The Booksellers’ Year in Reading:
We Asked the Best Readers We Know What Books
Stayed With Them This Year
This part two of our year-end series wherein we ask booksellers to tell us about the highlights of their year in reading. Head over here to read part one.
Justin Walls, Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing
The noise pollution has got to stop. Sure, a certain amount of noise is necessary, without question. Righteous calls for equality, justice, and compassion in opposition to the adenoidal drone of ruling class bloodsuckers is a net positive. On the other hand, there’s the sustained racket (a key word here) produced by, say, the corporate publishing sphere, a many-headed monstrosity seemingly motivated by little more than—and I do hope you’re sitting down—craven self-interest. It gives me no pleasure to report that the Big Five remain enamored with platforming the preening weasels and jettisoned toadies of a grift-rich plutocracy, that is, when they aren’t too busy genuflecting before an all-encompassing moral failure masquerading as an online shopping hub. Perhaps this particular strain of monotonous dreck could stand to be dialed down a skosh, is all I’m saying.
In a dubious effort to reduce some of that clang and clatter over the span of 2019, I took the liberty of installing what is among the boggiest of bog standard programs at my bookstore: a book of the month. The “Pick Du Mois,” a translation-focused and independent-minded reading series, launched this past January with a few provisos attached. As conceived, the Du Mois would serve as a sort of supercharged staff pick, aiming to highlight a dozen unique publishers, translators, and countries of origin over a single calendar year—recent publications only, no repeats in any category. A form of, if not exactly slow bookselling, slower bookselling, at least. The overall intent was to narrow the aperture while also avoiding tunnel vision, forcing tough calls, and creating the need for strategic foresight.
For instance, the Argentina Problem: the Du Mois selection for March was Andrea Labinger’s translation of Guillermo Saccomanno’s 77 (Open Letter), an astonishing and occult-tinged novel of Argentina’s Dirty War. Well-deserved, but that took powerhouse Argentina off the board for the remaining balance of the year, which meant that there was no room for Maria Gainza’s kaleidoscopic Optic Nerve (Catapult), translated by Thomas Bunstead. It meant sacrificing the knotty erudition of Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations (Soho Press), translated by Roy Kesey. It meant bidding adieu to Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste (Graywolf Press), translated by Chris Andrews, and Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (Charco Press), translated by Sara Moses and Carolina Orloff. Those are all eminently Du Mois-worthy works but, while I understood that redeeming the Argentina token so early in the game was likely to cause heartache, 77 was just the book for its moment.
A surplus of exemplary titles which, for whatever reason, got squeezed out of canonical inclusion were always at the ready. From the bubblegum weirdness of Dorota Masłowska’s Honey, I Killed the Cats (Deep Vellum), translated by Benjamin Paloff, to the haunted trajectories of Ananda Devi’s The Living Days (Feminist Press), translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, to the strychnine-spiked tres leches cake that is Lina Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers (And Other Stories), translated by Saskia Vogel, I was consistently spoiled for choice. An envious position to be in, though this only made the standard for recognition more rigorous, the respective merits of each book falling under even greater scrutiny, as the year went on.
So, what constitutes a Du Mois designation? There’s no hard and fast criteria, indebted as the entire venture is to the whims of taste, though trepidation seems to play an integral role. If a book causes me to flinch, either because it may be too demanding, like Daša Drndić’s EEG (New Directions), translated by Celia Hawkesworth, or too explicit, like Bjørn Rasmussen’s The Skin Is the Elastic Covering That Encases the Entire Body (Two Lines Press), translated by Martin Aitken, or too overwhelmingly offensive, like Benedek Totth’s Dead Heat (Biblioasis), translated by Ildikó Noémi Nagy, then that’s a fairly good indication I’m on the right track. When Rita Indiana’s genre-busting Tentacle (And Other Stories), translated by Achy Obejas, made me squirm with unease, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. Ma Jian’s China Dream (Counterpoint Press), translated by Flora Drew, was a thrilling collision of sense and memory, sex and politics, that lodged itself permanently into my brain. Then there’s Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s incongruous Animalia (Grove Press), translated by Frank Wynne, a book that solidified its spot through a bracing blend of the unpalatable and the divine. A modicum of discomfort should be a baseline where literature worth fighting for is concerned, after all.
Admittedly, a couple snags were hit along the way. There was the case of the Du Mois selection for July, T Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through (Coffee House Press), a multi-discipline inferno of ideas written in the English language. Obviously, selecting an untranslated work would dash any prospect I had of attaining the coveted “Triple Dozen.” (Again, that’s twelve publishers, translators, and countries of origin. No overlap allowed.) Nevertheless, I was compelled to break protocol. Faith in the process, and a little ass-saving serendipity, ultimately remedied this issue when I found what would eventually become the September selection, Juan José Millás’s wonderfully odd From the Shadows (Bellevue Literary Press), which sports the combined translation efforts of Thomas Bunstead (who, keep in mind, would have rendered this selection null and void had the aforementioned Optic Nerve made the cut earlier in the cycle) and Daniel Hahn. Two-for-one. Yes, that’s allowed.
