VANISHING NOVELIST: BILLY LEE BRAMMER AND "THE GAY PLACE"
Billy Lee Brammer's 1961 novel, "The Gay Place," is an under-sung classic of American political fiction ... and probably the last book published with "Gay" in the title that had nothing to do with homosexuality. Brammer, a one-time aide to Lyndon Johnson when he was Senate majority leader in the late 1950s, had a preposterously wild life: accidentally shared a mistress with JFK, was turned onto LSD by Ken Kesey, and proceeded to introduce all of Austin, Texas (including Janis Joplin, who was living there at the time) to acid. He also had a passing acquaintance with Jack Ruby, and briefly wrote anti-communist pamphlets for a CIA program where his boss was Gloria Steinem. Tracy Daugherty's wonderful new biography of Brammer, "Leaving the Gay Place," is both generous and harrowing as it follows Brammer on his descent into the crystal meth addiction that sabotaged his efforts to follow up his masterpiece. Here's my essay on Brammer in The American Interest.
POLYNESIAN RIDDLES: CHRISTINA THOMPSON'S 'SEA PEOPLE"
This brilliantly written, multi-stranded book is history at its best. If you have even a passing interest in how the Polynesian people came to populate a vast swathe of the Pacific, it's a must read. Until the era of global migration, Thompson tells us, “Polynesians were both the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in the world.” “Sea People” does a marvelous job of covering every line of inquiry into this phenomenon. It’s a grand, symphonic, beautifully written book, drawing on findings in anthropology, archaeology, oceanography, linguistics, DNA research, radiocarbon dating, and Polynesian myth and folklore as it examines a reality that, when first apprehended by Westerners, seemed to defy explanation. Here's my review from The Boston Globe.
WHEN THE TOWERS CAME DOWN AND THE PENTAGON BURNEDH
Mitchell Zuckoff's "Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11" is a minute-by-minute account of what happened on 9/11, covering every angle: the action on the hijacked airliners, at their targets, in air-traffic control rooms, at FAA offices and at military bases. It offers an overview of the events of that day, with minimal commentary. Exhaustively researched, it explains what we went through 18 years ago and why it was next to impossible for all but a handful of people to understand what was occurring as the attacks happened. Here's my review from The Boston Globe.
A YOUNG BOY DECLARES HIS HOME A SOVEREIGN NATION IN FABIO BARTOLOMEI'S DELIGHTFUL "WE ARE FAMILY"
In the micro-genre of novels about wildly precocious kids who turn your perceptions of the world inside out, certain classics stand out. “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass – in which young Oskar Matzerath stops growing at age three, partly in reaction to the insanity of the Third Reich – is one. Steven Millhauser’s “Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954” is another. To this select company belongs Italian writer Fabio Bartolomei’s zanily inventive second novel, “We Are Family.” The genius of its narrator, Almerico Santamaria, is established early on: “I spoke my first word at five months, I started reading at age two, and when I was three I was already writing.” The pell-mell tumble of Al’s associative logic and the fallout from the nutty mayhem he creates are a zesty treat. What Bartolomei has given us is a deeply eccentric comedy about family connection and loss, and a topsy-turvy tour of how youngsters see their world. Here's my review from The Seattle Times.
COUPLES CHEMISTRY: TESSA HADLEY PONDERS HOW, FOLLOWING A DEATH, RELATIONS BETWEEN TWO MARRIED COUPLES ARE THROWN COMPLETELY OUT OF WHACK IN "LATE IN THE DAY"
Even for people successful in their jobs and personal lives, things can grow abruptly precarious in late middle age. You may think you have the big questions settled nicely. Your career can seem solidly on-track. Your intimate relationships can be purring along nicely, if a little dully. Then come the sidelong blows. Careers get derailed by economic crashes or other unruly circumstances. Friends and relations behave wildly out of character, making you wonder who they were all along. A spouse gets sick – or, in a worst-case scenario, dies. British writer Tessa Hadley (“The Past,” “Clever Girl”) covers this territory freshly, subtly and with a deep shifting empathy in her new novel, “Late in the Day.” Here's my review from The Seattle Times.
A DYSTOPIAN SOCIETY FACES XENOPHOBIA AND CLIMATE DISASTER IN JOHN LANCHESTER'S TIMELY NOVEL, 'THE WALL'
The latest from John Lanchester ("The Debt to Pleasure," "Capiital," "Fragrant Harbor") portrays an island nation that has built “a long low concrete monster” along its entire 10,000-kilometer coastline. A premise like that must tap directly into international anxieties brought on by 21st-century population displacement, mustn’t it? Well, yes and no. “The Wall,” in its way, is impeccably crafted. Its prose is spare. Its plot is unadorned. Its set pieces — nighttime battles, uneasy encounters between active military personnel and ordinary citizens — feel movie-script ready. At the same time, the book is too abstract to deliver the full-fledged cautionary nightmare that Lanchester seems to have intended. Here's my review in The Seattle Times.
