Category: Literature

Best of 2016

Not counting rereads, I gave 17 books a 5-star rating on Goodreads this year. Looking back, a significantly high number of them were read while traveling – wonder if there’s something there in terms of enjoyment.

In order of most recently read.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Didion, Joan
The Argonauts by Nelson, Maggie
Laurus by Vodolazkin, Evgenij
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race by Ward, Jesmyn
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Alexander, Michelle
The Sellout by Beatty, Paul
Aura by Fuentes, Carlos
Native Speaker by Lee, Chang-rae
Middlemarch by Eliot, George
Speak, Memory by Nabokov, Vladimir
Baldur’s Gate II (Boss Fight Books, #8) by Bell, Matt
Citizen: An American Lyric by Rankine, Claudia
Black Music by Baraka, Amiri
The Regional Office Is Under Attack!by Gonzales, Manuel
Between the World and Me by Coates, Ta-Nehisi
The Fire Next Time by Baldwin, James
Willful Disregard: A Novel About Love by Andersson, Lena

2017!

Big plans for 2017 to involve a monthly blog, but now in the form of a TinyLetter. You can sign up here: http://tinyletter.com/grahammoliver/letters/2016-2017. I’ll still be copying posts onto this site as well for the eventuality of it becoming a full author site, but who wants to check an individual website in 2017? Not me.


 

Friends,

Welcome to 2017. I hope the first few days of the New Year are treating you well! Thanks for checking out what I hope is the first of many monthly letters.

New Year’s in our house is usually spent with Carolina’s family. The holiday holds more significance for them than for most people I grew up around – they have a midnight dinner and make twelve wishes while eating twelve grapes. Last year, I had to be woken up for my grape dosage. This year, I made it to midnight but retreated to bed as soon as the kisses and wishes were over.

2017 promises to be a year of transition, both for our country and in my own life. After five years of graduate school (and only a short gap before that from the tail-end of my long and tortured undergraduate career), I’ll be released into the wild and forced to fend for myself. We’ll see which way the wind blows. I find myself kind of reveling in the ~four part-time job nature of mixing the academic and writing life and look forward to continuing that.

Resolutions: Stop putting two spaces after periods. Bake more. Stand up straighter.

Originally I’d intended to take part of this email talking about my experience focusing on reading books in translation during 2016 for my Ploughshares interview series and for my own betterment, but then my final interview fell through at the last minute and so I had to use that material as a substitution. You can read it here. Summary: Not enough gets translated. What does get translated is not very geographically diverse. The UK and small presses do a lot of the translation heavy lifting. My two 2016 translation recommendations are Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson (Swedish, translator Sarah Death) and Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin (Russian, translator Lisa Hayden). One interesting thing I’m learning as I’m immersing myself more and more in the reviewing world is how distinct some publishers/imprints are. Willful Disregard was published by Other Press, which also published A True Novel–my favorite book of this millenium so far–and is just consistently lined up with the aesthetic I enjoy. Laurus was published by Oneworld, who I haven’t read much by, but they were the UK publishers of The Sellout which was probably my favorite book I read in 2016.

I keep up what I’m reading about on Goodreads. You can check out my profile here. I’m guiltily addicted to the stats it provides: ~28% of the books I read this year were translations. ~18% were memoirs. ~7% I stopped reading before finishing. VIDA count split right down the middle–52% women, 48% men–though I’m not sure if that would’ve held true if I hadn’t reread all of the Harry Potter universe for a trivia contest. ~25% were by Black authors, as that was my other reading theme for 2016. More on that next month.

I love end of the year write-ups and looking back over my own past twelve months. While it’s not tied to the end of the year, but instead the end of the semester, one of my favorite traditions is asking my students for recommendations of what to check out over the break. They tell me to check out singers I’ve never heard of or their one absolute favorite dish at a restaurant or just let me know what their favorite movie is. I give them my own recommendations and spend way too much time thinking about them. It’s a careful line to walk, as giving recommendations always is. Finding things that will pique their interest, that they haven’t already heard of, that aren’t intimidating for one reason or another.

