It’s that time once again – ‘twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house, everyone was all like, “Crap, what last-minute gifts can I get on Amazon Prime?” Have no fear – our annual book review round up collects some of our favorite titles from 2019, as well as other standouts we’ve read this year.
Our lists focus on books that your recipient isn’t likely to already have, either because they’re obscure and lesser-known or because they just came out that recently. You can also check out our 2017 and 2018 book lists.
In Goldie Goldbloom’s new novel, On Division, a middle-aged Chassidic woman grapples with her faith when a new pregnancy keeps reminding her of the way her gay son was mistreated by the community.
The novel starts at a crucial point in Surie’s life: already an outsider in the community for having a gay son, she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. It isn’t acceptable for a woman of her age to have marital relations, and she knows that news of the pregnancy will bring shame on her family. For a number of reasons, she chooses not to tell anyone, not even her husband. The bulk of the novel deals with the moral quandary behind her choice.
Goldbloom has a knack for description. The novel offers a glimpse into one of the tightly closed Chassidic communities in Williamsburg. It is so richly detailed in its description of Williamsburg, I was surprised to learn the author was Australian; from reading the book, I thought she could have grown up in Brooklyn. The book takes us through almost a year, covering the way each holiday is prepared for. “In mid-March, the young men began to return home from their faraway yeshivos and mesivtas and kollels for Passover. School was let out from the beginning of Nissan and the streets filled with children pushing other children in strollers or carrying home dripping paper packages of fish for their mothers. Older girls who would soon be engaged walked hand in hand, their heads close together, their thick braids down their backs, swaying. The smells of bleach and polish wafted from the open windows.” Continue reading
As Stephen Van Dyck was coming of age, the internet came of age around him.
For a gay teen in a small town, the internet meant the freedom to find other gay boys and men for dating, casual hookups, and friendship. In his new book, People I’ve Met from the Internet, Van Dyck has published a meticulously kept list of these encounters annotated with stories.
The list itself, published in non-annotated form at the start of the book, is entertaining to read, with snippets like “cuddled, asked me to call him Dad” that hint at a larger story. Van Dyck began maintaining a list of people he met on the internet over ten years ago as an art project. Though some encounters on the list are innocent (a few female friends, and some purchases of furniture through Craigslist) the meetings are overwhelmingly hookups.
The list grows more self-referential as we move through time to the point where Dyck began maintaining the list (at some points, he notes that people may be acting differently around him, either being more guarded or acting strangely on purpose, because they’re aware that he might write about them). This tracks on Dyck’s own evolution from the young teen he was at the start of the book to the performance artist he’s grown into by the end. Continue reading
Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.
Men are bad at expressing emotion.
Most women are bad at math.
In her new book, Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds, Dr. Gina Rippon tears down everything you think you know about the differences between the way men and women think. She does not argue that there are no structural differences between men and women’s brains, but rather that most research showing sex differences in how we think is inherently flawed, or that the differences they find are actually minimal on average. In other words, if there is a fundamental difference that has a real effect on the way men and women think, we have yet to find it.
Rippon breaks down gendered thought myths quite thoroughly, beginning with the earliest searches for proof of women’s inferior brains (dating back to the 1600s) all the way through modern science’s rationalizations. She includes the study of brain structure, the role of hormones on the brain, and searches for answers in psychology.
Review by Tess Tabak
Brett is a hopeless romantic who finds herself middle-aged, washed out with fading looks and her fiery independence dulled by brain damage. Enter Cash, a former drug addict turned born-again Christian. When the two enter into an unlikely, impulsive marriage, the meat of Jennifer Spiegel’s novel, And So We Die, Having First Slept, begins.
You don’t necessarily think of an abusive marriage as grounds for a great romance novel, but Spiegel has such a remarkable talent for capturing characters that it never feels forced. Cash and Brett feel like real people trapped in a dark place, working through their demons together. Where Cash is addictive, sulky and at times violent, Brett has a fierce need to be loved by someone, and a belief both that her value as a woman is fading and that it’s her wifely duty to stand by her man. Though religion is a big part of the narrative, Spiegel doesn’t portray them as Christian monoliths. She explains both characters’ complicated and ever-changing relationship to their faith. Continue reading
When you live in a repressive regime, how do you live with yourself?
Directors Cheryl Fararone and Richard Romagnoli explore this question through two thematically mirrored plays in PTP/NYC’s season this year. Billed as a season of “works that resonate with our cultural and political moment,” Havel: The Passion of Thought and Dogg’s Hamlet/Cahoot’s Macbeth are both comedies that pack a punch. They each have a dark undertone to their otherwise comic plots. (Or vice-versa; the production and text meld mirth and sadness so seamlessly that it seems reductive to choose.) Continue reading
Review by E. Kirshe
I try to write very thoughtful reviews about very thoughtful books, and I will, but I’ll let you know right away that Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse was excellent. Don’t waste time here, go read it.
Filled with lovely prose, The Tenth Muse manages to remain an intimate story while going through a sweeping history- we encounter many of the major events of the twentieth century through our protagonist Katherine.
The book follows Katherine, a mathematician, from her 1950s childhood through her years of school and work as one of the only women in her field. Her quest to solve the Riemann hypothesis takes us through to the end of her career.
As with most stories relating to women fighting for their piece of the world I was often inspired and then angry. Much like the real-world women of math and science who appear throughout the book (some anecdotally, some make a cameo appearance in the story) Katherine is often punished for being both clever and ambitious. Continue reading
Bill Posley’s new one-man play, The Day I Became Black, deals with racial identity and racism in America. However, the heart of his message lies in radical empathy. Posley wants us to be able to look at each other with understanding-sometimes literally as he asks the audience to find someone who doesn’t look like themselves and stare at that person. The central premise of the show is the day Posley realized the world saw him as black. What he wants everyone to know is that he isn’t a special case- the world decides who you are for you.