Best Books of the Year:  Reading across the Centuries

Happy Saturday Night!  It’s not New Year’s Eve yet, but I’m making my Best Books of the Year list already–late by most standards, I realize.

Mind you, I’m compiling the list by “genre,” so I will neglect many great books.  Only four of these books are “new,”but I’ve tried to include some surprises.  Of course Dickens is my favorite, but I left him off the list because you know him.  Type Dickens in the search box if you want to read my thoughts on Dickens.

Get ready for a wild ride across the centuries. 

BEST NEW ENGLISH NOVEL (2019):  Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day.  Why didn’t this at least make the Booker Prize shortlist?  This insightful, delicate, lyrical novel examines the close friendships of two couples in their fifties–and the unlooked-for changes wrought by the death of one of them.  (My post is here.)

BEST NEW AMERICAN NOVEL (2018):  Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife.  This retelling of Beowulf from a feminine point of view is gloriously poetic and unconventional.  Whether you know the Beowulf story or not does not matter: this retold version stands on its own.  Set in a suburban gated community called Herot Hall, this version focuses on the women characters, especially the mothers.   Dana, an ex-soldier with PTSD, lives in a cave under the mountain with her son Gren (Grendel), a boy born with teeth and claws; her suburban counterpart, Willa, is the miserable wife of the heir of Herot Hall, who is cheating on her with a neighbor, and Willa is also the ice-cold mother of Dylan, a lonely friendless boy.  (You can read the rest of my post here.)

BEST NEW NOVEL IN TRANSLATION (2019): Klotsvog by Margarita Khemlin, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden.  The Jewish narrator,  Maya Klotsvog, dismisses the impact of Soviet history on her character, despite her tragic past.  Absorbed in love affairs and multiple marriages that ultimately hurt her family, she has a psychological explanation for other people’s errors, but does not examine her own.  The most extraordinary novel I’ve read this year.

BEST NEW HISTORY (2019):  Orlando Figes’ The Europeans:  Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture.  Fans of the great Ivan Turgenev will love  this sparkling, exuberant  history of the development of European culture in the the 19th century.  The book focuses on the relationship between the Russian writer Turgenev and Pauline Viardot, the opera singer he loved for most of his life, and her husband, Louis Viardot, a theater manager and writer.  This trio was influential in promoting the work of their peers, international writers, musicians, and artists.  And the building of railroads proved to be the international link between European and Russian cultures.  You can read my review here.

BEST POLITICAL NOVEL:  Mary McCarthy’s Cannibals and Missionaries, a  novel about terrorism, was first published in 1979.  Forty years later, it remains relevant, a powerful historical novel about liberals and terrorists, a hijacking of a plane, art and property, economics and class, mediation and violence.   You can read my post here.

MOST  TIMELY POLITICAL SPEECH:  Cicero’s Against Verres (In Verrem), an oration calling for the impeachment of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily.  When I read this speech in July (in Latin), I had no idea how relevant it would be this year.

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL NOVEL:   Booth Tarkington’s The Midlander, a novel about industrial pollution and urban sprawl in the early 20th century.  Pulitzer Prize-winning Booth Tarkington was revived in 2019 with a new Library of America’s edition of  his novels and stories.  The Midlander didn’t make the cut, but it is one of Tarkington’s best, the story of a wealthy family who experiences the gradual fall of their city  as smoky factories are built in their posh urban neighborhood and  people flee to the suburbs.  Ironically, the mediocre son of the family, whom everybody thought was crazy,  foresaw this change.  

BEST DYSTOPIAN NOVEL:  Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. This gripping, realistic novel about a nuclear holocaust in the U.S., published in 1959, is a neglected American classic—and one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read. If you were riveted by Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, you will find Alas fascinating, because it deals not with the knowledge of impending death but with nearly unsolvable problems of survival.  You can read my post here.

BEST VICTORIAN NOVEL:  Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Helbeck of Bannisdale.  In this neglected Victorian classic, Ward portrays a stormy relationship between an atheist woman and a Catholic man who fall in love.  Ward’s strongly-delineated characters are reminiscent of some of the Brontës’ creations:  the heroine, Laura Fountain, bears a slight resemblance to Lucy Snowe in Villette, with traces of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights’ Catherine;  the hero, Alan  Belbeck, is a hybrid of M. Paul (Villette) and Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre).  You can read my post here.

BEST POETRY:  The Silvae of Statius.  Betty Rose Nagle’s translation of Statius, a Roman poet of the first century A.D., is brilliant and extremely readable.  In fact, I can’t praise it too highly.  This summer I read his poems in Latin:  perhaps his most famous is the Ode to Sleep. My favorite is his elegy to a lion who dies fighting in the Roman arena, but I also loved a poem in which Statius tries to persuade his wife Claudia to leave Rome and retire with him to Naples, his hometown.