I’ve been doing this annual list for twenty years, and it has taken on a ritual quality. Yes, yes, I’ve said this before, but some readers will be hearing it for the first time—and “conditions have changed.” The proliferation of such lists, enumerating the “best” books, the ones you “must” read, has reached a point of absurdity. Why add yet another to the mix, however edged with disclaimers? Because I still enjoy doing it, enjoy entering a mildly trancelike state and jotting down the titles that drift into my mind from the year’s reading. A list composed two weeks ago would have been different from this one, and there are books I’m waiting for—Joseph Bottum on The Decline of the Novel, for instance, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts—which might well appear in this list were I to make it two weeks hence.
I have made one change: Instead of “Favorite Books,” I’m calling it “A Year of Reading.” I hope an entry or two will pique your interest (and maybe you will be inclined to let me know about some of your own favorites from the crop of 2019). As usual, the books are listed alphabetically by title, followed at the end by the Book of the Year.
Klavan is, among other things, our Houellebecq. I wrote about his latest novel, the first in a projected trilogy, earlier this year, under the heading “Provocateur at Work.”
Becoming Mary Sully:
Toward an American Indian Abstract
philip j. deloria
univ. of washington press
Mary Sully (1896–1963), born on South Dakota’s Standing Rock reservation, grew up as Susan Deloria; she was both a member of an influential Native American family and an outsider artist whose work, in the decades after her death, was stored, forgotten, in attics and basements of relatives. The scholar Philip Deloria brings her to light in a book that reminds me of the “discovery” of Hilma af Klint. Yes, you have to be able to tolerate a style that frequently veers toward the “academic” in a pejorative sense (“Central to her subjectivity was the Sioux Episcopal Church…”), but for me this was one of the most intellectually exciting books of the year.
Big Wonderful Thing:
A History of Texas
univ. of texas press
In the Eastertide 2019 issue of the Englewood Review of Books, I wrote about the “preview” to this massive volume, a slim book called They Came from the Sky: The Spanish Arrive in Texas. “At first glance,” as I said then, “Stephen Harrigan might seem an unlikely choice for such a project: he is a novelist, a screenwriter, and a journalist rather than a historian.” But it turns out that someone at the University of Texas Press had impeccable instincts. Consider giving this doorstopper to someone on your Christmas list with an insatiable appetite for history well told.
The Book of Bearings
I talked about the title-poem of this book in the World View column for the Spring 2019 issue of Comment magazine:
In a handful of lines, Glancy gets across the hypocrisy of the European invaders and the disorientation of the Native peoples they bargained with and preached to and displaced. And yet the poem doesn’t limit itself to recording a historical wrong or calling for redress. It seems to suggest—and this impression grows stronger as the book proceeds—that we all come up against “the changeableness of knowing,” that we are all seeking to find our bearings, and that we can do so only by reference to the inscrutable God of the Bible: “I believe Christ is the Savior of the world when my howls and the howls of the world are one.”
The Book of the Red King
There are books which teach us how to read them. On the writer’s part, there must be sufficient promise to make us patient; on our part, there must be a willingness to wander, to accept a degree of unknowing. This book-long sequence of poems offers just such an exchange, and you will be well rewarded if you’re ready to make that bargain. One clue: Instead of starting with the first poem, “The Starry Fool,” turn to page 17 and read “The Millet Seed” (which concludes on p. 18); then go to the beginning. Of course, there are many other paths you could take! And I haven’t even mentioned the magnificent illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
God in the Rainforest:
A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador
kathryn t. long
oxford univ. press
“If you are an American Christian of the evangelical variety and at least sixty-five years old,” I wrote here last March,
you are likely familiar with the story of the five young missionaries who were killed in Ecuador in January 1956 by members of an “elusive and feared indigenous group,” the Waorani. In accounts at the time, the Waorani were called “Aucas,” the name given to them by “their neighbors and enemies the Quichuas”; it meant “savages” (a useful reminder, in our day of sometimes excessively self-conscious naming practices). . . . No event between the end of World War II and 1960 made a comparable impact on American evangelicals, though its interest wasn’t limited to them alone.
