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What We’ve Been Reading
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): Over the holidays I reread Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood so that I could read their sequel, MaddAddam, for the first time. It’s brilliant, of course, and darkly funny, too. In MaddAddam, Atwood provides a satisfying end to her dystopian trilogy. I didn’t love it quite as much as the previous novels—due, I think to the choice in narrator. But Atwood’s wondrous genetically-modified creatures, along with the mythology of Zeb and the Crakers more than make up for that. MaddAddam was worth the wait and I’ll long for a sequel (even if it never comes).
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I read a bunch over the break and I almost remember some of it! Tin House contributor Diana Abu-Jaber has a memoir from a few years back, called The Language of Baklava, which was a particularly enjoyable read. It’s a food-heavy memoir about the author’s family, especially her Jordanian father. I think the common immigration narrative is usually all about the parent who arrives in a new country and devotes himself to assimilation, but her father kept a strong tie to Jordan, including moving his American wife and children there for a couple of years, and it’s that tie that provides some of the best moments in the book: when Abu-Jaber’s father and his brothers try to recreate their childhood slaughter of a lamb and the subsequent feast, only to realize that they are too far from it now as adults living in the US, and a truly wonderful section in which, as a child, Diana Abu-Jaber slips so easily into life in Jordan. The food described in the book is tantalizing and evocative, and I had no choice but to go on a Middle Eastern cooking binge immediately upon finishing it.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor): If you’re looking for a strange and beautiful collection of poetry that might be outside of what you are usually reading, I want to suggest John Wieners’ A Book of Prophecies (Bootstrap Productions, 2007). A book of lyric poems, lists that become poems, and the sweet and tender (and wild!) mind of Wieners, A Book of Prophecies will get you through the first days of the New Year with new ideas and a feeling that the world is big enough for all of us.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): The Dinner by Herman Koch. How fun to kick the New Year off with this nasty little treat. The literary equivalent of an (early era) Michael Haneke film, Koch’s brisk novel is the perfect palate cleanser to get rid of the stale taste still lingering from the great literary debate of 2013: Do American readers need likeable characters in order to really enjoy a novel? Paul Lohman, the book’s unhinged and wonderfully acerbic narrator, is an asshole. The degree in which his contemptible behavior verges into that of a sociopath is what gives the book much of its electric charge. The novel’s premise is that two couples (a set of brothers and their wives) gather over a fancy dinner to discuss an incident involving their respective sons. We have to get through a few courses before the event is revealed, but the build up, which includes a lot of riffs on the food and the manner in which it is being presented, establishes an air of narcissism that makes the final act all the more chilling. Koch doesn’t necessarily stick the landing; there is a bit too much slapstick that arises out of all the horrific revelations, but even in this, there is a glint of genius. This is a book that constantly has you saying, “There is no way these characters would behave like this.” Then, “There are people who would behave exactly like this.” The balance Koch achieves between those two trains of thought is what makes The Dinner such a compulsive and rewarding read.
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is like the best LiveJournal I’ve ever read. I’m hooked. Lively and rawly and palpably and irritatingly human, oh so human, full of flights of lyricism as well as flights of blah, blah, blah. For a review full of smart thoughts, please see Zadie Smith’s here.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Yup.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): This winter I bought an armload of books at the Humane Society thrift store in Bend, OR. The smallish fiction section was implausibly well-curated, considering the enormous store seemed to be staffed by one teenaged kid, presumably a volunteer. Regardless, I spent nine bucks on five books and one of them was Cees Nooteboom’s In the Dutch Mountains. It’s my introduction to the Dutch novelist, but I’m an immediate believer. Nooteboom’s narrator is Alfonso Tiburón, a Spanish road planner who takes a month each summer to write a small book in an empty schoolroom. As Tiburón writes his “fairy tale” about two Dutch circus performers, he regularly interrupts with asides and anecdotes from his own life. Toward the last of the novel, in the middle of a paragraph otherwise dedicated to the events of the fairy tale, a single sentence interjects: “This book is about reading.” I don’t know if that’s actually more true of this book than any other—like all good books, it’s about a lot of things. Like all great books, it carves out a space bigger than itself and encourages you to fill it.