Why did I read this? This novel caught my eye on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, and later showed up on a couple “best of 2020” lists. Set in India, I thought it might make a good double-feature with A Burning.

What is it about? At core, this is a mystery. In the sprawling slum of shanties where 9-year-old Jai lives with his mother and father and older sister (a star student and ambitious track star), children start to disappear. Jai loves watching true crime police dramas on the family’s small television, which teeters on a high shelf in their one-room home. Determined to be the kind of detective he admires, he recruits two friends to join him in a search for the missing children.

Would I recommend it? Told entirely from the perspective of children, Djinn Patrol it is charming, wry, surprising, and heartbreaking. The author, Deepa Anappara, is a journalist who has spent time reporting on the people who live in the slums of India, where dozens of children disappear every day. One of her goals in writing the book was to show how much more these children are than statistics. How clever. How funny. How full of heart and hope and dreams. How resilient in the midst of poverty and corruption that would be unimaginable if it weren’t so real.

Djinn Patrol also pops and sizzles with sensory scene-setting. Whether it’s Jai’s crowded home, his crumbling school, the teeming train stations, the immense and stinking rubbish heaps, or the shining and gated high-rises that ring his basti, Anappara’s descriptions are brimming with textures and smells and colors. And food. Lots of food. Perhaps this is because food is a constant preoccupation when it’s scarce. Perhaps it is also because the streets of India are filled with the scent of coriander and hot oil. Either way, Djinn Patrol brings you there.

These were enough to make me very glad to read this book, and more than enough to lodge this story firmly in my heart. If I am not bubbling with enthusiasm, it is for two reasons. The first is that it was probably not fair to read it right after Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which is so exceptional. Djinn Patrol offers a different glimpse of a similarly unjust world, but it is less complex book, with fewer fully developed characters; had I read it before Majumdar, no doubt it would have struck me more powerfully. The second is that it has a touch of 60 Minutes about it—meaning the occasional tinge of an investigative reporting exposition. This is not surprising, given Anappara’s background and intent, but it interrupted some key moments with a kind of factual detachment.

No matter. Anappara opens the curtain on a corner of the world too often ignored, and she does it with great storytelling, compensating for her itty-bit of didacticism with suspense, emotion, simmering outrage, and children whose survival and resilience is a wonder.

Why did I read this? Every year, I get a obsessed with book awards and book lists. And every year, I am surprised by how little overlap there is between lists. The Washington Post’s list of the 100 best books often includes only a handful of the 100 books the New York Times considers “notable.” The finalists for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award rarely overlap, and both lists are usually entirely different from other literary prize finalists. So when a book is on multiple lists, I notice it.

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is one such book. It was longlisted for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the Carnegie Award. It was one of Time’s top ten in fiction and one of Amazon’s top twenty. It was on both the Post and Times’ lists of the 100 best books of the year, as well as on the Library Journal’s best of 2020 list.

It’s also in rarified company. On the 2020 lists I’ve scoured so far, only seven other novels (out of roughly 300) show up that frequently: Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar; The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett; Luster, by Raven Leilani; The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel; Deacon King Kong, by James McBride; Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell; and Shuggie Bain, by Stuart Douglas.

What is it about? This is a book about what happens when individual dreams crash into the power of the state. It is about what happens when the state cannot be trusted, when ends begin to justify means, when good intensions get swamped by the impossibility of making lives better, and when rules take a back seat to individual wants and needs. And while all this sounds abstract, the book is anything but abstract; it unspools these themes through the very human, very personal experiences of its characters.

At its center are three people whose lives intertwine. The first is Jivan, a young woman from the slums of Kolkata who is determined to pull herself into the middle classes. She has graduated from secondary school; she has a job in a shopping mall; and she finally has a smartphone, a portal to the wider world where the currency seems to be free expression. But she makes a terrible mistake. She posts a comment on Facebook that leads to her arrest for terrorism. Second is Lovely. Lovely is a “hijra,” the label given to people who don’t fit binary sexual norms, people who are simultaneously reviled and revered. Lovely dreams of becoming a movie star. Although she struggles to beg enough for food and shelter, she takes acting lessons and she is being tutored in English by Jivan. Third is PT Sir, a physical education teacher where Jivan went to school. Tired and jaded, PT Sir is drawn to an anti-Muslim political party, steadily rising in its ranks, seduced by the sudden promise of being someone who commands respect, as well as someone who can afford a better life.

