Best Books of 2019, picked by The New York Times critics

It has been a year of big, bold literary ambition. The New York Times' three daily book critics—Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai—share their thoughts about their favorites among the books they reviewed this year, each list alphabetical by author

By Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai
Published: Dec 7, 2019

g_124685_shutterstock_615694784_bg_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

In the literary world, it has been a year of big, bold ambition. Novelists have stretched their canvases — writing a sentence that runs for a thousand pages; charting the fate of three families in Africa across four generations. Nonfiction writers have made riveting narrative from sprawling, difficult material: The Irish Troubles, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the history of the Lakota tribe. And memoirists have confronted harrowing and profound subjects: Life in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina; decades spent in solitary confinement; psychological abuse in intimate relationships. Below, The New York Times’ three daily book critics — Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai — share their thoughts about their favorites among the books they reviewed this year, each list alphabetical by author.

An annual note on methodology: The critics limit themselves in making these lists, each selecting only from those books they reviewed for The Times. — John Williams, Daily Books Editor



DWIGHT GARNER

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (Doubleday). The Irish writer Kevin Barry’s buoyant third novel is about Maurice and Charlie, former drug runners who lift from the page — they’re existentialist and twinkling thugs. Throughout this short novel they linger in the dismal all-night waiting room of a ferry terminal in the Spanish port city of Algeciras. They’re hoping to find Maurice’s estranged adult daughter, who may be passing through on her way to (or from) Tangier. This melancholy and comic novel works because Maurice and Charlie are such vivid company on the page. They’re a couple of battered and slightly sinister vaudevillians on a late-career mental walkabout.

‘The Yellow House’ by Sarah M. Broom (Grove Press). This forceful, rolling and many-chambered memoir, set largely on the outer margins of New Orleans, isn’t merely about Hurricane Katrina. But the storm and the way it scattered the author’s large family across America give this book its grease and gravitas. Broom was the youngest of 12 children. The yellow house of the title may be this book’s central character. It looked pleasant on the outside, but was in such disrepair inside that no guests were allowed in. Broom’s family felt a constant sense of shame. This book moves around the world as Broom takes jobs elsewhere, including Burundi. But it always returns to Louisiana. “New Orleans is a mood,” the author writes. So is this book.

‘Trust Exercise’ by Susan Choi (Henry Holt and Co.). Choi’s remarkable fifth novel, the winner of this year’s National Book Award, is about sophomore theater students in high school, their souls in flux. It’s about misplaced trust in adults, and about female friendships gone dangerously awry. In the end, it’s about cruelty. Satisfyingly, it’s also about revenge. At about this novel’s midpoint, Choi pulls the tablecloth from under her narrative and forces you to reassess, from a different angle, all that’s come before. The novel becomes a phosphorescent examination of sexual consent, especially when applied to student-teacher relationships. Late in the book there is a sense of final puzzle pieces snapping into place, of someone scooping up all the jacks before the second bounce.

‘Underland: A Deep Time Journey’ by Robert Macfarlane (W.W. Norton & Co.). Macfarlane’s book recounts a series of explorations under the surface of our planet. In England, he visits caves and studies fungi; in Paris, he goes into the catacombs. He considers sinkholes in the Slovenian highlands, nuclear waste in Finland and global warming in Greenland. There’s a bit of John Muir and John McPhee, patient writers and naturalists both, in Macfarlane’s work. There’s a bit of Geoff Dyer, of the critical wildcat, in him, too. There’s the prickling sense that a library door or a manhole cover or a forest path might lead you not just to the end of a chapter but to a drugs party or a rave.

‘Baby, I Don’t Care’ by Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books). This persuasive and blackly funny book of poems takes its tone and subject matter from old Hollywood movies, but the intensity of the attack is all Minnis’s. The speaker in “Baby, I Don’t Care” is a soignée gold-digger (“Baby, why don’t you give me an oil well or something?”) who toys with the lunk who keeps her in diamonds. He’s a side of beef into which she flicks verbal darts. “Baby, it’s so sexy to think. / Why don’t you try it?” she says. Across her five books of poems Minnis has marinated in the sort of feelings you don’t like to admit you have. She’s a bored, fierce, literate attendee at what the poet Frederick Seidel has referred to as “life’s cotillion.”

‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney (Hogarth). Rooney’s taut and psychologically intense second novel is about Marianne and Connell, teenagers when we first meet them, not yet flowers but small tight buds. At school, he’s popular and an athlete. She is offbeat and withdrawn and friendless. “Normal People” tracks them across four years. They are both gifted students and wind up at Trinity College in Dublin. They are never quite boyfriend and girlfriend in the conventional sense. They merely break each other’s hearts over and over again. There’s no sawdust, no filler in Rooney’s novel. Her intimate style can be reminiscent of Rachel Cusk’s. There aren’t dueling narrators or cat’s cradles of plotlines. You buy Rooney’s ticket, you take her ride.

‘The Old Drift’ by Namwali Serpell (Hogarth). “The Old Drift” is an intimate, brainy, gleaming epic, set mostly in what is now Zambia, the landlocked country in southern Africa. It closely tracks the fortunes of three families (black, white, brown) across four generations. The plot pivots gracefully from accounts of the region’s early white colonizers and despoilers through the worst years of the AIDS crisis. It pushes into the near future, proposing a world in which flocking bug-size microdrones are a) fantastically cool and b) put to chilling totalitarian purposes. Serpell seems to want to stuff the entire world into her novel — biology, race, subjugation, revolutionary politics, technology — but it retains a human scale. It is filled with love stories, greedy sex (“my heart twerks for you,” one character comments), pot smoke, comedy, inopportune menstruation, car crashes, tennis, and the scorching pleasure and pain of long hours in hair salons.

‘Lot: Stories’ by Bryan Washington (Riverhead Books). Washington’s subtle, dynamic and flexible short stories crack open a vibrant, polyglot side of Houston about which few outsiders are aware. His characters move through streets that he names so often — Richmond and Waugh, Rusk and Fairview — that they come to have talismanic power, like the street names in Springsteen songs. These stories take place amid dismal laundromats and broken-down pharmacies. There are turf wars and shootouts. Things happen near Dollar Tree stores or in Whataburger parking lots. The men and women here are extended hope only in homeopathic amounts. But there is a fair amount of joy in Washington’s stories, too. An underthrob of emotion beats inside them. He’s confident enough not to force the action. The stories feel loose, their cellular juices free to flow.

‘Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope’ by Albert Woodfox with Leslie George (Grove Press). For a crime he did not commit, Woodfox spent more than four decades in solitary confinement at Angola, the notorious maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana: 23 hours a day in a 6-by-9-foot cell. This powerful, closely observed memoir is the story of how he survived. He’d grown up poor in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood. He didn’t know his father. His mother, who could not read or write, sometimes prostituted herself to keep food on the table. He turned to crime young. What life did not give him, he was determined to take. The heart of “Solitary” is Woodfox’s decision to “take my pain and turn it into compassion, and not hate.” He read legal books and began to win lawsuits over cruel and unusual punishment. His memoir is strewn with words from others he read while in prison — Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass. He taught men to read. He organized umpteen hunger strikes. He made a difference in many men’s lives. This memoir could make a difference in yours.

‘Doxology’ by Nell Zink (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers). In terms of its author’s ability to throw dart after dart after dart into the center of your media-warped mind and soul, this is the novel of the year. It’s a ragged chunk of ecstatic cerebral-satirical intellection. It’s bliss. “Doxology” displays two generations of an American family. Pamela and Daniel, musicians and hipsters, are semi-clueless young people who move individually to New York City in the late 1980s. They might have dropped sideways, like bookmarks, out of a Jonathan Lethem novel. Later we also follow the life of their daughter. Zink writes as if the political madness of the last four decades had been laid on for her benefit as a novelist. Like a mosquito, she vectors in on the neck of our contemporary paranoia. She has got a feral appetite for news of our species, good and ill.



PARUL SEHGAL

‘Ducks, Newburyport’ by Lucy Ellmann (Biblioasis). Ellman’s novel — told mostly in one 426,000-word sentence that stretches over 1,000 pages — seems designed to thwart the timid or lazy reader but shouldn’t. Timid, lazy readers to the front! We are locked in the mind of an Ohio woman, a mother of four with a cutting power of observation, as her attention drifts from Jared Kushner’s investments in China to an earring she lost years ago, the death of her mother to the wet towels on the floor to news of ecological collapse. The book has its face pressed up against the pane of the present; its form mimics the way our minds move now, toggling between tabs and terrors.

‘Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power’ by Pekka Hamalainen (Yale University Press). Hamalainen’s is the first complete account of the Lakotas, the tribe of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse that long dominated the American interior and thwarted Western expansion with charm, shrewd diplomacy and sheer might. It is a story of America with the Lakotas as the protagonists, the first study to draw so comprehensively on their archives and a sharp critique of how the history of indigenous Americans has been told and sold.

