2019 in Books – Come for the Novels, Stay for the Dinosaurs
By David Eisler
When I started working on a PhD in American literature back in 2017, I didn’t want to let reading become a chore, something I had to do for work rather than something I wanted to do for fun. So, I made sure to keep finding things to read on the side, books I’d take with me on my daily bus commute or read in the dim, quiet light of the evening before going to sleep. Some are what I like to call “literary palate cleansers,” or books I read in between the many war novels I’m reading for my dissertation. My taste is somewhat eclectic, along the spectrum from hard science to science fiction, with the scale weighted just a bit more heavily toward contemporary American fiction these days. A few years ago, I started keeping a running list of all the books I read. Every December, I like to go through that list and pick out which ones I enjoyed the most. Before the ball drops on 2020, I’m happy to share 11 of my favorites (okay, one is a series of three books, but still) that I read in 2019. From time travel and war to fantasy, history, and dinosaurs, I hope this list has a little something for everyone.
Race and America
Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979) and Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys (2019)
Both of these novels deal with race in the American south, but in totally different ways. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a mix of historical fiction with a dash of sci-fi—Dana, a middle-class black woman living in California, travels back in time from 1976 to early-1800s Maryland where she is assumed to be a runaway slave. The reason for her time traveling is never really explained other than through her connection to Rufus Weylin, the son of a plantation owner who seems to “pull” Dana to him every time he’s in mortal danger.
Butler plays with concepts of time in several ways; there is a nonlinear relationship between how long Dana spends trapped in the past (which ranges from hours to months) and how much time has elapsed in her present—more than once she returns to discover that it is still the same day as when she went back in time. Reading the novel forty years after it was published adds yet another dimension of historical consciousness as well, and Kindred is ultimately a brilliant mediation on the inexorable connection between past and present, between individual and national history, and the continued relevance of race in American culture. I don’t know why it took me so long to find Octavia Butler, but after Kindred, I’m hooked. It’s honestly one of the best books I’ve read in a while, probably the best book I’ve read all year.
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys, is almost equally good, but takes a more traditional realist approach as a historical novel. The Nickel Boys is about a segregated boarding school in Florida, known as The Nickel Academy, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. You probably know where this is going—racism, abuse, cruelty, servitude—and in my mind that’s part of Whitehead’s point. He still finds a way to make things surprising, though, and the novel has one of the best endings I’ve ever read. Whitehead based the story on the Dozier School for Boys, a real reform school in northern Florida that Whitehead learned about on Twitter. The Dozier School had weathered decades of allegations of abusive treatment against its students over its more than one hundred year history, including a still-climbing number of unmarked graves uncovered by anthropology students from the University of South Florida. As if to underscore the continued urgency of Whitehead’s chosen subject, the real Dozier School was only shut down in 2011.
Contemporary War Fiction
Elliot Ackerman, Waiting for Eden (2018); Nico Walker, Cherry (2018); John Renehan, The Valley (2015); David Abrams, Brave Deeds (2017)
My PhD dissertation deals with contemporary American war fiction, so it’s not surprising that a big chunk of what I read falls into that category. In fact, fourteen of the novels I read this year were about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of these, Elliot Ackerman’s Waiting for Eden and Nico Walker’s Cherry were the best, with honorable mentions for John Renehan’s The Valley and David Abrams’s Brave Deeds.
Ackerman’s Waiting for Eden is a slim (not even 200 pages!) but immensely powerful novel that is one of the best works to come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps because it specifically does not try to be about the wars themselves. Eden, one of the novel’s main characters, is “the most wounded man from both the wars,” and the story is told from the perspective of an unnamed fellow Marine who was killed in the same explosion that left Eden hospitalized for the rest of his life. The easy comparisons to Larry Heinemann’s 1987 Paco’s Story (which also features deceased comrades as a collective narrator) and Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun (whose protagonist is also a limbless mute who wishes to die) don’t do Waiting for Eden enough justice. The novel is haunting without giving in to what could have been an easy despair, preferring to take a more philosophical approach to the consequences of war on those who are left behind, especially in a nation with an all-volunteer military.
Nico Walker’s Cherry, on the other hand, reads more like a confession, and with good reason: Walker, a former Army medic who served a tour in Iraq, wrote the novel from prison.
