Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Best Books I Have Read in 2015

It’s that time of year: time for a “best books" list! But I don’t claim to have covered the territory well enough to call my list “best books”; instead these are “the best books that I read this year,” otherwise known as my thirteen favorite, most enjoyed, most admired, and most valued books of 2015. I list them in order of when I read and posted about them. After each title, I note the date I posted about the book here on this blog, in case you want to read more about why I chose these particular books as the "best." Here is the list: “Last Hundred Year Trilogy” ("Some Luck," "Early Warning," and "Golden Age"), by Jane Smiley (11/4/14, 5/23/15, and 12/17/15); “Lila,” by Marilynne Robinson (2/23/15); “Family Life,” by Akhil Sharma (3/1/15); “Honeydew: Stories,” by Edith Pearlman (5/2/15); “The Children’s Crusade,” by Ann Packer (5/8/15); “A God in Ruins,” by Kate Atkinson (6/8/15); “Our Souls at Night,” by Kent Haruf (6/21/15); “The Green Road,” by Anne Enright (7/3/15); “A Spool of Blue Thread,” by Anne Tyler (7/13/15); “The Illuminations,” by Andrew O’Hagan (7/17/15); “After the Parade,” by Lori Ostlund (10/19/15); “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (10/24/15); “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell (12/19/15). Some quick observations on the list: 12 are fiction, 1 nonfiction (“Between the World and Me”); 10 of the 12 fiction books are novels, 2 are short story collections; 9 books are by female authors, 4 by males. On another note, please keep on shopping in independent bookstores!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Killing and Dying," by Adrian Tomine

I have read and posted about several graphic novels over the years, finding some of them amazingly creative and of high literary quality. One of the best known American graphic fiction writers, some of whose work I have read, is Adrian Tomine. I have just read his most recent book, a collection of six short stories in graphic form. It has an off-putting title, “Killing and Dying” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2015), but the stories are about seemingly small-scale, quirky and rather sad topics. A man spends years of his life trying to sell the odd and unpromising idea of “hortisculpture.” A young woman receives unwanted attention everywhere because of her resemblance to a porn star. A man secretly goes into someone else’s apartment regularly, always leaving it the way he found it. A nerdy young girl decides to be a stand-up comic, despite her parents’ lack of faith that she has talent. The stories and drawings are full of the small, revealing details that show us people’s characters, interactions, failings, hopefulness, deceptions, and self-deceptions. It is possible to read these stories fairly quickly for the plots, but it is worthwhile to force oneself to slow down and savor the details of the words and, especially, the drawings.

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Negroland: A Memoir," by Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson’s “Negroland: A Memoir” (Pantheon, 2015) is a fascinating study of middle-to-upper-middle class African-American society, especially during the middle of the twentieth century, the time during which Jefferson herself grew up. This group of American Blacks has called themselves “the colored aristocracy,” “the colored elite,” “the colored 400,” and other such names (p. 7). They descend from the group that W.E.B. Du Bois famously titled “The Talented Tenth.” These Black leaders and families took pride in their status, and also felt an enormous responsibility to represent their race well, and -- by their example -- to contradict and counteract negative stereotypes that many White Americans had about Black Americans. “In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians….The Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity” (p. 51). Jefferson, who grew up in such an upper-class family, writes of her childhood in Chicago, her parents, and her own inner conflicts and concerns. She strove to be the perfect girl, working hard at school and at extracurricular activities, dressing correctly, displaying perfect manners in all situations, and being a high achiever. Later, as a young adult, she took up more radical ideas about race. She went on to be a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, a writer on many topics, and a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts. She does not write much about her life beyond college years, focusing instead on her formative years. She puts her own life in the context of African-American history, writing about several prominent Black leaders and public figures throughout the years, and analyzing the phenomenon of the elite group to which her family belonged. Being part of that group brought privilege, yes, but also the tension and emotional drain of having to be constantly on guard, constantly worried about upholding the reputation of her group and her race. Jefferson’s blend of memoir, history, sociology, and fearless and candid analysis of herself and of her cohort is an effective one. The details about her own life and those of others illuminate the more general points she makes. At times the book is wrenching to read, but at other times it shows us everyday life for her and those in her social stratum. The book is enhanced by photographs of her and her family and of others Jefferson writes about.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Golden Age," by Jane Smiley

