I read more than sixty books this year, but I won't burden you with details of them all. I'll mention many fine ones, mostly new or newish.
From Saigon to Beijing
No one of my generation can forget the war in Vietnam, where our country fought an “enemy” that hadn't threatened us in the slightest. The Sympathizer, by Vietnamese-American Viet Thanh Nguyen, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. The prize was well deserved. The book's narrator is Vietnamese, the illegitimate son of a priest, who grows up deprived. Not surprisingly, he joins the Communists. He has two close friends from school, one of whom is a more dedicated Communist and the other who abhors Communism. The Party gives the narrator a mission: pretend to support the South Vietnamese government and spy on it. When that government is airlifted from Saigon, he is told to go to the United States and continue spying on South Vietnamese who have gone to live there. The narrator is an intellectual, constantly reexamining his opinions about Vietnam and the United States.
Another great book by an Asian North American is Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, a Chinese-Canadian. Learned in mathematics and music, she tells about the fate of Chinese musicians who loved western music during the Cultural Revolution, when western music was banned. The characters are complex and the story is compelling.
Another mathematician-turned-author, Zia Haider Rahman, wrote an intricate novel, In the Light of What We Know, which looks at his native Bangladesh as well as Britain, the United States, and Afghanistan. This is a tale of corruption, and Rahman knows of what he speaks. He has worked with international organizations, including Transparency International, which fights corruption. His conclusion seems to be that western intervention, even by human rights workers, does more harm than good.
I also read other books about the ongoing wars in that part of the world. Kim Barker's Taliban Shuffle is a more serious book than the movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot would indicate. It tells a great deal about Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan, which is crucial to understanding the war. Fariba Nawa, who was born in Afghanistan but raised in the United States, went back to the country of her birth and, in Opium Nation, tells how drug trafficking has changed Afghanistan as much as war and how both government and Taliban forces are involved in drug trafficking. Both these authors think that a western withdrawal might be best for Afghanistan.
But Christina Lamb, a British reporter who spent many years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, produced an even more in-depth study of the war, Farewell Kabul. I strongly recommend reading it to see how Pakistan has manipulated the Taliban and pushed it to continue fighting even when it didn't want to. She believes that westerners should continue to be involved in trying to counter the Taliban and other radical Islamists in that area of the world.
Socialist feminist Meredith Tax produced a more hopeful book, A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, which is about Kurdish women. She recounts how Syria, Iraq, and especially Turkey, have long oppressed the Kurds with pogroms and suppression of their language and culture. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against them. After that, the West began to recognize their oppression, but was reluctant to anger Turkey.
The Kurd separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan at first called himself a Marxist-Leninist and waged an extremely violent struggle, including killing subordinates who opposed him. But while imprisoned by Turkey he underwent a conversion to anarchism and to the idea that women, not the proletariat, are the leading revolutionary class. As a result of that theory, Kurdish women in the struggle joined the army, including a separate women's army, and now have more power, especially in the region of Rojava in Syria. The “Islamic State” (IS) fights them, and they fight it.
But the PKK, Ocalan's party, is still carrying out suicide bombings, including one on December 10 outside a soccer stadium in Istanbul that killed 39 people. How admirable is that?
Tax does not gloss over the possibility that if the Kurds' liberation struggle succeeds, women may no longer hold a high position in their society. That has happened so often after revolutions.
Then there's the tragedy of Syria. In The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, journalist Janine di Giovanni interviews a wide range of people living in Syria who have been brutalized by Assad's government and paramilitary forces, including women who were raped and tortured in Assad's prisons. She also spoke with people who were brutalized by jihadists opposing Assad, including IS. She found that many people feared Islamist insurgents more than Assad. Christians and other minority religious groups have strongly supported Assad because they fear suppression. She says Syria was a melting pot, like Bosnia, where people of different religions and ethnicities had lived together. And then violence and hatred drove them apart.
Di Giovanni had started war reporting in Bosnia. She has worked in refugee camps. Somehow she has managed to often witness mass graves and people who had been tortured. She almost despairs over the difficulty of stopping, much less preventing, wars. After years of watching the United Nations and other groups try to end or mitigate the wars in Syria and other countries, she says, “ceasefire is a synonym for buying time to kill more civilians,” as both sides try to get themselves in the most advantageous position before the official start of the ceasefire. She feels that war is simply not worth the cost in human suffering. Reading her book left me with that feeling.
I also recommend Yasmine El Rashidi's Chronicle of a Last Summer, an upper-middle-class young woman's account of the deterioration of life in Egypt since the Arab Spring; Laila Lashimi's The Moor's Account, a historical novel about an educated man from Morocco who sells himself as a slave to feed his family and winds up dragged through North America in a brutal Spanish expedition to find gold; and Izzeldin Abuelish's autobiography, I Shall Not Hate, the story of a doctor from Gaza who has worked to heal Israelis as well as Palestinians though some of his daughters were killed in their home by an Israeli bombing.