‘Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval’ by Saidiya Hartman (W.W. Norton & Co.). Hartman’s book is a rich resurrection of a forgotten history: the revolution in intimate life at the cusp of the 20th century, led by young black women, two or three generations removed from slavery. They discovered city life in New York and Philadelphia and tossed out the narrow scripts they had been given. We meet communists and chorines, anonymous women gazing into shop windows, the anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells as a young woman. Hartman pushes past the social workers, psychologists and scandalized moralists standing in our way to reveal the women for the first time, individual and daring.

‘Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, Volumes 1 and 2’ by Uwe Johnson. Translated by Damion Searls. (New York Review Books). Johnson’s novel was first published in Germany, in four volumes between 1970 and 1983, and has now been translated into English in full, for the first time, by Damion Searls. The story takes the form of a yearlong diary by enigmatic Gesine Cresspahl, who was born in Germany the year Hitler came to power and has escaped to New York along with her young daughter. Gesine is a news obsessive; everything interests her, and the book seeks to be a comprehensive account of the ’60s, commenting on media coverage of Vietnam, housing segregation in Manhattan, the Prague Spring. At nearly 1,700 pages long, it is oceanic, and it is a masterpiece.

‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury). Levy’s noirish novels have long examined the wages of traditional femininity — “the exhausted phantom,” she has called it. Her latest, a brilliantly twisty story, looks at masculinity and its constraints through the character of Saul, a dandyish young scholar who travels to East Berlin in 1988 and begins to experience strange premonitions. As we begin to understand their source, and as Saul, a student of history, begins to fully understand his own, Levy explores the relationship between power, perception and self-delusion.

‘Where Reasons End’ by Yiyun Li (Random House). Li’s 16-year-old son killed himself in 2017, and her devastating new book imagines a dialogue between a mother and her teenager lost to suicide. The narrator searches for the language to understand her son’s actions without condemnation or cliché; she wants only to keep their conversation going, she wants only to stay with him a moment more. “We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words,” she writes. “Where else can we meet but in stories now?”

‘Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli (Alfred A. Knopf). Luiselli’s novel follows a narrator who travels to the southern border with her family to search for the missing undocumented daughters of a friend. The book revisits questions that have long preoccupied Luiselli — how can language be an agent of both violence and repair? — but this time, they are nested into a story with a heart-stopping climax. The novel truly becomes novel again in her hands: electric, elastic, alluring, new. And the story of the migrant, she believes, insists upon a new form: How else to tell a story that has no end?

‘In the Dream House: A Memoir’ by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press). In a form-shattering memoir, Machado recounts her abusive relationship with another woman by borrowing from dozens of genres. Each chapter is told in a different style: road trip, romance novel, stoner comedy. She recollects the terror she experienced and the painful silence that attended it, the societal silences surrounding emotional and psychological abuse, and violence in queer relationships. Able to find only a few histories that might explain her own, she creates a library in miniature with this book, which explores a long-invisible story in every conceivable genre, a living archive of her own design.

‘No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us’ by Rachel Louise Snyder (Bloomsbury). Domestic violence cuts across lines of class, race and religion. A United Nations report in 2018 put it starkly: The most dangerous place for a woman is her own home. Snyder takes apart the myths that surround domestic violence, many of which she herself once believed, embedding analysis and actionable steps in deeply reported case studies. She is a virtuosic writer who brings life and fullness to each woman and each family she depicts. I read her book as if possessed, stopping for nothing, feeling the pulse beat in my brain.

‘Women Talking’ by Miriam Toews (Bloomsbury). In 2005, Mennonite women living in a colony in Bolivia reported waking up bleeding with frayed rope around their wrists. The elders dismissed their complaints until it was discovered that men from the community had been creeping through windows at night, sedating and raping the women. Toews sets her philosophical, innovative novel over the course of two days as women gather in a hayloft and debate what to do. Forgive? Fight back? Flee? They begin to question the nature of knowledge and of community, memory and rehabilitation as they discuss how to form a new society, salvage their religion and live with their pasts.



JENNIFER SZALAI

‘American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump’ by Tim Alberta (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers). Alberta, a political correspondent for the conservative magazine National Review before moving to Politico, brings more than a decade of reporting on the Republican Party and a real understanding of the conservative movement to his first book. This isn’t just another drop in the deluge of Trump books; in fact, it isn’t really a Trump book at all. Instead it’s a fascinating look at a Republican Party that initially scoffed at the incursion of a philandering reality-TV star with zero political experience and now readily accommodates him.

