In the earliest days of commercial air travel, cabin attendants were exclusively male, but by the 1950s, growing competition among carriers changed that: “Each airline tried to convince customers that it had the highest level of luxury and service, and the women who served a predominantly male clientele became a particular selling point,” Cooke writes. Pan Am — at the time, the only American airline to fly exclusively international routes — had a particular reputation for sophistication to maintain. “We must add to [our excellence] ‘a new dimension’ — that is, emphasis on what pleases people. And I know of nothing that pleases people more,” chief executive Najeeb Halaby would later explain, “than female people.”
I wrote about The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro for this weekend’s Washington Post. Here’s a snippet of my review:
As Faleiro probes the case, an extensive supporting cast emerges: meddlesome uncles, drunken police officers, hopelessly unqualified coroners, sensationalizing TV newsmen, a sneering intelligence officer and grandstanding politicians, all with a part — however undignified — to play in this story. … Everyone agrees that the girls’ deaths are a tragedy; no one knows quite whom to blame.
When you’ve been writing about books all year, it’s an easy thing to do. When you haven’t been keeping detailed notes on your own reading, it’s a little harder. My review output has slowed in the last few years, so list-making is more of a challenge, but this year I decided to try to sum up 2019’s books anyway.
This year’s reading was Anglo- and Euro-centric: I read Jean Rhys and Sam Selvon for the first time, worked through Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, and picked up new fiction from Guy Gunaratne and John Lanchester. The basic idea was to get to know my new country of residence a little better through some of its writers. (Did it work? Maybe. To better understand this country I should probably just watch more television.)
Anyway: Here’s my stab at this year’s best-of list, featuring, in no particular order, my ten favorite books published in 2019.
The Capital by Robert Menasse, translated by Jamie Bulloch
About a decade ago, Robert Menasse had a thought: “It’s a scandal that I know far too little about how the EU functions, and why it doesn’t function, when it’s the most important topic of my lifetime.” To remedy this, Menasse moved to Brussels, immersing himself in the bureaucratic grind of the European Union. The resulting novel is an acerbic office satire, replete with roller suitcases, failed workplace affairs, and aimless ambition. But it’s more than that: The Capital also offers a powerful moral defense of the EU. If a thoroughly entertaining and frighteningly perceptive look at the failures of European politics is what you’re after, this is your book.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
You may have heard about the controversy over the Booker judges’ decision to award this year’s prize to both Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s Testaments this year. In all likelihood that was all you heard about this book—which is a shame. I wish more had been written and said about the book itself and its contribution to a long-running literary conversation about race in England. Girl, Woman, Other is a lovely, life-affirming novel, a celebration of contemporary black British female experience told through the eyes of a dozen characters from all walks of life—playwrights to house cleaners, teachers to investment bankers. I found its cheerful fearlessness completely refreshing.
Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M. Low
It took me several attempts to get past the first few pages of this newly issued translation of Ginzberg’s 1961 novel, which begins with the young narrator, Elsa taking a walk with her mother through their Italian village. Her mother does all the talking; in the entire first chapter, Elsa speaks barely a few sentences. “Couldn’t we sometimes have the miracle of a word from you?” her mother asks. The imbalance of the exchange is the point: Ginzburg’s narrator is always off to the side, observing. What does fascism to do ordinary people—to their family histories, to the fabric of their small towns, to their understanding of their own place in the world? This is the question that Ginzburg tries to whittle away at through her account of Elsa’s family. In his introduction to this new edition, Colm Tóibín describes the book as a sepia photograph, which is accurate, but which also suggests a certain sentimentality. This sells the book short. Voices in the Evening is as elegantly melancholic as it is darkly instructive.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
The career of Ben Lerner’s mother, feminist psychotherapist Harriet Lerner, looms large in this novel. The fictionalized Harriet is a therapist and best-selling author Jane Gordon—a woman whose work has made her the subject of a campaign of hate from abusers Lerner simply calls “the Men.” Will Jane’s son Adam grow up to be one of them? Adam is a strident but sensitive nerd, a weight-lifting poet and Kansas debate champion. Sometimes he does his mother proud. Sometimes, she’s not sure if she can save him. This is a book about masculinity—its fragile side, its toxic side, its vulnerable side. But what I enjoyed most were Lerner’s ruminations on the 90s. His depiction of competitive extemporaneous speaking tournaments is spot-on (as a former high school extemper, I smiled and cringed!), as is his portrait of white suburban middle-class high school life of that era. But his sketch of a creepy young Kris Kobach-like character—Adam’s speech coach—stayed with me most of all.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede knows the drill all too well: Another frantic phone call from her little sister, another heavy dead body, another cover-up for her to be complicit in. Seductive Ayoola attracts all the men—and then she stabs them with her father’s ornate nine-inch curved-blade knife. But when her sister goes after Korede’s handsome, gentle colleague, Tade, something shifts. Simple and sharp, pulpy and fast-paced, this book from 31-year-old Nigerian-British rising star Oyinkan Braithwaite is all murder and little mystery. Its charm lies in the girlish directness of Braithwaite’s narrator Korede, and its messy sisterly amorality.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