I haven’t even mentioned the existence of the “Double Du Mois,” a break-in-case-of-emergency bylaw which has yet to be utilized. There’s also the option of appointing an “Interim Du Mois,” as needed. If all this sounds somewhat arbitrary, that’s because it is. An obtuse set of mutable strictures governed by the insular logic of a single persnickety bookseller? Granted, a righteous call to action this ain’t. Instead, the Pick Du Mois is bookselling-as-Calvinball and right now that too feels like a necessary noise.
The full 2019 Picks Du Mois:
January: The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers (Uruguay), translated by Kit Maude and published by the Feminist Press
February: Tentacle by Rita Indiana (Dominican Republic), translated by Achy Obejas and published by And Other Stories
March: 77 by Guillermo Saccomanno (Argentina), translated by Andrea Labinger and published by Open Letter
April: Good Will Come From the Sea by Christos Ikonomou (Greece), translated by Karen Emmerich and published by Archipelago
May: EEG by Daša Drndić (Croatia), translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by New Directions
June: China Dream by Ma Jian (China), translated by Flora Drew and published by Counterpoint Press
July: Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann (USA), published by Coffee House Press
August: The Skin is the Elastic Covering That Encases the Entire Body by Bjørn Rasmussen (Denmark), translated by Martin Aitken and published by Two Lines Press
September: From the Shadows by Juan José Millás (Spain), translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, published by Bellevue Literary Press
October: Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo (France), translated by Frank Wynne and published by Grove Press
November: Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth (Norway), translated by Charlotte Barslund and published by Verso Fiction
December: Dead Heat by Benedek Totth (Hungary), translated by Ildikó Noémi Nagy and published by Biblioasis
Justin Walls is a bookseller with Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon and a member of the 2020 Best Translated Book Award jury. Find him on Twitter @jaawlfins.
Lucy Kogler, Talking Leaves Books
2019 started as every year since I can remember started—by reading Emily Dickinson. I randomly open to a poem and continue in the volume from that place. Poetry is, as Robert Duncan wrote, “groundwork,” essential to the promise of my having a good new year. Once this ritual is completed, I can read other things.
Most likely the first book read was Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander. As always, wonderfully ironic, intensely subtle (oxymoron?), funny and brutally intelligent. He is one of our best writers. Or the first book could have been The Parisian by Isabella Hammad, from whom I am patiently waiting for the sequel to this fascinating historical novel.
Following Englander and Hammad was The Heavens by Sandra Newman: fascinating and disturbing—while fantasy—I think that many experience the dissociative drive that augments and/or supplants the life one is living.
From this point what was read when becomes conjecture.
Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth and Underland by Robert McFarlane devastated and educated—each taking my breath away for disparate reasons.
At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life by Fenton Johnson (not yet published) lead me to reread Walden by Thoreau. Forty years or so after having first read it, I found it funnier than I remembered. So many of his most quoted lines were toss-offs. The fact of his racist commitment to the ideology of his time was something I had not remembered as being so stark.
The Crying Book by Heather Christle—creative and intelligent, made me feel less of a blubbering mess of a person. Solitary by Albert Woodfox devastated and enlightened in a most humane way. A journey I will never experience, but one that made me even more aware of just how fucked-up and racist our penal system is.
Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas led me back to Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, ed. by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird, a wonderful anthology of Native American Women’s Writing published in 1998.
Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison because his work is a staple of my reading. Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernandez and John Freeman’s Dictionary of the Undoing. I have been carrying around the galley for the just published Black Mountain Poems: An Anthology edited by Jonathan C. Creasy for a while. Reading these poems is like a stroll down memory lane. I was lucky to have known or seen read many of the poets. Should there have been more Denise Levertov, Hilda Morley and Joel Oppenheimer? Well, it’s just one woman’s opinion.
Finally, Our House is on Fire: Greta Thurnberg’s Call to Save the Planet by the inimitable Jeanette Winter. Children’s picture books are an essential part of what I read. No other format combines often beautiful art with a concise narrative in the way that a picture book does. I believe them to be the first line in politicizing children: visually educating them at the same time as exposing them to stories from everywhere.
Lucy Kogler is a bookseller at Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, NY.
Matt Keliher, Subtext Bookstore
It was an enjoyable and productive reading year for me, and my list reflects an effort to be more balanced in my reading choices. I found my way to books of poetry that were moving and inspiring, books of nonfiction that challenged me to rethink my cultural presuppositions, and novels that expanded and enriched my worldview.
Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro was a favorite poetry collection this year. She has a poem in this collection titled “Matt” that definitely is not written about me but it felt like it was written at me, and I loved it. Jericho Brown’s The Tradition was a collection that challenged me as a reader of poems, and his Duplex series is nothing short of incredible. I listened on Libro.fm, a digital audiobook program that supports independent bookstores, to Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster and it was cool because listening to poets read their own words is sublime and this was like going to one of his readings except the audiobook didn’t have an answer to my question about his thoughts on Andrew Wiggins’ howling resurgence.
Speaking of books by Hanif Abdurraqib, I also read his Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, which was a spectacular ode to a band, and a favorite book of the year me and Hanif is one of my favorite writers working today. Staying with nonfiction, there were three books that I read in quick succession that all seemed to play with each other very nicely in my mind. They were Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. All three represented new and thought-provoking cultural challenges that I enjoyed grappling with. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Anti-Racist was the book that I learned the most from, and it is in my opinion absolutely necessary that everyone read this book.
