Times Critics’ Top Books of 2019

Times Critics’ Top Books of 2019

‘THE OLD DRIFT’ By Namwali Serpell (Hogarth). “The Old Drift” is an intimate, brainy, gleaming epic, set mostly in what is now Zambia, the landlocked country in southern Africa. It closely tracks the fortunes of three families (black, white, brown) across four generations. The plot pivots gracefully from accounts of the region’s early white colonizers and despoilers through the worst years of the AIDS crisis. It pushes into the near future, proposing a world in which flocking bug-size microdrones are a) fantastically cool and b) put to chilling totalitarian purposes. Serpell seems to want to stuff the entire world into her novel — biology, race, subjugation, revolutionary politics, technology — but it retains a human scale. It is filled with love stories, greedy sex (“my heart twerks for you,” one character comments), pot smoke, comedy, inopportune menstruation, car crashes, tennis, and the scorching pleasure and pain of long hours in hair salons. (Read the review.)

‘LOT: Stories’ By Bryan Washington (Riverhead Books). Washington’s subtle, dynamic and flexible short stories crack open a vibrant, polyglot side of Houston about which few outsiders are aware. His characters move through streets that he names so often — Richmond and Waugh, Rusk and Fairview — that they come to have talismanic power, like the street names in Springsteen songs. These stories take place amid dismal laundromats and broken-down pharmacies. There are turf wars and shootouts. Things happen near Dollar Tree stores or in Whataburger parking lots. The men and women here are extended hope only in homeopathic amounts. But there is a fair amount of joy in Washington’s stories, too. An underthrob of emotion beats inside them. He’s confident enough not to force the action. The stories feel loose, their cellular juices free to flow. (Read the review.)

‘SOLITARY: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope’ By Albert Woodfox with Leslie George (Grove Press). For a crime he did not commit, Woodfox spent more than four decades in solitary confinement at Angola, the notorious maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana: 23 hours a day in a 6-by-9-foot cell. This powerful, closely observed memoir is the story of how he survived. He’d grown up poor in New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood. He didn’t know his father. His mother, who could not read or write, sometimes prostituted herself to keep food on the table. He turned to crime young. What life did not give him, he was determined to take. The heart of “Solitary” is Woodfox’s decision to “take my pain and turn it into compassion, and not hate.” He read legal books and began to win lawsuits over cruel and unusual punishment. His memoir is strewn with words from others he read while in prison — Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass. He taught men to read. He organized umpteen hunger strikes. He made a difference in many men’s lives. This memoir could make a difference in yours. (Read the review.)

‘DOXOLOGY’ By Nell Zink (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers). In terms of its author’s ability to throw dart after dart after dart into the center of your media-warped mind and soul, this is the novel of the year. It’s a ragged chunk of ecstatic cerebral-satirical intellection. It’s bliss. “Doxology” displays two generations of an American family. Pamela and Daniel, musicians and hipsters, are semi-clueless young people who move individually to New York City in the late 1980s. They might have dropped sideways, like bookmarks, out of a Jonathan Lethem novel. Later we also follow the life of their daughter. Zink writes as if the political madness of the last four decades had been laid on for her benefit as a novelist. Like a mosquito, she vectors in on the neck of our contemporary paranoia. She has got a feral appetite for news of our species, good and ill. (Read the review.)

‘DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT’ By Lucy Ellmann (Biblioasis). Ellman’s novel — told mostly in one 426,000-word sentence that stretches over 1,000 pages — seems designed to thwart the timid or lazy reader but shouldn’t. Timid, lazy readers to the front! We are locked in the mind of an Ohio woman, a mother of four with a cutting power of observation, as her attention drifts from Jared Kushner’s investments in China to an earring she lost years ago, the death of her mother to the wet towels on the floor to news of ecological collapse. The book has its face pressed up against the pane of the present; its form mimics the way our minds move now, toggling between tabs and terrors. (Read the review.)

‘LAKOTA AMERICA: A New History of Indigenous Power’ By Pekka Hamalainen (Yale University Press). Hamalainen’s is the first complete account of the Lakotas, the tribe of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse that long dominated the American interior and thwarted Western expansion with charm, shrewd diplomacy and sheer might. It is a story of America with the Lakotas as the protagonists, the first study to draw so comprehensively on their archives and a sharp critique of how the history of indigenous Americans has been told and sold. (Read the review.)

‘WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval’ By Saidiya Hartman (W.W. Norton & Company). Hartman’s book is a rich resurrection of a forgotten history: the revolution in intimate life at the cusp of the 20th century, led by young black women, two or three generations removed from slavery. They discovered city life in New York and Philadelphia and tossed out the narrow scripts they had been given. We meet communists and chorines, anonymous women gazing into shop windows, the anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells as a young woman. Hartman pushes past the social workers, psychologists and scandalized moralists standing in our way to reveal the women for the first time, individual and daring. (Read the review.)

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