MAKING IT DIMINUTIVE: SIMON GARFIELD'S 'IN MINIATURE: HOW SMALL THINGS ILLUMINATE THE WORLD'
The world of miniatures is a gargantuan subject. There seems no end to our impulse to translate reality into something we can hold in our hands and see at a single glance. British niche historian Simon Garfield — who has written about typography (“Just My Type: A Book About Fonts”) and cartography (“On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks”) — trains an eccentric focus on all things tiny in this charmer of a book. “A miniature,” Garfield proposes, “is a souvenir in physical form, a commemoration of our own tiny imprint on the planet.”That small statement speaks volumes. Here's my review from The Seattle Times.
From the Archives
THE RETURN OF HENRY GREEN: New York Review Books has reissued three of cult British author Henry Green's novels, "Back," "Caught" and "Loving." Green has been a favorite of mine ever since I noticed a string of gerunds adorning the spines of his novels -- "Living," "Concluding," "Party-Going," etc. -- on a library shelf at the University of Exeter. Jeremy Treglown (author of a much-praised biography of Roald Dahl) published a terrific life of Green (real name: Henry Yorke) in 2001. Here's a link to my review of it.
HENRY JAMES IN SEATTLE, 1905
A while ago, I celebrated the 100th anniversary of Henry James' visit to Seattle in 1905. Yes, the Master actually had a West Coast experience. In fact, he had a nephew here, Edward Holton James, who lived on the southwest corner of Queen Anne Hill. The following year, the novelist sent his young relative a thank-you note, recalling “most tenderly your verandah and its view, and the sense of your wondrous moist, ethereal wilderness; and then the dear little kindly lodging clubs; and the exquisite impression of the mystic lake in the hills, with the woods and the club-houses hanging over it.” You can read more here. That corner of Queen Anne, by the way, still offers one of the best views in the city.
HOW GERMAN IS IT?
This came out almost 20 years ago, but it remains one of my favorite pieces I ever did for The New York Times Book Review. It's a look at how translators are performers, in a curious way. The books are "Heroes Like Us" by Thomas Brussig and "The Karnau Tapes" by Marcel Beyer, both translated from the German by John Brownjohn. "Brownjohn disappears inside his role completely, coming up with prose of such contrasting rhythm and temperament," I noted, "that it's a challenge to remember that Brussig's and Beyer's German-language originals had to pass through the same mind on their way into English." Take a look.
FAVORITES OF 2018
No one can read everything, so there are undoubtedly some terrific books I missed in 2018. But the dozen below are titles I would love to sit down and read all over again, especially the fiction, just to get a better angle on how the authors did it. Underlined titles are linked to the full-length reviews I wrote for various newspapers.
“Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous” by Christopher Bonanos (Henry Holt). We know the name: Weegee. And we know the photographs – most famously, “The Critic,” in which two opera-goers, all dolled up in furs and jewels, are oblivious to a drunk woman at their side who’s spitting pure venom at them. But most of us don’t much about Weegee himself. Christopher Bonanos’ superb “Flash,” winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for best biography, reveals how the man born in an eastern European shtetl as Usher Fellig in 1899 re-invented himself as a chronicler of the seedier sides of nocturnal Manhattan in the 1930s. The book is steeped in the history of photography (Bonanos’ first book was “Instant: The History of Polaroid”) while creating an indelible portrait of its subject. The private life behind Weegee’s puckish public persona was sketchy, especially if you go by the standards of the #MeToo era, and he wasn’t much concerned either with his work’s artistic merit or implicit social commentary. “I have no time for messages in my pictures,” he insisted. “That’s for Western Union and the Salvation Army.” To his later admirers, though, he saw and said more than he ever cared to admit.
“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Doubleday). This debut novel by a Nigerian writer is a Hitchcockian comedy of menace propelled by a furious resentment of the way that the power of beauty, for most men, makes questions of character a secondary concern. Korede is a nurse working at a Lagos hospital who periodically has to deal with phone calls from her sister Ayoola announcing she has killed another of her lovers and needs help disposing the body. How does Ayoola get away with it? Because her looks are so stunning that no man seems immune to them – not even sensible, empathetic Doctor Tade who works with Korede. (“You’re going to make someone an awesome wife,” he tells Korede, plainly ruling out the possibility that he might be that “someone.”) After gorgeous Ayoola crosses Tade’s path, Korede desperately tries to warn him of the danger he’s in – to no avail. He’s as susceptible to her allure as all his predecessors were. Braithwaite’s macabre tale of a conscienceless homicidal beauty and her dowdy accommodating sister (“Ayoola needs me; she need me more than I need untainted hands”) is an acid-edged urban fable of sinister power.
“Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society” by Tracy Daugherty (University of Texas Press). Billy Lee Brammer – whose 1961 novel, “The Gay Place,” is an under-sung classic of American political fiction – was a one-time aide to Lyndon Johnson when he was the Senate majority leader in the late 1950s, and the novel’s dominating character, Texas governor Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker, is clearly LBJ-based. But Brammer’s own preposterous life might strain all credulity if you were to translate it into fiction. Happily, we have Tracy Daugherty’s terrific biography to detail that life’s highlights – including the fact that Brammer accidently shared a mistress with JFK, was turned onto LSD by Ken Kesey, and then proceeded to turn all of Austin, Texas (including Janis Joplin, who was living there at the time) on to acid. He also had a passing acquaintance with Jack Ruby, and briefly wrote anti-communist pamphlets for a CIA program where his boss was Gloria Steinem. "Leaving the Gay Place," is riveting stuff and the most eye-opening literary biography of the year.
“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan (Knopf). It’s not every slave narrative that delivers a sentence like this: “The visit to Wolcott and Sons was delayed until our return, and Goff was left unhappily with the task of sourcing eelgrass.” Granted, that comes toward the end of Esi Edugyan’s extraordinary third novel (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; a winner of Canada’s Giller Prize). But it’s indicative of the globe-hopping leaps and detours the book takes as it tells the tale of a boy raised in brutal servitude in 1830s Barbados who winds up seeing more of the world than he ever anticipated. “I became a boy without identity, a walking shadow,” he says, “and with each new month I fell deeper into strangeness.” The shapeshifting narrative takes Edugyan’s narrator to ante-bellum Virginia, the Canadian Arctic, Nova Scotia, England, the Netherlands and Morocco. His observation that “the nature of what happened isn’t fixed; it shifts and warps with the years” is borne out time and again. Edugyan is a marvelous writer – lyrical, fanciful, subtle, fond of paradox – and “Washington Black” reads like a picaresque epic laced with persistent threat as her young hero attempts to bridge the gap between what he has to offer the world and how the world sees him.
“The Monk of Mokha” by Dave Eggers (Knopf). Dave Eggers’ special strength, over the last dozen years, has been taking dramatic stories of American immigrants – a Somalian “Lost Boy” struggling in Atlanta in “What Is the What,” a Syrian-American family caught in the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in “Zeitoun” – and putting his own writing chops in service of their voices. In “The Monk of Mokha,” a book that reads like a political thriller with an insanely optimistic Horatio Alger type skedaddling through it, he does it again. Young Yemeni-American Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who grew up in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin district, becomes obsessed with reviving the coffee trade in Yemen just as the country is sliding into civil war. The odds of Mokhtar’s scheme succeeding are ludicrously long, of course. But high spirits, it seems, can sometimes prevail even in the most dire geopolitical mayhem. “The Monk of Mokha” may read like outlandish fiction, but it’s fact-based and Eggers is candid about his working methods. “In researching this book,” he writes, “I conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Mokhtar over the course of almost three years. Whenever possible, I was able to corroborate his memories with the help of others who were present, or with the historical record.” He sees Mokhtar’s story as “chiefly about the American Dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat.”
“A Terrible Country” by Keith Gessen (Viking). Gessen’s second novel, “A Terrible Country,” brilliantly captures the daily rhythms, allures and challenges of Moscow life in 2008-2009, in a tale that’s as personable as it is political. Its 33-year-old narrator, who shares some of Gessen’s history (born in Moscow in 1975, moved to the U.S. at age six) is sensitive, alert, but not always clued in. “I wasn’t really an idiot,” he says. “But neither was I not an idiot.” Through his eyes we get glimpses of the authoritarian undertow of Putin’s Russia while always staying grounded in the grind of ordinary Muscovite existence. Gessen’s narrator is a fish out of water, but not entirely an innocent. Only a lack of funds prevents him from developing a prostitute habit, and his Facebook visits trigger unseemly spasms of envy of his former fellow graduate students’ flourishing careers. While a part of him remains indissolubly American, there’s enough Russian in him to make him feel implicated in everything he sees, especially as he grows more acutely aware of Russia as a country where everyone, at one point or another, has been on the wrong side of history. The result is a wily, seductive, deeply affecting book whose hybrid narrator – half insider, half outsider – sheds light on a society that, now more than ever, we need to understand better.
