As usual, this is a list of my favorite reads of the year, many of which were not published this year.
Also as usual, most of them are novels.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an outstanding book about enslaved people trying to escape. The writing is luminous. Coates shows women with full agency. The viewpoint character is a man who comes to appreciate that women want to make their own decisions even more than they want love. Coates’ treatment of white characters is generous, showing some flawed but earnest abolitionists as well as slaveholders. The protagonist is the son of the man who owned and sold his mother. The father puts him in charge of his mentally deficient white half-brother, who has all the privileges of a white man and is supposed to inherit the estate.
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis is a wonderful novel about lesbians living in Uruguay under a dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s. It is the story of a group of women, not just individuals. Books about groups of lesbians are rare, and this has believable, interesting characters. Life under the dictatorship is chilling. Everyone must live with great caution, lesbians particularly. Some of the characters suffer more than others. But they buy and refurbish a house on a deserted beach as a refuge. Their love relationships come and go, but the women ultimately have ties of friendship.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman considers the lives of young Black women who came North during the Great Migration. Some were met by scheming madams and pimps the minute they got off the train. Most went into grinding domestic work. Hartman celebrates those who tried to find joy in sex and love. She excoriates the social workers who forced them into “reform” institutions for being in relationships out of wedlock, to be followed by slave-like live-in domestic work. She tells how Billy Holiday, arrested for prostitution, pretended to be older than she was so she would be sent to prison rather than a “reform” institution because the prison terms were only three months while the other terms were three years. Hartman also celebrates Black lesbian, dyke, and bisexual women entertainers who enjoyed sexual freedom. She is a scholar who writes exuberantly.
The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai is the story of a Vietnamese family living through the end of colonialism and the successive wars against it. At first, the characters sympathize with the liberation struggle, but they learn that some of the Communists can be as cruel as the people they opposed. The author grew up in Vietnam and now lives in Indonesia.
Jack is the fourth novel in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series and is my favorite in the series, partly because it has much more dialogue than some of the other books. Jack, a character mentioned in earlier books, is the ne’er-do-well son of a white small-town Presbyterian preacher. Jack is an alcoholic compulsive thief who has served time in prison, but he is deeply intellectual and keeps thinking of theology though he isn’t sure he believes in it. He meets an African-American woman, a brilliant high school teacher, who also has a preacher father. They fall in love, but this is the 1940s and interracial marriage is illegal. Their relationship is believable and moving.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is so popular that it has already been made a television series, but this was my first encounter with it. It is a tale of two families, one privileged and the other on the run. A single mother who is an artist flees from place to place, not telling her daughter why. The daughter is attracted to the sons and daughters of the privileged family, while one of the daughters of the privileged family is drawn to the single mother.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is the story of a young Ghanaian-American woman is doing research in neuroscience. She went into the field because she wants to understand drug addiction, which killed her brother, and whether the brain can learn to resist it. She is also taking care of her mother, who had a permanent breakdown after her son’s death. The viewpoint character grew up in a Pentecostal church in Alabama and has difficulty with other science students who find it ridiculous that she is trying to reconcile religion and science.
The Door by Hungarian author Magda Szabo tells about a woman writer who was blacklisted under Communism and whose work is starting to become acceptable again. Nevertheless, she fears the authorities. She hires a housekeeper who is enigmatic and insists on controlling many aspects of the household. The writer, who is a little intimidated by her, is shocked to learn that the housekeeper saved both Jews from Nazis and right-wing people from Communists. The relationship between the writer and the housekeeper becomes devastating.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a novel very loosely based on William Shakespeare’s family. Some critics and writers have claimed, based on little evidence, that Shakespeare had an unhappy marriage. This book, which features his wife, here called Agnes rather than Anne, suggests that the couple did love each other. Agnes is portrayed as knowledgeable about herbs, and so much of a child of nature that she insists on giving birth to their first child alone in the woods. But the death of their son, Hamnet (which really happened), greatly stresses the family’s bonds and makes William’s life in London more problematic for Agnes than it had been.
The History of Loneliness by John Boyne is the story of an Irish priest who is content with being celibate and for a long time fails to understand the abuse of boys by other priests. The son of a murderously abusive father, he tries to act the prescribed role of a good priest but begins to unravel as he discovers horrors in the Church.
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Boyhood by Trevor Noah feels like an authentic experience of struggling communities in South Africa and growing up mixed race there. I had never seen Trevor Noah when I read the book, so it’s not just for fans.
Jimmy Bluefeather by Kim Heacox takes the reader to southeast Alaska, where an old Tlingit-Norwegian man who is the last canoe carver in his community tries to help his grandson cope with a serious injury and other difficulties. The old man is facing death and longs to go to a beloved glacial bay.
Light on Altered Land by Becky Bohan (admission—she’s a friend of mine) is a well-wrought love story about two women in early old age. One is a lesbian feminist; the other is woman who has been married to a man and has fallen in love with a woman. They learn how to communicate and develop their relationship.
Three by Anne Marie Monahan is one of the most lesbian feminist novels I have ever read. Well, perhaps lesbian separatist would be more accurate. Several lesbians decide to build a community on an abandoned human structure offshore. The community goes through several phases, moving toward deciding to become totally self-sufficient with no supplies from outside. Right. I found it interesting and believable.
I have to add the book I am currently reading, A Promised Land, a memoir by Barack Obama. If you love President Obama, it’s a must read. He narrates the Audible version and I enjoy hearing him.