2019, A Year in Books IV (Nikki)

Here now is the last in my “2019, A Year in Books” series. I say “my series” but, of course, I have outsourced this task to friends. Here once again is the premise:

“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.”

Here are the first three lists again: Gio, Pete and Mike. The last list is by my friend Nikki, who I’ve also known from my earliest days in the US. In fact, Gio, Mike, Nikki and I were in a seminar on contemporary American fiction in my first term in graduate school. I’m not going to say anything smart alecky about Nikki because I’ve been terrified of her ever since I met her. In fact, let’s just agree her list is best.

As a lazy bastard I’ve really enjoyed having other people come up with posts for the blog. And I’m particularly happy to have extended the blog’s long-promised books coverage. I hope to con these four (and maybe some others) into writing more reviews over the course of the year. In the meantime here is Nikki’s 2019 list.

[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.]

2019, A Year in Books ~ Nikki Senecal

1. The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

I know this is on all the “Best of” lists, but it really was the best book I read this year and I have to include it. I remember hearing about the Dozier School, and the bodies of former inmates that were discovered by archaeologists, on the news. I remember being entirely wrung out listening to those reports. This novel about the horrors experienced by boys–especially black boys–at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida shows a pernicious system surviving over generations but importantly shows people subjected to that system developing in extraordinary, hopeful ways. What Colson Whitehead has done with this story, to help us imagine the horror, and to realize how the horror lives on, in the boys-now-grown and in the system, is amazing. It’s a beautifully written story, and I hope it helps America learn about its racist past and present. [Purchase it at Content.]

2. Feast Your Eyes, Myla Goldberg

Feast Your Eyes is a novel written as a catalog to accompany the retrospective of the (fictional) artist Lillian Preston’s work as an avant garde street photographer through a pastiche of letters, interviews, and dredged up memories. It is put together by her estranged daughter, Samantha, the central figure of many of these photographs. The specificity of Lillian’s life allows Goldberg to explore the art scene and public life in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, free speech and obscenity, motherhood and ambivalence, tensions around being a single mother and an artist, women’s rights and abortion. Preston photographs her daughter naked or in her underwear, and once she (finally) gets a show, she and the gallery owner are arrested on obscenity charges. The pair handle their arrests differently, with the gallery owner fighting to the Supreme Court. The complexities of this court battle for a single mother and the long reverberating repercussions for relationships–between Samantha and her classmates, Lillian and Samantha, Lillian and her neighbors, Samantha and the gallery owner–is stunningly examined. The descriptions of the photographs are so vivid, I remember them as if they were included in the novel. [Purchase it at Content.]

3. Chemistry, Weike Wang

The Chinese ideogram for chemistry, according to this novel, can also be translated as melting snow, as the study of change, of transformation. The narrator is at a crossroads in her career–her boyfriend Eric, a newly minted PhD with an expected job offer, has asked her to marry him. Her answer, an ambivalent “ask me again tomorrow,” is the emotional shift–the melting snow–that makes the wall she’s built around her emotions crumble. Chemistry here is the subject, as studied by the unnamed narrator, and the metaphor as we learn about the romantic chemistry between the narrator and Eric, and between the young woman’s parents who have a somewhat violent relationship. As the narrator considers leaving grad school, her mother responds, “You are nothing to me without that degree.” Oof.  Funny and heartbreaking, this multilayered and brief debut featuring a grad student struggling to find her place is brilliant. [Purchase it at Content.]

4. The She-Devil in the Mirror, Horacio Castellanos Moya translated by Katherine Silver

I read this book in the last week of 2019 and had to include it here. This short novel is narrated by an unreliable, upper-crust, 30-something woman–Laura Rivera–in a gossipy stream of consciousness. Laura’s best friend, Olga Maria, has been murdered, execution style, and Laura is telling a third person what she knows about the victim and her own interactions with the victim’s family and the police. As you learn to read it, the pace quickens, increasing your anxiety as the action comes to a head. In the interstices, you get not only descriptions of the scenery in San Salvador but also insights into postwar society, politics, economics, and religion. Ultimately, one is left wondering who the she-devil in the mirror is. It feels restrictive and pernicious to imagine that it is Laura Rivera, or even Olga Maria, but perhaps the mirror is being held up to San Salvador or the reader. It’s really a remarkable little book. [Purchase it at Content.]

5. The Stranger Diaries, Elly Griffiths

Clare Cassidy, a high school English teacher, specializing in Gothic literature, is writing a biography of the fictional R.M. Holland who once lived at the school where she works. When a post it note with a line from his best known story “The Stranger” is found next to a body–Clare’s close friend and colleague, Ella–the police begin to suspect someone close to Clare. The day before Halloween and a couple of murders later, Clare discovers a note written by a stranger in her diary, “Hallo, Clare. You don’t know me.” Menace is everywhere and Clare doesn’t know who to trust.The Stranger Diaries alternates points of view among Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Harbinder Kaur, the police officer in charge of the murder investigation. A fun experiment in reinterpreting Gothic story telling for modern times. You may know Griffiths for her excellent mysteries featuring archaeology professor Ruth Galloway. She had a terrific time playfully incorporating decaying settings, ghosts, curses, mysteries, and “atmospheric British weather” into a modern day Gothic, and the reader enjoys the ride. Excerpts of Holland’s short story “The Stranger” are woven throughout the book and are so convincing, I looked him up. [Purchase it at Content.]

6. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win WWII, Sonia Purnell

I listened to this book, read by Juliet Stevenson, and I admit I’m a much more critical reader than listener. I listened on my commute, and every day I came home with a new story to share about the derring-do of Virginia Hall. She served as a spy during WWII with the British SOE, and later the American OSS (finally, and less successfully, as a special agent in the CIA [due to sexism and professional jealousy of less experienced men]). Hall plotted prison breakouts, organized resistance activities, and re-established a chain of radio operatives throughout the region. The Gestapo considered “the Limping Lady of Lyon” the most dangerous of American spies, a woman…with a prosthetic leg. Hall shot herself in the leg while hunting in Turkey in 1932 but this did not stop her even when she had to walk over the Pyrenees in November 1942 to escape the Germans.

Note: this story is not “untold,” there have been several other books and a movie. An American version has been in development for two years. But I’d recommend starting here anyway. [Purchase it at Content.]

Nikki Senecal lives and works outside of Philly with her husband and mixed breed dog, Frida. Nikki prefers bourbon.


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