Hanukkah came late. Christmas will presumably arrive on time. They didn’t teach us about Kwanzaa when I was a kid, but my grandson, who has learned all about it this year in pre-K, has kept me up to date. And, of course, there’s Festivus for the rest of us.
The reason I bring this up is if you’re still looking for a gift for a loved one — or, even better, for yourself — we bring you the annual Some of the Best Books Mike Littwin Has Read in (pick year) column. This year is 2019, or, as I think of it, Year Three of Our Long National Nightmare. And maybe because my wife of 49 years died in 2019, a number of the books here are about marriage, or at least peripherally so. I didn’t pick them out looking for insights on love and love lost. At least I didn’t think I did at the time. But then I saw this great quote the other day, that “coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys,” which left me to wonder.
So, on to levers and pulleys.
Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffe Brodesser-Akner
For maybe two-thirds of the book, Brodesser-Akner, who writes wonderful profiles for The New York Times magazine, somehow managed to find time to write a very funny and very smart Philip Roth-influenced novel on Toby Fleishman, a schlub whose marriage to high-powered Rachel, has blown up. Fleishman, a full-time doctor also in charge of attending to their two kids whose mother has seemingly abandoned them, finds his career stunted in a way many working mothers will recognize. At the same time, Fleishman, newly unattached, is indulging his obsession with online dating sites that constantly send his way “texts that contained G-string and ass cleavage and underboob and sideboob and just straight-up boob.” But eventually the book turns. The women get the chance to tell their sides of the story, and the split doesn’t force us to choose sides so much as to understand, finally, that there are sides. As The New Yorker’s Katy Waldman put it in her review, “Updike, Roth, and Franzen are updated, not just invoked …”
Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff
Another book on marriage. It was the literary-novel hit of 2015, and yet somehow I didn’t read it then. As widely reported back in the day, it was Barack Obama’s book of the year, which seemed to say a lot because the novel — divided into two parts, Fates and, yes, Furies — tells us of the story of Lotto Satterwhite, a golden boy who seemed destined from birth for fame and stardom and whose marriage to Mathilde was as unlikely as it was apparently perfect. In the second book, Furies, we get the story told by Mathilde, who may be the woman behind the man, but not as I’ve seen it told before. We expect to hear a story of contradiction, a different take on the same tale. We’ve seen this before. We know the husband’s inexplicable willingness — he’s a writer, after all — to allow the blanks in Mathilde’s life to be left unexplored. But Groff gives us a back story that contradicts everything we thought we knew with a writerly precision that is stunning and altogether different. And, yes, the fact that I picked it up in 2019 may be more about levers and pulleys than coincidence.
Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli
I’m just now finishing this book, which features a relationship falling apart and its effect on the family’s two children, the father’s 10-year-old boy from a previous relationship and the mother’s 5-year-old girl, also from a previous relationship. The family is driving (and driving and driving) from New York to Arizona, the mother (unnamed, as all the characters are unnamed) is a radio journalist en route to report on the crisis of the lost children at the border and the father a documentarian whose focus is Geronimo and the last Apaches to surrender to the “white eyes.” But at the heart of the novel is the question of who is up to the task — who even has the right — of telling these stories. The woman decides, in listening to the stories told in the back seat of the car, that it’s her children who are best suited to give life to the lost children, and Luiselli decides that only magic realism, in the Latin American tradition, is up to the task. It’s a smart, even brilliant book that moves slowly with wonderful digressions everywhere, citing influences from Sontag to Kerouac, that, as one reviewer put it, require two or maybe three readings to appreciate. I haven’t read her 2017 nonfiction book on the same topic — Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions — but I’ll let you know what I think next year.
