To cover and consume popular culture in this era of #PeakContent is to constantly be making choices. This means it is more important now than ever to reflect on the ways in which “best of” lists, just like pop culture itself, are subjective—shaped by a group of people with specific identities, interests, and storytelling sensibilities.
Therefore, in presenting our list of the Best Books of 2019 to you, we note that these stories are not just what may have felt Important in a year when we are more desperate than ever to understand the seemingly increasingly destructive forces at work in the world, but also what meant the most to us personally.
Here are 20 books, in no particular order, that broke through the #PeakContent cacophony to mean something to our Den of Geek contributors this year…
The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz
A time travel novel that soundly rejects the Great Man Theory of history, The Future of Another Timeline is uninterested in telling the same old story about a singular white dude traveling through time to heroically and simply save the day. In Annalee Newitz’s second novel, making positive change in the timeline is mostly conducted by women and people of color, must be done collectively, and is a heck of a lot of work.
Told in alternating perspectives, The Future of Another Timeline follows middle-aged, time-traveling academic Tess and 17-year-old Beth, a high school student exploring the punk scene in 1992 California. Both characters are deeply informed by their interpersonal contexts. For Tess, that means the support of the Daughters of Harriet, a group of women and non-binary folks fighting to stop a group of time-traveling misogynists known as the Comstockers from securing a timeline in which women have no rights over their own bodies. For Beth, this means her high school friend-group, which represents an escape from her abusive home until they start seeking violent “solutions” to the abusive men in their communities.
Wonderfully nerdy and refreshingly radical, The Future of Another Timeline is the angry feminist time travel novel 2019 both needs and deserves, a speculative fiction experience that feels all too real in its depiction of how fragile women’s rights can be while also representing the kind of collective action organizing that stands the best chance at saving us all.
“We deeply need hope right now because we’re in a very precarious, self-destructive historical moment,” Newitz told Den of Geek this year regarding the hopepunk movement. “I think of hopepunk as narrative therapy for historical trauma—it’s a way to ease pain, to tell stories about the healing process as well as what has hurt us.” The Future of Another Timeline is a story about what has hurt us and what can heal us.
– Kayti Burt
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
An assassin and a dragon-rider need to save the world from a dragon horde in this doorstopper. The Priory of the Orange Tree’s scenes more remarkably quick compared to the intimidating length of the book, with the author demonstrating a keen understanding of cliffhangers, dramatic timing, and creating characters who care about each other and their world.
Ead Duryan has been assigned to protect Queen Sabran of Inys, but also has to wrestle with the way Inys twisted a true story into an oppressive religion while hiding her true mission and her attraction to the queen. On the other side of the world, the dragon-rider Tané finds that her path to becoming a great warrior isn’t as straightforward as she had hoped, and that her choices will have global ramifications. Side characters, especially the grieving and miserable alchemist Niclays Roos, stuck with me long after I finished reading the book.
High fantasy is a hard sell for me lately. Monarchy, destined heroes, elves and dwarves—It doesn’t feel comfortable, it just feels old. I picked up Priory on the promise of dragons, though, hoping for something new to be done with the quintessential fantasy creature. Samantha Shannon delivered with fantasy that both embraces and improves on tropes. The world is a loosely changed version of our own, with fantasy cultures drawn from and paralleling real ones. It offers beautiful imagery and lush characterization. Explanations for how the magic of the world works and how it’s connected to that world’s history are smoothly threaded into the plot. The book also doesn’t lose sight of wonder, with enough cinematic fight scenes and detailed description of clothing for any HBO adaptation.
– Megan Crouse
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
If you don’t regularly read middle grade fiction, you may recognize Carlos Hernandez’s name from his beautiful and well-received short story collection The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, which came out a few years ago (or from his entertaining Twitter account). If you do read middle grade fiction, especially if you’ve been following the really excellent middle grade fantasy from the Read Riordan imprint, you’ve probably already met two of my very favorite characters of 2019… Sal and Gabi were breakaway leads in my fiction reading, and they’re welcome to break my universe any time (especially since they’re promising to fix it in May 2020).
Here’s the conceit: middle school magician Sal has this uncanny ability to accidentally breach the multiverse. Sometimes this means he can do some pretty nifty tricks (which he passes off as illusions), like putting a dead chicken in a bully’s locker. But it becomes a big problem when he keeps accidentally bringing back his Mami, who died several years ago. His father has remarried, and Sal loves his American Stepmom, but he misses his mother.
