The Top 12 List of the Best Fiction I Have Read in 2019

Now that you have all been overstuffed by the glut of ‘Best of Year’ lists of late, I am here to offer you the list of my twelve favorite fiction reads of 2019.

This year I did things a little differently. In other years I have limited my favorite reads to include only fictions written since 2000, because I did not want the vulnerable new works to be overshadowed by old classics that I chose to read or re-read. However this year the older works which I most enjoyed are quite obscure and I do wish to highlight them so I am including them in my Top 12 list. As always the works are arranged in most favorite to 12th most favorite order.

‘Arturo’s Island’ by Elsa Morante (1957) – It is a beautifully written moving one-of-a-kind novel. Although there are clues that ‘Arturo’s Island’ takes place after World War II, the story seems to occur outside of time in a place of legend, of myth. Elsa Morante has captured an isolated world on this remote island of Procida and she brings back meanings that apply to us all. I won’t forget this one.

‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ by Marie-Claire Blais (1966) – Here is an original spirited black humor novel about family life on the farm. The novel does to the farm family what Joseph Heller did to World War II in Catch-22. No writer makes outrageous fun of farm families anymore. I suppose why this novel struck such a chord with me is that it brought back memories of my own childhood and teenage days on the farm, but the novel is great anyway. Take my word for it.

‘All for Nothing’ by Walter Kempowski (2006) – All For Nothing’ is a magnificent atmospheric novel of the last months of World War II from the point of view of the East Prussian Von Globig family, Their estate is peaceful at the start, but they can hear the distant shelling of the Russian infantry advancing farther and farther into Germany. The near-rural setting is almost idyllic but the tension builds gradually as the shelling gets louder and closer each day. The question is: When should they evacuate?

The Long Take’ by Robin Robertson (2018) – ‘The Long Take’ is a narrative poem with evocative imagery that captures both the horrors of war as well as the crazed free spirit of Los Angeles after the war. Alongside the skid rows and the seedy sections of Los Angeles, the movie makers are filming the classic noir movies: ‘Night and the City’, ‘He Walked by Night’, ‘The Big Combo’, etc., etc.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (2019) – ‘Night Boat to Tangier’ is the story of two fading Irish gangsters, best friends, in their early fifties, Maurice and Charlie. Charlie has a severe limp; Maurice has lost one of his eyes. Maurice and Charlie started dealing dope in high school. I fully expect this one will be a movie soon.

 

 

‘Disappearing Earth’ by Julia Phillips (2019) – Two young girls disappear on the remote Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. Julia Phillips totally captures the spirit and the emotions of these people in this remote place so that this reader felt they could be living next door to him.

 

 

 

‘A Different Drummer’ by William Melvin Kelley (1962) – Here is a major rediscovery, a novel that has been totally neglected for decades. It is written in the open magnanimous humorous spirit of Mark Twain.

 

 

 

 

Normal People’ by Sally Rooney (2019) – In short declarative sentences, Sally Rooney gets the reader to care about these two Irish high school seniors, Marianne and Connell, who break up only to make up time and time again. Marianne is the smartest person in school but has no friends; Connell is a very popular star of the football team.

 

 

‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout (2019) – Olive Kitteridge of the small town of Crosby, Maine is getting old but she is still a lively character who gets around town. She remarries at age 70. Having an old person near the center of your stories means you can deal with both life and death in them.

 

 

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne (2018) – A Ladder to the Sky’ is a captivating jaunty thriller about wicked literary politics. Our sole resourceful villain is one Maurice Swift, a man of limited talent who will stop at nothing to write a prize-winning literary novel. The hardest task for the talent-less is coming up with those succeeding novels after that first success.

 

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk (2009) – This is a novel about an old woman who has a love and passion for justice for animals, even the smallest creatures. She absolutely detests the killing of animals, especially by hunters. I can think of no other novel in which the main character’s reaction to events is so fierce and sharp.

