It’s time once again for the much-anticipated Mike Littwin pre-holiday, last-minute shoppers’ guide to books I’ve read over the past year.
First, though, I have some disappointing news, for which, as always, I blame Donald Trump. Going back through the books I read in 2016, I found, shockingly, that I had read hardly any.
It turns out that in the disastrous year of The Donald, I became so addicted to the story that I forgot to do anything else. Constantly staying current on everything that happened in the crazy presidential race was not only brain numbing, it was brain deadening. I read somewhere — you see what’s happened; I can’t even remember where — that news flashes are like brightly colored candies for the brain. And the thing is, after everything I’ve read or seen or heard — which is pretty much everything in newspapers, magazines, news sites, on NPR and TNT (somehow I did find time for the NBA and Charles Barkley’s trenchant political observations) — I still have no idea how or why Trump was elected.
So, here’s what I’d advise: Turn off the TV, always good advice, especially if it’s on cable news, and then the computer (but only after you read this) and read a book. Even in an off year, I still managed to sneak in a few good ones, if just out of habit. I promise that your brain will thank you.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead.
This is the novel of the year. Winner of the big awards (at least the one Dylan didn’t win). And it’s better than that. Whitehead is a brilliant writer who has long been flirting with greatness, and when he came upon the idea of rethinking the Underground Railroad not as a metaphor, but as a real blood-and-iron creation, he found it. In re-imagining this road to freedom, in rethinking that place between myth and reality, Whitehead discovered a new way into the subject of slavery and into a dream of freedom that never quite comes true. It’s a tragic, harrowing, painful story that is told so beautifully it tears at the heart and at the brain. Here’s Cora, who’s at the center of the story, on freedom: “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it. When it was a dream of new shoes.”
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
This is last year’s big book, but I didn’t get it until Christmas, so I didn’t read it until this year. I think I read in two sittings. Coates is an essayist who thinks deeply on deep things — read his essay in the Atlantic on Obama: “My President Was Black” — and who wrote this book as a letter to his 14-year-old son on growing up black in America in the era of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter L. Scott, Freddie Gray and others. It’s an angry book, angry that this is the world given over to his son. It is a beautiful book, its title taken from a Richard Wright poem. It’s a powerful book, inspired by James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” It’s a book that will remain essential reading for anyone looking to understand race in America in the 21st century.
WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg.
The books on Donald Trump will be pretty easy to write. He’s a narcissist who, in a textbook take on demagoguery, somehow got a sizable chunk of America to give him the love and attention that he craves. The real story is not of Trump, though, but of Trump voters and why they made him our president. And so we read of the white working class. This book tells us that class is as important, in its way, as race — this is the Bernie Sanders approach — and as we read the long history of vilification and mockery of the white poor, we look for clues for today. I’m told that the book to read — and I’ve got it on my holiday gift list — is “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, who has written, according to the New York Times review, “a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans.” I’ll report back on that next year.
The Nix, by Nathan Hill.
Has nothing to do with Donald Trump or race or class. Or maybe it does. This one is about the ’60s and mothers and sons and abandonment and boomers and disappointment and online game addiction. It’s wild and hilarious and too long and just right, and it takes us from there to here and then to now (or at least 2011) and an assassination attempt on a right-wing gun-toting governor running for president. Hill’s debut has been compared to David Foster Wallace. That works for me.
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan.
I don’t know if McEwan is the best British writer of his generation — it’s a tough group — but he’s my favorite. That’s why I picked up the book. It seemed like a throwaway, 197 pages of a novel about an in-the-womb fetus who, because he can hear everything happening around him, becomes privy to a plot by his mother and her lover to kill the fetus’s father. But I was wrong. It’s funny and, like all McEwan, brilliant and an unlikely page turner. I wish it had been 397 pages.
Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer.
If you like tragi-comic, small-things-writ-large, large-things-writ-small, hilarious-if-sometimes-straining-too-hard-to-be-too-hilarious Jewish experience in America, Foer is the writer for you. This book took him 10 years and, for much of the time, it seems like it was worth the wait. It starts with a Holocaust survivor, of course, and works its way through a bar mitzvah boy who doesn’t want to be one and a tragedy that intensifies the pull for three generations of an American Jewish family toward Israel. Did I mention it was funny? But you have to want to work for it.
Zero K, by Don DeLillo.
This isn’t great DeLillo, but it’s still very good. The argument against Dylan winning the Nobel is that Philip Roth and DeLillo didn’t, and that anything that either writes demands to be read and re-read. (For the Trump era, you might want to re-read Roth’s “Plot Against America,” an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh beats FDR in the 1940 presidential race.) DeLillo is taking on the usual stuff, life and death and immortality and the way out of, or at least a way around, the ending everyone faces. After all these years, DeLillo still writers masterfully and still reads as if he understands the world better than anyone else.
A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami.
I didn’t start reading Murakami until “Kafka On the Shore,” and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since. This one was written in 1982, published in the U.S. in 1989, and is among Murakami’s magical-realism best. It’s also a mystery. The villain is a right-wing businessman. The hero/detective is in PR. And then there’s the missing sheep. What more do you need?