This brilliantly-researched history of the Troubles centers around the death of 38-year-old Jean McConville, a Protestant-born Catholic-converted widowed mother of ten who was marched out of her home by masked men one night in 1972 while her children watched in horror. She was never seen again. Keefe is a gifted storyteller—and, as it turns out, a capable detective, too. Mining the controversial Belfast Project interviews at Burns Library in Boston College, he slowly pieces together the shadowy events surrounding McConville’s disappearance. He also lays out a complicated but compelling portrait of IRA firebrand Delours Price. These two women couldn’t be more different from one another, and their stories couldn’t be more painfully intertwined.
Granta 147: 40th Anniversary Special edited by Sigrid Rausing
I bought this on a whim—the sight of its cover made me nostalgic for the summer I spent lurking in the shelves of Granta’s back-catalog in London as a college intern at the magazine. But picking it up was a fine idea: Every single story in here is very, very good—a profound reminder of just how much world-class talent Granta has published in the last four decades. Kazuo Ishiburo tells the tender story of a Japanese boy and his aging grandfather in “The Summer After the War”; Amitav Ghosh arrives at a surprising consideration of colonialism in “The Imam and the Indian”; Philip Roth pays wistful tribute his father in “His Roth.” But my favorite might be “The Snow in Ghana,” in which Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński considers the futility of trying to make one’s experience known: “Something, the most important, the most significant thing, will remain unsaid.”
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple
How did corporations become all-powerful, and will their unchecked dominance be the ruin of us all? This comprehensive investigation into the rise of the East India Company heads back to 1599 to try to answer that question, as well as a few others about state-sanctioned greed, political violence, and the underpinnings of the British Raj. After outlining the conditions that made the birth of the East India Company possible in the first place, Dalrymple moves region by region, trade agreement by trade agreement (and then, battle by battle) charting how—one nawab after another—the Indian sub-continent fell under its sway. It’s a fascinating study in the many ways in which power can be abused. Every historian of India has his or her biases and the second time I saw the word “effete” used to describe a Mughal Prince I had to roll my eyes. But to his credit, Dalrymple is unsparing of British elite too: One military commander’s son is described simply as “the notably unintelligent Governor Madras.”
Spring by Ali Smith
The third installment in Ali Smith’s quartet of seasonal novels reads like a lucid dream. The plot circles around the adventures of Brit, a young employee of an Immigration Removal Center, and a mysterious little girl named Florence who takes Brit on a journey of discovery. As in the other books in this series, Spring fuses its powerful political indignation with a blurry magical realism. The result is a reading experience nearly as disorienting as the times we live in.
Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain by Fintan O’Toole
There is a long tradition of heroic failure in English history: The Charge of the Light Brigade is just one of the many examples Fintan O’Toole cites in this sharp critique. “Someone had blundered,” obviously, as the Tennyson poem notes— but that’s not the point, is it? O’Toole is an astute political observer of British politics; his political and psychological analysis of the Brexit mess is essential reading. He’s also very funny, and not afraid to push a riff a little too far (I’m thinking here of the extended bit on Fifty Shades of Gray). This was technically published in late November of 2018, but it’s too good to overlook, and just as relevant a year later.
Honorable mentions: She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey; The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson
Biggest disappointment: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The book I’m most annoyed I didn’t get around to yet: The Nowhere Man by Kamala Markandaya
My review of The Heart is a Shifting Sea by Elizabeth Flock ran in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review– the Pleasure Reading issue. A snippet:
The journalist Elizabeth Flock was in her early 20s when she moved to Mumbai. Though she was wary of overromanticizing India, she was immediately taken with what appeared to be an Indian attitude toward romance itself. “In Mumbai, people seemed to practice a showy, imaginative kind of love,” she writes in “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea.” She wondered if there was wisdom to this brand of passion: “When I arrived in Mumbai after my dad’s third divorce, the city seemed to hold some answers.”