Kathryn Long’s book covers not only the events of January 1956 but also their long and in some respects astonishing afterlife, all the way to the present.
The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War
I expected that this book would receive major coverage. What a story! While it hasn’t been entirely ignored—certainly there have been reviews—it hasn’t generated near as much conversation as it merits. Puzzling over this, I have arrived at a tentative explanation: Sutton is too evenhanded for the tastemakers. Why don’t you check out the book yourself and form your own judgment?
triquarterly/northwestern univ. press
My dear friend Brett Foster died four years ago this month, at the age of forty-two. This posthumous collection, his second book of poems, is most welcome; it comes with a foreword by Jeffrey Galbraith, who had been friends with Brett since they were boys and who was his colleague in the English Department at Wheaton College.
h. s. cross
I have a deep aversion to books set in boarding schools, as I explained when I wrote about this novel for National Review. But H. S. Cross forced me to make an exception:
In the case of Grievous, what’s most salient, from the first page to the last, is the author’s immense confidence, serene rather than overbearing: confidence in herself and the strength of her material but also confidence in her readers. While just below the surface of many novels we sense authorial anxiety—the fear, for instance, that readers’ attention will flag, or a different sort of fear evident in the studious suppression of uncertainty, complexity, anything that might, heaven forbid, daunt the reader—Grievous proceeds on the assumption that its readers will enjoy figuring things out as they go, somewhat in the spirit of a game or a puzzle. Very few readers, I think (and certainly not this one), will figure everything out on a first reading, but Cross trusts that we will not be unduly dismayed.
Heart of Barkness
In July in this space, I wrote about two of my favorite writers, Peter Abrahams and Spencer Quinn, who happen to be the same person. Wearing his Spencer Quinn hat, he tells stories narrated by a winsome dog, Chet. Narrated by a dog! Really, now. But consider this:
All fiction—including so-called “realistic” fiction, especially the self-consciously “dark” variety—is highly stylized. One form that takes, mastered by James Patterson and his imitators, is to try to make readers forget that they are reading! The Chet & Bernie books, by contrast, while giving us a dog-narrator who seems delightfully “real,” are loaded with wordplay and other reminders that we are playing a game of sorts, which requires the author and his readers together to say “let’s pretend.”
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee:
Native America from 1890 to the Present
In February, I described this book as
the best account I’ve seen of Native America at this moment—selective, highly so, as any such report must be, but vivid, pungent, agreeably opinionated, resisting received opinion on all sides. Treuer himself embodies the complexity of his subject. His father was a Jewish Holocaust survivor; his mother is Ojibwe. He is a novelist who also has a PhD in anthropology, and he has written a very good book titled Rez Life: An Indian Journey Through Reservation Life, which draws both on his narrative gifts and his training as a student of culture and cultures.
The Heart’s Necessities:
Life in Poetry
jane tyson clements with becca stevens
ed. veery huleatt
This book “gathers poems by Jane Tyson Clement (1917–2000), whose work I hadn’t read before, with commentary and reflections by Becca Stevens, a singer-songwriter (I’ve heard only a few of her songs) who has set some of Clement’s poems to music,” as I wrote in September. “Veery Huleatt, an editor at Plough Publishing and a member of the Bruderhof, is credited as the editor of The Heart’s Necessities, but she is in fact a coauthor. She provides a compact but rich account of Clement’s life, divided into chronological segments that appear at intervals throughout the course of the volume.” Part love story, part chronicle of a gradual attraction and then commitment to life in an intentional community (the Bruderhof), The Heart’s Necessities “does not prettify the Christian life; neither does it fetishize ‘questioning.’”
able muse press
Twitter is much maligned, but it was there that I heard about Jennifer Reeser, thanks to the poet and translator A. M. Juster. Here’s the first stanza of one of Reeser’s poems, titled “Great Grandmother Ora”: “Taking raw cowhide and fashioning purses, / Skillfully turning out wallets and belts, / Tanned leather shoes—the way I might make verses— / Ora created; like white women’s felts” . . . you’ll have to get the book to read the rest!