“At the End of the Century” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Counterpoint). This new selection of short stories by a Booker Prize-winning author best known for her screenplays for Merchant-Ivory films (“A Room with a View,” “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”) offers plentiful evidence of her brilliance as a writer of short fiction. Most of the tales are set in India, with a few taking place in New York and Los Angeles. Almost all of them are informed by a sense of being suspended between cultures. Some characters desperately want to escape their native circumstances. Others just as obsessively want to lose themselves in alien surroundings. Quite a few of them, regardless of how they’re positioned culturally, find an utterly unexpected freedom within the constraints of marriage and filial connection. Betrayal and adultery, for instance, can be exactly what a household needs to stay functional and happy. Jhabvala has Alice Munro’s gift for making you feel you’re reading a novel in miniature as she distils broad expanses of geography, personal history and time to 30 pages or so. She’s astute on how subtle the shifts in power dynamics between two people can be. She also has a sharp eye for how helplessness can be wielded as a weapon in personal relations. Best of all, she has a healthy respect for the riddling aspects of human behavior. She doesn’t explain contradictions or self-destructive impulses away. Instead, she simply presents them as something strange, real and troublesome. The results are captivating.
“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai (Viking). It’s an odd sensation when you’ve lived long enough for the years of your youth to become historical-fiction fodder for younger writers. Not all of them succeed. But Rebecca Makkai’s magnificent third novel, “The Great Believers” doesn’t set a foot wrong as it alternates between an AIDS-stricken circle of friends in mid-1980s Chicago and a handful of straight and gay survivors in 2015 Paris. Makkai is cannily aware that Big Public Events – the ones that make it into history books – are often mere background noise to those living through them, and the Zeitgeist, when it’s on your radar at all, is seen through a haze of tensions with your family, uncertainty about your boyfriend, excitement about a project at work, and/or plans to have drinks with a friend. By its end, this Pulitzer Prize finalist offers a grand fusion of the past and the present, the public and the personal. It’s remarkably alive despite all the loss it encompasses. And it’s right on-target in addressing how the things that the world throws us often feel gratuitously out of step with the lives we think we’re leading. “I hate that we have to live in the middle of history,” one character says late in the novel. “We make enough mess on our own.”
“The Library Book” by Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster). This glorious book by the author of “The Orchid Thief” takes as its starting point a 1986 fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library, before touching on all aspects of the library’s operation and history. Whether she’s recalling her earliest book-borrowing excursions with her mother or observing the library’s role in offering sanctuary to the homeless (“Every problem that society has, the library has, too”), Orlean keeps her focus on “the bigger puzzle the library is always seeking to assemble — the looping, unending story of who we are.” Along the way, she delivers a brisk history of the city of Los Angeles and serves up a steady stream of portraits of L.A. eccentrics past and present, including the aspiring actor and compulsive liar who may have been the arsonist behind the fire.
“The Overstory” by Richard Powers (Norton). Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel contrasts human time with arboreal time, pits human intelligence against plant-world ingenuity, and is by turns visionary, exhortatory and doom-stricken, as it asks what we’re doing to our planet. It’s too heady, too rhapsodic, too strange to be characterized as agitprop fiction. But it does have a sobering message. As one character puts it: “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.” That strategy, Powers clearly believes, isn’t sustainable. Juggling the personal dramas of his far-flung cast with vigor and clarity, he evokes their progress over the decades from crusading passion to a muddled sense of regret and failure. But it’s the extra-human elements that are the novel’s most striking features, thanks to the extraordinary imaginative flights of Powers’ prose, which persuades you on the very first page that you’re hearing the voices of trees as they chide our species. “All the ways you imagine us,” they say, “are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.”
“Strike Your Heart” by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson (Europa). Franco-Belgian writer Nothomb’s taut, compact novels (“Fear and Trembling,” “Life Form,” “Tokyo Fiancée”) are predictable in the best sense of the word: You can always count on her luring you into twisted territories of the heart with a steely comic verve. “Strike You Heart,” Nothomb at her best, charts the life of a young woman, Diane, who succeeds in the world as a cardiologist despite having been raised by a mother so riddled with jealousy of other women that she can only see her daughter as a rival. As she enters adult life, Diane seeks out friends and mentors where she can find them. The suspense of the book stems from whether the people who cross Diane path are really what they appear to be and whether Diane can hold onto her innately generous nature when key figures around her thoughtlessly let her down. Nothomb’s writing is sharp, even curt, and her eye for her characters’ psychological foibles is penetrating.
“Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright (Penguin). Four beggars who seem to have strangled each other simultaneously … A soul that doesn’t know how to return to a body that’s been blown to bits by a car bomb … A “Tracking and Pursuit Department” that uses occult methods to hunt down a serial killer on the loose. These are a few of the elements at play in Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s fascinating novel, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Arab world’s equivalent to the Man Booker Prize. The novel takes the premise of Mary Shelley’s classic novel – a tortured being composed from various scraps of human bodies is brought to life – and transposes it to American-occupied Baghdad in 2005, where frequent suicide bombings supply no end of body parts. Striking a feverish balance between fantasy and hard realism, the novel concentrates on the concerns of ordinary Baghdadis as they try to make a living, find a decent place to live, and seek female companionship. Random bombings and scary encounters with American soldiers are so routine to them that some simply shrug them off. Roaming all over Baghad, the novel drops in on the lives of realtors, hoteliers, street vendors, café owners, journalists, photographers, neighborhood gossips, astrologers, fortune-tellers and the occasional djinn, delivering a vision of a war-mangled city that’s hard to forget.
“The Maze at Windermere” by Gregory Blake Smith (Viking). Smith’s fifth novel is historical fiction unlike any I’ve ever read. Set in Newport, Rhode Island, it portrays the city in five different eras, from the 1690s (as seen through the eyes of a young orphaned Quaker woman uncertain what to do with the female slave she has inherited) through its picturesque present-day incarnation (where a washed-up golf pro falls for a quirky heiress suffering from cerebral palsy). Stops along the way include the British occupation during the Revolutionary War, where a malicious English aristocrat attempts to seduce a Jewish merchant’s daughter; the Civil War-era family retreat of a young Henry James, who’s reluctant to return the affections of a woman who fascinates him; and a Gilded Age playground for the rich, where a cash-short gay dandy is trying to marry for money. Each narrative voice Smith invents is pitch-perfect, and the book offers huge formal pleasures as he peels back successions of communities like archaeological layers, connecting their inhabitants in ways that they don’t necessarily register.
FAVORITES OF 2017
This is a “favorites of 2017,” not a best, because no one can read everything. The thing I’m always looking for in fiction, besides beguiling content, is a novelist who can do something innovative, but still readable, with the form. And in nonfiction, I clearly have a weakness for niche histories (the stories behind ocean tides, Esperanto or U.S. overseas territories, for instance) that shed a light on the broader history of their time. Click on the titles for full reviews.
“Enigma Variations” by André Aciman (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Is there any writer out there who can conjure the seismic swings of sexual infatuation the way André Aciman can? The author of “Call Me By Your Name” does it again with this tale of a man whose body has “two agendas”: an appreciation of women and an irresistible attraction to men. Each of its five novella-length sections focuses on a different erotic obsession and possibility, and the last sentence of the book delivers a twist that reframes the whole novel. Aciman’s agile handlings of the heart’s paradoxes make this a masterpiece.
“Transit” by Rachel Cusk (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Like some Scheherazade-in-reverse, the narrator of “Transit” – Cusk’s sequel to her brilliant “Outline” – coaxes life stories from anyone and everyone she meets. In the process, she casts an oblique light on her own cool personality. The anecdotes she elicits often have a stranger-than-fiction luminosity about them. They also lead to larger questions concerning freedom and fate, appearance and reality, choice and passivity. A fine dry humor spices the book as it delves into tales of estrangement, ordinary loneliness and life-changing minutiae.
“The Night Ocean” by Paul La Farge (Penguin Press). What could be more fun than a novel that turns itself inside out not once, not twice, but three or more times as it unravels the enigmas of identity? “The Night Ocean” concerns an elusive chapter in the life of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, involving his friendship with a gay male teenage fan. Revelation becomes hoax and suicide becomes “pseuicide” in an ever-exploding series of narrative curveballs. Bonus item: author William S. Burroughs (“Naked Lunch”) makes several appearances, delivering one outrageous deadpan quip after another.
“The Locals” by Jonathan Dee (Random House). Dee’s fiction has always trained a sharp eye on the tricky intersections between private and public life. But with “The Locals,” he outdoes himself. “The Locals,” set in a Massachusetts tourist town, examines the battered state of the American psyche in the interim between the shock of 9/11 and the crash of 2008. Dee uses a variety of storytelling techniques to illuminate his characters from every possible angle. The result: a book that combines the sweep of a 19th-century novel with spry experimental touches and an unsettling take on small-town life in the digital era.
