With 2019 in the rear-view mirror, The Masters Review readers collectively reflect on the best works they read over the previous years. Take a peek at what we’re reading and where our individual tastes lie!
2019 was a bit of an odd year for me. It was the year I became the managing editor for The Masters Review. The year I began my MFA program. It seems like I read less than in the previous year, which also seems impossible, but I can’t know, because I unfortunately did not track my reading in 2019 as I did in 2018 (and as I’m doing in 2020 – kicking the year off with Karen Russell’s Orange World and Other Stories). Among my favorite stories I read for TMR include Alina Grabowski’s “Confirmation”, Joe Bond’s “Damico” and Andrew Erkkila’s “The Danbury Firebirds”, as well as a few others we have slated for publication in 2020 that I can’t quite share yet! Perhaps the best novel I read, though, was Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, a harrowing novel which tracks the twelve days leading up to the storm of a century, Hurricane Katrina, in the lives of a motherless family in southern Mississippi. I was twelve years old and growing up in the Midwest when Katrina hit. I wasn’t mature enough or close enough to the destruction to fully grasp its ramifications for the families which lived there, who couldn’t afford to evacuate, but Salvage the Bones forces you to confront that reality.
Trees communicate with each other. They can communicate with us, too. You may have heard such ideas from a friend in the thrall of a mushroom trip. But did you know, more specifically, that when attacked, certain trees send warning signals to neighbors, initiating a kind of community defense program against invaders? that rotting trees contribute more than living trees to ecological health? that the word book stems from beech? Richard Powers’ masterpiece The Overstory is filled with such arboreal insights. If this sounds dry, a scientific treatise rather than a novel, the fault is mine, not Powers’: Overstory is still very much a story, a page-turner with dozens of characters, both plant and animal, whose lives intersect in fascinating ways. I suggest that you read this book under the canopy of an ancient tree. When you’re finished, read the bark.
2019 was a weird reading year for me, maybe the first year ever in my life I read less than usual. I think I just hit a wall with the amount of content I could handle across internet, TV, and print alike, and as a result I now have a deeper respect for what it means to both create and consume something honest and powerful and real than I did before. Three very intense, very incredible books I feel happier just now remembering I read in early 2019 are: Cherry by Nico Walker, Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I also read a sex book called Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski that want to buy for everyone I know (ladies especially), and an interview with Leslie Jamison in Image Journal issue 101 that helped ground me and return me to the writers-and-writing world I’d begun to grow disillusioned with over the recent years.
This has been an excellent reading year. I loved Lauren Acampora’s new novel The Paper Wasp, Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Miranda July’s The First Bad Man, Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, and Denise Mina’s Conviction. I loved Arron Hamburger’s essay “Sweetness Mattered” in Tin House and Penny Guisinger’s essay “Born Back Ceaselessly” from Solstice. But if I had to pick one favorite, one book that I would read again and maybe even again, it would be The Need by Helen Phillips. I’m not much for speculative fiction, but I saw this book recommended somewhere and I picked it up without knowing much about it. I’m so glad I didn’t, and I’m not going to say much here, because not-knowing gave me that gasping moment, the one where you can’t believe it, and can’t wait to see what happens next. One night while her husband is away, paleobotonist Molly hears a noise in her living room. As she cowers in the bedroom with her children, her terror is palpable. What she finds is unbelievable, yet Phillips pulls it off. And the pacing. There are moments in this novel that Phillips draws out so excruciatingly I could hardly stand it—but then there are places she’s whip-fast and funny. This is a book about the risk of being human, of making choices, of having regrets and not-regrets. It’s so good.
A few years ago, I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and was floored by her fresh take on the novel form—the story is revealed through a series of sometimes loosely connected fragments—and her balancing of rich insight with play. So, in 2019, I resolved to finally read Offill’s debut, Last Things, and was immediately rewarded with two days of not-put-downable reading joy. Last Things tells the story of Grace and her idiosyncratic mother and scientific father, relaying all-too-adult topics through a child’s simultaneously precise and wonder-filled lens. The novel, like Offill’s sophomore effort, is at turns funny and gutting, and it simply hums with narrative energy. Offill has a new book, Weather, forthcoming this year, and I’m already searching for a weekend when I can drop all necessary tasks and simply sink into whatever this incredible author has conjured this time.
First published in 2004 but reprinted in paperback by Tin House in 2019, Samantha Hunt’s debut novel, The Seas, begs to be read again and again, especially in times of convalescence. My own stories of (minor, not to worry) illness are incidental, but this book kept me company when I needed it most. Hunt embeds story within story—from myths to delusions to censored letters to cultish questionnaires to “backwards words” meant for the printing press—thereby creating a narrative as rich in mystery as it is in clarity. However, like Hunt’s characters, the reader must take that word “clarity” with a grain of (sea) salt, because I suspect the truths of this novel are indelibly particular to each individual. You, after all, may be more desert soldier than mermaid, or more landlubber than sailor—yet Hunt still speaks to the plight of us all through love, grief, and that ubiquitous if unreliable element: water.
Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters, by Mark Dunn, is a book both irreverent and considerate of language, written in the epistolary fashion. Our brave heroine lives in the birthplace of Nevin Nollop, who coined the phrase “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” When the town’s banner of the phrase starts losing letters, those letters are also banned from the townspeople’s use – and thus, from the letters that we ourselves are reading. This book is cheeky and fun, while also including an engaging plot and winsome protagonist. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the absurd – and yes, of course that includes the nonsensical English language!
Two novels popped into my life this year and completely changed my trajectory. The first one was an intentional purchase, Motherhood by Sheila Heti. I found myself underlining sentences on every page, texting them to friends. She captures a slice of the female experience that few have been able to properly put into words. The other novel was Here I Am, by Jonathan Saffran Foer. I found it in a book bin, took it home, and devoured it. His strength is not only in crafting beautiful sentences, but in having an eye for unique, intimate detail. Read both to become a better writer, a better human being.
In 2019, “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas kept me inside on a sunny spring day. The ophthalmologist narrator, after somehow sleeping through a daytime burglary, begins spending Sundays at the flea market with a newish friend of her mother’s, a woman who helps recover missing possessions. The story explores the spoken/unspoken and the observed/unobserved with humor, compassion, and a terrific sense of play. After I finished, I realized that I’d been covering the final paragraphs on each page to avoid rushing to the ending.