The book that moved me most this year was Naja Marie Aidt’s When Death Takes Something From You Give it Back, translated by Denise Newman. If you need a good cry, or, perhaps, more importantly, need help making meaning out of crushing grief, this is the book I’d put in your hand. And a final, fun nonfiction book I read this year was a local history called Closing Time by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant that collects the stories and mysteries of some of the Twin Cities’ oldest pubs; a great whiskey-and-a-read-before-bed book.
My favorite novel of the year was without question Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive and I felt personally wronged that it did not get the award attention I thought it deserved. It begins with an honest and beautiful portrayal of a family that involves a child farting, which we need more of in literary fiction, and ends with this 20-page breathless sentence, all the while depicting our world with intense accuracy. It’s just brilliant.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman was the book I spent the most time with this year, and for good reason. Clocking in at around a 1,000 pages and only a single sentence, this was probably one of the most challenging and rewarding and downright incredible reading experiences I have ever had, and I don’t think I would be the only bookseller to tell you that this is a book that will be talked about for a very long time. Indescribable and wonderful.
Johannes Anyuru’s They Will Drown in Their Mother’s Tears, translated by Saskia Vogel, reminded of a previous book I loved, Omar El-Akkad’s American War, in that he portrayed the interiority of someone making the conscious decision to undertake an act of terrorism and did so with such talent and empathy and gripping action. I loved it.
Other novels I read and loved this year: Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead, Space Invaders by Nona Fernandez, translated by Natasha Wimmer, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell.
And finally, two books that fit outside these standard parameters: I read, and loved, the Watchmen graphic novel because that show is incredible and having read the novel enriched watching the show in every single way. I cannot recommend this enough: if you like the show, read the book! And a children’s book that I loved and gave to my niece and nephews this year is A Map Into the World by Kao Kalia Yang.
Matt Keliher is the manager and book buyer at Subtext Bookstore in St. Paul Minnesota where he has worked for the past six years. He can be found on Twitter @MAKeliher.
Christopher Phipps, City Lights
This year, one of my favorite writers died. Gene Wolfe passed away in April of 2019. He was 87, so some part of me was not surprised. But I still wasn’t ready for it. In fact, I was traveling and missed the news until a few weeks later. I remember clearly the pang of sadness, sharp and brief like a needle drawn through a piece of cloth.
I never met Mr. Wolfe at a reading or signing, never sent him a letter to tell him how much his books have meant to me (something I now regret), but through his books I felt that special connection readers and authors share. With his death, I revisited two of them, the unique and utterly amazing feat of self-deception that is Shadow & Claw and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, an intricate triptych that garnered his first critical acclaim. When I was in college, Shadow literally changed genre reading for me. But Fifth Head I didn’t pick up until a few years ago and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t wowed the way I had expected. Galvanized by his passing, I determined to give it another try, and perhaps it was the combination of mourning and homage, of being a little older and more widely read, but this time I realized how masterful it actually is. In a letter once, Wolfe defined his idea of a good book as “One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.”
For this Year in Reading essay, I considered what else in 2019 would constitute a good book per Wolfe’s definition, and while I haven’t yet actually reread any of these, they are the ones that have lingered with me the most, the ones I want to engage with again in the future.
In fiction, The Silk Road by Kathryn Davis (Graywolf) left me in a state of pleasurable mystification. Reaching the last line, I knew only that I had no clue what had just happened. Likely, another dip into that strange tale of siblings on a journey (maybe?) won’t clarify much more than the first time, but I’m looking forward to another go.
Conversely, the short stories in The Scent of Buenos Aires by Hebe Uhart (Archipelago, translated by Maureen Shaughnessy) require no effort at understanding. They are provincial delights tinged with loneliness that produce an ineffable and strange magic. Already, I’ve re-read a couple of the stories just for the smiles they bring. This will be a well-worn, dog-eared favorite in no time.
Of course, shorter works are easiest to imagine revisiting, and a perfect little gem is The Black Forest by Valérie Mréjen (Deep Vellum, translated by Katie Shireen Assef), a macabre novella, portraying capricious and inevitable Death, yet managing somehow a tenderness in its depictions of mortal demises.
In fact, I realized in the compilation of this list many of the books that most resonated with me dealt with themes of death and trauma, which is no surprise for they have cast their long and unwelcome shadows over this year. And nothing quite hit home like Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (Transit Books), a stark and probing examination of the way trauma shapes the lives around it. Reading it, I understood my own pain a little better, if most simply for the acknowledgement that every response to trauma is unique.
Then there was the superb The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda (City Lights), an elegy to his grandfather, moving between personal grief and historical trauma. It reminded me of Sebald, an effect enhanced by the haunting black and white photos interspersed throughout.
On this matter of historical trauma, a trio of novels have stuck with me: the encyclopedic and obsessive EEG. by Daša Drndić, (New Directions, translated by Celia Hawkesworth); the meta-fictional Human Matter by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (University of Texas Press, translated by Eduardo Aparicio); and the quiet but powerful The Teacher by Michal Ben Naftali (Open Letter, coming in January 2020, translated by Daniella Zamir). In their own ways, each explored trauma as cultural inheritance, as buried secrets to be excavated.
