I’m taking a few days’ break from reading anything new to reflect on what I read last year. I want to reconsider what I liked most about some books I loved and a few others I found promising, but unsatisfying. In these two groups, I’m listing them alphabetically by authors’ last names. I don’t separate so-called fiction from non-fiction; the difference between the two categories is very questionable and some of the books I mention below break such conceptual walls very nicely.
Admired, cherished, enjoyed
You should read these books because they’re awesome and open windows in your head. I picked them from my 2022 reading record at a certain moment. The selection might look different on another day, but I’m sure most of these would find themselves here again. Almost each of these books had passages that I didn’t care for or didn’t quite understand. I know I’ll read a few of them again and may get more out of them. I’m grateful to these authors for holding my cluttered, frizzling attention for hundreds of pages and telling me things I wouldn’t have imagined and seen without their help.
Bettina Alberti: Seelische Trümmer
[Read in German; I can’t find any evidence of an English-language edition, but the title would translate as something like “Psychological Ruins.”]
When I grew up in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, it was just about impossible to get adults to talk about what they had suffered and done during the Nazi regime, the war, and the displacements that came afterwards. You heard incomplete parts of much larger stories, flawed personal judgments, and downright lies. It was enough to understand that you were probably impacted by the experiences of your parents and grandparents, and most of us struggled with this individually. It took many years for society to understand and reveal to itself how people in my generation formed their minds and made their choices in response to their upbringing. The notion of a “fatherless society” emerged quite early, but only went so far. Focusing on the lives of people in the Federal Republic of Germany, Alberti reviews the collective trauma and explains how it was passed down to me and my peers. She offers excerpts from many interviews where people share their stories; I found those especially helpful and illuminating. The book could be painful or else, offer empty hope. It does neither and is a joy to read.
The final sections of Seelische Trümmer touch on what it was like growing up in the separate state of the German Democratic Republic and as the child of Allied military men and German women. These topics deserve more exploration and history writing, particularly when it comes to the experience of “biracial” children. Work is in progress to expose the fates and challenges of Black young people in a racist, white society, and I hope it gathers momentum and visibility.
Quan Barry: When I’m Gone Look for me In the East
What this book has in common with Brenda Lozano’s Brujas, mentioned below, is that one of the protagonists renounces a traditional calling and invents a life of his own. In this book, that person is Mun, who had been identified as the incarnation of a spiritually evolved person in the Mongolian Buddhist tradition. Mun leaves the monastery where he lives and no longer follows Buddhist practice in a conventional manner. However, his twin brother Chuluun, also ordained as a monk and still following that path, needs to rely on Mun to locate, identify, and confirm the incarnation of a renowned spiritual master in a young child. The brothers are closely attuned to each other in a nigh-telepathic connection, but bring different perspectives to life. We follow their unpredictable, expanding journey through vast landscapes and barely penetrable cultures, sharing their wonder and openness to mysterious awareness.
When I’m Gone is an exciting, enjoyable story that helps you get a taste of freedom and trust in the world’s infinitude of experiences and possibilities. In the process, you learn about Mongolian and Buddhist histories and cultures, as well as the ancient, almost inaccessible homeland of the Mongolian empire.
Lily Brooks-Dalton: The Light Pirate
I don’t remember how I found this book or why I decided to buy it in spite of all the warning signs. Maybe I read a helpful review at Los Angeles Review of Books or elsewhere. The Light Pirate was the one book that made me cry this year. A scene with a young man and his father surprised me and offered great emotional intensity in less than a page, and it alone would have been worth the time and cost. This novel achieves strong impact from difficult, circumscribed settings where the characters’ choices and possibilities seem ever more curtailed. Sometimes that makes it read a little like a play by Sartre or Camus. We accompany a child through her process of growing up and discovering what’s still possible, with the guidance of a resourceful older woman who has long prepared for the collapse of civil society during the climate catastrophe. Love is possible, and so is resilience, and both give rise to cautious hope.
