Amy Waldman was co-chief of the South Asia bureau of The New York Times. Her fiction has appeared in The Atlantic and the Boston Review and is anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. She lives with her family in Brooklyn. The Submission, her first novel, was published in August by FSG. You can read her reading picks elsewhere at The Millions and Salon and follow her on Twitter @AmyWaldman.
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
Jude the Obscure will stay with me longer than any book I read this year. Its opening scenes, in which the poor country boy becomes obsessed with the fictional city of Christminster, shimmering in the distance, promising the elevations of knowledge, are as engraved in my mind as the harrowing final ones. Tragedy is what the reader sees waiting in the distance for Jude, yet the unpredictability of the route there makes the novel compelling. The plot is full, especially near the end, of excessive twists, absurd coincidences, and an occasional staginess. It doesn’t matter. Jude is a page-turner that made me think harder about the conventions of marriage, the meaning of morality, and the permutations of faith than any recent contemporary novel. It’s a story—a fable, almost—of passion and ideas, and both figure in the ill-fated relationship between the cousins Jude and Sue. Jude is doomed as much by his best qualities—his desire to find something admirable (a university, a woman) to anchor himself to; his noble aspirations, so discordant with his class; his refusal to conform; an overly tender heart—as by his ostensible worst, said to be his love of drink and women. Sue, mystifying, mercurial, and modern until she isn’t, manages to be convincing as both Jude’s soul mate and his ruin. It’s awe-inspiring to think how bold Thomas Hardy was for his time.
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman
In constructing a “novel”—mostly memoir—about the death, in a freak body-surfing accident, of his young wife, Goldman (who is a friend) writes in a style that’s both jagged and rich, tumbling from his mournful present to his past with Aura to her life before him, in a manner that somehow reminded me of the Internet—link-link-link, until you’re so deep in his chasm of grief you can’t climb out. He re-creates his wife as she was, and creates her as he would have us see her. Everything—from her melancholy childhood to his own lifetime of loneliness to ominous portents recognized only in hindsight—make her death seem as inevitable as it was shocking.
The Convert by Deborah Baker
A strange, almost surreal, but fascinating book—one writer’s attempt to understand the tension between Islam and the West through a biography of a subject who proves elusive and maddening, not least because she’s not, as Baker initially thought, dead. Maryam Jameelah, raised Jewish in a New York suburb, migrated to Pakistan as the prized convert and protégée of the influential fundamentalist Mawlana Mawdudi. He discovered—much as Baker later did—that Jameelah was not just a misfit, but likely schizophrenic too. That makes the book less the examination of the magnetism and danger of extremist Islam that Baker set out to write than a heart-rending portrayal of mental illness, from the inside; of shabby exile; and of Baker’s own fumbling efforts to grapple with September 11.
The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc by Kimberly Cutter
For some reason Baker’s book keeps resonating in strange ways with a novel I read this year, The Maid, also by a friend, Kimberly Cutter. It’s a fictionalized telling of the life of Joan of Arc—full of gripping war scenes, and a great sense of the addictive power of battle. It would seem to have little in common with a book about a twentieth century convert to Islam—and yet the religious fervor of the two women, and the blurry line between that fervor and mental illness, have kept them clanging against each another in my head.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
A political thriller; a highly dysfunctional family drama; a savvy précis of Europe’s frustration at England’s hospitality to ideologues (much as it is now criticized for being too welcoming to Islamists.) The vividness of the anarchists. The effectiveness of the melodrama. The placid way Conrad uses Verloc’s amiable indolence to camouflage his monstrosity. And Conrad’s writing.
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss
I have come late in life to graphic novels; this one is stunning. With gorgeous illustrations, Redniss cuts between the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie, scraps of history and reporting about nuclear power and waste, testimonies from atomic bomb survivors, and more.
Open City by Teju Cole
Beautiful, unusual, elliptical.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro
Among Munro’s many, many gifts, I was fascinated by the way the ends of her stories always manage to simultaneously wrap things up and further unravel them.