A Curious Synergy: This Year’s NYT Best Books

The New York Times just released its picks for the 10 best books of the year, and it’s hard to miss a few surprising themes. Disability, risk, health, and even anthropology stand out in at least four of the 10 selections.

I was thrilled to see Akhil Sharma’s Family Life on the list, a beautifully concise rendering of the protagonist’s experiences with a brother who sustained life-altering disabilities following an early-adolescence accident in a swimming pool. The story is eerily similar to Sharma’s own, and he has said elsewhere that it is approximately 70% true. How stunning to have another sibling recognized for sharing his story, even if it is one I found difficult to read at times. Sharma captured a sibling experience that resonated with my own in his refusal to turn saccharin. I sensed an emotional boundary in his writing that indicated not a lack of connection with his words, but rather an intense understanding of the emotional boundaries he set for himself long ago, of the desire not to make things worse and to decipher a situation – looking back, years later – for which he had not other models. This is an incredibly important intervention in that it breaks from the inspirational and affectively charged narratives that mark so many family disability stories, whether fictional or otherwise. This book is the opposite of anything on the Huffington Post. It is raw, yet restrained; the emotions are controlled and deliberate, but their depth renders them dangerous. You can find Louise Kinross’ beautiful interview with Sharma for BLOOM here. I also suggest reading this fascinating piece in which Sharma describes how he wrote Family Life.

Another striking selection was Eula BissOn Immunity: An Inocculation. Written from her perspective as a mother – and one of the peculiarly citified, educated, Whole Foods-shopping, chemical-fearing modern ilk that I know so well – Biss probes the logics and anxieties of vaccinations in the contemporary U.S. I absolutely recommend reading this in tandem with Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus. While I’ll admit I found Biss’ voice grating at times (if only because it captured all too well my own nagging fears as a mother within the same urban tribe), her treatment of the moral imperative of herd immunity is important in its nuanced, yet unwavering, commitment to acting for the greater community good.

The two additional picks that caught my eye were Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which features a prominent character who is blind, and Lily King’s Euphoria, which is a fictionalized account of Margaret Mead’s romantic drama between her second and third husbands. I haven’t read either of these yet, but I have both on hold at my library and will let you know what I think.


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