A touch of magical realism is mercifully understated and didn’t send me running. Also, this book isn’t your standard coming-of-age yarn, accompanied by flooding. The fascinating, complete personalities and realistically hard situations in which people must adapt and evolve made this story a standout for me.
Jai Chakrabarti: A Play for the End of the World
In the Warsaw ghetto, the educator Janusz Korczak and the children in his care performed a version of a play written a few decades earlier by Rabindranath Tagore. Korczak’s idea might have been to help the children bear their fate and remain strong and unbowed, no matter what was going to happen to them. A young man working with Korczak and a younger boy escape their murder in a Nazi concentration camp and, separately, make their way to New York. People in Bengal preparing a performance of the Tagore play connect with the older man, who travels to India and dies there. The novel’s protagonist is the younger survivor, who retraces his friend’s steps and becomes briefly involved with the same group of political activists. We also see how he reaches his limits as he attempts to build a relationship with a woman and hope that, in spite of everything, he may not just get by, but thrive.
I always felt that Tagore, who had so much insight and creativity to offer, is unjustly forgotten and underrated today, when only small portions of his work are available in musty-sounding, antiquated translations, and that Korczak should be somebody everyone knows about. Chakrabarti weaves his story hanging off their shoulders, so to speak, so you can approach them and engage. The artfulness in presenting the main characters, the shifting locales across continents, and several wonderful smaller figures made me want to stand up and give this book a long standing ovation.
Martin Gregor-Dellin: Richard Wagner: Sein Leben, sein Werk, sein Jahrhundert
[Read in German; translated as “Richard Wagner: His Life, His Work, His century.”]
I was reconsidering Richard Wagner and listened to some of his work as presented in excellent, semi-staged performances by Opera North in Leeds, free on YouTube. I had enjoyed Gregor-Dellin’s empathetic biography of the underrated, genial Heinrich Schütz, so I confidently ordered this one. It turned out to be one of the best things I ever read. You learn about Wagner and the people in his world as complex, fascinating individuals, rooted in their cultures and histories. Wagner’s antisemitism and egocentricity can make him hard to digest, some of his operas practically beg for parody and ridicule, and his life story is painful and improbable. But he could also be funny, courageous, and wise, and his music, to my ears, is often powerful, gorgeous, and extremely well-made. Gregor-Dellin presents as complete a portrait of the artist as a written work possibly can. He folds in vignettes and biographical sections about Berlioz, Brahms, Liszt, and other composers, and also paints lively, individualized portraits of the artists who first brought Wagner’s music dramas into the world, as well as the supporters and fellow travelers who helped the artist, learned from him, or clashed with him.
The book is from 1980 and still reads fresh. I can easily imagine somebody completely unfamiliar with Wagner reading and enjoying it as a novel that brings the 19th century to brilliant life.
Jennifer Haigh: Mercy Street
It seems absurd to say that a novel around women’s healthcare services and abortion issues was fun to read, but this book definitely was. You accompany a care counselor through her days at work in a Boston clinic and see what her life is like. You meet several lost souls who are connected to her, cross paths with her, or try to destroy her work. You know where the author’s sympathies lie, but her empathy is limitless—all characters in this book are believable, fully developed figures, not message-bearing clichés. The book’s drama is quiet and unforgiving. It doesn’t get resolved, but goes on day after day. If the worst doesn’t happen because an accident gets in the way of an attack on the clinic, there’s no happy ending, either. The work just has to continue, because the cost of the services being disrupted or not available anymore would be incredibly high. You, reader, probably know this, but it’s different if you see the women who come to the clinic and depend on it. You broaden your perspective and acquire some of the author’s empathy.
I usually shy away from books that are hyperbolically praised and featured in best-of lists and the like. Luckily, I wasn’t aware of the buzz around Mercy Street when I read it.
Linda Hirshman: The Color of Abolition
In his autobiographies, Frederick Douglass talks about his relationships with William Lloyd Garrison and Maria Weston Chapman, and the fabulous biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight also discusses them. Linda Hirshman focuses more closely on the interactions and shared histories of these three. While the accomplishments of Douglass and Garrison, their collaboration, and their eventual rift are well known, Weston Chapman has been mostly overlooked. However, she was hugely successful in raising funds and building momentum for the cause of abolition; this book goes a long way toward giving her due consideration as an agent of history.