Both Lovely and PT Sir could help Jivan. Both could be character witnesses. Both could help change the narrative about her that is being fomented by a rapacious and sensationalist press, whipped on by ambitious politicians who have turned her into a political symbol. But whether or not Lovely and PT Sir should help Jivan, whether that’s the right thing to do, ends up being a disturbingly difficult choice.

Would I recommend it? If you read my 2020 reading recap, you know that the answer is an emphatic yes. A Burning is a gripping and kaleidoscopic snapshot of how people on the margins navigate life in modern India. Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir shimmer with life. Their worlds are brimming with sensory experiences—tastes and smells and sights, both marvelous and horrifying. It is also a suspenseful book, hard to put down, building tension with ever page. And it is a morally complex book, easy to feel outraged by the characters’ choices, harder to ask them to behave differently.

I am very ill-informed about India. My impressions are mainly from glancing at news headlines and reading a smattering of history books. So I wondered, as I read, to what degree A Burning was a fable, a morality tale of some sort, pushing and exaggerating to make a point. Then I listened to a podcast called “Brown Girls Read,” hosted by two women who, like the author, were born and raised in India, moving to the US as young adults. And as the hosts interviewed Majumdar, what struck me hardest was their conversation about how frighteningly plausible every single thing in this book felt to them.

That was a week ago. I write this the day after a mob carrying Confederate flags stormed the US Capitol, pumped up by lies and hatred, urged forward by a President and his fist-brandishing lackeys, seeking to overturn a democratic election, with the police shockingly ill-prepared. And suddenly A Burning has terrifying relevance for this democracy, just as much as the one eight thousand miles to its east.

A stunning book, but a fearsome one too.

Why did I read this? All Adults Here, by Emma Straub, is on the Washington Post’s list of notable books this year. Thanks to blurbs like “literary sunshine,” it sounded appealing when it popped up as an immediately available audiobook at my library.

What is it about? This is the story of Astrid Strick and her family. Astrid, who lives in a small Hudson Valley town, is widowed, retired, mother to three grown children, and on the first page of the book, she watches in horror as a woman she has known (and disliked) for decades is hit by a school bus. So begins Astrid’s re-examination of her life and her choices. Weaving through Astrid’s tale are the stories of her children and grandchildren—her eldest son, a local builder, determined to make his mark on the town; her middle child, her unmarried daughter, who has decided to have a child on her own; and her thirteen-year-old granddaughter, child of her youngest son, who has come to live with her to escape a messy school situation at home. We meet all of these characters, plus their spouses and lovers and children and friends, as they learn that, actually, no one is really grown up. If we are lucky, all of us keep growing up our entire lives.

Would I recommend it? All Adults Here is exactly as advertised. It is fizzy and bright, warm and sentimental, an easy read (or listen). If, by the end, it bordered on the treacly and the over-obvious, if I rolled my eyes at the excessive romanticization of parenthood, if a few characters were a little too good to be true, so what. This is a book brimming with one hopeful message: It’s all going to be okay. Every single one of Straub’s characters f**ks up and every single one has a happy ending.

Sometimes a book that goes down like a cup of hot cocoa on a cold winter morning is just the thing.

Why did I read this? This novel won the Pulitzer in 1985, and it’s one of those books I’ve always been meaning to read. Two or three years ago, I finally bought it. But I still hadn’t read it. Then, two weeks ago, Alison Lurie died at the age of 94. Her obituaries motivated me to finally pull it from the shelf.

What is it about? In its obituary, the New York Times described Lurie as a “tart-voiced novelist of manners” who “wrote about academics and intellectuals, straying spouses, snobs and artists, in novels of close observation and sharp prose.”

