2019 Year in Reading

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.

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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.

Other Awards

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.

January 2019 in Review

In my 2018 review post, I promised monthly reading updates. I’m a week tardy, but here’s what I read in January 2019.

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1 Anthony Powell – A Question of Upbringing (1951) Like many readers I was swayed by Andy Miller’s praise for A Dance to the Music of Time; his suggestion to read one novel a month seemed manageable—especially as I’ve had the first six on my shelves for a while.

My verdict: good stuff, which promises to become even better. Eric thinks it’s the weakest, and if that’s the case the cycle is going to kill it. My sense is the books will improve when Powell more confidently does his own thing, rather than revising Proust. Or, when I get over my sense that this isn’t quite Proust. Either way, I’m taken with the intimations of the narrator, Jenkins, that his first opinions of intriguing characters, especially Widmerpool and the delightful Uncle Giles, are going to be deepened, revised, maybe even completely reversed.

A Buyer’s market to come later this month! In the meantime, if you want a better sense of what A Question of Upbringing is about, do read Jacqui’s post.

2 Samantha Harvey – The Western Wind (2018) I was engrossed and seduced by this novel from the start. Set in the East Midlands in the 15th century, it is, as Rohan says in her TLS review, a story about the desire to confess and be forgiven. Well, to be forgiven, anyway. The confessing part is trickier. So many contradictory motives, many of them laudable, complicate, even thwart confession. That ambivalence is amplified by the novel’s structure: it is told backwards over four days, so that you’ve actually read the end of the story about a quarter of the way into the book. Could have been a gimmick, but totally convinced me. Even once you realize you’ve already read the end, you have to accept you don’t know exactly what’s happened, so subtle is Harvey’s touch.

The setting is Oakham, a village cut off from the rest of the world, and sinking from hardscrabble to irrelevant: the local monastery is eyeing a takeover of its lands. And now the richest and most forward-thinking (at least by his own account) villager is dead, presumably murdered. The narrator is the local priest, who is pulled in different directions, unsure which secrets he ought to keep.

I read The Western Wind (purchased at the wonderful Bridge Street Books in DC) based on Rohan’s recommendation, combined with my vague idea it might be like the Cadfael mysteries. Turns out, not really—Harvey’s novel is less interested in genre conventions—but that’s ok. (Plus, it’s set 300 years later, which even this unrepentant modernist recognizes makes a big difference.) I found it quiet and satisfying, beautiful without being self-consciously poetic. I’ve looked briefly into Harvey’s earlier novels and they seem completely different. Anyone read them?

3 Joe Ide – Wrecked (2018) The IQ series is enjoyable, and I enjoyed this third installment more than the last one. (His lead character, nicknamed IQ, is an East LA Holmes, many of whose clients can only pay him in goods or favours.) Ide is honing the relationship between IQ and his sidekick, getting a handle on his tone (he does humour better than drama, but is working on a good balance) and develops a female character who is too interesting not to return. But if you’re new to Ide, best start at the beginning.

4 Luce D’Eramo – Deviation (1979) Trans. Anne Milano Appel (2018) Scott & I wrote about this at length. Deeply problematic.

5 Esther Hauzig – The Endless Steppe (1968) Children’s books were different back in the day. It would be easy to read this book and assume it was written for adults. Neither style nor subject matter marks it as obviously for children. Although it reads like a novel, The Endless Steppe is a memoir, describing how ten-year-old Hauzig, together with her parents, is ripped from her comfortable life in Vilna (then Poland) in 1941, when the Soviets deem her family capitalist enemies of the regime. The Hauzigs are deported to Siberia, first, to a horrific labour camp, and then resettled in a nearby village, where they suffer poverty, ill-health, and terrible cold. At the end of the war, finally able to return to Poland, they learn that their fate was mild compared to their relatives, almost all of whom were murdered by the Nazis. Part Little House on the Prairie, part diagnosis of life under totalitatarianism, The Endless Steppe feels as fresh and moving as it must have fifty years ago. A fascinating addition to the literature of the war between Hitler and Stalin.

6 Laurie R. King – The Moor (1998) Fourth installment of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series; revisits The Hound of the Baskervilles. Though you wouldn’t know it from my sporadic reading pace (I’ve been working on them for about four years), I quite like this series. Atmosphere always appeals to me more than the actual mystery, which, in this case, dragged a little. Really, all I want from a crime novel is bad weather and lashings of hot tea, and The Moor gave me plenty of both.

7 Ian Rankin – Rather Be the Devil (2016) My first audiobook of the semester. I’ve now almost caught up with Rebus, with only the brand new one to go. Rather Be the Devil is a step up from the last couple, I thought, though who knows how Rankin’s going to keep finding ways for the retired cop to inveigle himself into new investigations. Maybe the most impressive thing about the last half dozen or so installments of this now very long-running series is the way they’ve rehabilitated Malcolm Fox, while still keeping him a bit annoying—decent and dedicated, but a little selfish, know-it-all-y, charmless. In the previous book, Rebus got a dog, and I worry about him. Has to spend a lot of time alone, poor Brillo.

8 Sayaka Murata – Convenience Store Woman (2016) Trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018) This featured on several best of 2018 lists from people whose taste I respect, so I gave it a shot. Dunno people. Loved the descriptions of the convenience store (these seem a different species from the ones here): what it takes to keep one running (military precision), what customers in Japan expect (everything) and how they treat employees (shockingly), and the range of items on offer (vast, and odd). Helped me see how hungry I am for books about work. (Where are our Zolas?) And I appreciated how doggedly and unselfconsciously the narrator pursues her desires, which don’t match at all the expectations of her society. In the end, though, Murata gives capitalism a pass, presenting the narrator’s final unity with the store as a perverse emancipation. I almost never say this, but this book should have been longer, so that it could be stranger. To me, it asserted its strangeness without ever being strange. In the end I just wasn’t sure what it meant for the narrator to have become a convenience store woman. Ultimately unsatisfying, but I’ll probably read Murata’s next book.

All in all, a decent but not a great month, mostly because I couldn’t make enough reading time. I spent a few days in DC with students (fun, but not conducive to reading), and of course had a new semester to prepare for and adjust to. Then that damn D’Eramo book took a lot of my attention. But the Powell is promising, the Hautzig a real find, and the Harvey deeply satisfying. How was your January?