The Atlantic 10

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Written By Pinang Driod

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With unnerving rapidity, books are on their way to becoming a countercultural medium—one whose insistence on focus and complexity, on the slow building of story and argument, stands against so much else that daily assaults our eyes and ears. At The Atlantic, we hold on tight to books because of the unique space they offer for ideas to roam. When we established the Atlantic 10 last year, our aim was to recognize titles that compelled us to keep reading at the same time that they made us pause and consider unexpected thoughts. Once again, we’ve sought out work that allows us to stand at arm’s length from the world, seeing its patterns—its wonders and its horrors—and giving us the distance to imagine new possibilities.

This year’s selections include a narratively ingenious novel about the human cost of colonialism, a collection of inventive couplets about what it means to be a couple, a probing history of the American dream, and two radically different memoirs of growing up, one a vivid story of encroaching mental illness, the other of intensifying religious zealotry. We were drawn to ambitious projects, and looked for writing that was clear and beautiful. Most important, we searched for books that you won’t be able to put down.  — Gal Beckerman, Ann Hulbert, Jane Yong Kim


Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton

Catton was the youngest recipient of the Booker Prize for her previous novel, The Luminaries (which also had the longest page count of any winner in the award’s history). She returns now with a work that is both dramatically energetic and attuned to the political concerns of our moment. Birnam Wood revolves around a group of young activists engaged in a covert effort to plant gardens on unused tracts of land in New Zealand. She perfectly captures their clash of idealism and pragmatism—how far should one go in pursuit of the greater good? Their environmentalist dreams are tested when they encounter an Elon Musk–style billionaire with ulterior motives, who makes their leader an offer she can’t refuse. Catton writes with the ambition of a Charles Dickens or a George Eliot, producing a page-turner that also manages to describe the eternal human capacity to muddle the most moral of our intentions with shortsightedness and greed.

Birnam Wood
By Eleanor Catton
Beyond the Door of No Return

Beyond the Door of No Return, by David Diop (translated by Sam Taylor)

In the 18th century, a young French botanist named Michel Adanson traveled to Senegal to gather specimens. He spent the rest of his life back in France, laboring on an encyclopedic classification project that went mostly unpublished. Diop, a novelist of French Senegalese origin, imagines the Enlightenment cataloger as a man haunted ever since his return by a profoundly disorienting quest he embarked on during the trip: He set out to find a woman who had been abducted and sold into slavery, but who’d managed to escape captivity. The core of Diop’s third, mesmerizingly layered work of historical fiction is given over to Adanson’s account of this mission. In notebooks he hides for his daughter to find after his death, the old man rekindles in prose the overpowering passion he once felt for the beautiful African fugitive. Resurrecting his long-repressed entanglement in the terrors of the slave trade, he reaches for some sort of reckoning—an inheritance that might relieve his child of “the weight of prejudice.” Diop, with remarkable tonal and narrative deftness, evokes and complicates Adanson’s cathartic hopes in a way that feels unexpectedly timeless.

Beyond the Door of No Return
By David Diop
Our Share of Night

Our Share of Night, by Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell)

A masterful work of literary horror, Our Share of Night uses the genre to explore the legacies of societal and familial violence. The book begins with a father and a son on a seemingly humdrum road trip: The recently widowed dad, Juan, is worried that he doesn’t know how to parent, while his precocious son alternates between being hungry and falling asleep. But, we quickly learn, Juan can see the dead, including people who were disappeared by Argentina’s military dictatorship—and his son seems to have inherited his frightening abilities. We learn, too, that at their closed-off jungle compound, the powerful family of Juan’s deceased wife performs cruel rituals in search of immortality; they require his reluctant participation to do so and are eager for his son’s eventual involvement. Enriquez is a confident and inventive writer, and she holds together these elaborate plot strands with immense skill, cycling through decades and narrators to tell an eerie tale of love and terror, sacrifice and greed. By its end, the novel suggests that the true consequence of covert brutality is the complicity it demands from all who wield or endure it.

Our Share of Night
By Mariana Enriquez
The Country of the Blind

The Country of the Blind, by Andrew Leland

In his teens, Leland was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that degrades eyesight over time, and he knew from that moment that he would ultimately go blind. For decades, his disease progressed slowly enough that he could ignore it. But writing in his 40s “at the end of sight,” Leland confronts not only the reality of becoming blind but also the philosophical and cognitive reorientation this inspires. He admits to feeling at times like an interloper in his new community, even as he pushes himself to become a contributing member and comes to prize its wisdom. His education in navigating the world without his eyes is an entry point into a fascinating cultural history of blindness. The great strength of this memoir is its voracious, humble curiosity; throughout, Leland treats losing his vision as just as much an opportunity as a foreclosure. “Most days I really do feel like my growing blindness is not to be feared,” he writes—it “opens up interesting hermeneutic and epistemological questions that I could spend the rest of my life exploring.”

