In 2022, you had critical choices to make. And I don’t mean just the votes you cast in the midterm elections.
I’m talking about your choices in reading. As all dedicated readers couldn’t help but notice, there were basically two kinds of books this year — those about the disastrous Donald Trump era, which dominated the bestseller lists, and those that weren’t about Donald Trump. Sadly, since my day job requires that I keep up with the latest in Trumparcana, I have no choice but to read some of the Trump books, or at least reviews and articles about the books, or in the pre-Elon-Musk-era, occasionally just tweets about the books.
But in case you, too, feel compelled to read book-length looks into Trump’s many high crimes and misdemeanors, I’ll recommend two: First, “The Divider” by the husband-and-wife team of Susan Glasser and Peter Baker, which chronicles the chaos in Trump’s White House. And second, “The Confidence Man,” by Maggie Haberman, whom Trump, with good reason, calls his shrink.
Or, better still, you could skip all the books and just curl up in the ungodly cold with the hot-off-the-presses, 845-page January 6 committee report. Even with all we know about Trump, it makes for stunning reading.
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But there were other stunners, too, some of which I’ve included in the annual version of “Best Books Mike Littwin Has Read in (fill in the year).” This year is 2022, and to keep the streak alive, we’re putting to bed another year for which few will regret its passing. But in the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and, if you were disappointed in your presents, here are a few you can simply buy for yourself.
“The Candy House” by Jennifer Egan
If you’ve read Jennifer Egan, you know what to expect from her newest book — brilliant and dazzling prose, brilliant and dazzling insights. Those who read the brilliant and dazzling “A Visit from the Goon Squad” — her Pulitzer-winning novel from 2010 about rock ‘n’ roll, about writing about rock ‘n roll, about how to write/live in the digitized age and about how to create a gripping narrative out of the disparate bits and pieces of lives she shares with us.
“Candy House” is a sequel of sorts to “Goon Squad.” Many characters return from the original, as do, most especially, their progeny. (What I’m saying is, if you haven’t already, read “Goon Squad” first.) At the center of “Candy House” is one of the “Goon Squad” children, Bix Bouton, who invents a futuristic machine called “Own Your Own Unconscious,” which allows people to upload their memories, good or bad, but, even more importantly, allows for the reading of the memories of all the others who have uploaded theirs. These memories — think: Facebook’s memories on steroids — are the story.
This sci-fi book isn’t at all sci-fi, just as this book about high-tech wizardry and the dystopia that accompanies it is not really about high-tech maladies. As several reviewers and Egan herself says, this book is actually a defense of the novel in the world where technology threatens to overcome thinking, even as she takes great liberties in the book with creating her own Twitterized world. As Egan writes in “Candy House,” “Knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.”
“Either/Or” by Elif Batuman
“Either/Or” is another sequel. It’s not that I’m suddenly hot for sequels, especially those in the mold of the ruinous modern Hollywood franchise movie, but I am hot for Batuman’s follow-up to “The Idiot,” which traced Selin Karadag’s first year at Harvard. With “Either/Or,” we’re in the second year, the one in which Selin, from Turkey — the Harvard-educated Batuman is American with Turkish-born parents — discovers sex. It’s nearly as exciting to her as having discovered Kierkegaard’s either/or: “Either, then, one is to live aesthetically or one is to live ethically.”
OK, there’s a lot of philosophy and a lot of, say, Proust, but that should not put anyone off. The book is hilarious. Batuman pulls off this elaborate trick — to give us a narrator whose perceptions about life and literature and, yes, sex, are worth the read, even as they’re often laugh-out-loud funny.
I’ll give you the feel of Selin’s sophomore journey into the hazards of college-age sex, told from a woman’s point of view, “What an amazing thing a neck was,” Selin thinks during a kiss, “the way all the blood in a human body had to pass through it, and how easy that made it to kill someone, and this easiness of killing a man also felt dear and close to my heart.”
“The Books of Jacob” by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)
Each year, I try to pick at least one book that is brilliantly reviewed, but that presents a genuine challenge to read. I think maybe the tradition began my freshman year with Joyce’s “Ulysses.” This year, it’s “The Books of Jacob,” which is not a sequel, unless you count the Talmud.
The 945-page novel is based on the real-life Thomas Frank, whose followers in early-enlightenment Europe believed he was the new Messiah. But the book is less about Frank, though, than what is revealed by those who followed him, observed him, judged him and jailed him. The reader never knows quite how to think of Frank, although I always leaned toward con man.
A Jew arriving in 18th-century Poland, Frank travels the world of empires and, in a book that defies easy description (of course it does; I told you it was challenging), so does Frank, who converts to Islam and then to Catholicism. Nobel-winning Tokarczuk gives us a fully realized, if much-invented, world in which the meaning of faith is under challenge. One more thing, as New York Times book critic Dwight Garner wrote in a mostly positive review, “I don’t mean to dissuade. As with certain operas, I’m glad to have had the experience — and equally glad that it’s over.”
“Lessons” by Ian McEwan
For my money, McEwan is the best of his generation of great British writers (i.e. Amis, Barnes, Rushdie), whose latest book, “Lessons,” is both a return to form and, very possibly, a critique of his career that has produced, among other novels, “Atonement,” “Enduring Love,” “Amsterdam” and “Saturday.”