 

‘The Tartar Steppe’ by Dino Buzzati (1940) – ‘The Tartar Steppe’ follows the life of a young soldier in such a clear and precise manner that it is as though it were etched in stone rather than written. It is about a soldier’s life, but its theme of time passing is universal. Life happened while we were waiting, and the years and decades went by before we knew it.

 

Happy Reading !

 

 

‘Mad Shadows’ by Marie-Claire Blais – A Fractured Fairy Tale

 

‘Mad Shadows’ by Marie-Claire Blais (1959) – 123 pages Translated from the French by Merloyd Lawrence

After reading ‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’, I wanted to read more, more, more fiction by Marie-Claire Blais, so now I have read ‘Mad Shadows’. ‘Mad Shadows’ was her first novel and was published in Canada when Blais was only 19 years old.

‘Mad Shadows’ is a gruesome cruel family story about a mother and her two children. It has the simple stark intensity of a fairy tale.

After the death of her husband, the mother Louise was left with her two children. She is proud and devoted to the point of obsession with her beautiful younger boy Patrice.

His mother caressed the nape of his neck with the palm of her hand. With a gentle slip of her all-too-supple wrist she could lower Patrice’s head to her bosom and hear his breathing more easily.”

However the mother considers her daughter Isabelle-Marie who is three years older than the boy to be ugly and not worthy of any attention at all.

Louise’s hand clutched the frail shoulder. Her nails pierced the skin. All her contempt for her daughter spurted like pus from her skin.”

The mother sends the daughter out to work in the fields while the mother dallies in the house with the boy. The daughter believes herself to be ugly and is insanely jealous of her brother.

There are two other characters in this cruel fairy tale of a novel. The mother Louise goes off for a short vacation and brings back this guy Lanz who she marries and who temporarily displaces her son for her attentions.

Later daughter Isabelle-Marie meets and marries the blind young man Michael who she thinks loves her as long as he cannot see her.

As in ‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’, some readers might find ‘Mad Shadows’ too extreme, too over-the-top, for their tastes. However the art or talent that I admire in the writing of Marie-Claire Blais is that she deals with powerful deep painful emotions and situations in a highly original way.

I am now hopelessly addicted to this writer, Marie-Claire Blais. I have one of her later novels (She is still producing novels), ‘A Twilight Celebration’, on my wish list for Christmas.

 

Grade:   A

 

‘Heaven, My Home’ by Attica Locke – A Texas Ranger

 

‘Heaven, My Home’ by Attica Locke (2019) – 292 pages

My usual fare is the more recognizably literary fiction, but once in a while I like to dig into a well-written mystery novel and in this case it is ‘Heaven, My Home’.

Darren Matthews is a Texas Ranger from Houston assigned to a case on the northeastern border of Texas with Louisiana, an area of swamps and cypress trees and virulent white racists and small southern towns. A nine year old boy, Levi King, is missing. His father, a white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood of Texas leader, is sitting in jail. The boy’s grandmother is one of the elite in the small town of Jefferson and calls in the Texas Rangers to find the boy. The last person to see the boy and the primary suspect in the boy’s disappearance is Leroy Page, a black man who lives in the unincorporated backwater town of Hopetown. This is a racially charged crime story.

Did I mention that Darren Matthews, the Texas Ranger working on the case, is a black man? Darren asks his lieutenant, “Come on, you sending me into an Aryan Brotherhood mess, least you can do is tell me why?” In this part of Texas, the Aryan Brotherhood is the prevailing white racist criminal gang, and the Texas Rangers are working on a massive indictment of key members of the Aryan Brotherhood on charges of drug running and illegal gun sales and various other felony conspiracies. Our Texas Ranger must constantly deal “with befuddled anger at what a handful of scared white people could do to a nation”.

