I read 47 books this year.
Man, reading books is so awesome. Too many people, I fear, stop reading books because they’re busy keeping up with magazines. (Or they read neither!) Better to achieve a balance of both. But it’s difficult.
Of the books I read this year, these were especially outstanding: The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake Bailey’s memoir about his difficult brother; The Ballad of a Small Player, Lawrence Osborne’s surreal account of a gambler in Macau; The Spell, one of Alan Hollinghurst’s early, underrated novels; Satin Island, the latest from Tom McCarthy, whom I adore; Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s important letter to his son; The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt’s challenging multi-faceted study of an artist’s final work; and Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson’s terrific collection of short stories.
But one book stood out. And as my free time for blogging has diminished, I’m devoting e-ink to only this one. (I used to write a lengthy blurb for every book I loved, every year; last year I could only manage a few; now I’m down to one. Ho hum.) But man, this is a novel everyone should read.
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish
I was so surprised/destroyed/thrilled/totally affected by this novel I slipped it into our Fortune best-books-of-the-year staff picks. We framed the list this year as, “Books that changed our mind.” And this novel changed my mind—or to put it more accurately, changed my perception and deepened my understanding—about Chinese-immigrant restaurant workers in America.
It felt like a fictional version of this great 2014 New Yorker story on the same topic, but more deeply realized, and far more real, which is saying something considering it’s fiction.
The plot is ostensibly about a Chinese (and Muslim) immigrant and an American veteran of the Iraq War, but it is also about all of America. The immigrant ends up having a better time of it than the veteran in his own country, but both of them are deeply fucked and can’t find a single person on their side. The novel is a sad indictment of the way our economy punishes, rather than rewards, our veterans and hard-working immigrants that come to achieve the now clearly dated concept of the American Dream.
Lish is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and has lived in China, so he has the experience to write from the minds of both characters. The characters break your heart in their struggle, and then the plot stomps on it; there is no silver lining here, just raw truth.