December: Top Ten Treehouse Books
Someone sent me the New York Times list of the top 100 books of 2020 and I thought I was being punked. I'd never heard of any of them, except one with witches in Norway (The Mercies) that was just OK. One of them was a Harlequin novel set in China. Not a single one was worth taking up to the hammock 30 feet above ground level in my new quarantine treehouse. So without further ado, here are ten books I read this year that are actually worth reading, along with three others that will guarantee a good night's sleep for those suffering from pandemic insomnia.
Let's start with the three terrible ones. The first is V. S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival. This postcolonial snoozer is set in a small village near Salisbury where absolutely nothing happens. I have it in my little book drawer next to the hammock in the treehouse in case I need a nap. The second is Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. Oh, that's clever: have a narrator be envious of her more successful friend and tell the friend's story indirectly. It's The Great Gatsby for the Lululemon set. The third is David Mitchell's Utopia Avenue. What a tragic waste of talent. Not all of these books were written this year, but I read them in 2020 so you don't have to.
And now, the top ten books I read in 2020, all of them worth reading, none of them a waste of your valuable time.
#10. Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann.
Books should take research. This is the most informative book on 16th-Century Westphalia I know. The main character is Tyll Eulenspiegel, the original trickster, walking through the plague-torn hellscape that is the Thirty Year's War. He meets the niece of Elizabeth I, who has been married off to the King of Bohemia and is living hand-to-mouth in a gilded carriage. Tyll is a novel written in despair, with a bravura in the face of all that grief: "writing is triply difficult when you never learned how and it's dark and you're bleeding." A Pardoner's Tale for the new century.
#9. Wanting, by Richard Flanagan.
Another gorgeously researched book. Wanting is two stories in one: the story of Charles Dickens meeting the love of his life, and the story of a girl running through the wallaby grass in Van Diemen's Land. How the stories intersect is part of the book's magic, a glorious contraption of Arctic explorations, amateur theatricals, and misbegotten attempts at civilizing the heathen by various forms of Victorian Philistine. Richard Flanagan gives us a savage indictment of colonialism that is also a beautiful illustration of desire.
#8. Glass House, by Brian Alexander.
Research, research, research. Brian Alexander is a son of a glass worker at Anchor Hocking, the industry that single-handedly kept Lancaster, Ohio from becoming Zanesville. Now, of course, it is Zanesville: this is the story of how a town was shorted into oblivion by private equity. Alexander interviews everybody, from the divorced woman who gave him lemonade when he was a kid to the visiting CEO of the carved-up corporation that steered itself into bankruptcy to avoid paying into the pension funds of all its workers, thereby making it a more attractive investment to Wall Street. This is a book with a keen sense of irony: the scene where Anchor Hocking tries to save itself from global irrelevance by merging with its blood rival from Toledo, only to be thwarted by an anti-monopoly statute, is something Sophocles or Arthur Miller could have written. Glass House traces the direct path from Bill Clinton winning over 1,500 counties in the union in 1992 and 1996 to Joe Biden winning only 509 in 2020: corporations destroyed middle America.
#7. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.
This is The Goldfinch in the bunch. When I taught Donna Tartt's novel in a summer course on Reading for Pleasure (along with DeLillo, David Mitchell, and Kate Atkinson), there was an outcry. Too lazy! Not clever enough! Written for its television adaptation! And yes, this will come out on HBO Max eventually. In this year of the plague, you may ask, do we really want to read another pandemic book? Yes, when it's as well plotted as this one (and written so many years in advance). Emily Mandel doesn't write a boring line, and though her single-woman-stuck-in-Toronto routine wears thin (The Glass Hotel has more of the same), the audacity of this book is that every detail has been carefully imagined. Mandel thinks through the consequences of every nuance in her imagined future, and scatters literary breadcrumbs through the text, to show us finally the purpose of art: to provide a cultural memory.
#6. Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier.