There are many strands to this Texas Ranger’s story including his personal life. His best friend may be having an affair with his estranged wife. He has had a drinking problem, his mother is blackmailing him, and he is in constant danger of “falling off the cliff of his own morality”. Somehow the author balances all of these complicated story lines into a meaningful whole. Since this novel is part of a series, the lead character is a difficult well-rounded character who can hold up several novels.

‘Heaven, My Home’ is a compelling atmospheric crime story that deals with the hate groups and attitudes of the current racially charged situation. It is the second novel in Attica Locke’s hard-boiled Highway 59 series for which her first, ‘Bluebird, Bluebird’, won the Edgar Award for best mystery novel of 2017. Attica Locke is also a writer for the television series ‘Empire’ and ‘When They See Us’.

 

Grade:    A-

 

‘Fly Already’ by Etgar Keret – Stories Which Are Like Being Shot Out of a Cannon

 

Fly Already’ by Etgar Keret (2019) – 209 pages Translated from the Hebrew by Sandra Silverston, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger, and Yardenne Greenspan

In the lead-off and title story of this new Etgar Keret collection of stories, a divorced father and his eight year old boy are out for a walk in the city when the boy spots a man standing on the roof of a four story building. The father fears the anxious man is going to jump off the building, and the father yells up, “Don’t do it, please! Whatever brought you up there must seem like something you will never get over, but believe me you will.”

However the boy figures the guy standing on the roof must be a superhero, and the obnoxious kid shouts up to him, “Come on, fly already!”.

This is an ingenious setup for a story, and Etgar Keret follows through to a apt and significant conclusion.

The story “Dad With Mashed Potatoes” begins as follows:

Stella, Ella, and I were almost ten years old the day Dad shapeshifted.”

Yes, in this story the children’s father has shape-shifted into a rabbit. This is about par for the course of an Etgar Keret story.

Because there he was, waiting for us in his armchair, glowing in the full whiteness of his glorious rabbithood, and when we bent to pet him behind the ears, he didn’t try to run away, he just wrinkled his nose with happiness.”

While the situations in ‘Fly Already’ are often outlandish, they are also quite human and poignant. The children in these stories are usually precocious but frequently annoying as kids often are.

It is an enjoyable experience to read Etgar Keret stories, and people ought to read them just to find out what all can be done with a short story by a wildly imaginative writer.

The following is from the story “The Next-to-Last Time I Was Shot Out of a Cannon”:

I’ve never been shot out of a cannon,” I said and took another drag on my cigarette. “Sure you have,” Roman said, “when your ex left you, when your son told you he hates you, when your fat cat ran away. Listen, to be a human cannonball, you don’t need to be flexible or fast or strong, just lonely and miserable as hell.”

I’m not lonely,” I protested. “Really?” Roman laughed. “So tell me – never mind sex, when was the last time someone even smiled at you?”

The story “Todd” is about a woman who meets a man like Todd who is “charming, and in favor of eternal free love and all the other bullshit that men who want to fuck the whole world believe”:

And he gives her a passionate explanation of evolution, of how women are monogamous because they want a male to protect their offspring, and how men are polygamous because they want to impregnate as many women as possible, and how there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s nature, and it’s stronger than any conservative Presidential candidate or Cosmopolitan article called “How to Hold on to Your Husband”.

Read these wild and preposterous stories by Etgar Keret, and I doubt you will be disappointed.

 

Grade:   A-

 

‘Alice Adams’ by Booth Tarkington – The Reproach of Not Being Part of the Upper Class in an Indiana City

 

‘Alice Adams’ by Booth Tarkington (1921) – 288 pages

 

Booth Tarkington won two Pulitzer Prizes for best novel of the year early in his career, one for ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ and one for ‘Alice Adams’. In 1922, the Literary Digest announced Tarkington as America’s greatest living writer. This just goes to show how useless awards and polls can be. Among the writers living then, the following list of American authors writing during that same era have all gained more acclaim, I believe deservedly, than Tarkington: Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The New Yorker recently published a long, long article about Booth Tarkington entitled “The Gentleman from Indiana – The Rise and Fall of a Literary Reputation”. The main gist of this article is that although Tarkington was a highly respected writer in his day, he had only one novel, ‘Alice Adams’, which is still worth reading today. I had never read anything by Booth Tarkington, so I decided to read ‘Alice Adams’.

