Fiction » Literary Criticism

Editors’ Picks: Favorite Books of 2019

recommended by Stephanie Kelley

Looking for captivating, eccentric novels, essays and letters to read at the turn of the new year? Five Books literary editor Stephanie Kelley shares favorites from her year in reading—new and old.

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What do I look for in a good book? I thought about this a lot over 2019. As the endlessly churning book publicity mill proclaims every notable new release the “best!” or “first of its kind!”, it can be hard to tell the difference between deserved buzz and overhype. Even more difficult is judging whether a book everyone is reading (e.g. Fleishman is in Trouble; Normal People; Ducks, Newburyport, to take a few 2019 examples) is just good—which isn’t a knock!—or simply unforgettable. I approach every reading decision with the same question: not just ‘Will this be good?’ but ‘Even if it’s good, will I wish that I’d spent those hours rereading Middlemarch instead?’

Here are the books that I read this year which fit the bill—ones I know I’ll be recommending to friends and strangers for years to come. Some were published in 2019; some weren’t. Many have been reviewed well and widely; it baffles me some of the others aren’t better known. Luckily, thanks to New York Review of Books Classics, a whole host of unusual, overlooked, out-of-print novels have been (and are still being) republished; my reading life changed completely for the better since introducing their distinctive paperbacks into my monthly rotation. On to the list!

THE DOLPHIN LETTERS by Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and their circle (edited by Saskia Hamilton)

Elizabeth Hardwick is one of those rare writers you stumble upon by accident and become instantly obsessed with. Her essays—re-issued by NYRB Classics as her Collected Essays and also in Seduction and Betrayal*—are remarkable not only for the brilliantly idiosyncratic mind they show at work, but also on the level of the sentence: no one else can do so much with so little. Every phrase is carefully controlled, no single word overwrought or out of place, every thought and image beautifully observed, her acid-tongued wit so subtly deployed it’s almost a form of empathy or mercy. Whenever I’m reading an author I know Hardwick has written about—Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Jane Carlyle—I return to her work and marvel at how unusual and thought-provoking her readings are. Her short novel Sleepless Nights is also unmissable; in fact, I’d recommend anyone new to her start with it.

Though fascinating in her own right, Hardwick was also at the heart of one of the most interesting and intellectually vibrant literary groups in the mid twentieth-century, many of whom appear in The Dolphin Letters. Born in Kentucky in 1916 to a modest background, she launched in New York after a stint at Columbia, became a formidable literary critic, married the poet Robert Lowell, and co-founded The New York Review of Books.

The Dolphin Letters covers the period from 1970 to 1979, beginning with Lowell going abroad to take up a short fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, leaving Hardwick to take care of their teenage daughter, write to pay the bills, and make arrangements for the sale of Lowell’s papers to various interested university libraries. Within days of arriving, he met and began an affair with the writer Caroline Blackwood and in the ensuing months left his family for her, all the while battling episodes of manic depression and feverishly composing poetry. Famous for his confessional verse, Lowell the next year published a collection called The Dolphin, in which he cut up and rewrote lines of Hardwick’s devastated private letters to him and put them in his poems (without her permission, of course). The whole saga and their friends’ reactions to it—their circle included Mary McCarthy, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Hannah Arendt, to name just a few—are just fascinating (even if you’ve never read any of these writers, but especially if you have). This book is long-awaited, and most definitely worth the wait. Essential for any serious literary reader.

*For UK readers, this year Faber brought out sleek new editions of Sleepless Nights and Seduction and Betrayal with introductions by Eimear McBride and Deborah Nelson, respectively. Worth picking up!

VERONICA by Mary Gaitskill  

Dubbed “the Jane Austen of sickos” for her caustic, darkly comic portrayals of the emotional brutality humans endure (and often inflict on one another), Mary Gaitskill rose to prominence again this year for her widely read #MeToo story “This is Pleasure”—recommended in book form by Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn in her yearly picks. After inhaling that and her acclaimed short story collection Bad Behavior, I tracked down the early novel Veronica on the recommendation of my friend Merve Emre and wasn’t disappointed. Set in the 1980s, it tells the story of the friendship between Alison, a former model now in her 40s, and Veronica, a professional proofreader desperately in love with a bisexual man, whose transmitted AIDS virus ultimately kills her. Gaitskill delights in peeling back the skins of her suffering, often nasty characters and showing you the vulnerable, frail human beings desperate for love underneath. There’s nothing quite like this book.

There was a lot of fiction I loved this year, though, and maybe another title on my list might grab your attention. Vying for this spot are:

1. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women

A novelistic work of narrative nonfiction on desire and the failure of love for three real-life women; I reviewed it for Five Books here.

2. Susan Choi’s My Education

An erotic and erudite (don’t often see those words together, do you?) campus novel that turns the professor-sleeping-with-his-student trope on its head by depicting a love affair between a female graduate student and her professor’s wife.

3. Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman

While The Haunting of Hill House is as good as the recent Netflix adaptation and I envy anyone reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the first time (I wish I could re-live that blissful experience), I was most haunted by Jackson’s second novel, a bildungsroman featuring the strange, unnerving voice of Natalie, a deeply-feeling reader battling her teenage and college years. Better than Catcher in the Rye and yet no one reads it.

4. Colette’s The Vagabond

This is where to start with Colette, though the late novel The Pure and Impure is also great. Lush, desirous, beautiful, French. I lost myself in this.

5. Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater

Another NYRB Classics I’d never heard of before picking up, this one captures the psychic disintegration of a married woman in sessions with her therapist. It’s the sentiment of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” in book form—in other words, sublime.

6. Susanna Moore’s In the Cut

A short novella that was out of print but has been reissued this year. An erotic thriller about a divorced NYU professor whose adventures in sex get tangled up with murderous violence. Weird, dark, sexy, disturbing. Recommend.

7. Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint

Regardless of his politics, it’s impossible to deny the appeal of the boundless comic energy of Portnoy. The book is comprised of a young man’s monologue to his therapist. You might hate him, but you’ll love the book and be sad when it ends.

8. Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach

A nimble domestic novel with achingly beautiful passages of prose, language distilled to its purest form. Themes include the bonds of family, the way music is embedded in all of us, the return of old flames, the visceral desire for love and belonging. Very short and can be read in an afternoon.

LIFE WITH PICASSO by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake

A memoir of, as the title suggests, a life with Picasso, told in the most clear-eyed, emotionally sophisticated prose by Françoise Gilot, who met the artist when she was in her early twenties (he was 61). The book shows that far from a naïve, timid ingenue living in the shadow of an artist larger than life, Gilot’s tenacity and strong will was a match for Picasso’s—not to mention she was probably a good deal more mature and smarter (not to mention more benevolent) than him. A brilliant book not only on Picasso as a man and artist but also on his milieu, covering a lengthy period at the height of his fame. I’ll never forget Gilot’s story of what ended the friendship between Andre Gide and Picasso:

Gide turned to Pablo and said, “There’s one thing about Françoise I like very much. She’s the kind of person who may always have remorse, but will never have regrets.” Pablo said, “I haven’t any idea what that means. I suppose Françoise has no acquaintance with regrets but she knows even less about remorse.” Gide said, “It’s easy to see there’s a dimension to her inner life which has escaped you.”

A remarkably humane but damning diagnosis of a man and his faults, a testament to a great artist, an invaluable document providing a rare look behind the curtain at the fierce debates and relationships among artists in Picasso’s circle.

NOBODY’S LOOKING AT YOU: ESSAYS by Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm is one of those writers I would follow anywhere, and this book is no exception. Topics discussed include the three sisters who together own the Argosy bookshop, a New York institution; the life and working habits of the eccentric pianist Yuja Wang; Tolstoy as a comedic writer; the fashion designer Eileen Fisher. But don’t be fooled if any seem boring. A longtime journalist for the New Yorker, Malcolm’s investigations tend to take apparently ordinary institutions or scenes and, through her unrivaled powers of curiosity, observation and description, reveal their extraordinary inner workings.

HOW TO DO NOTHING: RESISTING THE ATTENTION ECONOMY by Jenny Odell

Exhaustively researched yet philosophical and poetic in its delivery, How to Do Nothing will make you rethink your relationship to thought itself. Incorporating history, journalistic narrative, scientific studies, literature, philosophy and even the study of trees and birdwatching, Odell mounts a convincing defense of individual attention. Her observations are fresh and often surprising. She wisely points out that the boundless connectivity afforded by smartphones is no substitute for knowing your real-life neighbors (less and less a commonplace reality these days, in the age of social media); neighbors, not Facebook friends, are the networks that spring to action in the event of local emergencies and climate-related disasters.

And against the grain of the average social science polemic decrying technology’s impact on our attention spans, How To Do Nothing argues that the designs modern media and technology have on our attention, while real and invasive, are ultimately shallow: it is much, much harder to penetrate and hijack levels of deep thought—the kind of reverent, insistent attention we pay to art and music. That’s the mode of devotion we should cultivate. This book changed my life, despite not a word of it being pedantic. I hope it will change yours, too.

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Stephanie Kelley

Stephanie Kelley is the literary editor of Five Books. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature and an MSt in English Literature 1830–1914 from the University of Oxford, and has reviewed fiction, literary criticism and biography for the Times Literary Supplement. You can follow her on Twitter @stephaniedk96.

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Stephanie Kelley

Stephanie Kelley is the literary editor of Five Books. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature and an MSt in English Literature 1830–1914 from the University of Oxford, and has reviewed fiction, literary criticism and biography for the Times Literary Supplement. You can follow her on Twitter @stephaniedk96.