I wrote about The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea for The New Yorker. The book and its backstory are pretty fascinating:
The story goes something like this: nearly thirty years ago, a talented North Korean propagandist secretly began writing fiction critical of the North Korean regime. When a catastrophic famine beset North Korea in the mid-nineties, the propagandist’s misgivings about his country’s leadership deepened. Over the next several years, he chronicled the deprivation and disillusionment of his countrymen in a series of stories that he shared with no one. Roughly two decades later, a close relative defected to South Korea, and the writer saw an opportunity to get his work across the border. In 2014, a book of his stories was published in South Korea under the pen name Bandi, which means “firefly.” It is believed to be the first work of dissident fiction by a living North Korean writer ever smuggled out of that country.
I profiled Syrian writer Osama Alomar for The New Yorker:
In 2014, Osama Alomar was working as a cab driver in Chicago when he learned that the suburb of Zamalka, just outside the heart of Syria’s capital, Damascus, had been destroyed by the fighting that continues to ravage his country. The apartment house that Alomar had lived in for five years before leaving for the United States, and everything in it—his furniture, clothing, guitar, and, most painfully, his library of old and rare books, including volumes he’d inherited from his father and grandfather—had been reduced to rubble. “I’m homesick, but I cannot go back,” he told me recently. “I would be homeless.”
Before he left Syria, in 2008, Alomar’s fiction and poetry had been published in four collections; he’d won literary prizes and had his work broadcast on the BBC. Now his entire personal archive was lost. “All my published poems, stories, interviews I had done in journals and magazines. Everything. I was completely shocked to learn that it was all gone,” he said. Also lost were the manuscripts of several writing projects in progress, including a completed autobiographical novel, called “The Jagged Years.”
Spoiler alert: Alomar is brilliant and indefatigable. The piece, which centers around the publication of his second collection of translated stories, The Teeth of the Comb, ran on the site’s Page-Turner blog.
UPDATE: I’ll be discussing The Teeth of the Comb with Alomar on Tuesday, June 13th at McNally Jackson Bookstore. Come by! http://www.mcnallyjackson.com/event/teeth-comb-osama-alomar-and-mythili-rao
I interviewed Daniel Mendelsohn for Virginia Magazine. It was a treat to sit down with a critic whose work I’ve admired for a long time and talk about how he approaches his work. The headline comes from his take on Love Actually. I’ve always loathed that movie, but on his urging, I’m going to try to let my guard down next Christmas when it’s on TV.
Do you believe in “guilty pleasures” of cultural consumption?
I really do believe that the high-low distinction is more invidious than not. The aesthetic components of “guilt”-inducing pleasures are usually melodrama and sentimentality. I have a great aversion to the aversion to sentimentality. To me, what made Mad Men unbearable was its own incredible overweening need to be cool. And because it was so cool and so cynical about everything, I just didn’t care about it, whereas in the first five minutes of watching Friday Night Lights, I thought I was going to die if I didn’t know those people were going to be okay.
Why not love something like Love Actually? What’s so terrible about just caving into your crazy human heart every now and then? You don’t always have to be armored.
I reviewed The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits and Ongoingness: The End of a Diary Sarah Manguso– and reflected on my own diary-keeping habits– over at The Los Angeles Review of Books. The essay starts like this:
TODAY I DUG OUT an old diary from one of the large cardboard boxes that my husband and I never unpacked after our last move. It’s a spiral notebook with a multicolored cover. Thin lines of text, written in a black Pilot Precise pen, fill its pages, and my handwriting is narrow and mostly neat. The diary begins in the spring of 2005, a few months before I moved to New York. Flipping through it, I hoped to find some observation from my first hours, days, or weeks in New York — some early impression of the city that might foreshadow how the place would shape me.
My review of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan ran in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review.
Over at The Daily Beast I reviewed Rachel Cusk’s enigmatic new novel Outline, plus an imaginative collection of stories from Megan Mayhew Bergman and an entertaining investigation into the Scandinavian psyche from Michael Booth, a Brit.