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Confederates and Immigrants, Punks and Riot Grrls

A selection of 12 of the best books of 2019.

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By Carolina de Robertis

Alfred A. Knopf; 336 pages; $26.95

With Cantoras, Oakland writer Carolina de Robertis looks back to her homeland, Uruguay, over the course of 35 turbulent years. In her new novel, five lesbians learn the consequences of activism and desire in a time of totalitarianism. To escape the civic/military regime that has Montevideo in its grip, Flaca, Romina, Anita, Malena, and Paz flee to the secluded beaches of Cabo Polonio, when they are briefly allowed to be themselves and follow their own wishes, without fear that they will be arrested because of their sexual orientation or simply disappear, as has happened to dissidents in the city. They come to Cabo Polonio to laugh, make love, and share their secrets.

The author of The Gods of Tango, de Robertis expertly delineates the motivations of her cast of "cantoras," Spanish for women singers and slang for lesbians. Rich in its prose, impassioned in its politics, this novel explores queerness, as well as personal and political revolution, recalling an era of danger and uncertainty that eventually gave way to some semblance of freedom. The military regime dissolved in 1985, but its legacy lives on, and de Robertis goes a long way to ensure that its atrocities are not forgotten. Cantoras reverberates with the melodies and harmonies of women learning to sing on their own terms. — Michael Berry


The Collected Poems Of Bob Kaufman

Foreword by devorah major; edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, Tate Swindell

City Lights Publishers; 325 pages; $19.95

In a 1968 essay entitled, "When State Magicians Fail," Ishmael Reed gave his full-throated assessment of The Beat Movement and poet Bob Kaufman, writing, "That was a 50's movement, a movement of racist writers that the white critics called the Beat Movement. They sucked all the magic and robbed all the beautiful imaginative coupons from the Negro's brain, turning the Negro into a zombie — like Bob Kaufman. A great man, a great writer, always overlooked. He did it way before Ferlinghetti, way before Ginsberg, they all robbed him."

Indeed, Bob Kaufman (1925–1986) was one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. As the only Black American poet to be recognized by France's Surrealist International, Kaufman is among the inaugurators of what today is characterized as the Afro-Surreal and has been criminally overlooked for nearly forty years. As icons of that literary movement went on to wealth and international reverence, Kaufman died homeless and in obscurity, even after having produced three books, and being the founding editor of the poetry journal Beatitudes, where many believe the term "beat" is actually rooted. Collected Poems brings together all of Kaufman's known surviving poems, including an extensive section of previously uncollected work. — D. Scot Miller


Face It: A Memoir

Debbie Harry

Harper Collins; 368 pages; $32.50

Blondie was one of the most influential bands to emerge from the New York new wave and punk scenes of the mid-late 1970s. Founded by singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein, the band went on to dominate the 1980s pop charts with classic songs that still resonate today, while introducing the world to sonic innovations of the streets, including reggae with a cover of the Paragon's "The Tide Is High" and hip-hop with "Rapture." Harry has gone on to become a rock icon, her face, which epitomizes a certain brand of New York City cool, has been emblazoned on T-shirts, handbags, and magazine covers for over three decades, but the singer has always shied away from the intense spotlight of life as a rock star. Face It: A Memoir is the first time that Harry has allowed us to take a glimpse into her rich inner life. With a mix of revealing stories and stunning visuals, she re-creates the downtown scene of 1970s New York City, where Blondie played alongside the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Including never-before-seen photographs, bespoke illustrations, and fan art installations, Face It brings Debbie Harry's world and artistic sensibilities to life. — DSM


The Future of Another Timeline

By Annalee Newitz

Tor; 372 pages; $26.99

A century after H.G. Wells, it's a daunting task to do something fresh with time-travel. With her new novel, San Francisco science fiction writer and science journalist Annalee Newitz succeeds in inventing a temporal travel scheme that seems both unique and plausible. The Future of Another Timeline shifts between two time periods — one in which a troubled Riot Grrl from Irvine contends with misogyny and murder, and an alternate version of 1893, where the male forces of oppression are literally attempting to change history. The past resists change, however, forcing the characters to play a long game of strike and counter-strike, as a team of female "geologists" work to prevent a future where women have no rights at all.

There are echoes of feminist science fiction authors of the past, including Octavia Butler and Joanna Russ, but this novel is completely its own strange and wonderful thing. Fierce, generous, and intelligent, The Future of Another Timeline offers surprises and affirmations that reward a careful reading, weaving suspense and speculation into a web of literary intrigue. Newitz made a strong debut with her robots-in-love saga Autonomous, and this exciting, thoughtful, and passionate novel only confirms her status as a daring and skillful storyteller of the first order. — MB


Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo

Grove Atlantic; 464 pages; $17

2019 Booker Prize winner, Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other tells the story of twelve central characters leading vastly different lives: Amma is a playwright whose work often explores her Black lesbian identity; her old friend Shirley is a teacher, jaded after decades of work in London's funding-deprived schools; Carole, one of Shirley's former students, is a successful investment banker; Carole's mother Bummi works as a cleaner and worries about her daughter's lack of rootedness despite her obvious achievements. From a nonbinary social media influencer to a 93-year-old woman living on a farm in Northern England, these unforgettable characters also intersect in shared aspects of their identities, from age to race to sexuality to class. Girl, Woman, Other examines the intersections of identity with a moving and inspiring story of an interconnected group of Black British women by painting a vivid portrait of the state of contemporary Britain while looking back to the legacy of Britain's colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean. Filled with sardonic wit and genuine emotion, the book centers voices that are often muted through an innovative fast-moving form that borrows techniques from poetry, creating a polyphonic and richly textured social novel that shows a rarely seen side of Britain. — DSM


Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares

By Aarti Namdev Shahani

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