Welcome to the 5th Annual Last Word On Nothing Holiday Reading Guide, where people of LWON share their book recommendations for that stretch between Christmas and New Year when you finally have a solid hour to yourself.
Jessa: An Ocean of Minutes, by Thea Lim, is an alternate recent-history novel in which poor migrants are induced to undergo time travel to do the heavy lifting of rebuilding the world after a pandemic. But that makes it sound a certain way when really it’s a very literary book, in the way that Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction is literary. It came out this year and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, which is the big Canadian one.
For nonfiction, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard, was a nice trip into the archaeology of the time. Rather than present a polished story, she refuses to overstate certainty about what happened, and you end up with an idea of how classicists really go about piecing things together.
Jenny: There’s no glamor or glitter to Someone by Alice McDermott; it’s just a quiet, beautifully written novel that walks us episodically through a life, one like and unlike any other; when I was done reading it I wanted to go back and do it again just to savor all the things the author does right. Just, simply, a lovely experience, this read.
Ann: I’m going to second Jenny here but for McDermott’s The Ninth Hour: same quietness, same lucid writing, same desire to go back and do it all again; and by “do it all again,” I mean not just read but sit in that world and watch those people. I happen to know McDermott casually, and she’s everything you’d have thought from reading her books. She seems magic — no sparkles, no charisma, just magic.
Cameron: Oh, I love Alice McDermott! I don’t know how she does it. I loved Child of My Heart. I need to put these others on my list! I’m glad she’s wonderful in person.
Christie: I discovered Nora Krug’s incredible graphic memoir, Belonging, when my former editor of the same name posted a link to it. I couldn’t put it down, and I cannot stop thinking about it. Krug, a German who has lived in the U.S. for many years, uses government documents, her uncle’s old school notebooks, phone books, old photographs, letters, and her own captivating sketches to reckon with her family’s history in Nazi Germany. The result is a story that explores the question of what do do with the bits of the past that we may never know for sure and what it means to own your family history. It is one of most arresting books I’ve ever read.
Ann: Around the time I was reading McDermott, I was also reading Colm Toibin’s Irish/NYC novels, specifically Nora Webster. The two books are complementary and in fact, I can hardly remember now which was which. Toibin is louder but by no means loud, and intelligent and perceptive. Like McDermott, he stands back from his characters but you still see them from the inside, as though they’re people you’ve known for a long, long time. I tried comparing the two writers while I was reading them but got nowhere. I’d be interested if anyone else could see how they’re different – and they are very different.
Cassandra: Please, everyone go read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. The book looks at how medicine fails the elderly by emphasizing quantity of life over quality, and how some people are working to change the system for the better. I finished this in the spring, just as my grandma entered a nursing home. Having read Gawande’s book, I should have known what to expect. Still, I found myself stunned and helpless as I watched her lose her mobility, her freedom, and, at times, her dignity. We can do better. We must do better. Read this book, and then ask your friends and family to do the same.
Cameron: I have been reading and rereading the novel Radiant Shimmering Light, by Sarah Selecky, and I love it. The plot summary almost made me not read it: it’s about a woman who sees auras around animals and goes to work for her cousin, who’s an internet-famous women’s empowerment and lifestyle guru. And it’s a satire, and I don’t usually like satire, because it often seems mean. But that’s what I love about this book–it’s so kind. And yet it also made me question my motives every time I pick up my iPhone. And I look very closely at my dog now.
Sally: I wish it were against the law not to read this book: I just started Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World for the second time, about five minutes after I finished it the first time. It’s not easy to do justice to this book. The best I can do is “science fiction for anxious people who are horrified by the idea of having to live through the current historical moment”. Which is funny because Harkaway wrote it ten years ago.
Back then, only fringe economists and activists were pointing to some of the specific potential dangers posed by the marriage of technology and politics and capitalism. Now that marriage is bearing all kinds of rotten fruit. Look at the Google employees being conscripted into human rights violations and censorship so the company’s growth can keep its shareholders happy. Look at the data scientists unwittingly feeding artificial intelligence algorithms with predigested labeled pellets of bias. Look at the entire gig economy. Look at all the ways we all get slurped up into the behemoths of capitalism grinding over the human landscape.
How do you turn a concept that big and vague into a compelling sci-fi monstrosity? Harkaway does it, and his monster is spectacular. And lest I have overplayed the dreary dystopian anti-capitalist trombone, most of this book isn’t about any of that. Gone Away World is also a glorious mashup of at least 3 genres, including the kung-fu film and the coming of age story (!). The best thing about this bonkers mashup is the completely original way this allows his characters to summon their humanity to fight the monster. Whatever you’re facing in 2019 (or in 2018 for that matter – let’s be honest, the next 3 weeks will likely last several years), this book will bolster your fighting spirit.
Richard: While reading Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution I kept coming across footnotes citing a writer with whom I wasn’t familiar, Margaret Case Harriman. I looked her up: She was the daughter of the owner of the Hotel Algonquin and an intimate of its Round Table’s habitués as well as, by extension, their show business associates–not just the artists (such as writer Moss Hart, actress Helen Hayes, composer Cole Porter) but the business wizards (legends like producer Leland Hayward but also nearly-forgotten souls like lawyer Fanny Holtzmann, who parlayed access to British royalty into Walter Winchell column-inches). Harriman’s profiles of these figures appeared frequently in the New Yorker in the 1930s and 1940s, then in a 1944 collection, Take Them Up Tenderly, which I downloaded and then couldn’t stop reading. These outsize personalities were not just industry-defining, they were era-defining, and not just era-defining, but America-defining. They were also Depression-defying: Harriman was an indefatigable chronicler of royalties. Here, in real time, is Broadway figuring out how to create a new art form—and how to make a buck off it.
Image: John Pope-Hennessy, Beato Angelico, Scala, Firenze 1981., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7323348