A Tale For the Time Being, Ruth Ozecki (Penguin, 2013)
I had just bought a kidney-shaped purple zafu in an attempt to encourage myself to meditate more regularly when I came across this novel at Half Price Books in a Rockwall, Texas, mall. The plot turns around a writer named Ruth finding the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese-American girl washed up on the beach near her home in Canada. The novel manages to weave together the stories of a Japanese kamikaze pilot, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and a writer banging her head against an unsuccessful memoir attempt into a heterogeneous tale told by several narrators. There’s just enough Buddhist thought in the book to remind me why my life would be better if I just sat zazen more.
A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2010)
Solnit has been a kind of intellectual and moral polestar for me since I came across A Book of Migrations, her book about walking in Ireland, years ago. In A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit uses five disasters as case studies to explore how earthquakes and fires and floods actually bring out not looters and evil opportunists (as governments and police forces would have you believe), but the best in human nature. I happened to read this just before the disasters that hit Texas, the Caribbean and California this Fall. Solnit’s claims and evidence that we’re actually better people than late capitalism wants us to be or tells us we are, provides a bit of solace as we begin to see more and more catastrophic events caused by climate change.
The Sellout, Paul Beatty (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2015)
Third time’s the charm for the funniest novel I’ve read in decades. I taught Paul Beatty’s audacious take on systemic racism in America before it won the Booker Prize, and I read it again this Fall with my undergraduate creative writing class on comedy at the University of Alabama, just a few blocks from where Governor George Wallace took his famous Stand in the Schoolhouse door and pledged “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” The novel’s narrator, a black farmer in contemporary California, sets out to resegregate his town, and ends up being tried by the Supreme Court for it. Wonders never cease in this novel, starting with Justice Clarence Thomas breaking his famed silence to yell at the narrator, “You bitch-made motherfucker, I know goddamn well your parents raised you better than that!”
Sorry Please Thank You, Charles Yu (Vintage, 2012)
These stories are fun and funny. They’re inventive. They mess around with form. My students loved “Standard Loneliness Package,” in which people with means can, for a price, offload their negative feelings onto some poor schlub whose job it is to endure the unwanted grief, disappointment and rage of others in order to collect a paycheck. The stories manage to be clever yet also to worry the stuff we worry about as a result of technological advancements. Will technology rob us of our humanity? And if it does, in what ways does or doesn’t that matter? And what does it mean to be human, anyway?
What Happened, Hillary Clinton (Simon & Schuster, 2017)
It had to happen, and it’s been more cathartic than I imagined to have Hillary’s photo on my bedside table each night for several months (I read maybe twenty pages of this book per night before bed; can’t really do more than that). What I learned in the first 395 pages of the book is that Hillary Clinton is a basically decent person, Donald Trump is a spoiled, no-nothing, sexist jerk, and that what we got in 2016 was a raw deal for all of us. Read; weep.