The Best Books of 2019

Lee Polevoi


Readers who follow end-of-the-year book lists encounter many of the same titles, no doubt all offering a rich reading experience. What follows includes some books a bit more off the beaten track—novels, a collection of short stories, and a work of criticism that deserve broader readership as well.


The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona


For me, The Volunteer is the most accomplished work of fiction published in 2019. The story of Vollie Frade (the “Volunteer”) spans numerous generations, zigzagging from the American Midwest to the war in Vietnam, from the borough of Queens, New York, to New Mexico and Latvia. The intriguing opening chapters don’t prepare the reader for Vollie’s brutal ordeal as a POW in Vietnam, which he barely survives. That’s when the novel becomes something genuinely special—each sentence, each paragraph perfectly crafted, a work for the ages:


“You’d see a guy was scared. They were all of them scared out of their minds even while stoned, but you’d see, what was it, the eyes too open, too reactive to movement and sun glints of passing scooter windshields; eyes too certain they could see it coming, the moment, the fell turn; a crouchy way of moving around even when the guy had no gear to hump; and it all amounted to a greed to go on living, laced with the knowledge it was not meant to be. Like, I know I’m not getting out of here. And then, a few weeks later, you’d hear the guy was dead.”


It’s baffling that The Volunteer has been so unjustly overlooked in many “best of 2019” lists.



Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller


A fugitive from the Napoleonic Wars, Captain John Lacroix journeys to Scotland for mysterious reasons in a suspenseful, beautifully written novel by Andrew Miller. Pursued by coldblooded agents of the British Army, Lacroix grapples with horrific memories of war and finds solace in the arms of a young noblewoman on the verge of losing her eyesight. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, while firmly established in 18th-century England, feels contemporary in tone and spirit.



Grand Union by Zadie Smith


Zadie Smith’s novel, NW, was one of my top choices in 2012. In Grand Union, her first collection of short stories, Smith takes on a wide range of voices and situations, rendered in consistently distinctive, high-octane sentences. In “Sentimental Education,” for example, a mother of three looks back on her licentious youth in language that’s both wise and lustful, also dripping with insights into the human condition:


“… she read a brutal news story and thought, yes, from my school emerged one England football player and two and a half pop stars; from Daryl’s, this grinning loon who just decapitated someone in Iraq. On the other hand, the very first boy Monica ever kissed went on to stab a man to death in a chip shop around the same time she was fixing a mortarboard to her head.”


Writing that’s whip-smart, unpredictable, and often very funny.



Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry


Another “repeat offender” (on my best books lists for 2013 and 2015), Kevin Barry demonstrates once again his Irish wizardry with prose. This time, a pair of aging gangsters sit and converse in a terminal in Morocco while waiting for an errant daughter to (possibly) arrive from Tangier. Their Godot-like dialogue and larger story span a long, troubled friendship, as well as colorful excursions into their lives of crime.


Night Boat to Tangier is eminently quotable throughout. Just as an example, here’s a description of one of the pair, Maurice Hearns:


“His left eye is smeared and dead, the other oddly bewitched, as though with an excess of life, for balance. He wears a shabby suit, an open-necked black shirt, white runners and a derby hat perched high on the back of his head. Dudeish, at one time, certainly, but past it now.”



September 1, 1939 by Ian Sansom


“Best of” lists should strive to include at least one quirky, unclassifiable work of literature. This year’s hands-down winner is September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem.


For a quarter-century, Ian Sansom has circled W.H. Auden’s iconic poem, “September 1, 1939,” set on the eve of the Second World War. Instead of traditional analysis, Sansom delivers a series of impressions, asides, and off-tangent meditations on the poem—reminiscent of Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s classic work on writing and procrastination. The result is a beguiling interpretation of the poem that saw a revival of interest on 9/11 and served to remind us all: “I and the public know / what all schoolchildren learn / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”



Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, recently completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.



For Highbrow Magazine



Image Sources:


--Google Images (Creative Commons)


--Main photo: Painting, “The Reading,” by Vittorio Reggianini


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