In order not to end on such a grim note however, I have saved the best for last. Two books this year achieved the rare feat of eliciting pure joy in the reading experience. Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind by Lyall Watson was filled with astonishing facts and beautiful writing and was undoubtedly the book that most made me interrupt my wife with a listen-to-this! moment. Sharks, Death, Surfers by Melissa McCarthy (Sternberg Press) was a quickly devoured exercise in linkages. Playfully, McCarthy’s nimble mind ranged from Jaws to Chappaquiddick, Captain Cook to surf photography, sharks to book cover design. Both of these books were fun, which is something I so rarely look for that I’m always surprised to encounter it.
As a bookseller, I am surrounded by wonderful books, and it is always a challenge to remember even all of the good ones. Permit me to quickly mention The Alley of Fireflies & Other Stories by Raymond Roussel (Song Cave, translated by Mark Ford), On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera (Two Lines, coming in May 2020, translated by Christina MacSweeney), and The Queen’s Caprice by Jean Echenoz (The New Press, translated by Linda Coverdale).
To Mr. Wolfe I wish to say, Thank you. See you under the New Sun.
Christopher Phipps has been a bookseller in the Bay Area for many years. He is currently a manager at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.
Rachel Pisani, Queen Books
Not to brag, but I crushed my reading goal for this year. Ok, I’m bragging a little. I resolved to read 45 books in 2019 and will probably round out the year at 56. A lot of the titles I’ve read this year were mostly picked from the pile of galleys that accumulates behind the cash counter, sent to us from lovely publishers to give us a head’s up on what is coming down the pipe.
I started January with What if This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky. What a perfect reminder that no resolution can paper over the existential dread that drives our era. The essays were a salve on my under-achieving millennial soul, a warm recognition that the feeling of inadequacy is inseparable from being human. After that, it was time to delve into Ottessa Moshfegh’s world again. McGlue hit me in the head as I spun through it in the laundromat and made me feel like I had a brain injury. Eileen both grossed me out and inspired me somehow. Later in the year I absorbed her forthcoming Death in Her Hands (April 2020) and was just in awe. It reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s spooky style with Moshfegh’s character skill.
Like so many Canadians, I fled February’s frozen polar hellscape for a two-star all-inclusive in Veradero, Cuba. I ignored most enticements to party, curling up instead on a broken lounge chair with The Pisces by Amy Broder. It’s the myth of the siren but reversed: a mix of Twilight and Mrs. Caliban. I will never forgive what happens to the dog. Ever. The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño brought me back into the warm dreamscape of his 1960s Mexico City and the poetry scene he introduced first in Savage Detectives. A Bolaño fan since my early twenties, I may have tattooed a not-insignificant slab of my left arm to proselytize forever Bolaño’s unparalleled worldmaking.
Back in Canada spring came, and I felt restless. My reading for this season can be described as young, dumb and f*cked. Juliet the Maniac by Juliet Escoria ruined me, and I stupidly chased it with Cherry by Nico Walker just in case I wasn’t feeling beat down enough. These books are raw portrayals of adolescence and were maybe too real for me, which might tell you something about my own teenage years. I moved into a whingey-millennial phase with Sally Rooney’s two books about emotionally repressed Irish teenagers. Rooney’s prose is clear to the point of sparse but deservedly celebrated for being gut-wrenching also. Conversations with Friends was lighter than Normal People, whose two characters I wanted to reach through the page and slap into adulthood.
About once a year I go through a phase of hating on technology and lamenting what it has done to the consciousness of myself and everyone I love. So I picked up a number of books in the hope that confirming this would also inspire some obvious fix. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, How to Disappear by Akiko Busch, and How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell all offered great advice, most consistently that there is no way of abandoning a world mediated by machine learning without abandoning society at the same time. How to Do Nothing was the absolute stand out, with heady philosophical insight that resonated long after with me and my friends.
Finally, summer came and with it a blur of fiction. Bunny by Mona Awad was like Heathers but with a literary cult and blood magic. Marcy Dermansky’s Very Nice was a Nora Ephron movie about rich white-people with hilarious problems. The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg grabbed me from the first page. I devoured it and it still hasn’t let me go. The Man Who Saw Everything was both dreamy and paranoid, erotic and amnesiac. And of course, what kind of millennial would I be without Jia “the voice of her generation” Tolentino’s, Trick Mirror (she hates being called that). It was a poignant, challenge to sit with the uncertainty of our world. And here I sit.
Lastly, I would let myself down if I didn’t mention true crime. I’ve been leading the true crime Book Club at Queen Books for over a year now. In short, the best of the twelve we read: Chaos by Tom O’Neill, The Grim Sleeper by Christine Pelisek, Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga, American Predator by Maureen Callahan and Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell.
And there you have it. Congratulations for making it through 2019 and may all the reading gods bless you in 2020.
Rachel is a librarian, bookseller and literary publicity assistant. She sells books at Queen Books in Toronto, Ontario. She lives with her partner and mutt in downtown Toronto. She lurks on Twitter @burningbooks2 and sometimes posts on Instagram @truedeceiver. Queen Books is an independent, female-owned bookstore in Toronto’s Leslieville neighborhood. We’re a general interest bookstore, but emphasize exceptional backlist titles, under-represented authors and children’s books. All our social media is @QueenBooksTO
Rachel Cass, Harvard Book Store
This has been a strange year in my reading life. I read some new books that I truly loved by authors I’m thrilled to champion to our customers, I embarked on a backlist reading project to escape from the constant cycle of advance copies that fill my office, and I went through the longest reading drought I’ve had in several years.
The very first book I read this year was Furious Hours by newly minted New Yorker staff writer Casey Cep. It follows the case of the Reverend Willie Maxwell, who was accused of murdering several family members for insurance payouts, and it follows the later life of Harper Lee, who tried to write her second book about Maxwell’s case. The story would be sensational in any writer’s hands, but Cep weaves the stories with such skill and tenderness that the result is a masterful portrait of a region, a community, and an American literary era. I couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson is told in the space of a young black girl’s Sweet Sixteen party, as she and her family reflect on the many small moments that brought them to that day. It is a novel about how the past is always with us. It lives on in our families, in the stories we tell, in the lessons we teach, in the hopes we have for our children’s futures. It sparkles in individual moments, as parents watch their children age before their eyes and adults recall the choices they made and those left aside.
It felt like The Weil Conjectures by Karen Olsson was written just for me. Olsson studied mathematics at Harvard before becoming a novelist and editor; I started a graduate program in mathematics before leaving to become a full-time bookseller. She felt like a kindred spirit. Her somewhat speculative biographical sketch of siblings Simone and Andre Weil is also part memoir of her time in mathematics and the continuing pull of its beauty, and a philosophical meditation on intellectualism.
Wake, Siren by Nina MacLaughlin started when she was rereading Ovid’s Metamorphoses and decided to rewrite one of the myths from the woman’s perspective. The exercise turned into a full-on project and the result is a stunning, emotional, cathartic adaptation of some of our oldest stories. Like Furious Hours, it’s a book that has stayed with me and that I have worked into countless conversations in the months since I first read it.
Around my birthday in August, I decided to spend the next year focusing more on backlist reading than frontlist, because as a bookseller it’s so easy to get caught up in the marketing buzz of new galleys and blurb requests from publicists and to lose any deliberation in my reading process. My goals were to expand my canon, catch up on recent prizewinners, and generally fill holes in my reading history. But I’m expecting my second baby in April, and just as my backlist reading project was getting started, so was the morning sickness portion of my pregnancy. For almost two months I read hardly anything, and got really down about how little I was able to accomplish from day to day. As I was coming out of it, I turned to Becoming by Michelle Obama, because I admire her values, her family, and her honesty about the struggle required to make a marriage and family work. Hearing her voice in my head was a welcome balm in a really difficult period in my year.
Once I was finally reading again, I needed something light and fun to get me back in the groove. Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia had been described to me as The Westing Game for adults, but set in Boston, so it was the perfect comeback book. A wealthy eccentric with an extensive collection of occult artifacts dies and sends a city on a treasure hunt to claim his fortune. It would be fun reading for anyone who loves a puzzle, but is the perfect literary confection for a Bostonian.
With a baby coming in April, I have no idea what my reading year will look like in 2020, but I have no shortage of books on my pile, both old and new, that I’m looking forward to.
Rachel Cass is the Buying & Inventory Manager for Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA.
Shuchi Saraswat, Brookline Booksmith
For most of this past year, we lived in a house we rented from a friend in Boston. A whole house—a luxury to us, more space than we had ever had to live in. The house included a spare room, long and narrow and lined with windows, just big enough for a bed and desk. We used it as our reading room, as this year, we quickly realized, would be my year of reading. From the reading room, I could see the attic apartment across the street where my partner used to live with his children. Out the window, I could see the door I used to arrive at after a steep uphill walk, where, in winter, swords of icicles hung from the eaves. The windows now dark, we couldn’t make out if anyone had moved in and that allowed me to imagine all of us, still there together—his children, him and I—sprawled on layers of rugs, watching a movie.
What is reading if not a way of being in two places and two times, at once?
From the bed in that room, that previous life in sight out the window, I read many of the books submitted for this year’s National Book Award in Translated Literature; I read, too, books by the authors who would be speaking at the Transnational Literature Series, an author events series I run at the bookstore where I work; and I read books for fun, meaning books that I would not need to assess or judge or introduce, stories I could just be in, be with. In that reading room I was with Naja Marie Aidt in her grief, listening to Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. I had my mind blown by the power, poetry, and ferocious energy of Inger Christensen’s IT. I was in the audience as Baron Wenckheim takes the stage and doesn’t recognize the middle-aged woman his childhood sweetheart has become. I was on a pesco fueled road-trip with three friends in search of a corpse, and in an apartment complex in South Korea. While my partner was making breakfast I read him a profile of man in Brazil who eats glass. In this year of reading, I read in the car, while eating, while lying down on my side, back, my stomach. I read aloud to my dog while she snored. In Quebec City on vacation, I was up early, on a pig farm in rural France finding out that soon everyone must leave for a world war. My feet in the sand on a Cape Cod beach, I was with an elderly woman in an English town living a solitary life, making sculptures, fingers gnarled and in pain. On a park bench down the street from the bookstore, during my lunch break, I finished a novel in which objects and beings suddenly disappear, and I sat and held the book for a while, just holding it, feeling its edges and weight.
