Top Reads for December
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! While everyone’s been reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming (which you can listen to on Scribd!), we’ve been catching up on some of the big books we didn’t get around to earlier in 2018. This includes: The Man Booker International Prize winner, Tana French’s latest, and Yuval Noah Harari’s important book of lessons.
Alex: The winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award, Flights caught my eye just as I was coming down from finishing Rachel Cusk’s terrific Outline trilogy. The description of Tokarczuk’s novel — “interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration” — caught my eye; so many of these themes reminded me of Cusk’s work. And there’s certainly a similarity; both are philosophical reads with a focus on travel, and more invested in sharing the disparate stories of dozens of people than on following the exploits of one central protagonist. But there are plenty of differences, too. Flights is much more fragmented; there’s no one linear perspective or timeline tying together the stories. It’s more incisive and less pensive than Cusk’s novels. Between the intellectual similarities and tonal differences, I managed to find that elusive read: the perfect book to transition you from one writer to another as gently as possible. Now if only we could get more translations of Tokarczuk’s books; in the meantime I’ll be searching for the perfect novel to transition me out of Flights.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Ashley: Yuval Noah Harari has been on my radar since he burst onto the bestseller list in 2015 with Sapiens. By the time his third book came out this year, I started to feel very bad that I hadn’t read his works yet. Then this recent New York Times profile, “Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer,” made me prioritize his latest, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, immediately. (It probably has a lot to do with my love of dystopian fiction and that I work at a tech startup.)
Harari dives deep and waxes philosophical about many of the large problems that plague us today: What are the consequences of fake news? What destruction is happening due to climate change? What are companies doing with all the data they collect about us? Whether you agree with his takes isn’t really the point; his well-considered, thoughtful arguments will give you a different perspective on all these problems than we get from headlines and 30-second news clips.
For instance, Harari’s thoughts about universal basic income and the “useless class” have really stuck with me. He argues that it’s hard to lobby for fair wages today because automation has made so many people expendable (the “useless class”). Hence there’s a need for a universal basic income (where people get paid regardless of whether they work), instead of the alternative, which would be cruelly killing unneeded people. And Harari argues that tech CEOs, who make up the ruling class, only support this to seem like nice rulers. It’s a pretty grim and, admittedly, extremely fascinating take.
The Witch Elm
Katie: I’m a big fan of Tana French’s gripping Dublin Murder Squad book series (currently being adapted for TV by Starz). Waiting for her next book always kills me. So, I’m beyond excited to be reading her latest, selected as one of The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2018. The Witch Elm is a departure from her previous books: it’s her first stand-alone mystery. She also flips the script with the narration. In the Dublin Murder Squad books, we experience the stories through the eyes of the detectives. Now, French plunges readers into the deep end of a murder investigation from the point of view of the suspect, our charming (and unreliable) narrator, Toby.
Good-looking and good-natured, Toby’s always had good luck … until he doesn’t. What if a skull were discovered hidden in the garden of your family’s ancestral home? Would you trust your family or would doubt creep in? Add this twist: your memory is full of holes after burglars snuck into your home, beat you within an inch of your life, and left you with a brain injury. As the murder detectives start investigating you and your family, you begin hearing stories about the past that make you wonder if the few events you do still remember actually happened the way you’ve always believed.
Like the best roller coasters, French takes her time building the drama, slowly climbing up and up, but that’s what makes the descent at the end such a scream.
The Great Believers
Alex (again!): The Great Believers is such an engrossing story that I almost want to call it a guilty-pleasure, but that would be dismissing the book’s great intelligence, dark subject matter, and deep empathy. The novel switches back and forth between Chicago in the 80s, as the AIDs crisis decimates a gay community, and a woman — the sister of one of the early victims of the virus — searching for her daughter in Paris in 2015. These types of back-and-forths can be frustrating in other novels, when the abrupt change in story and setting disrupts your immersion in the novel, but Makkai’s novel pulls it off seamlessly with a tonal cohesiveness that combines deep-seated worries — whether about the health of your community or the location of your daughter — with the joy of loving friendships and whip-smart banter. This is the sort of book I think I could recommend to just about anyone.
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