Sal is also a Type 1 diabetic, and when his ability to breach the multiverse makes him forget to regulate his blood sugar, he ends up in the hospital—something he’s unfortunately used to. Initially, Gabi doesn’t know about any of this, but she’s the student council president, future journalist type who’s not about to let any mystery lie without figuring it out. Because her baby brother is also in the hospital, fighting for his life, her story and Sal’s become intertwined, and while multiverse hopping hijinks ensue, so does a story with so much heart that it’s hard to put down.
I can’t wait to spend more time with these characters as their adventures continue.
– Alana Joli-Abbott
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
At first glance, Leckie’s newest book could not be more different than her Ancillary Justice series, not least of all because she’s smoothly stepped from science fiction to fantasy. The Raven Tower is a standalone fantasy novel, and a slim one at that; instead of a whole universe, its action encompasses two cities across a strait, and one family within them. But it’s how the story is told that cements this as Leckie’s brand of unique invention: A sentient rock god narrates in second-person to a trans protagonist.
Like with Breq, the spaceship AI constrained to one body, Leckie has once again pulled off a cunning experiment in giving voices to the most unusual of genre characters. The passages in which the stone god details its centuries of existence, and evolving relationships with human petitioners and priests, are some of this year’s most daring fantasy writing: slow and unhurried, filled with complex discussions of the power of language to change the very molecules of the world. Despite its brevity, The Raven Tower is wonderfully dense and thought-provoking.
What’s more, the human side of things is so authentically lived-in, a fantasy retelling of Hamlet that nonetheless is full of twists. In the city of Vastai, the Raven’s Lease, a human whose lifespan is entwined with that of the Raven god’s Instrument (an actual bird), has disappeared without paying up. As soldier-turned-heir’s-attendant Eolo investigates the truth, he and his master Mawat confront divine debt, issues of personhood, and the troubling disillusionment that the old ways and religions might be no more than cold comforts in an inexplicable world.
– Natalie Zutter
Normal People by Sally Rooney
From the jump, it’s easy to understand why Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, has taken the literary world (and much of Book Twitter) by storm. It’s a story of two teenagers, Connell and Marianne, growing up in vastly different circumstances West of Ireland. The book follows their magnetic pull on (or perhaps dire fascination with) one another as they grow up and make their way in the world.
At only 28, Rooney writes through her two protagonists to get at incisive commentary on that strange, fleeting feeling of obsessive youthful love, as well as class, family, what it means to “get out,” and the many small ways people are awful to one another, while also loving one another rather tenderly. Considering how often love stories and the (young) women who tell them are diminished, it’s also lovely to see Rooney discussed (mostly) with terms like “intellectual rigor.”
Hulu is adapting Normal People as a limited series in 2020, so there’s still time to read the book before the show starts. Reviewers talk of page turners, but Normal People is one that forces readers to cancel their plans and stay up until first light, ruining their ability to function for the next day, just to squeeze in a few more chapters, a few more lines of Rooney’s entrancing prose. Much like the plot summary, the text might seem simple or even commonplace at first glance, but that is Rooney’s great deception: she’s working overtime to make sure you don’t ever see her sweat. Normal People envelopes readers quietly, completely, and so steadily that you might not realize anything has happened until you come up for air hours later, or see the drip of a tear on the page.
– Delia Harrington
The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen
Elaborate YA fantasies are all the rage right now, and 2019 had several great ones. But Margaret Owen’s debut novel The Merciful Crow is far and away the best of the lot, combining immersive storytelling, a diverse cast of characters, rich worldbuilding and a truly unique magical system into something that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. In short: Everyone in Sabor is divided into castes named after various birds and based on their particular Birthrights, or magical ability. The Crows, the lowest caste of undertakers and mercy-killers, perform magic using the teeth of the dead. It’s…very grim and very cool.
The story is fast-paced and exciting, and for all that it deals with typical fantasy themes (a girl coming into her power, a kingdom on the brink of revolution), The Merciful Crow fearlessly tackles issues of racism, persecution and the difficulties that face any marginalized group that’s mocked and looked down upon for being Other. Even better we see characters openly grapple with their own beliefs and question the things they’ve been taught to believe about others in a way that feels both compelling and natural. The book’s sequel, The Faithless Hawk, is due out this summer, and if it’s not already at the top of your most anticipated books for next year, it should be.
