Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Libby McGuire

While we understand as well as anyone the arbitrariness of lists and of that period of time we call a year, it can be mildly useful to look back and assemble our (highly subjective) favorites as a way of remembering and marking said arbitrary amount of time, if only to say, Here’s something that happened while everyone was getting older. Besides, lists help with our site traffic.

This particular list is neither an exhaustive “best of,” nor determined by consensus. Rather, these are individual staff members’ and contributors’ personal favorites—the books that most moved us, unsettled us, the ones we couldn’t stop talking about. There’s plenty of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction here, presenting rich, disquieting allegories for refugee migration, totalitarianism, and the mundanity of work; there’s nonfiction and poetry that ruminates on climate change, Black womanhood, collective history, and the long shadow of trauma. While it may be tempting to attribute so-called timely works to a widening political consciousness among writers and readers, and while it may also seem like there’s more to be angry about than ever before, speaking truth to power is nothing new in literature. What is, or was, new are these books, which were all published in the U.S. in that period of time we’re calling 2019. We hope you enjoy.

1. Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg (Knopf)

Praise for Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s ridiculously incisive TV series, BoJack Horseman, is often accompanied by some declaration of how the latest season devastated or otherwise “fucked me up.” His debut short story collection—full of tales of love gone wrong, love gone right, and love that’s just gone—begins in a similar place of brokenness, but quickly begins to piece things back together. Bob-Waksberg’s signature surreal flourishes are on hand, along with an uncanny ability to marry the tragic and hilarious. Fans of BoJack will find the same trenchant humor and empathy in Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory—only this time, as Bob-Waksberg writes in the opening story, is different. There’s no gutting reversal of fortune at the end, no stray remark or action that comes back to haunt the reader or the characters. This time, you can trust that tragedy is in the rearview mirror. [Danette Chavez]

2. Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess (Tin House)

K Chess’ remarkable debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, stands out in the crowd of the year’s political works. Using speculative fiction to explore America’s attitude toward refugees, the novel follows two people who have come to New York from a dying alternate universe. The novel’s protagonists, a doctor who left her son behind and an academic who dedicated his life to studying authors who don’t exist in this world, aren’t extraordinary or even particularly likable. But their journey is both strange and all too familiar as they cope with both prejudice and survivor’s guilt to build a new life. Interludes peppered throughout the book show the perspectives of other refugees and the wildly different ways they adapt, a clever narrative construct that expands the book’s scope while still keeping it focused. [Samantha Nelson]

3. Exhalation by Ted Chiang (Knopf)

Exhalation isn’t just one of the best books of 2019—it’s one of the best of the decade. Long before the film adaptation of Arrival, Ted Chiang was a household name in science fiction thanks to his masterful 2002 short story collection, Stories Of Your Life And Others. Nearly two decades later, Chiang returned with a second collection that’s somehow even better than his first. Exhalation’s standouts are “The Merchant And The Alchemist’s Gate,” about a doorway in Iraq for time travel; “Omphalos,” set in an alternate universe where young-earth creationism has been confirmed by science; and “Anxiety Is The Dizziness Of Freedom,” in which technology allows people to communicate with alternate versions of themselves in parallel universes. Chiang’s signature style—neatly symmetrical stories that fold back on themselves like an elegant equation—remains, but these stories are warmer than the cool, cosmological calculus that drove his earlier work. [Adam Morgan]

4. Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (trans. by Minna Zallman Proctor, New Directions)

Happiness, As Such is a marvel of an epistolary novel about a group of family and friends struggling to stay connected when politics and geography make it progressively harder. The central relationship is between Michele, an activist who moves frequently and without much warning, and his mother. Her love for her son and his inability to reciprocate it in a legible way is the book’s emotional thread, and Natalia Ginzburg pulls on it unmercifully. Where the book truly stuns is on the line level, where Ginzburg and translator Minna Zallman Proctor produce something extraordinary (the book was originally published in Italian in 1973). These sentences are unforgettable: “I’m sending you hugs and wishing you happiness, if there is such a thing as happiness. A possibility that we can’t entirely exclude, despite so rarely seeing evidence of it in this world that’s been given to us.” [Bradley Babendir]

5. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Riverhead)