Stories spilled from their pages and into my days, a welcome trespass. For me reading has always been about peeling back the layers, getting under the surface of life, closer to its beating heart. A year in reading, a year of reading. Reading as a kind of living.
Shuchi Saraswat is a bookseller and director of the Transnational Literature Series at Brookline Booksmith.
Simon Armstrong, Tate Modern and Tate Britain gallery bookstores
In the ongoing quest to find out what the hell is happening, the book that resonated with me most this year, and one prompting the most underlining and note-taking was Living In A World That Can’t Be Fixed: Reimagining Counter-Culture Today by Curtis White (Melville House). It has helped me see the primacy, influence and power that artists, writers and cultural workers can hold over business and politics, giving me great hope in the general gloom.
Following on from that, the wonderful Steal as Much as You Can by Nathalie Olah (Repeater Books) also informs and re-assures. Among many other insights, Olah breaks down feelings like imposter syndrome, the idea that we have to be like them or we aren’t welcome, and shows how the system is rigged. We all need more self-belief and creative confidence in 2020. On that: Smashing It: Working Class Artists on Life, Art and Making it Happen (Saqi Books) edited by Sabrina Mahfouz has also been instructive and motivating.
I’d missed The Mushroom at The End of The World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (Princeton University Press) until a bookseller from Foyles on Charing Cross Road put me onto it in the Summer this year. It’s about Matsutake, the most sought after and valuable mushroom in the world, its remarkable qualities and its ability to cohabit and exist in unlikely and inhospitable places, and what this can teach us about how we might all survive in the future. Donna Haraway is a fan, and Haraway also wrote an introduction to The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula Le Guin (Ignota)—an excellent short essay which brings culture back from the cosmos to the hearth.
Inhospitable locations are also the subject of The Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archive (Isola Press). A fascinating collection of stories, hand drawn maps and photographs documenting the oldest off-road cycling club who ride up mountain ranges, across Icelandic plains, and lots of other places around the world where bikes don’t belong.
Photo and art books I’ve loved this year include Jack Davidson’s Photographs (Loose Joints) and Remembering the Future by Albaran Cabera (Editions RM) which are both perfect examples of “book as artwork”; glorious photographs, carefully designed and printed. Congregation by Sophie Green (Loose Joints) is simple and beautiful too, delicate photographs of worshippers at Aladura spiritualist African churches based around Southwark in South London. All Good Things by Stephen Ellcock (September Publishing) is majestic, a joyous visual trip into the esoteric, occult and mystical edge-lands of art. Buddahs in the Palm of Your Hand (Pie Books) is a neat little book about nenji-butsu, the seventh-century pocket-sized Buddhist devotional icons carved from sandalwood that the faithful could carry around with them. Each tiny statue has a poem alongside it, creating a very simple and soothing book.
After reading Raising a Forest by Thibaud Herem (Cicada Books) last year, I’ve developed a fascination with trees, so I’ve been reading all about them while also planting different species in pots in my front yard. The long-term plan is to plant trees all around the city. There have been loads of books about trees in the past year, but I particularly enjoyed Sylvan Cities—An Urban Tree Guide by Helen Babbs (Atlantic Books). And in those city trees, there’s the curious increase in the number of wild parakeets! One of the most fun reads this year was The Parakeeting of London—An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology by Nick Hunt (Paradise Road) which explores the rapid rise of the parakeet population in London.
Novels: Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Fitzcarraldo Editions), The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton), This Brutal House by Niven Govinden (Dialogue Books), Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth (Verso), Kitchen Curse by Eka Kurniawan (Verso)—all were all extremely rewarding and reminders that fiction has that unique effect, it puts you in another psychic space altogether, a place we would all benefit from spending much more time it. Special mention too for Seasonal Associate by Heike Geissler (Semiotexte), a novel based on her experience as a Christmas temp at an Amazon fulfilment Centre in Leipzig, which descends into a nightmare tale of humiliation and precarity—an essential book for our time.
Children’s books both I and my children have enjoyed: The Fate of Fausto by Oliver Jeffers (Harper Collins) and My Little Small by Ulf Stark (Enchanted Lion),
Apart from reading, or perhaps in order to read more, it’s important to remember to eat. The food book I’ve really got into this year is Mandalay by MiMi Aye (Bloomsbury Absolute), which is an insightful trip into traditional Burmese cooking. Along with some amazing recipes, including the incredible rainbow pickle, I also learned that the myth about MSG being bad is a racist construct, and that the Burmese greet each other not by saying hello, but by asking if you have already eaten.
Simon Armstrong is the book buyer for Tate Modern & Tate Britain gallery stores in London. His latest book Art Essentials: Street Art was published this year by Thames & Hudson. For book and art updates, follow him on Instagram at @simonthebooks and on Twitter @simonthebookman
Christopher Soriano-Palma, Barnes and Noble
Since 2015, I have an annual challenge where I try to read 50 books each year, using my Goodreads account to keep score. That year, I reached 31 books. In 2016, I managed to beat my goal and read 53. In 2017, I read 48 books. And last year, I read 42. This year, I only managed to read 26. To be fair, this was a year of transition for me. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my dream in becoming a writer. I became a bookseller at Barnes and Noble. And I have begun to pursue projects in the film industry. But despite all those changes, I never stopped reading. Or at least, I tried to read using what little time I had to give myself the luxury. I try my best never to forget about reading.