“Careers for Women” by Joanna Scott (Little, Brown). To say this historical novel offers a behind-the-scenes look at the planning, building and promotion of the World Trade Center in New York doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s a stylish jigsaw puzzle of a book, ranging in tone from faux documentary to jaunty “Mad Men”-like melodrama. It’s also a murder mystery, a good-humored feminist parable and a cautionary tale of ecological devastation. Its high-handed guiding spirit – Mrs. Lee K. Jaffe, real-life PR director for the Port of New York Authority, which built the Twin Towers – is unforgettable.
“The Disintegrations” by Alistair McCartney (University of Wisconsin Press). Describing this wryly death-obsessive novel as “fiction” is a bit misleading. Figures from McCartney’s life – including his husband, performance artist Tim Miller – turn up in it and newspaper accounts of murders pepper its pages. Still, its collage-like catalog of all the ways it’s possible to die feels more imagination-propelled than factually constrained. A host of vivid characters emerge from its ghoulish eccentricities. Result: a book that teems with life, even as it trains a determined eye on the threshold where life vanishes.
“So Much Blue” by Percival Everett (Graywolf). Three stories, scattered across time, fuse into one stunning tale in Everett’s new novel. Fifty-six-year-old Kevin Pace is an African-American abstract painter whose artwork is both his retreat and his attempt to reach out. His secretive work on his latest canvas triggers memories of two destructive episodes from his past: an affair he had with a young French woman 10 years earlier and a crazy jaunt he and his best friend made to El Salvador in 1979 when the country was on the verge of civil war. As its narrative threads combine, “So Much Blue” becomes a taut meditation on the costs of keeping vital or traumatic experiences to yourself.
“The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove). A collection of short stories from the author of the brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer.” These eight tales, set in Vietnam and California, show the same wily, penetrating mind at work. Most of their characters fled Vietnam after the communist takeover, but their situations vary sharply from story to story. Nguyen is an expert on prickly family dynamics. He can also be a sly humorist. Prime example: “The Other Man,” in which an attractive young Vietnamese refugee winds up living with a bickering gay couple in San Francisco. “The Refugees” confirms Nguyen as an agile, trenchant writer, able to inhabit numerous points of view.
“Fresh Complaint” by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The first short-story collection from Pulitzer Prize-winner Eugenides (“Middlesex”) covers three decades of his career and ranges from a droll 1995 tale of sperm-donation intrigue (“Baster”) to a knotty drama about an Indian-American teenage girl’s scheming resistance to an arranged marriage that winds up drawing an unsuspecting middle-aged university lecturer into scandal and marital disarray (“Fresh Complaint”). It’s remarkable to see how consistently pointed Eugenides’ prose, humor and observational acuity have been over the years. Throw in his willingness to tackle sticky issues at every opportunity, and you have a heady treat.
“Mother Land” by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In this sprawling novel about rampant family dysfunction, Paul Theroux raises a question few writers have the nerve to ask: What do we do when we start feeling too damn old to deal with a parent who has always been a psychic minefield? Narrator Jay Justus is a twice-divorced, once-successful novelist in late midlife who finds himself “back home, with Mother” after his father dies. His wariness of her doesn’t bode well. “She sensed my happiness,” he remarks, “the way a predator senses crippled prey.” Yet “Mother Land” is too antic and unpredictable to be a mere matricidal hatchet job. The sheer slipperiness of Jay’s observations leaves you uncertain how to evaluate any member of his family, including Jay himself. “I looked for a villain,” he says. “But it was Mother’s genius that she could seem both tyrant and victim, oppressor and oppressed.” Theroux, picking at the same raw scabs for 500-plus pages with a disconcerting blend of glee and anguish, evokes a realm we all come from, to which some of us have no desire to return.
“Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” by Kurt Andersen (Random House). “Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational,” novelist Kurt Andersen (“Heyday”) writes in “Fantasyland.” The problems arise when people behave “as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts.” Andersen contends that attitude didn’t come out of nowhere. We’ve always been susceptible, he remarks, to conspiracy theories, extreme beliefs, and “magical thinking.” But their intensity has increased in the digital era. His aim in “Fantasyland” is “to offer some fresh explanations of how our national journey deposited us here.” He succeeds to an extraordinary degree, in prose that’s lucid, supple and powered by paradox, as he lets us see how peculiarly American brands of rationalism and irrationality feed each other in unexpected ways.