Drawing from a rich reservoir of African mythology, Marlon James’ fantasy novel centers around Tracker, a young man with the ability to follow anyone by scent alone. The book is framed like a darker version of The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy, with Tracker telling the inquisitor interrogating him a story filled with witches, shapeshifters, demons, lies, vendettas, and sex. It’s a dense, lyrical, violent, and sometimes bitingly funny tale that sets up a world James plans to flesh out into a trilogy. The glossary of characters and place names is almost as cryptic as the book itself, pushing you to fully invest in the prose and sniff out the complexities of the setting like Tracker himself. Michael B. Jordan bought the rights to adapt the book to film, and its mysterious characters and gorgeous imagery give it the potential to be a spectacular one. [Samantha Nelson]

6. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf)

Most people, including many memoirists, struggle to recount chapters of their lives with both clarity and wit, let alone while experimenting with dozens of literary forms. But Carmen Maria Machado’s pointedly funny, deeply reflective In The Dream House manages to be a short story collection, memoir, and lesson in fragmentation all rolled into one. In The Dream House frames and reframes an abusive relationship from the author’s life, exploring the years-long ordeal through the lens of the coming-of-age story or Gothic tale. Machado’s considerable skill never distracts from the painful particular; in fact, the author’s committed to presenting an unvarnished, if undeniably stylish, look at abusive dynamics in queer relationships, and how they’re so often euphemized or downplayed. The responsibility Machado feels toward LGBTQ+ people is precisely why she shines a light on the less examined corners of their lives. [Danette Chavez]

7. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (trans. by Stephen Snyder, Pantheon)

A National Book Awards finalist for translated literature, Japanese novelist Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a chilling work about life on an isolated island where people periodically forget the meaning and value of things including umbrellas, birds, and photographs. The story follows a young author who seeks to protect a friend from the Memory Police, a mysterious organization tasked with purging anyone who doesn’t forget things they should and making sure all traces of forgotten things are disposed of. Short, but profoundly powerful, the book’s austere prose produces a sense of building tension and urgency through to its spectacular, tragic ending. It has the timelessness of a fable, yet feels like an urgent warning about the need for resistance in a world that seems all too quick to forget the lessons of the past. [Samantha Nelson]

8. The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada (trans. by David Boyd, New Directions)

One way you know something is wrong with the factory at the heart of Hiroko Oyamada’s surreal, slim novel is that its employees seem to enjoy working there. Its sprawling campus houses hundreds of restaurants, comfortable residences, and the reassurance that one can never really mess up. But beneath the workers’ smiles creeps a palpable sense of unease, which does not go unnoticed by The Factory’s narrators, three new employees who grow increasingly disoriented the longer they’re there. Time passes drudgingly slow or disconcertingly fast, and nobody can say what the factory actually makes. The novel was drawn from Oyamada’s experience working in an automaker’s subsidiary, but the author resists putting a single face to her story’s slinking menace. Its allegory extends to become about any work that is at once alienating and all-consuming, and results in a loss of self—which is to say, it’s about all work. [Laura Adamczyk]

9. Magical Negro by Morgan Parker (Tin House)

“My body is an argument I did not start,” writes Morgan Parker. The line feels like a mournful plea, but also reads like a declaration of war. If we’re going to have this argument, then Parker is going to talk about it in her own terms. This fierce, urgent, and absolutely exquisite poetry collection is a sizzling critique of how Black womanhood is questioned, threatened, commodified, validated, and celebrated. What it is rarely allowed to do is to simply be. Parker tackles this mined landscape via pop culture phenomena, literary allusions, celebrity culture, historical anecdotes, cinematic tropes, and any explicit or subtextual reference her verses can get a hand on. By flattening out the division between high- and low-brow, Parker upends the narratives that dominate so much of our collective imagination surrounding Black bodies. The poem “Matt” alone would have been enough to make this an unforgettable read. [Ines Bellina]

10. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (Knopf)

