Holiday Reading Recommendations from The Cullman Center
We’re finally settling into winter here in New York, and with the holiday break upon us that means it’s time for some absorbing indoor reading. Whom better to ask for recommendations than our current class of Fellows at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers? Our nineteenth group of independent scholars, creative writers, artists, and academics, as well as Cullman Center staff, recommend a range of fiction and nonfiction for your reading pleasure.
A great joy of my fiction-reading life in the past ten years or so has been the Indian novel, and many people agree with me. I’m embarrassed at how many books named below have been shortisted for, or have won, the Booker prize. (Even the Akhil Sharma book won a big award, from PEN, which is quite a trick for a comic novel about pedophiliac incest.) But if you have not read any of the following, run out the door and go buy it:
Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others. (This I had never heard of when it landed on my desk.)
Akhil Sharma, An Obedient Father. Sharma was a 2016-17 Cullman Fellow.
They are all pretty much about the same thing: identity, if the author has emigated; politics, if the author has not emigrated, and sometimes if he/she has. A great Indian novel that is not about those things—probably because it is much older—but is probably the best of them, is R. K. Narayan’s The Guide.
Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Blood-boiling outrage is a good offset to the icy chill of winter. This book is utterly absorbing and as relevant as it was when first published in 1991.
For lovers of U.S. history, I also recommend Theodore Rosengarten’s All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. Shaw (a pseudonym) was a black sharecropper from Alabama, born one generation removed from slavery. His vivid memories and extraordinary storytelling ability make this oral history one the finest works of American historical literature.
Andy Warhol, Seven Illustrated Books 1952–1959. As a Warhol biographer, I can’t afford to read anything without his name in the title, but that doesn’t always mean weighty tomes. For this holiday season, the publisher Taschen has produced a deluxe reissue of seven of the comic chapbooks that Andy produced in the 1950s, in his pre-Pop days when he worked as an illustrator. I enjoy their frothy surfaces, but they’ve also given me insight into Warhol’s place in gay New York at the time. (Scholars who need a closer look at the originals can find some of them at the NYPL.)
Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz. An irreducible novel that follows a teenager on his journey through the Nazi death camps. Kertesz plays with what we know, think we know, and have come to expect from Holocaust stories; he manipulates the space between reader and narrator such that the effect of reading this book is truly a physical one. Ultimately we come to see that he's written a novel set in the grim reality of the death camps in order to confront us with the largest questions: Is there such a thing as fate? How does the impossible come to be, and how can the indescribable be described?
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. A memoir told through the lens of surfing, a pastime that has taken Finnegan (also a New Yorker staff writer and an international journalist) all over the world in search, quite literally, of the perfect wave. There is much to recommend about this book (it won the Pulitzer Prize, so doesn't really need my praise), but I think the thing that impressed me most is the way that Finnegan is somehow able to describe metaphysical states of being. I knew nothing of surfing—nor was I particularly interested—before reading this, but through the beauty of Finnegan's language I feel I came to understand it completely, while also gaining a deeper understanding of religion, sport, and really any activity through which we attempt to get closer to something larger than ourselves.
Churchill & Orwell, Thomas E. Ricks’s frequently funny book, describes Winston Churchill as a troublesome boy, whose parents didn’t think he was “clever enough to be a lawyer” and quotes Eric Blair’s brother-in-law, who said he was “a little fat boy, always whining.” It was fascinating to read how these two became courageous visionaries.
This book led me to Orwell’s collection of essays, Why I Write, which includes his great "Politics and the English Language".
I think everyone should buy (and read!) more poetry over the holidays. But, because poetry is not as mainstream as other genres, sometimes it can be hard to find what's new and exciting. Here are several small press poetry books from 2017 that I'd recommend as crucial reading for our current moment:
Rocket Fantastic by Gabrielle Calvocoressi (Persea Books)
Some Say the Lark by Jennifer Chang (Alice James Books)
Blud by Rachel McKibbens (Copper Canyon Press)
Starshine & Clay by Kamilah Aisha Moon (Four Way Books)
Gilt by Raena Shirali (YesYes Books)
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan (a 2012-13 Cullman Fellow), is one of the most brilliant, beautiful, complicated, and gut-wrenching books I have ever read. Set on a farm in Kentucky where a rebellious son of the infamous Forge Family wants to breed champion racehorses instead of raising crops, the book sprawls into an indictment of the South, of ideology pertaining to purity and race and genetics and gender and incarceration, and includes the voices of multiple generations of two families as well as innovative structures and forms. What Morgan takes on is immense and astonishing -- and every character is achingly alive and every sentence chiseled by lyricism.
I’d like to recommend Where the Line is Drawn, by the Palestinian lawyer and writer Raja Shehadah, a graceful, moving account of Shehadah’s forty-year friendship with an Israeli Jew and the strains it undergoes because of the occupation. Shehadeh offers an unsparing portrait of life in the occupied territories—and, occasionally, an unsparing portrait of his friend—but he does not succumb to hopelessness, showing how the conflict can be defied and even transcended by crossing borders and refusing to let politics define who one calls one’s friends.
I just finished The Physics of Sorrow by my fellow Cullman Fellow Georgi Gospodinov. It’s quite simply the best book I have read in years. Witty and searching, there’s a surprise in every paragraph, in every sentence. You just want to keep reading.
And a few recommendations from Cullman Center staff
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada (Melville House). The main story line follows a working class Berlin couple who takes a stand against Hitler via a postcard campaign, but it’s just a small piece of a rich, striking novel about people trying to live under a fascist regime, and those who enforce it. It makes for gripping, eerie and timely reading. Another novel on fascism in Europe that I strongly recommend is For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian (Other Press), recently translated from Romanian. I don’t write many book reviews, but found this narrative so powerful I wrote one about it here.
I bought Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (Restless Books) after he gave a fantastic reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop earlier this year. It’s a collection of surreal short stories about the workers of the United Arab emirates. During the reading, Unnikrishnan said he hoped to bring the sounds of the Gulf to life—especially the mix of languages—and he succeeds.
I’m in the middle of Ian Buruma's Year Zero, a riveting account of 1945 as it played out in every corner of the world after its collapse. Murder, hunger, cruelty, revenge were everywhere. The international agreements, institutions, and norms born at that time have rarely seemed so necessary or so fragile as they do now.