2019 Books in Review

Photo by Freddie Marriage on Unsplash

One of the gifts of being a critic is having the chance to share your enthusiasms (and sometimes your obsessions). Below are some of mine. I’ve decided upon two constraints this year. First, I’m only listing books that I haven’t yet had a chance to write on. I could spend more time celebrating Kathryn Davis, Fanny Howe, and Ilya Kaminsky; they, and others I’ve reviewed, deserve all the praise they can get. But I’d rather talk about the books that have thrilled me in private—the books I’ve quoted aloud to my wife, the ones I’ve pushed hard upon friends and students.

The second constraint: I’ve tried to avoid books that have popped up again and again on end-of-year lists. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is great, but you don’t need me to tell you. So is The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s most purely pleasurable novel yet. So is Sally Rooney’s Normal People. (Don’t listen to critics who say Rooney is only of interest to millennials. Sure, and Austen only appealed to Regency Era twenty-somethings). Many of the titles that follow received praise upon their release, but have been given short shrift in yearly round-ups.

 

Lay Studies, Steven Toussaint, Victoria University Press

The obvious point of comparison for Toussaint is the late Geoffrey Hill. Like Hill, Toussaint loves the recondite: “Vae mihi, si non / thomistizavero. I fear the verb // is intransitive,” Toussaint writes, channeling Jacques Maritain on Aquinas. (“Woe to me if I do not Thomisiticise,” the Latin means.) As these lines indicate, though, Toussaint’s love of the abstruse goes hand-in-hand with a Hill-like comic touch. As he playfully asks in another poem, “Have you contemplated / private // piety’s / competitive prices? // Are you in the market / for something like // but not precisely / eternal return?”

Hill is present, to be sure. But so is the music of David Jones, and the temporal layering of Ezra Pound, and a sensibility and style all Touissant’s own.

When the star

of grace reticulates

  my lover, who, pray tell,

reciprocates? I see AGAIN

  but never direct. An arabesque

of mirrors intercedes.

 

The Heavens, Sandra Newman, Grove Press

I read this novel in a single go while laid up on the couch with a bad back. Part historical novel (the set pieces in Elizabethan England are fantastic), part alternate history (or histories, really: the novel’s heroine seems to wake up to a different world each time she falls asleep), part social satire (the piercing of New York City pretension is delightful), The Heavens shouldn’t work but absolutely does. 

Most of the illumination was from solar-powered tea lights, which the rich girl had hung on the fire escapes all day to charge, then pasted along the walls. That light reflected softly from the heavy glass tumblers into which wine was poured. There wasn’t even music playing. The rich girl said it gave her bad dreams. New York City, so everyone was interning at a Condé Nast publication or a television program or the UN. Everyone a little in love with each other; the year 2000 in the affluent West.

 

The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner, New York Review Books Classics

As usual, I could put about five books from NYRB Classics on my list. But I’ll go with Warner’s 1948 treasure.

Though its ostensible subject is life in a Benedictine convent in the Fenlands of fourteenth-century England, the book is really about time: historical and personal, sacred and secular. Warner gives us delightful characters: Ralph Kello, a drunken vagrant who wanders onto the convent’s grounds, is mistaken for a priest, and just goes with it, for years and years; the prioress Alicia, who launches a long campaign to erect a spire only to find “anticlimax” upon its completion: “It was her life-work; but her life persisted, a life filled with beef and mutton, clothing and firing, cavils and quarrels.” That’s what this novel gives the feel of—the sheer ongoingness of life and the tragedy and comedy that arise from it.

It was not till 1345, when Prioress Isabella choked on a plum-stone, that peace and quiet returned, followed by four ambling years of having no history, save for a plague of caterpillars.

 

Hue and Cry, James Alan McPherson, Ecco

Ecco has reissued McPherson’s first collection in its Art of the Story series. About half of these stories focus on work: young men working as janitors and stock boys, old men working as porters and waiters. This work can be a route to dignity or, in the loosely autobiographical “Gold Coast,” grist for the writer’s mill. This work also can be, and often is, a source of misery and disillusionment for the book’s black characters. The other half are wonderfully weird, knottily ambivalent examinations of sex, race, and politics that resemble the writings of McPherson’s friend and mentor, Ralph Ellison.

He…was getting older and desperate so that his teeth were not wet when he smiled, as is their custom, because his mouth was so dry from his daily decreasing expectations. He was also losing most of the hair from the top of his head and his eyes were soft and scared, like a trapped animal who does not know how to fight. 

 

I’d rather talk about the books that have thrilled me in private—the books I’ve quoted aloud to my wife, the ones I’ve pushed hard upon friends and students.

The Manzoni Family, Natalia Ginzburg, Arcade

One final reissue to note. New Directions and NYRB Classics recently have been putting out Ginzburg’s slim, chilly masterpieces. (The magazine noted one of them here.) The Manzoni Family is a different kind of beast: sprawling where The Dry Heart is spare, decidedly historical (the family is that of Alessandro Manzoni, giant of nineteenth-century Italian literature) where The Family Lexicon is clearly autobiographical. Sampling liberally from the Manzoni family’s thousands of letters and leaving gaps when necessary, The Manzoni Family fictionalizes history and historicizes fiction.