In this stunning debut novel, two girls disappear in the isolated Russian province of Kamchatka. Instead of crafting a whodunit, Julia Phillips uses this catalyst to examine how violence plays an intrinsic role in women’s lives. Each chapter focuses on the impact of this crime on a different character, only to discover they all inhabit a form of disappearance, whether due to neglect, abuse, or other daily indignities. The novel’s hyper-specific setting allows Phillips to dig in to so many of America’s own homegrown horrors, too, like the marginalization of indigenous communities, the misplaced nostalgia for a supposedly glorious past, the rippling effects of mass migration, and the tensions that lie in the rural-urban divide. Prepare for a slow burn, but like the Russian peninsula’s dormant volcanoes, Phillips’ prose simmers with hidden depths. [Ines Bellina]

11. Late Migrations: A Natural History Of Love And Loss by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions)

Alternating between memoir and ruminations on the natural world, Margaret Renkl’s collection of essays ponders life, death, family, grief, and anthropic climate change. “The cycle of life might as well be called the cycle of death,” she writes. “The shadow side of love is always loss.” Each passing year, migrating monarch butterflies appear later and later to her Nashville garden. Beloved parents pass away—late migrations of a different sort. “Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world,” Renkl writes. And so she teaches us, in captivating, lyrical prose. Mockingbirds keep messy nests. The cedar waxwing is “an operatic aria of a bird. A flying jungle flower.” A gathering of ladybugs is called a “loveliness”—an apt word for this collection. [Rien Fertel]

12. Women Talking by Miriam Toews (Bloomsbury)

If there’s any book published in 2019 that will endure as a masterpiece in the years to come, it’s Miriam Toews’ Women Talking. Perfect in its form, the novel could be a found document—the minutes of a meeting in a remote Mennonite colony, where the women and girls have been repeatedly raped by men of their community. With the story living and dying by the women’s heated debate, a lesser writer might have been tempted to make talking heads of their characters, playing out competing ideological angles. Readers may likewise be tempted to attribute the novel’s import to the outpouring of women speaking up about sexual abuse in recent years (one review called Women Talking a “Mennonite #MeToo Novel”). But Women Talking accomplished that magnificent feat of being both of its time and timeless, urgent yet thoughtful and altogether very human in its dissection of those who struggle beneath, and occasionally transcend, forces that would silence them. [Laura Adamczyk]

13. Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (Transit Books)

When so many essayists seem hell-bent on figuring the thing out once and for all, beating their subjects into submission, Australian writer Maria Tumarkin instead collects and amasses, weaving her way to insights that she then contradicts or otherwise complicates. Axiomatic, Tumarkin’s first book released in the U.S., examines trauma and the way individual and collective history asserts itself in the present, the writer bringing her compassionate yet unsentimental eye to bear on, among other things, a high school suicide and a community lawyer’s relationship with her troubled clients. The collection recalls Sebald in both its winding style and subject matter—Tumarkin was born in Ukraine, and the Holocaust weighs heavily here—and as with that great writer, readers may find themselves synching to Tumarkin’s ruminative pace. [Laura Adamczyk]

14. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)

The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad, is less fantastical but just as deeply rooted in systemic injustice. The novel delves into the real-life abuses and prejudices at a reform school in Florida that are as much a part of this country as football and the notion of American exceptionalism. But even as he confronts that past, Whitehead takes care to show his characters, including protagonist Elwood Curtis, great respect and consideration. He gives them interiority, dreams, and idiosyncrasies—belated eulogies for the Black teens consumed by the engine of white supremacy. It’s an elegantly written and at times discomfiting read, as Whitehead proves that these injustices aren’t the remnants of an antebellum South but the seeds of a monstrous plant, one that continues to grow in our nation’s landscape. [Danette Chavez]

15. Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson (Ecco)

Ten-year-old twins Bessie and Roland burst into flames again and again—a Human Torch-like spontaneous combustion. Their Tennessee senator father doesn’t give a hot damn, as long as his “demon” kids don’t interfere with his political trajectory. So their stepmother hires her long-lost best friend, Lillian, to act as the twins’ governess. Is Kevin Wilson’s third novel a social commentary sleight of hand about a world on fire, filled with citizens who just want to “burn it all down”? A political allegory? Or a story about the toils and joys of parenting? It matters not, when a novel is as disturbing, rollicking, and unabashedly in love with life as this. “Maybe raising children,” Wilson writes, “was just giving them the things you loved most in the world and hoping that they loved them, too.” [Rien Fertel]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter