The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
“Promise in deepest snow from Siss to Unn:
I promise to think about no one but you.”
This book was recommended to me by a cab driver who, with an enthusiasm that was a pleasure to witness, remarked that it should be the most famous novel in the world. And it is indeed a small masterpiece worthy of far more fame than it currently enjoys. Written in luminous, lyrical prose, this story relays the tale of two girls, Siss and Unn, who together spend an evening so profound that when Unn suddenly and inexplicably disappears, Siss’s universe collapses. The writing is eerie in its beauty — Versaas, with a stunning economy of language, places you in the cold, raw scenery of a Norwegian late autumn. His vivid descriptions of place, which run throughout the entirety of the novel, expose the loneliness of knowing just how indifferent our landscape is to the incursions and sufferings of human life.
The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes
“A child of 5 who leads a normal life wouldn’t be able to recount his childhood with this level of accuracy. But we, Helena and I, remember it as if it were today, and I can’t explain why.”
Emma Reyes was abandoned by her mother; left, as a six or seven year old, in the Colombian countryside. She grew up in a Bogota convent, where she worked long, arduous days under the cruel oversight of Catholic nuns. After her escape from the convent in her late teens, Emma made her way to Argentina. From there, she travelled to Paraguay, Uruguay, the United States, Mexico, Italy, and Israel. She won a scholarship to study painting in Paris; she paid her way to the French capital by offering to paint the ship as it sailed. In Paris, she became part of the cultural elite, befriending Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others. When a friend, the critic and historian Germán Arciniegas, suggested to her that she write her remarkable life story, she refused; instead, she wrote him letters. He was so impressed with them, the story goes, that he shared them with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called Emma, encouraging her to keep writing. This breach of confidence infuriated Emma, who didn’t write him another letter for more than two decades. This book is a collection of Emma’s letters – 23 of them – in which she describes her childhood (a childhood that would have broken most) with a childlike and poetically dispassionate tone that is simply astonishing. It’s the unlikelihood of this book that truly moves me; without any formal education – Emma only learned how to read and write in her late teens – she managed to give us a stunning work of art. If only she had written more.
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander
“…the greatest source of misery in the world, the greatest cause of anguish and hatred and sadness and death, was neither disease nor race nor religion. It was hope.”
Outrageously funny, this is the story of Solomon Kugel, an ordinary man who brings his wife, young son, and mother to the nondescript town of Stockton, in upstate New York. Hoping to start afresh, his plans for a new beginning are quickly derailed by a fusion of factors: first, his dementia-suffering mother is convinced — even though she was born and raised in New York — of having experienced the Holocaust; second, Kugel discovers that an intruder has taken up residence in his attic — a rude, fowl woman who might just be one of history’s most famous victims of the Holocaust; and third, an arsonist is running wild, on a mission to burn every house in the town. The title of this book (“Hope: A Tragedy”) is, you’ll learn as soon as you start reading, a reference to the philosophy of Professor Jove, psychologist to Solomon Kugel. It isn’t the capricious nature of life or misfortune or cruelty that is at the root of all human suffering, Professor Jove extolls to his patient. The genesis of human misery is, he says, hope. The natural human instinct to believe that a better life is out there, ready for the taking. Abandon all hope of being better, or making the world a more tolerable place to live in, and you’ll rest blissfully in mediocrity for the rest of your life. According to this view, then, someone like Hitler becomes an optimist (“hope is irrational…when someone rises up and promises that things are going to be better, run. Hide. Pessimists don’t build gas chambers.”). So yes, while this is perhaps one of the darkest, most cynical stories out there, underneath it all is a moving tale of an ordinary man trying to get through an unremarkable life reasonably unscathed. And: I am convinced that Shalom Auslander is the illegitimate love child of Franz Kafka and Philip Roth.
Suddenly, A Knock On The Door by Etgar Keret
“Don’t you go and dump reality on us like a garbage truck.”
Etgar Keret is one of my favourite discoveries of 2017. It’s extraordinary how he manages to create such fantastical, moving stories with the use of simple and straight language. In this collection of stories, Keret presents daily life as a dangeous, complicated production that is full of longing. I was spell-bound by nearly every story in the book, though a couple moved me to tears: in one, Keret takes on the third person voice to describe a woman whose every partner has committed suicide. The last line of this story, in which Keret suddenly switches the narrative voice, totally slayed me; in another, Keret introduces us to a talking fish whose desperately lonely owner will stop at nothing to keep his company. Every single story in this collection, stripped down to its essence, is an exploration into the chaos of our inner lives (Keret is particularly extraordinary when describing the anxieties of childhood). I truly loved this book; it is a tremendous illumination of the darkness, and fear, that shadows every human existence.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated…”
The long awaited first novel by George Saunders, the master of the short story, didn’t leave my mind for months on end. I still talk about it to anyone who will listen. In fact, this book engenders such strong feelings in its readers that a woman, upon seeing the book clutched in my hand, hung up her phone – mid conversation – and shouted at me across the street: “Did you LOVE it?!”. At the time the book is set – 1862, the first year of the American Civil War – papers reported that Abraham Lincoln, upon losing his eleven-year-old son to typhoid, entered the Georgetown Cemetery crypt and held his body. From this seed of historical truth, Saunders builds an extraordinarily moving story narrated by a chorus of voices. The tale unfolds in a graveyard over the course of one night – the night that Willie Lincoln dies. As young Lincoln enters the graveyard, we are introduced to a host of characters, all recently dead, but who have not yet accepted the sad fact, hence why they’re in a “bardo” — the Tibetan version of purgatory. In their back and forth conversations, Saunders’s cast of characters reminisce about their lives and the loved ones that filled them. In nearly every interaction there is a sense of longing for what was lost and regret for how it was all left behind. Every character, it seems to me, feels like he or she could have done it all a little bit better (don’t well all?). And it is this longing for a different legacy – the gap between what they achieved and what they would have liked to achieve – that forever keeps them in the “bardo,” that space between death and the afterlife. In the end, though, you are left with the belief that we all do the best we can with what we have at the time — a simple message, teeming with empathy, which George Saunders stunningly delivers. This is a book I will reread for years to come, and probably never stop talking about.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
“But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”
This was a reread for me this year — my third time reading this book, each time in one sitting. “Dept. of Speculation” is a stunning and very clever portrait of a marriage. Structurally reminiscent of “Speedboat,” Renata Adler’s immense novel on a woman’s coming of age in New York City, “Dept. of Speculation,” in a similar vein, introduces us to a woman’s insanely smart, profound and funny meditations on intimacy, trust, belief and, more broadly, the friction between domestic life and the demands of art. (“My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”). This is a beguiling, mesmerising book – a truly remarkable achievement from beginning to end. Every reading of it has unearthed new meaning and deep emotional insight.