At the same time, I have become more conscious of what and who I read. Since last year, I had made an effort to read more POC, womxn, and QTPOC writers, which is a trend I continued this year and am going to continue the next as well. (I also intend, as a bookseller, to sell more of those authors; I am constantly ordering those books for the store). Thus, here are some books by non-white authors I read and enjoyed.
For poetry, I only managed to read three books, but they were all by debut poets. Mother Tongue Apologize by Preeti Vangani (Rlfpa Editions) is a powerful collection of poems celebrating the author’s mother while also tackling heavy themes of loss, body image, family, sex, politics, and cancer. Similarly, Dominicana Americana by Krizia Isamar Bruno (Ofrendas Press) also deals a lot with family, though this one tends to move towards the theme of cultural binaries, where the poet relates to her struggle of identifying more as American or Dominican. The last poetry collection, This is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album by Alan Chazaro (Black Lawrence Press), explores masculinity, colonialism, gentrification, and is essentially an ode to Oakland and other settings that have shaped the poet’s experiences. All three collections made a deep impression on me, making me want to write my own poetry.
As for fiction, my primary genre, I absolutely loved what I read this year, starting with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Anchor Books). I have heard every polarizing opinion on this novel, but I am in the I-love-it camp. Everything about this book was amazing to me and Jude St. Francis will be a name that will remain with me forever.
Next was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Riverhead Books). This was one of the most difficult books I read this year. It took me so long to get used to the slang in the novel. But what an incredible ride it was. This was followed by Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Knopf), which I thought was a great novel about the child refugee crisis which also managed to touch some indigenous history. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Mariner Books) was by far my favorite short story collection this year. Stories that dealt with Black Lives Matter, retail, and sometimes some surrealism? What’s not to love? I also read Roberto Bolaño’s The Return (New Directions), which is also a collection of short stories. Reading Bolaño’s short fiction sometimes makes me think that was his best form of writing.
Other fiction titles included Penguin Highway by Tomihiko Morimi (Yen on). Oddly enough, it’s listed as a manga in our store because it was adapted into an anime film in 2018. I’ve yet to see the film, but the book was a phenomenal story about a fourth grader trying to solve the mystery of why a group of penguins suddenly appear in his hometown. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Ember) also left a strong impression on me, a story about a young Mexican American girl who is often and unfairly compared to her recently deceased older sister. As a Mexican American myself, I strongly identified with its themes of immigration, cultural assimilation, and generational distance.
The last fiction book I enjoyed this year (and tied with A Little Life for my absolute favorite) is On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press). I was already familiar with Vuong from his poetry, and he did not disappoint with his debut novel. There’s something about poets when they choose to write prose, whether that be fiction or nonfiction, that is just magnificent and shows their mastery of the language(s) they employ. This is the kind of book I am jealous to have not written, but it’s also the book that makes me want to write and write better than I ever have.
Oddly enough, I want to end with a self-published memoir called Finding Home by Jackie Gronlund. It’s a story about the author’s experience in moving seven times since the age of nineteen. It’s a powerful story that deals with sexual assault, trauma, mental illness, and more. This is not Gronlund’s first book, and I certainly hope it’s not her last either.
Of course, I want to read more before the decade is over. I hope to start at least one more novel before the end of the year, though time may not allow me to finish it until early January 2020. Still, this was the decade that made me a reader (I did not take reading seriously until 2009), and 2019, though I read less than normal, gave me a wonderful time. I hope to read more in the future and inspire more customers to read as well.
Christopher Soriano is a writer and bookseller living in Los Angeles. He is the fiction editor for Watermelanin Mag, an online journal championing the works of POC authors, and a creative director for For All Media Productions. He is currently at work on his first novel and works at Barnes and Noble in Studio City, CA.
Angela Maria Spring, Duende District Bookstore
When I walked into 2019, it was already a season of transformation. I was four months pregnant and on the cusp of a cross-country move, taking both my tiny unborn boy and my tiny mobile bookstore with me. I had just left the first-trimester exhaustion and nonstop nausea, and somehow powered through the holiday retail season with a handful of pop-ups (which is grueling, physically exhausting work even when not pregnant). I still had to pack up my two-bedroom Washington, DC, before getting in our car for the thousand-mile trip to Albuquerque, me and my husband’s beloved hometown.
To say that I didn’t have a lot of energy for reading would be a gross understatement. I already had leftover reading fatigue from spending 2018 judging the Kirkus Fiction Prize. And for a career bookseller, one whose boutique bookstore business hinges on specialized curation, it was a frightening prospect to not be able to emotionally face reading serious fiction and nonfiction for the first time.
However, one book pulled me out of my slump and also answered many of my desperate questions that any normal 37-year-old woman pregnant for the first time wants to know—namely, what the heck is happening to my body? I kept Googling questions about why, exactly and kept coming up with nothing. I didn’t want to read a bunch of pregnancy books, I could find all the general information online and I didn’t need anyone’s judgment on how I chose to face my upcoming motherhood. I finally stumbled across Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, by Angela Garbes. Not only was this book, part-memoir, part-scientific journey for Garbes, brilliantly written and stocked full of things I wanted to know (my blood turns to milk!), but Garbes is one of the extremely few women of color to write a book on pregnancy.
