The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Without a doubt, The Sellout is one of the most convicting novels I have ever read. Set in south Los Angeles County in an impoverished community with a farm, the story covers racism, comedy, subsistence farming, the Little Rascals, the (in)justice system, and a slew of other subjects. The main character, a black farmer raised by a controversial sociologist, attempts to reinstitute segregation in hopes of giving hope back to the black community. Favorite line: “It’s illegal to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, right?” “It is.” “Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
McBride’s novel is a fictive retelling of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. The narrative follows a young male black child who pretends to be a girl after meeting John Brown in order to avoid hard work and violence. The story is gripping to such a degree that I nearly read the entire thing in one sitting.
The Work of Theology by Stanley Hauerwas
Hauerwas’ new collection of essays is the closest thing to listening to him lecture at Duke Divinity School. Collected in an all encompassing format, the essays show Hauerwas’ attempt to wrestle with important subjects from how he thinks he learned to think theologically, to how to write a theological sentence, to how to be theologically funny (though other essays are actually funnier than the one on being funny). It is quintessentially Hauerwas and worthy of anyone wanting to know what it means to be theological.
Hear The Wind Sing / Pinball 1970 by Haruki Murakami
For years Murakami resisted the demands of publishers and fans for an English version of his debut novels. Written while he owned and operated a jazz bar in Tokyo, he claims that it took him two novels to figure out how to really write, and he describes A Wild Sheep Chase to be his first true novel. However, this year his first two stories were published in English together in one volume. It is clear that Murakami is learning his voice through these narratives, but as an avid fan of his work, is was a joy to see the beginnings of his imagination at play.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Full disclosure: This was my third attempt to read David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. The first two times I would get through 50-100 pages and just give up. It is a struggle. With footnotes that propel the story forward but also drive the reader crazy, you have to really work to get through this thing. But if you can, it’s worth it. It is impossible to describe Infinite Jest in a way that does the thing justice, and that’s kind of the point. It is at times comedic, tragic, political, geographical, historic, and absurdist. If you have the time and patience to make it through, it will change the way you look at literature.
Also: the all-too-brief section describing the game of Eschaton is incredible.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
Graphic-novels were a new thing for me this year. I read through all the great Batman works by the likes of Frank Miller, Jeff Loeb, and Alan Moore, but the one graphic-novel that continues to stay in my mind is The Complete Maus. Written and drawn by the son of a holocaust survivor, Maus tells the story of a man’s survival and destruction. Spiegelman’s use of animals to portray human characters makes the story approachable while also making the subject matter completely jarring. Spiegelman’s graphic novel is one that demands to be read in order to remind us of how quickly prejudice can lead to violence.
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen
Larsen’s follow-up to the incredible debut novel of The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, is about a black child named Radar Radmanovic born to white parents. While at first the giant novel seems like at attempt to bridge racial tensions, it really avoids the subject altogether. Instead the narrative is about Radar’s father and the way that art can change the soul regardless of whether anyone is there to observe it. Additionally, Larsen’s use of fictive footnotes to books that do not exist draws the reader into a total world within, and outside of, the story.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Flanagan’s story is not for the faint of heart. There were times that I wanted stop reading because it was just too sad. The novel jumps time periods in Dorrigo Evan’s life from his childhood in Australia, to his love affair as a young soldier, to his work on the Burma Railway as a POW in 1943, to the effects of life after the war. Flanagan resists the temptation to stay with one narrator and shows both sides to every story within the novel, leaving the reader helpless to determine who was right or wrong, or whether we should even use those qualifiers to describe ourselves.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Doerr’s novel deserves all of the strong reviews and awards it received this year. Set before, during, and immediately after World War II it follows a young boy who winds up fighting for the Germans, and a young blind woman struggling to survive in France. As their individual stories eventually come together, the reader beholds a beautiful and haunting novel about what it really takes to “see” the other.
Life After Life / A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson
I have collected the two novels as one because they really inform one another. The first portrays a young British woman living through World War II and the many ways that she dies. Every time she comes to the end of her life, whether from a disease or a bomb, the story starts over and the young woman makes minor changes to her life in order to avoid the previous outcome. It is unlike anything else I have read. The second novel follows the girl’s brother as an RAF pilot during the war and his attempts to find a normal life in post-war Europe. Atkinson’s characterization shows an author at the top of her game, and I can’t wait to see what else she puts out in the years to come.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir