Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Year in Lit: Four Favorite Books of 2010

No doubt about it, 2010 was a wonderful year for travel. We MONKEYS got to go to Australia, Hong Kong, China, Ireland, and India, as well as the less exotic locales of Atlanta, Vancouver B.C., Austin, Portland (Oregon), Tallahassee, D.C., Seattle, Dallas, Chicago . . . and let's not forget New Jersey.

As I was reflecting on the year, I thought about the extraordinary number of fantastic reading experiences I had, most of which were derived not just from the content but from the situation of reading about a foreign land while in a foreign land. I thought I'd share some of the highlights with you.

I should point out--you needn't actually go to any of these places to enjoy any of these gems. So should you find yourself longing for escape in the coming year, but not the means or the time to actually get away, consider picking up one of these volumes.

And count yourself lucky that being homebound means you can still experience it in the form of a physical book--with our touring schedule and the need to travel light, more and more of my books are coming to me via e-reader.

Though it's interesting to note: Every single one of these most memorable reads of 2010 were with physical books. Coincidence?

"The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor"
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This book was actually read at the tail end of 2009, but I'm going to include it because it was such a highlight.

The book had been sent to my brother by our bio-dad when we were kids, and I'd always wanted to read it. When I moved out of my parents' home, I brought it with me to all the shared housing of college, to the three apartments I shared with M, then into a box and shipped across the country with all our other necessities when we moved from Seattle to New York. Once nestled onto our Brooklyn book shelf, it remained there, unperturbed, for almost a decade, though I glanced at it often and wondered when I would finally read it.

We booked a trip to Mexico right after finishing our show at the Public last December and I thought, Aha! Perfect! (I'm always drawn to the slim volumes when packing.)

We were staying on a hut on stilts, right beside the ocean on the Yucatan Peninsula. The walls were all slatted, as though the hut had gills, and a storm began to rage almost as soon as we'd arrived, which filled the hut with wind no matter how we tried to manipulate the louvers. It wasn't entirely unpleasant; I had the sensation of being super-oxygenated.

This was an eco-hut: as soon as the sun went down, we had no light. So by the glow of the cheap candle I'd purchased at the store--one of those tall glass cylinders with a religious decal slapped on the glass's exterior--and sitting on the bed with mosquito netting whipping around me like an anxious bride's tulle, my husband snoring beside me, I at last read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's record of a young Colombian sailor's account of being shipwrecked and surviving on the open sea for ten days.

It's a simple tale, simply told, and absolutely gripping. Man versus nature at its most basic: circling sharks, relentless sun, dehydration, hunger . . . and one very memorable encounter with a sea gull.

If this were Hollywood, we'd flash back and forth between this man on the raft struggling to survive and the story of the girl at home, the one who'd betrayed him, the one he was surviving for . . . something daring would happen at the end, some feat of strength or cunning that would cause us in the audience to gasp with either envy (I wish I could do that) or disbelief (No one could do that). Not this story.

Towards the end he writes, "It never occurred to me that a man could become a hero for being on a raft for ten days and enduring hunger and thirst." That's all this story is, and because of that, it's great.

"Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen"
Marilyn Chin

I picked this up at a bookstore in Hong Kong. It's the tale of two Southern California Chinese-American girls who deliver Chinese food from their family's "Double Happiness" restaurant. Their axe-wielding grandmother is an awesome matriarch, and the whole story is told in a loose, vivid, fantastical way. It's crude and violent, poetic in the most super-sized, essential sense of that word. The whole thing is sharp angles and pokes and absurdity that captures the bigger truths. It feels almost like a cartoon. And the author, Marilyn Chin, isn't afraid to change the voices or storytelling techniques frequently, so you can never get too comfortable. The ground is always shifting beneath you.

Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite chapters, a monologue written in the voice of Grandmother Wong:

"They good girls, do homework, get straight As. But I have to teach respect. Only I do, because their mother and father too busy make money. They open restaurant at 4 a.m. Go to sleep at one. They get three-hour sleep. All my son do is swear . . . fuck this, fuck that . . . and Mei Ling mother, all she do is cry . . . She say, I go back to Hong Kong! I go back to Hong Kong! In Hong Kong she used to ride rickshaw to teahouse. Now, in America, she work like slave. her hand use to be white and soft. Now rough like sea cucumber. I say, don't you know? This what you suppose to do in America? Work day and night. You think Jesus or Buddha give you free money? All they do work for money then fight fight about money. Money never enough. They always keep big eyes on cash register. I say, your daughters grow breasts! You can't see? You don't care, grow breasts or snakes!

