Editor’s Note: Mitra Kalita is the author of two narrative nonfiction books, “Suburban Sahibs” and “My Two Indias.” She is CNN Digital’s vice president for programming. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
Fiction is the closest I will ever get to feeling like someone else.
This year, this polarized year, this year of Trump tweets and #MeToo and hurricanes and Klan rallies and mass shootings, I really needed that.
So I made a list of the books that helped me better understand the news and newsmakers of 2017. Only one was actually published this year. The others are works I read in the past but whose lessons and characters lingered. I returned to them as if they were old friends and sought counsel on how we got here and where we’re going. They helped me shift my perspective and, in the busiest news cycle of my 20 years in journalism, enabled a broader, longer view.
Here are some of this year’s top news stories and the books that helped me get through them:
News: The polarization of America, 2017
Book: “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen (2010)
Confession: I hated this book when it first came out. The characters, liberal and conservative, are so incredibly selfish. When it came out and Jonathan Franzen made the cover of Time and President Obama read it on the beach, then Oprah’s Book Club, too, I was appalled. Franzen’s prose and pacing are masterful. But my main fear was that his storytelling, and the reception to it, redeemed his protagonists’ pursuit of individualism instead of damning it.
After the election of 2016, I’m more comfortable celebrating Franzen’s prescient portrait of the dysfunctional Berglund family and of ideology trumping community and compromise. That seems to reflect the state of American discourse, at least among power brokers and my friends on Facebook. The novel’s initial reception included criticism that it was too obsessively political: Franzen’s hatred of suburban sprawl, love of bicycles and the cerulean warbler. In hindsight, this is a seminal work connecting the political to the personal. The desire to be free, it turns out, comes at a steep price.
News: White nationalists march on Charlottesville, Virginia
Book: “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout (2016)
Why are they so angry?
This was my question during the unrest in Charlottesville. The violence happened to peak the summer weekend my brother got married: a jubilant interracial wedding punctuated by news alerts about tiki torches and a white nationalist ramming a woman to death with his car.
I came home from the wedding and reached (again) for “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout. Raised in Midwestern poverty, Lucy works to get out of what we now call the “white working class” and becomes a successful writer. I found the passage where Lucy, sitting on her New York stoop, watches a gay couple walking by and feels wistful. “I know it’s terrible of me, but I’m almost jealous of them. Because they have each other, they’re tied together in a real community.” She goes on, “…in spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there.”
Everybody needs a community, most of all the loneliest among us.
News: Las Vegas mass shooting
Book: “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt (2013)
It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern history. Most reporting focused on the “Strip,” the section of Las Vegas we visit as tourists.
Killer Stephen Paddock lived 80 miles away, in the exurb of Mesquite. Farmers there once grew grapes for raisins and raised dairy cows. Now there’s a Walmart and eight golf courses and clubs.
I read profiles of Paddock – he gambled, dabbled in real estate, took Valium for his nerves and hated to be out in the sun – and instinctively felt I knew the place he called home. That’s thanks to “The Goldfinch,” where Donna Tartt takes us into the transitioning Las Vegas suburbs to understand “what tourists never see.”
When her main character Theo leaves New York and moves in with his deadbeat dad, he is welcomed by a sea of shopping plazas and identical housing developments against a vast Nevada sky that nurtures restlessness. He meets his drug dealer of a stepmother and makes a sketchy best friend. Vegas’ vice, it seems, has no borders.
Book: “An Obedient Father” by Akhil Sharma (2000)
This is a sickening book. Ram Karan works as a civil servant in New Delhi’s notorious bureaucracy and lives with his daughter and granddaughter. He accepts bribes and carries a horrible family secret.
Ages ago, before embarking on an overseas assignment, I read this book to understand India. This year, I turned to it to understand two themes: Moral corruption and political corruption; moral depravity and political depravity. This book confirms my conviction that you cannot separate the two.
“An Obedient Father” evokes sympathy for a sexual predator in Karan, weak and flawed as he is. Despite his ugliness – and, arguably, that of the current lot of men behaving badly or exposed as having done so in the past – there is also triumph. They are simple victories for those around him, such as survival, love and the power of confrontation, but victories nonetheless. These days, I cling to them.
News: The growing threat of North Korea
Book: “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee (2017)
We glimpsed the cruelty of North Korea in the story of Otto Warmbier, the American student detained there, then repatriated while in a coma.
I knew why they sent him back home. Months earlier, I had read this passage:
“Sunja nodded, having told herself long ago to expect the worst. The elders in her church had warned her that the Korean prisoners were usually sent home just as they were about to die, so that they would not die in jail. The prisoners were beaten, starved, and made to go without clothing to weaken them.”
Sunja is the Korean daughter we meet and grow to love in “Pachinko,” my favorite book of the year. I never really knew the history of Koreans’ migration to Japan, and the sheer discrimination and displacement they encountered. The characters contend with allegiances to country, family, religion – only to learn they might never quite belong. Min Jin Lee’s rendering of one family’s journey helps explain the history of both countries in such an accessible, intimate manner. I think of it with every tweetstorm, headline and “Little Rocket Man” reference on escalating tensions among the United States, North Korea and Japan, and the people and identities most affected by war.
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The opening words to the novel portend the cyclical nature of cruelty: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Thankfully, her words do not.
As this year in my life as a journalist, reader and citizen has shown me: We read, we report, we revisit — with hopes that maybe one day, we’ll learn.