Best fiction I read in 2019

Far and away, I read a lot of incredible nonfiction in 2019. The stories and novels did not hold my attention as much this year, which I could blame on the baby, perhaps. Postpartum, I was so hungry for information (even non-baby-related information) that I was not able to focus much on stories. That said, these were the 10 best works of fiction I read this year.

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1. History, Elsa Morante

I’m perpetually interested in the favorite authors of my favorite authors. Elena Ferrante repeatedly cites Elsa Morante as one of her chief influences, so one of my reading goals of 2019 was to find and read a Morante novel. Her work is not widely translated in English, and many of her novels that were translated are out of print. I asked our lovely local bookstore to order me a copy of History, Morante’s sprawling novel about a Jewish woman on the outskirts of Rome during and after World War II.

History traces the dark and darkly humorous life story of Ida Mancuso, a widowed teacher who discovers that she’s Jewish. After a young German soldier rapes and impregnates her, she gives birth to an unusual and remarkable little boy — whose survival becomes Ida’s passion.

It is absolutely unreal, as a novel, unlike any other historical fiction I’ve ever encountered. Morante writes with force and tireless energy, and her characters are everlasting types, simultaneously and paradoxically embodying both the universal and specific beauty of the human condition. Would rave about it all day long if you let me. (Get a copy)

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2. Selected Stories, Nadine Gordimer

Marvelously composed, startling short stories. I took my sweet time with this collection; Gordimer’s incisive, insightful prose invites such a slow, pleasurable reading. Deep and far-ranging, this collection was the perfect introduction to her brilliant narrative mind. (Get a copy)

Across the Bridge

3. Across the Bridge, Mavis Gallant

In the bleak streets of Montréal, we find Mavis Gallant and her remarkable characters. Beautiful, strange, complex, matchless. (Get a copy)

The Emigrants

4. The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald

Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.

I read a good deal of this aloud to my newborn son while nursing; I dare say the strangely plain and strangely moving paragraphs soothed us both. (Get a copy)

Honored Guest

5. Honored Guest, Joy Williams

Death, dogs, and dreams! What’s not to love? (Get a copy)

Image result for escapes joy williams

6. Escapes, Joy Williams

Admittedly, I’m not sure I can distinguish between this one and Honored Guest, but if I read Joy Williams in any given year, she will definitely be in my top 10. (Get a copy)

Vertigo

7. Vertigo, W.G. Sebald

Lovely, and unlike anything else (except other Sebald). I liked it perhaps a bit less than his other novels, but it was still beautiful and thought-provoking. Made me want to go walk all day through an old European city. (Get a copy)

The House of the Spirits

8. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende

Allende has such an expansive imagination, and that is what primarily makes this novel sing. I followed along happily (with a few small narrative reservations) as she spun this complicated family history in Chile. The characters are memorably complex and unusual, which is always a favorite combination of traits. I did not love the blips of first-person narration from Esteban Trueba, cutting into the majority third-person omniscient narrator. Even though the end makes that choice a bit more sensible, it was distracting to me. Only a small complaint. (Get a copy)

Two Lives and a Dream

9. Two Lives and a Dream, Marguerite Yourcenar

Not my favorite Yourcenar (can anything compare to Memoirs of Hadrian?), but it is still an outstanding set of three little novels, because she is a genius. Her particular gift for inhabiting the psyches of historical figures is preserved here with a straightforward sense of joy and clarity. (Get a copy)

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

10. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.

So many beautiful passages and lines, as to be expected! But it is a rather exhausting reading experience. I wanted a break from all the lushness and metaphor, just a bit of reprieve! I always want to tell poets who write longer fiction, “It’s OK: Every sentence does not have to be a poem. Sometimes it is good to have plain, hardworking sentences.” Even still, it is fun to dive in with this, especially if you can treat it like a very long prose poem, which I was admittedly unable to do. (Get a copy)

Up next: Best nonfiction I read in 2019.

Best fiction I read in 2018

Transcendent short story collections and novels by non-Americans led the way for me in 2018.

In Transit

1: In Transit, Mavis Gallant

Unreal. I found myself utterly enamored with these gorgeously rendered stories. Each story stands alone, wholly independent from its predecessors, and Mavis Gallant manages this effortless style, creating characters that are at once entirely like us and fully alien. I’m ashamed that this was the first time I had read her, and I’m now committed to consuming everything else she published. (Amazon)

Ninety-Nine Stories of God

2: Ninety-Nine Stories of God, Joy Williams

The brilliant, incandescent, strange, and illuminating Joy Williams tries her hand at microfiction, and the results are perfectly odd and wonderfully thought-provoking. (If you love Lydia Davis, as I do, you’ll love this collection, which can be read in a few hours.) It is almost not fiction; it is so close to prose poetry that these tiny stories demand several readings.

(Yes, the cover has four German shepherds on it; no, that’s not the only reason I loved it.) (Amazon)

A Heart So White

3: A Heart So White, Javier Marías

Dreamy and beautiful in all the right ways. A Heart So White is an exploration of memory and all the secrets we try to keep from those closest to us. Marías has a delightful, rambling, Proustian style, which I imagine the translator took pains to preserve (as he worked with Marías to finalize this), and although it sometimes makes the mind wander, it’s a deep pleasure all the way through. Looking forward to reading more from him. (Amazon)

Thérèse Desqueyroux

4: Thérèse Desqueyroux, François Mauriac

I felt totally astonished by this novel. Thérèse is such a voracious antihero, an absolute treasure to encounter on the page. I promise you haven’t met anyone else quite like her. (Amazon)

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

 

5: Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Jorge Luis Borges

There is some nonfiction in here, but it’s the stories that really stick with you. This collection made me realize, perhaps more than this other work, that Borges really was one of a kind. His intellect is astounding; his passion for history, literature, philosophy, metaphysics is boundless. I do not think I am intelligent enough to have grasped everything here, but I loved the experience, from start to finish. (Amazon)

Spring Snow

6: Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima

I was caught completely off-guard by the beauty of this novel, tracking Japan at the turn of the century, when Japanese tradition is breached by Western influences. I had read Mishima before, but I didn’t know he could be like this. It’s a lovely, fluid translation from Michael Gallagher, which often seems so hard to achieve when Japanese migrates to English, but this translation preserves so much stylistic facility and power.

The fraught friendship (laced with some desire) between Honda and Kiyoaki, and the latter’s fateful passion for Satoko, are deeply memorable, as well as the wealth of visual images and metaphor that strike the mind so powerfully. Overwhelmed by this, in a thoroughly pleasing way, and I finished it quite excited to complete the rest of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. (Amazon)

Midnight's Children

7: Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

I read this novel for the second time this year, for my book club, and it was thoroughly delightful and mesmerizing to encounter again. Rushdie handles the madness of this narrative with ease. It’s also just a lot of fun, which I don’t think gets mentioned enough when this hefty novel is discussed. (Amazon)

Collected Stories

8: Collected Stories of William Faulkner

So many stories! So many finely spun narratives from one of the very best America ever had. (Amazon)

Florida

9: Florida, Lauren Groff

Pervasively ominous, beautifully written stories that deal with snakes and storms and (often) the travails of motherhood and marriage. I harbor no fondness for Florida, and this collection underscores much of what I dislike and distrust about the state, but the swampy oppressiveness of the land contributes to the magic of this collection. (Amazon)

King, Queen, Knave

10: King, Queen, Knave, Vladimir Nabokov

I rely on a yearly dose of Nabokov for a stylistic pick-me-up, a requisite lyrical jolt. This novel is particularly fun and tightly focused. It is neither ambitious nor serious, and I think this is why I enjoyed it so much. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector
  2. The Night in Question, Tobias Wolff
  3. The Church of Solitude, Grazia Deledda
  4. The Perfect Nanny, Leïla Slimani
  5. The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
  6. Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
  7. White People, Allan Gurganus

Previously: The best poetry and the best nonfiction I read in 2018.

The earth soaks up the sun

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View from Castello Aragonese in Ischia (May 2018).

Mavis Gallant is my latest obsession. (Dear friends had a beautiful baby girl yesterday, whom they named Mavis, and the name feels especially precious right now.) Gallant was a French-Canadian short story writer, and I feel simultaneously alarmed and elated that I had never read her until now. This is always such a pleasurable feeling, to discover a brilliant writer, after decades of reading, whom no one you know has ever told you about. (Anne Carson, I suppose, cannot count as someone I know.) She feels like a private discovery even though I am extremely late to the party.

Here is how Gallant starts her immaculate short story The Wedding Ring:

“On my windowsill is a pack of cards, a bell, a dog’s brush, a book about a girl named Jewel who is a Christian Scientist and won’t let anyone take her temperature, and a white jug holding field flowers. The water in the jug has evaporated; the sand-and-amber flowers seem made of paper. The weather bulletin for the day can be one of several: No sun. A high arched yellow sky. Or, creamy clouds, stillness. Long motionless grass. The earth soaks up the sun. or, the sky is higher than it ever will seem again, and the sun far away and small.”

Her prose has this unbelievably effortless quality to it, and the stories unfold in this strange yet natural way. I have been devouring them at breakfast. I feel a strong urge to buy everything she’s ever done.

. . .

A friend, with her bright-eyed baby on her hip, passed me in church after the service and said, as an opening salvo, “Summer is the best time to be alive.” I lit up, agreed, said something vapid about the food and the heat. I love conversations that start in this way, with a statement instead of a predictable question. And I felt the imperative truth of what she said. If we do not eat the earth’s bounty every night, if we do not walk every morning, the season will pass us by and soon we will descend into the darkness of winter. This is the blessedness and urgency of summer.

. . .

Life is very short and yet happy. My houseplants are suffering. I have had them for many years and just this season, they seem to be waning away, after years of moderate health and growth. The bird’s nest fern hanging over the armchair was so happy in that spot for a year, and now it looks burned and angry. The fiddle-leaf fig just keeps growing taller and taller and has no strength and keeps flopping over, weeping with its large leaves that I perpetually neglect to dust. I need to re-pot the six-year-old jade plants, growing in odd ways out of the cracked yellow urns, but I am lazy. I look at them and think about this every other day: You need my help and I am lazy.

. . .

“I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me,
He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none.” — Emily Dickinson