MR Review of Books: New Recommendations from Rachel Comey, Aminatou Sow, and More

Probably as a result of my bracket-brain, I recently reviewed everything I read this year, taking note of where my all-over-the-map reading choices overlapped. I envisioned how the books might relate to each other in something like an ongoing chain of interlocking venn diagrams, my favorite being when both Saturday Night Live: The Book and Four Friends mentioned the time Jackie O. intervened with her son’s invitation to host SNL. (The disappointment of this tidbit stung even more so on the second read.)

Parachuting down the rabbit hole of end-of-year contemplation, I considered some questions about the books I’d consumed: Where do I remember reading each one? What was something I learned that I’m still chewing on? How have things changed since I closed it? Which books brought with them moments of readerly bliss? Where was I surprised to find two books meet?

The pretty perverted novel May We Be Forgiven has earned its spot as the most recent circle in my interlocking set of venn diagrams. I’ve schlepped the book both cross-country and on a crosstown bus, and read it stationed in the referee chair of a pickleball tournament. All I want for Christmas is for the book’s author, A.M. Homes, to write a sketch comedy show. Pick it up if you’re a fan of: feisty dialogue, envisioning an antagonist as actor Kyle Chandler, and people who are obsessed with Richard Nixon.

This exercise got my engines whirring in anticipation of all the reading potential that comes with a new year. A few new (to-me) books I’m excited to dig into in 2020 include: Harry Dodge’s My Meteorite, Vanity Fair’s Women on Women anthology, Nell Irvin Painter’s Old in Art School, and this book of peculiar questions asked of the New York Public Library in the age predating the search engine. I’m also excited to re-read a few former favorites: a heavily annotated copy of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky, which I read in 2011 (very curious to see what I was reacting to with my felt pens and such urgency at that age), along with Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I haven’t read since I was hooked by the novel’s language in school.

In the spirit of charting my past, present, and future reading, I asked a bunch of people I admire about their favorite books they read this year, what they can’t wait to re-read, and what’s at the top of their list for 2020 (or the upcoming holidays). Read on for recommendations from the likes of fashion designer Rachel Comey, author Kiley Reid of the forthcoming Such A Fun Age (the film/TV rights of which have already been acquired by Lena Waithe!), and the curator behind an excellent Instagram account called Simpsons Library.

Aminatou Sow, Writer and cultural commentator*

What has been your favorite book you read this year? Madeleine Miller’s Circe. All Greek myths need a feminist reworking and this one was a delight to read.
Anything you can’t wait to re-read? The entire Toni Morrison body of work because she transformed the American literary canon and I cannot believe she’s gone.
What are you looking forward to reading in 2020? You Never Forget Your First, Alexis Coe’s feminist biography of George Washington! It’s a real flex to say you’re reading a presidential biography. [Ed. note: I cannot wait to get my hands on this one!]

*You can pre-order Aminatou Sow’s forthcoming book Big Friendship, written with co-author Ann Friedman and slated for Spring 2020!

Rachel Comey, Designer

What has been your favorite book you read this year? Two favorites this year! The Overstory [by Richard Powers] and My Side of the Mountain [by Jean Craighead George] (which I read with my kids.) [They’re] almost related books… [grappling with] humanity, the natural world, our affect and engagement with it… truly great reading. I’m sure The Overstory is on the top of many lists this year.
Anything you can’t wait to re-read? Either of the two above. Such pure joy reading My Side of the Mountain out loud to my kids. We had so much fun fantasizing about making our own moccasins, befriending wild animals, and observing weather changes by the way the animals behave.
What are you looking forward to reading in 2020? Guestbook by Leanne Shapton—Leanne is a great friend and brilliant thinker. I always enjoy her take on storytelling, often with a 360 delivery with visuals, sensorial, and intellectual points to view.

Rosalind Jana, Writer

What has been your favorite book you read this year? Daphne Du Maurier’s The Parasites. I think I’d originally assumed from the title that this was another Du Maurier gothic number involving sinister caped figures/ominous big houses, but I was very, very wrong. Instead this is a fantastic look at show business, selfishness, fraught sibling dynamics, and the perils of success. Tracing the (mis)fortunes of the brilliant and tragic Delaney family, it has everything you could need in a book: precocious children brought up in a series of hotels across Europe, glamorous green dresses, sacrificial younger sisters, ill-advised affairs in Paris, bad mothers, and opening nights at the theatre with snow thick on the pavements outside. A total treat of a read.

