The Book Drop

 

Ten from 2016

by Jon Michaud


I read so many powerful and memorable books this year that it’s difficult to pick ten to highlight, but here goes. Rather than attempting to summarize and analyze these complex works in such a limited space, I’ll let them speak for themselves reproducing a favorite passage from each. The books are listed in roughly the order I read them.

 


 

High Dive

by Jonathan Lee

 

A fictional account of the I.R.A.’s 1984 attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. In this scene, the young bomb-maker, Dan, weighs the ethics of his clandestine vocation.

 

Second thoughts? Yes. He’d had second thoughts, third thoughts, fourth thoughts. But doubt was a disease, a sentimental curse, and in the long run his actions would save lives. A new prime minister. Politicians seeing they were vulnerable on their own doorstep. Seeing that this war would cut both ways. The beginning of the end of apathy, maybe. The start of an understanding. And if one or two innocents died, if that occurred and couldn’t be helped, it would be no worse than what happened on the Falls every other day.

 

The truth was that on an operation you felt clean of guilt and will. It was day-to-day Belfast life that made you dirty. The nowness of being undercover, the sprint of adrenaline in your blood. It seemed to have a purifying quality. Everything you did was so silently precise, every step had to link so carefully to the next, that when you finally lay down at the end of the day your mind was a vast empty space. No doubt, no regret. All miseries for a moment receded. They made space for the satisfaction of a job well done. The gloom stayed away provided that, the next day, you got up at five to do the same again. There was something nimble about deceit. He tried and failed to remember a time when he’d felt appalled at the thought of it all. He pictured his mother going to church every Sunday, the glare of stained glass coming alive in summer, loneliness of winter dusk gone. A recent revival of her interest in religion. He wondered if she was ever praying for him. It made him sad to see how much faith she put in Jesus Christ when Christ, for his part, never seemed to have heard of her.

 


 

Heat & Light

by Jennifer Haigh

 

A panoramic novel about fracking and its toll on a Pennsylvania town. Here, Rich Devlin, a local prison guard who has sold the drilling rights to his land, makes an unwelcome discovery.

 

According to Dick Devlin [Rich’s father], there are two kinds of work: the kind where you shower before and the kind where you shower after. His elder son had always done the second kind—roofing, soldiering, hauling oxygen tanks for Miners’ Medical. Now, compared to Deer Run, those seem like clean jobs. More than ever before, Rich looks forward to his afterwork shower, scrubbing away the prison with the hottest water he can stand.

 

Outside, the rig noise stops abruptly, a small miracle. He undresses at full speed and stuffs his uniform into the hamper. With luck he’ll be asleep before the racket starts again. Sunday sleep, the best of the week: with Shelby and the kids at church, it’s the only time he can be reliably alone in his own goddamn house.

 

Two kinds of work. When you’re as old as his dad, everything you say is familiar. At what age does a person stop having new thoughts? Dick has gone years—decades, possibly—without saying anything he hasn’t said a hundred times before.

 

Rich turns on the taps and right away is struck by the odor. Shelby is right: the water smells like something. Lighter fluid, maybe? At the sink he hadn’t noticed. Now, with the spray blasting down on his head and shoulders, it’s impossible to ignore.

 

He takes an abbreviated shower, breathing through his mouth. The drain is a little slow—he’s been meaning to snake it—and he stands, watching the tub empty. The water is cloudy. A rainbow film clings to the surface, like a spill of gasoline.

 


 

String Theory

by David Foster Wallace

 

A collection of the late author’s essays on tennis. This passage is from a review of Tracy Austin’s autobiography.

 

Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere—fastest, strongest—and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.

 

Plus they’re beautiful: Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man. So actually more than one theory, then. Great athletes are profoundly in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace, and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.

 


 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi; The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead; and Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters are three novels that approach the subject of slavery from widely diverging angles.


Homegoing 

by Yaa Gyasi

 

In this episode from Homegoing, a teenage girl, Esi, and others who have been captured by warriors from a rival African tribe, are being marched to the coast to be sold into slavery.

 

Everyone walked. Esi had walked for miles with her father before and so she thought that she could take it. And indeed the first few days were not so bad, but by the tenth the calluses on Esi’s feet split open and blood seeped out, painting the leaves she left behind. Ahead of her, the bloody leaves of others. So many were crying that it was difficult to hear when the warriors spoke, but she couldn’t have understood them anyway. When she could, she checked to see if the stone her mother had given her was still safely tucked in her wrapper. She didn’t know how long they would be allowed to keep their clothes. The leaves on the forest ground were so damp with blood and sweat and dew that a child in front of Esi slipped on them. One of the warriors caught him, helped him to stand up, and the little boy thanked him.

