*Our best books list includes any book we read in 2019, regardless of release date*
Deep River: by Karl Marlantes
For his second novel, Karl Marlantes again mines his personal history for subject matter. Yet where Matterhorn followed a more firsthand account of his time spent in Vietnam, Deep River leans on his family heritage in both Scandinavia and the Pacific Northwest to tell a story of immigrants, timber barons and the hardscrabble life of those making a name for themselves in the early 20th century. Going deeper than mere historical fiction, however, Marlantes bases his characters on the collection of ancient songs known as The Kalevala that represented significant figures in the history of the land that would come to be known as Finland. It’s an interesting framing device that helps keep Deep River firmly rooted in both Finland and the character’s adopted home in Southern Washington.
Taking place during the first several decades of the 20th century, Deep River chronicles the immigrant experience in the Pacific Northwest in the form of a band of tangentially-related characters of Scandinavian origin. At the center of this epic is the Koski family, primarily represented by siblings Ilmari, Matti and Aino. After fleeing their native Finland in the wake of Russian occupation, the trio one-by-one settle in the Pacific Northwest in an attempt to better their respective lives. The brothers, Ilmari and Matti, seek to make their fortunes in the burgeoning timber industry, first as lumberjacks and then as heads of their own operations. Here they are accompanied by a collection of characters from their homeland with similar ideologies and personal aspirations that combine to make for a series of successful ventures.
But the primary focus of Deep River becomes the highly politically active and maddeningly stubborn Aino. Having become politicized prior to leaving her native Finland, Aino devotes her life to workers’ rights, more often than not to the detriment of everyone around her. Having been labeled a Red and a social pariah for her forward-thinking ways, Aino encounters setback after setback, each more frustrating than the last but highly indicative of her unwavering faith in her social and political ideologies. That may make Deep River sound like a bit of a slog, but thanks to Marlantes’ tight prose, it reads quickly and engagingly. By the end, the reader has developed a deep attachment to these characters, having weathered each and every high and low encounter along the way. – John Paul
Life? Or Theatre?: by Charlotte Salomon
Having first heard of Charlotte Salomon from a New Yorker piece detailing her tragic biography and focusing on a newly uncovered letter in which the artist confessed to poisoning and killing her mentally and sexually abusive grandfather, I found myself getting lost in the mesmerizing images of her paintings online and decided I must seek out this seemingly forgotten opus.
With the looming horror of the Third Reich closing in, the German-Jewish Salomon spent the final two years of her young life painting and constructing Life? Or Theatre?, a mostly autobiographical sing-play presented in over 750 gouache paintings and three acts, handing it off to a family friend to keep it safe before she was murdered at Auschwitz in 1943.
The story is a sprawling narrative of mental health, family, history, the purpose and process of artistic expression, love and persecution—a feat of incredible depth. The paintings themselves are bright, vivid expressionist works that display Salomon’s external surroundings, internal obsessions and transcendent imagination while also gracefully implying the movement and suspension of time and thought. Put together in one book, with the text from the transparent overlays for each gouache neatly set with their respective images, Life? Or Theatre? reads to a modern audience like some early form of a graphic novel.
Life? Or Theatre? transcends the classification of art book, novel or play. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and since tearing through the 800+ pages in one sitting, totally enraptured in the experience of Salomon’s life, I have not been able to stop thinking about it. While the tragic context of Salomon’s life may be the driving interest into her art, it would be a shame for it to overshadow Salomon’s genius statement, as the work itself stands brilliantly strongly on its own. It might take a little extra looking around to find a complete edition of Life? Or Theatre?, but I assure it will be well worth the search. – Evan Welsh
Annunciation: by Sally Read
In her first of three acclaimed collections of poems, Sally Read nearly 15 years ago imagined that teenaged Mary depicted by Fra Angelico as “pooled into plump skin,/ nipple-less breasts, the speculum-/ opened white lily.” This selection the author titled “Annunciation.” Nowadays, as the mother of a girl nearing the Blessed Virgin’s age, on the cusp of womanhood, Read advises her daughter Flo. She explores “through her daughter’s questions” their shared “border land of doubt and disaffection, need and longing” which for Read emerges as “vividly sacred ground.”