What would your list look like, either for the modern student or your past self? Here’s what i went with:

Books: Between the World and MeFun HomeA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The fact is the majority of my students don’t read much beyond what they have to. You could call this sad, but I certainly wasn’t reading much at their age either. So, with my three recommendations, my first two are on the shorter side – Coates’s Between the World and Me is only 176 pages and is a good, narrative-based gateway drug to a lot of important conversations going on right now. Plus, we watched a couple of videos of Coates speaking in class. Coates is active on Twitter, and he writes comic books which might make him seem more approachable. Fun Home is a graphic novel, which offers another avenue for entry, and has the Broadway adaptation to boost its signal. AHWOSG has, to be honest, not held up to rereads in recent years, but when I was their age it was a super important book in my life, so I thought to include it.

Movies: Amélie, Spirited Away, What Happened Miss Simone?
Two fun movies that are outside what they might normally be exposed to, one documentary that can serve as a segue to things like 13th (which I thought might be a bit overwhelming to start with).

Podcasts: Code Switch, Radiolab, Welcome to Night Vale
Hey, a pattern. All of my categories have an item that is speaking to issues around race in some way or another. Of course, I want my students to be a part of these conversations, but I also want to show them how a single topic can be talked about in an interesting way from a lot of different media. Code Switch hits race from perspectives as wide-ranging as food, joke explanations, and the sexuality of Juan Gabriel. Radiolab is the podcast that hits me in the emotional epicenter in my gut most often (most recently, their episode “Playing God“). Welcome to Night Vale is just good, fun storytelling in the tradition of HP Lovecraft and HG Wells.

Twitter Accounts: @annehelen, @eveewing, @pastpostcard
I plug Anne Helen Petersen and Eve Ewing to my classes on a regular basis. They’re both PhDs, with published books, who engage with the public via Twitter on a very accessible basis. Petersen writes about celebrities and journalism (here’s her on Tom Hanks or Jennifer Garner, for example) in a super analytical way, which I hope shows the students that they can write about topics that are seen as less serious. Ewing is super wide ranging–a sociologist focused on education, an essayist, and a poet–who spends a lot of time on her platform speaking to people who feel lost in the higher education system. @pastpostcard is just a burst of fun: old British postcards with some of the text copied into the Tweet.

I’ll let you know if I hear from any of them. During the finals, one student said they started to watch Amélie, but they wanted to know if the whole movie was in subtitles. So, yeah.

What veins did you get in to this year? Were they rabbit holes or underground rivers or endless catacombs? How do you decide the next next book/TV show/movie/album you’re going to consume?

I’ll close with a few reading/listening recommendations from the past month:
The new website RADIO GARDEN is just about the coolest thing ever, letting you easily navigate to different radio stations around the world.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama legacy. There’s also an accompanying interview and other pieces in response. He also made an appearance on the Longform podcast to talk about the piece, and it’s a great conversation.
Asma Khalid wrote a long piece about covering the election as a Muslim that’s pretty important reading. Two other related NPR pieces: Megyn Kelly on Fresh Air and Gene Demby on the Charleston Roof trial.

And there it is. I hope this note finds you well, and I hope to hear from you.

-g

Taking Something Unconventional and Making It Beautiful: An Interview with Elisabeth Jaquette

“How can one compare a biography from the 1700s written in Ge’ez, to a French play from the 1960s, to a contemporary Korean novel? How can one assess the quality of a translation without access to the source text? The selection process forced me to articulate what I think makes a good translation – and in the end, good translation is good writing. Ultimately, the best translations expand the possibilities of the English language: they take something unconventional and make it beautiful.”

Source: Taking Something Unconventional and Making It Beautiful: An Interview with Elisabeth Jaquette

Willful Disregard Review

Two months ago I interviewed Sarah Death, the translator of Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson, one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.  In our newest issue of Front Porch Journal, I wrote a review of it as well.  Check it out here.