Except for its casual racism, calling black people “coons” or “darkies” and making fun of their speech and behavior, ‘Alice Adams’ is quite well written. I suppose these prejudiced attitudes were typical in Indiana at that time and could be justified as an accurate portrayal of white attitudes, but they did try my patience as a reader. You won’t find this kind of racist writing in any of the other authors I mentioned above. Tarkington wrote a children’s book titled ‘Penrod’ which was extremely popular back in the 1920s, but is embarrassing and virtually unreadable today due to its racist depictions. One of the reasons why Tarkington’s later books are no longer read is the hardening of his right-wing attitudes later in life.

Then there is the flip side to this racism. Alice Adams’ father works for the white owner of a company in town, and Tarkington’s and his characters’ attitude toward this old white guy business owner is almost worshipful.

What is the theme of ‘Alice Adams’? The Adams father and mother want the best for their twenty-two year old daughter Alice, and that means she must find a suitable husband. That proves difficult, because based on what the father makes, their family is only middle class, and the really respectable well-to-do people rather avoid those who don’t have an excess of money even if they are white. Thus the Adams come up with a scheme to get a lot of money by opening a glue factory based on a project the father worked on for his boss early in his career.

Due to her vivacity and good looks, Alice meets a suitable guy, but she doesn’t bring him into her house, instead staying on the porch swing, knowing that he would find their home rather dilapidated. However soon her mother decides it is time to have a formal dinner to introduce this suitor to the family. This dinner party winds up being the dinner party from Hell.

This story of class distinctions and antagonism between upper class white people and middle class white people rang true to me and held my interest throughout, although I did find some of the unprogressive opinions expressed by some of the characters annoying.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘The Grammarians’ by Cathleen Schine – A Fiction For Those Who Delight in Words

 

‘The Grammarians’ by Cathleen Schine (2019) – 258 pages

‘The Grammarians’ is a novel about a family with identical twin daughters, Laurel and Daphne, who both grow up to love words. Their father is prescient enough to buy the still very young daughters a complete old edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language and install it on a stand in their family den. Thanks to the dictionary, the daughters share a fascination with the meaning and use of words which continues through their entire lives. They both become word mavens. Daphne becomes a columnist, the Miss Manners of modern speech”, who writes a popular column on the use and abuse of words. The other daughter Laurel, after a long stint of motherhood, becomes a poet of sorts.

One of the several charms of ‘The Grammarians’ is the witty word play the two girls bring to their conversation. Each chapter begins with the definition and usage of a word taken from the Samuel Johnson dictionary. Usually the words are ones that have fallen out of usage or that one or more of their meanings have fallen out of usage.

BABERY. n. s. [from babe] finery to please a babe or child.

Other words that are used to start chapters are: conversableness, scrine, collectitious, to swop, disbranch, edacious. We have lost many of these useful words as the English language has become streamlined. The twin girls use a lot of these dropped words in their conversations.

Daphne said, “Grammar makes you respect words. Every individual word. You make sure it’s in the place where it feels the most comfortable and does its job best.”

Here is Daphne’s riff on the word “Tight”:

She loved the word “tight”. It meant so many different things that were all somehow the same thing. Tight muscles. Tight with money. Money is tight. The organization is tight and well run. Tight friends. Tight-lipped. Hold tight. Sleep tight. Of course it also means tipsy, which makes less sense. And apparently it meant cool too. Better than “groovy,” anyway, a word she shamefully remembered using freely. A kind of progress, then, in the world.”