For Manzoni, he was a charming boy who, near or far, filled the house with his presence, and to whom, when he was far away roaming through villages and countryside, he had to write every day to say how much magnesia his mother had taken.

 

Human Relations and Other Difficulties, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Wilmers, cofounder of the London Review of Books, is as good a writer as she is an editor. She writes with pleasing astringency, mainly about gender, power, and art. At points, this collection of essays reminded me of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal: high praise. “The Language of Novel Reviewing” is one of the best things on the subject I’ve read.

What is wanted of a reviewer is much the same as what is wanted by the reviewer: a modest, unemphatic originality, a meticulously circumstantial account of the novel's merits, and a plausible (or should I say truthful?) response to them.

 

What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Man’s Blues, Clifford Thompson, Other Press

I’ve written on Thompson for the magazine before, and this book exhibits the same stylistic and intellectual virtues of his earlier essays: lucid sentences, equitable thinking, a willingness to entertain uncomfortable thoughts about race, culture, and identity. In What It Is, Thompson pays homage to three of his heroes—Albert Murray, James Baldwin, and Joan Didion—all while thinking through his own relationship to race and rootedness and how that has changed, or hasn’t, since Trump’s election.

Murray’s books, beginning with The Omni-Americans, proposed an alternate view: that America, rather than being simply a white monster that feeds on people of color and that only the most self-hating of dark-skinned folks would identity with, is in fact largely a black creation—in terms of everything from culture to physical labor—and that the blood, sweat, and investment of generations of blacks makes America our home as much as it is anyone’s.… To say “I am an American,” then, is not an act of capitulation but the first step toward claiming one’s birthright, recognizing the setting of one’s ancestors’ triumphs and adventures; it is tantamount to saying, “I am home.”

 

Where Reasons End, Yiyun Li, Random House

Li’s novel, which imagines an ongoing conversation between a mother and her son who has committed suicide, should be on every year-end list. Its moral and formal rigor remain unmatched by anything I read this year.

How can one know a fact without accepting it? How can one accept a person’s choice without questioning it? How can one question without reaching a dead end? How much reaching does one have to do before one finds another end beyond the dead end?

 

No Matter, Jana Prikryl, Tim Duggan Books

Welcome Prikryl to the club of great New York City poets. Everything about her verse unsettles: the surprising line breaks, the slightly off-kilter syntax, the shifts from philosophical lyricism (“seeing / with sudden candor, which is / to unsee time”) to technological absurdism: “And do you suppose if there’d been phones that / Dido would have chilled, monitored his posts / as he sailed into a storm.”

At some point you have to walk to work

over those sheet metal cellar doors made

passable by those convex slash marks

marching diagonally through one another despite

very often that mutual hint, syncopation

underfoot, that they’re not locked

and could open up on the last abyss.

 

In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary, Jan Morris, Liveright; Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume I 1978–1987, Helen Garner, Text Publishing

I’d read anything by either of these two writers. Morris’s diary, in which she describes her daily life reading and walking and musing in Wales, is utterly charming, even when she’s grumping about political correctness or thinking nostalgically, if also complicatedly, about the days of the British Empire. (Morris, most well known as a travel writer, wrote the 188 entries at the age of ninety-one, so she’s entitled to occasionally grump and sentimentalize.) Readers of Garner will know what to expect here: lacerating wit, gem-hard sentences, scalpel-sharp physical and social perception. Reading Morris, you feel like you’re gaining a new friend. Reading Garner, you feel like you’re scrutinizing the self and the world as you never have before.

Don’t you find that some memories stay in the mind far more clearly than others—more meaningfully, more allegorically perhaps? One such memory for me concerns my very first flight in an aeroplane, which happened just about seventy years ago. Imagine! (Morris)

He says the proofs of his novel have come, and they make him feel sick. We make the kind of conversation about nothing that clever people make when they are too shy to be silent. (Garner)

 

The Caiplie Caves, Karen Solie, Anansi

I’m kind of cheating here, since the U.S. edition of Solie’s latest poetry collection doesn’t come out until the summer. What a book, though: ambitious in its ideas, complex in its music, discerning in its spiritual and historical perceptions. The collection’s central figure is St. Ethernan—a seventh-century hermit who lived in the caves on Scotland’s Fife coast and whose (largely apocryphal) biography leads Solie to consider the contemplative versus the active life and to ask, as she does in “The North,” “Where should we find consolation, / dwelling in the north?”

On an afternoon beneath
the Quiraing, we watched

the gannets dive,
looked from the cliff edge

straight through the clear water
to the origins of variety.

 

Cleanness, Garth Greenwell, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I’m really cheating here: Greenwell’s second novel doesn’t come out until January. But it is, if anything, better than his debut, What Belongs to You. Greenwell charts the ferocity of desire in the most exquisitely controlled prose imaginable. You’ll be seeing this on many lists next year.

And he did find it, finally, by luck mostly, I think, suddenly we turned and it opened out before us, after the cramped alleys the expanse of the square, beyond it the horizon of water. R. turned to me, smiling, and surely it wasn’t at that moment that the bells began to ring; it’s a trick of memory to stage it that way, but it is how I remember it, the birds flying up, everyone turning to the Campanile, as we did, its top still bright as it caught the last of the sun. 

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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