Foreign Affairs fits this snapshot. Here, we follow two characters: First is Vinnie, a tenured English professor at Corinth University (a loosely masked Cornell, where Lurie taught), specializing in children’s literature and folklore (Lurie’s own specialty), who is spending a research sabbatical in London (where Lurie spent part of each year). Vinnie is a 50-something Anglophile, more comfortable in Britain than upstate New York, tiny in stature, badly dressed, who wrestles with paranoia and bitterness—both professionally and personally. Her research has just been eviscerated as trivial in The Atlantic, and she has never gotten over the failure of her early, young marriage.

The second character is Fred, junior faculty in the Corinth English department, a specialist in 18th century literature, also on a research sojourn in London (coincidentally rather than by design). Fred is tall, dark, and Prince Charming-handsome, worried about getting tenure, and reeling from the recent break-up of his own marriage. While in London, he would prefer to avoid Vinnie, as she would prefer to avoid him.

As we follow Vinnie and Fred on their inevitably intersecting paths, they each fall in love, with their respective affairs viewed by others as some combination of unsuitable and unwise. Vinnie finds herself with a very loud, very large, and very American engineer from Tulsa; Fred falls for the aging star of a long-running British television melodrama.  

Would I recommend it? Yes indeed. I loved this novel. The characters are brilliantly drawn—Vinnie is a tangled mess of conflicting instincts, Fred is mostly empty-headed lust, and neither sees themself clearly. I found myself actively rooting for Vinnie, while equally hoping for Fred to be taken down a notch or two. The supporting cast of characters are caricatures of recognizable types, but cleverly and vividly drawn. And the story twists and turns, with the book ending in such a sad, sardonic, and surprising way that I read the final pages twice.

I should also mention that, in some ways, Foreign Affairs now reads as a period piece. In 1984, when it was written, mobile phones and email and social media did not exist. Lost telegrams, unreliable answering services, and the slow pace of transatlantic mail are no longer problematic. Had Lurie written the story today, she would have had to come up with entirely different wrenches to throw into her characters lives. One thing that does not seem to have changed much in 35 years, however, is the experience of flying from JFK to Heathrow in coach. Not fun then, not fun now.

Lurie wrote ten novels in all; Foreign Affairs and The War Between the Tates are the best known of them. This fills me both with anticipation (now I want to read all of them) and melancholy (I will never ever be able to read everything I want to read). But whether or not the others ever make it to the top of my long and ever-growing wish list, onto the list they go.

For so many years, I wished I had more time to read. Welcome to 2020! Pandemic! Threats to democracy! The perfect storm of having time at home, avoiding the news, while unable to sleep. Even combined with a recurrent inability to concentrate on anything more taxing than cooking shows, I read and listened to more than seventy books this year.

Mostly, I read fiction. I re-read all ten of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, and revisited childhood favorites like Harriet the Spy. I read more of what the publishing trade sometimes calls “pop fiction” than I usually do, as well as plenty of the more high-falutin’ “literary fiction.” Meanwhile my non-fiction reading was dominated by memoirs and twentieth-century history.

FICTION FAVORITES

So many favorites, where to start? Out of the more than fifty novels I read this year, I’ve pulled out fifteen that, looking back, float to the top.

First, four of the novels I read this year stand out as truly exceptional—modern masterpieces of virtuosic writing and empathetic storytelling that, for me, deserve every word of praise they’ve gotten: Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo; Milkman, by Anna Burns; and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. I would also add to this list a novel I just finished—A Burning, by Megha Majumdar—which I’ll write something about soon. Extraordinary.

Another four favorites were debut novels. I didn’t love any of these as much as the critics did, but they all gave me a lot to think about and they are all sticking with me. I thought The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett was diluted by too many under-developed voices, but it was a fresh take on identity issues through the lens of complex characters. I thought The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (an established writer but first-time novelist) was overambitious, but it was wonderfully layered and imaginative. American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson had some implausible episodes, but it was a great reinvention of a spy thriller. And while I had some pretty big criticisms of Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, to my own surprise it has ended up on my favorites list sheerly on the strength of its clever writing and satiric riffs.

Next on my list of favorites, four lovely novels by four old friends: Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House; Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again; Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road; and Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone. Each of these authors has written novels I’d rank higher than these four, their most recent, but all of these are nonetheless beautiful books that are at the top of this year’s reading.

