Once again, in no particular order, some of the images and passages that thrilled my blood this year:
- “But there was nonetheless a spirit of at least intermittent optimism that refused entirely to die in Marin, perhaps because Marin was less violent than most of the places its residents had fled, or because of the view, its position on the edge of a continent, overlooking the world’s widest ocean, or because of the mix of its people, or its proximity to that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay like a bent thumb, ever poised to meet the curved finger of Marin in a slightly squashed gesture that all would be okay.” – Mohsin Hamid, writing about Marin and the South Bay in Exit West
- “And no, it is not fate, I said, because Google watches over us like God . . . How is democracy supposed to work if you get only what you’ve already searched for and if you are what you search, and you never feel alone or you always do, since you never get the chance to meet the others, who are not like you, and that’s how it is with the search, you come across like-minded people, God googles our paths, so that we stay put in our grooves, I always meet people who are looking for the same thing I am, I said, and that is why we, too, have met here, and the old man said, This is the very meaning of fate. He was obviously further along in exegesis than I.” – Katja Petrowskaja, Maybe Esther
This book is so fucking brilliant that I might hate the author if I didn’t love literature so much. This passage reads like a mating of W. G. Sebald and Rachel Cusk, but the book is entirely on its own terms.
- “She’s surprised she can see it all so clearly—for the first time in her life. She must be starting to get old, because it seems like it’s in old age that you begin to hear from those little nooks in the brain that have the records of everything that ever happened. She’d never had time to think about those types of things, the days gone by; the past was like a smudged streak. Now the movie slows and reveals details—capacious is the human brain. Hers had preserved even her little brown purse, prewar, which had originally belonged to her mother, with soft sides made out of rubber-lined material, with a beautiful metal clasp that looked like a jewel. On the inside it was smooth and cool to the touch; when you reached inside, it seemed like a dead offshoot of time had gotten stuck there.” – Olga Tokarczuk, Flights
There are so many moments of random beauty in this hybrid novel/short story collection/sustained philosophical meditation; this is just one.
- “Greece’s archipelagos looked as if California had been hammered, shattered like glass and scattered across the blue, a blue so perfect that it appeared that not only water but the sky, too, was breaking along the new shores. It was easy to imagine how these coast-shards assembled to a history and a country, to a mythology; the idea of a nation composed not so much of land as of its edges.” – Mark Vanhoenacker, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
Full disclosure: Mark was a dear friend of mine at Amherst College. I always knew he loved flying and words. We used to get drunk together in the woods and read poetry, and he talked about becoming a pilot. But what I didn’t know was that his future writing would recall both Gaston Bachelard and animator Miyazaki Hayao (two of my favorites). I loved his gorgeous book. That it made me want to fly, when I have a pretty severe fear of flying that I’ve had to overcome again and again to make the journeys of my life, is testament to its magic.
- “Air brings all these hundreds of years of sound from temples, forests, and cities to the needles, roots, and trunk of the Yamaki pine. The tree inhales and stills the air’s fibrillating breath, holding it in wood, like a kami. Each year’s growth jackets the previous, capturing in layered derma precise molecular signatures of the atmosphere, timbered memories. Wood emerges from relationship with air, catalyzed by the flesh of electrons through membranes. Atmosphere and plant make each other: plant as a temporary crystallization of carbon, air as a product of 400 million years of forest breath. Neither tree not air has a narrative, a telos of its own, for neither is its own.” – David George Haskell, The Song of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors. “Timbered memories.” Wow.
- “This was the moment Naomi had been praying for through all these months, the moment of certainty and reunion, when death was supposed to settle for a few moments on her palm, like a squawking, flapping bird suddenly made still.” – Richard Lloyd Parry, Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone
- “Some days, going from one book to another, preoccupied with thoughts that were of no real importance, I would feel a rare moment of serenity: all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.” – Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
- “Her particular wish is to be schooled by the choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who, with her benign severity, her floor-length dresses, and her waterfall of hair, looks like Martha Graham grafted onto a weeping willow.” – Anthony Lane, reviewing the film, Suspiria
Lane references a dancer known for severity and fluidity to evoke an actress known for severity and fluidity as she depicts a dancer. I love it.
- “I had been happy, happy enough, but now I often found myself uttering a spontaneous prayer that went, simply: She is here, still here. It was as if a rushing river had routed itself through my house, which was pervaded now by a freshwater scent and the awareness of something lavish, natural, and breathtaking always moving nearby.” – George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
Gorgeous evocation of the joy of a newlywed man. I could have drawn from nearly any passage in this book, which revolutionizes the historical novel, so I took something from the very beginning to save time.
- “Austria looks like a slightly aroused aging phallus.” –Katja Petrowskaja, Maybe Esther
Because I feel a strange compulsion to end these lists on the priapic (two for two now). I call it symmetry, but read into it what you will.
What strikes me is that many of these books are about movement—travel, flights, transit, migration. At a moment in my life in which I’m setting down roots geographically yet traversing wild terrain in my creative practice, I suppose that being drawn to such books makes sense. Besides, all great books take us to places we’ve never been before.
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (ingenious and moving)
Flights, Olga Tokarczuk (a tricky hybrid that works, thanks in part to a dazzling translation)
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (revelatory and operatic, so fitting it’s being turned into an opera)
Transit, Rachel Cusk (a reckoning with fiction, oral history, narrative, and characterization)
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (great historical fiction)
Maybe Esther, Katja Petrowskaja (as thrilling as curiosity itself)
Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry (heartrending)
Call Them by Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit (necessary)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Yiyun Li (cerebral and brave)
Skyfaring, Mark Vanhoenacker (dreamy)