2018 was yet another whirlwind year in the hurricane that has been the last half-decade, but luckily books new and old kept writers from all beats on Daily Arts sane. The Book Review asked a handful of them to write about their favorite moments with a book, literature or even reading itself this past year.
“The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After” by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
Reading is fuel for human empathy and understanding, and any good book should in some way sharpen its reader’s perspective on life and other people. “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” by Clemantine Wamariya does more than sharpen the reader’s perspective — it rewires it altogether. Wamariya’s memoir recounts the remarkable story of her childhood and early adulthood: Starting at the age of six, she spent several years as a refugee from the Rwandan massacre before moving to Chicago as a young teenager to live with a well-off family and attend an elite high school.
Beyond a crucial account of the human effects of war, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” is a powerful testament to the art of storytelling. The chapters alternate between Wamariya’s early childhood, when she and her sister were traveling between various refugee camps, and her teenage years after she arrived in Chicago. Her narrative weaving is disarmingly effective, and propels the reader to examine Wamariya’s experiences thoughtfully, engaging constantly with the friction between the different eras of her life and considering her responses to this friction.
In “The Girl Who Smiled Beads,” Wamariya bravely engages with the death and devastation she encountered in refugee camps and on the road as a child, the effects of trauma on her relationships with her family and others and the strange ways in which her complex history was handled by others after she arrived in America — she was reunited with her family live on “Oprah,” and later invited to speak at conferences and on panels. Consequently, in “The Girl Who Smiled Beads,” she writes from the angle of someone whose story has often been simplified by others. She is careful to retool the reader’s preconceived notions about the word “genocide,” to explore all facets of her experience and to affirm that hers is only one story, belonging to her alone. “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” is required reading, a stunning, brutally honest examination of the complex human effects of war and why it is necessary for us to consider them.
— Laura Dzubay, Daily Arts Writer
“Grace and the Fever” by Zan Romanoff
There’s this scene in “Almost Famous” where Sapphire says of the new girls on the road: “They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much it hurts.” She might have found her spiritual successor in Zan Romanoff’s “Grace and the Fever,” a book I tore through in a single afternoon in something of a haze this summer. It’s the story of a girl entrenched deep in fandom of a quasi-One Direction type band, and how a chance encounter with one of the band members one night pushes her towards an unlikely spotlight. It’s easy to write off the premise, but this is a beautiful, whip smart book, because Romanoff gets it — the weird sharp pulse of obsession, the terror of being 17 — all of it. The relationship between audience and performer is, to some extent, inherently antagonistic. The audience stops being a collection of living breathing people, and instead becomes a swarming mass. The performer stops being a real person too, and becomes an image, something unearthly and untouchable. And yet, Romanoff finds the absolute empathy and humanity of everyone on every side of the spectrum, crafting a portrait of love and fandom unlike anything else I have read. In a year full of heroes who brought nothing but disappointment, “Grace and the Fever” makes a strong case for looking inward, not up, for faith and for strength. It’s a perfect cure for cynicism and defeat, a reminder that there’s always something out there worth loving.
— Asif Becher, Daily Arts Writer
“To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf
“To The Lighthouse” was waiting patiently under a tab called “To Read” in my notes app for the longest time, but 2018 was the year for me to stop postponing and finally pick up one of Woolf’s most refined pieces of literature. Woolf was a hidden radical feminist and author of her time, with “To The Lighthouse” proving a timeless encapsulation of the social inequalities that comprise the human experience and, by extension, feminist thought. The male characters in this piece, namely Mr. Ramsey, exhibit escalated egos that feed on the castigation of female characters, namely Mrs. Ramsey and her socially subordinate friend, Lily Briscoe. Whether or not this translates to a portrayal of misogynistic hatred towards women is an open-ended discussion I’d love to scrutinize further.
For its aesthetic value and exploration, “To The Lighthouse” is rightly classified as modern literature. Woolf’s novel essentially devises a thought challenge for readers to consider self-reflection as a broader outlet for one’s personal freedom and human connection. There is a heavy emphasis on the interplay of dialogue among characters that mirrors Woolf’s message for human connectivity and need for open dialogue in order to actualize social change. “To The Lighthouse” is a journey through the human stream of conscious worthy of a spot on everyone’s “To Read” list.
