Here is the second entry in the year-end miniseries on books that began last week. A quick reminder of what this is: I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them. If you missed the first one last week, please go and read Giovanna’s excellent list featuring fiction and poetry. Today’s list comes to us from my friend Peter, a dour Englishman, across a page of whose dissertation our beloved friend, teacher, mentor and now tormentor, Jim Kincaid once wrote the terrible sentence, “You write like the Rev. Mr. Collins”. You might think this should disqualify him from making aesthetic judgments but if you’ve read much of this blog you know standards are low here.
(The purchase links below all go not to Amazon but to our town’s indie bookstore, Content. They ship quickly and cheaply all over the US and also to Canada and other parts international. Please support indie bookstores.)
2019, A Year in Books ~ Peter Stokes
1. Tram 83 (Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from French by Roland Glasser). I’m trying to read, with no particular deadline in mind, at least one book from every country. It’s a rather touristy way to try to learn a little about how the other 95% lives, and also a means of stumbling on some real gems. This is one– though the gem metaphor, I only now realize, is unfortunate. The book is set in a mining town resembling Mujila’s native Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tram 83 is a bar, the social center for a society in collapse, pillaged by “for-profit tourists,” torn apart into warring factions. Don’t come here for social realism, though. The breakdown is conjured up through extraordinary, inventive, manic prose, constantly interrupted, in the bar scenes, by sex-worker solicitations and demands for tips (almost everything is a transaction). The plot, such as it is, centers on the fates of two childhood friends grown apart, cynical mercenary Requiem, idealistic author Lucien, a kind of unequal struggle for the soul, though in a way it’s vigorous writing that carries the day. [Purchase it at Content.]
2. The Changeling (Victor LaValle). I’m not generally into horror, or so I tell myself, but then we tell ourselves all kinds of stuff, and books like this suggest we might tell ourselves different, better stories. I’m not sure how much this is Horror anyway, though it’s certainly intermittently creepy and discomfiting. It’s also very much of this moment; it’s hard to explain how apposite it is to this time in the U.S. without giving away the central conceit, but one of the less subtle signals comes when a rampaging monster yells “I alone can fix this!”
It’s not just some crass allegory, though. It’s terrific storytelling. And much of the mystery, the violence and the beauty, surrounds and suffuses the characters’ closest relationships– friendships, partnerships, family ties–and their very sense of themselves, hemmed in as that is, though not irrevocably and unchangeably perhaps, by racial and gender identity. [Purchase it at Content.]
3. One Hundred Bottles (Ena Lucia Portela, translated from Spanish by Achy Obejas). Z, the narrator of this funny, bawdy, vibrant, troubling, looping, engrossing Cuban novel, is, according to her famous lesbian author friend (a character who apparently closely resembles Ena Lucia Portela):
“A sorta foolish girl. Slower than a slug. As jumpy as a rabbit. Cute, but with a few too many kilos. Extroverted. A little too forthcoming. A party girl. A really, really good person. Happy for no reason, mocking sometimes, but not someone who’d ever deliberately hurt anybody. One hundred percent heterosexual. In other words, a disaster.”
And yes she is a bit of a disaster: naturally rebellious (she has a literal and metaphorical compulsion to stick her tongue out at people), but attracted to brutal, raw power; her relationship with her nihilistic abuser drives the plot. And may be a metaphor for the setting, anarchic yet repressed Havana, itself. And, ok, authoritarian politics even beyond Cuba. [Purchase it at Content.]
The novel does offer another way, though: there’s a Sapphic refuge in the city, closed, to the consternation of the neighbors, to “men and other smelly animals” (though judicious exceptions are made), where there are still struggles and pain, but always a caring community.
4. Milkman (Anna Burns). Set in Belfast during the Troubles, around the 1970s. It’s a depiction of a young woman being stalked by a powerful middle-aged man (he may be a big cheese in the IRA), and how hard, or impossible, it can be for her to articulate what is happening and to have any kind of control over the narrative; the language just isn’t there. And in showing what language there is, and its limitations, this is also a remarkable depiction of a whole community–one under siege and under surveillance, not only from without, by the “country across the water,” but also, and to a large degree in response to that, from within. It’s also fantastically inventive, and funny at the same time as sinister. I loved it. This one’s my favorite. [Purchase it at Content.]
5. A General Theory of Oblivion (José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn). The remarkable central story of this Angolan novel is based in fact. It’s of a Portuguese woman in Luanda who dealt with the chaotic period following Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and Angola’s subsequent independence by walling herself into her apartment for several decades, leading an urban Robinson Crusoe existence. And she wrote diaries, partly scrawled on the walls in charcoal. In the novel she has always been afraid to go out even before this, carrying an umbrella every day to shield her from the sky, whatever the weather. It turns out, though, that she is connected, nevertheless, in various unexpected ways, to the other characters who populate this novel, all of them, like her, both violent and tender, in different proportions: Portuguese soldiers, state torturers, revolutionaries, orphan children, Mucubal tribespeople, and more. And somehow we get from a solitary colonial woman, fearing the natives, shut in with a highly literary library (until she has to burn it) to an open-hearted reimagining of what it might mean to be part of a nation, and to belong. [Purchase it at Content.]
6. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Mary Beard). Do you really need to be reading a doorstop history of ancient Rome? Of course you do, you lazy bastard. Beard goes out of her way to explain why Roman history still matters, in fact, beginning in media res with an incident, the Catiline conspiracy, that begs questions still being begged, such as whether and how much individual freedoms should be sacrificed in order to protect the state. And she also shines a light on the way we’ve subsequently understood and made use of Roman history. For example, she undermines the futile quest to determine the personalities of various Roman emperors in favor of an analysis of the system that allowed emperors to rule dictatorially for a couple centuries–with a look at what anxieties concerning that system the stories told about emperors reveal. Was Caligula assassinated because he was a monster? Or did he have to be rendered a monster because he was assassinated? (Beard translates Caligula, by the way, as ‘Bootikins.’ It was his childhood nickname; understandably, he preferred the formal Gaius.)
I found Beard’s prose a joy to read: clear, engaging, witty, and she wears her learning lightly. [Purchase it at Content.]
Peter Stokes lives outside Philadelphia and beyond all hope of redemption. Though born in Scotland he knows little about whisky, but he’s working on a massive bottle of Glenmorangie.