The Best Book I Read This Year
The Atlantic‘s editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
So, we’re all inter-dimensional beings. Obviously. The body stays put, but the mind zaps between places and time, and with each passing moment there’s a new place and a new time to zap to. I think this is part of what David Mitchell is getting at with the six hugely entertaining novelettes that add up toThe Bone Clocks. The voices of the narrators—including a teenage girl in ‘80s England, a college playboy on a ski trip, and an Iraq War correspondent on leave for a wedding—ramble between past and present, between seen and speculated, and, when faced with what one character refers to as “the weird shit,” between disbelief and belief.
About that “weird shit”: Periodically intruding upon the disparate narratives is an invisible, centuries-long war between two tribes of magical—yes, inter-dimensional—immortals. If that sounds hokey, well, the uber-self-aware Mitchell surely wants it to be (my favorite meta moment of his: describing a washed-up author character using the very same phrasing that Random House used to market The Bone Clocks). Whenever the narrators’ chatty inner monologues clash up against mystical mumbo jumbo, it’s a thrill—both a demonstration of Mitchell’s diverse talents and a fission moment that produces some big insights about the world.
By the final chapter, set in a post-apocalyptic 2043, it’s clear that all of the plot’s conflicts have stemmed from humans’ impossible dream of living forever. In writing such a moving, hilarious tale about interconnected fates across eras, Mitchell proposes that there’s only one sane way to pursue immortality: Care for others.
—Spencer Kornhaber, senior associate editor
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Kent Haruf, who died at the end of November, published Plainsong in 1999, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award that same year. Like his other novels, it’s set in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, with its Main Street and Nexey’s Lumberyard and Schmidt’s Barber Shop. Haruf intertwines the stories of Tom Guthrie, a schoolteacher whose wife is bedbound by depression; their young sons Ike and Bobby; Victoria, a pregnant teenager whose mother has thrown her out; and the McPheron brothers, two elderly farmers and confirmed bachelors who offer Victoria a home for reasons even they don’t seem to fathom.
What could be a schmaltzy, feel-good story (it was even adapted into a Hallmark TV movie in 2004) is made more nuanced by the way Haruf juxtaposes kindness with cruelty, and makes both an integral part of the narrative. Holt has all the trappings of an idyllic American locale, but it has ugliness, too, even though the houses are painted pastel colors and the dust flying up from the tires of Guthrie’s pickup shines “like bright flecks of gold in the sun.” Victoria is abused by a string of people until the McPherons make room for her at their farm, but their openhearted, tender acceptance of her even after she briefly abandons them is heartbreaking.
Haruf’s language is vivid and spare when he describes the Colorado plains—“the country flat and whitepatched with snow and the wheat stubble and the cornstalks sticking up blackly out of the frozen ground and the winter wheat showing up in the fall-planted fields as green as jewelry.” Throughout the book, he’s clear-eyed when it comes to the darkness that permeates communities like Holt, but it’s the unexpected and profound humanity he also reveals that lingers long after the final chapter.
—Sophie Gilbert, senior editor
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
If it weren’t for its semi-alliterative subtitle, you might confuse Osnos’s debut book for a treatise on millennials. In a way, though, it is:China overtook the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy in October (according to the IMF) and by now it’s basically a truism to say the country poses some of the greatest opportunities and challenges of our time. (Yes, that means you, Generation Y’ers!)
Intimately aware of these trends, Osnos—aNew Yorker staff writer who lived in Beijing for eight years—portrays a China full of countless contradictions: between hyper-capitalistic levels of inequality and a Communist state; between a burgeoning ethos of individualism and a centuries-old tradition of Confucianism; between the stark reality of government censorship and the newfangled concept of the “Chinese Dream.” By zooming in on single Chinese, from the dissidents Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo to lesser-known (in the West, anyways) journalists, professionals, and entrepreneurs, Osnos shows that there is, in fact, no grand theory that can pinpoint where China is headed.
That’s a scary idea, especially for American readers who aren’t scholars of China’s rich history and culture (count me, despite being half-Chinese on my mother’s side, among these). Still, the book’s tripartite structure helps to translate China’s complexities into plain English, while Osnos, who occasionally inserts himself into the narrative, serves as a reliable guide. Age of Ambition is a fun read, too. Whether you’ve visited China or not, whether you speak Mandarin or not, you’re likely to walk away feeling that you’ve been there, have met an incredible cast of characters, and have satisfied a certain wanderlust.
