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It would hardly be January without the requisite “best” lists of the previous year. As a list-lover, I always enjoy seeing the last 12 months summarized, synthesized and categorized so nicely. I also enjoy making lists, but often struggle to remember the details of the books I’ve read. I can quickly identify the books that have had a profound impact on me, but when I try to describe the actions and events or recall characters’ names my mind is blank. What I typically recall are the feelings that remain afterwards.
Thankfully, absolution came my way in the form of a New York Times article by James Collins titled “The Plot Escapes Me.” He alleviates the guilt among so many forgetful readers by asserting that the results of reading are cumulative. In other words, we are the sum of all we have read. Reading changes our brain in ways of which we may not consciously be aware. Here are a few books I read over the last year that I’m positive are still working on me in ways I have yet to imagine.
Louise Erdrich’s novels are haunting for their combination of starkness and magic. Shadow Tag is a dissection of a marriage in trouble. When she suspects that her husband is reading her diary, Irene begins a false one—one written to manipulate and torture him. The novel alternates between Irene’s false diary, her real diary, and a third-person narrator. This narrative style perfectly mirrors the tension within this marriage and within any relationship where the boundaries between self and other become blurred.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
I disliked almost every character in this book, and yet I still found myself completely enthralled and unwilling to put the book aside for almost anything. Freedom is the story of a family that is disintegrating. It is a pitch-perfect depiction of the anxieties, frustrations, and disillusionment of the early 21st century in America, with the events of September 11, 2001 and the looming economic collapse of 2008 serving as pivotal moments in the narrative. Franzen’s characters—much like the country they inhabit—are discovering they are no longer exceptional. Patty and Walter’s losses are our losses, which is one of the many reasons this novel is so powerful.
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
I would read the instructions on the back of a soup can if Michael Cunningham wrote them. For me, he is one of those authors whose sentences require reading slowly and then rereading. In By Nightfall, successful Manhattan art dealer Peter Harris feels smugly self-satisfied with the life he’s created until his younger, beautifully brilliant brother-in-law comes for a visit and Peter is left to wonder if he’s squandered most of his life. This novel is the literary equivalent of a midlife crisis told by a most compassionate and forgiving author.
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
I wasn’t all that familiar with Ian McEwan aside from the novels Atonement and Saturday —both incredible books that I enjoyed very much. In preparation for his receiving the 2010 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, I decided to read some of his earlier works, and I’m so glad I did! In Enduring Love, a tragic accident leads to a chance encounter that permanently alters the trajectory of the main characters’ lives. I love books that explore the unthinkable, and this book certainly tests the boundaries of what is plausible.
War Dances Sherman Alexie
War Dances is categorized as a collection of short stories, although Alexie experiments with formats as much as with language. The book is more like a series of interlocking prayers, poems, liturgies, and stream of consciousness narratives that center on the title story. Alexie balances themes of despair and hope, mixing in ample amounts of dark, self-deprecating humor. I love a work of fiction that allows you to laugh at yourself one moment and breaks your heart the next.