James’ top five picks for fiction and nonfiction of 2018:
The Overstory My favorite book of the year! Richard Powers has long had a reputation as being a brilliant but perhaps over-geeky writer. A writer seduced by fascinating detail over richness of character. No more. This is a thrilling book about trees and environmentalism. In the first section, Roots, he introduces, one by one, nine characters whose lives will be drawn to, and entwined by, the survival of ancient forests. Each of the nine is fascinating and carries us deeper into Powers’s obsession with why trees must survive. He gathers all the current research about forests, but never at the expense of learning more about these nine disparate and compelling human beings. This is one of the rare books that changes the way you notice the world. Read it. Give it to a friend to read. Pass it on. Listen.
Unsheltered Barbara Kingsolver sets her new bifurcated novel on the same corner of a street in Vineland, New Jersey a century and a half apart. In each time frame the characters feel a huge shift in their worlds and struggle to make sense of it and find a new shape for their lives. One group is living in 2016 as their American dream of feeling safe after working hard for years slowly unravels with job failings and family tensions. Their counterparts, just after the Civil War, get swept up in the fears that the ideas of science and Darwin in particular will unravel the religious dogma that has held America together. The 19th century characters are mostly real people, including an amateur scientist named Mary Trent who shared her discoveries with Darwin through correspondence. Like Richard Powers Kingsolver has found a compelling way to explore a political current in American life. This is a deeply moving book. The twin narratives are filled with struggle, but suffused with stubborn hope.
Asymmetry Lisa Halliday’s wonderful, subtle and complex debut novel is in three parts. In the first a 25 year old assistant editor at a publishing house meets a 70-year-old famous writer on a park bench in 2002. They begin what turns into a 3 year relationship. She aspires to be a writer but has the usual self-doubts of someone at life’s beginning. In a bit over a hundred pages Halliday skillfully traces the ways each matters to the other, and slowly the young woman focuses her dream of “a life of seeing, really seeing the world, and having something novel to say about the view.” The second section transports us to London in 2008 and a young Kurdish-American man detained in customs at Heathrow. Again, over a bit more than a hundred pages we learn his back and present story and his own strivings to engage the world and make a difference to it. In a brief coda many of the books themes coalesce subtly during a “Desert Island Discs” interview with the famous writer in 2011. It is a dazzling debut with the added frisson of knowing that Halliday when she was 25 had a three year romance with Philip Roth. The writer’s voice is clearly Roth, and the book takes on an added poignancy due to Roth’s death last May.
The Silence of the Girls Pat Barker became rightfully famous with her astonishing Regeneration Trilogy set during World War I. In her new book she returns to war. Here she takes The Iliad, a story of fierce men at war and their mostly silent women captives, and makes it mesmerizing again by bringing us the voices of those women. Blunt, brutal, harrowing, tender, it is a remarkable feat of re-invention. It is fascinating and humbling to “hear” again the well established events of the classic text filtered through the eyes of Briseis, a Trojan woman-prize taken from Achilles by Agamemnon, which caused Achilles to stop fighting. This unforgettable novel is a stark reminder of how many stories of war have silenced women’s voices. After this book we must all insist: Never Again!
The Great Believers Rebecca Makkai was short-listed for the National Book Award, and richly deserved it. Her story centers on the mid-1980s Gay community in Chicago as it deals with the initial onslaught of the AIDS crisis. This is the period when gay men were dying at alarming rates, and long before the drug cocktails were developed that have taken away the sentence of death that all received early on if infected. A second strand of the story takes place in France in 2015 where Fiona, the younger sister of one of the men who died in the 1980s, and close friend to several other gay men then, seeks to re-connect with her estranged daughter. Makkai’s book is tender, harrowing, funny, meticulously researched and filled with love. The characters are complex and grant immediate access to the terrors and tenderness of that time. The Paris segments remind us of how far the shadows of any deep loss in our lives reach.
And tied for sixth—
Transcription Kate Atkinson’s new novel is anchored by one of her typically smart, funny and determined women. Juliet Armstrong is her real name, but because much of the book tells of her time working for MI5 in World War II, she is known by a few names. Typical of Atkinson the story jumps back and forth in time, mostly between the war years and 1950. This is a spy novel within a coming-of-age novel, suffused with wit and many literate references that enrich the pleasure of getting lost in its plot. Here is a little taste of Atkinson’s perfect pitch. “Godfrey raised his hat to her. She raised her hand in silent reply. He lifted his cane in acknowledgement. Prospero’s staff, Juliet thought. Godfrey, the Magus. The Master of Ceremonies. As if at a sign, the mist closed around him once more and he disappeared.”