— Tessa Rose, Daily Arts Writer
“My Year Of Rest And Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh
“This was the beauty of sleep — reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream. It was easy to ignore things that didn’t concern me.”
The basic idea of “self care” is that emotional problems — stress, frustration, sadness, general malaise, what have you — can be, generally speaking, alleviated through rest and material indulgence. Feeling stressed out from work? Take some time off, do things you enjoy or simply rest and you’ll feel better.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel “My Year Of Rest And Relaxation” takes these assumptions to their logical extreme. The unnamed protagonist, who lives in New York in the year 2000, has the money and the time to not only indulge in a bath now and again, but pay a year’s worth of rent from inheritance, get access to a dizzying array of pharmaceuticals and try to sleep away her malaise and depression for an entire year. It’s a ludicrous premise that at once seems too lacking in plot and too heavy-handed, but Moshfegh, who is adept at writing a uniquely female kind of ugliness, manages to give the plot an unlikely momentum. Her prose drips, slouches and stumbles with the protagonist as she argues with her one friend, describes her warped senses, stumbles to her psychiatrist and to a bodega across the street, accidentally goes to parties on Ambien, hyperfixates on her past.
Her tone for the first-person narrative is a kind of bitterness that knows well its lack of an object. There is a vast bank of self-awareness hiding behind the ambient anger and sadism of the protagonist, and despite its bleak tone the novel is empathetic and almost sweet. Moshfegh seems to suggest that artifice is necessary for human life without providing an easy or foolproof alternative — the novel offers no easy answers to anything, but it’s a joy to follow Moshfegh’s razor-sharp thought process.
— Emily Yang, Daily Arts Writer
“Severance” by Ling Ma
Although I did not pick up Ling Ma’s “Severance” until the last week of 2018 after reading a few “best of” lists much like this one, it instantly became the literary highlight of my year. Ma’s writing is simultaneously electric and slow-burning, a controlled and expert spread of power that seethes under the understated narration of the protagonist, Candace. The novel’s use of chronology, in particular, makes “Severance” a worthwhile read and maintains a steady pace even through slower parts of the plot ― by jumping between the past and present of Candace’s experiences throughout the buildup of a mysterious worldwide epidemic, the reader is able to grasp how one could potentially ignore an emergency in a day and age like ours, just keeping on with their day-to-day until something goes horribly wrong. The setting of “Severance” in a world plagued by zombie-like fever and few survivors could be fodder for stereotypically camp writing, but the author takes this trope to a different place ― instead of focusing her narrative around the horror and confusion of dystopia, Ma uses its foundational uneasiness to tell a brilliant story about humanity, relationships and what happens when we let the world go on without a thought.
— Clara Scott, Senior Arts Editor
“We Were Eight Years in Power” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those literary darlings who is so universally lauded and beloved that, without having actually read any of his work, I started to resent him. Add it to the list of things that I ignored for far too long because of their overwhelming popularity (including, but not limited to, “Hamilton,” Childish Gambino and “Queer Eye”) because the truth is that Coates is exactly as frustratingly, mind-bendingly talented as everyone said he would be.
“We Were Eight Years in Power” is a collection of essays he wrote for The Atlantic during the Obama administration, prefaced with new reflections in the wake of Trump’s unprecedented rise to power and Coates’s own unexpected literary success. The essays range from portraits of Barack and Michelle to a searing indictment of the American justice system and, most famously, Coates’s brilliant “Case for Reparations” in the wake of American slavery and its more recent correlates.
