Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 80 books in 2019 (81 if I can finish the one I'm currently on before midnight).  On the whole I'd say this year's reading was solid but not amazing--which feels very much of a piece with my cultural consumption all around (see also my list of favorite TV shows at Lawyers, Guns & Money).  Of course, there are so many 2019 books that I still haven't gotten around to, that it may turn out I had a great reading year, I just didn't know it until long after it was over.  For now, however, my favorite books of the year are below.

Best Books:
  • Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

    Every year has to have at least one superlative short story collection, and Adjei-Brenyah's debut was it for 2019.  And what a debut it is.  Taking obvious inspiration from George Saunders, the stories here straddle the line between realism and parody, naturalism and science fiction.  A store clerk on Black Friday learns to understand the language of the feral shoppers after being bitten by one.  A black man works in a theme park that allows white visitors to simulate the experience of shooting a belligerent black person.  Adjei-Brenyah's language is spare and ruthlessly effective, and his ideas are shocking but also terrifyingly believable and thoughtfully worked-out.  The concluding story, "Into the Flash", is an out-and-out science fiction piece that should have appeared on this year's awards shortlists, a wonderful riff on familiar tropes that takes them in a direction all its own.

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

    I watched both the 1975 movie and the 2018 miniseries versions of this story before finally getting around to reading Lindsay's 1967 novel, and though both adaptations are good, neither of them do justice to the novel's breadth, intelligence, and strangeness.  What's most surprising--and, ultimately, most rewarding--about the original Picnic is that the disappearance of the schoolgirls is so much less central to it than it is in the movie or the miniseries.  It's an inciting event, but around it, Lindsay weaves a portrait of a community, examining people of different classes, races, and social situations, and observing the ways that the girls' disappearance upends their lives, in some cases opening new opportunities for them, and in others closing them off.  It's still a strange, hallucinatory work, and I can see why it has been classed as horror or supernatural fiction rather than a social novel, but it was that aspect of it that left me fascinated, far more than the mystery which Lindsay (wisely, except in an ancillary chapter which also doesn't give a lot of answers) doesn't resolve.

  • Berlin by Jason Lutes (review)

    A quarter-century in the making, Lutes's opus, which charts the fortunes of several characters--artists, free-thinkers, journalists, communists, and children--during the early years of the Nazis' rise to power went from historical document to something vitally, terrifyingly relevant over the span of its creation.  Lutes's art is stunning, using orderly panels and detailed pen-and-ink drawings to give us a sense of the city, and of how it is being transformed and disrupted by the forces operating within it.  Though Lutes observes the rise of the Nazis, and follows several characters who are won over by their creed, the bulk of his attention is paid to liberals, leftists, and free-thinkers, all of whom spin ideas about how to build a better world, but can't come up with ways to stop it from descending into horror.  It's a monumental work that feels incredibly important in this present moment, even if it doesn't offer solutions to its characters' dilemma--merely a warning of what might happen if we fail in the same way they did.

  • Women Talking by Miriam Toews

    This is a slim novel that packs a tremendous punch, which feels appropriate to its unassuming but strong-willed heroines.  In a South American Mennonite community, several men have been arrested for drugging and raping women.  While the men of the community have gone to try to post bail for the accused, the women gather together to decide what, if anything, they are going to do about being expected to live with, and even forgive, their rapists.  Though the situation she describes is extreme, Toews uses it to address questions that will be familiar to any feminist--chiefly, how do you live in a world in which you are fundamentally unsafe?  Though it might seem that reasoned debate is a strange method by which to work out this issue, especially given the extremes of the characters' situation, Toews's characters come to life through their conversation, slowly working their way towards an understanding of what they want--and more importantly, the recognition that what they want matters.

  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

    Nobel-winner Tokarczuk's novel follows an eccentric old woman over the course of a year in her remote house on the Polish-Czech border.  As she tramps back and forth across the scenery, the narrator introduces us to characters, locations, and even animals.  It takes a while to tease out what's happening in the background--the fact that various people in the surrounding area have started turning up dead--and even longer to realize where Tokarczuk is going with this scheme.  Once you grasp it, however, it's brilliant--a meditation on what it's like to live in a country that is slowly turning against you, and against the values you hold dear, wrapped up in a mystery that doesn't even let on that it's a mystery until the very last minute.

  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

    It was a tall order, following up a book as revelatory and imaginative as The Underground Railroad.  If The Nickel Boys isn't quite as stunning as that novel, it's mostly because Whitehead has wisely chosen to go a completely different route with it.  Instead of freewheeling invention that cuts across time and space, he has delivered a very simple story, contained to a single, horrifying location--the Nickel School for boys, where black teenager Elwood is remanded for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and where he has to struggle to survive.  But The Nickel Boys is not simply a dramatization of yet another horrifying chapter in the history of America's abuse of African-Americans.  At its heart, it is a novel that asks how one reacts to dehumanization--with hope, or cynicism?  With brazen defiance, or the drive towards excellence?  Whitehead doesn't have an answer to offer, obviously, but by juxtaposing the question with this portion of history, he finds new notes in it, and gives it added urgency.

Honorable Mentions:
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison - It took me a few years to get around to this much-loved fantasy novel, but I see that everyone who adored it was right.  A brilliant novel of manners that asks how an abused person, granted tremendous power, can use that power to make a better world for himself and for others.

  • Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman - A standalone novel in the world of Seraphina and Shadow-Scale, Tess follows a damaged heroine on a journey of healing and self-discovery.  It's the most perfectly-constructed of Hartman's three novels, and makes tremendous use of her detailed, imaginative worldbuilding.

  • Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads - Now that this praised-to-high-heavens comic run is finally available in trade paperback, we can all see that the people praising it weren't kidding. A brilliant meditation on trauma and recovery that moves back and forth between a cosmic war over the fate of the galaxy, and the travails of a couple as they debate renovating their apartment and starting a family. It shouldn't work, but in King's hands (and with Gerads' brilliant art), it absolutely does, delivering surprises all the way to the last page.


Peter Hollo said...

Wonderful, thank you! Quite a few things to add to my list...

Ruzz said...

So pleased you enjoyed the Goblin Emperor. It seems to have taken a lot of stick from people who found it sentimental - but I think they confuse sentimentality with what you allude to, namely goodness. And the fantasy setting is familiar and yet strange. I found it very impressive and have returned to it a number of times.

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