Rounding out my fiction favorites are three novels that were just fabulous entertainment: Kevin Wilson’s surprisingly touching Nothing to See Here, Jeanette Winterson’s biting and absurd Frankisstein (from 2019), and Amor Towles’ absolutely charming A Gentleman in Moscow (from 2016).

Beyond these fourteen, my list of honorable mentions—other novels I loved, but that for whatever reason haven’t dug quite so firmly into my memory—includes the haunting and poetic The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy; the deeply empathetic glimpse into a troubled teenager that is Victor Lodato’s Mathilda Savitch; the sprawling novel of modern Cuba and 16th century Dutch art that is The Heretics, by Leonardo Paduro; and beautiful writing by authors such as Anne Enright (The Actress), Alice Munro (Dear Life), and Tessa Hadley (The Past).

NON-FICTION FAVORITES

I’m tempted to put almost all the non-fiction I read this year on my list of favorites. Leading the list, though, would probably be four books, all narratives that read like fiction, with jaw-dropping twists and turns: Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, by Ronan Farrow; Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe; The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre; and A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell.

Two other books also land firmly on my favorites list: The Yellow House, by Sarah Broom, which I loved both as a memoir and as a very personal explication of structural inequity; and Something Wonderful: How Rodgers and Hammerstein Revolutionized Broadway, by Todd Purdum, which is less gripping, but which makes the list because it’s on a topic I love and is wonderfully done.

Finally, two more books get honorary mentions. One is the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, which takes us from her childhood through FDR’s inauguration. It’s long and sometimes eye-glazingly detailed, but Roosevelt and her circle of friends are absolutely fascinating. The other is Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado-Perez. As one would expect, Invisible Women is written with a fair amount of dudgeon that sometimes gets in the way, but it is also eye-opening.

My list of books to read in the year to come is already long enough to last a lifetime, but if you are reading this, please feel free to make it longer by sharing your own favorites from the past year.

Wishing you all a better 2021.

Why did I read this? It came up in my library feed as available, it got nice reviews, and I liked (although didn’t love) two other novels by Hadley. She is a wonderfully interesting writer, even if, so far, her novels haven’t been among my favorites.

What is it about? The Past has been called Chekhovian in that it concerns four siblings returning to their grandparents’ country house, where they spent much their childhood, where long-lived tensions play themselves out, and where issues of class and politics percolate beneath.

In Hadley’s The Past, the country house is in seaside England. The four siblings — Harriet, Roland, Alice, and Fran — have convened for three weeks, perhaps their final three weeks in the home, to decide together whether they must sell it. With them are Fran’s two young children, Ivy and Arthur. Also with them are Roland’s teenage daughter, Molly, and his third wife, Pilar, an Argentinian, whom the sisters are meeting for the first time. Completing the party is Kasim, the son of Alice’s ex-boyfriend, who is studying economics at university and is a proud capitalist.

Would I recommend it? Yes, although, as with the other two novels I’ve read by Hadley, I cannot call it a must-read. What I love about Hadley, and what I loved about The Past, is how deftly she establishes complex relationships and the complex emotions that go along with them. I love her sense of place, her ability to put the sensory world on the page. I love how beautifully she weaves through preoccupations with grief and memory. I love the density of her craft — her kaleidoscopic use of voice and perspective, her layering of themes and symbols. Her novels just beg to be unpacked, discussed, and disentangled. But what keeps her novels from joining my list of favorites is something I can’t quite pinpoint. It’s something that keeps me from caring deeply about her characters. Something that keeps me from jumping in with both feet. Perhaps it’s how planned her novels can feel, as if she is moving her characters around on a chess board. Or perhaps it is that very density of craft that I admire, but that can also become just too much. A surfeit. An excess.

The Past, though, may be my favorite of the three I’ve read. The characters and their relationships felt real and recognizable, true to the disconnects and misunderstandings that ping through family dynamics; true to the way adult siblings often revert to the patterns of their childhood; true to the way we remember, and misremember, both ourselves and others. I loved how much emotion and uncertainty bubbled beneath the simplest of actions — lending a blouse, cutting a boy’s hair, making tea. I found much to think about in the way the past colored nearly every aspect of the novel — how each character’s past cast a shadow on their present; the contrast between those desperate to excavate the past and those who preferred to ignore or deny or rewrite it; how the house and village and surroundings physically embodied the tensions between past and present. And I was kept off-kilter, in a good way, by how Hadley shifted perspective from character to character, then detoured in the middle of the novel to take us into the past, to a critical time in the life of the siblings’ mother.