What’s changed at the start of this present decade for Read: her conversion from resolute non-believer to committed Catholic. Following her searching 2016 account of this transition in Night’s Bright Darkness, Sally Read in Annunciation watches her child grow as both a young Catholic convert of her own (if at a very young age) and as a girl facing the doubts, temptations and elation of growing up today. Flo’s mother narrates their mutual “jolt of the partial rupturing of the veil between God and mankind.” They possess that in common with their Marian forebear, a young woman who accepted the unimaginable. Read recalls her stint as a student nurse (enacted through verses as if psychiatric patients’ monologues in 2012’s The Day Hospital) and integrates her experiences as in her past writing (to which oddly she barely acknowledges here) enacting wounded bodies and frail minds. She warns her daughter: “Sanctity, sadly, does not immunize anyone from pain.” As a mother, she cautions her charge against temptations ahead.
Yet Read assures Flo that “the shape of love, like the shape of pain, is shared by man and God.” She asks for her and her child the sustenance which Read imagines Mary sought. Grace, courage, and “the tipping point,” inviting, like Mary, the divine presence into her, body and soul. – John L. Murphy
Fossil Capital: by Andreas Malm
Andreas Malm begins his book with a most pressing question: if climate change is responsible for the coming apocalypse—and it most certainly is!—then what is responsible for climate change? This question matters because, as Malm puts it, it is much easier to solve a problem if one understands its cause. Fossil Capital is technically a social and economic history of the early Industrial Revolution in Britain and the “dark satanic mills” of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the period 1820-1840. These factories and their owners occupy most of the word count of the book.
But Fossil Capital is far more ambitious than that. For instance, Malm takes on the dominant thinking in the environmental studies by challenging the concept of the Anthropocene. Our moment, he contends, is not the Anthropocene—the period where human impact is so stark that it will register geologically—but rather the Capitalocene, because most humans are completely innocent of destroying the world. He proves, through rigorous archival research, that the origins of fossil-fuel-burning self-sustaining-growth—that is, capitalism!—lie not in concerted human effort but instead in the logic of profit-seeking capital. The reason that English and Scottish factories in the early Industrial Revolution turned to fossil fuels was not scarcity or technological advancement; those causes would place blame on rapacious, materialist humanity in general, or, in other words, would support the notion of an Anthropocene. What Malm shows is that early mill owners preferred steam power because it allowed them to control labor. Humans did not dictate the turn to fossil fuels; capitalists did. The solution to this problem is structural, not individual, because it is structures that are to blame.
This is a detailed investigative and rhetorical report on the origins of the end times and should not be missed by those of us living in these end times. – Ryne Clos
House of Stone: by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Though it has been called Zimbabwe’s original sin, Gukurahundi—a series of massacres by the Robert Mugabe-led government targeting Ndebele civilians in the 1980s—it’s an event that many Americans do not know much about (if at all) and what Zimbabwean government officials would rather forget. In her ambitious debut novel, House of Stone, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma tells the story of the genocide through three characters: Abednego and Agnes Mlambo and their boarder, the mysterious Zamani. As the book opens, the Mlambos’ son has gone missing. He was last seen at a secessionist rally protesting the legacy of Gukurahundi and might have crossed the border into South Africa, or something worse might have happened. As the parents are desperate to find their son, Zamani has a different motive. Using alcohol as his weapon, he lures Abednego out of his shell and from there he reveals his own story and the painful link between Abednego and his boarder becomes clearer. Tshuma dissects her native country’s history and asks important questions about the nature of history in a novel that leaps and bounds between registers of humor and tragedy. House of Stone is a smart, twisty epic that explores the way we can’t escape our pasts and the violence of nation-building with energetic prose that calls to mind The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. If this is only a taste of what is to come, Tshuma is unstoppable. – Eric Nguyen
Once More We Saw Stars: by Jayson Greene
Jayson Greene wrote one of the best books of the year, but it’s one we’d all rather didn’t exist. Greene (full disclosure: I know and have worked with Jayson) lost his two-year-old daughter Greta in a freak accident. Once More We Saw Stars burrows into the aftermath, Greene and his wife Stacy finding a way forward after terrible tragedy. The book’s first 40 pages simply devastate, as Greene details the horrifying moments immediately following the event. His lucid relaying of this period opens a gulf of hurt and vulnerability that would seem to be irreparable.
