I first stumbled upon Svetlana Alexievich’s work about ten years ago, when I visited the library and randomly picked up a copy of her brilliant Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of Nuclear Disaster. Of course, Alexievich has been around much longer than that; Voices from Chernobyl was published 20 years ago, and she’s been chronicling Soviet history for decades now. She garnered a lot of critical acclaim in 2013 with Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, and I finally made the connection between her and Voices from Chernobyl when she won the well-deserved 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her unique way of blending a chorus of voices into her oral history storytelling.
Luckily, that Nobel Prize has created a push for her works to be republished and translated for broader audiences. Her first book, The Unwomanly face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, was first published in 1985. It was recently translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and published in hardcover in the United States about a month ago. The introduction includes journal excerpts from the years she spent collection the oral histories, but it also includes newer insights and a few clips that the censors had taken out of the original version.
Do you go by Deborah? It sounds so uptight. I bet you hate Debbie. I hate Debbie, too.
Jack calls you Deb.
This is a letter about Jack.
I began sleeping with your husband last June. We were together for seven months, almost as long as I’ve known him.
Julie Pierpont’s debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, opens with a devastating letter from a lover scorned. The letter is placed on top of a stack of printed correspondence spanning the duration of the affair and left with the doorman of Deb’s building. But instead of going to Deb, the package makes its way into the hands of her curious eleven-year-old daughter, Kay, a sensitive girl who is bullied at school. Her father’s sexually explicit emails stun Kay, as do his occasional references to his wife and children: he actually talked about them — about her — to The Other Woman.
It doesn’t take long before Kay shares everything with her fifteen-year-old brother, Simon, a moody teen who’s desperate to be seen as an adult. He, in a fury, automatically takes the damning evidence to his mother and expects her to immediately file for divorce. She doesn’t: she’s horrified that the children read those emails and she’s furious at Jack, but she’s hit with so much so fast that she needs time to figure out what to do.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2012
Narrator: Tim Kang with Josiah D. Lee & James Kyson Lee
Length: 19 hrs, 22 minutes
What it is: Growing up in a North Korean work camp for orphans, Jun Do manages to rise from the humblest ranks in life to one of the highest, eventually even encountering the terrifying the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il. How he gets there is almost farcical, but the one thing keeping him grounded is his undying love for a beautiful actress named Sun Moon, whose career the Dear Leader is bent on destroying.
Why I listened to it: Since it won the 2013 Pulitzer, it was part of my Pulitzer Project for this year.
What I thought: This book is the literary equivalent of “Go big or go home.” And damn. Johnson went for it. The book generated a lot of buzz when it was released, but for some reason, I just never had the desire to read it. I picked up the audiobook shortly after it won the Pulitzer, not really knowing what to expect. I got lost a couple of times because it’s a lot to wrap one’s head around via audiobook, but more than anything, I was transfixed by Jun Do’s nightmarish conundrums. The Orphan Master’s Son is a clever and ambitious project that basically just blows everything else out of the water; I’ve never read anything else quite like it. So much of the book centers on identity, right down to the protagonist’s name — Jun Do…John Doe? — and though the book is almost dystopian in nature, it clings to some of the most basic tenets of human nature, particularly love.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
Publisher/Year: Sarah Crichton Books, 2012
What it is: Before Terry Tempest Williams’s mother died, she told her daughter, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” That request was honored, and after her mother died, a grief-stricken Tempest Williams went to her mother’s journals to find some solace. What she found instead were three shelves full of blank journals. As time passed, she felt at turns angry, devastated, betrayed, and completely mystified as to what kind of message her mother had wanted to send her. The book is comprised of fifty-four variations — meditations of sorts — in which Tempest Williams imagines the message(s) her mother was trying to convey.
Why I read it: It sounded intriguing.
What I thought: Some parts were hit-or-miss for me. It took me a while to get into the book; there’s no denying the poetic beauty of the author’s writing — and at times, the chapters consist of straight-up poetry…but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a terribly poetry-minded person. That said, there were parts of the book that I wanted to copy down at length to savor later (and, in a couple of instances, I did just that).
It was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the fiction category. It made the final cut for the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards. It’s basically on like…every Best Of list out right now. And even before all that? There was the nonstop buzz around the book when it was published. And I bit. I borrowed Tenth of December from the library a couple of times, but it went back unread each time. So finally, at the end of the year, I was determined to get this thing squared away.
This was my first encounter with George Saunders (and I’m the kind of person who picks up random books without fully examining — or even reading — the summary). I had no idea what I was getting into.
Talk about a What the hell am I reading? moment.
There’s some David Foster Wallace-type strangeness going on in this book. And much like my reaction to DFW, some of the writing in Tenth of December blew me away while other parts just didn’t work quite work out for me. The stories are dark and weird but also optimistic and hopeful; it’s a difficult mix to pull off, but Saunders (mostly) does it.
I think the thing I admired the most about his work was the shocking effect he leaves you with when he switches narrators. You’re exposed to this immediately with the first story, “Victory Lap;” the two young narrators, each with their own distinct voice, have fanciful inner lives that probably make their daily reality much more entertaining. Then something happens that introduces some actual drama into their lives.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Publisher/Year: Random House, 2012
Narrator: Jim Broadbent
Length: 9 hrs, 57 minutes
What it is: Harold Fry has recently resigned himself spending the rest of his days in quiet retirement with his wife, even though their relationship has been strained for some time. One day, he receives a letter from an old friend he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is dying; she’s in a hospice and is just writing to say goodbye. He writes a reply and walks to the post office to drop it off, but instead of stopping, he keeps walking; he’s suddenly become convinced that he needs to deliver the letter to Queenie in person — if he walks those six hundred miles across England, Queenie will live.
Why I listened to it: Lots of people were raving about it last year, plus it was longlisted for the 2012 Booker.
What I thought: I’ll admit I was a little hesitant about this one at first. The guy walks? For 600 miles? And that’s…it? But no, that’s not it. Though a lot of the plot is internal (Harold does have a lot of time on his hands to think about things, after all), the novel becomes a beautiful exploration of haunting regrets and new connections. Harold knows that this pilgrimage to Queenie is illogical. She’s dying, after all, and he’s old — it’ll take ages to get to her on foot. Nonetheless, it’s a journey he needs to make. I also adore Jim Broadbent and think it was genius to have him narrate the audiobook: he’s quiet and sad and contemplative and perfect.
You might also like: Building Stories by Chris Ware because of the way it explores its character’s past.
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Publisher/Year: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012
What it is: Rollrock Island is a beautiful, isolated place where people work hard and live modestly. But the witch Misskaella knows something no one else does: inside the seals that inhabit the island live the most beautiful women anyone has ever seen; the women can be pulled out of their seal bodies with magic. For a price, Misskaella will capture one of these women, hide her seal skin so she can’t get away, and hand her off to her eager husband-to-be. Let’s just say bad things happen when every single man on the island begins thinking with the wrong head.
Why I read it: Because Margo Lanagan. Nuff said.
What I thought: OOOOOOMG. This book is weird, cruel, unsettling, and reaaaaaally addictive. It took me a while to get into it because of the characters’ dialect. Each chapter is written from a different point of view, so it also took a while to fall into the rhythm of the book. But once I did, I couldn’t put it down. I respect Lanagan tremendously for her ability to create these ethereal worlds and tackle some of the more sinister aspects of human nature in entirely believable ways. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.
You might also like: The Color Master by Aimee Bender since it also deals with dark fairy-tale/myth retellings.