I’m still in Australia for a few more days. A six-word story summary of Brisbane for Americans: Midwestern culture, Miami climate, Alaska prices.
Wanted to check in with my usual annual account of the books I most enjoyed reading in the past year. My recommendations are a little boring this year, because two of the three best books I read were also books that have won a bunch of awards. All I can do here is vouch that, yes, they deserve their acclaim, so much so that despite my love of feeling heterodox I could not bear the dishonesty of not recognizing them as my personal favorites.
For non-fiction: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katharine Boo. Vivid account of life in a slum of Mumbai. For sociologists, it has the added bonus of maybe prompting some reflection about the relationship between journalism, nonfiction writing, and ethnography. I mean, I would be really proud if Katharine Boo was a sociologist so we could lay claim to such a virtuoso work about the intersection of individual lives in poverty and a rapidly changing world. And yet, if it had been released as an ethnography, I would probably spend a lot of time kvetching about how it’s hard to know precisely how much of it is strictly true.
For fiction: Wolf Hall / Bringing Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. I resisted reading these books for awhile even though my beloved raved about them, because I thought historical fiction surrounding Henry VII was the kind of thing that other people swooned over but not me. Especially because a lot of historical fiction focuses so much on conveying details of the time and then either has a lethargic plot or a plot that exports contemporary soap opera arcs onto history. Both these books are intricately and masterfully plotted, and so incredibly satisfying as they come to the end you knew (or Wikipedia) reminded you was coming already.
For fiction, runner-up: The book I read in the past year that hasn’t received the critical credit it deserves is Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. The novel intersperses the first-person account of a teenage girl with fragments from e-mails, letters, surreptitious recordings, and other mock sources to tell the story of a brilliant mother with thwarted artistic ambitions who has been mentally checked-out for a long time and then finally, well, disappears.
As always, your own recommendations welcome. I’m always on the lookout for new books (although, like everyone else in the academia area code, I don’t get through as many as I would like).