Well, I must start and finish this essay while my mother watches my youngest child, my third, but who’s counting? (Dear God, I am!) With writing and motherhood, one is always aware of how little time there is. Writing takes time, and babies don’t give you any of it: particularly breastfed ones; they are like tiny bombs that go off approximately every two hours.
So here we go.
This third child, his name is Mickey Ocean Brown, was born in August. Before and after that I was reading voraciously. I swore off social media for all of 2019, which didn’t so much reveal endless vistas of time and encourage profound thinking, but, rather, showed me that I’m a compulsive reader: I’ve got to be reading something, anything, at all times. I’m like a slobbery Golden Retriever at its dog bowl. More, more, more! At least this year I devoured less Facebook and more, you know, real books.
And I read so many great books!
My fatigue of postapocalyptic novels ended with Severance by Ling Ma. Let me tell you, once you write a novel about the end of the world, you’re asked to blurb many others and also be on every apocalypse-related panel known to humankind. “Enough already!” I felt like shouting, around 2015. But here I am, in 2019, recommending this one. I read Ling Ma’s debut of my own volition (I admit the millennial pink cover drew me in…) and was immediately enthralled by its post-epidemic landscape: an emptied-out New York City, the desolate roads beyond, a repurposed shopping mall. I loved heroine Candace Chen’s pre-apocalypse job as production editor of bibles; I will read the prequel, Ling! I felt Candace’s longing for her mother and boyfriend as if her mournfulness were my own. I loved it.
This year I discovered two writers who have been around for some time, one so long that she is now dead. That’s Anita Brookner, whom novelist Rumaan Alam recommended in this appreciation. Brookner passed in 2016 but she thankfully left us many novels, which is astonishing when you consider that she didn’t publish her first until she was over 50. I read three Brookners this year, and my favorite was A Closed Eye. Because describing plots is boring, I’ll say that all her work seems to be about a hemmed-in life and a chance for freedom and pleasure that is always, ultimately, denied. Brookner conveys character consciousness with such clarity and depth; she reminds me a bit of Henry James in this regard. However, because her sentences are not nearly as labor-intensive, she can be read poolside and near rambunctious children without a snag.
The other writer I discovered this year is Cathleen Schine. I read They May Not Mean To, But They Do and her newest, The Grammarians. Oh what a delight it is to read Cathleen Schine! Both of these novels are about families and the pain and love and miscommunications and in-jokes and required delusions found therein. Her work is breezy without being stupid, and wise while also being very funny. I keep worrying about the matriarch of They May Not Mean To, But They Do as if she is a real person. What a feat!
I read a lot of wonderful, thought-provoking nonfiction for my podcast, Mom Rage, including On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. I didn’t realize one could tackle the subject of vaccinations from so many vantage points; it makes sense that Biss’s father is a doctor and her mother a poet, for this book’s mix of science and poetry, of the known and ineffable, is a marvel.
On Immunity is kindred spirits with another book I read for the podcast: Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life by Darcey Steinke, which also looks at a single subject through many lenses. I recommend everyone read Flash Count Diary, whether you menstruate(d) or not, because there isn’t enough knowledge about (or even acknowledgment of) this big life experience that happens to so many human beings. Steinke’s book is a tapestry of history, science, poetry, scholarly work, and firsthand account. It’s beautiful and raw and brilliant. She writes:
Becoming animal. This does not mean I go feral or become base. It is not complicated. If you pay attention, you can feel animal many times a day: when you fuck, shit, breastfeed your baby, run, swim, eat, or have a hot flash. But I find it hard to sit in the void with my animal self. I want to check my phone every few minutes, to make sure I have enough soy milk for my morning coffee, to see how many people liked the picture I posted on Facebook of my cat.
This spoke to me, in 2019, as I tried not to look at
my phone—and often failed. As I pushed a baby through and out of my body and fed
him from that same body. As I sat in the void, sometimes with great discomfort.
And now I’ve got to run upstairs and feed my child. As I do so, I’ll read The Handyman by Carolyn See. Or I’ll close it to look at Mickey. More than books this year, I have read my new child. I have memorized those big blue eyes of his, his funny nostrils, that roll of fat at the back of his neck, his tiny flat thumbnails. Leaving the internet, and having another baby, and reading so much, has made me feel more private and more vulnerable. I feel softer. I feel irrelevant. I feel mysterious. I feel grateful.