‘The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care’ by Anne Boyer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Boyer’s extraordinary and furious book is partly a memoir of her illness, diagnosed five years ago; she was 41 when she learned that the lump in her breast was triple-negative cancer, one of the deadliest kinds. But her story, told with searing specificity, is just one narrative thread in a book that reflects on the possibility — or necessity — of finding common cause in individual suffering.

‘What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance’ by Carolyn Forché (Penguin Press). In 1977, a mysterious stranger showed up on Forché’s doorstep in Southern California; he introduced himself as a coffee farmer from El Salvador, and within a few days he had persuaded her to make her first trip to his country, just as it was on the verge of civil war. Until the publication of this memoir, Forché’s experiences in El Salvador — seven “extended stays” between 1978 and 1980 — had mostly stayed distilled in her poetry. She alludes to the political context in this new book, but the shape of her stunning memoir hews closely to what she herself saw and heard.

‘Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter’ by Kerri K. Greenidge (Liveright). William Monroe Trotter, who edited the Boston-based black weekly newspaper The Guardian in the first three decades of the 20th century, shows up in the biographies of contemporaries like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois as a gadfly: radical, outspoken and indefatigable. Greenidge’s account of Trotter’s life is ardent and mostly approving but nevertheless conveys the more vexing elements of his personality. She opens up a rich seam of inquiry that persists to this day, about the tug-of-war between reformers and radicals, and whether victories that seem purely symbolic at first can ripple out into real-world effects later on.

‘Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster’ by Adam Higginbotham (Simon & Schuster). In his chilling book about Chernobyl, Higginbotham shows how an almost fanatical compulsion for secrecy among the Soviet Union’s governing elite was part of what made the reactor explosion of 1986 not just cataclysmic but so likely in the first place. He reconstructs the disaster from the ground up, recounting the prelude to it as well as its aftermath. The result is superb, enthralling and necessarily terrifying.

‘How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States’ by Daniel Immerwahr (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Critics of American foreign policy have long accused the country of imperialism in a general sense — of meddling and bullying, starting wars and inciting coups — but Immerwahr wants to draw attention to actual territory, to those islands and archipelagos, like the Philippines and Puerto Rico, too often sidelined in the mainland imagination. He shows that “territorial empire” hasn’t been just an aberration but an inextricable part of the country’s fabric, woven throughout. To call this standout book a corrective would make it sound earnest and dutiful, when in fact it is wry, readable and often astonishing.

‘Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’ by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday). Keefe’s narrative account of the Troubles is an architectural feat, expertly constructed out of complex and contentious material, arranged and balanced just so. His sensitive and judicious book raises some unsettling, and perhaps unanswerable, questions. Does moving forward from an anguished past require some sort of revisitation and reckoning? Or are certain memories so perilous that they’re better left buried and ignored?

‘Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation’ by Andrew Marantz (Viking). Marantz writes about “web-savvy bigots,” “soft-brained conspiracists” and “mere grifters or opportunists,” but this book is also about his searching attempt to understand people he describes as truly deplorable without letting his moral compass get wrecked. He himself is an essential part of this narrative, as he tries to understand how a Darwinian information environment has degraded to the point where it now selects for people who can command the most attention with the fewest scruples. This is a book that’s trenchant and intelligent; wry but not glib; humane but never indulgent.

‘The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century’ by Thant Myint-U (W.W. Norton & Co.). Writing about Burma, Thant Myint-U’s focus is on convulsions of the last 15 years, from a seemingly unshakable military dictatorship to the beginnings of democratic rule. But examining the legacy of the country’s colonial past is crucial to grasping what’s happened more recently — including a brutal military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority and consequent accusations of genocide, all under the watch of the former human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Thant Myint-U writes clearly about such vexing subjects as ethnicity, capitalism and ecological disaster; this is a book with a humane sensibility and a delicate yet pointed touch.

‘The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation’ by Brenda Wineapple (Random House). Wineapple’s depiction of President Andrew Johnson is so vivid and perceptive that his standoff with Congress arrives with a doomed inevitability. He had been goading legislators with his accelerating attempts to rule by decree, daring them to “go ahead” and impeach him — which the House voted to do in 1868 by an overwhelming majority. The relevance of this riveting book is clear enough.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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