Friday, December 27, 2019

Some favorite books of 2019

A list of some books I loved in 2019. No particular order within sections, and doesn't include work reading or books I read in paper.


Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (and Where Reasons End, though I think the former will be more universally compelling)
Emily Bernard, Black is the Body
Ellis Avery, The Family Tooth: A Memoir in Essays
Annie Ernaux, Happening
Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias
Asne Seirstad, Two Sisters
Anna Funder, Stasiland
Rachel Louise Snyder, No Visible Bruises
Ann Marlow, How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z
Lawrence Weschsler, And How Are you, Dr. Sacks? (falls apart towards the end, but there’s a lot of new material)
Emilie Pine, Notes to Self
Imani Perry, Breathe
Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives

Top general fiction:

Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
Minae Mizumura, A True Novel
Maurice Ruffin, We Cast a Shadow
Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People: Stories (possibly the very best book I read this year)
Susn Choi, Trust Exercise
Johannes Lichtman, Such Good Work (standout first novel)
Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Everything
Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (a great rec from Garth Greenwell)

Top general fiction, SFF subcategory:

Tade Thompson, The Rosewater Insurrection (sequel)
Sarah Pinsker, A Song for a New Day
Chuck Wendig, The Wanderers
Fonda Lee, Jade War (sequel to the unmissably good Jade City)
Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline
Aliya Whiteley, The Loosening Skin (exceptional, must get and read her other books)

Two excellent novels in a genre that is not mine:

Jami Attenberg, All This Could Be Yours
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, The Nest

I would recommend Neal Stephenson, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell with certain reservations– I actually really enjoyed this while also finding it periodically maddening; basically, NS’s retelling of, as it were, a mashup of Paradise Lost and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Interesting to see a gifted storyteller write a novel that essentially refuses all the pleasures of fiction....


Jane Harper, The Lost Man
Ron Corbett, Cape Diamond (Frank Yakabuski installment 2)
Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home
Dervla McTiernan, The Scholar
Denise Mina, Conviction
Kate Atkinson, Big Sky
Adrian McKinty, The Chain
Robert Crais, A Dangerous Man
Karin Slaughter, The Last Widow
S. L. Huang, Null State
Alex North, The Whisper Man
Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake (her best yet IMO)
Rene Denfield, The Butterfly Girl (sequel)
Soren Sveistrup, The Chestnut Man
Lee Child, Blue Moon
Robert Bryndza, Nine Elms
John Sandford, Bloody Genius
Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead, The Language of Secrets (very solemn, but the writing is extremely good)
Alison Bruce, The Silence
Sophie Hénaff, The Awkward Squad


Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring
Katherine Arden, Winternight (conclusion of trilogy)
S. A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass and The City of Copper (love these books so so much!)
Tom Sweterlitsch, The Gone World
Alex White, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe and sequel
Zen Cho, The True Queen (#2 in series)
K. Chess, Famous Men Who Never Lived
Emma Newman, Atlas Alone (Planetfall)
Rebecca Roanhorse, Storm of Locusts (Sixth World #2)
Joan He, Descendant of the Crane
Leo Carew, The Wolf and sequel (Under the Northern Sky series)
Ben Aaronovitch, The October Man
Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, Vita Nostra (very good, unusual)
Sarah Painter – a happy discovery, first two Crow Investigations book very enjoyable, then I devoured her whole backlist, then Crow #3 came out at the end of the year
Paul Cornell, A Long Day in Lychford
Emily Tesh, Silver in the Wood
Laurie Marks, Air Logic (final installment of Elemental Logic series)
Kali Wallace, Salvation Day
Claire O’Dell, The Hound of Justice (Janet Watson #2, flaws perhaps a bit clearer here than in the first one but still very appealing)
Ada Hoffman, The Outside
Craig L. Gidney, A Spectral Hue
Garth Nix, Angel Mage
Christelle Dabos, the Mirror Visitor books (these are new favorites, really good)
Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow (haunting, has stayed with me)
Kai Ashante Wilson, The Sorceror of the Wildeeps
Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven Boys and sequels (obtained after I read
Stephen King, The Institute
Paul Cornell, The Lights Go Out in Lychford
James S. A. Corey, Auberon (Expanse novella, not as good as The Churn which is my favorite, a bit cookie-cutter and politically schematic, but still of course highly readable
Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange

Urban fantasy/paranormal romance:

Melissa Olson, Boundary Broken (#4 in series)
Anne Bishop, Wild Country
Patricia Briggs, Storm Cursed
Deborah Blake, Wickedly Unraveled
Nalini Singh, Wolf Rain, Archangel’s War
Ilona Andrews, Sweep of the Blade, Sapphire Flames


Hoang, The Kiss Quotient (a recommendation from Roxane Gay)
Charlotte Greene, Legacy

Good rereads:

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Naomi Novik, Uprooted
Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, in preparation for new installment
Deborah Coates’s Hallie Michaels series

Others I enjoyed and would recommend to those to whom subject matter or genre appeals:

Richard Kadrey, The Grand Dark
Jean Kwok, Searching for Sylvie Lee
Angie Kim, Miracle Creek (not my genre but very good)
Liz Emens, Life Admin
Lewis Shiner, Outside the Gates of Eden (long novel exploring aftermath of the 60s, too unstructured and could have used one more serious female character but it has stayed with me)
Olivia Kiernan, Too Close to Breathe, The Killer in Me (decent police procedurals, Irish setting)
Claire McGowan, What You Did
Helen Phillips, The Need
Alan Russell, LA Woman (Gideon and Sirius book, they’re not especially well-written but I really enjoy them)
M. T. Edvardsson, A Nearly Normal Family
Catherine Kirwan, Darkest Truth
Joshilyn Jackson, Never Have I Ever
Jo Nesbo, Knife
T. Kingfisher, Minor Mage
Ben Winters, Golden State
Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate
Seanan McGuire, The Unkindest Tide
Michael Connelly, The Night Fire
Leah Bobet, An Inheritance of Ashes

Biggest disappointment of the year: The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth! The book just felt like a sustained assault against Lyra, and the uncritical use of Great Game-style politics is insufferable.

Friday, August 02, 2019


Cut-and-paste process post. Experimenting with embedding a link to Facebook....

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Summer reading recs

Summer reading recs for all, just a few particular standouts (big books that I think anyone and everyone would like):

Chuck Wendig, The Wanderers (Michael Crichton/Stephen King style near-future epic with fungal pandemic and scary AI)

Adrian McKinty, The Chain (moved from brilliantly well-written police procedurals set in the Belfast of the Troubles to mega-blockbuster thriller mode, very well done)

Fonda Lee, Jade War (sequel to Jade City - two of my favorite books of the last few years)

Chandler Baker, Whisper Network (character-driven with topical not-quite-crime plot)

Two newish crime writers you might not have heard of but should be reading if you like police procedurals: Ron Corbett, Dervla McTiernan.

Brilliant near-future SF set in Africa with aliens (but even if you don't think you like this genre, you should read these!): Tade Thompson's Rosewater books.

For fans of The Magicians: Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, Vita Nostra.

Unusual romance (autistic protagonists): Helen Hoang.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Note on the text

No time or wherewithal to write an elaborate post here, but if you are my friend on Facebook you have heard me rhapsodizing about the unpublished novel by Margaret Kilik that came into my possession last year and that will be published by Trinity University Press. I've been finalizing the text of the novel itself this past week. It's a reader's edition, not a scholarly edition of any kind, and I haven't gone deep into textual criticism or anything like that, but I did enjoy writing the "Note on the Text" just now (I've always wanted to write one!) and thought I would share that draft here. The novel is called The Duchess of Angus, and I will be pressing it into your hands next year for sure!...

