In June, my partner and I moved from Boston back to Brooklyn, where we last lived, separately, almost a decade ago. The cost of moving and the inevitable decline in square footage occasioned a (very) reluctant jettisoning of books, though you wouldn’t know it from visiting our apartment, where almost every inch of wall space is now taken up with self-installed shelves of questionable sturdiness holding “must-haves,” such as galleys of NYRB Classics from the late 2000s, giant undergraduate philosophy anthologies, and that book of Don DeLillo short stories that I swear is climbing out of giveaway boxes and following us, Toy Story-style, across the country.
All of which is to say that it sometimes felt like I spent
as much time lifting, sorting, stacking, shelving, and contemplating the
physical necessity of books as reading them this year. Nevertheless, I did read
a bunch of them.
I started the year reading My Tender Matador by the Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel, after learning about him in Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. Lemebel, who died in 2015, was a brave and outspoken gay activist, and his novel combines a high camp sensibility with grave political concerns in a way that’s reminiscent of his Argentinian predecessor Manuel Puig. Lemebel dares to enter the perspective of Pinochet, and is blessedly merciless in his depiction of the ugliness and emptiness of what lies within the dictator’s mind. I wish this novel was better known, and that more of Lemebel’s work was available in English, because my Spanish remains terrible.
Though Lemebel’s novel is fast, funny, and relatively short, I thought of it while reading Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, a nearly 900-page, deeply unfunny book. Like Lemebel, Grossman was determined, at all costs, to speak hard—impossible, in his case—truths about the governing ideology of his time. (His novel was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and not published until long after his death, in the 1980s.) After years of people telling me to read it, I was finally convinced to take it on over afternoon beers with an n+1 editor, who made it clear that our continuing friendship was contingent upon my reading it. OK, I haven’t finished it yet. But after a few hundred pages, I can safely affirm that it is one of the most emotionally intense books I’ve ever read—page after page of horror and empathy across the Soviet Union during the battle of Stalingrad, including possibly the most devastating letter—from a mother, being sent to a death camp, to her son—in all of literature. I cried while reading this book in an airport, and then on a plane, and then on a bus. So maybe read it at home?
Rounding out the nightmare political portion of the year’s reading, I was totally engrossed by Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, about the brazen murder of a Guatemalan bishop following his involvement in the compilation of a report detailing the military’s atrocities against civilians, many of them indigenous. It’s a fascinating and horrifying work of investigative journalism—if you liked Say Nothing by Patrick Raden Keefe (which I certainly did), you should read this, as well as the scabrously funny Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, which fictionally depicts the writing of a report very much like the one Bishop Gerardi was murdered over.
I read Her First American by Lore Segal after reading about it in a great essay on Segal’s work by Madeleine Schwartz. It’s a novel about an Austrian war refugee falling in love with an alcoholic black intellectual in New York in the ’50s. It may well be the perfect novel. It seems criminally under-known, or under-discussed at least. I read it around the same time as I read For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez, an incredibly dark novel about a woman who serves as a field nurse in the Vietnam War, then returns home to a grim and circumscribed existence. I think the title might be holding this one back from becoming the modern classic it should be. That led me associatively, I think, to The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which I had pretended to have read for years. It’s really great! And Dorothy just put out a funky collection of her nonfiction, Me, that is well worth reading, too.
I read two and a half books of Proust—part two of The Guermantes Way through The Captive—and decided that he is not overrated. I also read a bunch of Annie Ernaux, and I’m currently reading The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere and Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. I wish I knew French. I wish I was French.
I read excellent new books by my friends. Caleb Crain’s novel Overthrow and Andrew Marantz’s nonfiction chronicle Antisocial make a nice holiday pair, covering the surveillance state and the rise of the right-wing Internet with matching red and black covers. Adam Sachs’s The Organs of Sense is the funniest, smartest book about an eyeless astronomer you’ll ever read. And Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is the best novel of next year—I’m so sure of it that I’m not going to bother reading any other new books in 2020.