The rest of the book – wonderfully, remarkably, repairs. The family has no clear way forward. How do you respond to something you should never have to face? The Greenes persevere, and their search for whatever comes next is as cathartic as it is beautiful. Greene writes with detailed insight, whether exploring the foundations of marriage or wondering at a surreal experience or rediscovering the joy and fear of a new birth. Once More We Saw Stars offers little that’s easy, but Greene’s candor and vision give his story its necessary vitality. The book hurts, but it also plants seeds of empathy and courage, much needed fruit for any of us. – Justin Cober-Lake
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: by Ocean Vuong
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a stark, thoughtful melding of memoir, reflection and history narrated with incisive, lyrical prose. The novel delivers a story of great pain but also demonstrative love as it relates a Vietnamese refugee family’s journey from their war-torn homeland to the United States to start anew. Carrying his grandmother Lan, mother Hong and his collective past while coming of age as a gay, brown immigrant, Little Dog tries to find his voice in a country that derides them for being poor and different. Through the letter he writes to Hong, he synthesizes the trauma she and Lan experienced and relived even after migrating, contemplates how it affected him physically and emotionally and realizes the pain they endured and overcame may have “passed through” but “failed to spoil” them.
Millennial literary phenom Ocean Vuong effortlessly translates his poetic prowess with emotionality and portraitive detail into his fiction debut. He symbolizes Little Dog’s family as monarch butterflies flitting away from explosions to the wild and monarchs of their own existence persevering through the worst. He describes his narrator as having to use his “bellyful of English” and wear his learned second language “like a mask” to interpret for his matriarchs and let them be seen through his own face, a common responsibility for the progeny of immigrants.
A definitive Asian immigrant story that resonates with today’s political climate, Vuong’s heart-wrenching and triumphant read exemplifies the power in overcoming adversity, charting paths and being seen even when instinct says to hide to survive. It offers a lesson for readers in understanding their own choice to begin anew and run forward, all in an account unflinching from the world’s ugliness and beauty. – Ashley Pabilonia
Dril Official “Mr. Ten Years” Anniversary Collection: by Dril
On Christmas Day 2011, @wint tweeted the following: “‘brevity is the soul of SHIT’ – the shit man.” Now, you can read hundreds of bite-sized pieces of wisdom just like this in old-fashioned book form as Dril Official “Mr. Ten Years” Anniversary Collection if logging onto Twitter isn’t melting your brain enough already. Is this book good? Such simple binaries are impossible to apply, here. Did I enjoy this book? Yes, deliriously. Reading it in public is ill-advised since you’ll have to explain your mad cackling and be faced with the incontrovertible fact that humor – particularly of the late-capitalist, online variety – is a type of lunacy.
This lunacy, like the madness in a Lovecraft tale, has a dark, cosmic source. The unleashed id of the sujet idéal of capitalism – chaotic, valueless, narcissistic, depressed – Dril, czar of weird Twitter, embodies the Online Man. Materially, he is powerless – dejected – but his posts give him the illusion of power. He is the mad king of the web, raving about the trolls, the haters, and who is allowed to fuck the flag at the Betsy Ross museum. He stands athwart history, demanding “who the fuck is scraeming ‘LOG OFF’ at my house. show yourself, coward. i will never log off.” So say we all. – Ian Maxton
Territory of Light: by Yuko Tsushima (Trans. Geraldine Harcourt)
If, like me, you spend a great deal of time in a small and imperfect apartment, you can’t help but wonder if it might be time to move. The cracks in the walls stare back at you. Raccoons climb your fire escape and gaze menacingly at your anxious cat. The leaning floors can send you sprawling.
Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light irradiates from a top-floor apartment with a major flaw of its own: surrounded by windows on all sides, it’s bright to the point of delirium. The problem only intensifies when a pipe issue and resulting flood force a silvery repair and further aggravate the novel’s single mother narrator and her daughter. Later, after the young daughter has contributed to the collapse of a neighbor’s roof by throwing toys and detritus onto its beckoning surface, the building’s manager puts up blue netting around the windows as a safety precaution. The light, deeper and more pressing, traps the two denizens like an alien hutch. The narrator’s stresses—an impending divorce and resulting stigmas, along with profound loneliness and disturbing dreams—intertwine with the apartment space. This feedback loop of problems becomes inescapable.
That is, at least until the lease ends. Split up into 12 sections (released in Japan once a month between 1978 and 1979, but translated, together, to English just this year), Tsushima’s novel acts as a countdown to the narrator’s eventual move. The new apartment she discovers, in the book’s final pages, requires that a light be “kept on even in the daytime.” We know this is no minor transformation—it’s the only way that she can find a luminescence of her own making.
When’s your lease up? It won’t be easy, but 2020 is the perfect time for change. – Jeff Heinzl
The Fifth Season: by N. K. Jemisin
2015’s The Fifth Season, the first book in N. K. Jemisin’s three-time-Hugo-winning Broken Earth fantasy trilogy, is a groundbreaking novel in multiple ways. The most immediately evident of these is the unique approach to the point-of-view – a third of the novel is presented in second-person, while the other two thirds are each told in close third-person. And the connection between the protagonists of each of these sections of the novel is thrilling to uncover. Additionally, the story’s matter-of-fact approach to race, gender and sexual orientation is refreshing and inclusive, and this is perhaps best demonstrated by the lead protagonist (the second-person one), Essun, a black woman in her 40s.
The fantastical aspects of the book, which involve a massive, earthquake-ridden continent called the Stillness, giant floating crystals, a special institute for supernaturally gifted students and a number of magical races including a group called Orogenes (who can control the Earth’s energy), are presented in a gritty, grounded style. All of this is imaginative and well-rendered, particularly the descriptions of the titular “seasons” that take place when the Stillness’ energy is thrown out of control, but what really elevates The Fifth Season are the ways in which it bravely explores the effects of trauma on people, families, communities and the environment. – Mike McClelland
Who is Michael Jang?: by Michael Jang
A better question might be: Where has this photographer been all your life? Working quietly and diligently in California, the grandson of Chinese immigrants, his inventive eye developed at an early age. Barely out of his teens, he faked press credentials to get into the Beverly Hilton ballroom, where in the ‘70s he made lively candids of A-listers like Frank Sinatra and David Bowie. His celebrity pictures don’t look like anyone else’s—he stumbled on Johnny Rotten in a diner after the final Sex Pistols show, and captured a kind of intimate scowl. But he also got hilarious photos of his family at home, especially his colorful Aunt Lucy, who can be seen talking sternly on the phone under her own oil portrait, or pointing firmly to a bottle of bleach on the washing machine. In 2014 Jang had published a small press, small format collection of head shots made for auditioning TV meteorologists, but that striking work didn’t prepare you for the breadth on display here. Jang is still alive and soaking up the belated attention, which has included stories in everything from The New Yorker to Juxtapoz Magazine, and that range from mainstream to underground gives you the sense of his universal appeal. Go ahead, look him up – you won’t be able to get enough of his pictures. — Pat Padua
Goodbye, Vitamin: by Rachel Khong
Part of what makes our relationships with our loved ones is that we know them so well, and yet sometimes, also not at all. Sorting out what we know about each other when we are in the midst of change can be unsettling, but it can also provide solace. After her fiancé leaves and 30-year-old Ruth takes account of her life, she travels home for Christmas with her parents. She decides to stay, helping them manage the transitions as her father moves more deeply into dementia. Written in the style of Ruth’s diary, her daily reporting keeps these stories from being bathed in grief and anger. Instead, we experience the magic in the mundane through the small ways that life changes as people do.
