Looking back, I see that January to June was much better to me than July to December. I read all but one of the nine books that meant the most to me in 2019 in the first half of the year. It could be they’ve had the longest to marinate. It could be I was more tired, distracted, and at times distraught in the second half of the year (I was). It could just be the luck of the Book Gods.
Whatever the reason, I’ve a better record of my reading than ever before because 2019 was the year I started to write monthly reflection pieces. To my own surprise, I was able to keep this strategy up, which means I wrote at least a sentence or two about everything I read this year. Links to the monthly roundups are at the end of this post. If you want to know more about any of the texts I reference below you can always search by author. If you want to see previous year-end reviews, you can find them here: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018.
For those who like that kind of thing, a few stats: I read 136 books in 2019. 74 (54%) were by women; 62 (46%) were by men. 104 (76%) were originally written in English; 32 (24%) were translated. 16 were audiobooks. 7 were re-reads. (I include books I re-read for teaching in my list only if I re-read the whole thing, not if I dip into, skim, or speed re-read it.)
And now some thoughts on the books that made a particular impression on me, for good or ill.
Best of the Bunch
Katherena Vermette, The Break. My Book of the Year. I think about The Break all the time, especially now that I am learning about the violence and injustice perpetrated on Indigenous Canadians, not just in the distant past, but in my own lifetime. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that Canada was a Good Place that has mostly been on the right side of history. It is in ways a good place. But the way its colonial violence (itself inexcusable) continues into the present, the way that violence was happening all around me in my childhood, the way that I was nevertheless able to remain blissfully ignorant—that really gets to me. (I know, I know, “Thanks a lot, privileged White Dude, for all your well-meaning soul-searching.”)
Anyway, I love how Vermette takes my favourite genre, crime fiction, opens it up and turning it inside out, enabling her to write about systemic racism and (sexual) violence while still using fictional conventions (such as strongly developed characters and a keen sense of place) that were developed to propagate ideas of individuality and willpower—ideas that largely shunted the people who experience structural violence to the margins.
I love too that Vermette is able to imagine an affirmative, even joyful ending to her story.
Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. On first reading I actually wasn’t sure how well this worked, but fortunately I’d been given the chance to write about it for The Mookse & the Gripse, so I read it another couple of times. (It’s really more novella than novel.) And now like everyone else I recognize its brilliance. Timely—it addresses climate change, misogyny, fantasies of national purity—but not didactic. Plausibly harrowing without being a total downer. A book that will last.
Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End. So smart and so sad. Parents in particular might find this tough going. But I also found it joyous. Li isn’t showy, but her style is so compelling.
Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex I/II. Didn’t think these would be my thing (being into neither pop music nor post 68 radicalism curdled into conservatism), but I fell for them in a big way. I’ll be ordering the third volume from the UK when it’s published there later this year. An indictment of neo-liberalism with the pleasures of a soap opera.
Miriam Toews, Women Talking. Another super-smart book that sneaks up on you. Dramatic events—the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia find out that for years many of the men they live with have been drugging them at night and raping them—play second fiddle to the attempt to come to a collective response to trauma. The genius of the book lies in its narration: the largely illiterate women recruit the local schoolteacher, a man who grew up in the community but lived apart from it for years, to record their deliberations. Toews shows us, however, that every description is also an interpretation (recording isn’t just a neutral act), leading us to wonder how the self-understanding of an oppressed group (and the efforts of those not in that group to understand them) is affected by disparities in privilege.
Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand. Fascinating and suspenseful story of time-traveler. Postulates that identity is a form of addiction. As in Rule Britannia, her final novel, written just a few years after House, Du Maurier here questions the continuity of Englishness.
María Gainza, Optic Nerve (Translated by Thomas Bunstead). Fragmentary essayistic auto-fiction-type thing of the sort I usually admire more than like. But Gainza’s book won me over, particularly her use of ekphrasis to connect representation and political violence.
Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey. The most joyful book I read last year concerns Marsden’s journey through the Caucasus in the early to middle 1990s, a place that fascinates him as a historical refuge for dissenters and schismatics of all sorts. Marsden is a good traveler, respectful of those he meets and their beliefs. But in the endless battle between idealism (which always curdles, murderously, into ideology) and humble materialism (the struggles and pleasures of surviving everyday life) he’s always on the side of the latter.
Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Thoroughly enjoyable and really funny story of two young women in Dublin, best friends, and the older and much richer married couple they get involved with. Great dialogue. Doesn’t go where you think it will. Lots of darkness at its heart, mostly concerning the narrator’s fraught relationship to her own body.