But I had mixed feelings about the sheer number of themes that wind through The Past. Beyond attention to past versus present, tensions created by differences in class are omnipresent, as are tensions rooted in outsider versus insider status. The village is gentrifying. The outsiders, Kasim and Pilar, come from wealthy families; the siblings do not. We see feelings of moral superiority of the left contrasted with feelings of logical superiority on the right, snobbishness around intellect and education, and differences between the doers (the teacher, the activist, the actress) and those who make their living with words (the vicar/poet, the journalist, the philosopher). Also present throughout: sex. So much sex, even when people aren’t having sex. It drives choices, it drives emotions, and it occupies a distinctly different place than love. Similarly, death. Decay. It is all around these characters, both literally and metaphorically, in their pasts, in their present, in their futures.

Then there are layers of metaphor. Locks, for example. Doors. Windows. Fences. Walls. Barriers to open, climb, peer through, break down, with consequences on the other side. And paper. Notes. Books. Letters. Diaries. How what is put on paper can reverberate.

The density of theme and symbolism made The Past a book I want to think about and talk about. But it also felt overworked. Similarly, and what I liked least about the The Past, Hadley fills three weeks in a seaside house with far too many dramatic events, when the quiet shifts in relationships were dramatic enough to sustain the novel on their own. It was too much, and by the end, it tipped The Past slightly beyond the boundaries of plausibility.

So in the end, Hadley remains a writer I will happily read again and again, though I have yet to fully fall in love with one of her novels. They are are rewarding books to read. They are interesting, they are perceptive, and the writing is often beautiful — even if, somehow, sadly, they seem to wear out their welcome before I get to the final page.

(Click here for my post on Hadley’s The London Train; click here for my post on Late in the Day.)

Why did I read this? Roman Mars is the host of 99% Invisible, which is one of my favorite podcasts. I ordered the book as soon as it was available—partly to support the podcast, partly because I expected it to be as interesting. Full title: The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.

What is it about? Each episode of the 99% Invisible podcast tells the story of one tiny aspect of our designed world, with “design” defined broadly to encompass technologies as well as tangible things. The book draws from the podcasts, but it is its own thing: a compendium of brief essays specifically on the urban environment—its streets, buildings, parks, and infrastructure.

Would I recommend it? If nothing else, and as expected, The 99% Invisible City is fun, brimming with little tidbits of things I never knew or never paused to think about. See some examples below. These are not deep essays. Rather, this is a book for browsing. While I read it from start to finish, in sequence, it’s the kind of book you can dip into anywhere, read a couple pages, and set it down again. It’s written breezily as well as clearly, and it’s easy to forgive its occasional preachiness, because the passion for good design (meaning, design that works for all sorts of people as well as for the planet) shows through.

Here is a sampling of a few things I learned:

  • To this day, you can find metal railings all around London that were made from steel stretchers used in World War II.
  • All over New York City, and in some other places as well, there are statues of Audrey Munson. Why? Because Munson was perhaps the first supermodel, posing for dozens of sculptors and artists at the height of Beaux Arts architecture and design.
  • There’s a reason that manhole covers are always round. Round lids can’t fall into the holes they cap.
  • Nearly all international web traffic is still carried by undersea cables because undersea cables are still cheaper and faster than satellites. Which means the cloud is underwater, not in the sky.
  • The reason Amsterdam is filled with narrow houses along the canals is because, when they were built, taxes were based on frontage rather than height or depth. Similarly, the steep mansard roofs that make Paris so recognizable were the result of late 18th century height regulations, when height was measured to the cornice, excluding the roof zone above.
  • Many check-cashing stores are intentionally designed to feel nothing like a bank—with linoleum floors so that workers with dirty boots aren’t hesitant to come in and with the clearest possible signs about products and fees. (The fees may be outrageous, but they are very easy to understand.)
  • A controversial device called the Mosquito has been used by some stores in the UK to discourage young people from loitering. The device emits a high-pitched sound that is very annoying to those who can hear it, which is mainly people under the age of 30.
  • Squirrels were introduced to American urban parks on purpose.

