I tried to focus my reading in 2019 on stuff that in other years might have passed me by, the kinds of books that sometimes go unreviewed when a magazine’s chief critic is focused on the year’s big releases. The result is a list heavy on books that feel a little underappreciated or unknown. One book missing: Gene Weingarten’s One Day, which I already declared one of the best nonfiction books of the past quarter-century—but which I left off this list in favor of something I haven’t already praised to the heavens.
Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me by Adrienne Brodeur
Brodeur’s beautifully written memoir of the affair she helped her mother hide through her own teenage years is a jaw-dropper, delivering emotional thrills without, somehow, ever feeling tawdry. Come for the WASPs in heat, stay for the loving descriptions of food cooked by Brodeur’s mother—a cookbook writer, gourmand, and Big Personality who takes over a room just as surely as she takes over this book.
We Can Make a Life by Chessie Henry
This sensitive memoir of an adventurous, rambunctious family of seven follows Henry’s parents across the South China Sea, through Africa, to the South Island of New Zealand, onto remote Tokelau, and then into the heart of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, where her father, a rural doctor, spent hours crawling through a collapsed building looking for survivors. Alongside Henry’s careful observation of her parents is her warm portrait of her brothers, from rugby-playing Matt and enormous Rocky to natural leader Rufus, whose disability becomes just another part of the complicated family dynamics in this warm-hearted book.
Limbo by Dan Fox
This slim, allusive book explores the in-betweenness of things through a series of short, moving essays. When do our lives feel most suspended? Why does writer’s block feel so purgatorial? What is the deeper meaning of the twilight zone, the stateless refugee, the phantom limb? What happened to all those babies stuck in Catholic limbo? When you dance the limbo, are you trapped between standing and lying down? The book crystalizes over a story of an odd voyage Fox once took, from England to China, aboard a container ship. Alone on the sea for weeks, Fox has a moment of caesura in his own life, and he finds the experience both rewarding and frightening. Every page of this small book surprises you and makes you think.
FICTION, COMICS, AND POETRY
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
This book of poems, set in an unnamed territory in a time of unrest, tells the story of a town united in opposition to an occupying force. After a young deaf boy is killed by soldiers during a protest, the townspeople, too, become deaf. The poems alternate between narrating the everyday life of the town under the shadow of totalitarianism and the shocking, sometimes funny, acts of rebellion hidden under cover of silence. In one scene, a captured soldier in the piazza “begs as the townspeople shake their heads, and point at their ears.” When he’s killed, they applaud from the roofs and treetops.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Eight Mennonite women assemble in a hayloft to debate a crisis: For years they’ve been drugged and assaulted in their sleep by the men of their own community, whose evil has been protected and shielded by their leaders. Now they must decide: Do they leave the community forever, or do they stay and fight? Both a potent parable and a richly drawn character study, Toews’ novel presents these women’s unadorned voices as they discuss outrage, forgiveness, and fear. The result is beautiful and challenging, but also slyly funny, as when in making lists of pros and cons for leaving, one woman adds, under the Pros column, “We will not be asked to forgive the men, because we will not be here to hear the question.”
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
A rich, rewarding novel about two middle-aged couples whose lives are overturned by an unexpected death. No one writes about the complicated emotional valences of marriage, parenthood, and friendship like Hadley, whose portrait of these four spiky, loving people is detailed, compelling, and utterly truthful. I recognized myself in each of them, and came out of Late in the Day feeling as though these characters were my friends, too, for good and for ill—and desperately hoping that they might find happiness, however complicated it might be by memory and time.
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
A mysterious and wild novel about a land of large and small gods, exerting their power however they can over the fullness of time. Part epic of diplomacy, part meditation on the unknown, this fantasy debut from the author of the modern sci-fi classic Ancillary Justice is a knotted rope that slowly comes unteased over the course of 300 pages until it all unravels, satisfyingly and compellingly, at the end.
The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis
A tender story of a young couple making a tentative life together during impossible times, The Hard Tomorrow feels as immediate as the news on your Facebook feed and as timeless as Victor Hugo. Johnny and Hannah live outside Louisville, grow their own food, are building a house, hope to have a baby. Johnny sells a little weed; Hannah works as a home health aide. In evocative panels drawn by the never-better cartoonist Davis, Johnny and Hannah fight, have sex, worry, and protest; around them, the world is going crazy. A beautiful comic that speaks like no other book I read this year to how hard 2019 has been on hope, and why so many of us still have some.
A Mistake by Carl Shuker
A routine procedure goes awry, and Elizabeth, a star surgeon who’s navigated the casual sexism of her field for years, finds herself under the microscope. The New Zealand novelist Carl Shuker creates a memorably brilliant heroine and then, as she navigates the consequences of her mistake, suggests that novel-writing is itself can be analogous to surgery: a careful dissection by an impossibly sharp knife, which can perform miracles—but can also go terribly awry. Luckily, Shuker’s hands are steady.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
Am I cheating by including a paperback reprint? Perhaps. But I missed this novel when it was published by a small Iowa press in 2017, and this first novel took over my summer. I devoured the adventures of polymorphous Paul, a shapeshifter who travels across the queer America of 1993, assuming the forms that give him pleasure (and allow him to give pleasure to others). He’s a leather daddy, a riot grrl, a sensitive twink; he’s an intellectual, a flake, a writer, a naif. No book I read this year was sillier, sexier, or weirder; no book I read was even half as much fun.
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