Best backlist deep dive: I read six novels by Esther Freud, all great. I think I still love her first, Hideous Kinky, best, but the next six were all good, some of them excellent, especially Summer at Gaglow and The Wild. Whether she is writing about the late 19th or early 20th centuries or about the 1970s and 80s, Freud always creates characters who know that they don’t know as much as they need to. She reminds me of Anita Brookner, who is really only now getting her due. Will Freud have to die to achieve similar respect? More pressingly, will she write another novel? (It’s been a while.)
Best ending: Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (Translated by Naomi Lebowitz). The only big 19th century novel I read in 2019 was actually written in the early 20th century. Per is a frustrating, vacillating character (even more than Pantoppidan knew, I think), but what happens to him, the kind of person he becomes, in the book’s final chapters is really moving. Don’t give up on it, is what I’m saying.
Most indelible: Helen Dunmore, The Siege. Literary critics are always saying that books are haunting. But Dunmore’s depiction of the cold and hunger suffered by the people of Leningrad during WWII might actually qualify. Dunmore’s painstaking descriptions are almost physically painful to read, so vivid are they. Turns out, if you boil leather shoes for a really long time you’ll get “broth” with a little nutritional value. Dunmore was a really good writer and I’m glad I have plenty more of her books left to read.
Best portrayal of parenting a small child: Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light. First published in the 1970s, this book is having its moment in the English-speaking world. And deservedly so. I appreciated Tsushima’s willingness to admit that parenting toddlers in particular can be terrible & enraging.
Most important classic in my field that I only just read: Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning uses the example of one particular battalion of the Order Police (the Orpo—not members of the SS, but often sent to work alongside them during the eastern campaign) to draw far-reaching conclusions about what makes men do terrible things. Many have found those conclusions too far-reaching, but to me it seems that history offers corroborating examples all the time. Important evidence for challenging the still-prevalent idea that perpetrators must be monsters.
Book that most influenced my teaching: John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Music to my ears. I was already a convert to Warner’s way of thinking before reading his book, but he phrases his objections to conventional writing pedagogy so well that I gained lots of new ammunition for my beliefs. More importantly he offers practical ways to break free of old teaching habits. That’s what made this book so important to me. When we challenge students to write about things that matter to them we let them take the first step to realizing that for writing to be good at all, no matter the genre, the writer needs to have a stake in it. Students need to become thinkers. To do so they need to become writers. To be writers they need to be thinkers. We can make this recursive loop productive by teaching writing as a process. Even readers who are not teachers will gain a lot from this book.
Books I forgot about but when I saw them on my list again I thought, Oh yeah, that was really good: Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind; Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar.
Book Twitter loved it but I didn’t: Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman; Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy, Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl.
Most irritating: Luce D’Eramo, Deviation; John Williams, Stoner (Hello! He rapes her!).
Creepiest: Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (true crime is weird); Georges Simenon, Strangers in the House (finally a Simenon that totally worked for me).
Lousy: Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins; C. J. Tudor, The Chalk Man, Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock; Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger.
Tawdry (felt gross for being as drawn into it as I was): Adrian McKinty, The Chain
Best comics: James Sturm, Off Season; Gengoroh Tagame, My Brother’s Husband (sweet, gentle).
Best crime: Jane Harper, The Lost Man (sometimes it pays to stick with an author: Harper’s third book a huge leap forward, an indelible story of the outback; would read again); Dervla McTiernan (best new procedurals I read this year); Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake (Lippman goes from strength to strength); Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (can wrongs ever be made right?). Men, step up your crime game!
Reliable pleasure: Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series is my jam: my preferred historical period (about which Kerr has taught me a lot), my preferred tone (ironic, a little despairing). I only have three Bernies left and am feeling sad about it.
Best surprise: Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras. Would never have read this had it not been assigned me as part of my duties for the Arkansas Literary Festival. Learned a lot about tornadoes—of which I am especially mindful today, as Arkansas sits under a tornado watch—and was gripped by Hargrove’s description of how the best storm chaser of them all lost his life.
Had its moments: Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (a couple of scenes have stayed with me, but it’s a bit self-consciously “literary novel” for me).
Disappointing: Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (fine, but without the magic of its predecessor); Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (The Wall is an all-time fave; this one was ok, but I struggled to finish: too dour, I missed the earlier novel’s joy); James Gregor, Going Dutch (could have been in the lousy category TBH; one great character, but a preposterous view of graduate school); Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (better as an essay).