You get the picture. The 99% Invisible City has been entertaining company over breakfast, and that’s pretty much all it needed to be.

Why did I read this? When Brooklyn was published in 2009, it got enthusiastic reviews and it won various awards. I had never read it (nor did I see the movie version), and it popped up as available at my library when I was browsing one day.

What is it about? Here’s the summary from its publisher, Simon & Schuster: “Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind. Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.”

There are a couple things wrong with the publisher’s summary. Eilis doesn’t “decide” to go. She is talked into going. She does not “find work”; a job is arranged for her. As is housing. As is night school to learn bookkeeping.

So my summary is a bit different: An unbearably earnest and dim-witted Eilis Lacey gets help emigrating to Brooklyn, where everything is easy and everyone she meets is nice to her and nothing bad happens to her. Then her sister dies. So she visits home and cheats on her boyfriend (well, husband, really; they married in secret before she left), gets a very good job offer (because why should things stop falling into her lap?), but rejects it in favor of returning to Brooklyn, abandoning her aging and grief-stricken mother.

Would I recommend it? In case it’s not already clear, no. This is the latest award-winning book to completely flummox me. From the beginning, I was bored and started to laugh—and not because there was intentional humor. How on earth does one write a story about a naïve young woman emigrating alone to the U.S. without putting a single obstacle in her path? How is it that there is always someone popping up to help her, to rescue her? And how does this naïve young woman from a tiny town in Ireland (so naïve that she is completely unaware of what happened to the Jews of Europe during the War), plopped into post-War Brooklyn, when formerly Irish neighborhoods are becoming increasingly Black, turn out to be the only one in her circle of her friends and neighbors and work colleagues who doesn’t have a racist bone in her body? Not even a little one?

Halfway through, I wondered: Maybe I misremembered. Maybe this book isn’t meant for adults. Maybe this is actually a YA novel, one written for pre-teens. That would explain its dumbed-down, fluffed-up feel. But then I got to an extended scene about an erect penis. Nope. Not written for pre-teens. I kept reading (well, listening), wondering if something might emerge to redeem it, to make it interesting, but again and again, I found myself shaking my head and muttering words like moronic. Idiotic. Ridiculous.

If you loved Brooklyn and are reading this, please tell me what I missed. Really. Usually I can understand why books get good reviews even when they’re not to my particular taste. Literature is extremely subjective. But this one? I don’t get it.

Why did I read this? Rarely has a debut novel, or any novel for that matter, been so universally acclaimed. Ron Charles, the Washington Post’s critic, described the book as “a lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal.” Other reviewers described it as “devastatingly beautiful,” “a literary marvel,” “brilliant and remarkable,” “luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary,” “fearless, revelatory, extraordinary,” and “a masterpiece.” The superlatives pile up and up and up.

What is it about? Written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, a mother who cannot read English, it is the semi-autobiographical story of a family that fled Vietnam, and of a young man (a writer, queer) trying to make sense of his sexuality, his place in the world, and the trauma that continues to shape his life.

Would I recommend it? All those adjectives listed above? Yes to all of them. Which doesn’t mean On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous will be for everyone. A light and quick read this is not. But I was entranced, saddened, and uplifted. This is a novel I want to read again, knowing that it has more to give than I can absorb the first time through.

Vuong is poet and his novel is poetry transformed to prose, steeped in metaphor. He writes in vignettes, snatches of memories and images, skittering from thought to thought as our minds do, that somehow cohere into a narrative with direction, momentum, and revelations. He presents the physical—sex, violence, and pain, but also beauty, tenderness, and comfort—with both discomfiting specificity and emotional clarity. He sculpts characters with so many layers, so much humanity, that the descriptor “three-dimensional” seems inadequate. He writes with profound empathy, including, perhaps especially, for those who brutalize others. And he has things to say, observations that reverberate as truths, even wisdom.