Ruth’s father is an eminent history professor but has been released from the university as his dementia interferes with his ability to teach effectively. When Theo, his teaching assistant, calls, Ruth agrees to conspire with him to create a sham course so that Howard can sustain his dignity and have some structure in his life while his adoring students can spend time in conversation with him. This is just one instance of how people work together to make the world a better, safer place for others. The detailed accounts of odd meals, the intricacies of the washing machine, recounting childhood adventures and watching television with her Dad are never overwhelming. These simple things create a rich canvas for moving forward through change.
Goodbye, Vitamin is Khong’s first novel, and worthy of reading again while waiting for her next book. – Linda Levitt
A Cathedral of Myth and Bone: by Kat Howard
Choosing a favorite book of 2019 is a surprisingly daunting task. At least five books I’ve reviewed this year are classics I’ll routinely revisit, but A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard is the one that jumps to mind the most when asked for a recommendation or when my mind is idle. In this collection of 13 short stories, Howard takes well-worn material like fairy tale, myth, Arthurian legend and the ghost story and finds the new in the cracks and crevices by shifting perspective from a male to female point-of-view. The effect is spellbinding and establishes a masterwork in its totality akin to the greatest in fantasy fiction.
Despite the occasional witch or wife of an immortal forest elemental, most of Howard’s protagonists are ordinary people who get touched by the supernatural or extraordinary. She creates a meta-commentary on the nature of story itself by making her characters aware that they are part of a continuum that has established rules for something like a spectral visitation or a unicorn sighting on a city street. She often works to highlight the tropes she is about to defy while commenting on how legends tend to become self-perpetuating, reshaping continuously in defiance of a final ending.
The driving force of the collection and the strongest example of Howard’s meta-commentary is the novella, “Once, Future.” Here Howard retells the Arthurian legend by setting her story in a grad school literature class devoted to studying retellings of Arthurian legends. It is a story about a story that has to die so that others might live and its climax could bring a tear to even the most cynical reader. This is a book of magic, empathy and wonder. All you need to do is open it. – Don Kelly
The Testaments: by Margaret Atwood
When I first heard Margaret Atwood was writing a sequel to her monumental 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (which has been dramatized onscreen with painstaking sadism), my kneejerk reaction was a combination of “good lord, why?” and “nope, not again.” Who, other than a masochist, would want to return to the hellscape of Gilead? How wrong I was. The Testaments isn’t, as it turns out, a tonal follow-up to Atwood’s best-known work: that claustrophobic first-person account of a misogynistic, totalitarian nightmare.
The Testaments is, instead, an entirely different, purely enjoyable creation. Atwood’s newest tome finds the author at her prime, as a ripping storyteller and a supreme world-builder. The novel follows three women: Agnes, a soon-to-be Wife; Daisy, a rebel raised in Free Canada; and Aunt Lydia, the towering monster from Atwood’s original tale, whose legacy is deepened and humanized within these pages.
This wayward trio’s fates intersect with mythic improbabilities and breathtaking plot-twists. Their endpoint is, somewhat predictably, our first protagonist Offred, who looms above, but remains (largely) detached from this rollicking coda. And yet, The Testaments stands proudly as a smashing literary sequel, a rare concoction that manages to equal its predecessor at every hairpin turn, with heavy doses of fun, yes fun, lighting the way out of a dark tunnel and smack-dab into another question mark. – Peter Tabakis