Our contributors, from across our quarterly print issues and our website, read as widely and wildly as they write. Here, they tell us about the books that moved them most in the final year of this decade.
2019 closes with the news that the President’s son killed an endangered sheep this summer. The dull son once again erased in the dark what was majestic and rare. The sheep was an argali sheep. His horns and gentle face resembled the shape of the female reproductive system. These sheep are killed for their horns. The dull son also killed a red deer. I don’t pray, but all year I’ve been carrying around Vi Khi Nao’s Sheep Machine in much the same way my great aunt Rosa carries around the Tehillim (the Book of Psalms). Sheep Machine is a two minute and fifty-two second frame by frame of sheep grazing on a mountainside, but really it’s a spell against apathy and greed. Almost each second is a page, and each page is a poem, and each poem is a story, and each story is a pasture, and each pasture is a hunger, and each hunger is a sheep. Vi Khi Nao has invented a new form that stills the tick before the tock flies like a bullet through the air.
This year my favorite books have been the ones that collect around rogue forms. Motherish forms with the belly of a story and the eyes of a poem. Hybrids that swell then go frail, grow wooly, and then grow smooth. Forms that leave the door open for dry leaves and ghosts and a sheep so lost she has forgotten what a sheep even looks like. Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests, Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum, Tina Chang’s Hybrida, Anne Boyer’s The Undying, and Rachel Zucker’s Sound Machine all completely reimagine what it means to be a book with an earthly shape. Each one is a miracle. They are my fantasy coven. I have no doubt each could draw down the moon. —Sabrina Orah Mark
As I see it, the most important reading now and for the foreseeable (or unforeseeable) future falls into three categories. First would be books that continue to inform us with all the hard facts about how the earth is physically changing, year by year, under the effects of climate change, and for this, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells was important to me, alarming but also surprisingly engaging, a page-turner despite its hosts of statistics. The second category would be something philosophical or spiritual, with a longer view, to give us a little guidance as we reorient our thinking going forward. For this, I sometimes turn to one of the Zen books I have on hand, or sometimes a poem, perhaps one by William Bronk, who is able to embrace death in so many ways, or by the Norwegian imagist Olav Hauge. The third category would include some relief in the form of a good piece of fiction—for me, it is often something from earlier times, such as The Odd Women by the nineteenth-century feminist George Gissing or any of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels (somewhere in the neighborhood of Barbara Pym, she writes with a dependably high level of psychological insight and stylistic skill), but also more recent fiction, such as Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. Yet one more category might be that of community relationships: how to work toward a harmonious coexistence with others, especially how, amicably, to cross the divide of political difference. Is this wishful thinking? Maybe, but it is also, I think, imminent necessity. One fascinating discussion that includes a meditation on forgiveness is Lewis Hyde’s A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past. —Lydia Davis
I recognize great storytelling any time I have to momentarily put aside what I’m reading to ask myself, How am I going to steal this? Or simply to say, Wow. It’s the feeling that signals I’ve come across an idea, or a mode of presentation for an idea, that I hadn’t seen before. Kimberly King Parsons’s Black Light brought wow after wow, along with eruptions of guilty laughter, as I encountered her startlingly fresh characters’ shockingly grim, yet palpably human thoughts and actions. That anything could surprise in 2019 is impressive, but Parsons’ surprises pay off doubly because she pulls from the dark recesses of our minds the ugliness we’d prefer not to see in ourselves. The joy is in the shared recognition, in the sense that you’re as fucked up as I am. By contrast, Dariel Suarez’s atmospheric debut collection A Kind of Solitude presents a cast of characters who must navigate impossibly grim conditions through ingenuity, resilience, and stoicism during Cuba’s “Special Period.” Here, it is often the source of the conflict—the system—that seems deranged, exemplified best, perhaps, in “The Inquest,” in which protagonist Elena might lose everything because her refrigerator houses a wheel of contraband cheese. Suarez masterfully collides the personal and the political, moving characters and circumstance toward each other like pieces on a chessboard. Finally, Dana Johnson’s collection Break Any Woman Down (2001, I know) is one I returned to again and again throughout 2019, especially for “Three Ladies Sipping Tea in a Persian Garden,” which baffles and delights me for its nearly conflict-free plenitude and its warm depiction of friendship. —Jonathan Escoffery