“The Secret Life: Three True Tales of the Digital Age” by Andrew O’Hagan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A fascination with assumed identity is as old as literature itself. But the digital era has exponentially upped the ante. Who’s that person you just friended on Facebook? If you want to venture onto the cyber-ether as someone of a different gender or race than you were born with, what’s to stop you? There’s no real saying. Scottish novelist O’Hagan explores “the wild west of the Internet” with incisive vigor in his new book. The chapter bound to cause the greatest stir is “Ghosting,” his stinging account of being a ghostwriter for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (It’s uncanny how closely the dynamics of Assange’s personality resemble those of the current occupant of the Oval Office.) But the other two “tales,” in which O’Hagan tries to pin down who exactly invented bitcoin and sees how far he can go in creating an online life for a fabricated character, are just as dizzying and gripping.
“Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean” by Jonathan White (Trinity University Press). Marine conservationist White grew curious about tidal lore after being stranded by a 14-foot tide on a mud flat near Sitka, Alaska. “I thought I’d find my answer in a book or two,” he writes, “but the more I read, the more complex and mysterious and poetic the subject became.” The resulting book is a grand mix of science history, ocean lore and literary travel writing, transporting you to Venice, Mont St. Michel, the Bay of Fundy and Ungava Bay in the Arctic (where, at low tide in winter, you can poke around the ice-shelf to gather mussels). Along the way, White fills you in on various cultures’ ancient myths about the tides and the gradual discovery by scientists of what triggers tides’ rise and fall. He touches on rising sea-levels triggered by climate change, the latest efforts to tap tidal energy for our electrical power needs, and much more – all in a prose that’s as beguiling as it is informative.
“The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek” by Howard Markel (Pantheon). Study your Corn Flakes in the morning and you may be hard pressed to see them as the product of high drama. But ferocious fraternal rivalries went into their creation. “The Kelloggs” vividly recounts the story of health crusader Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother, breakfast-cereal entrepreneur Will Keith Kellogg, who worked together for 20-plus years before becoming bitter enemies in the last four decades of their lives. But his book isn’t limited to their personal feud. “The lives and times of the Kellogg brothers,” he points out, “afford a superb window through which we can view vast changes in social mores, belief systems, lifestyles, diets, health, science, medicine, public health, philanthropy, education, business, mass advertising, and food manufacturing as they evolved in the United States from the Civil War up to World War II.” Markel’s tale is a dandy mix of a Horatio Alger success story and a cautionary fable about blind egos sabotaging their own best efforts.
“The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA” by Doug Mack (Norton). We’re used to thinking of Hawaii, Alaska, Florida and Maine as the farthest extensions of our sovereign boundaries. But that doesn’t take Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and other U.S. territories into account. Travel writer Doug Mack, an affable and curiosity-filled soul, set out to discover who lived in those territories and what life there was like. His book feels more timely than ever following Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. Taxation, labor law and entitlements, Mack notes, all differ from one U.S. possession to another, with the federal government often having little idea how its policies affect the people living there. “You cannot write an honest master narrative of the U.S. without including the territories as key components,” he concludes. “And you cannot write an honest master narrative of the territories without feeling acutely uncomfortable about the United States and its continuing struggle to live up to its own ideals.”
“Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language” by Esther Schor (Metropolitan Books). Schor chronicles the history of the language that Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof gave to the world in 1887, while also detailing her own encounters with Esperantists in California, Turkey, Poland, Vietnam, Cuba and Brazil. Esperanto’s convoluted story pits liberation movements and utopian dreams against genocidal regimes and cultural tumult. Schor’s account of these controversies can get pretty tangled (so many schisms! so many rivalries!), but it’s enlivened by Esperanto crusaders’ over-the-top rhetoric and their detractors’ withering put-downs. (One skeptic dismissed Esperanto as “a sort of Italian gone wrong in company with some Slavonic tongue.”)
“Logical Family” by Armistead Maupin (Harper). The author of “Tales of the City” may have written his best book with this surprise-filled memoir about growing up conservative in Raleigh, N.C., and landing as an Associate Press journalist in 1970s San Francisco almost randomly (AP’s first job offer to him was in Buffalo, NY). Maupin has mentioned in interviews that he came from a conservative Southern background. But this memoir spells out the gory details: a “bombastic” father eternally “sorry he’d been born too late to fight for the Confederacy,” free use of the n-word in the Maupin household, and Maupin’s own unquestioning embrace of right-wing causes until he was in his twenties. In Charleston, S.C., he had his first clandestine gay trysts. The move to San Francisco completed his coming-out process and his transition from arch conservative to gay writer-activist.
FAVORITE READS OF 2016
No one can read enough to do a "best of" the year. But, hey, anyone can have their "favorites." Here are 10 of mine, in a list that reflects the fact that I got as many nonfiction as fiction review assignments in 2016. Deep thanks to all the editors who kept me on their reading radar.