Before reading this collection, I thought I was fairly well-versed in issues of race, class and American politics. But I was still operating by the paradigm, pushed so diligently in my high school history classes, that slavery and segregation were unfortunate episodes in American history that had been largely, if not entirely, dismantled. Coates’s work forced me to see that slavery and racism are, in fact, integral to contemporary American life, the bedrock on which our economy and our ideals of equality and justice were made possible, and that America as we know it today could not exist without them. In Coates’s finely-crafted worldview, the rise of Trumpism that so many Americans (Barack Obama included) had seen as impossible becomes inevitable and completely coherent with our country’s history. Reading this book, I kept thinking of the Greek myth of the lotus eaters, who are kept in a constant haze of complacent, self-satisfied inaction. Coates challenged me to free myself from that haze, and to question the myths of my country in a way no other writer has before. “We Were Eight Years in Power” is required reading for anyone who truly wants to understand how we got here.
— Julia Moss, Daily Arts Writer
“Girl in a Band” by Kim Gordon
My copy of “Girl in a Band” has its own history. I had meant to buy Lizzy Goodman’s “Meet Me in the Bathroom” on a trip to the bookstore in June, but the direct, tongue-in-cheek title of Kim Gordon’s memoir on the shelves designated “Music” caught my attention instead. I flipped through the first few pages, where Gordon lays her separation from longtime bandmate and husband Thurston Moore out front, framing her narrative with the end at the beginning. The rest of the memoir, then, chronicles the path to that well documented and public end. Gordon, however, doesn’t let her separation define the story — “Girl in a Band” sings with sharp insights about the intersections between gender and art, love and the music scene of the ’80s and ’90s. Sprinkled between the history of Sonic Youth are stories about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, The Talking Heads, Lydia Lunch and other musicians.
The road to Gordon’s divorce from Moore is not paved with weariness or anguish; instead, “Girl in a Band” tells a story of one woman’s quest for self-fulfillment, and the way that the pursuit of it is not without pain or sacrifice. The sensuousness of the songwriting process of “Shadow of a Doubt” (which I had to put down the book to play the track after reading) is contrasted with the austerity of suburban living that came in her later years with the band. I read the book in two days in July and sunk into Gordon’s wisdom, the type that can only come from lived experience. Despite this, I don’t clutch it too closely. I lend it freely, hoping that everyone gets the same depth of experience as I did when I read. My copy, with the astrology marginalia and the sticky Four Loko stain on the cover, is best when it’s shared.
— Jack Brandon, Managing Arts Editor
“Just Kids” by Patti Smith
My exposure to Patti Smith before I opened the first page of “Just Kids” was limited to childhood car rides with my parents and assertions by my friends that she was their second mother. I knew she had an album called Horses, which I had never consciously listened to, and thanks to the person that lent me the now treasured book (which I still must give back) I was aware of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
“Just Kids” sets Mapplethorpe and Smith’s relationship against the backdrop of the New York City art scene of the late 1960’s through the ’70s. It would be an easy task for Smith to romanticize or brag about her impactful presence in post-Warhol New York, but she never comes off as anything short of sincere. Her genuine tone never breaks: From her retelling of the difficult arrival in the city to her eventual stardom, she doesn’t ask for anything from the reader other than to listen to her and Robert’s story.
Dispersed throughout the story are Mapplethorpe’s photographs and drawings. By placing his work in her memoir, Patti is able to give Robert a voice in the narrative to which he can no longer contribute. The reader feels her respect for Robert and all of the renowned artists she has the pleasure of sharing spaces with. Often, these artists come into her life on chance encounters, such as when Patti anxiously takes the stairs instead of the elevator to a recording studio to buy more time and runs into Jimi Hendrix who calms her by saying “parties make me nervous.”
Patti Smith’s memoir is a bay window into a magical era in New York City that she graciously opens to us. “Just Kids” introduced me to a world I wouldn’t have otherwise known existed. Every five pages I had to look up X location, Y person or Z reference.
On the inside flap is a quote by Joan Didion: “This book is so honest and pure as to count as a true rapture.” I’m with Didion. “Just Kids” shook my core, in only beautiful ways.
— Joseph Fraley, Blog Editor
“I Love Dick” by Chris Kraus
When I read “I Love Dick,” I avoided being seen with it. It was like walking around with a bad Redbubble sticker on my book. And it’s not that I don’t love dick — It’s that “I Love Dick” looks like a nonchalant-sensational attention grab, and after so many annoying unsolicited remarks I was pissed off.
