by Madhu Kaza
My reading schedule has little to do with the publishing industry's calendar of launches, prizes and promotions. When I look back on a year's worth of reading I note that much of what I read was not hot off the presses. My year end list of favorite books mostly includes works that were published in previous years. One great thing about books, though, is that for the most part they stick around. Whether they are on my own shelves or at the library I depend on them to live out long lives and wait for me.
Here are a few books that I loved this year:
Marie NDiaye, Self-Portrait in Green (English Translation: 2014, Jordan Stump)
Marie NDiaye is a boss writer; she does what she wants. Apparently she had agreed to write a memoir. It's
thrilling to see how she shattered genre expectations to create a strange, surreal and devastating portrait of women in this book.
In the opening pages the narrator sees a mysterious ghost-like woman in green by a banana tree from her car. She is dropping off her children at school. The children are described as docile. The narrator writes of their bodies: “a golden dust floats above their heads. Their foreheads are curved and serene, their napes still pale . . . my children's arms & legs are bare, because the air is warm, intoxicating.” It's all kind of eerie as if this were the beginning of a horror narrative.
The women in green figures proliferate and the book proceeds through confusion, misrecognition, transmogrification. Early on the narrator writes, “That's when I run into Cristina, but as soon as I see her I'm not sure it's her rather than Marie-Gabrielle or Alison… If this woman really is Cristina, I remember that she's my friend.” Cristina may also turn out to be a woman in green, not a phantasm exactly but not an ordinary woman (or conventional realist character) either. Self-Portrait in Green is full of playful, intriguing passages like this one.
I didn't know precisely what to make of the book when I finished it. I didn't know what the various women in green added up to. But I did know that I had read a beautifully written, strange and visionary work that I would need to read again.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (English Translation: 2012, Ann Goldstein)
What everybody else said.
The Neapolitan Novels have been huge this year with the release of the last installment, The Story of the Lost Child. I read all four of the books this year, but My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series was my favorite reading experience.
In fact, I had vehemently disliked Ferrante's earlier book Days of Abandonment, but when a friend nevertheless suggested that I take My Brilliant Friend with me on a summer trip to Italy (my first), I did. One thing that impressed me about my visit to Rome was a certain aggression I noticed in the locals. I saw strangers yelling at each other in a grocery store, on the street, on a city bus. I understood just enough Italian to get the gist of the arguments if not the subtleties of the insults. Mostly they were arguing over nothing, and I got the sense that the people I had witnessed enjoyed their spite to some degree. The aggression was oddly compelling to me, since I had come to Italy from France, where hostility is often expressed through a northerly politeness.
I never made it to Naples, the city at the heart of My Brilliant Friend, but having just left Rome when I began reading it, I connected with the much more intense meanness and aggression of the Neapolitan world it described. Lenu the narrator and her best friend Lila grow up in a poor, violent neighborhood. Not even their dolls are happy. So much in the world is like this I thought, and by this I meant hostile to girls. Among other things, the book reminded me of stories I'd heard of my mother's childhood. There was something so clarifying and honest in the brutality that Ferrante depicts, and I was at my happiest this summer while absorbed in her terrible world.
Banana Yoshimoto, The Lake (English Translation: 2011, Michael Emmerich)
A friend had recommended this book years earlier and finally for rather unliterary reasons (it's light in weight and I had an already heavy bag packed for my commute so I grabbed it from the shelf) I began reading it. I had enjoyed Yoshimoto's early works, but sometime around the collection Asleep I lost interest. The Lake reminded me of what I love in Yoshimoto's work: a combination of sincerity and spareness, quirkiness and austerity, magic and melancholy. The love story between the narrator Chihiro and her odd neighbor and boyfriend Nakajima is anchored in a deeper story about the love and loss of mothers.
Here's an early passage in which Chihiro remembers her dead mother:
All throughout my childhood, whenever my eyes fluttered open at night, my mom would be there, giving my bare stomach a gentle pat, rearranging my pajamas, spreading the blanket over me. How many times had I seen her do this?
This is what it means to be loved . . . when someone wants to touch you, to be tender . . . My body still remembers that feeling, even now. My body does not know how to respond to fake love. I guess that's what it means to have been brought up well.
Mom let me see you once more, I prayed. I want to touch you. To smell your smell.
Like this passage the book as a whole is unapologetically earnest; but it's not sentimental. Yoshimoto's prose is plain. And ultimately the story of Chihiro and Nakajima's adventure to the lake, their relationship and the enigma of Nakajima himself is strange enough that it casts a spell that is both wondrous and sorrowful at the same time.
Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine (2002)
I picked up Otsuka's novel for a few dollars at a used bookstore. I'd long admired Otsuka's restrained, attentive writing but had never read this book, her first. It tells the story of the internment of a Japanese-American family during World War II. Thoroughly researched, it's an elegantly structured and keenly observed novel that makes space for tenderness, humor, bitterness, fear, sorrow and a touch of fury.
When the Emperor Was Divine was published just after the attacks September 11th during a period of intensifying Islamophobia in the U.S.; given the pitch of fear and hatred in our country now, Otsuka's book, about the wholesale detention of a civilian population stemming from paranoia, seems as resonant as ever:
Every week they heard new rumors.
The men and women would be put into separate camps. They would be sterilized. They would be stripped of their citizenship. They would be taken onto the high seas and then shot. They would be sent to a desert island and left there to die. They would all be deported to Japan. They would never be allowed to leave America. They would be held hostage until every last American POW got home safely. They would be turned over to the Chinese for safekeeping right after the war.
You've been brought here for your own protection they were told.
It was all in the interest of national security.
It was a matter of military necessity.
It was an opportunity for them to prove their loyalty.
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015)
Because memory – not gravity – pins us to this trembling. And when God first laid eyes on us, She went mad from envy. Because if the planet had a back door, we'd all still be there – waiting for the air to approve our entry. Because your eyes were the only time the peonies said yes to me. Because no matter how many times I died, I always woke up again – happy.
from “The Body in August”
I'm most excited about the wonderful books I haven't even imagined encountering yet, but here a few I'm looking forward to reading in 2016:
Mercè Rodoreda, War, So Much War (English Translation: Fall 2015, Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent)
Coleen J. McElroy, Blood Memory (Spring 2016)
Rita Indiana, Papi (English Translation: Spring 2016, Achy Obejas)
Aracelis Girmay, The Black Maria (Spring 2016)