This year has brought a bumper crop of fabulous fiction and nonfiction to my door. The UPS delivery van and mail truck each stop in front of my house nearly every day, delivering the books that fill every available (and unavailable) space in my house. In order to keep up, I read between two and six books per week, depending on their length. I cannot review them all, and as the end of the year approached, I realized there were a number of books I had loved yet been unable to review. I didn’t want to neglect them, so here’s a selection of some of the best books I read this year, but never got the chance to praise publicly.
Fans of the existentialists—writers such as Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir—will find much to love in this novel by Sabahattin Ali (1907-1948), a dissident Turkish writer who was killed at the border of Turkey while attempting to leave a country that jailed him repeatedly for his writings. Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe have translated the book into English for the first time, a chance to read this entrancing story.
I’ve taken it for granted my entire life that we know what the earth looks like from space, but it rocks me back on my heels to realize that until the first Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts went into space, beginning in the late 1950s, no one had ever really seen it. Having grown up with such an advantage, it strikes
me as an even more remarkable achievement that mapmakers were able to produce reasonable models of what comprised our globe.
Malachy Tallack’s book (gorgeously illustrated by Katie Scott) offers an atlas of the islands that have been revealed to be mythical, providing a history that asks us to consider what it means when people believe that “there once existed a land,” or that a magical land can be found if someone knows the right place to look. Whether he’s relating the tale of Saint Brendan, who set out to discover the “holiest” of isles, or Plato, who invented Atlantis as an allegory and set off centuries of explorers looking for its traces, Tallack provides answers to questions that I didn’t know I didn’t know.
Under a Pole Star is the story of the men and women who raced against one another to be the first non-Inuit person to reach the North Pole. Rich with period detail and with a clear-eyed understanding of what underlies the mania for exploration, Penney provides readers with a chance to see these oft-told tales through a new perspective: Flora Mackie, the daughter of a whaler, who has been struck by the same desires as many men of her time. Readers looking for a winter escape should add this to their lists.
A book I had no idea I needed to read, Rankine’s Brolliology is a cultural history of that humble item, the umbrella. Did you know, for example, that all of the actions of the play My Fair Lady are set in motion because of an accident with an umbrella? Or that umbrellas were designed to protect the pharaohs from the
sun? Or that a man carrying an umbrella became sign of political weakness after Neville Chamberlain signed the infamous Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler? Of course, the umbrella has a different set of meanings in Japanese iconography, and Rankine provides a world history of the brolly and its appearances in art, literature, and popular culture.
When seemingly healthy children suddenly change, history shows that it’s not uncommon for people to come up with irrational reasons to explain the unexplainable. Whether it’s the Anti-Vax movement blaming vaccines for autism (without evidence), or people back in the Middle Ages blaming witches for the death of infants, kids becoming ill seems contra nature. Based on a true nineteenth century court case in the Irish countryside, The Good People combines folklore, religious tensions, and village social structure to construct a fascinating world.
A family retreats to the northern Yorkshire woods, withdrawing from the world after the death of the children’s mother. There, they learn to build their own shelter, hunt, and gather their own foods. All is peaceful until the intrusion of a property owner who disputes their claim to the land. Beautiful writing animates a tale that begins as a pastoral family saga and then turns dark.
It is hard not to look at the history of Europe in the 1930s and the struggle between democracy between fascism and democracy in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Hungary—among others—and see parallels to current political struggles. While Italy and Germany passed relatively peacefully into their governments, the struggle for Spain resulted in a civil war that drew fighters from all over the globe as the war served as a proxy fight for other governments. Many Americans went to Spain to fight Francisco Franco’s fascists. In There Your Heart Lies, Mary Gordon weaves the story of a young woman’s idealism amidst the realities of a brutal war.
Camille T. Dungy
A woman traveling alone is still seen as a provocation; a woman traveling along with a small child is an anomaly bound to invite comments from strangers. Camille T. Dungy’s account of the period she spent traveling with her small daughter becomes a reflection on the experiences of black women who challenge the status quo. Dungy is also a marvelous writer, and her observations of the writing life—the joys that creativity inspire—are a delight to read. Part travelogue, part writing notebook, part mothering journal, Guidebook to Relative Strangers contains much for many readers.
Many male writers have written about their relationships with their fathers, but a new generation of women memoirists are revealing how their fathers shaped their lives. In Vanasco’s account, the death of her father sends her on a perilous journey of the psyche, struggling both with his loss but also her quest to know who she was. Her father had another daughter who had died, and she, too, had been named “Jeanne.” Unpacking the meanings of her name, her identity, and how to live without her father makes for a fascinating, poignant story that will speak to many readers.
Tarot decks are believed by some to hold clues about a person’s future. Turn the cards a certain way, and future loves, future successes or failures can be seen by the gifted reader. In Womack’s entertaining novel, Semele, an appraiser for an auction house, finds evidence of a tarot deck that may have survived the burning down of the Library of Alexandria in 48 BCE. The items in that library have been seen as one of the greatest losses of cultural material—so the idea that items may have survived sets off a chain of events that makes Womack’s novel a fast-paced, exciting read.
Federico García Lorca
The works of Federico Garcia Lorca were banned in his native Spain after the fascists came to power. The poet
was assassinated by Franco’s Falange soldiers, and his death still hangs over Spain. In new translations by
Sarah Arvio, Lorca’s poems blaze to life. It is reassuring to know that long after the fall of Spain’s fascists, Lorca’s poems have survived their attempts to eradicate them, and their power can be accessed in this lovely
Val McDermid’s mystery series featuring profiler Tony Hill and Inspector Carol Jordan is remarkable for a number of reasons. The mysteries at the heart of them are gritty, allowing McDermid to interrogate the various ways that misogyny manifests itself in society. While many authors are able to write compelling mysteries, few have been able to capture the magic of the working partnership between Hill and Jordan: both characters are fully fleshed, complex human beings with flaws that interfere in their personal and working relationships. In Insidious Intent, McDermid once again confronts the issues of violence against women to offer a mystery that makes readers think.
A Killing on Bay Street
The killing of Eric Garner on the streets of Staten Island in front of a camera that caught his last words—“I can’t breathe”—should have been a slam-dunk when the charges came before the criminal justice system. But as Matt Taibbi demonstrates in this meticulously researched account, the fact that Garner, a black man with a criminal record, was killed by a white police officer meant his murder would become a media circus—one in which certain New York politicians seemed more concerned about protecting the reputation of the police department than finding justice for the Garner family. An important book that provides a close look at how policies such as “Broken Windows” have created issues which their originators did not anticipate.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Professor Gates updates a book originally published in 1934: Joel A. Rogers’ 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof: A Short Cut to the World History of the Negro, a book that sought to restore black people to the history they’d been written out of. In Gates’ capable hands, the premise of the original book is updated for a modern audience. Each of the “100 facts” presents a true story (for example, about the role of black troops at Gettysburg), raising questions about how the inclusion of black history in school curricula may change American attitudes. Whether reading for a broader understanding of American history, or to bone up for bar trivia challenges, Gates’ book will provide hours of information and entertainment for its readers.
A real-life ghost story: Regina McBride was eighteen when the ghosts of her parents came to her, both having committed suicide within a few months of one another. McBride was left alone and devastated in the world. How could she separate the longings of her imagination from visions that made her feel on the verge of madness? While the topic is daunting, McBride handles it with grace, making her recovery from the shattering aloneness into a compelling tale.