I didn’t want to like Cherry, but it surprised me with a depth that I didn’t really appreciate until I’d finished it and started reading through my notes. The unnamed first-person narrator comes from a middle-class family, but he’s clearly troubled, dabbling in drugs and dropping out of college before volunteering to join the Army. He (the narrator) deploys to Iraq, witnesses the horrors of war, then comes home and becomes a full-blown heroin addict. Things don’t really get any better for him.
The novel’s reception focused mostly on how autobiographical it is—Nico Walker is actually in jail for grand theft auto, and for all intents and purposes the novel borrows liberally from his actual experiences. But Cherry is the perfect example of what happens when you throw the words “A Novel” on the cover of a book; by reading it as fiction rather than memoir, it takes on characteristics far greater than the sum of its narrative parts.
As for the other two novels, John Renehan’s The Valley is an exciting blend of war fiction with the detective novel genre, and it’s probably the best depiction I’ve yet read of what it actually feels like to be a junior officer on a combat deployment. And David Abrams’s Brave Deeds, skillfully narrated from the unusual third person plural (“we”) of an Army squad on a mission through hostile territory to attend a beloved squad leader’s funeral, has shades of Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978) as well as Homer’s Odyssey.
N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy (The Fifth Season (2015),The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017)
I’d had my sights on these books for a while now, and they did not disappoint. The world-building is impressive, the characters complex, and the revelations slow and subtle. Jemisin became the first African-American writer to ever win the Hugo Award for best sci-fi/fantasy novel, and the only writer to ever win the award for three consecutive years.
Forget your preconceptions about the fantasy genre when you come to these novels. They describe an Earth in the future that feels eerily familiar but fundamentally changed in ways that feel logical and extraordinary at the same time. Civilizations have risen and fallen for thousands of years, building and rebuilding, planning and preparing, all while a subset of humanity known as “Orogenes” has evolved the ability to manipulate energy and temperature in ways that have powerful consequences, both physical and social. In a society that has already designated its people according to “use-castes” (such as laborers, healers, breeders, engineers, and leaders), Orogenes are the ultimate outcasts, banished to highly controlled training schools if they aren’t killed immediately upon discovery. The novels have a strong subtext of racial issues (there is even an equivalent of a racial slur for the Orogenes), and Jemisin paints a wonderfully representative picture of race, gender, and sexuality, unwilling to give in to the patriarchal tropes that often plague the fantasy genre. In the end, though, Jemisin seems more interested in asking what makes us human and exploring the whole range of emotions that comes with the answer.
Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018); Steven Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of the Lost World (2018)
Jill Lepore’s These Truths is a big book but well worth the investment. Billed as a comprehensive history of the United States, Lepore’s mighty tome is both engaging and ambitious. One has to marvel at Lepore’s writing stamina, maintaining the same quality she is known for in her New Yorker articles and holding it for nearly 800 pages. Lepore does an impressive job finding the echoes between our current historical moment and other points in American history. Specialists on certain topics may feel that she doesn’t spend enough time or detail on this or that, but her purpose is to draw the broadest contours of American history and reveal the path that brought us to where we are today.
Finally, because I have a four-year-old son who loves dinosaurs, I found myself drawn to
Steven Brusatte’s fascinating and enjoyable The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. Brusatte’s narrative history of dinosaurs and paleontology explains all the scientific details in readable prose, and had the unanticipated bonus of proving to me the importance of reading outside your own academic field—by the time I finished the book, I had new ideas for my own research in literature and culture studies. Go figure! If you’re interested in dinosaurs and want a general introduction that goes beyond what you might read to your kids, this book is great.
That’s it for this year, even though there were other titles from my to-read pile that I just couldn’t get to, including Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Overstory (2018), Jennifer Egan’s historical novel Manhattan Beach (2018), Ted Chiang’s acclaimed collection of sci-fi short stories Exhalation (2018) (okay I might still read this before New Year’s), and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Happy reading and see you again in 2020!
About the Author
David Eisler is a PhD candidate at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the relationship between civil-military relations and contemporary American war fiction. Prior to beginning his PhD, David was a research analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses near Washington, DC. He also served five years on active duty in the United States Army, earning the rank of captain and completing overseas tours in Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan. David received a BA in astrophysics from Cornell University in 2007 and an MA in international affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2014.