An Apprenticeship of Looking
thames & hudson
You may have seen the two remarkable books by Czapski (1896–1993) published last year under the imprint of the intrepid New York Review Books Classics (Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp and Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942), and possibly also the book about Czapski by Eric Karpeles. Now we have this handsome volume surveying his life and his painting and drawing, with supplementary material including an excellent essay by Adam Zagajewski. Like Big Wonderful Thing, this seems like the sort of book that would greatly gladden the heart of someone on your Christmas list (perhaps your own heart too).
Lina Bo Bardi, Drawings
zeuler r. m. de a. lima
princeton univ. press
I have always loved looking at drawings, even though I am congenitally incapable of producing anything but scrawls. This slim, beautifully produced selection of drawings by Bo Bardi (1914–1992), a modernist architect who emigrated from Italy to Brazil after World War II, suggests a playful, endlessly inventive intelligence (the drawing chosen for the cover is a perfect example). A delight!
A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900
barbara burman and ariane fennetaux
yale univ. press
I’d never thought about the evolution of pockets until I read this splendidly illustrated book. If you are violently allergic to certain clichés in social history (“As it supported female mobility and agency, the pocket was an empowering tool for women, enabling them to explore the world”), you had better give this a pass, but if you can overlook such tics you’ll find Burman and Fennetaux’s account fascinating.
The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison
ed. john f. callahan and marc c. conner
I don’t read many collections of letters, even of writers, artists, and such whom I greatly admire. But there are exceptions, and Ralph Ellison is one of those. There are many treasures in this massive volume—an ideal bedside book to start the new year.
Turn to page 54 and read the poem “The Man Who Was Unnecessarily Authoritarian with His Coffee.” If you don’t like it, you won’t enjoy this book; if you do, you are in for a treat. There used to be a video of Aaron Belz reading this poem readily available online; the last time I looked, I couldn’t find it. And speaking of reading, he’s exceptionally good at it; if you are in a position to schedule such events, check him out.
univ. of chicago press
After the sublime effrontery of that title, a subtitle would be supererogatory, would it not? And yet I believe that any fair-minded reader of Matthew Bevis’s book will agree that he makes his case. This is the most sheerly enjoyable work of literary criticism I’ve read in years.
The World Is Always Coming to an End:
Pulling Together and Pulling Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood
univ. of chicago press
Part memoir, part social history, part sociology, focused on Chicago’s South Shore, Rotella’s book is really sui generis, the product of an uncategorizable intelligence. Indulging neither in uplift nor in doom-saying, its tone is set by an epigraph from the parson-poet George Herbert: “Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.”
Book of the Year:
The Books of Moses
This book, the author explains, “is a prosimetrum, a story told in prose and verse. Mortality is its theme. Populated by rabbis, storytellers, mystics, poets, travelers, and philosophers, the book belongs to the same small tribe as the 1001 Nights, Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Dante’s Vita Nuova, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.” Wieder adds that each chapter in his “Old Testament saga corresponds with a Sabbath portion of Moses’ five books, as written in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. I think of my synagogue—Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia—and its traditional, lay-led minyan reading aloud from the Torah scroll every Saturday morning as Jewish Arcadians, gathering to recount the living history in tale and song.”
And keep an eye out, early in 2020, for Wieder’s A Look Ahead: Selected Poems 1966-2018 (also from Highland Books), to which I contributed a foreword. I’ll quote from that foreword here:
I don’t know a lot about Larry Wieder’s antecedents, but that’s no constraint on the imagination. Perhaps among his ancestors there was a curious figure, maybe a distant cousin of Elijah of Vilna, “The Genius,” unmentioned by Martin Buber and other chroniclers of the Hasidic sages: hard to pin down, neither a founder nor a follower of any school.
Certainly in his poetry, Wieder is elusive in just this way. Near the end of this book, in a short poem titled “Orientalia” (one of a set that plays deftly with formal measures), you’ll come to a line that demands “Deliver me from solemnity.” At which point you’ll laugh, because whatever else he need fear, this poet has no worries on that score. And yet if he’s never guilty of solemnity, his entire body of work—poetry, prose, combinations of the two, as in After Adam: The Five Books of Moses—violates fashionable prohibitions against worship. A jester is not incapable of praise.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.