Best spy novel: Len Deighton, Berlin Game (pleasant surprise—nice take on grimy 70s/80s Berlin, which it avoids romanticizing). Honorable mention: Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (Starts off like Highsmith, turns into Lionel Davidson). Plan to read more of both in 2020.
Light reading discovery: Robert Harris (have listened to three so far, all winners).
Best book nobody’s ever read: Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann.
Best memoirs: Fierce Attachments (not my favourite Gornick, but, hey, it’s Gornick, she’s a genius); Tara Westover, Educated (believe the hype); Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (family history with a surprise ending); Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (believe the hype II). Men, step up your memoir game!
Best Holocaust books (memoirs): Primo Levi, The Reawakening (a.k.a. The Truce) (didn’t expect a picaresque from Levi, but there you go); Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (more people should take heed of the sentiment expressed in Eisen’s title); Solomon Perel, Europa, Europa (every Holocaust survival story is implausible, but this one might take the cake).
Best Holocaust books (history): David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. The publisher must have wanted crossover success, but the attempts to narrate from the viewpoint of the historical figures flop; fortunately, they make up a small part of the book, which details the remarkable efforts of Jewish prisoners to rescue sacred and profane texts from the Vilnius ghetto. I started a post on this last summer and really should finish it.
Best Holocaust books (for children): Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe; Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (plus Rabbit’s two sequels, which aren’t really for children but are fantastic and really deserve to be in print; we lost a giant, not to mention an amazing human being, when Kerr died last May).
Books I wrote about elsewhere: Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall; Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers; Mihail Sebastian, Women.
Classic that revealed itself to me in a totally new way on re-reading: Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for the impetus.
Monthly Review Posts
January, February, March, April, May, June, July/August, September, October, November, December
Coming in 2020
More of the same, probably. These days, with blogging seemingly on the wane, just keeping the lights on feels like an accomplishment. I think the monthly posts worked well, and I plan to keep them. When it comes down to it, I prefer the deep dive (basically: posts that involve close reading), but that takes a lot of time and effort. At least this way I have some kind of record of my responses.
In the spring, I’ll be reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, suggested by its publisher as being perfect for fans of Jean Giono. That made me want to get back together the group who read Giono’s Hill a few years ago. Most everyone is enthusiastic, so look for that in May. I welcome all readers to join us, whether you blog or not. In general, I’m always keen to post pieces by other writers, so if you’re looking for somewhere to share your work hit me up.
One of the pleasures of last year was finding a set of kind and thoughtful German book folks on Twitter. Thanks to them, I may find the courage to start reading more in German in again. I’ll definitely keep reading Holocaust literature; and I’ll definitely keep writing about my teaching.
As to what else I’ll be reading, I suspect I will continue to want to be a person who reads only difficult, demanding, and serious books, but who in fact is someone who reads a few of those and lots of relatively undemanding (but still engaging and valuable) ones. I’ll aim to read more widely, in more genres and from more languages, and I probably won’t. I’ll chip away at the frighteningly large number of unread books filling my little house, and undo that good work with new purchases. (Though I did rein my book-buying in a lot last year.) I’m aiming to be less drawn to new or newly published books and concentrate on older titles. But in the end, as always, I’ll go wherever my fancy takes me.
And thanks to all of you who have read my posts and engaged me in dialogue about them I will continue to write about those readerly peregrinations. I wish you all a good year in these dangerous times. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for helping to sustain me.
Quite a year for you. I think I’ve read just 3 & 1/5 of the books you list here (Deviation, Ghachar Ghochar, Stoner and a fraction of The House on the Strand, abandoned only because travel got in the way and I didn’t want to take it along). But I’ve just added a whole lot onto my wish list thanks to this round-up. I’m sorry the Deviation project disappointed, but I am very much looking forward to reading the Bosco with you and everyone else this spring. Felicitous reading in 2020!
I kind of hated Deviation, but it was fun to read with you. I too am looking forward to Bosco.
Your lists did the same for me. Between us, we have some pretty good and pretty wide-ranging taste!
I’m definitely with you on The Break; it was one of my favourites for the year as well (thanks for recommending it!)
As for Lucky Per, I have to say that as much as I found it frustrating (even infuriating) to read at times, it has really stuck with me and inspired me to read/re-read other books in dialogue with it (Daniel Deronda, Peer Gynt, Hunger, some Kierkegaard…). So I continue to think about it and am glad I read it, (despite my occasional grumbling on Twitter).