Oh, and it won this year’s National Book Award for non-fiction. So you should read it and write to me with your thoughts. We can even start a book club. No censors allowed.
—Andrew Giambrone, editorial fellow
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
Between the 1970s and 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews emigrated to the United States. The seismic cultural shift undoubtedly provoked mass psychological trauma in this vast colony of refuseniks. Russians don’t believe in therapy, however, so it’s a good thing we have Gary Shteyngart.
Already famous for his satirical novels, Shteyngart turned the mirror on himself in his most recent work. Little Failure, the poignant and frequently hilarious account of the Shteyngarts’ voyage from Leningrad in 1979 and the author’s subsequent childhood in Queens is sure to induce a wheeze of relief among anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. (Upon meeting a one-eyed neighborhood girl, Shetyngart notes, “We’re suspicious of each other at first, but I’m an immigrant and she has one eye, so we’re even.”)
Witness the family eating home-cooked boiled eggs in a McDonalds to avoid splurging on a 69-cent hamburger. Or the elaborate nicknames kids think up for their unfamiliar classmates (the “Red Gerbil,” in Shteyngart’s case).
Eventually, the Little Failure (an actual term of endearment used by the author’s parents—my people express love in complicated ways) grows up, gets a book deal, and reckons with his roots.
There is joy and sorrow in being a foreigner. Shteyngart supplies both in perfect tenor.
—Olga Khazan, staff writer
10:04 by Ben Lerner
I read books for the writing. Most people I know read books for characters, plot, emotions, relatability, insight, inspiration, an existential massaging of the mind, or some combination of those things. Those are fine reasons to read a book and enjoy a book. But they are not my reasons. I read books for the writing.
What is 10:04, by Ben Lerner? It is a book for people who like great writing—”great,” here, meaning frequently brilliant, electrically hyper-conscious, extravagantly verbose, aggressively sesquipedalian throw-the-book-across-the-room-in-despair-that-you-will-never-invent-that-metaphor-because-he-just-did writing. There are a bunch of adverbs. If you don’t like adverbs, that’s fine. Stephen King has lots of books.
As for the plot: Do not read this book for the plot. The plot is a sideshow. The protagonist, a neurotic New York Jew who thinks he’s dying (I don’t read books for their conceptual originality, either) is considering being the father of his platonic girl friend’s child while going through some professional and health crises. So, yeah, not exactly The Goldfinch. Nothing much happens, except for writing. But let me tell you: The writing happens.
“The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death,” is the first sentence. And there are so many more good ones.
—Derek Thompson, senior editor
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
I have a Google Doc called “Prime Phrases,” in which I write down the sentences I come across while reading that hit me right, the indivisible pearls of truth you sometimes stumble upon that perfectly encapsulate some aspect of the human experience. They get stuck in my head, repeating there like catchy melodies, often for years. Here are some of the ones I saved from Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams:
“[There’s a] notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”
“This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it.”
“They are wary of melodrama so they stay numb or clever instead.”
“A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial—as if ‘attention’ were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can give?”
In her widely, deservedly, praised collection of essays, Jamison writes with this kind of insight and, frankly, empathy, with an enviable consistency. She brings compassion and attention to her subjects and clear-eyed intelligence to writing about emotion and pain, in a way that inspires me as someone who writes about health and minds and bodies, but also just as a person. I am so grateful to have read this book—it was like a tuning fork in my chest.
—Julie Beck, senior associate editor
The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era by Douglas Egerton
No era of American history is as poorly understood—or in as desperate need of understanding—as Reconstruction. My high school textbooks, printed some 140 years after the fact, still told tales of corrupt Northern carpetbaggers and the noble “redeemers” who vanquished them. This volume is a heady antidote to all that claptrap.
While most histories of the era are framed on a national scale, Egerton instead looks at how Reconstruction unfolded at the state and local level. His crisp, immersive history follows an army of black activists, politicians, ex-slaves, educators, clergy, veterans and their white allies who hoped to remake the devastated South. Among their numerous reforms, public education saw perhaps the greatest victories: Black literacy, for example, increased by an astounding 400 percent between Appomattox and the century’s end.