Little peapods, I say, you don't want to be like that. You get straight As, go work high in glass building, be king of office. Lawyer, doctor, president, I don't care, close restaurant if you want, just don't dance at Pink Pussycat. I don't want you cook if you don't want cook. My Moonie hates to cook. And I say that's okay. She won't get husband, but who need husband, end up like my son, useless, spit in wok, hate this, hate that."

"A Star Called Henry"
Roddy Doyle

I purchased this in Cork, Ireland, and then read most of it while in a bathtub in Dingle on a day in June when the rain was coming down so thick and cold that we decided to cancel our planned drive around the peninsula.

It's the story of a fellow named Henry Smart, born in 1901 in a Dublin slum, and he lives through some of the most pivotal events in Ireland's history, including the Easter Rising in 1916
and the War of Independence that followed.

If that sounds like a history lesson, fear not! It's such a beautiful read, pulling you right into the life of this boy, son of a one-legged whorehouse bouncer, a clever child who grows into a man as we follow along. Doyle's voice is so compelling, you'd follow it anywhere. Here's how he describes Henry's grandmother, right on page two:

"Wrapped in her sweating black shawl, she could have crept out of any century. She might have walked from Roscommon or Clare, pushed on by the stench of the blight, walked across the county till she saw the stone-eating smoke that lay over the piled, sagging fever-nests that made our beautiful city, walked in along the river, deeper and deeper, into the filth and shit, the noise and the money. A young country girl, never kissed, never touched, she was scared, she was thrilled. She turned around and back around and saw the four corners of hell. Her heart cried for Leitrem but her tits sang for Dublin. She got down on her back and yelled at the sailors to form a queue."

I loved this book so much, I secretly resented the sun for coming out and forcing me out of the tub and back onto the road.

"The White Tiger"
Aravind Adiga

We were on a five-city tour of India in August, and I picked up this book at an airport in Hyderabad on the advice of my friend Maureen.

I could not put it down.

It's written as a series of seven letters over seven nights from a young Indian entrepreneur to the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, and in his first letter he says this:

"Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia. These are the only three nations I admire.

Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage, and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore."

You may not always agree with him, but you always want to hear more about his take on the world, and the plot thickens most rivetingly. It would make for an excellent monologue, the voice is so great. Go to Amazon and read the first few pages to see more.

Having just traveled in China researching manufacturing there and conditions of workers, then being in India performing a show about technology and being very aware of the competition between the two countries--and what that competition has done to the lives of the workers in both places--I couldn't have asked for a more perfect book. It's hilarious and heartbreaking and smart and touching, and really, just so, so funny.

But listen! Even if you don't know Wen Jibao from Chairman Mao, even if you've never been to India, pick up this book! It's extraordinary! It sucks you in from page one and you'll be sorry to turn the final page.


Unknown said...

White Tiger is a great book, I highly recommend it! Thanks to you and Mike for sharing that with me. I'll read the Ship Wrecked Sailor next. Great reviews on all the books.

Busboy said...

I really love this post. You've included two of my favorite authors and introduced me to two others who sound like candidates. Even better, reading your reviews of the four is a pleasure all unto itself.

I've been reading García Márquez since One Hundred Years of Solitude was first published in English. So if you'd asked me which of the four authors had written the sentence, "She got down on her back and yelled at the sailors to form a queue," I would have said García Márquez. Perhaps Roddy Doyle (a longtime favorite both for his writing, and for his stories of contemporary Ireland) did some island-bound book traveling himself. He wouldn't have been the first writer to come back with a souvener from Macondo.

JM said...

Thanks for stopping by, you two!

Chip, so glad to hear you enjoyed "The White Tiger." I would buy that for everyone on my Christmas list, if I could.

Busboy, that's a great sentence you highlighted, but my favorite is the one that preceded it: "Her heart cried for Leitrem but her tits sang for Dublin." It's not just the place references that make that sentence feel very, very Irish.

ColinInHouston said...

The final book looks excellent! I'm teaching world history and am debating trying reverse chronology; this could be an excellent intro for my students.

Any news on when any of the monologues you've been touring will show up on iTunes?

Thanks for all your great work!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff! All seem to demand reading, but I'm flattened by the description from Roddy Doyle about the father who was a one-legged bouncer in a whorehouse. That casual mention screams for elucidation, not unlike Chris von Allsburg's "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick."


Anonymous said...
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JM said...

The only way to elucidate that is to read the book, Allan. Enjoy!

I followed the link to the Burdick book...looks like fun. Thanks for sharing.

Eleanor said...

Oh man, I SO love advice about great books, and this post is a feast of plenty. You make them all sound so compelling - where to start? I love how you never gave up on the Marquez- it makes me rethink my shelves, and reconsider the books that have been neglected. And...I wanna be in a bathtub in dingle.