Looking forward to Malicroix in May; thanks for always pushing my reading in interesting directions that I wouldn’t necessarily take on my own!
Also, tornado watch? Gulp, you’re making me appreciate the snow here more! Stay safe!
I like your Lucky Per supplementary reading. Was it your first time reading Hunger? I loved it at age 18. Curious how it would hold up.
So pleased to have you along for the Malicroix. And if you ever want to write anything (your own 2019 list, maybe?) just day the word.
The tornadoes spared central Arkansas, thank God. They are my least favourite thing about the South, except the misogyny and racism.
Ha, that line should be on a t-shirt (although not one that could be worn in the South, I suppose).
I bought Hunger on your recommendation back in grad school, but only got a short way in (my chronic problem). I’m about halfway through it now (since I’m not actually on the H’s yet!) and I think it is very good (though sometimes painful to read).
I must admit I hadn’t thought of writing a review of my reading year (which was much less extensive than yours!), but it might be interesting to attempt. I’ll see if I can put together some of my thoughts and will let you know if I get anywhere with it.
Glad to hear Hunger doesn’t lose its painful power. I’m due to re-read.
Think on the review post. I for one would be very interested to read such a document!
I’ve read three of these books, and I read those three in 2019, two of them at your impetus. I not only read but even bought The Break, with my own money, which is not something I do too often. Square Books, Oxford, MS, had it.
I suppose I should write one of these review posts. I sure like reading other people’s. I should also write about the Bosco novel I reading French, since the Bosco craze is about to hit America. That novel has a donkey, puppets, quite a few plants. Pretty good.
Look at those awful italics. Sorry, sorry. I’ve forgotten how the internet works after my long break.
Which were the other two? And what did you make of them? (I sense judicious noncomittal-ness about The Break in your comment).
I would *love* to read a year in review piece from you!
Would you consider reading Bosco along with us? You could help us with the original, think through the translation, etc. Is there enough Bosco for there to be a craze?
Oh, the Vermette novel was excellent. It is maybe the only novel I have read where the ethos is so clearly that of a social worker. A hardheaded social worker – that one character there does not have such an affirmative ending. Or it affirms that whatever tools you have, some people are beyond help, at least at a given moment. I guess every ending affirms something.
But I did not think the novel was as good as The Iliad, or, you know, Shakespeare, or prime Marianne Moore. Etc., etc. I read a lot of books that are really great.
The other two were Radetzsky and our old pal Pontoppidan.
Reading the Bosco has some appeal. It is set in a marsh that I have vaguely and fruitlessly planned to visit several times. But it is, on my terms, a long book. My French reading is so slow.
Agreed, it’s not at that kind of level. Great but not really great seems fair.
I really like your point about the social worker ethos. Some might find this a turn off, but I am drawn to social work and that mindset. And I think it nicely gets at what Vermette is doing.
I gather she is writing a new novel set in the same place with some of the same characters. I’ll look forward to that.
Did you write about Radetzky? I will check.
I get that about slow going in a foreign language. Maybe read parallel? Or, read the English and dip into the French?
A sequel from Vermette! I’ll read that.
I did write about Roth’s novel, a bit. I used the word “irony” a lot. Coincidence that I read it just before various people group-read it.
I’m not allowed to read French texts in translation. Not until my French is a lot better.
“A sensible length” — love that. I highly recommend Radetzky’s unusual sort-of coda, The Emperor’s Tomb.
Re: the French. You are very severe with yourself, isn’t that what the French would say?
You had quite the reading year. So many appealing books are on your list. I’ll definitely need to get The Break. I read The House on the Strand ages ago but it stayed with me. Ghost Wall wasn’t my thing at all. Maybe it would have needed closer reading. I think I should follow your example and write monthly posts. I only reviewed a fraction of what I read and I’m forgetting the books so quickly.
I admit that even writing a few lines about a book helps me remember it. Because like you I can read them a lot faster than I can write about them.
I’m very interested to hear more about your experience with Ghost Wall, if you are interested in sharing.
It’s a but blurred by now but I had similar problems I had with Autumn. I’m not keen on books that seem to ‘exploit’ what’s part of our daily news streams. I had t read Ali Smith before and people say it isn’t her best book but I’ve read almost all of Sarah Miss and I feel she’s done similar things better and less fashionable. There’s a thin line between being topical and becoming too much rooted in things the media hash up. I was quite alone in my opinion. I seem to remember only one other negative review. By Grant possibly?