 

“Why would he thank him? They are going to eat us all,” the woman behind Esi said. Esi had to strain to hear through the haze of tears and buzz of insects that surrounded them.

 

“Who will eat us?” Esi asked.

 

“The white men. That is what my sister says. She says the white men buy us from these soldiers and then they cook us like goats in soup.”

 


 

The Underground Railroad 

by Colson Whitehead

 

Cora, the protagonist of The Underground Railroad, escapes from a plantation in Georgia with the help of the railroad and is resettled for a time in South Carolina, where she works as an actor in the dioramas of Mr. Fields’ Museum of Natural Wonders.

 

The first room was Scenes from Darkest Africa. A hut dominated the exhibit, its walls wooden poles lashed together under a peaked thatch roof. Cora retreated into its shadows when she needed a break from the faces. There was a cooking fire, the flames represented by shards of red glass; a small, roughly made bench; and assorted tools, gourds, and shells. Three large black birds hung from the ceiling on a wire. The intended effect was that of a flock circling over the activity of the natives. They reminded Cora of the buzzards that chewed the flesh of the plantation’s dead when they were put on display.

 

The shooting blue walls of Life of a Slave Ship evoked the Atlantic sky. Here Cora stalked a section of the frigate’s deck, around the mast, various small barrels, and coils of rope. Her African costume was a colorful wrap; her sailor outfit made her look like a street rascal, with a tunic, trousers, and leather boots. The story of the African boy went that after he came aboard, he helped out on deck with various small tasks, a kind of apprentice. Cora tucked her hair under the red cap. A statue of a sailor leaned against the gunwale, spyglass pointed. The eyes, mouth, and skin color were painted on its wax head in disturbing hues.

 

Typical Day on the Plantation allowed her to sit at a spinning wheel and rest her feet…. Chickens stuffed with sawdust pecked the ground; from time to time, Cora tossed imaginary seed at them. She had numerous suspicious about the accuracy of the African and ship scenes but was an authority in this room. She shared her critique. Mr. Fields did concede that spinning wheels were not often out doors, at the foot of a slave’s cabin, but countered that while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions. Would that he could fit an entire field of cotton in the display and had the budget for a dozen actors to work it. One day perhaps.

 


 

Underground Airlines 

by Ben H. Winters


Underground Airlines imagines an alternate present in which there are still four states in the U.S. where slavery is legal. In this passage, Victor, a former slave now working as an undercover agent for the U. S. Marshals Service, visits the office of Mr. Newell, an executive at Garments of the Greater South Incorporated, an industrialized cotton plantation in Alabama.

 

“This is not the slavery of fifty or even ten years ago. People think about slavery and they still think—still!—about the whips and the dogs and the spiky neck chains, all of that nasty business. But this is now. This is the twenty-first century. You see there”—pointing again with that fat finger, a gold ring between the second and third knuckles, forcing me to look—“that there is the population center. Four thousand head in those buildings right there. We got a rec center in there, gymnasium equipment that every one of our team members is not just encouraged but also required to use. And you see the building in the center, with the turret-looking thing on top? From up in there, the guards can see into every single cell, and every single cell can see the guards, too. So everybody knows they’re safe. Everybody’s looking after each other. That goes back to Jefferson, by the way, that design. So you’re looking at a proud tradition here.”

 

He had fixed his hand on my arm all of a sudden, tight and congenial, like a fraternity brother.

 

“Forget about whips, okay? Forget about Tasers…. I can tell you—because I know the folks down on the sixth floor—I can tell you we do not use Tasers here. Once ina blue moon, maybe, is it thought to be necessary. Because this here is an incentive-based facility, okay?” His fingers were tight as a shackle on my bicep. “And I tell you, you hear folks saying, what do they feed those poor boys? Then I go home on meat-loaf night at my house, I’m thinking, gee, I wish I was over in the mess hall with the peebs!” He snorted. “I only wish! Just don’t go telling my wife!”

 


 

Odes

by Sharon Olds

 

From “Ode to Wattles”

 

I want to write about my wattles—oooo, I

lust after it,

I want to hold a mirror under my

chin so I can see the new

events in solid geometry

occurring below my jaw, which was

all bone till now, and now is jam-packed

reticule. I love to be a little

disgusting, to go as far as I can

into the thrilling unloveliness

of an elderwoman’s aging. It is like daring

time, and the ancient laws of eros,

at once. But when I look down,

into the compact’s pool, and see

my face hanging down from the bottom of my face,

like a raft of woven popsicle sticks,

my nursing-home neck,

then, though I’m willing to age and die

for there to be sex and children,

the slackness of the drapery, and the

inside-out pockets of the jowls shock me.