There There, by Tommy Orange
The book takes place mostly in Oakland, California, and the title is a play on the famous Gertrude Stein line about there being no there there in Oakland. Stein was from Oakland, as is Tommy Orange, whose story is of Native Americans who come to Oakland, as in a pilgrimage, for a giant pow wow at the Coliseum, in hopes of finding a there there. The story is told in 12 chapters, beginning with a 10-page prologue telling the brutal history of all that was lost and taken and pillaged that, by itself, is worth the price of admission. In 12 chapters, Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, then tells the story of those coming to the pow wow and those natives who know “the sound of the freeway better than [they] do rivers … the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than [they] do the smell of cedar or sage…” It is a story of identity and theft, of hope and loss, that will end, we know from the first chapter, in tragedy.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
I offer this book as a test, one that I fear I failed. The book took me most of a year to read. I put it down, I took it back up, determined to make my way through a few more of James’ dazzling sentences, trying once again to figure out what the magical tour through a deliriously imagined Africa was about. It was about a missing boy and a man named Tracker, who was sent to find him. The book is intentionally demanding and often brilliantly so, also littered with a level of violence that would make Tarantino cringe. I had read James’ much-praised book on the attempted assasination of Bob Marley — A Brief History of Seven Killings — and fallen in love with his writing. In reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I fell in despair. I eventually finished — and not to give away anything, but the ending can make you glad you made the slog— but I felt that somehow I was not equal to his brilliance, not equal to the task. The book begins, “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” If only.
Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips
My law-professor daughter will be happy to read this column. She always complains that I’m too male-centric in my reading tastes, and here’s a fourth novel on my list by a woman. She recommended this one to me, a literary thriller set in … Kamchatka, a place I knew only from my days playing the board game, Risk. Two sisters, 11 and 8, are kidnapped in this remote corner of Russia, which can be reached only by air or sea. They are white girls, which matters, because this is a story of race and gender and the reaction to a kidnapping that demands the attention of everyone in the region. The setting is, of course, a character in the story, and Phillips spent a year in Kamchatka on a Fulbright. You can’t help but be fascinated by place and time and by the Russian women whose stories are told always with the kidnappings in sharp relief and with the shadow of the Soviet Union — now a longed-for place of safety and national might — hanging over it all.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David Blight
And so we move from fiction to a story that is too outlandish for fiction. It’s the first major biography of Douglass in 30 years, and the story, oft told and told by Douglass himself in three autobiographies, still stops the heart. Born a slave, helped as a fugitive by a free black woman in Baltimore who would become his wife, an electric writer and orator who gave the lie to black inferiority to the many tens of thousands who would come to hear him speak and who so dazzled those in the abolitionist movement who helped buy his freedom that they put him on a lifelong speaking tour. Blight’s biography rescues Douglass — and us — from the value-tale biography that schoolchildren read. We see the man in full, not only the myth. His break from Lloyd Garrison and the pacifist abolitionist movement to his call for war to end slavery. His complicated relationship with Lincoln and his warning that Lincoln’s war would be one remembered only for the slaughter if it didn’t bring freedom to the slaves. His star-turn tours of England that may well have helped to keep England neutral in the civil war. The story of his often tortured personal life and his wife who labored, often unappreciated, to make his contributions possible, even as more educated and cultured women became his collaborator. His often ignored warnings against the beginnings of Jim Crow, his later life as an office-holder in Republican administrations. Donald Trump may have heard good things about Douglass. He’d have heard many more if he’d read this book.
These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore
This is the story of America — a one volume, 932-page story of America — that springs forth from the words of Jefferson, that all men are created equal, and his failure and the country’s failure to sanctify those words. Benjamin Franklin edited in to the text “self-evident” — changing the words from “sacred and undeniable” — to describe how we hold these truths, and Lepore, a Harvard history professor and New Yorker writer, writes of America’s tenuous hold on this foundational truth, or is it myth? Like everyone these days, she cites Hamilton, this time in asking, “Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit?” It’s a question still unresolved today. Lepore gets everything into the 900-plus pages, many of them devoted to race and to the fact, as she writes, that between 1500 and 1800, two and a half million Europeans immigrated to America while 12 million Africans were captured and taken here by force and millions of Native Americans died — as many, she writes, as 50 million. This is the American creation story, one that led to a Civil War and one that haunts us still today. It is what reviewers call a “sweeping” take on history, in which men (and women), great and small, are given space. In one of the more interesting set pieces, she writes of the modern political campaign, the polls that fuel them, the lie factory that creates the false narratives that win elections. And if it seems like, 500 years after the story begins, she’s leading us to the time of Donald Trump, it’s because she is, because after 932 pages, this is where we are.