The other twin sister Laurel thinks the following about the word “Deadline”:

The components of the word “deadline” struck her. A line that is dead. No, a line that you must not cross or you will be shot dead. From prisons in the Civil War. Was that right? She would look it up later.”

Later the twin sisters have a falling out, a philosophical difference in their approaches to words, that causes these very close identical twin sisters to avoid each other for several years.

‘The Grammarians’ is a light, humorous, witty novel which I entirely enjoyed, and I’m quite sure most ‘word’ persons will enjoy it.

 

Grade:    A

 

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ by Marie-Claire Blais – A Wild, Wicked, Woeful, Wonderful Novel

 

‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ by Marie-Claire Blais (1966) – 145 pages         Translated from the French by Derek Coltman

I discovered Canadian writer Marie-Claire Blais through a recent article in the New Yorker entitled “Will American Readers Ever Catch on to Marie-Claire Blais?”

‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ is a wicked, wicked novel; it is diabolically outrageous and wonderful. I loved it. The way I look at it is that what Joseph Heller did to World War II in Catch-22, Marie-Claire Blais does to the Quebec farm family. Blais exagerates the prevailing attitudes on the farm to the point of ridiculousness. Perhaps it is my small poor farm background which caused me to love this novel.  Gallows humor and biting coruscating irony come to a farm in Quebec. There is not one iota of sentimentality in this novel, and that is just fine with me.

The first chapter is written from the perspective of new-born baby Emmanuel. He was born without fuss today, and his mother is already back outside working on their farm. There are 16 children in this Catholic family, about one a year. Old Grand-mere Antoinette watches over all the little children in the family who are too young to work yet. Grand-mere Antoinette is ancient but she runs the household and she expects to live forever. She is a stern and very religious taskmaster.

Most of the older children are outside working on the farm but Jean-Le Maigre stays inside because he is tubercular and the family knows he is going to die soon. Grand-mere is looking forward to his death because she knows he will be going to a better place then.

There had been so many funerals during the years that Grand-mere Antoinette had reigned in her house, so many little black corpses, in the wintertime, children always disappearing, babies who had only lived a few months, adolescents who had vanished mysteriously in the fall, or in the spring. Grand-mere Antoinette allowed herself to be rocked gently in the swell of all these deaths, suddenly submerged in a great and singular feeling of content.”

Jean-Le Maigre is in his usual spot under the kitchen table with his head in a book. That is the only place he can get some quiet time among all the squawking kids. Jean Le Maigre also does a lot of writing. However his farmer father thinks school and learning and reading and writing are a waste of time.

I had been leaving my Greek prose, my funeral orations, my fables, and my tragedies lying around all over the house for some time before I discovered that my father had consigned them to the latrine as fast as I could write them. What a disappointment!”

Also one of the daughters Heloise stays in her room while the others are all outside working. Heloise is a rabid religious zealot with a love of suffering. Grand-mere Antoinette sends her off to the church in order to prepare her for a life in the convent, but Heloise proves too fanatical even for the Mother Superior to handle.

There is a very different future in store for Heloise which Marie-Claire Blais hints at early on when she mentions that Heloise’s temptations turned more and more to something she didn’t recognize as desire. Let’s just say that Heloise winds up being the one economic success story in the family.

Jean Le Maigre also gets sent to the church school by Grand-mere for religious classes. At the church there is a Brother Theodule who “during the melancholy hours spends chasing little boys around the noviciat’s evil-smelling corridors”.

That man has chosen our sons to prey upon.”


Blais is prescient about the Catholic scandals to come.  Brother Theodule is kicked out of the church school but later reappears around town and is given the appropriate name Brother Theo Crapula.

I had not read a novel that so successfully used grim gallows humor in a long time, but Marie-Claire Blais also uses the humor to make some devastating points about life and religion.

Once in a while I will find an unknown older novel that beats everything that is written today. That is what happened here.

 

Grade:     A+

 

 

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