In “Lessons,” a teenage boarding schooler named Roland Baines is groomed and seduced by his piano teacher in what becomes a longstanding affair (Roland’s position) or longstanding sexual abuse (both the reader’s and the law’s position). There was a story some years ago in the Pacific Northwest about a high school teacher who slept with a pupil in order to get him to kill her husband. A writer friend of mine summed up the student’s decision this way: “You mean, I’ve only gotta kill one guy?”
But we learn how the abuse has marked Baines’ life, which is bookmarked, in McEwan style, alongside a long life’s worth of newsmaking events, and also a marriage in which Baines, a would-be poet, and his infant son are deserted by his wife, who becomes a famous novelist. There is a third bookmark, but I won’t give it away. It’s not the usual McEwan entropy — what writer makes better use of that description? — but a story with something like an actual lesson.
“First Person Singular” by Haruki Murakami
Ever since I read Murakami’s “Kafka by the Shore,” I have been hooked on the Japanese writer, who fuses life in postwar Japan with his enthusiasms for, say, rock ‘n roll and his quest for what defines and differentiates love and sex. He is that rare writer who is equally comfortable with the novel and, in this case, writing short stories.
If you know Murakami, you know his passions, many of which are explored in this collection of eight pieces. In a typical Murakami story, “With the Beatles,” it begins in the narrator’s late middle age as a man remembers seeing — never meeting, never even knowing her name — a girl in his high school in 1964 racing down the hallway holding a Beatles’ album to her chest.
The narrator remains obsessed with the image into his 70s, but you know it’s Murakami when we learn that he never listened to the album — the narrator was more into Coltrane and Thelonius Monk at the time — until his mid-30s. And to know that in every relationship, the ones he has in real life, he can never quite replicate the thrill of seeing the unknown girl, as longing continues to trump reality.
“Early Morning Riser” by Katherine Heinz
I have to confess that I seem to rarely recommend books that are described as “heartwarming” or, especially, those able to “restore your faith in humankind.” But then there are smart, funny novels about small-town America that seem to actually be about small-town America, and so I make an exception for Katherine Heinz’s “Early Morning Riser,” and Boyne City, Michigan, where second-grade-teacher Jane comes to live and falls in love with handyman Duncan, a man 20 years her senior who has apparently slept with every woman in the region.
This, of course, gets played for high-level-sitcom-style laughs, but somehow believable laughs that are born of characters who seem to be very much like real people. And when the inevitable tragedy strikes — because that’s where a book like this one has to go — it’s the post-tragedy, small-town world of Jane and Duncan that, well, didn’t quite restore my faith in humankind, but did offer real insights into how a relationship can change and also grow.
“All the Frequent Trouble of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler” by Rebecca Donner
If you knew how many books I’ve read about the Holocaust — and this is one more, a fascinating take on an American woman, Mildred Harnack, who, with her German husband, Arvid, and a few associates, formed an underground movement challenging Hitler and the Nazis — you’d understand my difficulty with faith and humankind, although this story does offer up another version of it.
This mostly forgotten story of bravery and resistance is told by Rebecca Donner, Harnack’s great-great niece. Over a 10-year period, from the beginning of the Nazi rise until 1942, the Harnacks did what they could and more to resist. They wrote pamphlets telling the truth to Germans about Nazi crimes. They saved Jews. Mildred even posed as a Nazi — joining the Daughters of the American Revolution to bolster her claim as an Aryan — in order to gain intelligence.
Arvid would spy for the Soviet Union — he and Mildred even had a transmitter in their apartment with which to send coded intelligence — which may be one reason why this spy story and love story isn’t better known. It’s a fascinating look at resistance in a place where resistance was all but impossible. You can guess how the story ends, or at least how the Harnacks’ lives ended. But there is bravery here, too, even at the end of a life well lived and now well told.
“We Don’t Know Ourselves” by Fintan O’Toole
The book by the Irish journalist and critic is subtitled “A Personal History of Modern Ireland,” as O’Toole uses his own life story — he was born in 1958 — to tell the story of how Ireland, so long a nation marked by emigration, poverty, backwardness and the Catholic Church’s morality police, grew into the modern, successful country it is today.
Ireland is famous for its writers — even though many were routinely censored by the church — and O’Toole knows how to tell a story. And as a journalist, he knows the details that will stun, that will make you laugh, that will enlighten. The country’s biggest problems were a lack of modern industry and investment — in a country that was vested in staying mostly rural — and a lack of people. Stunningly, Ireland’s population in 1961 was not even half of what it was in 1841, in the days when the potato famine drove millions to America and Britain. Of those born in the 1950s, O’Toole tells us, three of five would leave Ireland. The country was falling into itself and quickly disappearing.
And then there’s this detail: In 1961, Ireland finally got a television network of its own, one year after Albania. And another: In 1961, three-fourths of rural Ireland did not have indoor plumbing.
A few years ago, in my annual book column, I nominated “Say Nothing,” a brilliant look at the Irish “troubles,” seen through one murder, as my favorite book of the year. This is a different story, but just as fascinating. In the late 1950s and early 1960s when Ireland finally decided that it must change from rural theocracy into a modern country, scientists there made a fascinating, if ironic, discovery — that you could make from the Irish turf, of which there was plenty, a contraceptive, in a country that still banned contraception. Compromises were made, and modern Ireland would eventually emerge.
If you’re still with me, a few other books for your consideration: “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain” is the great short-story writer George Saunders’ graduate seminar on, well, great short stories and how they were written. Katie Kitamura’s “Intimacies” is about an interpreter who comes to work at the international court at The Hague, where she is assigned to the case of a cruelly magnetic former West African ruler. It’s a book you can’t put down.
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