I hear what you’re saying. For me, the 80s setting worked, and suggested that this kind of abuse is ongoing (even, in the connection to the ancient Britons, perhaps perennial). I’ve read a couple of other books by Moss and liked them both. I should read the others.
And for me that choice was a bit artificial. But it’s an interesting book whether one likes it or not and that is more than one can say if many others.
And thanks for mentioning German Lit Month.
Of course. Thanks to you and Lizzy for being so diligent with it. Organizing that sort of thing is a lot of work.
An enjoyable review of a really wide-ranging reading year! I always learn a lot from your posts about books I’m fairly unlikely to read myself, which is part of what makes them interesting, though I also of course appreciate seeing your take on books we’ve both read.
I have had many similar uncomfortable thoughts about my ignorance, growing up, of what was going on all around me. It is shaming, and an important antidote to the kind of smug Canadian self-satisfaction about ‘niceness’ that is too easy to fall into. As is so often the case, my admiration for The Break grew as I worked through it with my seminar last term. I don’t think Tom is wrong about the social worker ethos, but it’s put to a use that is literary (genre-bending, for instance) as well as social / ethical. I think it avoids (if perhaps narrowly) being heavy-handed: it is about getting to know these people more than insisting on any particular responses to their lives and problems.
I think that’s write. Don’t think Tom meant social worker pejoratively (Tom, can you enlighten us?) but regardless for me that is a great term, because social workers are always thinking both individually and socially/structurally. How can I help this person, they ask, without succumbing to the “they just need more willpower” fallacy. Is my experience anyway.
Spurred by my wife, who is doing a pretty deep dive in Indigenous literature, I’m trying in a small way to rectify that childhood ignorance. She highly recommends Conversations with Canadians in this regard.
Did your students like The Break, Rohan? (Feel I must know the answer from reading your teaching posts but can’t remember.)
Speaking of books I know you’ve read, I’ve finally started Milkman. Really impressed so far.
They really did -a lot of them chose to write on it, which seemed like a good sign.
I read Tanya Talaga’s “Seven Fallen Feathers” as part of my own effort to remediate my ignorance, also Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian – both excellent.
Agreed. Always a good sign.
M read Seven Fallen Feathers; it;s on my list too.
Not pejorative. Positive, as a literary stance and in real life (may blessings shower down on the real-life social workers). Or, to use Vermette’s term in the acknowledgments (p. 351), “community workers,” which gets at some of the genre-bending, the role of the police. In this novel, they are just another specialty among the many community workers. This is an interesting, and possibly new, way to write about them.
Nicely put! And I hadn’t thought about the novel’s depiction of police that way. Really interesting.
Impressive list of books. I really like your idea of doing these monthly review posts. Perhaps I should try the same method this year as I’d like to become more consistent with my posting.
I hadn’t heard about Katherena Vermette’s The Break, but it sounds very interesting and I’ll definitely need to get a copy. I’d like to explore more Canadian literature in general. I already own Women Talking but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.
The Vernon Subutex books have been quite polarizing, and I admit that I was on the fence about the first book, but the second volume completely won me over, so now I’m eagerly awaiting the final volume.
I wasn’t blown away by Sally Rooney’s Normal People (I didn’t find it to be as universally relatable to the millennial generation as everyone was claiming it to be), but I might give Conversations with Friends a try as the premise of this book actually sounds more appealing to me.
People don’t seem to like Rooney’s second novel as much, but I’m curious enough to try it. I wasn’t expecting to like Conversations, but I was utterly engaged from the start. At first I thought the characters were great but the writing slipshod. Eventually though I found the writing to be more interesting–and more subtle–than I’d initially credited.
I should read more Canadian literature too! Especially for a Canadian, I haven’t read much of it. One book I love, though, and love recommending is Marian Engel’s novel Bear from the mid 1970s.
I do find monthly posts easier than individual ones, FWIW.
I suspect that the massive amount of marketing hype that Normal People received is somewhat to blame for my disappointment. I might need to revisit it and see what I think now. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!
Thank you for the recommendation! I hadn’t heard of this author or book. I recently bought a translated novel from Quebec (Stéphane Larue’s The Dishwasher) that I’m very much looking forward to reading this year.
Quebecois literature is a whole world unto itself. So far, I know almost nothing about it, but I’ve heard good things about The Dishwasher.
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