I'm writing with book recommendations. There are so many fascinating books coming out this year. Still, they're overshadowed by the news. That instant dopamine hit, some of us get addicted to (FBI! The right's authoritarian tactics! Book banning! Gun violence! Attack on Salman Rushdie! Polio! Monkeypox! It's all exceeding fiction) instead of focusing on literature and more complex ideas. I promised this list a couple months ago from the treehouse, so here are 6 books I've encountered in the course of my National Book Critics Circle reading and that you should pick up if you like original thinking and feeling. They'll keep you from getting anesthetized to our times and reveal the awe-inspiring multiplicity of our world.
The Book of Goose, by Yiyun Li
Li is back! Someone commented the other day this book is exceptional, and I wholeheartedly agree. An odd stunner about friendship and the rise of a French peasant girl (you may notice a trend here, and if you read Chimerica that I passionately love stories about the rise of a nobody; this is not personal, not at all). Featuring an off-kilter, opinionated voice, it reminded me of Heavenly Creatures, which also involved some toxicity and writing or storytelling. It's not like Ferrante other than in the most elementary plot turns —Li's energy is different, still dark but more fairytale-like, more loosey-goosey about time and space—so don't go in expecting to feel the same way while reading it.
Personality and Power, by Ian Kershaw
Oh my god. This is my jam entirely. Not just one of the best nonfiction titles of the year, but one of the best nonfiction histories I've read in some time. It examines how personality shapes power through the profiles of Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Churchhill, deGaulle, Adenauer, Franco, Tito, Thatcher, Gorbachev, and Kohl. In the author's own words, he asks, "What social and political conditions determine the type of power they embody and whether authoritarian or democratic leaders can flourish? How important is personality itself, both in gaining power and then in exercising it?"
The Persuaders, by Anand Giridharadas
This book is flat-out brilliant. It features multiple profiles of persuasive tactics used by activists and others trying to preserve our democracy while also making positive change through persuasion— Bernie Sanders, AOC, and many others. If you believe in democracy, realize that we have, for several years, been on the verge of losing ours and only intend on reading one book this fall, here is the one to read.
The Rabbit Hutch, by Tess Gunty
I was floored by this prismatic debut, which feels nothing like a debut. The surprising, vibrant language alone would recommend this one. But my first law job was in the Oakland Public Defender's Office in the Dependency Unit—I couldn't stay in that area of practice because I cared too0 much. The stories were too upsetting, and I was worried I would turn into that thirtysomething depressed lawyer who made crude, disturbing jokes to deal with the horror some children go through—humor as a coping tactic. Kids' stories were often related through CASA volunteers and lawyers. It was necessary to protect them, but also, I often wanted to get a closer perspective involving them as subjects rather than objects of protection.
The Song of the Cell, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
I loved science as a kid – I got put in some class where you do special projects and met a narcoleptic dog. Were it not for complete impatience with the dry language advanced classes are typically taught, I probably would have wound up writing natural history as a copycat of Diane Ackerman. The universe is infinitely fascinating, and there is so much to know. Certain basic things about cells in this book you might have learned in AP bio or an intro course in college, but Mukherjee also offers entertaining history, broader metaphors, reportage and, marvelously, introduces insightful connections to Hindu ideas along the way. It's a book for people with varying scientific knowledge, and it's a stunner.
The Immortal King Rao, by Vauhini Vara
This is one of the best novels of the year, period. I wanted to review it and couldn't find a venue, which unsettled me—I know the year in publishing was crowded, but I'm a good critic and had so much to say about this novel. It's a satire about the rise of King Rao, a tech guy born Dalit in a coconut grove, and his daughter, who gets all his memories. The daughter has spent her life only with her father. Some interesting philosophy is carefully woven through, though I should say I strongly disagree with various aspects of the dramatic argument. But there's some brilliant abstract thinking about a future in which corporations rule the world (don't they already?). The world has converted to a shareholder government—with where we are with dark money, this doesn't seem farfetched to me. The critical coverage has irritated me; I think I became a critic because I'm perpetually irritated with the pandering, publicity-oriented state of criticism. I've read a blurb and reviews calling it three novels in one because it has scenes set in Andhra and others in the future. No—this is the nature of our reality now.
As for my own writing - I've been experimenting with nonfiction and novel research. I somehow wrote this op-ed on the importance of divergent thinking in the Bay Area for the LA Times in the first days of battling COVID (I said yes to writing it, and then I caught COVID, and I have severe issues around saying no to writing possibilities as an immigrant who wanted them and worked towards for four decades.
While in Lake Arrowhead for a family trip, I found two houses where plot turns take place—one, more low-key—is pictured above. The other is the Shirley Temple house I saw on one of those boat tours with this jokester captain who earns his living doing boat tours in the summer (the lake has a fascinating history, perfect for the novel I'm working on) and teaching skiing in the winter.
I am planning my next self-created residency to keep working on my novel and maybe this other project I have brewing. I might be getting a meaningful new client, too, which means I have to be even more guarded with writing only what I'm passionate about when I'm not working for other people's causes.
So where should I go? What's your favorite coastal place in California? It's unclear to me why. I'm not a good swimmer, and my nightmares are that I'll die by falling from great heights into the water. Still, I do my best imagining by the ocean. Debating Inverness, Tomales Bay, and Venice Beach. But, also, maybe a glass house in SoCal because you know what they say about people in glass houses…so of course, I'm going to stay in one.
Have a wonderful last month of summer.
p.s. If you are on the Peninsula in the Bay Area, please let me know if you want to join me in political postcard writing, eating grilled eggplants and heirloom tomatoes – tis the season! - and fancy mochi-nuts (thank you, friends who introduced me to this and boba tea 25 years ago, you know who you are). Children would be welcome but could play outside if they get bored. The fight for democracy and good representatives is a lifelong thing, not a one-and-done; why not get into the habit during childhood? Whatever the outcome, it could be a beautiful effort.