Finally, I listened to James Atlas’s lovely audiobook reminiscence of his friendship with Philip Roth. It’s a short, sweet New York memoir that captures the character of the great novelist and biographer, both now gone and deeply missed. Let it serve as an elegiac gateway back into their unruly, essential bodies of work.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Zadie Smith, Saeed Jones, Jac Jemc, Lilly Dancyger, Andrew Marantz, and more—that are publishing this week.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Grand Union: “In Smith’s smart and bewitching story collection, the novelist’s first (after the essay collection Feel Free), the modern world is refracted in ways that are both playful and rigorous, formally experimental and socially aware. A drag queen struggles with aging in ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets’ as she misses the ‘fabled city of the past’ now that ‘every soul on these streets was a stranger.’ A child’s school worksheet spurs a humorous reassessment of storytelling itself in the postmodern ‘Parents’ Morning Epiphany.’ ‘Two Men Arrive in a Village,’ in which a violent duo invades a settlement, aspires to ‘perfection of parable.’ Some stories, including ‘Just Right,’ about a family in prewar Greenwich Village, and the sci-fi ‘Meet the President!,’ in which a privileged boy meets a lower-class English girl, read more like exercises. But more surprising and rewarding are stories constructed of urban impressions and personal conversations, like ‘For the King,’ in which the narrator meets an old friend for dinner in Paris. And the standout ‘The Canker’ uses speculative tropes to reflect on the current political situation: people live harmoniously in storyteller Esorik’s island society, until the new mainland leader, the Usurper, inspires ‘rage’ and the ‘breaking of all the cycles [Esorik] had ever known.’ Smith exercises her range without losing her wry, slightly cynical humor. Readers of all tastes will find something memorable in this collection.”
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How We Fight for Our Lives: “Poet Jones (Prelude to Bruise) explores sexual identity, race, and the bond between a mother and child in a powerful memoir filled with devastating moments. As a gay African-American boy growing up in Texas, Jones struggled to find his way. In 1998, at age 12, ‘I thought about being gay all the time,’ he writes, but at home the subject was taboo. Here, Jones candidly discusses his coming of age, his sexual history, and his struggle to love himself. He describes engaging in destructive behavior in college, including repeated relations with a sadistic, racist man, and their encounters graphically illustrate how sex and race can be used as weapons of hate. Jones writes that, at that grim time in his life, he appeared to others to be a happy young man: ‘Standing in front of the mirror, my reflection and I were like rival animals, just moments away from tearing each other limb from limb.’ Jones beautifully records his painful emergence into adulthood and, along the way, he honors his mother, a single parent who struggled to support him financially, sometimes emotionally, but who loved him unconditionally until her death in 2011. Jones is a remarkable, unflinching storyteller, and his book is a rewarding page-turner.”
False Bingo by Jac Jemc
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about False Bingo: “Jemc’s electric, nimble collection (after The Grip of It) plumbs its characters’ most intimate relationships and unearths potent hidden truths. In ‘Delivery,’ a father’s sudden spike in online shopping signifies a troubling development. In ‘Don’t Let’s,’ a woman stays in the Georgia Lowcountry, trying to clear her mind after leaving an abusive relationship, but finds signs of a ghost’s presence in her house. ‘Pastoral,’ about the work of a porn actress who has a husband and two sons, defies convention by having no conflict at all (‘There are no wolves at the door…. There is no obstacle that requires overcoming’). A woman’s stay at a wellness retreat is impinged upon by an overbearing fellow retreater in ‘Maulawiyah.’ In ‘Hunt and Catch,’ a woman named Emily is ominously followed by a man in a garbage truck (‘When he waved, Emily felt like someone had shoved the skin of her face in the direction of his hand’). In ‘Trivial Pursuit,’ an unnamed couple is irritated by the eccentricities of a couple known as the Board Game Couple before dumping them for the Artist Couple, followed by a succession of other couples, each with their own problems. Many of these stories are only a few pages, allowing Jemc to deliver a range of payoffs, some unsettling, some poignant, all evocative. This constantly shifting collection will leave readers beguiled.”
