I read a lot of really great nonfiction books in 2016! I actually think I had better luck with nonfiction than fiction. The first three listed are my top three favorites; everything is listed in alphabetical order.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
When Breath Becomes Air focuses on Kalinithi’s a career as a neurosurgeon, which was cut short by a rare and terminal form of lung cancer. The memoir — which he was still striving to complete at the time of his death — offers reflections on life and death. In doing so, he reflects on past interactions with patients who had been on the receiving end of bad news that came from him. It’s a gorgeous book.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (2016)
Mixing memoir, biography, and art history, Olivia Laing explores the different meanings of loneliness in New York City through the lives of different artists who lived there. The essays offer beautiful, elegant explorations of human interactions (or the lack thereof).
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder (2016)
Steeped in dark humor, So Sad Today is a collection of autobiographical essays by Melissa Broder. She writes about her struggles with extreme anxiety low, self-esteem, and addiction, but she also throws in some off-the-wall essays about sex and relationships. There’s one essay in there revolving around sexting that had me going, “This woman is completely nuts. I love her.”
In 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was a college student in Boston studying Renaissance architecture. She and her sister decided to treat themselves to a trip to Florence, Italy during Christmas break. She writes of the experience:
What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems, strangely, familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.
That feeling never left, and throughout the following years, she tried her best to become fluent in Italian. As anyone who has tried to achieve fluency knows, that’s almost impossible without full immersion — and even then, achieving true fluency in another language gets more difficult as one gets older. So in 2012, Lahiri took a yearlong leave from her teaching duties in the United States and moved to Rome with her family, determined to finally become fluent. She read books in Italian at a painstakingly slow pace, stopping constantly to look words up in the dictionary, and in her journal, she jotted down her thoughts in Italian as well.
Subhash and Udayan Mitra are two brothers growing up in Calcutta. When they were children, they were inseparable and often got into mischief together. As they come of age in 1960s India, their paths begin to diverge.
Subhash is the obedient, studious one. He plans to go to the United States and study to become a scientist, then come home like a good son and marry the woman that his parents have chosen for him. Udayan, on the other hand, is rebellious and is drawn to helping fix the inequalities he sees in India. He’s drawn to the burgeoning Naxalite movement, a Communist-inspired uprising, much to the chagrin of his conservative family. Their concern is warranted; as the Naxalites begin committing acts of violence in the name of their ideals, the government responds with brutal crackdowns. While Subhash is falling in love with academia and the peaceful isolation of Rhode Island, his brother is trying to avoid arrest.
We live in a world in which industry “best of” lists routinely ignore overlook women and people of color in favor of middle-aged white men and the occasional middle-aged white woman. I guess, in Anis Shivani’s eyes, that means women and people of color are, by default, totally craptastic.
In his recent HuffPo article, “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers,” Shivani goes off on 15 writers. 9 of the 15 listed are women. Of the remaining 6 men, 1 is Dominican (Junot Diaz) and 1 is Jewish (Jonathan Safran Foer).
I’m sure we all have our own lists of overrated people–I know I do–but Shivani’s list egregiously dismisses POC writers, it seems, solely because they write from a POC point of view. A sample of his arguments:
On Amy Tan (heading: “Mothers and Daughters and Dirty Laundry”):
Empowered other immigrant writers to make mountains out of the molehills of their minor adjustment struggles.
Jonathan Safran Foer (heading: “Idiot Savants and Suave Idiots”):
Debuted with harmless multiculturalism for the perennially bored in Everything Is Illuminated, with cute lovable foreigners and the slacker generation digging lovableness; a more pretentious “magical realist” novel was never written.
Jhumpa Lahiri (heading: “Nationalities and Meritocracies”):
Utterly unwilling (though probably fully capable, since she’s the only readable writer on this list) to write about anything other than privileged Bengali immigrants with PhDs living in Cambridge’s Central and Inman Squares, and making easy adjustments to the top of the American meritocratic pyramid.
Junot Diaz (heading: “Hijas and Abuelas”):
Doesn’t realize the fine line between presenting the dark underside of reality and glorifying it…His manic voice describes everything with the same faux energy, the ear-shattering ghetto volume, as though there were no difference between murder and puking.
Michiko Kakutani (heading: “Chekhovian and Forsterian”):
Not a writer, by any stretch of even my novelistic imagination, but I include her here as the enabler-in-chief for the preceding mediocrities. Simply the worst book critic on the planet. [His example of why she’s on the list: she praised Junot Diaz].
Immigrant writers make mountains out of molehills? Diaz writes with “ear-shattering ghetto volume?” Say what you will about these authors (I’m not exactly a Foer fan myself), but are you fucking kidding me with this racist bullshit?
But fear not! Shivani listed some authors who deserve your praise (and deserved the Pulitzer, unlike Lahiri and Diaz): Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Henry Miller.
Hmm…lots of white men who wrote dudebooks. Color me surprised.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake is a novel about family ties, heritage, and generational divides. The book begins with Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, newlywed Bengali immigrants, attempting to assimilate into their new life in New England. Ashima in particular has a hard time coping with the new way of life, but the couple slowly builds a growing network of Bengali friends over the years. When the couple has a son, Ashoke chooses to name him Gogol, both in reference to his favorite author and the circumstances surrounding a life-changing train accident he experienced as a young man.
Growing up, Gogol Ganguli does everything in his power to distance himself from his name and his heritage. He and his sister are fully Americanized, slowly letting go of their Indian traditions as they get older. Gogol particularly tries to rebel against his parents’ ways. Embarrassed by his name, he even changes it before leaving for college. He spends the rest of his early adulthood in a tug of war with his past, resisting it, then gradually becoming more appreciative of it as he experiences more of life.
The book is different from the film; the film version changes some parts of the story and is a lot tidier in certain regards. I’m a huge fan of Lahiri’s work largely because of her ability to capture grief and loneliness on the page (two things The Namesake is full of). While I love seeing the ways she incorporates Bengali culture into her work, I love a good sad, messy story even more.
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation is one of my favorite “reads” so far this year (I listened to it on audiobook). It’s a story about a young girl, Kimberly Chang, who immigrates to the United States with her mother from Hong Kong. The two work in a sweatshop for Kimberly’s aunt and uncle as they struggle to pay the couple back for numerous expenses, such as bringing them to the U.S. Kimberly and her mother wind up living in a roach- and rat-infested apartment in Brooklyn, barely making enough to scrape by. The book follows their hardships over the course of the next several years.
The culture shock and struggles with poverty are palpable throughout the novel. Like many immigrant children, a lot of responsibility falls of Kimberly. She knows a little bit of English, while her mother knows none. As such, it is up to Kimberly to translate everything for her mother. She also must help her mother out at the sweatshop, where they make 1½ cents per completed garment. Additionally, she feels a lot of pressure to succeed in school so that she can go to college and create a better life for her mother.
Kwok is a gifted storyteller. I loved her use of Chinese sayings throughout the book. She also does a great job of conveying the language barriers that someone whose first language was not English might experience. The book is classified as adult fiction, but I can also easily see it being classified as young adult fiction (in fact, if I get a job as a high school English teacher, I would definitely add this to my class bookshelf, because it’s just as much a coming-of-age story as it is a story about the immigrant experience).