Note on the text

When I first realized what I had on my hands, I envisioned a scholarly edition of the novel that would follow Margaret Kilik’s typescript in all of its particulars. At least part of the appeal of an unpublished manuscript like The Duchess of Angus derives from its idiosyncrasies: the misspellings, oddities of punctuation and quirks of grammar that have not yet been eliminated by the normalizing work of a copy-editor. I soon realized, though, that in order to produce a true reader’s edition, I would need to correct errors of various kinds. My guideline was to stick as closely as possible to the words that Kilik wrote, but to make small changes anywhere that would ease the reader’s passage through the sentence or paragraph.

Kilik’s use of commas was especially scattershot, and I have frequently re-punctuated sentences and stretches of dialogue for clarity and ease of comprehension. That said, I hope the text retains the original sense of comma use being relatively light in order to convey the flat affect of Jane Davis’s narration. I have sometimes added or moved paragraph breaks, but I have retained the frequent ellipses, which Margaret used for emphasis and to indicate a pause especially in speech, except in a small number of cases where the substitution of a comma for the ellipsis made the text much clearer to the eye.

Kilik’s spelling is somewhat unreliable. I enjoyed but eliminated inate, medeocrity, dueces, droziness, stiffled, candolabra, scimmed, decipation, momentoes, whispy, languous. Where names are given in more than one variant, I have made the text consistent by preferring either the first or the more correct-seeming spelling on a case-by-case basis. There are some patterns of misspelling that give a distinctive flavor to the manuscript that this edition no longer retains. Words are given a double letter in the place of a single or vice versa: mentionned, welcommed, poisonned, stationned, accoustics, posessed, Channel No. 5. “Ea” is often preferred incorrectly over “ee”: bear for bare, sleak for sleek, leach for leech, peak for peek, healer for heeler (in the expression “ward heeler”) Kilik adds an extra “e” to adjectives ending in “y”: shiney, smokey, shakey, boney, lacey. She also often uses two words where one is standard usage (ash trays, hitch hike, etc.), and I have given the standard version in all of those cases.

In a handful of places where the misspelling introduces an appealing malapropism of sorts, I have given the manuscript reading in square brackets: so, for instance, I have corrected the manuscript reading “desolute” to “desolate” but provided the original as well, because of how it echoes the term “dissolute” (which conceivably could have been the word the novelist intended to use, though context strongly supports my editorial choice). In another instance, the manuscript reads “unatoned”; I have corrected it to “unattuned,” but didn’t want wholly to efface the hint of sin and redemption that enters by way of the misspelling.

Several of the manuscript’s preferences seem to me sufficiently intrinsic to the novel’s style that I have not forced them into line with the conventional rules. Two things stand out in particular: the use of sentence fragments for emphasis; the inconsistent and shifting use of past and presence tense in some of the narrator’s ruminations. Neither have I tried to smooth over what I see as one of the book’s very few moments of awkward handling, the flashback scene where we revisit the initial encounter between Jess and Mira.

My heartfelt thanks to Mimi Lipson, who typed up the manuscript into a clean Word file. The original manuscript will be deposited in Special Collections at Coates Library, Trinity University in San Antonio, as will the two other unpublished play scripts that came into my possession at the same time the novel did. One of them represents a reworking of the material included in The Duchess of Angus and will be of special interest to readers of the novel. We also intend to create a digital edition of the novel manuscript that can be easily viewed online.

Jenny Davidson
Columbia University
June 18, 2019

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ottoman affairs

I really enjoyed doing this interview with Danny O'Quinn about his remarkable new book Engaging the Ottoman Empire: Vexed Mediations, 1690-1815.

Small teaser:
I’m pretty committed to this violent non-traditional archive and to this unfamiliar repertoire: once one sees these things, they can’t be unseen. But violence poses extremely challenging theoretical questions for what we do: questions pertaining to the limits of form and representation, to matters of historical complicity, to the affective dynamics of economic and political domination and subjugation. Much of my work has revolved around matters of wartime affect; Engaging the Ottoman Empire feels like my most sustained attempt to understand the precarity of life as it permeates the mediascape.
You can find older installments of this interview series at Medium and also at the Rambling.