“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett (Little, Brown). Haslett (“Union Atlantic”) moves with penetrating wit between the points of view of a father, mother, daughter and two sons, as he traces a family’s legacy of mental illness. Love, concern and unexpected comedy prove as central to his tale as exasperation and dread. “Gone” has stayed in my mind like no other novel has this year.
“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press). Smith (“White Teeth”) focuses on two swing-dance obsessed London girls of mixed racial background whose lives and temperaments take them in wildly different directions as they enter adulthood. Set in London, New York and the Gambia, “Swing Time” has an international sweep without ever losing focus on the mysteries of its characters’ individual fates. In her review of the book, my colleague Misha Berson captured its appeal and accomplishments nicely.
“Moonglow” by Michael Chabon (Harper). A family can be a riddle that takes whole lifetimes to solve or a delayed-detonation device dropping its bombshells decades after the fact. In Chabon’s heady quasi-autobiographical new novel, it’s a bit of both, as he takes on wartime trauma, mental illness, business boondoggles, Space Age obsessions and more. The result is the most probing and substantial book yet from the Pulitzer Prize-winner.
“Valiant Gentlemen” by Sabina Murray (Grove). In a novel spanning 30 years (1886-1916), Murray evokes a married couple’s poignant friendship with Roger Casement: a covert homosexual, defender of indigenous rights in the Congo and Amazon, and eventual martyr to the cause of Irish independence. With high spirits and agile insight, the book takes on questions of love, conscience and conflicted identity, as Murray’s youthful crusader-adventurers grow increasingly worn and compromised by the volatile times they inhabit.
“The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton (Pantheon). The new novel by the author of “Status Anxiety” traces the love life of a married couple from their mid-teens to their mid-40s. In essayistic asides, the book touches on the history of marriage as an institution and on the psychological dynamics behind adversarial codependence. You may not agree with all his thoughts on marriage, but it’s wonderful how de Botton teases such a big sweeping picture out of the smallest domestic details.
“Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah (Spiegel & Grau). It’s no surprise that the suave successor to Jon Stewart as host of “The Daily Show” should write a smart book. But “smart” doesn’t begin to cover what Noah pulls off in this memoir about being born to a white Swiss father and black South African mother in apartheid-era Johannesburg, when his parents’ relationship (and his own existence) were illegal. Noah lets you see South African realities before and after apartheid from a questioning youngster’s point of view. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing a finer job of it.
“Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service” by Devin Leonard (Grove). This delectably readable book offers answers to every question you ever had on how the USPS came into being – and quite a few questions you didn’t know you had. With his telling anecdotes about USPS controversies and challenges, Leonard also sheds light on our country’s social history, its squabble-driven politics and its economic development over the decades.
“Brilliant Beacons: A History of American Lighthouses” by Eric Jay Dolin (Liveright). Here’s some American history seen, quite literally, through a lens. It tells the story of American lighthouses, from the first one built (Boston Lighthouse in 1716) through the era of automation. At its heart is a French technological marvel, the Fresnel lens, invented in 1823 but blocked from use in the U.S. for close to 30 years, thanks in large part to congressional obstruction. The whole smartly researched package is delivered with wry wit and clarity.
“Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart” by Claire Harman (Knopf). In this new biography of the most famous Brontë sister, Harman shows an extraordinary knack for evoking the triumphs, frustrations and prickly contradictions of the novelist’s character. Her portrait of the Brontë family, in all its dysfunction, is also pointed, with the perversely stoic figure of Emily making an especially indelible impression.
“Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I” by Paula Becker (University of Washington Press). Seattle writer Betty MacDonald (1907-1958) was a beloved bestselling humorist who wrote about her life with a biting sense of the absurd. Her travails – failed marriage, unemployment, tuberculosis – could easily have been material for a dirge. Yet “The Egg and I” and her other memoirs practically cavort off the page. How did she do it? This finely crafted, artfully researched biography offers some answers.
AND THIS ISN'T THE FIRST TIME I'VE RAVED ABOUT BETTY MACDONALD...
I've written at some length about Betty MacDonald over the past 15 years: one time on the occasion of what would have been her 100th birthday in 2008 and, before that. in 2001 when three of her out-of-print memoirs were reissued. University of Washington Press, along with publishing Paula Becker's biography of MacDonald (see posting at left), is bringing those same three memoirs -- "The Plague and I," "Anybody Can Do Anything" and "Onions in the Stew" -- back into circulation once more.
In loving memory of Katherine Dunn (1945-2016):