After I compiled my short list of book recommendations from a year of reading, a colleague pointed out that I chose some mightily depressing books.
Yeah, maybe. I am drawn to the ugly side of humanity, perhaps so that I’m not surprised when it shows its face.
This isn’t a list of the most uplifting books I read in 2018, but of the essential books, the ones that made me a better, wiser, more informed person. And that is always positive.
Here they are, in no particular order.
‘Mink River’ (2010) by Brian Doyle – fiction
When I interviewed Brian Doyle via email about the craft of writing some years ago, his response was witty, touching, thrillingly eloquent and generous of spirit.
That describes his debut novel about an imaginary Oregon coastal town populated with characters impossible not to identify with.
Doyle is an acrobat with language, pulling off astonishing stylistic feats without ever appearing to show off. His familiar setting is imbued with magical realism that is sometimes subtle (e.g., a character who can sense creatures suffering in his vicinity) and sometimes not (e.g., a talking crow).
Doyle’s prose seems to tap a main vein of empathy in the world. With “Mink River” he is less concerned with plot and more with the daily dilemma of living in tension between our nobler nature and darkest demons. He tells his story with a glowing yet unsentimental fascination toward the human animal.
By the way, those emails? I printed out and stuffed them into my copy of “Mink River,” in case I should find myself in need of a literary spirit guide.
‘The Remains of the Day’ (1989) and ‘Never Let Me Go’ (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro – fiction
“The Remains of the Day” is about an English butler working at a distinguished estate as World War II draws near. During his career, his attention is entirely on his duties — running the household, managing the staff, pleasing his lord, maintaining his professional dignity.
Then, years later, the butler gradually, reluctantly realizes that the employer to whom he gave his life and gifts — for whose sake he sacrificed opportunities for love and fulfillment, even perhaps his moral compass — may not have been worth serving. His lord’s wasted life is, by extension, his own.
“Never Let Me Go” follows a group of children from a peculiar boarding school through young adulthood, all while they know — but never seem to fully absorb — that their futures don’t belong to them. They, too, are duty-bound to follow the life laid out for them, marching like docile lambs to their fate.
In voice and milieu, two books could hardly seem more different. But look deeper.
Both books by Kazuo Ishiguro are about well-meaning people so habituated to a form of psychological imprisonment that they can’t see, much less meaningfully resist, a system of evil that uses them as means to a twisted end.
‘Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ (2016) by J.D. Vance – nonfiction
An intelligent, tightly written autobiography about a guy, born into an Appalachian family, who defied the odds by (1) not becoming a helpless drug addict and (2) graduating from Yale and forging a stable, happy adulthood.
The book is one man’s success story and also the recognition of a tragedy that didn’t come to pass, but very well could have. J.D. Vance is fortunate to have been partly raised by grandparents who may have been hillbillies but were sophisticated enough to believe in his potential. Vance, however, still struggles with the rage and residual anxieties born of a hardscrabble upbringing.
Critics pegged “Hillbilly Elegy” as a must-read for anyone looking to understand the build-up of anger and grievances that plague red-state America, and may have fueled untold voters during the 2016 presidential election. It’s easy to see how, with horizons so narrow — with nothing but opioids, poverty and Mountain Dew mouth to look forward to — some people might show little investment in a political establishment that appears not to take their plight seriously.
Vance is a proud God-bless-America-style patriot — and a sharp, sympathetic, cleared-eyed voice for his culture.
‘The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy’ (2018) by Greg Miller – nonfiction
Of the many books from 2018 that try to reckon with the Trump presidency — from the gossipy, typo-riddled “Fire and Fury,” to Bob Woodward’s jaw-dropping psychodrama, “Fear,” to books by David Frum, James Comey and others — Greg Miller’s “The Apprentice” was, for me, the most staggering.
It looks at everything we knew, as of last summer, about Russia’s ongoing assault on our democracy, including what the U.S. intelligence community witnessed, and the bizarre Russia-coddling of Trump campaign officials.
What’s known, at minimum, is that, while Russians were interfering in the U.S. election on various fronts to help elect Trump, members of the candidate’s team had an inordinately high number of contacts with major Russian players — then claimed not to recall those contacts and continuously shifted their stories. Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of the attack — the Trump administration and Republican Congress — do nothing substantive to prevent the next one. Make of that what you will.
It’s hard to finish “The Apprentice” and not conclude that Russia attacked us, and won.
Miller describes the Trump-Russia relationship as a three-act drama, with the 2016 presidential campaign as Act I, the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit as the conclusion of Act II, and the third … well, it’s being written by the hour.
‘How Democracies Die’ (2018) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – nonfiction
This is some indispensable, nightmarish reading.
Democracy worldwide has seen a disturbing regression — in Turkey, Hungary, Russia, the Philippines and elsewhere — coupled with a rise in nationalist movements. Authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, political scientists at Harvard University, see developments in the U.S. as continuous with that pattern and sound the alarm. Once the slide toward autocracy begins, it is hard to stop.
The important thing to grasp: Democracies have unraveled in recent years not by violent revolutions but by elected leaders who, once in office, change the rules, rig the system, violate norms, weaken guardrails and work to delegitimize institutions — from the courts to the press — that push back. Authoritarians use democracy to gain power, then dismantle democracy to remain in power.
What does the future hold for democracy in the U.S.? Look at what state governments have done in North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin, and imagine such blatantly undemocratic shenanigans occurring at the national level. That’s where we may be headed, or worse, if we’re not careful.