None of this is accidental. Everything about this novel—its structure, its content, its words—was deeply considered. And while the novel’s brilliance is visible on its pages, a column Vuong wrote for LitHub (click here) explains his intentions through ten other books that influenced him. If you want to feel both dazzled and entirely inadequate, read the column.

But if you want to feel dazzled and moved, immersed in Vuong’s heart-wrenching poetry without thinking about the mechanics, read the novel.

(A note on the audio: I listened. Vuong reads it himself, which is why I went the audio route. He has a distinctive voice and cadence that will not be to everyone’s taste, one that is slow and gentle, soft and deliberate, intensifying the dream-like, poetic feel of On Earth. The down-side of audio, of course, how difficult it is to browse backwards, revisiting earlier sections and passages, which I often wished I could do.)

Why did I read this? It got wonderful reviews when it was published last year. (Plus my mother loved it, and I usually like what she likes.)

What is it about? It is a biography of Virginia Hall, an American who fought with the French Resistance, first as an agent for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), then with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Purnell’s book reads like a thriller. Like Ben McIntyre, her style is dramatic and cinematic, with easy lucid prose. This is the sort of book that compelled me to natter on with great enthusiasm after completing each chapter… And then! And then! And THEN! (Thank goodness my husband is a patient man.) In telling the story of Virginia Hall, who was an astonishing figure, Purnell also includes riveting details of life underground in wartime France—disguises, codes, parachute drops, infiltration, sabotage, escape. She shares the stories of other heroes, often wildly colorful, along with villains, of which there were too many. Along the way, she does not shy from describing the horrific fates of those arrested by the Gestapo or Abwehr, difficult to read, but an important part of the story. For individuals, for villages, and for entire countries, what was at stake could not have been higher.

Here, I am going to summarize only the first chapter, Virginia’s life before WWII, which sets the stage for everything that follows.

Her story starts in 1906, when Virginia Hall was born to an affluent Maryland family. While her mother was preoccupied with status, money, and a good marriage for her, Virginia had other ideas. From an early age, we learn, she “took pleasure in defying convention. She hunted with a rifle, skinned rabbits, rode horses bareback, and once wore a bracelet of live snakes into school.” She clearly had charisma from a young age. Her high school classmates “viewed her as their natural leader and voted her in as their class president, editor-in-chief, captain of sports, and even ‘Class Prophet.’”

After she graduated, Virginia’s mother picked a wealthy fiancé for her, but she dumped him and instead bounced from school to school: Radcliffe in 1924, Barnard in 1925, the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris in 1926, the Konsular Akademie in Vienna in 1927. When she returned to the U.S. in 1929, she brought with her a university degree, a belief in freedom and independence for women, a deep love for France (where she had been particularly happy), the ability to speak five languages, and heightened awareness of the rising threat of fascism across Europe. She dreamed of being a diplomat, and she applied to the State Department to become a foreign service officer.

Yeah. No. She was a girl: “The fact that only six out of fifteen hundred Foreign Service officers were women should have been due warning. The rejection was quick and brutal.”

She could, though, get in through the back door, taking a job more accessible to women. By 1931, Virginia was in Warsaw as a clerk in the American embassy. She was quickly bored and requested a transfer to Smyrna. There, her life took a turn. On one of the many hunting trips she organized for friends, her rifle discharged into her foot. It was a catastrophic injury, leading to gangrene, amputation of her leg below the knee, sepsis that almost took her life, persistent infection, and enormous physical pain that would last the rest of her days. She survived, and against all advice went back to work the day after being released from the hospital. This was a mistake. The exhaustion and pain were too great, even for Virginia. By the summer of 1934, she was back in Maryland.

What next? A quiet life at home? Not a chance. The minute she was physically able, Virginia took a job in the consulate in Venice. Venice was not a great choice for an amputee, but she managed to acquire her own gondola as well as a “devoted” gondolier who helped her when the water was too rough for her to handle the gondola on her own. She hosted parties, excelled at work (finally being granted responsibilities that were more than secretarial), and paid close attention to the disintegrating political situation around her and across Europe. She decided to try again to get into the foreign service.