– Lacy Baugher
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion was one of my favorite books in 2017, so when I heard her next endeavor was a space marine time travel story, I could hardly wait. The Light Brigade delivered. It’s an exploration of the military industrial complex, the psychology of a soldier named Dietz, and a meticulously organized time travel story. The action scenes are vivid and grim, the dialogue energetic, the stakes clear. Hurley has a lot to say about the nature of war, of trauma, of the psychology of being thrown into unexpected battles every day. (The “light” of the title is a teleportation system that Dietz is experiencing as time jumps.)
This is a writer’s book, with an impressive structure: scenes end at what could have been abrupt moments but instead become a tool to increase suspense throughout the novel. The author has posted images of the chart she used to keep the time jumps in order, and you can tell the process of outlining the book was a feat of not just writing but also a kind of engineering, resulting in a convoluted but utterly understandable sequence of out-of-order events. It’s hard science fiction rooted in classics but utterly suitable for today.
– Megan Crouse
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
In a future generations after humanity has fled an uninhabitable Earth, humans live on January, a tidally-locked planet with two declining cities living in the twilight in-between the two extreme climates of the world…
Bordering the blistering side of the planet, we have Xiosphant, an authoritarian city with a constructed diurnal cycle where “timefulness” is sacred. Bordering the frozen side of the planet, we have Argelo, a libertarian society ruled by nine family-affiliated gangs who keep the city locked in a cycle of violence. As the generation ship technology brought with humanity decades before begins to fail, decline feels inevitable for both examples of human society.
We follow two main characters through the story: Sophie, a working class student studying at Xiosphant’s university who is exiled into the night after taking the fall for the upper-class object of her affections Bianca. Rather than dying a lonely death, Sophie is saved by the crocodile-like telepathic aliens native to January. Elsewhere, we follow Mouth, a jaded smuggler from an otherwise extinct nomadic people known as the Citizens.
An exploration of working towards radical change in the face of climate catastrophe, personal and collective trauma, and interpersonal complications, The City in the Middle of the Night is a classically science fiction novel tapping into the most anxiety-inducing of contemporary struggles, and somehow finding a measure of hope there. “I can’t do this thing anymore, where we live in a tiny space and pretend it’s the whole world,” Sophie tells Bianca in the novel. “People always have brand new reasons for doing the same thing over and over. I need to see something new.”
– Kayti Burt
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
If you know the names Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly it is likely only due to the reason for their deaths. These five women are the canonical victims of the infamous Jack the Ripper, and are generally only considered remarkable because of the fact that they died violently at the hands of a serial killer no one ever managed to catch.
Author Hallie Rubenhold’s book changes all of that. In the world of Ripper lore, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed By Jack the Ripper feels revelatory, in that it focuses on life, rather than death. It tells the real story of each of The Five, who they were, where they came from, and the tragic reasons that led them to a life on the streets of Victorian London. And it gives them their voices back, possibly for the first time since their deaths.
Meticulously researched, this book brings to life a group of women who have too long been silenced, or worse, reimagined in a way that suits history best. The majority of these women weren’t prostitutes, as the contemporary papers positioned them and history likes to remember them. They were women who struggled and scraped, who suffered repeated hardships and abandonments, who struggled with poverty and alcohol addiction, and who deserved better than deaths that left them forever in the shadow of a monster. Read this, and remember them.
– Lacy Baugher
The Grace Year by Kelly Liggett
In a year where Margaret Atwood herself wrote a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s probably not that much of a shock that some of 2019’s most affecting stories have to do with female rage and empowerment. The Grace Year is a technically a YA novel, but it packs an outsize punch, reckoning with a dystopian future that nowadays feels far too much like it could in some way become reality.
In the world of Garner County, young women are banished on their sixteenth birthday, condemned to spend their “grace year” on an isolated island to purge themselves of the dangerous and manipulative magic men believe they possess. The bones of Kim Liggett’s story are familiar ones, particularly the harmful culture these girls are born into and the cruel things they’re willing to do to one another in the name of maintaining it, but its story is ultimately one that points a way toward a future where change is possible. It’s not often you finish a story like this and genuinely feel hopeful, and yet, The Grace Year accomplishes this feat – all without giving anyone what you might call a happy ending.