Because many other reforms didn’t last, historians often describe the era as a “failed experiment.” But Reconstruction didn’t fail on its own accord, Egerton argues—”it was violently overthrown.” The Klan and its imitators assassinated black officeholders, burned down schools and churches, and intimidated voters of all races to restore white supremacy. In the North, wavering moderates undermined President Grant’s efforts to protect black rights with armed federal power. Against this tide, what Egerton calls “America’s most progressive era” faded into the long twilight of Jim Crow after 1877.
Black progressives still won more in defeat than many American social movements have in victory: Without the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the civil-rights movement of the 1960s would have been a stillborn dream. (Marriage equality and Roe v. Wade are also rooted in the Fourteenth’s expansive clauses.) There’s a black president and a black attorney general, but the racial economic gap keeps widening and people of color still languish by the millions in our carceral archipelago. Reconstruction—the struggle to build a genuine multiracial democracy upon the ashes of white supremacy—isn’t yet over. Indeed, it has only just begun.
—Matt Ford, associate editor
Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton
Some books stop time, compelling the reader to devour them quickly in defiance of grumbling stomachs and tired eyes and longstanding brunch dates. Other books mark time, uniting with the reader at just the right moment in his or her life and coming to symbolize a change or feeling or era. For me,Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York was the latter: a last ode to the romance of being young in the city, shared with my best friend before she left for graduate school.
The book is a collection of essays based on Joan Didion’s 1967 piece “Goodbye to All That,” about her arrival in and eventual disillusionment with New York City. The line-up of 27 female writers is impressive, including Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Emma Straub, and Emily Gould, among others. Most of the stories take the same narrative arc: dreams of a glamorous, writerly life; enchantment with the city’s fast pace and beautiful brownstones; and an eventual intervention, including suitors, debt, job offers, and sheer exhaustion. Frankly, some are intolerably pretentious, the ones preoccupied with cocaine-infused nights and how “Brooklyn is nothing but a brand name” and taking a self-satisfied literary attitude toward homelessness. This kind of essay, in fact, is why people who don’t live in New York sometimes experience waves of bafflingly strong hatred toward New York.
But others in the collection are simple and charming. An ache for wood furniture. A bus ride from somewhere else, usually Minnesota, and arrival in a city full of light. The realization that one need not be writerly to be a writer. For me, these simple, lovely stories will always stand for an important moment in time, equally simple and lovely: sitting on the floor of a tiny apartment, several hundred miles from The City, reading these stories out loud and waiting for the next era to begin.
—Emma Green, assistant managing editor
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Whenever I’m feeling weary with the world, I find it sometimes helps to turn to a fictional world where things are even worse. Think babies roasting on a spit in The Road, children fighting to the death in The Hunger Games, or an all-powerful Internet company mining all of our private information in The Circle (ok, maybe that one isn’t so different from our world today). Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, released this fall, is one of my favorite post-apocalyptic books yet. It takes place in a world in which a deadly flu epidemic has wiped out most of the world’s population, and small bands of survivors are trying to find meaning in the life that remains.
What’s so great about Station Eleven is that it’s not all gloom and doom. The novel follows a few characters, all of who have some sort of connection to an actor, 51-year-old Arthur Leander (I picture him as a lithe Jack Nicholson). Leander dies of a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear in the book’s first chapter, the night the flu first touches down in North America, but his death is soon overshadowed by the specter of the epidemic.
You’d think a post-apocalyptic world would have no room for art or music, but that’s what sets Station Eleven apart: Much of it is specifically about the things the survivors hold on to from the past, things that might seem extraneous in a world without electricity or the Internet. One woman clings to scraps of a fanciful comic book called Station Eleven that was created pre-flu but never published, about a scientist living on a space station the size of the moon where it’s always dusk or dawn. Other people, a band of traveling musicians and actors, risk their lives to keep performing the pieces they remember, bringing art to isolated towns that didn’t know they needed it.
This book is not The Five People You Meet in Heaven, or Heaven is for Real: uplifting stories of people whose worlds end, but who find out that death leads us to a better place. It’s about the end of civilization, and that end isn’t pretty: there are bandits and killers and jerks. But it’s reassuring in its own way. In St. John Mandel’s novel, the world as we know it could end, and somehow, for some people, things might still turn out okay.
