Our Year in Reading 2016 Continues
Justin Hickey, Editor
Some of my favorite reads this year were graphic novels, both new and reprinted, that spotlight how the genre has matured in the last twenty years. And “mature” in this case isn’t code for the violence and kink that mostly appeals to over-sexed male readers. It means smart storytelling that engages ever younger, more diverse audiences without sacrificing the broader entertainment value. More importantly, blind misogyny and racism by protagonists no longer passes muster, and certain comics can’t be enjoyed unless you rise to the hero’s level.
The reprints are the first collection of DC’s Wonder Woman by novelist Greg Rucka, from 2002. His version of Princess Diana of the Amazons is more progressive than any other in recent memory. Here, Rucka and artist Drew Johnson explore the fallout when Wonder Woman—whose physical prowess improves the world daily—publishes a book of essays. Those who can’t destroy her with fists try very hard to do so on the battlefield of public relations.
The volume has plenty of humor, like when the publisher offers their mock-up of the book’s cover. Diana is scantily-clad on a pink sofa, staring at readers over her bare shoulder. Her team of lawyers and reps—and she does need one, as Themysciran ambassador—instead offer a tasteful cover featuring her golden lariat on a white background.
Less funny is when a group called “Protect the Children” goes after Diana for promoting literacy, environmental awareness, and gay rights. Like the Koch brothers funding the Tea Party, a pharmaceutical baroness named Veronica Cale stands behind the protests. Super-villains like Dr. Psycho, Ares, and Silver Swan do appear, but Cale remains the most fascinating. “I am the American success story,” she says, after revealing her nightmarish past. “I am rags-to-riches, I am everything the Wonder Woman pretends to be. And the difference is that I earned all of it… I made myself who I am. If there is a Wonder Woman in this world, and I stress if…it’s me.”
Also included is this volume is the original graphic novel The Hiketeia, drawn meticulously by J.G. Jones (who painted the book’s cover). Though light on action, this melancholy story takes places mostly at night and features warm coloring by Dave Stewart. Batman shows up, too.
The new comic that I loved was Faith: Hollywood and Vine, by the publisher Valiant. In this shared fictional universe, powered people are “psiots,” and Faith Herbert is the hero Zephyr, who can fly, protect others in a telekinetic field, and has a backstory involving the break-up of her superhero team, the Renegades. She’s since moved out to Los Angeles, where she goes by the name Summer Smith and cranks out listicles for the website Zipline.
Writer Jody Houser folds everything relevant from Faith’s past into her current struggle as a twenty-something “content producer,” including her assignment to binge-watch and review the reality show Something to Torque About, starring her psiot ex, Torque (hey, that’s almost as cringe-inducing as actual reality). As Zephyr, she begins investigating the disappearance of a teen named Sam Bradshaw, who’s a fan of Faith’s favorite TV show, Night Shifters.
Fandom, it turns out, is one of the key pleasures in reading this comic. Houser crams the dialogue and narration boxes with words like “frak” and “frell” (from Battlestar Galactica and Farscape, respectively), to the delight of nerds everywhere. Faith also self-deprecates with Peter Parker-like tenacity when she clobbers an attacker with an office cabinet and thinks, “That’s one down. Or should I say filed? …no, I shouldn’t.” The mystery proceeds, and comes to surround a man called the Director and his Scientology-inspired murder cult.
The art is split between Faith’s daydreams and her reality. Her daydreams, drawn by Marguerite Sauvage, are loose, pastel-colored, and have a fairytale quality. The main story panels by Francis Portela are much grittier, with razor-lined expressiveness in everyone’s faces and bodies. Speaking of bodies, Faith is a plus-sized woman. This isn’t addressed in the story–it’s respected as a normal aspect of her life. The same way that size should have no bearing on how we treat someone, it doesn’t stop someone from saving the world.
Zach Rabiroff, Editor
For me, at least, 2016 was the year that fiction failed. Make-believe stories, at their best, are supposed to show us a heightened version of our own reality: visions that illuminate the truth by bending and magnifying it. But how could any amount of creative truth-bending compare to the brutal, dispiriting reality of these past twelve months? Could the darkest political satire imagine as venal and infantile a demagogue as our president-to-be, whose thin-skinned insecurity is surpassed only by his evident disdain for supporters and critics alike? Could the grimmest sci-fi dystopia match the casual relief with which Americans have given up their equality, their freedom, and their faith in fair elections? Novels, alas, have a long way to go before they can catch up with Donald J. Trump.
No, this past year (and especially during the weeks that followed the national self-mutilation of November 8) I found myself turning to a field of literature that previously had left me baffled and cold: the world of 20th century poetry. More specifically, what the writer and scholar Carolyn Forche has termed “poetry of witness”: the work of poets reflecting on eras of historical turmoil, whose words very suddenly took on a significance I hadn’t anticipated.