Love Is Blind Like Kate Atkinson, William Boyd can create such a vivid sense of place and time and populate those settings with fascinating character studies, that his books begin to feel like historical memoirs. In his new book his piano-tuning(!) protagonist, Brodie Moncur (a Scot, like Boyd) moves all over Europe between 1894 and 1906. Each place he alights is granted remarkable verisimilitude by Boyd who simultaneously takes us deeper and deeper into Brodie’s complicated life. Boyd is a huge admirer of Chekhov and the book is peopled by characters who could live in Chekhov’s stories. Brodie’s love interest (any more info would spoil things) has a small dog who follows her everywhere. There is a scene on a pier in Nice when Brodie, recovering from tuberculosis, engages a Russian doctor who is also recovering, and talks about the woman and the dog. The doctor asks many quiet questions and it suddenly dawns on you (it is never spoken) that it is Chekhov himself, gathering the events and feelings that will become one of his masterpieces, “The Lady With the Lapdog”. It is one of those moments in a very good book that grants the deepest sort of pleasure.
Fascism Madeleine Albright, former Ambassador to the UN, former Secretary of State, and advisor to Presidents, has written an essential primer about Fascism, the political movement that became the scourge of the 20th century, and has spilled over into the 21st. When she was a young girl in Czechoslovakia her father was a diplomat and she frequently traveled with him and observed his activities. She has spent her entire life witnessing and participating in the wider world seeking to make it wiser, more connected and humane. She has more than earned the right to offer this sharp shot across the bow of all thinking adults. Her style is straightforward because she trusts the potency of her examples. She knows some of the people personally. This is an essential book for our uncomfortable times.
Tyrant This is a hugely enjoyable book despite being a ferocious warning about our current political peril. The nimble Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, deftly uses examples from Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth and Winter’s Tale among others as sharp studies in tyranny, one of Shakespeare’s and his audiences’ obsessions. Greenblatt’s scholarship fuels his passions, the parallels he draws are sobering, and the book a call to action. Here is a taste. “Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting he can do whatever he chooses.” A must read for Shakespeare fans and political junkies.
The Cost of Living Deborah Levy, whose recent novels, Swimming Home and Hot Milk were each short-listed for the Booker Prize, has written her second memoir. It is superb. It begins with the dissolution of her lengthy marriage, and becomes a primer on re-invention. Through finding time and a new location to accomplish her writing, and keeping her teen-aged daughters feeling whole, Levy discovers a successful new way of engaging the world. Always an elegant and blunt observer of interior motives in her fiction, she doesn’t spare herself in her tough but love-filled journey. The book is a wonderfully sly primer on writing and influences. She has become a crucial voice.
Call Them by Their True Names This collection of recent essays by Rebecca Solnit has won the 2018 Kirkus Prize, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. Many of the essays focus on Solnit’s continuing passionate concerns about ecology, race, and financial inequality, but the deepest focus is on language, speaking truthfully and reasonably so progress can be made. She worries our country is in a linguistic crisis where truth and clarity have been disastrously devalued. But as always in her writing and her heart, Solnit believes in hope. In the book’s final essay, “In Praise of Indirect Consequences” she offers many historical examples of protest and demonstrations that seemed to be failures at the time but that silently opened doors that many walked through, sometimes decades later. In that essay she reminds us all that “Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written.”
The Art of the Wasted Day This delicious book is nearly impossible to capture descriptively. It is memoir, it is travelogue, it is biography. It includes many connections to the essays of Montaigne, writing of Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, Colette, Emily Dickinson, Freud and the monk-geneticist Gregor Mendel, among many others. Woven through the book is her late husband of 40 years, Terrance Williams. It is a book about solitude, about grief, about noticing what is around you: taking the time to really notice what you encounter, “because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, the world lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued, comes to life.” The book is in three sections, each fascinating, wry, moving, and illuminating the argument for unstructured time in your life. The third section, entitled, “To Stay” is about a short boat trip down the Mississippi (from St Paul to Prairie du Chien) she took with Terrence on their beat-up Chris Craft. Well, it is about many, many things, but we journey lazily by boat. I could read those fifty pages once a month the rest of my life to smile, to cry, to learn, to notice something new each time.
And tied for sixth—
Leadership in Turbulent Times and American Dialogue Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joseph J. Ellis, two of our most eminent historians (a National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, the Lincoln Prize, and a Carnegie Medal between them) have written books with similar structures: using the past as a way to explore our present. In Leadership, Goodwin takes four Presidents, Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson and examines a moment in their lives as President when a particular sort of leadership rose up in each. Ellis structures his narrative around four seminal ideas in the formation of the country, race, equality, law and foreign engagement. He then choses a leader for each of the ideas. Those four are: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and George Washington. After each section he has a “Now” section where he examines our present circumstances. Whatever your politics, these are important books to remind us where we have been, where we are, and, perhaps, how we might want to move forward. To me the largest quiet lesson is the reminder of why history and knowledge of the county matters if you are aspiring to lead. History, perspective, ideas, discussion, engaged, thoughtful argument, facts. If we are to yearn for a collective dream of an inclusive American life, these books can help us begin.