Anything you can’t wait to re-read? Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche. Published by Faber this year, I dashed through most of this beautiful collection in one go in the bath—but, as with most poetry collections, I felt like that first reading only scraped the surface. I’m excited to return to Chan’s carefully crafted reflections on desire, queer identity, and family again soon. It’s a collection that thinks deeply about a series of crucial connections: between mother and daughter, between lovers, between different languages, between one’s true, fundamental self and the difficult weight of others’ expectations.

What are you looking forward to reading in 2020? Sarah Moss’s next novel, titled A Day Like Today, is coming out with Picador in Autumn of next year. Having enjoyed two fantastic books by her this year (the taut, deeply unsettling Ghost Wall and Victorian-era set Bodies of Light, which is especially good on both the history of female education and the inheritance of trauma), I can’t wait to read whatever comes next.

Carmen of Simpsons Library, Curator of @simpsonslibrary and art director

What has been your favorite book you read this year and why? A Final Companion to Books from The Simpsons by French graphic designer Olivier Lebrun. This book was a gift from last Christmas. It’s one of my favorites for obvious reasons. It is a great inspiration. I love browsing through and discovering new books that I can post on my account. Also, it’s cool to enjoy The Simpsons in a printed format.

Anything you can’t wait to re-read? Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life by Matt Groening. If you were a kid in the 90s, you probably read or saw this book at some point. Or maybe [only] if you were a cool kid—my parents didn’t let me watch The Simpsons. I could only take a look when some kid brought it to school. Anyway, I still think this book has everything you need to know about. Now as an adult, I want to read this so badly—I think “What would Bart Simpson do?” at every crucial moment of my life.

What are you looking forward to reading in 2020? I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next in this crazy and creative internet community that exists around The Simpsons and their early and best seasons. I especially like @zinetent, a zine publisher that has an amazing Simpsons collection.

Alex Beggs, Senior staff writer, Bon Appétit

What has been your favorite book you read this year? My favorite book this year was Out by Natsuo Kirino (it was first published in 1997, but read fresh as hell). It’s a Japanese horror/thriller about a woman who works in a factory making convenience store lunch boxes who kills her shitty husband in like, the first chapter (almost). After that, it gets WILD. Horrific. Brilliant. I don’t want to give anything away, just READ IT.
Anything you can’t wait to re-read? I still can’t believe Toni Morrison died this year. I want to reread The Bluest Eye and take notes.
What are you looking forward to reading in 2020? I have Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons on hold at the library—shout out to the library—so it better get to me by 2020. It’s a collection of short stories that are dark, weird, and fucked up, I heard. The Amazon synopsis says the stories cover “the banality of self-loathing, the scourge of addiction, the myth of marriage” !!!! Woo hoo !!!!

Verena von Pfetten, Co-founder of Gossamer

What has been your favorite book you read this year? The Overstory by Richard Powers. It should be required reading as far as I’m concerned. It’s a sprawling novel about trees and our relationship to them.

With The Overstory, Powers attempts the almost impossible: to make people really, truly, fundamentally and in our bones, *care* about trees. What’s absolutely wild about the book is that he succeeds. (Unsurprisingly, Powers makes this exact point within the book, and far better than I could: “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.”)

The one caveat I’ll offer: I didn’t always enjoy reading it—it’s long, it’s not perfect, and it has its occasional baggy moments—but I am so, so, so grateful I did.

Anything you can’t wait to re-read? I make it a point to go back and reread my favorite children’s and YA books a few times a year. Next up on my list are From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler [by E.L. Konigsburg], Island of the Blue Dolphins [by Scott O’Dell], and both Wise Child and Juniper, by Monica Furlong.

What are you looking forward to reading in 2020? I read mostly contemporary fiction, so I’m trying to be better about making sure I’ve also read the classics. Middlemarch by George Eliot—all 800-plus pages of it—is next.

Mina Douglas, Co-founder of Bibliofeed

What has been your favorite book you read this year? Being on the precipice of a new decade always makes me turn to science fiction novels, especially with the current state of affairs. There were many books I re-read this past year, such as Orwell’s 1984 or Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories in Welcome to the Monkey House. Over the summer I finally read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. It was gifted to me by the other two co-founders of Bibliofeed, Holly and Wolfgar Coleman. Known for her feminist voice in a previously male dominated genre, Le Guin creates stunning science fiction and fantasy works set in complicated worlds. I could not put The Left Hand of Darkness down, and this gift quickly became my favorite piece of literature that I read this year.