With that, I was able to swing back into a semblance of my usual routine and the next book I devoured was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, which won the National Book Award. Coincidentally, my next book after that was Kali Farajdo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina (on the NABA’s fiction short list), and was my favorite book of 2019.
The year continued to unfold into a powerful one for books by women of color that I could not put down, from The Stubborn Archivist, by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, to My Time Among the Whites by Jennine Capó Crucet. I was utterly delighted with young adult novel Don’t Date Rosa Santos, by Nina Moreno, and laughed my way through the ever-hilarious Ali Wong’s Dear Girls.
As all booksellers should, I’m ending 2019 reading for the future, and 2020 looks even brighter. I can’t wait for my customers to lay hands on Julia Alvarez’s Afterlife, Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death In Her Hands.
And I’ve found that my transformation, as a mother and a bookseller, is still in full force, as it should be.
Elayna Trucker, Napa Bookmine
The Three Plagues of Christmas
I am obsessed with The Plague. Bubonic, pneumonic, Plague with a capital P. I’m a medievalist by schooling, and the plague pops up a lot. There is no escaping it—hacking, vomiting, blistering black buboes, quarantines, death death DEATH. You think your teenage daughter is goth? Let me tell you a bit about medieval art and the literal millions of skeletons, skulls, grim reapers, angels of death, and the walking dead there are. Fully one third of Europe’s population died in the throes of the Plague within the span of just a few years. If you fly over certain forests in Central Europe with an infrared camera, you’ll find the grown over remains of villages that were entirely wiped off the map when every single person living in them perished. There is no overstating the horror of living through the Black Death and the impact it had on every aspect of society and culture when it finally released its grip on the human population.
In the spirit of the season and with the hope that this is not the most tenuous listicle you’ve ever perused, I present to you a selection of books I read this year helpfully divided by their theme-plague.
The Plague of Modernity
Russia. Our old antagonist looms large on our maps and in our news cycle, but we rarely get a glimpse into the lives of people actually living there. Author Lydia Fitzpatrick unpeels the veil of this enigmatic country to show us the brutality of the post-Soviet landscape. Lights All Night Long (Penguin Press) is enough of a mystery to keep you reading late into the night, but the real treat is Fitzpatrick’s keen eye to emotional and geographic detail and a profound understanding of Russia’s recent history.
The Zambia of Namwali Serpell’s debut novel The Old Drift (Hogarth Press) is so evocative you can practically smell the cooking in the air and feel the sweat roll down your back. A generational saga unlike any other, the plot is sprawling yet tightly woven. Hints of magical realism provide a mythic quality, with a dash of science fiction at the end ensuring that this stunning work defies genre. Technology here plays the roll of both liberator and prison warden.
Hollow Kingdom (Grand Central Publishing) by Kira Jane Buxton is the story of the zombie apocalypse as told from the perspective of a domesticated crow named Shit Turd, and really, need I say more?
Maria Dahvana Headly says: we have failed our veterans. She says: we have failed our mothers and our children. We have failed our ancestors and our land. In The Mere Wife (MCD), who is the monster? Grendel? Grendel’s mother? Or the man who seeks to kill them?
The Plague of American Capitalism
Guatemala, if we hear about it at all, is not known to be a happy place. Kelly Kerney’s research into the irreparable harm American interests have done to this once stable nation informs her excellently crafted novel Hard Red Spring (Penguin Press). Four women at different times find themselves in Guatemala and the book slowly unravels the horror of what happened to the Guatemalan people, of what American companies, churches, and politicians did to them. This is what good fiction does: teaches you about the world in a way that sometimes real life fails to.
Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (Doubleday Books) is, depressingly, based on the true story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida. The young men sent to the school for “reform” are subject to degradation and abuse, thus ensuring their role in the cycle of violence. Whitehead shows that removing a person’s personhood, stripping them of their dignity, does not create meek men; it mostly creates monsters, and the ones who manage to avoid that fate are few and far between.
Find March 24th, 2020 in your wall calendar/day planner/Google calendar/Blueberry notes/scratch marks on your wall: That’s the day Enter the Aardvark (Little Brown) by Jessica Anthony comes out. This books is batshit insane and I love it. What do a closeted gay Republican congressman who’s obsessed with Ronald Reagan have in common with a taxidermist in 19th-century England? Answer: an aardvark. And also much more, but I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself.
The Actual, Literal Plague
Please do yourself a favor: don’t ever pet a squirrel. Particularly if you live in a Western state. Sure, they’re kinda cute and they have those fluffy little tails, but they also might carry the plague. Yes, the actual, literal plague. To learn about how that happened, you’ll have to read David K. Randall’s exceptionally narrated history, Black Death at the Golden Gate (W.W. Norton) of how the plague came to San Francisco at the beginning of the 20th century and nearly caused a massive epidemic due to governmental inaction, institutionalized racism, and stonewalling by local media. It’s a medical mystery, it’s a page turner, IT’S THE PLAGUE!!
Elayna Trucker is the lead buyer, operations manager, and events coordinator of Napa Bookmine, which has three stores in Napa County.
Part three in this series will appear Monday, December 30th.