Brian Edwards’ Best Reads of 2016

December 29, 2016

Brian Edwards
Photo by Lynn Trautmann

My name is Brian Edwards, and I’m the Crown Professor in Middle East Studies and a professor of English and comparative literature at Northwestern. I am also the founding director of the Program in Middle East and North African Studies (MENA), which partners with EPL in a monthly lecture series on the region.

My wife Kate Baldwin, also a Northwestern professor and author, and I moved here originally because of work. We were both born in New York City, but I grew up mostly in Connecticut, she in California (we met in graduate school at Yale). After more than a decade in Evanston, and raising four children ranging from a high school senior to a pre-kindergartner, we have deep ties in the community and love it here.

I’m constantly reading both for work and pleasure. These five books, which come from my reading this fall, are the ones I’m most excited to share right now. Four of them are relatively new: three of them works of fiction and one a work of social history. I also included an overlooked novel from the 1980s that I finally read last month and now cherish. And please also take a look at my own new book, After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, which is also available at EPL.

1) The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction went to a first novel by an American studies professor at USC. Set in Vietnam and Los Angeles during the late 1960s and 1970s, Nguyen’s novel is structured as the confession of an unnamed south Vietnamese narrator who is secretly a mole for the communist north. What makes the novel an instant classic is the narrator’s voice: wry, critical, and ruthless as he dissects himself, the Vietnamese refugee community in SoCal, and the excesses of American anti-Communism and violence in the war. The chapters on the making of a fictional Hollywood film called The Hamlet, which closely resembles Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, are devastating. Beyond the sheer pleasure it generates, The Sympathizer shows what the contemporary novel can do to disrupt and deconstruct America’s sense of global superiority and the follies of military occupation in the name of exporting American principles.

2) The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (2013)

book coverCompletely different in tone and setting from Nguyen’s novel, this Iraqi work of fiction pairs exceptionally well with it. Set in Baghdad, The Corpse Washer is a fictional autobiography of Jawad, a young artist who reluctantly takes over his Shiite father’s corpse washing business. Spanning three wars—the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, the 1990-91 Gulf War, and the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by the U.S.—this haunting novel by an Iraqi novelist now based in New York gives a profound and poetic Iraqi perspective on the devastation that four decades of war has wreaked on his country. Antoon, who translated his own novel from the Arabic, also shows us how art, love, and family struggle to survive amidst the oppressive conditions of war and occupation.

3) Counternarratives by John Keene (2015)

Keene, my beloved former colleague at Northwestern, teaches literature and creative writing at Rutgers, where he is also the chair of the African American and African studies department. This collection of stories and novellas, which won the 2016 American Book Award, is radically brilliant, both in form and content. Keene revisits American literature and history and turns both inside out with inspired “counter narratives”…a meeting between Jim and Huckleberry decades after their trip on the raft, the narrative of an escaped slave during the American Revolution, accounts from 17th century Portuguese exploration in New Lisbon, an imagined intimate meeting between Langston Hughes and Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia in 1930s Harlem. Keene’s formal fireworks and genius show through every page.

book cover4) Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority by Zareena Grewal (2014)

Grewal, a professor of American studies and religion at Yale, recently spoke at EPL in the MENA series (she was the speaker when library staff discovered the vandalized Qurans). Her book asks what it means to be both Muslim and American, and follows the paths of individual Muslim Americans as they struggle to find a place amid both national and global communities. A clearly written and accessible work of scholarship, Islam is a Foreign Country combines social history, rich ethnography, and religious debate. Crucial reading at a moment when this diverse and much maligned community struggles to achieve recognition in a context where misunderstanding and stereotyping fuel ignorant assaults.

5) Democracy by Joan Didion (1984)

I’m a huge fan of Didion’s essays and creative non-fiction, especially her classic Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979). But I came across her gorgeous, lesser known novel almost by accident. Set mostly in Hawaii during the end of the Vietnam war, Democracy imagines the rise and fall of a wealthy and glamorous political family, whose domestic dramas intersect with national and global history, and whose dissolution mirrors the defeat and withdrawal of the U.S. from Vietnam. Stylistically, Didion’s novel continually pulls the rug out from under the reader in ways I found thrilling. She incorporates herself, as both author and character, in ways that ask fundamental questions about fiction itself. One of those novels that had me reading sentences out loud to my wife: “Listen to this – how did she pull that off?!”



Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

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