Anything you can’t wait to re-read? The end of 2019 has brought on many big changes in my personal life, including a cross country move from Virginia to the Pacific Northwest. As I start a new year in the beautiful, rainy city of Seattle, I am drawn to re-reading old favorites that are as comforting as a well-worn sweater. With the move, I have been looking for a used copy of S. E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish in every secondhand bookstore that I encounter. My copy either disintegrated from too many reads or was forced upon a friend as a must-read. Hinton is best known for her coming-of-age novel, The Outsiders, and while both led me on an emotional roller coaster, Rumble Fish has firmly claimed its spot in my heart as the favorite.

What are you looking forward to reading in 2020? Nick Cave, the prolific Australian musician/songwriter/author, will be releasing a new book, Stranger Than Kindness, with Canongate in 2020. This illustrated autobiography will accompany an exhibit based in Amsterdam that chronicles Nick Cave’s career. According to Canongate, “Stranger Than Kindness asks what shapes our lives and makes us who we are, and celebrates the curiosity and power of the creative spirit.” As one of the co-founders of Bibliofeed, I was the first person to share my seven favorite books via the @bibliofeed Instagram—one being Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro. His music and writing resonate deeply with me, and I can’t wait to have more of an insight into his world through his new book.

Kiley Reid, Writer

What has been your favorite book you read this year? I can’t stop thinking about F.S. Michaels’s Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything. It’s a fascinating capture of how stories, particularly the story of economic drive, shape how we think, act, and live. I love when a writer can take massive economic and societal trends and whittle them down to tiny, familiar, and often frightening examples.

Anything you can’t wait to re-read? I can’t wait for my next read of Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. It’ll be my third read, and much like the second one, I’m sure I’ll be taken once again by the genius wordplay and hysterical abundance of cultural references, both real and fake.

What are you looking forward to reading in 2020? I’m definitely looking forward to Megan Angelo’s Followers. I’m drawn to any novel about obsession, fame, and how ambition works within friendships.

Angie Venezia, Book Publicist

What has been your favorite book you read this year? I read two wildly different books about the [Irish Republican Army] back-to-back: Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing and Anna Burns’s deeply strange novel, Milkman, which conjures a truly singular, haunting voice to represent the perspective of a woman stuck in the crossfire of Irish paramilitaries. It cleared up so many questions I had about the IRA, and both were fascinating studies of the women caught up in this complex/insane conflict. It was easily my best/most memorable reading experience of the year.

Anything you can’t wait to re-read? I’m the only person I know that doesn’t like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and something tells me I’m on the wrong side of history on this one. It might be time to revisit.

What are you looking forward to reading in 2020? So many things: Red Comet (coming in the fall), a groundbreaking biography of Sylvia Plath that apparently reframes the way she is considered—I’ve always been obsessed with Sylvia, so I’ll take any excuse to delve back in. Also: Natasha Stagg’s latest (Sleeveless), plus more Annie Ernaux (The Years was another favorite this year).

An extra credit, burning question: What are the reading habits of someone who works in publishing? How many books do you read a week/a month/a year, when do you do it, do you have any ritual around it, are you allowed to read at the office? My reading habits vary quite a bit because I’m managing my reading for work alongside my reading “for fun.” I put that in quotations because my work reading is never a drag and usually a lot of fun. For example, I work with Samantha Irby, so earlier this year I read her forthcoming essay collection, Wow, No Thank You (coming in March)—If that’s not fun, I don’t know what is! She is the funniest writer alive.

I’m so lucky in the books I get to work on. But how can I resist the latest Eve Babitz or Sally Rooney, or some random, out-of-print novel from the 80s that Molly Young recommended in her latest newsletter? I also have My Struggle: Book 6 sitting on my shelf, and that is definitely some priority reading, but (sadly) not work-related. If I’m ever reading something extracurricular, it’s constantly being interrupted. I might be asked by an editor to read a manuscript in on submission, or I might be scrambling to finish a book I’m working on because my galleys came in late and I’m desperate to finish my press material and get them out to reviewers. A routine would be nice, but it’s actually quite ad hoc. I can’t read at the office—I’m always too busy with other aspects of my job—so I do most of my reading on my morning commute and on weekends. People in publishing rarely get to read during traditional work hours—I genuinely have no idea how we get all of that reading done. My first step is never leaving home without a book.

Photos via Edith Young.

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