The first half of the book doesn’t help much. Part one chronicles the not-so-fictional relationship between author-narrator-filmmaker Chris and her husband, literary theorist Sylvère Lotringer, as Chris pursues an unrequited erotic crush on Dick, a renowned cultural critic. Chris’s crush is realized through a lengthy series of letters she and Sylvère compose to Dick, punchy epistles that wring and wrap their feeling in enough cerebral wit to render the obsession safely translucent. They do some kooky shit, they hurt each other, they entertain you in the padding of irony.
It could end there. Instead, Kraus flips the table by writing herself into the entire moment of part two, rejecting the brand of part one with so much conviction the prose practically drops 15 degrees. Chris’s letters to Dick morph into personal journals, a turn of direction that taps into the power of her raw, unresolved feeling for the first time. “Fifteen years ago … whenever I tried writing in the 1st Person it sounded like some other person …” Kraus shares. “Now I can’t stop … it’s just more serious: bringing change & fragmentation … down to where you really are.” Chris Kraus encounters the eroticism of her voice right there on the page, and it’s hot.
What’s even hotter about Kraus’s narrative coup is how masterfully it identifies and resists gender bias in the artistic community. She begins by permitting her own discontent, revisiting instances in which her work has been simplified by language like “insincere” and “quirky.”Instead of lapsing into echo-chamber diatribe, however, Kraus uses her intense feeling to critically bolster a series of similarly marginalized female artists. Hannah Wilke, Coco Fusco and Jennifer Harbury become motif-contributors as Kraus weaves their work into an originally networked acknowledgement, calling to mind the dynamic sampling of Maggie Nelson’s “Argonauts,” a comparison I rarely award.
It seems important to acknowledge how the uncanny way I acquired and read “I Love Dick” set it up to be a watershed book in my personal library. It was recommended to me by a woman I have never met who was hired to edit the letters I was hired to write my students, then read across the borders of varying (United, psychological) states. The stars of reading circumstance certainly aligned, but I can’t shake the feeling that this situational voodoo is actually the work of Kraus. The generosity of her truth is so powerful it could wring whatever stars of circumstance into alignment.
— Verity Sturm, Book Review Editor
The Michigan Daily Book Review and friends
Perhaps my biggest regret about 2018 was not reading enough.
In my room sits a flimsy cart with four drawers; the second one is full of books. Books I bought in my senior year of high school. Books given to me for birthday and Christmas gifts. The common glue binding them together? None of them have been read to completion. Not a single spine is lovingly mangled, unable to close all the way due to the hours spent forcing it open. Their worlds remain unbare, incomplete, the only information I know of them coming from their dust jackets and spines.
A few books in the dreaded drawer have graduated, quite unceremoniously, to my desk or the floor. In the latter space they lay surrounded by a headache-inducing spread of notebooks and textbooks. These books have only achieved this position from their listings on class syllabi, but the journey with them is not as tender as one hopes with the constant threat of an essay looming over your head. One book, “Dogeaters” by Jessica Hagedorn, had a chance to escape, but as the semester neared its end and my professor realized we wouldn’t be able to spend enough time with it, he scratched it from the syllabus. In the drawer it remains, sandwiched under Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.”
I always challenge myself to read more, but this usually ends up in me taking a trip to Barnes & Noble or one of Ann Arbor’s finer book emporiums, picking up a hefty classic — “Dracula” perhaps — and diving into a bit of it as soon as I get home. However the book usually gets neglected for some more instant form of entertainment, and into the drawer it goes. In “Dracula”’s case its reckoning only came when a friend asked to borrow it. There’s something ironic about having a drawer of this power, a vast ocean of thousands of pages and millions of words, being reduced to the second rung on a cart from Bed Bath & Beyond.
When the maelstrom of fall semester ends and I can finally breathe easy, if only for a minute, I will spill out the drawer’s contents. (Don’t fret, this mess will be seperate from that of the school materials.) The first cover I flip over will be the first one I read. When finished, I return to the mess and grab another. It may take days, weeks, months, but soon it won’t be a mess anymore.
— Cassandra Mansuetti, Books Senior Arts Editor