This year I read two of the greatest novels ever written, but I’m going to start with something I’m even more excited to share. Back in January, I learned about Dorothy Richardson, who wrote a sequence of autobiographical novels, called Pilgrimage, published between 1915 and 1938; I had never heard of her, but she sounded interesting, and I wound up reading a dozen of her novels to my wife over the course of the year.
The first of them, Pointed Roofs, presents the mental world of a teenage English girl, Miriam (the author’s stand-in), teaching at a finishing school in Hanover, Germany, sometime in the early 1890s; the rest of the sequence takes place mostly in London, following Miriam as she finds a job in a dentist’s office and makes friends with various oddballs, like herself at odds with conventional Victorian life.
The series is not for everyone, since there is essentially no plot, only the careful notation of the view from inside Miriam’s head—her thoughts about her life, the past and future, her immediate surroundings (her awareness of and love for nature remind me of Pasternak), language, and the few people of importance to her (those people drop out of sight for hundreds of pages, and sometimes we learn from a casual remark that one of them died at some undetermined time in some undetermined way). The closest thing to a plot is the continuing question of her relations with her Russian friend Michael, who introduces her to Russian literature and wants to marry her, but whom she does not want to marry. The books carry her through perhaps a couple of decades, but there is almost never any indication of what year it is, which can be frustrating if one cares about such things. But the prose is superb (it gives me great pleasure to read it aloud) and the evocation of turn-of-the-century London fascinating, and I think anyone who enjoys (say) Woolf’s To the Lighthouse would like these novels as much as I do (and Woolf herself was a fan).
The two great novels I mentioned above were Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov, which I read in close succession, the latter for the first time in decades and the former for the first time ever (I would definitely have won a round of David Lodge’s parlor game Humiliation). Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are at the top of their respective games here, and it was fascinating to have the chance to compare them; I’ll mention a couple of similarities I might not have noticed otherwise. Both novels include plot lines that, strictly speaking, are irrelevant to the main plot: in Anna Karenina it’s Levin’s coming to terms with the dissatisfactions of everyday life and the quandaries of landowning, and in Karamazov it’s Alyosha’s interactions with Father Zosima in the monastery.
But as I told my brother, who asked if I found Levin as insufferable as he did, he’s insufferable because he’s a self-portrait and Tolstoy was insufferable in the same ways, and the novel wouldn’t have existed without him (Tolstoy was already in the process of giving up on literature and had little desire to finish the novel until he realized he could use it to promote his theories about peasants and landowners and their relation to the land). The same is true of Zosima, since Dostoevsky had been desperate to present his image of a Christ-like man for many years (Prince Myshkin in The Idiot was one of his attempts), and for him this was the moral center of the novel. And both novels employ what Gary Saul Morson (the best critic of Russian literature I know) calls vortex time, in which time appears to swirl down and in to create a sense of inevitability: This is what Anna feels as she is swallowed up by her suicidal impulse, and it is what the prosecutor forces Dmitry into in the great trial scenes of Karamazov. For what it’s worth, I finished Karenina with a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction, and Karamazov with a desire to reread it before too long.
Two other novels I want to mention are Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (by no means a great novel but a very readable and intense one, and a fascinating look at radical life in Geneva in the early years of the 20th century) and Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians, an absolutely delightful novel about language-obsessed twin sisters I gobbled up in two days.
I also read a number of excellent scholarly histories, which I will simply list with a brief description of each and my highest recommendation for them all.
Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt is superb, making Egypt a place with a real history like those of other countries rather than a timeless land obsessed with the afterlife; it’s worth the price just for the set-pieces on the Battle of Kadesh and the invasion of the Sea Peoples. Alan Taylor is one of my favorite historians, and American Revolutions is a worthy sequel to his riveting American Colonies (if you haven’t read that one, remedy the omission forthwith). Wayne Dowler’s Russia in 1913 convincingly argues against the usual portrait of tsarist Russia as a backward land stifled by autocracy and ripe for revolution; he shows it modernizing in every area and headed for a prosperity that would have been inevitable if not for World War One. Alison K. Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia brings a dazzling array of evidence to bear on a vital but often neglected aspect of pre-revolutionary Russian life.