—Alana Semuels, staff writer
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
In a perfect world, I would have read The Namesake when it was published in 2003 and given myself more than a decade to return to it. But I avoided it out of a misguided belief that my time would be better spent reading fiction that didn’t mirror my own experiences with my first-generation immigrant family. I was also scared to read Lahiri in particular, because in her short stories she’d mastered the art of writing about being a foreigner. As she explains inThe Namesake, “being a foreigner … is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.” Who would want to read about that? After all, in 2003, I was also a teenager doggedly rejecting my given Chinese name, a salad of vowels: Xiaoyu.
This year, for myriad reasons, I sought out books about being a stranger in a strange land. I found The Namesake unexpectedly comforting and intimate, because America is a strange land—a land of inches and pledges of allegiance and Super Bowls and lofty dreams—and Lahiri’s writing, about the life of a boy named Gogol Ganguli, born to immigrant Bengali parents, is exquisite. It wasn’t so much the relatability of Gogol’s coming-of-age story or the fact that we’re both indignant about our given names, but more Lahiri’s eye for detail that captivated me. She writes of calling relatives late at night to accommodate time zones, of making sure to become friends with other Bengalis (Gogol’s mother kept three address books containing their contact information; my mother taped a similar list of connections next to our phone), of understanding American holidays (the Gangulis learn to nail a wreath to their door in December; my parents learned that no one goes to work on Thanksgiving). But even if those experiences don’t inspire nostalgia, the writing is sublime enough for anyone—whether they bear a “normal” name or not—to enjoy.
—Shirley Li, editorial fellow
Global Crisis: War, Catastrophe, and Climate Change in the Seventeenth Century by Geoffrey Parker
I served on the jury of the Cundill Prize this year, and so I’ve already had one vote for best book. But if allowed a second, I vote for Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Catastrophe, and Climate Change in the Seventeenth Century, published by Yale in 2013. Most of us amateur readers of history know two things about the 17th century: that it was cold and that it was violent. Parker links those two conditions into one grand narrative that spans the planet from Ming China to Puritan New England.
We now debate whether the warming climate of our time is man-made. For human prosperity, however, the most urgent question about climate change is not its cause, but its speed. Beginning in the 1590s, the northern hemisphere was hit by some of the worst weather ever recorded: long and harsh winters, wet and cloudy summers. Harvests failed. Dynasties fell. States warred upon their neighbors. Societies dissolved in civil strife.
In Western Europe, natural disaster spurred an intense new desire to measure, understand, and control nature. When the climate warmed after 1715, global economic and military leadership had shifted from China, India, and the Ottoman lands to formerly fringe kingdoms like Russia and England.
Parker’s great book challenges all future political and military historians to integrate the study of tree rings and glacier cores into their work. And it challenges his readers to think hard about whether humanity in the 21st century will be any less vulnerable than it was in the 17th to sudden disruptions of the environment on which we depend for our subsistence fully as much as did our ancestors of 400 years ago.
—David Frum, senior editor
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
America’s greatest black writers are often pigeonholed as being exactly that: black writers. They are writers who are black, blacks who changed the way America thought about black people. Pity the high schooler who skipsThe Invisible Man or Black Boy.
But when I opened Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, I discovered a tale about love and sex with men and women in 1950’s Paris and found, by the end, that this rich white protagonist’s sad wanderings meant just as much in a different way as anything fromNotes of A Native Son. There are plenty of good books about Americans drinking and lusting and hating in Parisian cafes, but not many that read like this:
“I don’t know, now, when I first looked at Hella and found her stale, found her body uninteresting, her presence grating. It seemed to happen all at once—I suppose that only means that it had been happening for a long time.”
Then there’s the description of a train ride:
I may be drunk by morning but that will not do any good. I shall take the train to Paris anyway. The train will be the same, the people, struggling for comfort and even dignity on the straight-backed, wooden, third-class seats will be the same, and I will be the same. We will ride through the same changing countryside northward, leaving behind the olive trees and the sea and all of the glory of the stormy southern sky, into the mist and rain of Paris. Someone will offer to share a sandwich with me, someone will offer me a sip of wine, someone will ask me for a match. People will be roaming the corridors outside, looking out of windows, looking in at us. At each stop, recruits in their baggy brown uniforms and colored hats will open the compartment door to ask Complet? We will all nod Yes, like conspirators, smiling faintly at each other as they continue through the train. Two or three of them will end up before our compartment door, shouting at each other in their heavy, ribald voices, smoking their dreadful army cigarettes. There will be a girl sitting opposite me who will wonder why I have not been flirting with her, who will be set on edge by the presence of the recruits. It will all be the same, only I will be stiller.