– Lacy Baugher
Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles
The Beatles’ film Let It Be appears to be a documentary on the breakup of a band. The album they recorded after it, Abbey Road, has always been touted as the album they made to go out on a high note. Kenneth Womack’s Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and The End of the Beatles, says that’s not the case. They were recording what they thought was just their next album when they happened to break up. The band was especially excited about playing with new musical toys.
As should be evident by the name, the book starts with the sound board. The only eight track recording console at EMI. It was bright and shiny and new, and only a privileged few engineers were allowed to tinker with it, and they had to wear lab coats. The band was far away from the caper-chasing characters they played in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! but they were still fab enough to abscond with the apparatus and produce their flawless farewell to studio albums.
Almost the entire book is set in the studio. We learn about a car crash John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and their respective children survive from how it impacts the sessions. Paul McCartney’s marriage happens barely out of reach of the soundproof panels and the Bed-In for Peace is placed far away from the mics. Even the breakup itself is captured as the same kind of ambient noise McCartney recorded on George Harrison’s Moog synthesizer for the segues between songs. Like the surround sound created for Ringo Starr’s only credited drum solo, the music is front and center.
Womack is a thorough researcher and interviewer who casts new light on old Beatles mythology. Several stories which are well-known to fans are challenged and a few more obscure bits are uncovered. The read itself is fun.
– Tony Sokol
Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff
Modern Irish literary greatness is alive and well, and anyone who reads Last Ones Left Alive can see why. Sarah Davis-Goff’s spare post-apocalyptic tale follows Orpen on a largely solitary journey from her home on a remote island, away from the vicious, otherworldly creatures called the Skrake. The novel flashes back to Orpen’s childhood alone on the island, with her Ma and Ma’s wife, Maeve, as Orpen trained to survive against the unseen enemy while trying to decode what happened to the world, and fending off her own loneliness. In Orpen’s present tense, she makes the difficult decision to search the mainland for help, accompanied by her dog, some chickens, and pulling a wheel barrow.
To say more would spoil it, and certainly part of the book’s power is in the way it slowly reveals the truths of the Skrake, Orpen’s upbringing, and what led her to go on the road. Beyond that, it’s a story of self-reliance with feminism baked in, rather than discussed or layered on top. Orpen’s instincts keep her safe and she is largely a solitary creature, so the novel has a desolate, almost animalistic quality to it that captures the Wild Atlantic Way and the feral nature of civilization gone to hell. Davis-Goff evokes the setting – both physical and emotional – so intensely that it feels like Orpen walks around with you even when you put the book down. It’s a book that knows exactly what it set out to do, creates that world, and then cuts the reader off from it once the task at hand is finished, with the kind of efficiency Maeve taught Orpen to keep her alive.
– Delia Harrington
Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Set in an alternate universe where the United States elected a female divorcee Democrat from Texas to the presidency in 2016, Red, White, and Royal Blue follows the secret, enemies-to-lovers romance between first son Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince of England Henry. In the process, author Casey McQuiston invites us to spend time in a world that is, as described in her author’s note, “still believably fucked up, just a little better, a little more optimistic.”
The result is an intensely cathartic reading experience that prioritizes comfort over grit, hope over pessimism, and empathy over bitterness, while also depicting tough subjects such as mental illness and civic exhaustation. In a year when to stay actively engaged in the news cycle often felt like a neverending battle, Red, White, and Royal Blue offered a brand of escapism that is all too rare in the mainstream: queer, filled with male characters who do their own emotional labor, and unapologetically millennial. The world needs more stories like this one, as well as the cultural space for more people to find guiltless pleasure in their enjoyment.
– Kayti Burt
The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis
Confession #1: I picked up this book on NetGalley because it has a gorgeous cover. Confession #2: My NetGalley copy expired when I was 80 pages from the end. Confession #3: I went out and purchased the book the same day my NetGalley copy expired, because I had to finish it.
The Good Luck Girls is Davis’ debut novel, and it packs an incredible punch. Set in an alternate world—possibly a future dystopia on a different planet, but there are fantasy elements that make it hard to place entirely—where people with shadows have more rights than those who don’t, the book centers on five young women fleeing life in a brothel.
Dustblood, or shadowless, girls are frequently sold by poor families into “welcome houses,” given the promise of a better life: regular meals, fancy clothes, luxury. The condition, of course, is that they have no rights over their own bodies, and they are never allowed to leave, branded with a magical tattoo that reveals their identities, and glows and burns if they try to cover it.
When Clementine accidentally kills a violent brag, she, her sister, and their friends make a daring escape, turning to a life of banditry in an effort to reach the legendary Lady Ghost, who can offer them a different future—if she’s real. The result is a twisted Weird Western that feels like the Wild West, while twisting its tropes and delivering a story about victims taking back their own destinies and carving a new path toward a better future.
– Alana Joli-Abbott
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
There are two phrases from this year that my friends and I shout at one another whenever we’re in the same room. One flesh, one end (from Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth) is a fun little rallying cry, but it is this piece of poetry from Martine’s debut novel that makes me tear up every time I utter it: “Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.”
While I have always enjoyed space opera well enough, considering how many stories fit within the subgenre, this is the first book where I found myself delighting in all of the trappings. Martine dives deep into this byzantine far-future universe, clearly so excited about every detail that you cannot help but be equally enthusiastic… even when you rationally know that you should not be so captivated by colonialism.
But that’s the point. Teixcalaanli civilization, with its alien-yet-logical naming conventions and obsession with its own epic poetry, is so addictively interesting that readers are automatically as emotionally invested as diplomat Mahit Dzmare. After an upbringing on the empire’s fringes in independent Lsel Station, Mahit finally gets to visit Teixcalaan’s famed city-planet capital, only to be thrust into a political thriller full of mysterious deaths, sex-as-diplomacy, and an emperor with an unusual agenda. Not to mention, Mahit has her own cultural capital that she must keep from getting assimilated into the empire like everything else in the universe.
Read A Memory Called Empire knowing as little as possible, aside from the fact that you will meet a bevy of damn competent women and find yourself murmuring about spears released in no time. The fact that Teixcalaan is a culture obsessed with repeating the patterns of its epic stories in contemporary life is so endearingly geeky and very relatable to our present moment.
– Natalie Zutter
You Look Like A Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works
Janelle Shane became internet-famous through her blog AI Weirdness and its social media offshoots. Her wacky computer-generated lists have been making me laugh for years, so I was quick to jump on her first paper book of artificial intelligence and humor. Half of the appeal are the lists of computer-generated things: the title comes from a list of comically nonsensical and occasionally sweet pickup lines. There are plenty of lists like these in the book, providing a break in the science for some high-quality random humor. The networks she trains don’t know what words they should be putting together, so they surprise in a way that a human could never quite do.
The other half of the appeal is the science. Shane outlines what in our daily lives counts as artificial intelligence and what doesn’t, why asking “what the program was thinking” is a nonsensical question, and how artificial intelligence (specifically, certain kinds of machine learning) actually works. Ideas are explained with precision, clarity, and ease. The science is also funny without being twee. This was both one of the most informative and most fun books I read all year. To be one would be nice; to be both is astonishing.
– Megan Crouse
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
I had never read any of Winterson’s work, but her modern, queer retelling—not just of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but of the entire process around writing the first science fiction novel—makes clear just how lacking all other Frankenstein adaptations are in innovation and relatability. Most concern the doctor and his creature locked in a cat-and-mouse game of wits and horror, yet still so predictable that they all blur together whether period piece or futuristic cyborg story or police procedural. Yet Winterson’s take is so radically different from its forebears that you find yourself not guessing how the story will turn out, despite the fact that she lays out the narrative beats in the beginning and follows them—with the occasional detour to a sex robot convention or London’s waterlogged underground tunnels.
Because Winterson knows that the heart of the story is in Mary’s life, pockmarked by so much loss, and in her frankly incredible writing process. Instead of the two Frankensteins, the interweaving duo in this book is writer Mary Shelley and Ry Shelley, a trans doctor who finds himself falling for the charismatic, otherworldly transhumanist Victor Stein. Winterson lays out the blueprints for the story by first visiting Mary, her husband Percy, the insufferable Lord Byron, her bimbo stepsister Claire, and the awkward Doctor Polidari at that life-changing rainy weekend writing retreat on Lake Geneva—which, honestly, has all the makings of a Mary Shelley biopic right there. Then, once you know enough about the characters, Winterson leaps ahead 200 years to the familiar strangers of Ry, Victor, and sex robot designer Ron Lord and his perky creation Claire.
Frankissstein is a creepy, sexy, soggy, surprisingly hilarious demonstration of how time is just a circle and history repeats itself. Except this time with cryogenically frozen millionaires and filthy-mouthed pleasure bots.
– Natalie Zutter
Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estep
I may have raved a little bit last year about Jennifer Estep’s series launcher Kill the Queen. Estep has written in a number of genres over her career, but Kill the Queen showed me that epic fantasy is her true home; it went delightfully above my expectations, creating Evie, a compelling protagonist who’s both a reluctant hero and a natural one: she takes risks for others without thought and only truly fears her own destiny, because for years she’s been convinced that she’s not worth claiming a loftier mantle. There’s also a gladiator troupe, shapeshifting magic that creates a whole new mold for what those powers can look like, and some excellent romantic tension and humor.
Estep’s sequel, Protect the Prince, raises the stakes, thrusting Evie deeper into the intrigue between kingdoms as she hopes to forge a lasting peace, while also driving a wedge between her and her love interest, a bastard prince who—like Evie—has been told his whole life he’ll never amount to much. Evie must manage the nobles of her own kingdom, prevent war with other nations, and fight against the constant sabotage of power-hungry Mortan king, whose spies have been plaguing Evie’s life even longer than she realized, and who are continuing to try to kill her.
Even as Evie sets her own plans into action, playing the long game against her enemies, the story leaves room for romance and friendship, and for Evie to find a way to become the Winter Queen everyone expects her to be. The trilogy wraps in March, 2020, with Crush the King, and you can bet I’ve already got that on preorder.
– Alana Joli-Abbott
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
The book lays it out for you right away: Evvie (her name rhymes with Chevy) was leaving her husband when she got the call that he had died. That emotional quagmire is where NPR’s Linda Holmes, host of Pop Culture Happy Hour, plants her witty and warm romantic comedy of a novel. Evvie rents out a room in her house in Maine to Dean, a former Major League Baseball pitcher hiding out from the world after he left the game when he woke up one day with a bad case of the yips and simply couldn’t throw anymore.
Grounded in the complicated reality of grief, the book has so much to say about platonic mixed-gender best friends, single parenting, re-learning how to relate to parents as an adult, and life in a small town. There’s so much room in the world for smartly written adult romance, and Holmes knows how to bring the heat when she wants to. Yes, it’s a romance, but there are no short cuts, easy answers, or guarantees of a perfect happy ending. Evvie and Dean test one another emotionally in ways that feel organic to their characters, rather than plot-driven, and their victories are earned on the page. Charming, hopeful, and with great emotional depth, reading Evvie Drake Starts Over means getting all the joy of a romcom without having to sacrifice on quality or consent.
– Delia Harrington
Giraffes on Horseback Salad by Josh Frank & Tim Heidecker
The Marx Brothers were at the peak of their popularity when Salvador Dalí presented then with a screenplay called “The Surrealist Woman.” It was only a few pages and they turned it down for not being funny enough, but it still carries mythical significance in both the art world and cinema history. Josh Frank’s graphic novel Giraffes on Horseback Salad fleshes out the sparse notes to present the how the film would have looked on the screen.
Giraffes on Horseback Salad is a love story. But the world hangs in the loss of balance. The book includes a preface which tells the story of the artists relationships with each other and placing the film them in a historic context. It would have been made after A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, which were produced by Irving Thalberg, who died before this would have been up for consideration and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer declared it too expensive and too surreal.There are quite a few surprises.
The biggest is Harpo speaks. Not only does he speak but people hang on to his every word. Gone are the curly locks and tattered overcoat. Here Harpo’s Jimmy is an important man who wears impressive suits and has an A-list significant other who ultimately pales in significance to the lady of surrealism. The illustrations by Spanish surrealistic artist Manuela Pertega, capture what could have been possible to put on the screens. The surrealistic jokes added by comedian Tim Heidecker may explain why Groucho passed on the work, but you can see the magic such a film may have conjured. Even the name of the book’s publisher, Quirk, feeds into the skewered reality.
– Tony Sokol