Yeah. No. Not only was she still a girl, she was now also an amputee. Even a direct appeal to FDR through a friend failed. (The irony of the polio survivor seeing the amputee as unqualified is not lost on Purnell.)

Next stop, a post in Tallinn. Again, Virginia was bored. She resigned in March 1939, thinking that maybe she could write dispatches that would raise American awareness of what was happening in Europe, but she doesn’t seem to have published anything. Then, in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. In October, Virginia boarded one of the last ships out of Estonia, landing in London. She tried to enlist in the women’s branch of the British Army, but foreigners were excluded. So she went to France, and “with gritty persistence finally found the one active role she could take up to help the fight against fascism… She signed up in February 1940 with the French 9th Artillery Regiment to drive ambulances for the Service de Santé des Armées.”

After an intensive course in first aid, by May she was near the Maginot Line. On May 10, the Germans invaded France and she watched the French army disintegrate and flee. She headed to Valençay, where a division of the French army was still running an ambulance service, and she spent several weeks driving the wounded to Paris hospitals. While doing that, “she noticed how as a nominally neutral American she was permitted greater freedoms than the French she worked alongside.” Ideas began to percolate.

In June, Marshall Pétain capitulated, Virginia was demobilized, and she moved in with a friend in Paris, where she “railed at the complicity of the French authorities in return for what was all too clearly peace at a price.” She was determined to fight against fascism and for France. “She was convinced it would not be long before the French rose up again, and in the meantime she would return to London and wait.”

Thus ends Chapter One.

So by 1940, the Virginia we have met is already a woman with extraordinary physical ability, bravery, and endurance. She is both physically and mentally resilient. She is ambitious, decisive, tenacious, and moves quickly when she wants something. She has charm, charisma, and a talent at getting people to do things for her. She speaks French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. She can drive a car under the most stressful conditions imaginable. She is accustomed to spending time outdoors in uncomfortable conditions. She is trained in first aid. She can shoot a gun. She is politically aware and astute. She loves France with a passion. And she doesn’t give a damn what other people think she should do.

I am not going to share much from the rest of the book. Suffice to say that Virginia’s achievements between 1940 and 1945, not to mention the simple fact of her survival, were extraordinary. (If you want to know more about them without reading the book, read almost any review.)

After the War, Virginia had a twenty-year career with the CIA. These chapters may be less dramatic, but they are fascinating in their own way. Purnell had to rely heavily on non-classified performance reviews for documentation of these years, but she manages to piece together much of what Virginia witnessed and did between 1946 and 1966, and it is a remarkable glimpse into Cold War intelligence operations.

Throughout the book, Purnell appropriately focuses on Virginia’s career and accomplishments, speculating on her emotional life mostly when it is important to explaining her actions. She makes sure, though, that the reader is as captivated by Paul Gaston Goillot as Virginia was. Paul was born in France, but he parachuted into Virginia’s life (literally) as a U.S. Army Lieutenant, assigned to support her towards the end of the war. He was eight years younger and six inches shorter, and they were together from the day they met until her death in 1982. He died five years later.

Paul may not have been the kind of super-human that Virginia was, but he was heroic in a different kind of way. In an era when gender roles were fixed, when reversing those roles was almost inconceivable, Paul Goillot found the love of his life in a woman who many other men of his generation found threatening. When she was his commander, he was professional and respectful even as he made her laugh. When she worked for the CIA, he owned a restaurant for a while (he’d cooked before the war), but when it failed, he stepped into the quiet life of a house-husband. And when Virginia retired, before their health declined, they lived a bucolic life together in their country house. They entertained, she gardened, he cooked. I loved the occasional glimpses of Paul as I read the book, and I hope his life was a happy one.

Virginia left no journals. No memoirs. Few interviews. She spent her life keeping secrets, and she was uncomfortable with medals and honors, even scornful of them, despising those she saw as motivated by glory rather than principle. She was recognized, though, and that recognition has grown considerably since her death. In Purnell’s final chapter and epilogue, she catalogues how Virginia is remembered, from the CIA building that was named after her to the memories of the last survivors amongst her compatriots in the field. No doubt Virginia would have hated the attention.