Baldwin’s novel is the fire last time, the fire this time. Dude can write.
—Noah Gordon, editorial fellow
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When I first heard about Americanah I was hesitant: A love story that purported to simultaneously explore race relations, immigration, and gender from a black feminist point of view seemed heady and overwhelming for a bus read on my daily commute. But from the first scenes of a vulnerably wise, headstrong, eloquent young Nigerian immigrant named Ifemelu trekking to a faraway hole-in-the-wall outside Princeton to get her braids done just right, I was hooked. I didn’t know nor identify with Ifemelu on a demographic level, and neither did most readers, I suspect. But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves together a story that is at once raw, authentic, and lush. She traverses the past and present—from rural Nigeria to the rain-soaked alleys of London and the posh manicured lawns of American suburbia—so seamlessly that the story becomes one readers ultimately identify with, regardless of their unique personal experiences.
Ifemelu and her long lost love, the kind and ever-patient Obinze, are the central duo, whose struggles as a star-crossed couple separated by oceans and divergent life paths are painfully apparent and heartbreakingly honest. While the book isn’t flawless—some parts ramble a bit and the too-neat climax and subsequent denouement of Ifemelu and Obinze’s reunion has sparked passionate discourse—the strength of Adichie’s writing is its ability to achieve breathtaking literary depth without sacrificing clarity. Her language is simply gorgeous, illustrating the raucous streets of Lagos and the crumbling pieces of a fragile pair of hearts with vividness while weaving pointed commentary on race relations in the modern world.
Ifemelu, whose competing facades as an all-American yuppie success story and an African immigrant with a defined history battle throughout the novel, maintains a grace that ultimately triumphs. Americanah offers a critique of racial dynamics without being pedantic, a tumble into the dynamics of love without being omniscient, and an absorbing story that made me contrarily wish my morning commute was longer.
—Tanya Basu, editorial fellow
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
Earlier this year, after exhausting my televised Sherlock Holmes options (the BBC’sSherlock, of course, and CBS’s Elementary), I decided to read the source material for the first time. The original Sherlock Holmes canon is extensive: Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels and more than 50 short stories about the idiosyncratic detective. I decided to choose the easiest route and read them chronologically, so I started with A Study in Scarlet, which was published in 1887.
The novel opens with Watson narrating his return to England after serving in the army’s medical division in Afghanistan (a job that allowed for a timely update in the BBC’s version, which first aired in 2010). “I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained,” he says. With this, Doyle sets the stage for what any Sherlock fan knows: London is not an accidental setting—its geography and inhabitants and Holmes’s vast knowledge of both play a large role in every installment of his adventures.
However, about a third of the way through the novel, Holmes and Watson are no longer in London. In fact, Holmes and Watson are nowhere to be seen. We’re now somewhere in the American West with John Ferrier and a girl named Lucy. (I was reading on my iPad and was convinced that I had somehow downloaded a corrupted ebook.) I don’t want to give anything away (other than this sudden narrative shift, of course), but after a lengthy tale of forbidden love, forced marriage, and Mormonism (which was, in the Victorian age, a brand new religion), the story jumps back to London, and the mystery-at-hand is quickly solved.
Because I was already familiar with the characters of Holmes and Watson, reading the novel felt like literary deja vu, but in a comforting, not jarring, way. I could probably have predicted Watson’s catalog of Holmes’s attributes: “Knowledge of literature—nil … Knowledge of chemistry—profound … Plays the violin well.”
A Study in Scarlet is perfect for anyone else waiting for Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to return to the BBC as Holmes and Watson; it’s quick, entertaining, and if you’re not satiated, there are three more novels and nearly five-dozen short stories like it.
—Nora Biette-Timmons, editorial fellow
Another Country by James Baldwin
It’s absurd for me as a straight young healthy white dude to try and sell anyone on Another Country , the very premise of which is basically that I couldn’t if I tried, but, here we are. I spent college and graduate school studying science and medicine, and that’s my excuse for only now reading Baldwin. Which is not at all an excuse, but it’s an opportunity to yell about med school curricula ignoring social determinants of health, like all the conflict that goes into this story.