Reading the wonderful first two novels of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy made me eager to read the third one, and now that I have read it, it more than lives up to the anticipation. “Some Luck,” about which I posted on 11/4/14), and “Early Warning” (see my post of 5/23/15), described the ever-growing Langdon family. The third novel, “Golden Age” (Knopf, 2015), brings the story up to the year 2019. As in the other two novels, Smiley organizes the novel through providing one chapter for each year. The Langdon family has proliferated, and further spread out across the country, so less and less of the story takes place in the original Iowa farm setting, but still the family farm is the historical and emotional center and core of the family’s experience, its reference point. The original six siblings (children of the founding family, Walter and Rosanna Langdon) and their spouses are now elderly or have died. The six siblings’ children and grandchildren are the focus of this latest novel. When I started reading it, even though I had just read the second novel a few months before, I felt plunged into the storylines helter-skelter, and it took some pages to find my footing again. But I soon remembered the connections, and then the story swept me along. I can’t say what it would be like to read this third novel without having read the first two; I think it would be fine, after the first 50 pages or so, but I highly recommend reading all three novels, and of course in order. As I mentioned in my earlier posts, the number of characters caused me to look frequently at the family tree diagram at the front of the book to remind myself who a certain character was, or how a certain character was related to another. The novel, like the other two, is longish (443 pages) and stuffed with story. As with the other novels, Smiley interweaves the stories of the family and the specific characters with the events going on around them in the United States. There is a particular focus on climate change and the environment, and even more particularly on how climate change affects farmland and farming. Another focus is the financial misdeeds leading up to the crises of 2006-2008. These two focuses are intertwined, as financial crimes affect farm owners in terrible ways; together, the two forces are harmful beyond measure. As mentioned above, the author takes her story up to 2019, and the events of the last few years edge into the apocalyptic. Clearly the author strongly believes that the U.S. is on an incredibly self-destructive path. There are many ironies along the way, or perhaps baleful views of humanity; for example, one of the characters in the world of finance is directly and maliciously responsible for dreadful harm done to other characters and to the family farming tradition. But I don’t want to leave the impression that this novel is mostly an issue-driven one, or mostly an apocalyptic one; it is those things, but our interest is always drawn back again and again to those stalwart qualities of good fiction: plot and character. And what characters Smiley creates! Various, fascinating, and oh so human. What an amazing accomplishment this trilogy is! I believe that it will be a longlasting one, one that is truly a great American novel capturing the sweep of time in 100 years of American history and culture. Although it is a real commitment to read these three long novels, I can say with great confidence that readers will find the time investment more than worthwhile, and will enjoy themselves along the way.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Citizen: An American Lyric," by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s book of prose poems and essays, “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf, 2014), is wrenching and heartbreaking. It forces the reader to face the harsh realities of racial prejudice in the United States (and elsewhere), and the terrible, ongoing effects of that prejudice on every Black person. The poems, the essays, the artwork all connect and reinforce each other. Some of the work is elliptical and indirect, while other sections could not be more direct. Many of the prose poems refer to specific events and people. For example, there is a section about the great Black tennis player Serena Williams, and the blatant prejudice and discrimination she has experienced. I knew a little of this reaction to Williams, but not the extent of it, and Rankine makes sure we see it up close. One section is a memorial to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, when it became crystal clear that Black lives did not in fact matter. Other sections are also memorials, to Trayvon Martin and other victims of prejudice that destroyed these young men’s lives. Still other sections delineate the “small” moments of everyday life, when White people choose not to sit next to a Black person on a train, for example, or when they treat a Black woman differently than they treat her White friend in a shop or restaurant. Rankine shows us how these moments can wear a person down. This book will not let readers turn away from the evidence, so much evidence, of ongoing racism, devastating racism that plays out in large and small ways all the time. The author also shows us the obliviousness of many White people to this racism all around them. A small but telling example is of the White man who steps ahead of the (Black female) narrator in the line at a store, and when the clerk points out that the woman was there first, the man is genuinely surprised, and says “I didn’t see you.” I highly recommend this beautifully written and hugely painful but instructive book.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

