Reading this Year, 2015

I read a lot in spurts in 2015, and in the course of those spurts, read some pretty fantastic novels, short story collections, and nonfiction books.  From January through mid-April, I read nothing except research for my book, mixed in with a healthy smattering of essays, articles and museum plaques.  Excluding all the research material, here’s the best of what I read this year, in the first of several weekly installments:

Euphoria

I loved Lily King’s Euphoria, with its rich, taught recasting of Margaret Mead’s life and anthropological work in 1930s New Guinea.  The novel is beautifully constructed — short and tight and suspenseful, though I had some concerns about its ending.  Review here.

Lowland

I usually like Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories better than her novels; she’s a master of the shorter form.  And while I’d certainly first recommend the inimitable masterwork that was Interpreter of Maladies and the impressive stories in Unaccustomed Earth (particularly the heartshattering trilogy of stories at the collection’s end), The Lowland has some nice moments.  Lahiri is a masterful chronicler of the dislocations of immigrant life, finely attuned to the nuances of culture and place.  This novel is more cohesive than her first, though the early chapters can feel more expository and less vivid than what follows.

Signature of All Things

I think Elizabeth Gilbert gets criticized unfairly for her nonfiction books; the tenor and tone of this criticism often seems unnecessarily harsh, and gendered in a way I cannot abide.  In The Signature of All Things she returns to her original form: long before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert was an accomplished and respected novelist.  Here she returns to the novel form with an epic story of an imagined botanist during the age of Darwin, shadowing the contours of her fictive character’s life with the restrictions and confinements particular to a woman of her time, and also with the sweeping scope of possibility created by her life in science.  There is a vast, hidden history of women’s accomplishments, and Alda’s story steps into this historical void.  If the novel occasionally feels uneven and a bit too long, it’s an ambitious speculative historical portrait, and a fascinating glimpse into the vast, unanswerable, “What if?”

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I read this book at just the right moment.  It’s (fairly) criticized, as successful books often are, but it happened to come into my life via a friend’s coffee table, and I read it in the span of one afternoon while I waited to head out to a restaurant to meet friends for dinner.  It so-happened that post-research-trip, post-residency, as I settled into a 450-square-foot cottage, I needed to do some serious tidying in order to claim some space, and Kondo’s book walked into my life just when I needed it.  I followed it almost exactly, refolding my shirts and socks and sending boxes down to the charity shop nearby.  Here is what I will say about Marie Kondo’s method: it can be incredibly clarifying.  Her guiding principle in cleaning out is to keep what sparks joy, and that what sparks joy will be different for everyone.  Her method provides a helpful and reliable schema for sorting and discarding, gives permission to toss things that we otherwise keep out of sentiment or guilt, and maintains a brisk momentum that simultaneously tidies your space and provides you with a clearer sense of perspective on what your priorities and values look like.  I found it at a fortuitous moment and followed it because I needed it.  And because I needed it, it worked.

 

More books to follow next week.

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Current Reading: Euphoria

I just finished reading Lily King’s fantastic new novel Euphoria, based loosely on events in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead.  Inspired by the brief months in 1933 when Mead conducted fieldwork in New Guinea along with her second and third husbands, King changes the three characters’ names — and aspects of their lives and outcomes.

I read Euphoria outside on the back porch over the course of the last few weeks.  It’s one of those books I’ve read slowly by design.  There’s a lot Lily King does here that I want to absorb.

King keeps a close lens on her three characters, chronicling their mounting sexual tensions and the tight, confined spaces they occupy. There’s a compression in the storytelling: the novel takes place over the course of just a few months in remote villages linked only by “tiny dark canal(s)” and “close corridor(s).”  This compression creates a tension so taught the novel veritably vibrates.

Yet beyond these threads of narrative momentum is the fascination and sheer pleasure of the characters’ anthropological thinking.  And our interest is not limited to the vivid, enticing exoticism of the fictional cultures the characters are studying, which we glimpse through the periphery of the novel’s unfolding.  Even greater pleasure comes from the characters’ intellectual calibrations, their grappling with  anthropological methods and theory, their attempts to redefine their places in the evolving field of anthropological endeavor.  Bankson (the fictionalized character based on Mead’s third husband) problematizes the role of the anthropologist in a way that anticipates modern anthropological thinking.  And there is a nuance and expansiveness of thought in Nell (King’s Margaret Mead character).  She integrates her progressive thinking about agency and perception into innovative new field practices with a confidence that feels staggering.

King changes a lot about the three characters’ life stories — improvising certain hidden aspects of their backgrounds, wildly changing their endings.  And yet I wonder whether her portrayal of their intellectual lives alone might serve as an impetus to change the characters’ names.  It’s a heady business to fabricate and inhabit a serious thinker’s thought.  And Mead is in King’s rendering, as in life, a formidable thinker about anthropology.

She is also a confident inventor of possibility in her own life story, bold and unrelenting in her willingness to carve out a space for herself and a professional and personal independence.

But in the novel’s ending King departs sharply from Mead’s biography.

{be forewarned: spoilers about the novel’s ending to follow}

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