The 10 books you’ll find here do not form a “best of 2019” list. Two, in fact, were published in 2017 and 2018. Instead, this is a sharing of books I read this past year that I will continue to recommend for one reason or another. It may be for memorable dramatic content or bold creativity or resonating wisdom or one powerful scene. They are books that left something indelible in my remembrance after I read the last line.
Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me by Deirdre Bair
There is much that stands out in this hard-to-put-down memoir, including the outrageous human behavior and the scheduling chaos experienced by the author as she tolerated, cajoled, humored and ultimately braved Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir’s friends and relatives while gathering information to write their biographies. She also had to navigate the deprecating white male establishment that, in the 1970s and 1980s, thought Bair, a wife and mother of two, should stay home. Why it made the list: Bair’s revelations about working with these literary giants is fascinating, but more memorable is how she pulled it off and kept her sanity. A one-of-a-kind memoir written with sly humor, respect and sincerity.
The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein
Don’t for a moment assume this book trudges forward with heavy school-day instruction. These classic lit giants come to life in the post-World War I years when Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time shook them to the core with the new “interior” viewpoint of writing. E. M. Forster, desperately in love with an unavailable man, suffered writer’s block over what became A Passage to India. T. S. Eliot famously struggled to write and publish The Waste Land while caring for his sickly wife. Virginia Woolf, besieged by the flu epidemic, struggled to liberate her writing with Mrs. Dalloway. D. H. Lawrence, flitting between continents to find his muse and similarly struggling, wrote his autobiographical novel Kangaroo. Why it made the list: Goldstein offers not only memorable high drama in literary history but also a close look at the humanness of these literary legends.
The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon edited by Christine Flanagan
I love to read books of collected letters. That began when I was in my 20s and randomly picked up The Letters of Gustav Flaubert 1830-1857 edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller. Ever since, I’ve gravitated to letter books for their offering of the most intimate and personal voices. In this collection of letters, the experienced novelist Caroline Gordon (author of nine novels and three short story collections) exchanges correspondence with the southern writer Flannery O’Connor, offering friendship and bold guidance and critiques about O’Connor’s stories. Why it made the list: Gordon’s demand on O’Connor to do her best work and her insights on the craft of writing anchor the letters with wisdom. Not a book for everyone, but for those who love literary lives and the mechanics of writing.
Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger
This story about friendship and the laws of the universe question the difference between time past and present, which Einstein said is “only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” The narrator is a distinguished professor of theoretical physics at MIT whose life gets complicated when her cell phone lights up with a call from Charlie, her long-ago Harvard roommate. When Helen answers the call, no one is on the other end. The next day, Charlie’s husband Terrence informs Helen that Charlie died — two days ago. In other words, the day before the phone call. More unusual things occur and then, in the end, something hopeful and unexplained, emphasizing a point made earlier in the story when Helen says: “…it isn’t that magical things are necessarily impossible – only that they must be confined to environments we haven’t yet observed.” Why it made the list: Freudenberger’s hint at a thin space between this world and another is brilliantly rendered.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
I can’t talk enough about this intelligent story that explores topics of masculinity and language. Author Ben Lerner delves into the rage of privileged male adolescents in conservative Kansas during the 1990s, boys who feel lost and unheard and who struggle with the concept of being a real man — boys who will grow up to be the men of today. The story shifts between Adam Gordon, a senior and top debate team member at Topeka High, brilliant at manipulating an avalanche of words, and his parents, liberal psychologists who practice at a world-famous Topeka institute. And then there’s Darren, who opens the story with a scene in police custody. His story threads through Adam’s main story, as we learn what drives Darren to an act of violence. Why it made the list: An involving, perceptive Midwest family story that’s a masterpiece. It leaves readers with ideas that continue to ask for attention.
The Redeemed by Tim Pears
When the advanced reading copy arrived in the mail this past summer, I immediately wanted to read this novel because of the enticing cover illustration. I’d not read anything previously by Tim Pears, nor knew much about his work. Further, I generally hesitate to engage in trilogies for the time investment they require, but this call-to-read wouldn’t let go. And so, I read without stop The Horseman and The Wanderers and The Redeemed, entranced by the world of young Leo Sercombe whose family works on an estate in England’s West Country. I willingly fell into a story that was uncomplicated by 21st century politics and technology, to be in a different, long-ago time that’s before, during and after World War I. Why it made the list: What remains is not only the cherished reading experience but also Leo’s steadfast faith in himself, in the world he woke up to every morning and in his love for the unreachable daughter of the estate. The West Country Trilogy will remain a life-long favorite.
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher
A “soft apocalypse” has changed the world, an event (The Gelding) that over time has sterilized the population, except for a very few. That’s the setting of this page-turning debut, more specifically, the British Isles, where on an island off Scotland a stranger steals a boy’s dog. And so the chase begins for the teen-aged Griz, who searches the empty world by boat and land to rescue his dog, leaving behind a secure family life. Anyone who’s loved a dog will understand the fearless drive, but this adventure tells more than a story of a best four-pawed friend. Griz knows no other world than this one, and his viewpoint provides astonishing, a-ha moments for readers of crumbled past places and monuments that become recognizable as we know them now. Why it made the list: The publisher’s advanced reading copy urged reviewers not to reveal the book’s secrets, and I won’t. Truly, a memorable adventure, deftly crafted.
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio
How could they give me up? This painful question drives the narrative of Di Pietrantonio’s unforgettable Italian novel, one that troubles the unnamed narrator who’s caught between two families. Her birth family, struggling to put food on the table, gave the girl in infancy to a privileged, childless aunt and uncle. The girl grew up thinking they were her real parents. But one August afternoon, when she’s 13 years old, the girl is sent back. We’re seductively drawn into the girl’s confusion and misguidance, with unsentimental but magical allure, as the truth she desires becomes paramount. Translated by Ann Goldstein, who also translated the popular Elena Ferrante novels. Why it made the list: A story perfectly told about abandonment and resilience (and that haunting question).
The Promise by Silvina Ocampo
This is a slim volume of linked vignettes so vividly accomplished they are breathtaking. On a trans-Atlantic trip, an unnamed narrator falls into the ocean. To stay alive, she mentally tabulates memories. She promises to publish them, if saved from drowning. For 25 years, Silvina Ocampo worked on this novel, now available for the first time in English. Her memory began to fade before she completed it, and toward the story’s end, time in the ocean feels like it’s merging with Ocampo’s present, as if we’re hearing not from the narrator but the author, blurring the line between herself and her fictional character. Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell. Why it made the list: A flawless absurd story that’s ultimately about memory: how what we remember gives us identity and how, when memory leaves, so do our lives.
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa
Khaled Khalifa’s devastating and absorbing story of modern day Syria tells of a father’s request to be buried beside his sister and the journey his children take to honor that request. He dies in Damascus, and while his ancestral village of Anabiya is only a few kilometers away, it takes his children three days to transport his shrouded corpse through the many checkpoints of the Syrian civil war. Also, alarming and incomprehensible troubles hold them back, such as Bashar al-Assad’s authorities arresting the dead body and jailing the children for their father’s revolutionary allegiance. Translated by Leri Price. Why it made the list: Khalifa writes with lyric intensity as he opens a door into the world of the ordinary person in Syria today.