesting that various theories from scholars such as Casanova, Moretti, or Pollock are not competing models so much as concrete answers that are applicable to specific moments -- which, to me, again underscores a certain tenuousness, though I certainly don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I realize I tend overly strongly towards deconstruction rather than modeling, so it's very possible that the problem is really just me. But I do wonder if part of what makes literature so fascinating isn't its slipperiness when it comes to models like this; a certain unpredictability that a metaphor of genetic mutation doesn't quite do justice to.

Anyways. The structure of the book is odd, in that although each chapter is on a particular ecology, they all do rather different things. Some flesh out examples, explaining what that ecology is, exactly. Others provide histories of a shift to/from that ecology, or show how this framework affects interpretations of specific texts. The Global chapter, surprisingly, engages in a lengthy speculation about future trends in or possibilities for a global ecology. It's all interesting, though some parts are more persuasive than others, and it's all related, obviously, but it can feel a bit disorienting at times. But this ranging quality also attests to the potential of the framework -- it opens up A LOT of new avenues to consider. Overall, certainly an interesting contribution to the field -- I would really love to hear what other people thought of it...

02 January 2016

My favorites from 2015

I am too lazy to type out the complete list of books that I read this year, and apparently Goodreads no longer makes a lovely visual that I can paste up here (though I can provide a link to what might be one? You might need to be a member of the site though.). But you don't really want the complete list anyhow, right? You might wish I updated my blog more often (and believe me, I do too. And hopefully, hopefully...) But really, you want the good stuff. So, without further ado, and in no particular order, the 10 books I enjoyed the most in 2015:

Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
David Sedaris recommended this a few years ago -- I think he recommends a book every fall, or whenever he's on book tours? and he has reliably excellent taste, so now I slavishly obey. But even amongst his many excellent picks: oh my god. This book is amazing. A detailed ethnography of a family in the Bronx. Teenage pregnancy, drugs, prisons -- a world we often see sensationalized in salacious tv shows, here related with warmth and complexity and just plain humanity. Everyone should read this book.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
I sort of tormented myself by seeing how long I could hold out before launching into Ferrante's famed series, but in the Spring, I finally succumbed. And loved every minute of it. I'm actually just finishing the second one now -- I decided to savor the series. A riveting story of childhood and friendship, it absolutely lives up to the hype. 

Macnolia, A. Van Jordan
A gorgeous, raw, beautiful collection of poems. There is a narrative running through the book about MacNolia Cox, the first African American to reach the final round of the National Spelling Bee, in 1936, with other poems that resonate with some of the themes articulated interspersed. I dare you to read "The Night Richard Pryor Met Mudbone" and remain unmoved. It's wonderful stuff, and I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.

Mislaid, Nell Zink
I could have sworn that I posted about this (to my horror, it appears that I haven't posted on a single one of my favorites this year. I'll spare you my promises to be better, but know that I'm making them in my head). Particularly interesting in the wake of the Rachel Dolezal scandal and reflections on intersectionality between #blacklivesmatter and the gay rights movement, Nell Zink's story of a white lesbian passing as Black with her daughter in order to escape her gay white husband seems strangely...apolitical. The novel is a comedy first and foremost, and a funny one at that. A bizarre, constantly surprising story that is also a heartfelt, loving exploration of its characters.

18th Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder, by Sarah Tindal Kareem
This is for a highly specialized audience, but I had to include it because I loved it so, so much. A really smart and fascinating account of 18th century fiction that does major work in correcting the long-standing and deeply flawed dichotomy of realism vs. marvelous/romantic fiction. Kareem does an incredible job navigating incredibly dense theories and juxtaposing them with ease and elegance. I wish I had written this book.

Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon
One of the most powerful reckonings with historical trauma that I've ever read (and I've read my share of it). It is tangled, confused, wrenching, and gorgeous.

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
My Barbara Pym love (which started with a Best Of the Year list!) continues. I also read two really great pieces about Pym this year: one in the New Yorker, and an older one from The Awl. Excellent Women has some flaws, but it's a profound meditation on the life of single women; one that stayed with me long after I'd finished it.

Tales of Desire, Tennessee Williams
Sometimes you want a slice of that steamy, sultry, dangerous heat of the South. If you love young Paul Newman movies (and I do), you'll love this collection.

Almost Never, Daniel Sada
This novel could have been written by Beckett, or Flann O'Brien, but it was written by Daniel Sada and set in Mexico. A rollicking, dry, and utterly hilarious story about a man who is caught between his mother, his lover, his fiancee, and his aunt. So funny, and so ridiculous, and so wonderful.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
Another one that had been on the to-read shelf for quite awhile, I finally read it because I was weighing in on a round of the Chicago Reader's Greatest Chicago Book tournament. Another one that absolutely lives up to the hype, and more -- this book tells the story of the Great Migration and its lasting effects on the United States. It is an eye-opening and absolutely devastating account of the racism of the 20th century, and a really profound look at African American life. And the writing is so, so good. Read it.

They not only could have been, but actually were contenders: The Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek; Can't and Won't: Stories, by Lydia Davis; The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen; Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo; Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf; Blood Child, by Octavia Butler; The Folded Clock, by Heidi Javits; Against World Literature, by Emily Apter; My Struggle, vl 1, by Karl Knausgaard; A Good Fall, Ha Jin.