Back then, maybe even his closest friends and allies didn’t always understand the unique genius and power of Frederick Douglass. We get to watch and listen as both Garrison and Weston Chapman attempt and fail to make him fit into their ideas of a freed former slave and how best to combat slavery. They traverse a range of negative emotions and painful attachments before they come to a kind of acceptance and can engage in a more mature collaboration.
The Color of Abolition demonstrates that brave, smart, flawed people who seem to be in disagreement or even stall each other can still influence events and achieve incredible outcomes. In so far, the book might inspire realistic hope. The writing is never less than engaging and lively; the sourcing of quotes and facts is impeccable.
Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann: Die Serapionsbrüder
[Read in German; translated as “The Serapion Brethren” in several hard-to-find, multi-volume editions.]
This is a huge collection that includes some of Hoffmann’s most exciting, well-known, and strangest writing. What made this more than a fabulous compendium for me were the framing conversations among the friends who read the stories to each other. They ruthlessly criticize pages you just enjoyed, point out the merits of some hard-to-follow and painful episodes, question the motivations of writers and their characters, and make you think about why and how you read what you read. You, the reader, receive some help in taking yourself and your literature less seriously than you might be used to. You also get to wonder and think about illusion and reality and how they’re different.
Brenda Lozano: Brujas
[Read in Spanish; translated as “Witches.”]
A more conventional novel would make a lot more noise about the muxe featured here. In the Zapotec culture of Oaxaca, Mexico, muxes are people who are born male but eventually grow toward more female-like personalities and preferences. They dress like women and use female names, but are really a gender of their own. Paloma, the muxe in Brujas, learned about indigenous traditions of healing and insight in her earlier life as Gaspar, but largely removes herself from these practices. A little like Mun in When I’m Gone Look for me In the East, featured above, Paloma wants to live a more ordinary life and have sexual relationships that suit her. However, she passed on her knowledge to Feliciana, who narrates her own life and insights. Feliciana shares her story with Zoé, a journalist who pursues her inquiries after Paloma’s murder. In alternating chapters, we follow Zoé’s life journey and that of her daring, unconventional sister.
Brujas is quietly, benignly unsettling. Most events may be quiet and undramatic, but you never quite know what to expect, where the magic is, and why. I know I will read this book again, because I probably missed nuances and connections the first time around.
Nina McLaughlin: Wake, Siren
Ovid’s Metamorphoses can be enjoyable to read and offer many beautiful, seductive legends and myths, but the relentless rape, domination, and cruel treatment of women can completely ruin the experience. Nina McLaughlin helps right the balance by giving many of them their own voices, personalities, motivations, and interests. They emerge as powerful, fascinating, sometimes fearsome characters who are more complex and nuanced than many of the gods and heroic figures in Ovid’s spotlight. McLaughlin doesn’t uproot them from their world and refrains from turning cruel, dark stories into glad tidings, but they gain interest and dimension.
You can’t simply accept the world as handed to you by the great writers and thinkers, you have to get creative on your behalf and invent what you need to exist. That’s what many of the fearless women in Wake, Siren do, no matter what consequences they face. It’s also what we readers need to be ready for if we don’t want to live second-hand lives.
Rebecca Solnit: Orwell’s Roses
Christopher Hitchens and others have made a strong case for the relevance of Orwell’s work in our time. His essay “Politics and the English Language” is deservedly famous, some others are at least as good, and “1984” is ubiquitous. But there’s much of Orwell that’s overlooked and almost forgotten, and Rebecca Solnit helps us understand and appreciate him also as a gardener, father, builder. Orwell’s insight and experience could easily have led him into despair and resignation. But he never gave up, never turned dark and cynical, never lost hope. George Orwell and uncompromising, resilient, lovable people like him are who we need today as our natural environment is in danger of collapsing and powerful forces in politics are hellbent on turning back the clock.