Finally, Marcus C. Levitt’s Russian Literary Politics and the Pushkin Celebration of 1880 sounds so narrowly focused as to be useful only to specialists, but in fact it’s wonderfully written and full of enlightening episodes (like the mobs that descended on bookstores in 1887 on the 50th anniversary of Pushkin’s death, when the copyright on his works expired and cheap editions were suddenly available); anyone interested in Russian literary history will enjoy it.
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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—for more September titles, check out our Second-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: One of America’s most incisive voices on race and history turns to fiction with a story of a young enslaved man who escapes bondage for the North. Early readers marvel at how Coates manages to interweave a deeply researched portrait of the all-too-real horrors of Southern slavery with sly touches of magical realism. (Michael)
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg: Emma Cline pinpoints Attenberg’s strength, that she writes about death, family, sex, love, with, “a keen sense of what, despite all the sadness and secrets, keeps people connected.” The critically acclaimed and bestselling author’s seventh novel follows the tangled relationship of a family in crisis as they gather together in a sweltering and lush New Orleans. Their father, a power-hungry real estate developer, is dying. Told by alternating narrators, the story is anchored by daughter Alex, who unearths the secrets of who her father is and what he did. This book is, Zachary Lazar says, “another marvel of intelligence, humor, and soul.” (Claire)
Make it Scream Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison: Jamison (The Empathy Exams) credits the poet William Carlos Williams with a sentence that inspired her title: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” To fortify and enlarge the world through eloquence—apt descriptions of Jamison’s new collection, which begins with the story of 52 blue, “the loneliest whale in the world,” whose existence “suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but the metaphor itself as salve for loneliness”—and ends with “The Quickening,” an essay addressed to her daughter: “Eating was fully permitted now that I was doing it for someone else. I had never eaten like this, as I ate for you.” Another wonderful book from this gifted writer. (Nick R.)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Patchett, who has long straddled the line between literary cred and pop bestsellerdom, follows up her prize-winning 2016 novel Commonwealth with another epic family saga, in this case kicked off by a real estate magnate’s purchase of a lavish suburban estate outside Philadelphia after World War II. Running from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the novel is billed as “the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness.” (Michael)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: The much-anticipated follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel takes place 15 years after the van door slammed on Offred and we were left wondering what was next—freedom, prison or death? The story is told by three female narrators from Gilead. In a note to readers, Atwood says two things influenced the writing of this novel. First, all the questions she’s been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, “the world we’ve been living in.” (Claire)
Furnace of This World: Or, 36 Observations About Goodness by Ed Simon: Simon, a staff writer at The Millions known for his deep dives into literary and intellectual history, meditates on the nature of goodness across 36 learned, suggestive observations. He calls this project “an artifact of things I’ve lost, things I’ve loved, things I’ve feared, things I’ve prayed for,” and presents it as “the moral equivalent of a Wunderkammer—a ‘Wonder Cabinet’— that is a strange collection of occurrences, theories, philosophies, narratives, and fictions.” This curious object is well worth a look inside. (Matt)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Life changes drastically for 15-year-old Ana, when she is uprooted from the Dominican countryside to New York City’s Washington Heights. An arranged marriage allows her, along with her entire family, to emigrate to America, and Ana is desperate to escape. As she opposes and embraces certain aspects of her new home, she makes difficult decisions between her duty to her family and her own heart. This exciting tale of immigration, love, and independence has been praised by the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Cristina Garcia, making it one of the most anticipated coming-of-age stories of the year. (Kate Gavino)
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie: Quichotte, a middle-aged salesman obsessed with television, falls head over heels for a TV star. Despite the impossible love, he sets off on a roadtrip across the US to prove himself worthy of her hand. Meanwhile, his creator, a middle-aged mediocre thriller writer, has to meet his own crisis in life. Rushdie’s new novel is Don Quixote for our time, a smart satire of every aspect of the contemporary culture. Witty, profound, tender, this love story shows a fiction master at his brilliant best. (Jianan Qian)
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: In 1977 Uruguay, a military dictatorship crushes dissent and punishes homosexuality, but five queer women manage to find each other and a village on the beach where they’re safe and free, if only for a week at a time. The five call themselves cantoras, women who sing, and for the next three decades their friendships, beach-side refuge, and cantoras identities help the women find the strength to live openly and defiantly, to revolutionary effect. (Kaulie)
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste: Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, chronicled the life of a family during the chaotic last days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. The figure of Selassie looms over her second novel, The Shadow King, as well, this time in the 1930s as an orphaned servant Hirut is caught in the clash between the emperor’s troops and Mussolini’s fascist invaders. Mengiste’s work bookends this historic era of Ethiopian life, capturing all the damage and hope of war, with prose Salman Rushdie describes as “brilliant… lyrically lifting history towards myth.” (Adam P.)