The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight
By Andrew Leland
Ours Was the Shining Future

Ours Was the Shining Future, by David Leonhardt

The story of economic inequality and social unraveling in the past half century is not new, but it has seldom been told as well and as damningly as in Leonhardt’s Ours Was the Shining Future. Leonhardt is a longtime New York Times journalist—a policy wonk with a passion for justice—and this book is the culmination of decades of work. He combines a historical narrative that goes back to the Depression with statistical research and unorthodox political analysis to show how the American economy stopped benefiting the majority and became an instrument of acquisition for the few. Leonhardt lays the blame on elites of both parties, and he never flinches from the implications of his findings. For anyone who wants to build a movement for fairness in this country, his advice is simple: Pay attention to those Americans whose struggles in a heartless economy make them easy to overlook.

Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream
By David Leonhardt
Couplets

Couplets, by Maggie Millner

Millner’s debut isn’t hard to follow: The narrator, a woman in her late 20s, leaves her boyfriend because she falls in love with a woman. Then that relationship ends too. Couplets careens breathlessly from desire to self-knowledge: “For any fierce, untrammeled feeling, / now I know I’d give up almost anything,” Millner writes. This kind of tale has appeared in many shapes—the 19th-century novel; its distant ancestor, the sonnet sequence. Millner takes the fresh approach of writing her love story in a long series of rhyming couplets, “a shape in which desire … can multiply.” The propulsive surprise of each new rhyme carries us through the streets and subways of New York to the coast of Maine, where the narrator and her lover “watch the tide / perform its incremental sleight // upon the beach.” Millner’s appealing, openhearted speaker is alive in a world whose contours are heightened by her intimacies with others. Delighting in love as a “type // of rhyme,” Couplets finds freedom in the constraints of its form.

Couplets: A Love Story
By Maggie Millner
The Best Minds

The Best Minds, by Jonathan Rosen

Michael Laudor had an incandescent mind. It radiated brilliance and charisma—until it turned on him, sweeping him into paranoid delusions that eventually ended in murder. Rosen’s recounting of his best friend’s tragic slide into schizophrenia is at once an intimate portrayal of the gradual onset of mental illness and an indictment of a set of policies called deinstitutionalization, promoted in the 1960s, that repeatedly failed Michael and the woman—his fiancée, Carrie—he killed while in the throes of psychosis. (An excerpt from Rosen’s book was The Atlantic’s May cover story.) The story Rosen tells is a damning critique of the utopian thinking that blinded so many admirers of Michael’s mind. It is also a joint bildungsroman, a remarkably honest and poignant account of an intense friendship between two boys coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s, who thrived on sometimes fond, sometimes fraught adolescent competition. The Best Minds combines urgency and subtlety in the way it handles the interrelated issues of mental-health stigma, personal freedom, and forced institutionalization.

The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions
By Jonathan Rosen
Ordinary Notes

Ordinary Notes, by Christina Sharpe

In 248 “notes”—short entries that include memories, definitions, literary criticism, and correspondence—Sharpe examines, using exacting and often tender language, what it means to be Black in a world dominated by whiteness. Jumping off from her previous book In the Wake, which examined the long afterlife of slavery in America, Sharpe’s latest work offers new ways of seeing how racism poisons people on the individual and collective levels. She subjects a range of topics to her frank, sharp analysis: the humanizing descriptions of white supremacists, the grinning white faces in crowds at lynchings, the well-intentioned memorials to those lynchings. But Sharpe infuses Ordinary Notes with love, drawing on the memory of her mother, a woman who constantly gave her daughter work by Black writers and made their home beautiful, even when money was tight. Her mother protected her; she knew that the outside world might scorn or belittle Sharpe, and she thus gave her “space to be precious—as in vulnerable, as in cherished.”

Ordinary Notes
By Christina Sharpe
How to Say Babylon

How to Say Babylon, by Safiya Sinclair

Sinclair has been publishing poetry since she was a teenager, when she asked her mother to mail three of her works to an editor at Jamaica Observer. One of those poems—a desperate lamentation about the rural town where her father had kept her family isolated—was written “in a fugue state, engulfed by white smoke and a billowing georgette dress and my hair strands spiraling silver,” she recalls in her memoir, How to Say Babylon. The book chronicles the poet’s adolescent fervor for the craft of writing, which opened up a path away from her controlling father’s strict Rastafari household and toward a life of her own making. Sinclair does more than sketch out a straightforward story of domestic peril and escape. She also paints a complex portrait of Jamaica, braiding in the history of her family’s religion. Even when she looks beyond her own biography, every political or geographical detail adds to this vivid chronicle of her origin as an artist and a free woman.

How to Say Babylon: A Memoir
By Safiya Sinclair
The Iliad translated by Emily Wilson

The Iliad, translated by Emily Wilson

The experience of reading Homer must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of a new translation. In her version of the Iliad, Wilson enlivens the epic with rich sanguinary nutrients. Her unfussy blank verse is meant to counteract the impression that Homer is the domain of crusty classicists. The result is an Iliad of clarity and approachability, its violence rendered with brutal intimacy: Wilson’s translation is zippy, and it zips the reader to a place and time of alien savagery. Some readers might be of two minds about having been transported there. But the vigor of language and vision is undeniable, and any version that reanimates this work so successfully must be reckoned with.

The Iliad
By Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)


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