Similar to other writings by Solnit, this one is a thoughtful, unhurried journey where you can take your time to think and make discoveries at your pace. Without being naïve or simplistic, Solnit makes it possible for readers to delve into Orwell’s world and thought on their way to healing and gathering their strength.
These are all very fine books worth many readers’ time and attention. But, mostly for reasons of my own limited experience and patience, I found them dull, silly, and underdeveloped. It’s certainly possible that I misunderstood and missed things, and that these writings would read differently if I were to revisit them.
Adriana Barton: Wired for Music
I could relate to the author’s struggles with the unhealthy discipline of studying an instrument (the cello, which I also played) and her sense of the stilted backwardness of much of the classical-music culture. But I thought both her criticisms and the descriptions of her exposure to other musical traditions were superficial and patronizing. The best part of this book came in the end notes, where she identifies interesting research and reflection.
Peter Brook: Seduced by Story
Based on the author’s introduction and reviews I saw, I thought this book was going to discuss how naïve and crude story-telling helps businesses, politicians, and organizations manipulate people. Instead, it touched on those concepts just very lightly and then went into a discussion of narrative strategies and authors that I didn’t find interesting at all. It seemed like an associative rumination on literature on a conservative reader’s Sunday morning in 1951.
Lily Brooks-Dalton: Good Morning, Midnight
I was enthused by the author’s The Light Pirate (see above) and wanted to see what her previous novel was like. It was tedious and felt extremely long and rote. In alternating chapters you read about a mission returning from Saturn and about a scientist who decides to stay in the arctic after his research station is abandoned and all other participants evacuate. A never-unwrapped catastrophe has silenced the human world. The old man in the arctic and a woman on the craft returning to Earth briefly make contact, then lose touch. The reader likely figures out their relationship early on, but probably won’t anticipate that exactly nothing happens and that the book’s minimal events will continue to go and on at a glacial pace until they suddenly trickle to a stop.
I didn’t see the film based on this book.
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment
I read this novel a few times over the decades, first in German, then in English translations. I remember a time when I was broke and could barely stand the intense descriptions of the protagonist’s poverty and despair. But this time, I thought Crime and Punishment was mostly silly. People have convenient brain fevers, women faint, certain ideas are regurgitated over and over, and any number of high-pathos, risible events collide. A couple of intriguing second-tier figures were the leading lights for me this time around. Through them, it becomes possible to ask questions about justice, crime, guilt, and reality. Somebody should give them their own treatments in long-form writing.
When I read this novel, I also felt that maybe the translations by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, which used to sound so lively and authentic, are showing their limits, or maybe they’re aging and revealing certain foibles and preferences that might be in the way of the authentic text. Maybe it’s time for a younger generation of translators to try their skills with Dostoyevsky and other Russian writers.
David Graeber and David Wengrow: The Dawn of Everything
I love the idea that our understanding and teaching of history is beholden to the status quo of the power relationships in our societies. We don’t see and explore histories and societies that weren’t built on power and domination, or at least not exclusively. The authors make a strong case for alternate, more benign visions of history, and their chapters about Teotihuacan and other locales and their societies are illuminating and enjoyable. However, the book also comes with gigantic amounts of circular reasoning, regurgitating, and belaboring that I found exhausting. It made me wish for an editor who could have cut all the needless material. The in-your-face, we’re-so-smart, we’re-so-different writing style grates and doesn’t make reading easier. I never figured out what the hyperbolic title relates to, if anything. The Dawn of Everything is still worthwhile if you ruthless skip chapters once you get the authors’ main points and read just the ones you find interesting.
Hervé le Tellier: L’Anomalie
[Read in French; translated as “The Anomaly.”]
A most intriguing idea: what happens when the same flight, with the same passengers and crew, arrives at its destination a second time? This would have been perfect as a novella or short story. But the episodes around individual travelers feel drawn out and the questioning thought behind the surface events soon trickles away and vanishes as the story gets in the way of the author’s ideas.