For me, this format is perfect. I like choosing and reading the book and thinking up the questions - and at that point, my work is pretty much done! The annoying conventions that have to be followed when you write a formal review for publication are a small bane of my existence. In general I prefer to write comments on manuscripts rather than weigh in once something's already been published (and I also place a higher priority on tenure and promotion letters than on published reviews), but I like getting to pose a few questions about things that struck me.

(Note to self: just said yes to promotion/tenure letter #6 for the summer, that is large workload, HARD NO TO ANYONE ELSE WHO ASKS! But then again if it's someone you know, it's very difficult to turn down. At Columbia, declines to write tend to be counted against the candidate, even when the refusal comes with a reasonable explanation that doesn't have to do with the candidate's work.)

Pamela Weaponized

The stress of the trip gave me a huge relapse vis-a-vis ongoing lung ailment and precipitated a visit to a doctor who gave me some serious medications. But I was very set on seeing Martin Crimp's Pamela adaptation When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other so that I could write about it, and it was highly worthwhile in the end - my piece has just gone live at The Rambling.

A teaser:
My Pamela, when I teach or write about Richardson’s novel, is the Pamela of resistance. I don’t care whether or not my students read much (any?) of the dreadful parts that follow Pamela’s acceptance of Mr. B’s marriage proposal. I refuse to foreground the fact that Pamela voluntarily marries her would-be rapist, or that the main work (the deluded and delusory work!) of the rest of the novel is retrospectively to redeem all that was violent, coercive, troubling in the relationship between the two. Before that, in the first few hundred pages, Richardson has brilliantly conveyed the moment-by-moment consciousness of a young woman under constant threat from the sexual predator who employs her.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

"The glacier is experienced as a silence"

At the TLS, Robert Macfarlane on the memory of ice:
Ice is a recording medium and a storage medium. It collects and keeps data for millennia. Unlike our hard disks and terrabyte blocks, which are quickly updated or become outdated, ice has been consistent in its technology over millions of years. Once you know how to read its archive, it is legible almost as far back – as far down – as the ice goes.

Friday, May 03, 2019


Not really tracking online reading these days, but I thought it was worth linking to this illuminating NYRB piece about Edouard Louis written by Jason Farago. I must read the novel, but it will probably be worth my while to read the original - the points about structure and style make it sound riveting. Anyway, interesting to students of literature and politics alike...

Friday, March 29, 2019

On procrastination in letter-writing

It was a funny convergence....

I've been writing this week under the auspices of a fourteen-day boot camp organized by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity; my college classmate and fellow academic Julie Lynch was praising this organization on Facebook a few weeks ago, so when I got an email from the provost's office shortly thereafter saying that Columbia is now a member and that we would have free use of many of its resources, I thought I should give it a try. In fact since I am on sabbatical (and since I have long hewed to a "production of quota" method that basically is very similar to what these boot camps do) it was not really necessary, but if I am going to recommend it to others, I will always prefer to have tried it myself.

Anyway, today's writing was fun because I got to the part of my skeleton draft that includes all the material about Gibbon's habit of putting off writing important letters! He refers in a letter to his good friend Holroyd to "[t]he aversion to Epistolary Conversation, which it has pleased the Daemon to implant in my nature” (2:14), and the problem produces many very funny but also rather painful expressions of penitence and shame.

This is from a letter to Gibbon's Swiss friend Deyverdun, apologizing for a long silence: “my long silence has been occasioned, as far as I understand the anatomy of my own mind, by various reasons: during the summer it was mere idleness and procrastination: from the meeting of Parliament, when it became necessary to finish my book and to subdue America I found myself really involved in a greater hurry of public private and litterary business than I have ever known in any part of my life” (2:104).