War in Europe
In trying to understand war, I also read novels about wars in Europe. Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot Not See is a sensitive novel about a blind French girl who tries to fend for herself alone when the Nazis occupy her city. A poor German boy who never wanted to be a soldier is also a major character. It's problematic to feel sympathy for a German soldier in World War II, but this character is punished for opposing brutality as he is forced into the military system because he is brilliant at making mechanical devices.
After a long period in which few writers dealt with the genocidal war waged by Serbs in the 1990s, more novels about the genocide are being published. Some Croatian fighters also engaged in genocide. Girl at War by Sara Novic is a powerful novel about a Croatian girl's terrifying war experiences. Irish writer Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs takes a traditional Irish theme--a stranger coming to a small town--and turns it to horror because the stranger is a Serb leader guilty of genocide who pretends to be a healer. Horribly, an unhappy Irish woman falls in love with the disguised killer.
Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid also wrote about the Bosnian War in The Skeleton Road, which focuses on how hard war crimes are to investigate because people try to block information about them. An even finer crime novel about cover-ups of the genocide is Pakistani-Canadian Ausma Zehnat Khan's The Unquiet Dead, which I mentioned last year.
Not all horror comes in wars. John Vaillant's The Jaguar's Children tells the story of a young Mexican man's tragic attempt to cross the border to the United States because he fears for his life.
Colson Whitehead's intricate novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award, and it deserved to win. Its chronicle of a young woman's attempt to escape from slavery describes the horrors of the slave system. Whitehead also uses magical realism to make the Underground Railroad an actual railroad and to paint systems of slavery in different states that are not as they actually were but are illustrations of the manifestations that racism can take.
I read two insightful books by Chickasaw author Linda Hogan. Power is the story of a girl growing up in a tribe in the Florida swamps that mostly escapes the attention of the white world. But a hurricane changes her life. This is a tale of the power and mystery of nature. The Woman Who Watches Over the World, Hogan's autobiography, tells of learning to survive many heartbreaks, including trying to adopt children who have been abused.
I also read Raising Ourselves, the autobiography of Alaska Native Velma Wallis, of Gwich'in Athabascan descent. Growing up 200 miles north of Fairbanks, she learned to trap and hunt and moved to a cabin in the wilderness to escape the alcoholism and fatalism in her village and to try to help her mother escape also.
Elizabeth Strout's novel My Name Is Lucy Barton tells the story of a white woman who comes from extreme poverty. When Lucy was a child, her family lived in a garage. It is hard for her parents to express emotion. Lucy has difficulty navigating a world where people assume that she has had experiences she never had, such as owning a television when she was growing up. In later life, when Lucy is hospitalized and her mother comes to New York City to be with her, communication is strained.
Nathan Hill's The Nix is an intricately spun tale. It's the story of a boy abandoned by his mother. He becomes an English professor but is so disgusted by students he perceives as banal that he immerses himself in video games. Then a woman is arrested for throwing rocks at a right-wing politician. It turns out that she is his long-lost mother. And that's just the beginning. It's quite a story, but there is a strain of resentment of autonomous women. One '60s radical woman has an unbelievable affair with a policeman whom she begs to be violent with her.
I also read three Willa Cather novels that I had never read before and like better than some that are more famous. One of Ours is the story of a young Nebraskan man whose struggle to learn reminds me of Jude the Obscure. He winds up in World War I. Song of the Lark, a rare Cather book with a female protagonist, tells about a girl whose life is focused on becoming a great singer. The Professor's House includes a segment about a young man who tries unsuccessfully to negotiate the Washington bureaucracy.
You'll Always Have Shakespeare
For comfort, I turn to Louise Penny's sensitive but not heartbreaking mysteries, Jo Walton's excellent fantasy about a world based on an attempt to create a world like Plato's Republic (the final novel of the trilogy being Necessity), and Shakespeare.
Hogarth Press is publishing a series of novels based on Shakespeare's plays. The latest and so far the best is Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed, which is based on The Tempest. A theater director forced out of his position by a wicked rival retreats to a remote town where his only companion is his fantasy of his daughter who died. He begins to direct plays in a prison, and builds up to staging his version of The Tempest, with actual revenge included. There's a need to suspend disbelief, but the story is great.
I am delighted by a new book by a Shakespeare scholar, Andrew Dickon: Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe. Dickon went to Poland, Germany, the United States, India, South Africa, and China to learn how directors and actors in those countries interpret Shakespeare. For instance, the Germans have long called the poet “our Shakespeare” and claim him as really Germanic. In World War I, while England produced Henry V to inspire its soldiers, Germany produced the same play to urge on German soldiers. Dickon searched for missing Nazi era archives of the German Shakespeare Society and learned how it collaborated.
I also learned, among many other things, that Shakespearean plays like Coriolanus and Cymbeline are far more popular in some other countries than they are in the United States. (I do not recommend Cymbeline unless one wants to see every play that Shakespeare wrote.)
British imperialist education played a large role in spreading Shakespeare, but Shakespeare has outlasted the empire even as many excellent writers emerge everywhere. Different translations have become adaptations that vary from the original plays. Dickon sees that as a sign of Shakespeare's vitality.
Read, read, read. If only everyone did.