Another Country is especially relevant this year because of its incisive illustration of the social divides that dominated the year’s news, especially in these last weeks. It’s an acclaimed 52 year-old-novel that took Baldwin 13 years to write, including expat years in France, literally another country. The story is about fear and the rule of chaos and some universal humanity of characters across sexual and racial continua but divided on the same discrete lines that are carved today in basically the same place and just as deep, sort of bandaged but still raw. See, I am making it medical. Apart from the beat lingo and little else, it reads like it could’ve been written this year, set in the 1950s as some thinly veiled statement about how little things have changed. And not to end on the notes of despair, there’s also real love. And fake love, and everything in between.
—James Hamblin, senior editor
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, and
Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld
Here’s a working parent double header, bullet-pointed so you work/life balancers can keep at that whole Having It All business.
First up is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing—technically a how-to guide, but for those of us living in 550 square feet with a two-year-old, falling somewhere between science fiction and fantasy.
What’s so great about it?
- It’s the only book I read cover to cover this year that didn’t have pictures. (My spouse threatened to put Kondo’s theories into practice solo if I didn’t finish.)
- It’s a fast read (see previous).
- The time-pressed can skip the OCD author’s quirky personal tales, but I found them reassuringly off-kilter. We’re all nuts.
- The titular magic: Reading it, you glimpse a glittering mental freedom from the unread/uncrafted/unworn, buyer’s remorse, the nervous eyeing of real estate listings. Life’s overwhelm, conquered. Could it be possible?
The question you should be asking of everything you own: does this spark joy?
If not, discard it. Best of all: discard most of the papers you feel compelled to file.Papers will never spark joy. Then, once you’ve decided what sparks joy in your life—keep going.
Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (2011) is new to me because I’m new to toddlers. And if you know any young children, they will adore this book.
- Get the hardcover with gorgeous oil-pastel illustrations.
- Yes, toddlers will abuse the paper pages, from sheer delight. Tape will fix it.
- Emphasize the sly internal rhyme. Stage-whisper the italics.
- Saying goodnight to the trucks one by one is a perfect wind-down to bedtime.
You may find this sweet poem about the joy of working hard has you gawking like a kid as well when you walk by the real-life machines and their skilled operators. It’s worth the extra minute to stop and wave.
In short, 2014: TRUCKS, JOY.
—Jennifer Adams, associate director of production
How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? by Doretta Lau
One reason I’m endeared to Canadian author Doretta Lau’s debut collection of twelve short stories is that all her cultural references are my own: touchstones of the aughts intellectual urbanite. An appreciation for the photographs of Jeff Wall. Wanting to watch Wong Kar Wai movies all night. Fugazi. The desire to date dead men (although I probably wouldn’t pick pianist Glenn Gould if I could choose from all of human history). Lau has the same uncanny talent as Banana Yoshimoto; the ability to turn a mundane day into a magical and meaningful one.
Lau’s offbeat stories document the follies and triumphs of youth via remarkably self-aware characters. Her cast includes competitive eaters struggling with romantic relationships, a sitcom actress in debt working at a funeral home, a screenwriter in mourning, and a photographer who accidentally auditions for a pornographic movie. My favorite is the young woman who starts receiving text messages from her neurotic future self, when mankind invents communicative time travel.
Stories about young, lost souls often make me cringe when they’re filled with unforgiving accuracy or indefinite nihilism. But Lau’s stories are optimistic and inventive; they feel like hindsight making sense and purpose of a confusing time. Part of the appeal is that when most of us become adults, our lives are structured around work, obligations, and sleep. There’s a lurking fantasy that living an unstructured life would make us less financially able, but free to pursue our passions—which would make everything less boring. Lau’s characters are never restrained by these daily rituals. They’re stories of people living unconventionally, but feeling the struggles of life and love nonetheless. These are stories of love almost lost, and losers almost winning. And when it’s over, even if they don’t get what they want, at least they leave knowing what it is.
—Bourree Lam, associate editor
That Book About Harvard by Eric Kester
In That Book About Harvard, Eric Kester accomplishes a feat of Gordian difficulty—writing an unpretentious book about the most prestigious university in the world. In this memoir about his freshman year, Kester characterizes himself as an endearingly awkward football player trying to survive academically and athletically while also attempting—and most of the time failing—to gain footing in the social scene. Football practices, math tests, and failed pizza parties are backdrops for Kester to display his brand of self-deprecating humor, which is similar to that of David Sedaris. It’s difficult to read three sentences without laughing.
