A while ago I’d said that I’d write more about books on the blog and then, as is my wont with things I promise to do, I didn’t really do it. But now I’ve found the perfect solution: farm that task out to friends who read a lot and like to talk about books a lot. In particular, to four friends from graduate school—people I’ve known since 1993—who are among the most voracious readers I know. I asked them to annotate a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 that they found compelling for some reason and would like to recommend to others. They don’t have to be books published in 2019, I said, and they don’t have to be a list of favourite/best books of the year; and I asked that the list not be dominated by “usual suspects”. Beyond that I’ve left it up to them. First up is a list from my friend Giovanna. Gio grew up following the Italian national football team and so her aesthetic sense is a little suspect but we’ll try not to hold that against this list.
Oh yes, all the book links below go to the excellent independent store in our town, Content Books. If you do not have an independent bookstore in your town please consider purchasing these books from Content. They ship cheaply and quickly all over the US and to some foreign destinations too. (I don’t make any money from the links.) Okay, over to Gio!
2019, A Year in Books ~ Giovanna Pompele
1. In 2019 I read the book that is now topping my list of Best Books Ever Written (having displaced…. nah, I won’t tell you because then you’ll stop reading in disgust), so of course I’ll start there. In Women Talking, a slim novel set in a South American Mennonite community, the miraculous Miriam Toews compresses story-telling, deep emotions and a hard look at the ways of men and women (and children) in a patriarchal world. The book is based on a historical fact, but we would be missing the point if we thought Toews is talking about male-dominated insular religious communities. Every abomination that happens in Women Talking happens in our liberated society, every day. The title itself echoes the #MeToo explosion of women speaking (up) in the last couple of years. The writing is sublime and you will be unable not to fall in love with the narrator and the characters. [Buy it from Content]
2. This year I became Elizabeth Hand’s literary groupie. Her latest novel is Curious Toys, but I started with the Cass Neary novels, the third installment of which was published last year (a new one is upcoming in 2020). Elizabeth Hand writes about characters at the borderlands of the socially acceptable, and she does so with such empathy and humor, you feel everything about you that is queer and strange and maybe unacceptable is suddenly very much okay. I needed that. [Buy it from Content]
3. Authors of color, Black authors in particular, are taking over as the most salient and important voices in US literature (they have always been, of course, but I guess publishers are finally paying attention). Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro is a book of poetry that even people who don’t read poetry will fall in love with. Parker does not write for white people, but this white person learned a ton about the sneaky and pervasive ways racism works in America. The writing is all on the skin — ink and blood – and I can’t think of a more urgent and beautiful book for our tortured country. [Buy it from Content]
4. Trickster Drift is the second installment of First Nations’ author Eden Robinson’s Trickster series. The hero of this series is 17-year-old Jared, who, in Trickster Drift, has just moved from the reservation where he was born and lived his whole life to Vancouver for college. Jared is not a culture conscious young man. His life has been hard and hardscrabble and he mostly drowned it in alcohol and drugs, while also managing to support his mom and his dad. Jared’s mixture of dissipation and tenderness is what made this novel intensely captivating to me. At the same time, the magic that runs in his family is catching up with Jared and, even though he’s none too happy about it, Jared is forced to reckon with his trickster powers. This is not a fantasy book. It’s a book about tough life, community, decency, being a kid, and the marvelous ways in which culture and tradition can be nurturing, especially when your culture and tradition have been run over by countless trucks. [Buy it from Content]
This year I read two novels set in the Philippines. Since I had never read anything set in this country, and since apparently I knew absolutely nothing about it, I was quite dismayed at learning about its history of multiple occupations, including by the US.
5. Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart is the delightful story of a young queer Filipino woman, an ex-guerilla fighter, who finds her place in the Filipino-American community in northern California. [Buy it from Content]
6. Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto is a multi-vocal post-modern journey into a culture that is as influenced by other cultures as it is exploited by them. [Buy it from Content]
7. I’ll close with another poetry recommendation. Camonghne Felix is one of the national directors of the Elizabeth Warren campaign, which makes all the more remarkable that she would lay herself so absolutely bare in her extraordinary debut poetry collection. Build Yourself a Boat is not as easily readable as Magical Negro, but its evocations of trauma, psychic pain, self-injury and personal/cultural strife are so powerful they moved me to my core. [Buy it from Content]
Giovanna Pompele’s only encounter with whiskey was in the form of Kentucky rotgut (Jim Beam). She reads novels and cuddles her dogs in Miami, while also doing all she can for the demise of fascism in America.