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
“The writer is neither saint nor tzaddik nor prophet standing at the gate; he’s just another sinner who has a somewhat sharper awareness and uses slightly more precise language to describe the inconceivable reality of our world.”
Another Keret masterpiece. The “seven good years” refers to the seven years between the birth of Keret’s son, Lev, and the death of his father – a precious time during which he was both a son and a father. Every little essay in this memoir is totally brilliant, each teeming with Keret’s characteristic combination of the fantastical and the ordinary. Full of irrepressible humour, Keret writes beautifully about love, through a moving essay on how his parents met; perspective, in the beautiful story of how his father approaches a death-sentence type of cancer; and grief, in his telling of how the three Keret siblings – all extremely different – come together to grieve for their recently departed father. This is Keret’s only non-fiction book, written in English (not Hebrew), and apparently not published in his home country (Israel). I tore through this book in one evening, not able to sleep until I turned over its final page. A wonderful, life-affirming read.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”
While it took me about eight months to finish, I enjoyed every stage of this gargantuan novel of all novels (even Tolstoy’s ruminations on nineteenth century Russian agricultural policy). I found Tolstoy’s ability to get inside anyone’s head quite extraordinary (even, for a good twenty pages, that of a dog), and a real practice of the now well-known benefit of reading literary fiction: the enhancement of empathy – that prized ability to fully embody another being’s experience. I approached “Anna Karenina” as a book about love, though it becomes obvious very quickly that it is about so much more: chance, fate, and human powerlessness in the face of the capricious nature of life. While it was tempting to get sucked into the love between Anna and Vronsky, I was actually most drawn to Dolly and Stiva’s relationship – Anna and Vronsky are so suffocated by their love for each other that it eventually destroys them, and Kitty and Levin are sickly sweet and traditional. But Dolly and Stiva are a true portrait of coupledom: imperfect, often drowned by the obligations of domestic life, yet ultimately accepting of the chaos that inheres a family unit.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”
There is an extraordinary moment in My Name Is Lucy Barton when a famous writer tells the eponymous heroine: “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You will have only one.” This powerful and deeply affecting novel takes place in a hospital room over five days in the 1980s. In the hospital room is Lucy Barton, who is visited by her estranged mother after she suffers complications from what should have been a straight forward surgery. The two begin gossiping about people from Lucy’s childhood in the town of Amgash, Illinois, though this harmless gossip then turns to memories of Lucy’s troubled and deprived upbringing. What follows is Lucy’s attempt to write her own story, despite the unreliability of memory and the overwhelming force of collective denial. I love Strout’s lack of sentimentality and her outright acceptance of the idea that memory, and therefore identity, is unsteady, because what do we really know? And who are we but only a story we write from fleeting — almost destructible — recollections?
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
“What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person.”
It’s a very pleasing thing to read a novel before it is released into the world; not much is more satisfying to a book lover than getting dibs on something not very many people have yet read. So I’m quite greedy when it comes to scoring reading copies: I will take as many as I can. Very few, however, are as magical as “Goodbye, Vitamin,” Rachel Khong’s exceptional debut novel. Ruth’s life is falling apart: Joel, her ex-fiance, broke it off to be with another woman; her career as a sonographer is unsatisfying (she dropped out of medical school to be with aforementioned ex-fiance); and, once she arrives home for Christmas, her mother asks her to stay and help care for her Alzheimer’s-stricken father. What follows is a magical, darkly comic, and truly heartfelt diary-like novel that chronicles Ruth’s life throughout her time at home with her family. Particularly moving are the passages where Ruth reads from a diary her father kept while she was growing up: “Today was my birthday, and you asked me how old I was. When I told you 35 you seemed stunned. You asked me if I started at 1. Then you asked: When do we die?” I will reread this book until Rachel’s next gem comes out.
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
“Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of a dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.”
I have a habit of reading this book at least once a year. Though for reasons I struggle to understand, no reading of it has had such a deep impact as this year’s. “The Emigrants,” Sebald’s most famous novel, documents the lives of four twentieth century Jewish emigres — Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber. With precise and dreamlike prose, Sebald creates a framework for thinking about memory; questioning, I think, the extent to which it is possible for a human being to live with the memory of tremendous pain and suffering. This book seeps into your skin; it lingers far past its last page and, while in bits darkly comic, it is enormously sad.