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: Emezi’s debut YA novel (following their much-loved Freshwater) sets out to answer a question that plagues every child at some point: Are monsters real, and if they are, do they want to hurt me? The children of the city of Lucille are taught that monsters are imaginary, but when protagonist Jam sees a creature emerge from the previously dead landscape of her mother’s painting, she’s forced to reconsider everything she knows about the world. Soon after, she learns that monsters are targeting her best friend Redemption, which leads her to wonder: How do you stop them if no one believes they exist? (Thom)
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai (translated by Ottilie Mulzet): Winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, Krasznahorkai (The World Goes On) returns with a novel about Baron Béla Wenckheim, who leaves exile in Buenos Aires, to return to his Hungarian hometown where controversy, gossip, and scheming abount. Publishers Weekly starred review writes: “Apocalyptic, visionary, and mad, it flies off the page and stays lodged intractably wherever it lands.” (Carolyn)
Indelible In The Hippocampus edited by Shelly Oria: Featuring poetry, fiction, and essays, Oria’s (New York 1, Tel Aviv 0) intersectional anthology provides personal accounts of sexual assault, harassment, and gendered violence from (mostly) marginalized voices. The collection includes 23 writers including Kaitlyn Greenidge, Melissa Febos, Paisley Rekdal, and Samantha Hunt. Kirkus’s starred review says the anthology includes “not just candid and clear revelations of abuse, but powerful demands for justice. (Carolyn)
The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine: Schine’s latest follows identical redheaded twins, Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, who are obsessed with language and words. As they grow up in 1980s Manhattan, their relationship becomes strained before ultimately coming to a head as they war over a family heirloom: a copy of Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. A starred Kirkus review called it an “impossibly endearing and clever novel” that “sets off a depth charge of emotion and meaning.” (Carolyn)
When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt (translated by Denise Newman): In 2015, Aidt’s son died tragically; this book was born out of that tragedy. Using various genres and forms, Aidt’s slim memoir attempts to explore her grief, which is all-consuming. In a starred review, Kirkus called the memoir “a stirring, inventive masterpiece of heartbreak.” (Carolyn)
The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri: Author Nayeri explores what it means to be a refugee in her first work of nonfiction. Nayeri, who was granted asylum in the United States as a child, juxtaposes her personal experience and the stories of current day refugees and asylum seekers to explore the refugee experience. She dispels myths, addresses well-intentioned yet flawed arguments (like “good” immigrants), and how much refugees give up in exchange for safety. Kirkus’s starred review calls the book “a unique, deeply thought-out refugee saga perfect for our moment.” (Carolyn)
My Time Among the Whites by Jennine Capó Crucet: Award-winning author Crucet makes her nonfiction debut with an essay collection about race, identity, and being a first-generation American through the personal and political. Alexander Chee writes: “Crucet is an essential truth-teller, the whisper in your ear you should listen to, wise and funny as she tries to save your life—and this book is a triumph.” (Carolyn)
The Nobody People by Bob Proehl: Proehl (A Hundred Thousand Worlds) returns with the first of a two-book literary science fiction series. When a group of ordinary people with extraordinary abilities (think the X-Men) emerge, they find themselves at odds with a society unwilling to accept them. After one of their own causes a mass casualty event, they must fight together or risk extinction. Booklist says: “Much like the X-Men comics, Proehl masterfully uses science fiction as a lens to examine social inequality and human evil. (Carolyn)