Here is the third entry in my “2019, A Year in Books” series, a series I have very cleverly outsourced to friends. Here again is what I said about this series when introducing Gio and Pete’s lists last week and the week before last:
“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.”
And so to the third list, from my friend Mike, who I’ve known pretty much since my first days in the US in 1993. There’s a story I could tell you about Mike and me and a beef curry, a story which could be read allegorically; but I will leave that for another day. Mike is one of the funniest and most evil people I know. He’s also one of the kindest people I know.
(With one exception, the purchase links below 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. The exception is for a book Content does not list on their website.)
I’ll go about this task somewhat differently than prescribed by the harsh taskmaster on this blog. I have a healthy list of books that gave me a solid buzz, but instead of focusing on discrete experiences I’d prefer to zero in on two thematic through-lines that tunneled through so many of the texts I read, one found and one pursued.
One track is zeitgeisty. What I’m talking about is more than loose family resemblance; certain narratives, sharing not just concepts but core plot points, seemed to harmonize out of the economic and political screaming matches of Trump’s America. (As an analogue, many of my favorite films this year were not just about economic conflict, but built upon specific twists where marginalized members of a society displace the ruling class from within the gated structures protecting them: Parasite, Us, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Knives Out, even—if you allow a little flexibility around the concept of “structure”—High Flying Bird.) Many of the best, most engaging works I read didn’t just illustrate or preach against but sought to understand and decenter toxic masculinity. Hearing echoes across different works enhanced the impact of each, gave me a sense of an ongoing conversation that artists and readers were having together.
I won’t take too many words to celebrate Taffy Brodesser-Asner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble or Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, as they already appear on so many best-of lists. Each expertly, and empathetically, manifested how the “good guy” is inside and benefits from the gender wars; the flaws and blindspots of their male protagonists emerge through the robust, put-upon vernacular of their frustrated assertion that it’s #notallmen. And my friend Giovanna already on this blog touted the richly moving Women Talking by Miriam Toews. In a sly move, it is narrated by a man tasked with taking minutes of their meetings, but the novel centers on the competing voices of women grappling with the (brutal) consequences of male dominance, defining themselves with and against one another, rather than solely in relationship to men.
Annalee Newitz shapes a similar vision of feminist community across great differences of experience, and literalizes the gender wars. The Future of Another Timeline tracks a band of time travelers — the Daughters of Harriet (Tubman). They seek, through small, hard-to-trace alterations in history, to reduce the legal and social constraints on all who identify as women. They fight a somewhat cartoonish (yet nonetheless all-too-recognizable) band of puritanical travelers inspired by Anthony Comstock, making their own “edits” to the past in order to cement male authority in the novel’s alternative-reality now. Newitz is a dab hand with the specific pleasures of the time travel plot: riffing on the butterfly effect, tricksy games with identity and memory, deep dives into historical periods (Chicago World’s Fair, 1890; punk-rock-ready SoCal, 1980). But what could in other hands be simply a sleek spec-fic thrill ride takes its own sweet time shaping a more complex set of characters. As in Toews’ novel, the plot centers on women engaging with and learning about one another, recognizing and celebrating their different experiences, debating what kinds of resistance are possible and what are necessary for personal and political agency.
Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew also centers on the complexities of political action, personal responsibility, and historical oppression. Set in an imagined South American nation breaking away from a repressive past, a “progressive” male politician and a professor with family ties to the old regime frame the novel’s interrogation of complicity and silence. Heavy stuff, but Novey reminds me of Atwood, Gordimer, Desai: the weight of her subject balanced by the wit and precision of her prose. It was one of the first books I read in 2019, and became a benchmark against which I measured the rest of the year.
The second thematic track is one I bushwhacked on my own. As an English teacher, I looked this year to build some curriculum around storytelling and climate change. I was not interested in “whether” climate change (or tracking the impact or persistence of the denialists), nor was I looking simply to map the competing political squabbles. I was interested in how genre structures our sentiments about, and shapes our actions around, the environment and an existential crisis.