 


 

The Day of the Owl

by Leonardo Sciascia

translated from the Italian

by Archibald Colquhon and Anthony Oliver

 

This 1961 detective novel about systematic corruption, organized crime, and the legacy of fascism in Italy resonated for me in the days after the Presidential election. The book’s central figure is Captain Bellodi, a detective from the north who becomes increasingly frustrated by the mafia’s pervasive power to disrupt his investigation of a murder.

 

Suddenly [his] state of mind gave way to rage. The captain felt a wave of resentment at the narrow limits in which the law compelled him to act; like his subordinates he found himself longing for exceptional powers, exceptional liberty of action; a longing he had always condemned in them. A few months’ suspension in Sicily of constitutional guarantees, and the evil could be uprooted forever. Then he remembered Mori’s repression of the mafia under fascism and rejected this alternative. But his anger smouldered on, his Northerner’s anger against the whole of Sicily, the only region in the whole of Italy to have been given liberty during the fascist dictatorship, the liberty of safety of life and property. How many other liberties this liberty of theirs had cost, the Sicilians did not know or want to know. In the dock at the assizes they had all seen the Dons and the zii, the election riggers and even those Commanders of the Order of the Crown of Italy, the doctors and lawyers who intrigued with or protected the underworld. Weak or corrupt magistrates had been dismissed; complaisant officials removed. For peasant, smallholder, shepherd, and sulphur-miner, the dictatorship had spoken the language of freedom.

 

“And perhaps that’s why there are so many fascists in Sicily,” thought the Captain. “They never saw fascism as buffoonery or, like us, lived out its full tragic consequences.”  

 


 

The Story of a Brief Marriage

by Anuk Arudpragasam

 

A novel about an unlikely union during Sri Lanka’s civil war. In this scene, the orphaned protagonist, Dinesh, has just helped a doctor amputate a boy’s arm.

 

When everything was done, the doctor bore the boy up in his arms and went away with the nurse in search of a quiet place for him to rest. Dinesh, on whom the job of disposal fell, sat staring at the bloody little hand and forearm, wondering what he should do. There were plenty of other naked body parts scattered around the camp of course, fingers and toes, elbows and thighs, so many that nobody would say a thing if he just left the arm under a bush or beside a tree. But while those body parts were anonymous, this one had an owner, which meant, he felt, that it had to be disposed of properly. He could bury it perhaps, or burn it, but he was apprehensive of touching it. Not because of the blood, for the child’s blood had already stained his sarong and his hands, but because he didn’t want to feel the softness of the freshly amputated flesh between his fingers, the warmth of a limb just recently alive. He would much rather just wait till the blood had drained and the flesh had hardened, when picking the severed arm up would be more like picking up a stick or a small branch, not much more perhaps but more so all the same.

 


 

Hitler: Ascent

by Volker Ullrich

translated from the German

by Jefferson Chase

 

As Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie wrote last week, “Now is not the time to tiptoe around historical references. Recalling Nazism is not extreme; it is the astute response of those who know that history gives both context and warning.” This excerpt is from the Introduction.

 

The artistry with which Hitler was able to conceal his real intentions from both friends and foes was another main key to his success as a politician. Seventeen years after the fall of the Third Reich, in his memoirs, the former Finance Minister, Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk identified “bottomless mendacity” as Hitler’s primary personal characteristic. “He wasn’t even honest towards his most intimate confidants,” Krosigk recalled. “In my opinion, he was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth.” Krosigk’s moral condemnation reveals that Hitler—the consummate role player who had repeatedly got the better of his conservative allies—continued to fool them even after his death.

 

Hitler liked to present himself as a frustrated artist who had been driven involuntarily into politics, and the myth of the “artist-politician” has influenced many biographies. This obscures the fact that Hitler was a well-below-average painter and architect, however: his great gift was for politics alone. In his ability to instantaneously analyse and exploit situations, he was far superior not only to his rivals within the NASDP but also to the politicians from Germany’s mainstream parties. There is no other way to explain why he emerged victorious in all the crises within the Nazi party leading up to 1933. Or how he was able, within a few months after his appointment as chancellor, to subjugate his conservative coalition partners in the “cabinet of national concentration,” although they were convinced they had co-opted him for their ends.... Furthermore, I will try to show that Hitler’s unusually improvisational and personal style of leadership, which created constant responsibility conflicts and an anarchic tangle of offices and portfolios, was anything but an expression of political incompetence. On the contrary, it served to make Hitler’s own supremacy essentially unassailable.

 


 

Some other wonderful books I enjoyed this year: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell, Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens, Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt, The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron, and Am I Alone Here? By Peter Orner. 

 

Happy Holidays everyone and I hope you drop by the Center to say hi and pick up your reading for 2017! 

 

 

 

❦❦

 


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The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud. 

 

Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.

 

You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud