Uncanny Valley: A Memoir
Written by Anna Wiener and published by MCD Books.
Frances Z. Brown: The year is 2012. Our heroine, a twentysomething liberal arts grad living in Brooklyn, works as an assistant in publishing—for a salary that’s also in the twentysomethings. One day, over her chopped salad desk lunch, she reads about a tech start-up looking to “disrupt” the publishing industry. She interviews for a job with the founders—themselves three dudes in their twentysomethings—and is hired on a three-month contract. Although she fails to “add value” in that particular role (her primary duties turn out to be snack procurement for the cofounders), she gets another offer with another start-up. She moves to the Bay Area to work for an analytics firm with cofounders, “now twenty-four and twenty-five, with one Silicon Valley internship between them and a smart, practical dream of a world driven by the power of Big Data.” A career in tech is born.
Uncanny Valley follows author Anna Wiener’s journey over the next four years through start-ups. I got hooked by her voice (originally from a New Yorker essay, where she is now a staff writer). I stayed for the vivid, tragicomic observations on tech culture and its environs and for the vignettes on everything from start-up management practices to gender relations to the San Francisco housing crisis. (Wiener says, “Everyone was reading ‘The Power Broker’—or, at least, reading summaries of it. . . . Multiple startups raised money to build communal living spaces in neighborhoods where people were getting evicted for living in communal living spaces.”)
As an outsider to Silicon Valley myself, I appreciated her as my sharp yet bewildered guide to this foreign land and its strange mores. And as the book ends right around the 2016 election, I especially appreciated it for the questions it raises on the industry’s implications for power, inequality, and democracy.
Written by Colm Tóibín and published by Simon & Schuster.
Judy Dempsey: After twenty-three months without traveling, I boarded a plane earlier this month with The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s new novel. It combines fiction and biography about Thomas Mann, one of Germany’s greatest twentieth-century writers, and is a glimpse into high German society.
Tóibín explores Mann’s deceit, his sexuality, and his disdain for the status quo. The opening is set in the northern German city of Lübeck, where Mann’s father was a prominent businessman and political figure. When Adolph Hitler launched the Nazi Party, Mann’s left-wing, successful novelist brother rang the bells. But Mann, now living in Munich and married into a converted Jewish family, believes that Germans are too sane to buy into Hitler’s propaganda. Indeed, the core of this book is the role and responsibility of the writer—more than relevant in today’s unsettling political landscape.
Mann keeps silent as the Nazis consolidate power. He didn’t want his books banned or his publisher shut down. The safety of his wife’s family seemed secondary. When he emigrates to the United States, Mann eventually becomes a voice of opposition to Hitler. He returns to Europe, settling in Switzerland after visiting the devastated cities of Frankfurt, a controversial trip to the Weimar Republic (already under Communist rule), and to his native Lübeck— convincing Mann that death is not far off. Relish the closing pages. It is they that are the most magical—and based on conviction.
Written by Fabrice Caro and published by Gallimard.
Dalia Ghanem: This year, novels became a beautiful escape from the pandemic and the disastrous situation in Lebanon, where I lived until recently. Fabrice Caro's Broadway made me laugh so much that I had to refrain from finishing it in a day. This book, which is currently only available in French, is about the absurdity of our modern lives; it is the poetry of failure.
In the novel, Axel is married with two kids, and his inner monologues cover his life as a father, husband, coworker, and man: his time wasted in the car, empty conversations with colleagues at the office coffee machine, the paddle vacation in Biarritz with friends. Axel realizes, at forty-six years old, that nothing ever looks like what we had hoped for. He had dreamed of a beautiful life with sparkles, like in a Broadway musical, and finds himself in a cheap and lousy end-of-year show organized by his son's school. What if it were time for Axel to leave everything behind and go to Buenos Aires tonight, instead of having to drink aperitifs with his boring neighbors? The book is beautiful and poetic, with a tenderness for failure and a kind of relaxed nihilism. Maybe wisdom is to accept that life is just a dull, year-end musical at your kid's school—and certainly not a Broadway show.
The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis
Written by Amitav Ghosh and published by the University of Chicago Press.
George Perkovich: Amitav Ghosh, a world-respected Indian novelist and essayist who lives in Brooklyn, begins his book with a gripping story of a 1621 Dutch mission to Indonesia’s Banda islands, where 2,000 men disembarked from fifty ships and set about slaughtering the Indigenous population in order to control the nutmeg trade. In short sections of evocative prose, Ghosh roots the original causes of the global climate crisis in the mindset and practice of European settler colonialism in Asia and North and Central America. “The nutmeg’s travels, and its strange career, perfectly illustrate the loss of meaning that is produced by the vision of world-as-resource,” he writes. “To see the world in this way requires not just the physical subjugation of people and territory, but also a specific idea of conquest, as a process of extraction.” He continues: “Colonization was . . . not merely a process of establishing dominion over human beings; it was also a process of subjugating, and reducing to muteness, an entire universe of beings that was once thought of as having agency. . . . animals, trees, volcanoes, nutmegs. These mutings were essential to processes of economic extraction.”
The effect of Ghosh’s archival research, far-flung travel reporting, deep thinking, and eloquent writing is at once enlightening and depressing. There are plenty of debates to be had with some of his analyses and conclusions, but I bet you will come away thinking he’s more right than he is wrong, and you will understand the climate catastrophe in a new way.
Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury
Written by Evan Osnos and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Karim Sadjadpour: The book I’ve recommended most to people in 2021 is New Yorker writer Evan Osnos’s Wildland (which is also a wonderfully narrated audiobook). It is the story of the modern United States through the prism of three distinct socioeconomic communities—Chicago; Greenwich, Connecticut; and Clarksburg, West Virginia—that have little in common with one another except for common feelings of political alienation. Large swaths of American citizens—even the hedge fund elites of Greenwich—feel either neglected, unrepresented, or unfairly villainized, which is one factor among many fueling American political polarization.
A decade ago, few analysts working in the field of international affairs would have expressed genuine concerns about political instability in the United States. That is no longer the case. This excerpt from Wildland perhaps best sums it up: “In 1964, 77 percent of Americans had said they generally trusted the government; by 2014, that figure had collapsed, to 18 percent. The terrain of American politics was primed for a wildland fire. Somebody was going to strike a spark. From the moment Donald J. Trump announced his run for president, he was a symptom of American distress as much as any cause of it.”
Written by Maggie Shipstead and published by Knopf.
Milan Vaishnav: During the pandemic, I’ve made a concerted effort to read more fiction as a way of escaping the unending bad news cycle the world seems to be stuck in. This year, I discovered the brilliance of Maggie Shipstead. I admit this with some degree of trepidation, as I am very, very late to the party.
I read all three of Shipstead’s novels this year—2012’s Seating Arrangements, 2014’s Astonish Me, and this year’s Booker Prize–shortlisted Great Circle. I loved all three, but Great Circle is her career-defining work—so far.
The novel is told through the parallel stories of two women—a fearless female aviator named Marian Graves and the jaded Hollywood actress Hadley Baxter, who plays Graves on-screen decades later. In real life, Shipstead is a world traveler who’s literally voyaged to the ends of the Earth and is a frequent travel writer. As Graves embarks on a dangerous solo journey to circumnavigate the world, you feel like you’re right there with her. It’s an epic story—of adventure, romance, tragedy, revenge, death, and rebirth—that after 608 pages you don’t want to end. In my book, that’s high praise.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
Written by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab and published by Tor Books.
Alicia Wanless: Researching topics like propaganda and disinformation can be dark. Sometimes an escape into fiction (particularly fantasy and dystopian fiction) is necessary. One book that stands out for me this year is The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.
The novel charts the life of a young woman in a 1714 French village who makes a deal with a stranger for eternal life, at the expense of never being remembered. Over the course of a couple hundred years, young Addie wanders the world forgotten but learns how humans form ideas. Along her path, she comes to see how ideas often outlast the people who conceive them, and while she can’t be remembered, she can spark long-lasting legacies through inspiring art and stories. Observations made by the narrator, such as that “ideas are wilder than memories. They’re like weeds, always finding their way up,” rang so true during a pandemic where a loud minority is campaigning against vaccines (and not for the first time in history). Ultimately, this book is a love story, but Schwab also explores information, memory, and the human relationship to them both.
Making the Forever War: Marilyn B. Young on the Culture and Politics of American Militarism
Edited by Mark Philip Bradley and Mary L. Dudziak and published by University of Massachusetts Press.
Stephen Wertheim: As the Taliban took over Afghanistan this August, American commentators spun a litany of lessons from their country’s twenty-year defeat. To my mind, however, one of the most incisive accounts came out a few months before Kabul fell and was mostly written decades ago.
In Making the Forever War, the late historian Marilyn Young (1937–2017) anticipates the perspective of many Americans who came of age after the Cold War, even though she grew up at its McCarthyist height. Young soon detected that U.S. war making had assumed a quality of endlessness, not only in its frequency but also in how it affected life at home. America’s wars, she writes, “do not so much end as stop, until the next one begins.” As a result, the country has come to take “war rather than peace as the normal state of affairs.”
Her essays, deftly arranged by editors Mark Philip Bradley and Mary L. Dudziak, range in topic from the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century to the post–September 11 wars. A highlight is Young’s treatment of the so-called U.S. police action on the Korean peninsula from 1950 to 1953. Young contends that a larger share of the American public opposed the Korean War than the Vietnam War but that such opposition was neither organized nor vocal. Mostly, the country tried to stop remembering the war even as it happened. In a week in which 2,200 Americans suffered casualties, U.S. News & World Report observed that “the war [is] almost forgotten at home, with no end in sight.”
For Young, a deeply rooted, though not inalterable, political culture allows the United States to choose to forget its failed wars, thereby “laying the ground for the next war.” How, one wonders, will America’s war in Afghanistan be remembered—to the extent it is remembered? When President Joe Biden recently declared that the United States was “not at war” anymore, Young would have detected the process of disremembering at work. “Armed with drones and Special Forces, an American president can fight wars more or less on his own, in countries of his own choosing,” she might have warned. Indeed, she already had.