Take, for instance, the odious and tedious playwright Bertolt Brecht (a man so dedicated in his Stalinism that he fled behind the Iron Curtain). Yet here he is, in his poem “To Those Born Later,” speaking for every chastened American alive today (translation by John Willett, Ralph Manheim, and Erich Fried):
Our forces were slight. Our goal
Lay far in the distance
It was clearly visible, though I myself
Was unlikely to reach it.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.
You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.
Likewise the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who spent much of his life in and out of prison cells before dying an exile from the country he never stopped loving. His poem “On Living,” (here translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk) manages, despite its overarching fatalism, to leave the reader with a lingering, ineffable sense of hope:
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .
That old war-horse W.H. Auden and his poem “September 1, 1939” have a tendency to get trotted out whenever a moment of national or international crisis occurs. Yet it seems somehow fitting to close out the year with lines that have proved more timeless than their author might have hoped:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
We’ll need to keep an eye out for those points of light in 2017. The night looks to be very dark indeed.
Laura Tanenbaum, Contributor
In the eighteen years since I started teaching, I’ve taught hundreds of authors and texts. Some work sometimes, some almost always work, and some don’t work at all. But so far hardly any have brought the reaction that happened this semester when I taught Justin Torres’ 2011 novel We the Animals: I posed my initial question and then sat back to the range of associations, analysis and free-flowing exchange. I didn’t glance at my notes once, and when I next thought to check, an hour of class had gone by.
A short coming of age novel in stories that is also a coming out story of sorts, Torres’ debut may seem familiar in type, but the book explodes our expectations just as it exploded in my classroom. Central to this is the “we” of the title. Torres writes primarily in the first person plural, evoking the inseparability of the three young brothers we visit at various ages. The plural evokes the way young bodies and their physicality intertwine, and the way they remember and ache for connection to the body and self of their loving, exhausted, and overwhelmed young mother.
After the recent massacre in an Orlando nightclub, Torres wrote a powerful essay entitled “In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club” that circulated widely. Both that essay and this novel stand as tribute to the power of community and connection: Never has the price of the adolescent progression from “we” to “I” been registered with the same degree of inevitable heartbreak.
Dorian Stuber, Contributor
2016 has been a year of fear, anger, and grief. Books by three authors helped me navigate these exhausting emotions.
In 1937, the nineteen-year-old Eleanor Stone was invited to a dinner party at the American legation in Budapest. There she met an Oxford-educated, communist-sympathizing Hungarian nobleman, Baron Zsigmon (Zsiga) Perényi. After a weeklong courtship, they marry and set out to manage Zsiga’s ancestral home of Szöllös. Sounds romantic, but it wasn’t. Eleanor especially had no idea how to run an estate. They didn’t have any money. And worst of all the estate wasn’t even in Hungary anymore, as it was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI. Zsiga needed permission from the authorities to be there at all
More Was Lost (originally published in 1946 and reissued this year by NYRB Classics) is Eleanor Perényi’s delightful memoir of this seemingly idyllic yet ultimately heartbreaking period in her life.
The book is about rejuvenation, and the power of pluck, charm and hard work to repair time’s
depredations. But it’s also about loss, and the inability of good intentions to triumph against overwhelming historical forces. It’s tempting to call this lovely little book “charming,” but its much steelier—and sadder—than that. Perényi’s remarkable book gives us decaying Mitteleuropean elegance without the schmaltz. How lovely that More Was Lost is lost no more.
Published in 1889, Eline Vere (Archipelago) was the Dutch writer Louis Couperus’s first novel. If you like sweeping descriptions of a richly appointed bourgeois world, told by a generous but unobtrusive narrator, with just enough asperity to balance a tendency to effusiveness, this book is for you. The book’s central question is nothing less than what makes a meaningful life? Here, as throughout the great 19th century realist tradition, that question is much more difficult for women. What do they live for, if not work? Marriage and family are two obvious answers, satisfying for some of the novel’s female characters, but not for all, certainly not for its eponymous heroine.
Interestingly, Eline’s dissatisfaction doesn’t find a sexual outlet. Instead, her life unravels because she doesn’t really love anyone—not because she’s as selfish as others think she is, but because she doesn’t want or know how to love. She has an extraordinary way of upending any situation that others create to make her happy, often by making herself so unpleasant that she drives people away.
This psychological complexity occurs against a lovingly rendered backdrop of material comfort, making the novel satisfyingly deceptive. Its gilded, cozy, and upright surfaces contain unsettling depths.
N. K. Jemisin writes “fantasy that isn’t particularly interested in medieval Europe” and science fiction that “isn’t interested in… straight white guys, up in space doing things with phallically shaped spaceships and weapons.” The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate are the first two books in The Broken Earth Trilogy (Orbit); the third one can’t come soon enough.
Set in a world wracked by violent seismic activity that leads to destructive phases of climate change, the books concern a race called orogenes who are at once reviled and revered for their ability to either exacerbate or temper these natural catastrophes.
There’s an exciting, complicated quest story that centers on a mother-daughter relationship, but the reason I can’t stop thinking about these books is their brilliant discussion of the power and peril of emotional restraint. It’s impossible not to read the plight of the orogenes (or “roggas” as they are also, derogatorily, called) as an allegory of African-American vilification, but The Broken Earth Trilogy will also resonate with anyone who has ever been told, whether overtly or subtly, to swallow their emotions, even when they’re being attacked and abused. In the present political climate, I fear that will be more and more of us.
Despite their differences, these books had a similar effect on me. They didn’t undo the year’s anxieties, but they replaced negative emotions with a positive one: the joy of deep immersion. At a time when distraction seems to reign supreme, when so many demands are placed on our attention, that alone is worth a lot.
Britta Bohler, Contributor
I am not much of a New Year’s resolutions type of person but I do write down some reading goals at the beginning of each year. In 2016, the post it-note hanging above my desk throughout the year read: German books! Re-read! Recent debuts!
I failed spectacularly at the first goal. I read even fewer books by German authors in 2016 (six) than the year before (seven). And I didn’t do much better with the second goal. Twenty-something books were waiting for me on the ‘re-read-in-2016-shelf’ and I managed to read five of them. But – yeah to me! – I did succeed in reading about thirty recently published debut novels in 2016. And from those thirty, two stand out for me.
The first one is Janna Levin, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Levin is an astrophysicist at Columbia University who has written two nonfiction books about cosmology, and not surprisingly, her first novel features two scientists, the logician Kurt Gödel and the code-breaker and mathematician Alan Turing. Alternating between New York City, Vienna and England, the narrator of Levin’s novel – a scientist obsessed with Gödel and Turing – reimagines the lives of the two men, who never met, neither in real life, nor in the novel:
I see them everywhere my two mad treasures. An elegant man in a hat, with an able, stocky woman at his side. A solitary black-haired boy with a peculiar stride. I am looking on benches and streets, in logic and code. I am looking in the form of truths stripped to the bone.
Cleverly blending fact and fiction, the book is a vivid portrait of two of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century. (And no, you don’t need to be a math-buff to read – and enjoy – the book, but it helps if you are not appalled by numbers).
The second one is Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, The Reader on the 6.27 (translated from French by Ros Schwartz). French author Didierlaurent has written several award-winning short stories before publishing his first novel two years ago. The charming and beautifully written book tells the story of Guylain Vignolles, who works at a paper pulping factory and who commutes on the same train to work each day. During the train journey Guylain reads to the passengers from pieces of books he saved from the giant paper-munching machine, called the Zerstor (‘zerstören’ means to destroy in German). The machine haunts Guylain in his dreams, and he has nightmares of the Zerstor malfunctioning:
Ankles sunk deep in the foul-smelling sludge, he and Brunner are slinging heaped shovelfuls of muck into the Zerstor’s funnel without a break. The Thing gobbles up all the mess, emitting a series of gross, squelchy slurps. Every ten seconds, its arse lays a new book which flies up towards the ceiling, its pages fluttering. Already, hundreds of books are swirling around the warehouse in an ominous swarm above the men’s heads, making a deafening racket.
Guylain hates his work, he hates the machine and he hates his foul-mouthed, abusive boss, but when he finds the diary of Julie, a public lavatory attendant, his life takes an unexpected turn.
Levi Stahl, Contributor
Prizes tend disproportionately to recognize books published late in the year, freshness of mind helping garner the garlands. I’m not immune to that myself, so the fact that this year’s reading for me continually comes back to a book I read in the blustery days of early March is telling.
I mention the blustery days because the book is Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies. It’s a 450-page book that, to unabashedly roll with the Anglophila here, does what it says on the tin: it traces the traces of weather in English literature and (to a lesser, but not insignificant or uninteresting extent) art from Anglo-Saxon days to the present. It’s of that admirable breed of nonfiction book that sells you through its assurance of voice almost instantly–try this, from the Introduction:
Rainy days turn people in upon themselves–hat pressed down, chin tucked in–but there are common rhythms in the dodging and splashing and weariness. in the park on the first warm day of the year people of all kinds will be drawn into cheerful fellowship. When a bad day suddenly clears to late sun the thoughts of individuals all over a city, intent on thousands of different tasks, will take a momentary united leap.
Having hooked us, Harris holds our interest, probing, intellectual, and companionable all at the same time. I suspect the book spoke to me in particular this year because I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about UK nature writing–which is in the midst of a boom whose quality more than matches its sales or hype–and our own more attenuated American tradition. Also, more simply, I got a dog and spent more time walking and hiking this summer and fall than ever before; always mentally and emotionally susceptible to the weather, seasons, and their changes, I found myself this year with more occasion to attend. Of my beloved Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, Harris writes, “The aim was not so much to understand the world but to find prolonged distraction from it.” In this year in which distraction has been the most welcome of guests, Weatherland, offers us the chance for both. Like all the best reading.