Burn It Down edited by Lily Dancyger
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Burn It Down: “Editor Dancyger collects essays from 22 female writers contemplating (and unleashing) anger, continuing the #MeToo ethos of emotional transparency and righteous indignation, to bracing and powerful effect. The writers are a diverse group and cover a wide range of experiences. Samantha Riedel recalls unlearning a lifetime of aggressive masculine social conditioning after transitioning from male to female, while still harnessing the power of anger to scare off harassers and put TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) in their place. Lisa Marie Basile documents years of suffering from a chronic illness and having her symptoms minimized by doctors and friends alike, declaring her refusal to be dismissed: ‘There is too much beauty in being alive to silence my intuition, to ignore my body, to not sing its needs and demand they be met.’ Evette Dionne writes of the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype, and how it silences women and shapes perceptions of famous African-American women such as Serena Williams. Other rage-inducing topics include intentional misgendering, religious discrimination, sexism in the classroom, and perimenopause. As Dancyger notes in her introduction, women’s anger has long been trivialized and discredited, but this collection allows that anger the space to flourish. It is a cathartic and often inspiring reading experience.”
Ghosts of Berlin by Rudolph Herzog
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ghosts of Berlin: “Everyday problems are complicated by weird plot thickeners in these seven vivid and intriguing stories from the author of A Short History of Nuclear Folly. A filmmaker as well and the son of director Werner Herzog, Herzog writes relatively lengthy stories told in short cuts; the reader has time to inhabit the world of the protagonist before the plot turns dark, often with a strain of deadpan humor. In ‘Needle and Thread,’ Bjorn is so wrapped up in his corporate dealings that he ignores, at his own peril, the pleas of his daughter, Alena, about a figure lurking in her bedroom. In ‘Key,’ the admittedly neurotic violinist Stiebel struggles to adjust to his new apartment and a move to Berlin. He develops a complicated relationship with a prickly neighbor named Wondrak, who triggers inexplicable emotions in him. In ‘Tandem,’ Greek immigrant and language teacher Dmitri finds himself drawn to his sweet German student Lotte, until she commits a shockingly rapacious act. The common thread in the stories is the city of Berlin and the dark shadows in its history. These links unfold in different ways as each story progresses. That this history is rarely addressed directly adds tension and resonance. The macabre mischief in Herzog’s tales is far from benign and speaks eloquently to the anxiety of modern life.”
The Furies by Katie Lowe
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Furies: “Lowe’s powerful and atmospheric debut features a troubled young woman who becomes entangled in witchcraft and murder at a private British all-girls school. Soon after starting at Elm Hollow Academy, teen Violet Taylor falls in with Alex, Grace, and their chain-smoking, impossibly cool ringleader, Robin, and begins drinking, shoplifting, and taking drugs. She especially bonds with Robin and joins an exclusive study group where the girls explore the ‘great women of art and literature,’ including the rumors that Elm Hollow’s founder was a powerful witch. After Violet is sexually assaulted , she and her friends perform a dark revenge ritual involving animal sacrifice. When the brutalized body of student Emily Frost, who was missing for months, is found in the elm in Elm Hollow’s courtyard, the girls pin her murder on the dean, leading to further shocking violence. Lowe’s sinuous prose weaves a disturbing tale of friendship, obsession, and revenge, and readers must decide whether Violet is a trustworthy narrator. Those who thrill to dark coming-of-age tales with a dash of the uncanny will find much to enjoy.”
Antisocial by Andrew Marantz
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Antisocial: “Marantz, a staff writer at the New Yorker, makes a timely and excellent debut with his chronicle of how a ‘motley cadre of edgelords’ gleefully embraced social media to spread their ‘puerile’ brand of white nationalism. In examining how ‘the unthinkable became thinkable’ in American politics, he narrates that tech entrepreneurs disrupted the old ways of vetting and spreading information—including the traditional media of which Marantz identifies himself as a part—but refused to take up a role as gatekeepers, and the white nationalists seeped in like poison. Marantz profiles alt-right figures and tech titans alike: vlogger Cassandra Fairbanks, Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes, antifeminist Mike Cernovich, Reddit founder Steve Huffman (who experimented with gatekeeping by deleting the site’s forum dedicated to the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory), The Filter Bubble author and tech entrepreneur Eli Pariser, and clickbait startup CEO Emerson Spartz, who opines, ‘If it gets shared, it’s quality.’ A running theme is how journalists should cover ‘a racist movement full of hypocrites and liars,’ and, indeed, Marantz doesn’t shy away from asking pointed questions or noting his subjects’ inconsistencies. This insightful and well-crafted book is a must-read account of how quickly the ideas of what’s acceptable public discourse can shift.”