There are a lot of good ones to Holroyd:
You wish I would write as a sign of life. I am alive, but as I am immersed in the decline and fall, I shall only make the sign.—It is made. (2:246-47)

Since my retreat to Lausanne our Correspondence has never received so long an interruption, and as I have been equally taciturn with the rest of the English World it may now be a problem among that sceptical nation whether the historian of the decline and fall be a living substance or an empty name. So tremendous is the sleepy power of laziness and habit, that the silence of each post operated still more strongly to benumb the hand and to freeze the Epistolary ink. (3:4)
And to his stepmother: “… you will be satisfied to hear that for many Wednesdays and Saturdays, I have consumed more time than would have sufficed for the Epistle in devising reasons for procrastinating it to the next post” (3:130).

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Two bits (or more...)

It's ironic because I wouldn't say that love stories are my favorite kind of story at all (crime and coming-of-age are far closer to my heart, ditto speculative fictions of ideas and worldbuilding in both SF and F inflections) - but Eve Gerber asked me to recommend five great love stories for Valentine's Day, and here's what we came up with....

Five great love stories suitable for year-round reading.

In other news - highly recommending Samuel Hayat on the gilets jaunes and le macronisme as "pendant" phenomena. Thanks to Elsa Dorlin for the recommendation (her other suggestions for illumination on this topic were very helpful as well: an ethnographic piece by Florence Aubenas for Le Monde that emphasizes gender and self-realization; thoughts from Jacques Ranci`ere; and Patrick Aubiaz on the role of ecology in the movement.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The desire to read

This is an interesting example of mid-career serendipity (also - ask the smart young people you know to do things, they almost certainly have more freedom to make writing commitments than the weary self-protective middle-aged! I was the same when I was twenty-five as I am now, I would have jumped at the chance to write for almost anywhere, but nobody asks you until you start being too busy to say yes!).

There's a very good Facebook group called Eighteenth-Century Questions with about 800 members, including many of the most active scholars in my age cohort and the years below. I am an introvert and can't socialize too much without crashing - and I have been remiss and not attended my big field conference either last year or this year, will have to fix that next year but I still always dread it, human overload - but I am naturally collegial and the internet is a magical thing for someone like me, evils of Facebook notwithstanding.

I had the idea in the summer of throwing "virtual book parties" for three people who are good presences in that group and who'd written books clustering around topics of women and science. Part of that included doing "five questions" interviews with each one in turn; I just put them up at Medium (here's Laura Miller on popular Newtonianism, Tita Chico on literature and science in the age of Enlightenment and Lucinda Cole on vermin, literature and the sciences of life).

I am too lazy to write academic book reviews (or really many other book reviews either), I like the part where I read the book and note what's interesting but I hate the feeling of constriction that comes when you have to actually obey the conventions of book review form (that's part of why I've always liked blogging more than reviewing - if there was one interesting thing, I say it and I'm done!). But either live or written interview format is perfect, I don't have to strain myself to write the questions as I would to write a review, and I think the result is usually more interesting than a review (this is partly of course because the author has to do almost all the work). These "five questions" pieces turned out so well that I thought I should pursue a more formal venue. And The Rambling is the perfect host for it! It's a new web publication founded by two smart young eighteenth-century scholars with the goal of opening up topics in our field for a wider audience....

Here Tina Lupton answers my questions about her excellent book on the history of reading and not reading in eighteenth-century Britain. Lots of good stuff there, but here's a bit I found especially satisfying:
JMD: Your book interweaves brief personal reflections with its theoretical and scholarly accounts of reading as it takes place over time: in the introduction, you talk about how the year in which you “thought most intensely about time” was one in which you were working very long hours as a university administrator: “’I have no time,’ I thought, ‘no time at all.’ And yet it was at that very ebb of intellectual life, that very point where my days felt more scheduled and more tightly packed than they ever had before, that I began to think about what reading books was to me.” Did you always know that these short personal interludes would be a part of the book, or did the fact creep up on you as a solution to some of the puzzles a book in progress inevitably poses around composition, revelation and argument?

TL: Those bits appeared mostly as an accident. I put them without thinking too much but I kept offering to Matt McAdam at JHU to take them out, thinking that they were really only there as place holders. Part of the reason they stayed, as you suggest, was to do with efficiency. It takes a lot to explain in abstract terms why working so hard that you can’t read correlates positively to the desire to read. But just saying that I was caught up in that cycle makes the point quickly. Also, you’ll know from your own work how discouraging it can be to look for clues about reading in the past. There are so few of them. So I was also thinking that by having those anecdotes about my reading in the book, I was leaving some record of it for the future.

But it also took a lot of good friends reading those chapters to convince me that the personal stuff had a place in an academic book. In that process I came to see those anecdotes were part of the way I wanted to tilt the book. They became notes to my friends, many of whom do enormous amounts of casual labor, administrative work and childcare and elder care. I knew that many of the people I wanted to read this book most were the very people who would have the least time to get it—so these snippets are there in part as solidarity with them.

The solace and the grief

Not sure how I missed this one when it came out, but saw something about it in advance of the publication of Yiyun Li's new novel in coming weeks and thought I'd better read this small collection of essays to catch up. It is a haunting book, it resonates strongly with me: it has the amazing title Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Four bits I especially liked (it is a bleak book about a year of suicidal ideation and multiple hospitalizations):
To articulate it demands honesty that I am almost unwilling to offer. Though evasion rarely leads to joy; there is, one must admit, a sense of joy if one can dissect something, oneself included, with precision. (In college and as a young scientist the tasks I had most enjoyed were the peripheral activities: to peel everything away and leave only the neural system intact in an insect; to harvest the bone marrow from a mouse’s femur until the bone became nearly transparent; to carefully flush out a mouse’s lungs. Perhaps my deficiency as a scientist, a lack of ultimate purpose, is why I love writing. Precision gives me more pleasure than the end result.) (117)

In an ideal world I would prefer to have my mind reserved for thinking, and thinking alone. I dread the moment when a thought trails off and a feeling starts, when one faces the eternal challenge of eluding the void for which one does not have words. To speak when one cannot is to blunder. I have spoken by having written—this book or any book; for myself and against myself. The solace is with the language I chose. The grief, to have spoken at all. (152)

Only by fully preparing oneself for people’s absence can one be at ease with their presence. A recluse, I have begun to understand, is not a person for whom a connection with another person is unattainable or meaningless, but one who feels she must abstain from people because a connection is an affliction, or worse, an addiction. (183)

Many drafts were written when things began to feel unbearable. Composing a sentence is better than composing none; an hour taken away from treacherous rumination is an hour gained; following the thread of a thought to the end is better than having many thoughts entangled. In a sense, writing becomes the effort of detecting a warning sign before it appears. There are moments when it must sound as though I am arguing against hope and happiness, against others and myself, but any attachment, even to the most fallacious idea, is an anchor when solidness cannot be felt. (200)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

"I am not interested in how it thinks"

At the Guardian, Deborah Levy considers the pros and cons of culling one's book collection:
It is true that in the current phase of my life, I have emptied my shelves of many books I have carried around with me for decades. I finally realised that I was not attached to them. Like a relationship that has neared its end, I lived in hope they might reach out to me. To put it more animistically, if these books were speaking to me, I no longer wanted to listen to them. I threw away books I had started, never finished, and I finally owned up to never wanting to get involved with them in the first place. Fiction, in particular, can be boring for the same reasons that make people boring. Its mind is closed, it cannot tolerate doubt, it has no interest in the subjectivities of others, it cannot access the apparently unknowing part of its mind (sometimes described as the unconscious), it is relentlessly cheerful or relentlessly despairing, and most importantly, I am not interested in how it thinks.
(NB I haven't emphasized the Marie Kondo aspect of how the piece is framed because I read Margaret Dilloway's interesting piece on Kondo this morning and do not want to reinforce the patterns of thinking she deplores!