Amitav Ghosh has in essays over the last decade interrogated the failures of the novel to grapple with the epoch-spanning implications of environmental catastrophe. (See, e.g., The Great Derangement.) He wonders whether the novel—with its structural focus on the individual action of characters—even has the proper tools. Epics and folklore, on the other hand, rely upon a ‘magical’ blurring of the human and the natural, the breezy intrusion of the inexplicable and coincidental, which provide better lenses for seeing the historical force (or history-eradicating impact) of climatological change. His own most recent novel, Gun Island, is a demonstration of the possibilities. It expertly blurs generic boundaries. A central mystery, noticed by a hapless bookseller and setting him on a globe-trotting quest, recalls the secret Plots of world-conspiracy thrillers, yet has as its narrative engine (or McGuffin?) a quilt of cross-cultural mythologies. It’s a blast to read—and strangely, beautifully hopeful.
Ghosh’s critique of the modern novel nods to sci-fi as a counterexample, and four other of my favorites this year are squarely in the genre, while demonstrating the capacious possibilities of speculative fiction to imagine—and see beyond—climate collapse.
James Bradley’s Clade is exemplary “mundane SF” — each chapter a close exploration of a few days in the life of a new member of the protagonist family, each chapter jumping a decade through the 21st century. Bradley builds, and maps the destruction of, his world around and through this passage of time: colony collapse, technological shifts, sea rise. These events are rarely the stuff of disaster-movie spectacle; Bradley’s genius, as he traces generational change, is to demonstrate the inevitable intrusion of global disruption in even the smallest day-to-day experiences of one family. Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, on the other hand, exploits and reinvigorates that disaster-movie spectacle. The novel follows a new mother and her child, Z, displaced by a catastrophic flood in middle England, tracking north with other refugees. Hunter writes in extraordinary brief flashes, each chapter a few sentences, condensing words and world in ways that continuously surprise.
The resonance with current geopolitical realities is more directly the subject of John Lanchester’s The Wall, set some years after such flooding and worldwide sea rise. The UK has erected a barrier all around its borders, and each citizen dutifully serves on the parapets, keeping out the refugees. The novel narrows its POV to a single young soldier, slowly coming to realize—and then to grapple directly with—the brutish disinformation circulating in the media and by the state.
More extravagant worldbuilding makes LX Beckett’s Gamechanger a more playful revel, as it tackles head-on what a “hopeful apocalypse” might look like. Set a hundred or so years from now in the Bounceback, the population has densified, exploits sophisticated VR systems, relies upon a sophisticated reboot of social-media affirmation and critique to shape social action. (Beckett weaves in flashes to the Setback, our own moment of dimwitted self-interest driving humanity headlong into crisis, and the Clawback, where communities radically transformed in order to survive.) But things aren’t all fabricated bread and virtual circuses; Beckett explores—in a riproaring adventure—the ongoing challenge of blindered complacency, the difficulty of thinking and acting as a collective past each generation’s expiration date.
The most affecting piece I read all year came at climate slant. In her reprinted collection Ill Nature, Joy Williams snarls at the manifold ways we seek to contain nature, to domesticate and make pretty and consume. The pieces are chockablock with deadpan wit and (as she notes, sarcastically channeling some critics) “one-sided” partisan fury. Her final essay, however, takes up a more personal story, as the author grapples with an uncertain medical diagnosis and then a sudden, devastating behavioral change in her dog, Hawk. Nature as non-human, outside of our capacity to situate inside (or comfortably slide to the sidelines of) our narratives, sometimes destructive — and something we must nonetheless and without qualification love. “Hawk” is sui generis, and sad as hell, and perfect.
There are others I loved: Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy rewrites the alien-invasion narrative; Morgan Parker’s The Magical Negro and Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem rebooted my appreciation for poetry; I just discovered Garry Disher’s excellent Inspector Challis procedurals. But I’m probably not allowed to just give a list like this at the tail-end of a half-assed essay….
Mike Reynolds is professor and chair of English at Hamline University and a reformed administrator. He will drink whiskey with or without the ‘e.’