"Mothers, Tell Your Daughters," by Bonnie Jo Campbell

In “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” (Norton, 2015), by Bonnie Jo Campbell, we are definitely in the land of Dorothy Allison and Carolyn Chute, so it is no surprise to see that those two authors blurbed Campbell’s short story collection. The stories are about working class lives, often tough lives, especially for women with minimal resources. The settings are mostly in the poorer areas of Michigan (a state where the author herself lives, and where I used to live many years ago, and that are recognizable to me, although I was fortunate not to live in the less prosperous areas). Some of the characters are indeed mothers and daughters, and in any case are mostly women. These are stories of pain, abandonment, poverty, and living on the margins, and also stories of grit and survival. That sentence is full of clich├ęs, I know, and although those attributes are in fact the subjects of the stories, they don’t feel as grim -- or as stereotypical -- as the sentence suggests. I like these stories very much, first because they are so well written, but also because they remind middle class readers that there is a big part of the United States that is rarely portrayed in literature these days: the working class and the poor. In media stories, yes, sometimes, but not so much in fiction, which is why I alluded to the work of Allison and Chute, even though their most well-known work was published quite a few years ago. All three of these authors write about disadvantaged women, but women who don’t ever let their poverty and other problems define them. I had never heard of Campbell before, but now she is on my “I’ll read anything she writes” list.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Mendocino Fire: Stories," by Elizabeth Tallent

Because I had read, liked, and admired some of Elizabeth Tallent’s earlier stories, and because she is a writer held in high esteem by many, I very much wanted to like her new story collection, “Mendocino Fire” (Harper, 2015). The stories being mostly set in Mendocino (a few hours north of where I live) was an added attraction. And I did admire the stories, and liked some of them. But there is something distancing about many of them. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I felt that there is a sort of semi-transparent screen between the reader (OK, this reader) and the stories. The author lives in Mendocino, and obviously knows it well. The characters are distinct, their lives are often a bit rough, and the reader sympathizes with them. The writing is precise and specific. I honestly don’t understand why I felt a bit removed from the stories, and I fully admit that the fault could be mine rather than the author’s. On another note, unrelated to my main point about the stories, but about a paragraph that really hit home for me: The story “The Wilderness” opens with the following. “Her students are the devotees and tenders of machines. Some of the machines are tiny and some of the machines are big. Nobody wrote down the law that students must have a machine with them at all times, yet this law is rarely broken, and when it is, the breaker suffers from deprivation and anxiety.” This is a phenomenon I have increasingly observed with my own students, most notably this semester. My students and I have discussed it, and they admit that they feel extremely uneasy and at a loss if their smartphones are not constantly with them. My colleagues have confirmed that this is the new reality, an issue they have all faced. (Am I showing my age by wishing that students were less dependent on their phones, and more able to focus on other non-electronic events and activities around them?)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"Why Not Me?", by Mindy Kaling

Since I wrote on 1/13/15 about Mindy Kaling’s first book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?”, I still haven’t watched her show. But my daughter, who gave me that first book, just gave me Kaling’s second one, “Why Not Me?” (Crown Archetype, 2015), which is equally engaging and funny. It is also a sort of memoir in the form of a series of short essays about various aspects of her life and work. In both books, she deals with issues of race, gender, and power, but always with a light touch. She is now quite a powerful woman in the world of television, as the creator, writer, and star of “The Mindy Project” (following her role on “The Office”). As we know, Hollywood and show business are not generally worlds where women -- especially women of color (Kaling is from an Indian family) -- play equal roles. So although Kaling is low-key about it, she is a force to be reckoned with, as well as a role model. Another way she has been a role model is through her normal-size figure, which because of Hollywood’s tradition of very thin women stars of television and movies, is considered unusual by many. She speaks openly about this, and provides a note of common sense. The 21 or so chapters in this book address many different topics, including her long days at work, her friendships, her dating and relationships, clothes, her meeting President Obama, and many more. There are also some candid photos. On one level, this book is light and entertaining, which is great in and of itself, but it also, on another level, slips in some important discussions about the way Hollywood and the larger U.S. society treat women, people of color, and anyone who is “different” from the “norms.”
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