The great literary and cinematic projects of Summer 2001 are largely forgotten, obliterated by the events of 9/11. One of these projects was Ian Frazier's five-week journey across Siberia by van, sponsored by the New Yorker and abandoned when he arrived at Vladimirskaya Bay on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. It's fitting that the book got frozen over by the glacial moraine that was our country's reaction to the deaths of as many people as in one entire day of COVID-19 nineteen years later. Travels in Siberia is a long ice sheet of a book, as boring in parts as the tundra it painstakingly describes. It has epic discursions on the sedimentary layers of excrement in the men's bathroom in the Minsk Airport, on the lost engine parts scattered on the ice highways of Lake Baikal, on the three-day wait for a train to take you from Chernyshevsk to Magdagachi, over the part of the highway that is, as a result of swamps, lack of population, and the difficulty of maintenance, undrivably bad. You will be glad that you did not take this trip, but you will also see, in Frazier's unflinching examination of a broken state, what looks alarmingly like our future.
#5. The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel.
Yes, this is as good as everybody says. And it's the only one that I share with the top 100 list from The New York Times. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day...
#4. The Order of the Day, by Eric Vuillard.
This one is a surprise - it showed up in my Little Book Library (along with #1, below). It's an exquisite gem, written with the lapidary precision of The Hare with the Amber Eyes, but with the political force of Homage to Catalonia. The translation is astonishingly good. In two short political mini-dramas the author, part eagle, part vulture, pecks at the lies that gave us the rise of the Third Reich. "Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps," says Vuillard. And he is right.
#3. War in Val D'Orcia, by Iris Origo.
What would you do if history rolled right over you? How would you write through it? This innocuous-looking book with the pastoral cover is the best first-person narrative of the civilian war experience I know. Iris Origo is the English wife to the signore of a large Tuscan estate, which makes her a Marchesa. Educated in Long Island, she expects to have an idyllic life as a sophisticated exile, only to discover that her estate is on the front lines of the American advance through Italy in 1943 and 1944. First the Germans try to hold it, then they retreat. The partisans switch side as Mussolini falls. Americans come through, bringing rape and devastation. Each day an impossible decision must be made, taken by a quiet moral voice, and entered into her diary. Like the farmers in Ypres, the birds in the Korean DMZ, and the refugees in South Sudan, she is living in No Man's Land. This book should be required reading.
#2. Lightning Rods, by Helen DeWitt.
How to explain this one? In order to solve a perceived problem of oversexed heterosexual white males in working environments, a salesman down on his luck invents a method by which men can be sexually satisfied in the disability toilets of conjoining bathrooms. Productivity goes way up, absenteeism is down, women report fewer incidences of harassment, and the people who provide the service (the "lightning rods" of the title) are richly compensated. The business community sees the obvious value in the product, and the book takes off. This is a vicious satire of corporate America that is definitely not for everyone. Like Lionel Shriver, another iconoclast of American letters, Helen DeWitt takes no prisoners on the left or the right, and leaves a scorched earth in her wake. Brutally good, in the spirit of Black Mischief.
# 1. Cards of Identity, by Nigel Dennis.
Has anybody else read this book? It's f**king brilliant. Think Get Out crossed with A Handful of Dust. Auden said in 1955 that it was the best book he'd read since 1940, and I can't think of anything better from that admittedly fallow period of British Literature. Thank you, Little Book Library anonymous donor, for a book that crackles with electric energy, showing what the possibilities of gleefully uninhibited satire really are. (Unlike Lightning Rods above, which ended up being dour and unfunny.) I haven't finished this one - I've barely started it - but I can't wait to take it up to the Treehouse in 2021. Here is Captain Mallet, predator of the souls of the lower classes, introducing his family: "This is my son, Beaufort; and this is his wicked stepmother, my present wife. Where his real mother is, it would be safer not to inquire. Parenthood presents many complications nowadays, and most of them are not fit for public discussion, even with an old friend of the family." And here is Mr. Henry Paradise, Captain Mallet's first victim: "Mr. Paradise thought this introduction had been very late in coming and very improperly performed - exactly what one expected, in fact, from a very rich person." A book to savor (though the font is tiny - what the hell is it with these Penguin editions?).
If anyone has read a good book in 2020, please let me know, or drop it off in the Little Book Library outside the house. I'll put some of these out for you to pick up, along with a regularly curated set of children's books, popular and classic novels, diet and cooking books, and biographies. Happy reading!