Part travel narrative, part lyric memoir, Sanmao’s Stories of the Sahara was a huge best seller when it was first published in Chinese in 1976, and has retained an enthusiastic following in the Chinese-speaking world ever since. This year, the first mainstream English edition of the book was published, bringing it an even wider readership. Sanmao’s enduring popularity across Asia stems partially from the fascination with who she was: a dashing, instinctive, often quixotic figure who seemed far ahead of her time in the way she saw the world and her place in it. Arranged as a series of short essays, the book appears at first glance to be a straightforward record of her move from Taiwan to the Sahara, where she lived with her Spanish husband, José María Quero, but almost immediately, it opens up to reveal a hypnotic meditation on love and loneliness in a foreign place. Writing with frankness and vulnerability, Sanmao’s constant questioning of her insecurities and flaws is remarkably human, and nothing remains beyond the boundaries of her probing eye, not least her relationship with José. Mike Fu’s gorgeous translation brings to life Sanmao’s evocative descriptions of the Sahrawi communities in which she lived, along with her wit and her gift for capturing life’s absurdities. Stories of the Sahara is a record of one person’s fierce refusal to follow a path laid down for her by the rest of the world, but it is also a celebration of the complexities of being an outsider, and, ultimately, an ode to freedom. —Tash Aw
I read Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, a light-handed and light-footed account of America’s accidentally acquired, undeclared, and mostly lovelessly maintained Empire (guano and naval bases). If you have ever experienced the puzzlement of American tourists passing through San Juan, Puerto Rico, twitching passports no one wants to see and wondering for once about the territorial identity of where they are, this is a book you need to read. And I enjoyed Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’s The Light that Failed: A Reckoning, about the strange fate of the liberal world order during the past two ghastly decades since history “ended.” Krastev is always what the English call good value, and his perspective here on the differences between the parodic Russian response to our newly victorious West and the “imitation” of Eastern Europe is devious, plausible, and amusing. And now on to Life with a Capital L/ The Bad Side of Books, Geoff Dyer’s wonderful selection of D.H. Lawrence’s essays. Hail to the counterspirit. —Michael Hofmann
So, I had to look this up, but almost six years ago, which feels like a million years ago, I had just moved to New York. I was asked to do an event at a bookstore but realized at some later point that I was asked because it was Women’s History Month, a fact that somewhat depressed me, so I read some of my book about my dead mother and became belligerent about my love for Robert Walser. So it was March. I was sick with a cold—I had snot pouring down onto the pages I was reading. I looked up at some point and saw T. Clutch Fleischmann smiling at me in the very small, or let’s say “intimate” audience. I recognized them because of the author photo recently published on PEN’s website alongside their prose poem, “Spill Split,” chosen by Maggie Nelson. The piece focusing on queer community, infatuation, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and ice is a work that has over the years become as important to me as Anne Carson’s “Glass Essay,” so full of direct thought and feeling, of a crystalline dailiness, as the speaker wanders through a Brooklyn summer, having crushes, taking hormones, thinking about art and ice. Anyway, afterward I immediately went up to Fleischmann, or Clutch, and told them how much I loved their work, and asked if we could meet up when they were in Brooklyn. And for a while whenever they were in the neighborhood, we would meet, and drink whiskey and smoke, back when I did those things, and talk about what we were reading, love affairs, art we had seen, our in-progress books, and what for me was a desire at the time for a perfect book. But what’s so radical about their new book, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, is how it overthrows the perfection found in their earlier prose poems, and creates a structure to house the doubt and failure of what it means to work on a book when one’s life is always transforming, what it means to be, as the title suggests, a body moving through time and space. It is a celebration of queer joy and love and activism in all of its manifestations—a book of “slutty prose,” as Fleischmann writes, one of self-mythologizing one’s friend groups and fluidity, in the mode of Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds. Somehow in this gorgeous collage there are also interludes about ice and Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, where Fleischmann now lives, and a close reading of the beyond-gender eighteenth-century Quaker named Public Universal Friend. What a gorgeous, alive book of such total compassion and conviction. —Kate Zambreno
The best book I read this year was Women Talking by Miriam Toews, a stunning fictional account of a series of violent rapes that occurred in a Mennonite community in Bolivia in the early 2000s. In the novel, which takes place over several days, a group of women across three generations gather secretly to discuss what to do about the attacks: Should they stay and fight? Should they attempt to forgive the men, in accordance with their religion? Or should they leave? Because they are illiterate, they invite one man to record the minutes of their meetings. This man, August, is the first-person narrator of the novel—does that make him unreliable? He is kind and well-intentioned, but the text he creates is not strictly minutes; it’s full of commentary, long asides, interpretation; it is translated. At one point, he adds a “translator’s note”; at another, he claims a phrase cannot be translated. And he is a man—not a victim of the crimes they are