Writing (and reading, for that matter) is often a way of taking stock—making sense of life’s tangled plotlines and inconclusive endings. And while many of the year’s best books blew apart storytelling conventions, they also pieced together a clearer picture of painful and confusing moments, both national and personal.
Carmen Maria Machado told the wrenching story of her experience in an abusive relationship, while Daša Drndić paid tribute to people whose histories were obliterated by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Namwali Serpell wrote a novel that careened across time to show how Zambia’s colonial past may shape its future. Susan Choi’s characters reconsidered their formative high-school experiences in a novel that tumbled through multiple perspectives.
Ted Gioia gave readers an entirely new way to look at how music evolved. And Jane Alison created a taxonomy of literature that on first glance resists categorization. As the year draws to a close, we are taking stock of the recent books we’ve admired most. Here are just some of the fiction and nonfiction works that stood out to Atlantic writers and editors in 2019.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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What We’re Reading
❖ Mostly Dead Things, by Kristen Arnett
“In its exigency and sometimes-gruesome specificity, Mostly Dead Things mirrors the work of its protagonist, Jessa-Lynn Morton, a taxidermist who must run the family business after her father dies by suicide.”
❖ The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell
“The Old Drift … is, in some measure, all of the following: historical epic, surrealist adventure, interpersonal (and interspecies) study, dystopian warning, anthropological commentary. It is also … a story that grips the reader from its first pages.”
❖ Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry
“Short runic paragraphs, mad images, bursts of almost-poetry, profligate (but artful) swearing … And underneath it all … a drug-smuggling love story.”
❖ Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi
“Set at a high school for the arts, the book homes in on the drama students Sarah and David, who compete in the cutthroat world of theater while falling in and out of love. But Choi then turns the narrative on its head, multiple times.”
❖ The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner
“All of [the characters’] stories consider, in a sense, the way men simply won’t shut up: They talk and talk to dominate their surroundings, and if that doesn’t work they yell, and if that doesn’t work either they try violence.”
❖ Lot, by Bryan Washington
“The son of a Latino father and black mother, Lot’s protagonist learns early that he likes boys—and that this renders him vulnerable. His arc is at times heartbreaking, but Washington writes with a tenderness that grants even the most difficult moments a level of grace.”
❖ Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe
“By framing his narrative around human stories—like Jean McConville, the mother of 10 who was taken from her home in 1972, never to return—Keefe makes the atrocities committed [in Northern Ireland] more comprehensible.”
❖ Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli
“Luiselli mixes genres and perspectives, the personal and the political, as she tracks a dissolving marriage and disappearing children.”
❖ EEG, by Daša Drndić
“The Croatian writer Daša Drndić’s final novel begins after a failed suicide attempt. Andreas Ban, a retired psychologist and EEG’s fiery narrator, has survived, but he has not escaped death—it consumes him.”
❖ Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo
“As Lisa Taddeo writes about her subjects, the women she uses to map out an anthropological, humane, passionate study of female desire, she seems almost to inhabit them.”
❖ In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado
“The memoir is the rare blend of criticism and personal history that demonstrates the disorienting effects of a trauma, while also building a language with which to understand that devastation.”
❖ She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
“She Said … reads at some moments as a thriller, and at others as an indictment of a system full of rot. But it is ultimately about the women, bonded in their pain, who refused to be silent any longer.”
❖ Meander, Spiral, Explode, by Jane Alison
“Meander, Spiral, Explode is a playful, insightful taxonomy of narratives that, while seeming to defy categorization, in fact take their innovative structures from patterns found in nature: fractals, cells, wavelets, and more.”
❖ Music: A Subversive History, by Ted Gioia
“Ted Gioia’s survey of an art form in perpetual rebellion [reveals how] across millennia, sonically adventurous courtesans, slaves, monks, gang members, and other marginalized folks offended polite society before conquering it.”
❖ Wrote for Luck: Selected Lyrics, by Shaun Ryder
“Ryder was the shambling imagist at the front of Manchester’s Happy Mondays, a band whose demented underclass disco—like the Jonas Brothers crossed with the Butthole Surfers—was one of the soundtracks of ’90s Britain.”
The Reference Desk
Write to the Books Briefing team at email@example.com or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.