While this was the year I finally read the Harry Potter series and revisited some old favorites like Jose Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, I also managed to read a collection of surprising and interesting titles that were neither about wizards and witches nor books I had read and loved before.  Of the 80 or so books I read this year, these were the new titles that stood out the most.

Ferrante, Ferrante, Ferrante

On a bit of a whim, and because I had read and enjoyed her The Days of Abandonment, I took Elena Ferrante’s first novel in the Neapolitan cycle with me when I traveled to Europe this August. Nine days later, with three Kindle downloads completed, I finished the series. It’s hard to say what drew me so deeply into the books, but Ferrante’s incredibly detailed description about the lives of people in a small neighborhood completely captivated me.

“Nino had come with his wife; I was terrified by the comparison. I knew what I was like, I knew the crude physicality of my body, but for a good part of my life I had given it little importance. I had grown up with one pair of shoes at a time, ugly dresses sewed by my mother, makeup only on rare occasions. In recent years I had begun to be interested in fashion, to educate my taste under Adele’s guidance, and now I enjoyed dressing up. But sometimes—especially when I had dressed not only to make a good impression in general but for a man—preparing myself (this was the word) seemed to me to have something ridiculous about it. All that struggle, all that time spent camouflaging myself when I could be doing something else. The colors that suited me, the ones that didn’t, the styles that made me look thinner, those that made me fatter, the cut that flattered me, the one that didn’t. A lengthy, costly preparation. Reducing myself to a table set for the sexual appetite of the male, to a well-cooked dish to make his mouth water. And then the anguish of not succeeding, of not seeming pretty, of not managing to conceal with skill the vulgarity of the flesh with its moods and odors and imperfections.” –From Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Georges Simenon

A New York Review of Book random selection led me to discover Georges Simenon, an incredibly prolific French author who apparently was capable of writing a complete novel in 12 days. Simenon wrote some “light” detective novels and more “literary” works,” many of which seem to focus on the fragility of masculine identity. While his protagonists are anything but likeable, their stories offer incredible insight into the rage and frustration that seems to drive violence in men.

“The place smelled of fairgrounds, of lazy crowds, of nights when you stayed out because you couldn’t go to bed, and it smelled like New York, of its calm and brutal indifference.” ― from Three Bedrooms in Manhattan

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Another selection that I read without any expectations or background knowledge that I simply couldn’t put down. In her debut novel, Gyasi traces the descendants of two sisters separated during the era of the slave trade. My only complaint about the novel is that some characters were so interesting that I felt cheated not to learn more about their story as the novel marched forward over hundreds of years.

“When they sold Ness in 1796, Esi’s lips had stood in that same thin line. Ness could remember reaching out for her mother, flailing her arms and kicking her legs, fighting against the body of the man who’d come to take her away. And still Esi’s lips had not moved, her hands had not reached out. She stood there, solid and strong, the same as Ness had always known her to be. And though Ness had met warm slaves on other plantations, black people who smiled and hugged and told nice stories, she would always miss the gray rock of her mother’s heart. She would always associate real love with a hardness of spirit.”

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve always loved Coates’s work, but Between the World and Me was simply devastating, and the kind of book I had to put down because its truths were difficult to read. I’ll be reading and discussing it with my students next week, and look forward to their reaction.

“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

It’s only taken me sixteen years to get around to reading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which managed to blend a biting sense of humor with profound questions about identity, culture, technology, and the immigrant experience. The novel’s characters are an especially interesting collection of believably flawed and idealistic cynics, each of whom comes across as a wholly distinct individual with his/her own voice.

“We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”

Anyone have any recommendations for titles that stood out to them this year?