The 3 Best Literary Books of the Year
Bear with me, because at first this is going to sound like a hard sell. I want you to read about the torture of twins at Auschwitz, the suppression of women in Afghanistan, and the straight-up nerdy field of geobiology. I know about half of you stopped reading after that last sentence, and ran shrieking to your computer to click on 10 Celebrities Who Look Like Crap or whatever, but I’m hoping I can convince the rest of you to hear me out.
I’ve just read these three exquisite, incredibly impactful, interesting books: Affinity Konar’s Mischling, Nadia Hashimi’s A House Without Windows, and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl. Some writers have the gift of churning out sentences of such perfection they should be chiseled into the walls of libraries, and some writers pick topics of such resonance they should be required reading for all historians, policy-makers, and thinkers. And some writers do both, somehow managing to convey their stories with such magnetic skill that finishing their book feels like you just threw your baby off a cliff. You want the book back and you want it to go on forever. That’s what these women have done. I would not be surprised if one of these books wins the Pulitzer.
For fun, I’ve rephrased a few lines from each book the way a lesser author—me—might say something, followed by the way the authors put it:
Me: He grabbed my hand as I felt my heart contract in disappointment.
Affinity Konar (Mischling): Sensitive to my disappointment, he clasped at my hand, which was rather uncomfortable because my heart was busy falling into the blackest depths of me, a locale unknown even to Uncle, where it shed its skin, rolled in bile, assumed a new shell, and grew thorns.
See the difference? Let’s try another one:
Me: We stood outside the loading dock and stared at the cold night sky.
Hope Jahren (Lab Girl): Thus sealed out into the cold, we’d stand on the loading dock and look up at the frozen sky and into the terminal coldness of space and see light that had been emitted years ago from unimaginably hot fires that were still burning on the other side of the galaxy.
Terminal coldness of space? I love that. A heart that shed its skin, rolled in bile, assumed a new shell and grew thorns? This is the perfect description of a bitter, crushing disappointment, without using a cliche like ‘bitter, crushing disappointment.’ My heart is growing thorns right now from envy.
Okay, one more:
Me: My thoughts have always been rhythmic, granting me a feeling of comfort. Even now, during the worst time of my life, I cannot stop rearranging my thoughts into verse.
And from the prologue of The House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi: Since I was a young woman, I’ve managed to hold myself together by stringing words into rhyme, creating order and rhythm in my head when there was none to be found in my world. Even now, in this miserable state, my mind turns a verse.
My full height, my beloved husband never did see
Because the fool dared turn his back on me.
You like that, how she begins with lovely, lyrical prose and then startles you with a simple and completely incongruous rhyme? Wait, hold up! What the hell did our poetic narrator do to her husband?
Hope Jahren is my new hero—I’m obsessed—and Affinity Konar has somehow managed to write a dazzling book about a subject that’s nearly impossible to write about without making the reader suicidal. Nadia Hashimi, in addition to being a brilliant storyteller, is also a brilliant doctor and a mother of four. From the depths of my bile-stained, jealous heart, I wish them every success for their remarkable works of art. Here are the jacket blurbs from each of the books. Please buy them.
Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (April 2016): An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world
Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.
Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.
Buy Lab Girl HERE*
Affinity Konar’s Mischling (September 2016): "One of the most harrowing, powerful, and imaginative books of the year" (Anthony Doerr) about twin sisters fighting to survive the evils of World War II.
Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past.
Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.
It's 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.
As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele's Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.
That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks--a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin--travel through Poland's devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.
A superbly crafted story, told in a voice as exquisite as it is boundlessly original, Mischling defies every expectation, traversing one of the darkest moments in human history to show us the way toward ethereal beauty, moral reckoning, and soaring hope.
Buy Mischling HERE*
Nadia Hashimi’s A House Without Windows (August 2016): A vivid, unforgettable story of an unlikely sisterhood—an emotionally powerful and haunting tale of friendship that illuminates the plight of women in a traditional culture—from the author of the bestselling The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and When the Moon Is Low.
For two decades, Zeba was a loving wife, a patient mother, and a peaceful villager. But her quiet life is shattered when her husband, Kamal, is found brutally murdered with a hatchet in the courtyard of their home. Nearly catatonic with shock, Zeba is unable to account for her whereabouts at the time of his death. Her children swear their mother could not have committed such a heinous act. Kamal’s family is sure she did, and demands justice.
Barely escaping a vengeful mob, Zeba is arrested and jailed. As Zeba awaits trial, she meets a group of women whose own misfortunes have also led them to these bleak cells: thirty-year-old Nafisa, imprisoned to protect her from an honor killing; twenty-five-year-old Latifa, who ran away from home with her teenage sister but now stays in the prison because it is safe shelter; and nineteen-year-old Mezhgan, pregnant and unmarried, waiting for her lover’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. Is Zeba a cold-blooded killer, these young women wonder, or has she been imprisoned, as they have been, for breaking some social rule? For these women, the prison is both a haven and a punishment. Removed from the harsh and unforgiving world outside, they form a lively and indelible sisterhood.
Into this closed world comes Yusuf, Zeba’s Afghan-born, American-raised lawyer, whose commitment to human rights and desire to help his motherland have brought him back. With the fate of this seemingly ordinary housewife in his hands, Yusuf discovers that, like Afghanistan itself, his client may not be at all what he imagines.
A moving look at the lives of modern Afghan women, A House Without Windows is astonishing, frightening, and triumphant.
Buy A House Without Windows HERE*
* Purchasing a book through the link provided will return 4%-10% of the purchase cost to the reviewer, which is then donated in full to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation. You can also can locate your local bookstore through indiebound.org.