Also, holy crap I overused the word “while” in that piece.  Thankfully, I have editing permissions…

Updating Adapting Reimagining

In honor of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Cincinnati, Ohio, I wanted to make a list of my favorite similar projects.  I know I’m going to leave off some great stuff–I’ll be up front and say I don’t watch a lot of movies, so A Serious Man isn’t on here–but, yeah.  I’m waiting for the great modern retelling of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,  Gentleman.  That movie doesn’t count.  I’m also not addressing works like Jesus Christ, Superstar, though it is something close to my heart.  It’s an adaptation, but more of a reimagining, which is a pretty different subgenre.  Also, no Ulysses, because I’m not a smart enough person to begin to summarize the relationship between it and The Odyssey.

5. Ten Things I Hate About You

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This movie is so ’90s it hurts a little.  I’m placing it on the list above Clueless because they fulfill similar niches, although Austen’s Emma (the basis for Clueless) and Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” (Ten Things I Hate About You) aren’t exactly the most alike things in the world.  The idea of replacing nobility with high schoolers and literal abuse from the Shakespeare play with Frankie Valli is just genius.  Although, so is replacing a close family friend with step-brother Paul Rudd.  Maybe I’ll call it a tie.

4. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs

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Maybe this one is a little loose because it’s only vaguely a “modernization” compared with the others.  But there’s glasses and a newspaper and a bowtie, which definitely weren’t present in the Brothers Grimm’s time period, and the whole sensibility of the story is definitely modern, so I’ll allow it.  I loved this book as a kid, and it’s one I’m going to be buying for all of the young people in my life, primarily due to the fact that it teaches the valuable lesson that stories are yours for the molding.

3. Spec Ops: The Line

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Adapting a book into a video game is a pretty questionable start to any project, which is not to downplay the artistic achievement that is The Great Gatsby for NES.  Spec Ops: The Line, though, manages to do a lot of cool stuff while remaining tightly connected to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  While Conrad was commenting on the savagery of so-called civilized people, Spec Ops brings Heart of Darkness into the present day Middle East and in the process asks its audience to reconsider not just the implications of American military actions but also the medium of shooting games at large.

2. Fables

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If I’m going to include Fables, a comic book series that brings the classic fairy tale characters into modern-day NYC, I guess I also have to mention Neil Gaiman’s amazing work, American Gods.  Fables feels a little more like a true retelling to me, whereas American Gods was a cool story that used old Gods in neat ways, Wednesday’s character was only distantly connected to the mythic Odin, for me, and much of the book’s focus was on non-mythological characters. Though I have to admit, I’ve only read a couple of issues of Fables and played the spin-off video game, The Wolf Among Us.  The Big Bad Wolf becomes Bigsby, sheriff of the fairy-tale community in NYC, Fabletown, where they’ve been forced to relocate after an EVIL EMPIRE kicked them out of their original homelands.  Fairy Tales who can’t pass as human are sent off to live at a farm up-state.  Gepetto is a jerk.

1. A True Novel

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The very first book I chose to review for The Rumpus was Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel.  I chose it because it sounded cool, it was translated, and I had a Japanese translator friend I could turn to for questions.  I made a mistake though (one I haven’t repeated): I didn’t look at the page count.  When the two book, 900 page novel arrived, I was a little terrified, but I also felt an obligation since this was my shot at continuing to write for them.  I reread Wuthering Heights, which it’s based on, then I tackled the book.  It’s now one of my top five favorite books of all times, and I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite book I’ve read written in the 21st century.  It pulls Emily Brontë’s work into mid-20th-century Japan and keeps the layered narrative.  Heathcliff is instead Taro Azuma, a wartime orphan from Manchuria.  But the book moves past the original material, with just tons of layers and intense emotions constantly oscillating off and on the pages.  This should be your summer read.

The Rumpus Interview with Manuel Gonzales

“If it felt like a trope was pushing a character to a direction that a character wouldn’t feel comfortable going either, I push them there and I make sure the discomfort is naked on the page, or I realize that’s the wrong direction for the character and the point at that moment is to subvert the trope and to zig when the trope wanted me to zag.”

Full interview here.