Kester’s college experience starts in the most embarrassing way possible: He gets locked out of his dorm in only his underwear, and the cute girl in the hall, on whom he has a crush for the rest of the book, witnesses this disgrace. The narrative continues with Kester meeting characters such as Tripp (“a member of [an] influential family, which is lucky for him considering he’s more than a few fries short of a happy meal”), Vikas (“only fourteen years old, a boy genius who was forced to enroll in a couple of Harvard’s math courses in order to challenge his freakish brain”), and Coach Mac (“tape measurer once proved that his neck was literally twice the girth of his head”).
Through these characters, readers get an unfiltered account of a university that’s often so shrouded by its accolades that an outsider can’t see beyond them. Kester explains, for example, that regular students who don’t get into Harvard are put on the waitlist, while legacies are put on the “Z-list,” meaning “the legacy is officially admitted into Harvard (saving the family from shame and embarrassment), though he or she must take one or two years off before coming to school.”
If you’re looking for a new voice and a fresh laugh, pick up this book and you’ll find it.
—Philip Sopher, editorial fellow
The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
From the basic description—a love story told entirely through dictionary entries—it’s easy to dismiss The Lover’s Dictionary as a gimmick. But with this book, as with the subject it tackles, a description doesn’t do the experience justice. Contained within a gimmicky conceit is a story that somehow manages to feel both universal and startlingly familiar.
The novel unfolds alphabetically rather than chronologically, beginning with aberrant and ending with zenith. Between the two, an anonymous narrator doles out the narrative one definition at a time, each entry building towards a larger picture while telling a small, complete story of its own. There’s a lot that isn’t said—we never learn the names of the two lovers, for example, or even the gender of the one being addressed—but there’s also a lot that’s said with very little.
Kerfuffle, for example, is: “From now on, you are only allowed one drink at any of my office parties. One. Preferably a beer.”
And qualm: “There is no reason to make fun of me for flossing twice a day.”
And obstinate: “Sometimes it becomes a contest: Which is more stubborn, the love or the two arguing people caught within it?”
But a book that celebrates the fluidity of words also rings true when acknowledging their limits, and its own. The entry for ineffable is: “Trying to write about love is like trying to have a dictionary represent life. No matter how many words there are, there will never be enough.” If The Lover’s Dictionaryfails, it fails gorgeously.
—Cari Romm, editorial fellow
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Last Monday, the Ferguson Commission was three hours into its introductions and housekeeping procedures when resident Dell Taylor interrupted. “We don’t expect you all to come up with a miracle. That’s why we’re here,” she pleaded, “But don’t waste our time with the same innuendoes and the same rhetoric.”
A familiar weariness, isn’t it, with the pathologically empty “conversation on race in America.” After Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and all the evil they footnote, it’s telling that the gesture for racial solidarity—no longer the clenched fist—is unironically throwing our hands up and saying “Don’t shoot.” We need new language: something real enough to sink in and smart enough to set the status quo askew, something that can agitate without piercing the ear, something unheard and felt, and Citizen: An American Lyric is it.
These prose poems chronicle blackness in America. Microaggressions and wholesale bigotry, professional sports, the academy, the Internet, the parking lot, the bar, and the subway—where the author won’t give up her seat because “we are traveling as a family”—compose a 159-page tracking shot of “bodies moving through the same life differently.” Citizen is “an American Lyric,” a survey that sings. Read out loud and you can hear the music, for instance, in the refrain of “Stop-and-Frisk”: And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
Poems are usually considered performance. For my money, Citizen is a public service. With more precision and brio than any writer this year, Claudia Rankine probes the so-called peace and tranquility of the United States, delivering no diagnosis or miracle cure, but something more dangerous: an inoculation.
—Zach Hindin, assistant editor
What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg
Is there any book more cynical—or more accurate—about Hollywood than What Makes Sammy Run? If there is, it still couldn’t match the reaction Budd Schulberg’s rags-to-riches tale received when it was released in 1941 and led to the mother of all blackballs: Samuel Goldwyn subsequently firing Schulberg, Louis B. Mayer trying to get him deported, John Wayne challenging him to a fistfight at midnight in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Though critics on the far coast were nicer, the best praise it ever got was from Dorothy Parker, who said that it conveyed Hollywood’s “true shittiness.”
All because of one slim little novel, which taps so deeply and succinctly into the underside of the American rat race that it remains an essential parable even now. Schulberg’s book chronicles the rise of poor, ambitious Sammy Glick, whose ascent from newspaper copyboy to high-powered entertainment exec is every writer’s worst nightmare—he skates his way to the top passing everyone else’s ideas off as his own. Sammy’s the kind of guy who pays gossip columnists to write about him and tells his (legitimately talented) friend Al Maheim, “I’m catching the express now, baby.” You haven’t seen an outsized slicker like this since Gatsby, or maybe the last time you watched Swingers.
I came to What Makes Sammy Run? while I was interning at a Hollywood talent agency, and it very quickly became my guide and solace to a culture where assistants are still, literally, running. (To go to the bathroom, lest they drop a call.) It’s laugh-out-loud funny, depressing, and above all therapeutic. Sammy’s a monster, but he’s also a relief. These kinds of people may get ahead, the book conveys (as it keeps pace with all his running), but their triumphs will only ever be empty.
—Katie Kilkenny, editorial fellow
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Around 2 a.m. one night, I’d given up trying to fall asleep, so I picked up my dog-eared copy of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, and resumed reading. Soon, I was crying. Despite the tears (and with the help of intermittent bites of my post-midnight snack), I gulped down all of Gay’s essays.
I had expected to be devastated before I started the book having read Gay’s novel, An Untamed State, this summer. What I hadn’t expected was to be relieved. Just in her introduction, she’s able to put into words all my feelings about feminism: why it’s a term that needs embracing, why it isn’t perfect, and why that doesn’t matter. She has an ability to rummage through complex feelings and lay out the ones that fit her. She’s neither militant nor self-righteous; just really good at explaining where she’s coming from.
The essays jump from her childhood obsession with Sweet Valley High to why she hates Django Unchained. (“My slavery revenge fantasy would probably involve being able to read and write without fear of punishment or persecution coupled with a long vacation in Paris.”) She’s hilarious. But she also confronts more difficult issues of race, sexual assault, body image, and the immigrant experience. She makes herself vulnerable and it’s refreshing.
At the end of each essay the reader has the freedom to tie up loose ends (or not) and that’s the best part. Not everything has to line up neatly, and flaws are okay so long as they’re acknowledged. (It’s perfectly fine to think Blurred Lines is a catchy song, for example, but simultaneously decry how it promotes rape culture.) It’s a relief that Gay neither puts herself or her readers on a pedestal. Pedestals are boring, and it’s nice to be let off the hook sometimes.
—Tanvi Misra, staff writer
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Would you like to be better looking, or richer, or better in bed? Would you like skinnier thighs and smoother skin? The world has you covered: Magazines and books—and also infomercials and YouTube videos and Dove chocolate wrappers—are teeming with tips aimed at aiding you in your quest to Become Your Best Self. What are relatively difficult to find in the marketplace, however, are tips that double as wisdom: advice concerned not just with making you more desirable, but with making you more awesome.
Yes Please, Amy Poehler’s entry into the crowded category of the Memoir Written by a Funny Person, is, above all, an advice book. And, in that, it is itself awesome. It may not be sheen-polished, like Tina Fey’sBossypants, or overtly literary, like Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, or sweetly self-deprecating, like Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)—but that, of course, is because Amy Poehler is not like those other authors. Instead, her book is messy and mischievous. It features asides like “Reasons we cry in an airplane” (“we are a little drunk”/”we are a little scared”/”we feel lonely, which is different than being alone”/”the pressure”/”the pressure! (different)”). It features notes and annotations from Poehler’s parents and co-stars. It takes on a witty stream-of-consciousness that hints at what might have happened had Jane Austen lived on into the age of the Strong Female Lead.
A common knock on comedians is that their humor, light as it may be on the surface, comes from a place of darkness: Funny people are funny people, we are taught to believe, because they are, fundamentally, sad. Not so Poehler—or at least not so the version of Poehler presented in Yes Please. The constant in her telling of her life, from her childhood to her motherhood to her transformation into an A-list celebrity, is a genuine love of other people, be they her friends or her kids or her collaborators. She observes them in fine detail. She gets her energy from them. She gets her joy from them. The advice she offers in Yes Please is explicit—take risks, value friendships, don’t fucking care what other people think—but also implicit. Poehler models generosity, and the fact that being one’s best self tends to involve an ability to see the best in other people. As she observes: “People are their most beautiful when they are laughing, crying, dancing, playing, telling the truth, and being chased in a fun way.”
—Megan Garber, staff writer