discussing. Can he fully speak their language? He interjects with relevant and interesting “facts” in part to charm the pregnant Ona, whom he’s in love with. The women look for signs and symbols in these “facts,” though they may just be a distraction. He continues writing even when the women are silent. When they ask him what he thinks, he says, “I’m not here to think,” but clearly, he is thinking. I read this book slowly because I had to keep stopping to contemplate its moral questions. What is the value of forgiveness, and how can we forgive in ignorance? (The women were drugged with belladonna, so they cannot be sure who has raped them or their children.) Is violence ever justified, and is power always abused? What are facts, what is real, who decides? (“Heaven is real, says Mejal. Dreams are not real.”) What would it mean to leave the life you’ve known behind and start over without men or without “men,” the idea of men? The novel is amazingly rich, yet so light-handed it’s breathtaking. “They look ahead, towards something I can’t identify, not empty space.” the man writes. “And they are silent.” —Elisa Gabbert
In an odd coincidence, my two favorite novels of this year both consist of a single long sentence. With Ducks, Newburyport, the lilt and verve of Lucy Ellmann’s narrator’s unforgettable voice altered the literary landscape for good, and properly got under her readers’ skin. A Girl Called Eel, by the young francophone writer Ali Zamir, is another funny and angry conjuring of a woman’s inner life. The novel, Zamir’s debut, was originally published in France in 2016 to considerable critical acclaim, and in May the small London press Jacaranda released a lively and fluid English translation by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Set on the author’s native island of Anjouan, in the Comoros archipelago between Mozambique and Madagascar, it tells the tragic, tangled story of seventeen-year-old Eel, who embarks on the narrative as she is about to die.
Her life flashing before her, Eel is compelled to explain how she fell into such dire straits. “Oh, the earth spat me out,” goes the opening, “the seas are devouring me, I’m expected in heaven but here I am coming to my senses again and I can’t see, can’t hear, can’t feel anything but so what…” Zamir is an audacious novelistic risk-taker, and it’s thrilling to see him get away with it. As Eel recounts her past in a continuous monologue, a timeless, fable-like atmosphere prevails, and we must accept that she’s talking (sometimes directly) to us while in her death throes. Her personality—wise, cutting, equally vulnerable and tough—feels wholly authentic, and her ordeals are all too resonant. Without spoiling Zamir’s suspenseful plot, it is Eel’s sexual awakening, and the ensuing male misdeeds, that determines her fate.
The same is true for the subjects of what was, for me, the standout nonfiction book of 2019: Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women. In an astonishing feat of immersive reporting, Taddeo investigates the contours and consequences of female desire, unvarnished and depoliticized. She confronts with mesmerizing candor many uncomfortable truths, not least the extent to which her three subjects’ destinies have been derailed and narrowed by their formative sexual experiences (coercive or otherwise) with men. Taddeo writes as beautifully as any novelist but never pulls her punches, and she has an unerring feel for the social nuances that shape our every encounter. The result is both a feminist classic and an essential work of American social history. —Emma Garman
Let me sing you a love song about Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier. As much as a book about two criminally minded old Irishmen sitting at port, shooting the shit, and looking for a daughter gone missing can be a love story, this is a grand one. Moss and Charlie’s friendship and nemesis-ship over the years is, as they say, “an arrayal of the stars.” The book is brutal and funny about sadness and pain and I dare you to find a more narratively or stylistically thrilling chapter than “The Judas Iscariot All-Night Drinking Club.”
The prose is a glory. In one dramatic scene, when Charlie’s expression is giving too much away, showing his emotional cards, Moss tells him, simply, “Arrange your face, Charlie.” I howled.
Night Boat has been compared to Waiting for Godot, and I was reminded of the magnificent production of that play with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen at the Cort Theater in 2013—of the way two men might establish a hilarious and heartbreaking rapport that feels like it’s been in rehearsal for a lifetime. Moss and Charlie get their hooks in each other for the familiar sport of it, and for the pleasure of daring to walk the minefield of their shared past.
The book is hilarious, and seedy, and thrilling, but it’s more than that, too, because in the end, the reader has to reckon with what it means to glamorize violence and Rumblefish-style machismo. If they could, Moss and Charlie would exit their own stories in an epic hail of bullets, Butch and Sundance style—but that’s not on offer. Instead they are forced to grow old, to wait, and to live. Forced to stare down the barrel of their own sadness and sins. Forced to live in the world in the small and everyday kind of way no one ever tells stories about.
I am young enough to risk inviting eye-rolls if I say I know a bit about what that’s like, the struggle to sit in the present and let the past exist amicably alongside it (to the eye-rolls I say: ARRANGE YOUR FACES). But I am old enough to recognize the glorious gallows humor of the men’s banter as my own shield, my own home. —CJ Hauser