ONE FOR THE BOOKS: MHN recommends and reviews our favorites this year

DUR-E-MAKNOON AHMED '20:

Q: What are the best books you’ve read this year?

I would pick two favorites out of all the books I read this year. One is a Russian classic, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” and the other is a 1905 American novel, Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth.”

Reading “The Idiot” was a rich and almost psychedelic experience. The protagonist is Prince Myshkin, an invalid left without money or family who returns to Russia from Switzerland after being institutionalized for epilepsy since childhood.

His character, as Dostoevsky once wrote in a letter, is an attempt at portraying completely faultless, innocent human being. In a novel that is about unhealthy obsessions, unbridled desire and moral degeneration, Myshkin’s innocence is painfully out of place. The novel has a tense quality because of this juxtaposition. Moreover, while the story is quite simple, it is narrated through the different characters. Each character is incredibly complex, with a worldview so distinct that the novel almost changes genre whenever a different character takes charge. In all these points of view, Myshkin holds a central position and is always out of place. I cannot decide what to feel about this novel, but it is certainly required reading, and worth multiple rereads.

Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth” is another classic tragedy I read. It is a fearless, bitter critique of New York’s elite class of the 20th century. In the uncertainty of the turn of the century, the protagonist Lily Bart also faces the precarious position of soon turning thirty and being too old to marry. Lily, as a beautiful woman raised in the elite society despite her lack of money, is deathly afraid of the prospect of becoming a working-class girl, without a rich husband to support her expensive taste and love for luxury. While she is decadent, and hunts for a rich man as the novel opens, the plot progresses with Lily’s conscience getting stronger with each way the society exploits and mistreats her. However, each wrong that befalls Lily is a poignant reminder that she is not the only one in control of her life. Lily also becomes more and more desperate to reconcile her conscience with her attempts to stay afloat in these trying times. “House of Mirth” is a solemn anti-fairytale that exposes the dark side of the glamorous social stratum and girls’ notion that they were born to be princesses.

Q: What are the next books on your “to read” list?

I have become more conscious of my identity as Pakistani since being far from home, so I want to read more Pakistani content — Urdu and English — this year. I am itching to get my hands on Kamila Shamsie’s “Kartogrophy.” It is set in Karachi of 1971, and because I have never openly experienced the now crime-ridden Pakistani metropolis, I am very excited to read it.

A fresh new release I want to read is “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid. I am very intrigued by its reviews, and as a Mohsin Hamid fan, I really want to see how he outdoes himself in this novel.

I want to revisit classic Urdu poetry by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Muhammad Iqbal and Ghalib too, because no matter how many times I read it, it’s as fresh and as relevant as ever.

Q: What are some summer reads that you recommend?

“Mothsmoke” by a Mohsin Hamid is an absolute must-read. It is the story of an unemployed man’s fall as he has an affair with his best friend’s wife and gets accused of a crime he did not commit.

Another all-time favorite that I always recommend is the “Chaos Walking” trilogy by Patrick Ness, about a dystopian world where humans have moved to another planet, and men’s thoughts form a noise around them that all can hear. It’s a chilling, refreshing read because of how different it is, and faces difficult questions about human nature very fearlessly but delicately.

RENN ELKINS '20:

Q: What are the best books you’ve read this year?

Like many other Mount Holyoke students, I was blown away by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” which I devoured in a single day in August. Coates frames some of the most topical and essential issues of our time with his breathtakingly poetic prose, and leaves the reader with a surfeit of knowledge and emotion to contemplate.

Having recently experienced contemporary mastermind David Mitchell for the first time through his tremendous “Cloud Atlas,” I’ve sought out several more of his books over the past couple of months. “Black Swan Green,” a potent and meditative coming-of-age story about a boy living in Thatcher-era England, is perhaps the finest of them, but I also enjoyed the sci-fi/fantasy/horror mashup “Slade House,” which brings a new depth to the classic haunted house tale.

The most stunning book I’ve read in the past year, if I had to decide, would be Kathy Acker’s “Empire of the Senseless.” Light on plot, heavy on subversion and absurdity, this staple of 80’s punk literature chronicles the sex and gore fraught ad- ventures of its protagonists, a pirate and a cyborg, through a dystopian Paris. Reading Acker is akin to attending the most abstract, provocative modern art exhibit imaginable — you won’t be able to follow all of it, and she clearly doesn’t expect you to, but there are images and passages that will blow your mind. From start to finish, “Empire of the Senseless” is a searing journey that never once apologizes for its chaotic near-incomprehensibility.

Q: What are the next books on your “to read” list?

My massive stack presently consists of a wide variety: Neil Gaiman’s “Star- dust,” David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks,” Stacy Schiff’s “The Witches,” Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts,” Therese Ann Fowler’s “Z” and a handful of Shakespeare plays that I haven’t read yet: “King John,” “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “Troilus and Cressida.” I also want to start “War and Peace” sometime in the near future.

Q: What are some summer reads that you recommend?

For a summer read that’s both light and stimulating, I’d suggest Karen Rus- sell’s “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” a collection of short stories ranging from humorous to chilling, bound together by the theme of magical realism.

As I’m sure you’ve been able to garner from above, I’ve been loving David Mitchell’s books lately, and “Cloud Atlas” is a phenomenal read. Just make sure you have plenty of time to set aside for it — though only about 500 pages in length, it definitely requires the reader to use their mind to work out its plot and purpose. It’s full of intricacies and unexplained moments, so it isn’t ideal if you can only read for a few minutes at a time.

I imagine most people have read at least a little Neil Gaiman, but if you haven’t had the chance yet to pick up “Neverwhere” or “American Gods,” summer is the ideal time to do so! Both of these novels have a rollicking pace, enchanting worldbuilding and enough wit and humor to remind you why you love fiction so much in the first place. For a shorter Gaiman work with a little less adventure and a little more eerie potency, try “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”

If you’re a fan of classics, you probably already have a large to-read list, but there are two in particular that belong at the top: “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” While very different from one another, these are two books that surprised and enchanted me; Austen will astound you with her prim delicacy and delightful romance, Wilde with his clever dialogue and staggering philosophy.

And, finally, I can never make a list of summer reads without mentioning Benjamin Alire Saenz’s “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” Gentle, touching, gorgeous and profound, it is a romance between two boys written with all the care and innocence that LGBT literature all too often lacks, and it’s impossible not to fall in love with it.

RILEY GUERRERO '20:

Q: What are the best books you’ve read this year?

Though this year has been a hectic mix of begging for last-minute rides to and from the airport, harrowing snowstorms and thousands of pages of academic readings, there are some books that stand out from the finals-induced fuzziness of the last few months. Though not necessarily a beach read, any book in the Death Gate Cycle hepatology by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman is not only relaxingly easy to parse, but also extremely cheap, can be read in almost any order and actually much lighter than the series’ name implies. Rife with inventive worldbuilding, the usual fantasy races — alongside an unexpectedly potent exploration of the racial prejudices and exploitative practices between them – and an airy, fun tone with navigable plots and anxiety-free suspense that modern fantasy has unfortunately taken a few steps away from lately, the series is a must-read for any lover of dragons, elves, commentary on the destructive capacity of nuclear war or any novels that stretch the far reaches of even fantasy-physics while somehow staying perfectly reasonable. As an added bonus, all seven books have increasingly amusing cover art involving dragons, lava, magical airships and/or wizards (what else?) that both do the series perfect justice and make for a great conversation starter.

Q: What are the next books on your “to read” list?

Though I’m mostly looking forward to doing as little as possible over the summer, I intend to start on “The Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon, “Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic” by Bertholt Brecht, “The Body in Pain” by Elaine Scarry and whatever $1 fantasy paperback in my local bookstore catches my eye. I can only hope that once we’ve closed the book on finals, I’ll have enough energy left to flip to the first page.

Q: What are some summer reads that you recommend?

For those hoping to keep themselves sharp during summer break with something closer to what will be expected back here in the fall, or for any lovers of history and biography, an equally excellent choice is “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage” by Todd Gitlin. Available in full free on archive.org, equal parts memoir and historical analysis, the book follows Harvard grad and Students for a Democratic Society president Gitlin through the 1960’s. As a young student activist, Gitlin was involved in Tocsin, the anti-War movement, the push for integration and the tumultuous years of passion, expression, anger, change and political upheaval that characterized a defining decade in modern history. Delving into the struggles of organizing activism in an elitist setting, the influence of the old Left on the new, the fear surrounding heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia and the racial divides made more and more striking by the use of new technology as a documenting agent, the text remains all-too-relevant today. For those unsure whether to commit to such a lengthy book, or who are interested in the highlight reel but don’t quite have the time for several hundred pages of reading, Gitlin is also a contributor to and regular speaker on the stunning and deeply moving CNN documentary series, “The 60’s,” which is available on Netflix along with its continuations: “The 70’s” and “The 80’s.”

BEATA GARRETT '20:

Q: What are the best books you’ve read this year?

Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” is one. In this wonderful collection of lyrics, Rankine makes each word count as she details the emotional and physical violence of racism on the mind and body. Words are punctuated with visual art that calls for focused moments of silence and rumination. I recommend watching Situation One, a video in which Rankine reads one of her poems with the accompanying visual art playing. The video, much like Rankine’s poetry, is devastating in all the right ways. History is woven throughout “Citizen,” from the lyrics Rankine writes on specific historical incidents to the idea of the body as a vessel of history. Through this theme, Rankine reminds the reader that history is continuously affecting everyone and that history is always being created. She makes the reader realize their role in racism, to empathize and feel the despair and horror, and, through demanding responsibility, demands change.

Another favorite is Leigh Bardugo’s “Six of Crows.” Bardugo’s worldbuilding is one of the best I’ve read in any YA work, and she understands how the world her characters live in, define them, particularly adolescents who are forced to grow in a time of war and poverty. A few of the characters are anti-heroes, and the clash of ideologies that occur are fascinating to watch. The friendship and romance that develops throughout the novel is natural and reveals a humanity at the core of each of them. The plot itself and the action in the novel is not very interesting or inventive (typical heist storyline), but it does propel the characters to question themselves and one another. The ending is another aspect of the novel I think could be improved, but I ultimately believe that the world and characters Bardugo builds are refreshing and interesting enough to overcome the novel’s flaws.

Lastly, I’d like to mention “A Severed Head” by Iris Murdoch. Murdoch weaves a perfect thread of dark humor throughout the novel, revealing the absurdity of the upper class and the lengths to which people will maintain “civility.” Set in London, “A Severed Head” details the relationships between a group of friends and the deterioration of said group as an affair is revealed, and then another and another. Murdoch’s writing is lovely as she navigates the effects of infidelity and betrayal, probing into the psychological aspects of the characters and making the worst of them understandable.

Q: What are the next books on your “to read” list?

Generally, I would love to read more Asian American literature and more surrealism next year. In the case of Asian-American literature, a few of the novels on my list would be: Christine Shan Shan Hou’s collection of poetry, “Community Garden for Lonely Girls,” Hari Kunzru’s “White Tears,” Patty Yumi Cotrell’s “Sorry to Disrupt the Peace” and Henry Chang’s “Detective Jack Yu” series. For surrealism, I’m looking forward to reading a few novels by China Miéville, Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” and Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” and “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.” I’ve also gotten back into reading YA fiction. A few of the novels on that list would be Phillippe Diederich’s “Playing for the Devil’s Fire,” Shaun David Hutchinson’s “We Are the Ants” and Peadar O’Guilin’s “The Call.”

Q: What are some summer reads that you recommend?

Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories” is great. I love Angela Carter, and I would like others to know and read her works. Her novels have a dark fantasy element to them and always feature incredible, well-realized female characters. To get a taste of her writing, I suggest you start with her collection of short stories, or at the very least read “The Bloody Chamber,” in which Carter reimagines the story of Bluebeard. The prose is lush and Carter explores how female sexuality has been repressed in both history and fairytale. The sensual writing does not diminish the horror and tension that is built throughout the story, with an incredible climax that is almost cinematic.

I also recommend Ki Longfellow’s “China Blues.” Longfellow paints a portrait of San Francisco’s dazzling Jazz age; the upper and lower class, the crime and the people of color who lived during that period. The novel depicts the relationship between a socialite and an enigmatic figure of the Chinese underworld, and the effects it has on the people who surround the two and society in general. Longfellow’s description of Chinese-American relations is blunt as she explains the problem of exotification and white privilege through her plot and characters. While the romance in the novel is the focus, every character in the novel is memorable and self-driven. “China Blues” is also just a really fun read, with lots of humor and gangster action.

Lastly, I’ll mention Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” Neruda takes all the vulnerability and ecstasy of emotion and desire, and encapsulates it in a few lines. The lover is the focus of most of his poems, and he transforms them into a formidable force of nature with striking imagery. Neruda manages to simultaneously define and recognize that he cannot define love, it is too big to capture all at once, but he nonetheless captures it in pieces. There is nothing very intricate in the style of the poetry, but it works in his favor as the simple but fluid style depicts the intensity and tenderness of love well. The poems are presented in both Spanish and English, which makes the book handy for comparison.

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