As I did last November, I want to tell you about a handful of books I’m particularly looking forward to in the coming year (books that aren’t likely to be highlighted in the torrent of “Most Anticipated” lists). And two weeks from now in this space, I’ll list my favorite books from 2019.
Wendy Lesser is the founding editor of the long-running Threepenny Review, based in Berkeley. I started reading it around Issue #11, and I have (here in our house) almost every issue since then (the latest is #159). At first I picked it up in bookstores, but I’ve been a subscriber for decades now. Lesser is also a writer, wonderfully various; some of her books haven’t been up my alley, but others have—like her latest, Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery, coming in May from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Lesser focuses on crime fiction from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark over the last several decades, but she isn’t simply writing about the books; she’s exploring the creation of a certain imaginative landscape.
Peter J. Thuesen is a professor of religious studies and co-editor of the journal Religion and American Culture. I’ve long admired his work as a scholar; see for example his books In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles Over Translating the Bible and Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine. His new book, due in April from Oxford University Press, is Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather “that in the tornado, Americans experience something that is at once culturally peculiar (the indigenous storm of the national imagination) and religiously primal (the sense of awe before an unpredictable and mysterious power).” If I were in business as an assigning editor, I’d plan on featuring a prominent review of this one (which, by the way, has a splendid cover to go along with its strong title).
One of the novels I’m most looking forward to in 2020 is Paulette Jiles’s Simon the Fiddler, due to be published in April by William Morrow. Here’s what I wrote about her previous novel, News of the World, in my list of Favorite Books of 2016:
I had never read Paulette Jiles until I opened this book (a pleasing size, not bloated) and took a gander at the first two sentences of Chapter 1, under the heading Wichita Falls, Texas, Winter 1870. Those sentences were enough to convince me that I wanted to read on. Here they are: “Captain Kidd laid out the Boston Morning Journal on the lectern and began to read from the article on the Fifteenth Amendment. He had been born in 1798 and the third war of his lifetime had ended five years ago and he hoped never to see another but now the news of the world aged him more than time itself.” The story—but I won’t sketch it here, won’t tell you about the girl whose parents and sister were killed by raiding Kiowas, who took the girl with her, and all the rest, because if those two sentences aren’t enough, what would it avail?
I trust that this tasty tidbit will prompt you to at least check out Simon the Fiddler, also set in Texas at the end of the Civil War and into the period of Reconstruction. Jiles herself adds that it “is a story of music and what those who create music must endure in a rough-and-tumble world.” If that sounds a bit platitudinous, never fear; Paulette Jiles is made of sterner stuff.
Finally, coming in January, Maigret and Monsieur Charles. This will be the 75th and concluding volume in the Penguin Classics series of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, almost all of them in new translations, with cover photos by Harry Gruyaert. If by chance you’ve never tried the Maigret books, why not pick up a copy of this one? If you like it (as I hope you will), you can go back to the start and make your way through the entire series in order. Happy reading.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.