The Books I Read in 2019
This was an outstanding year for reading, with 51 fabulous (almost all of them) books to hoot about. I read a ton of memoirs and biographies. To keep my lists sensical I created three ranked categories: Fiction; Memoirs, Biographies, Personal Essays; and General Nonfiction. I added blurbs about some of the outstanding and noteworthy reads. At the bottom of the lists I put the books I legitimately did not enjoy in italics, as I would not recommend them. But, what the hell do I know, reading is a personal undertaking, read what you want!
In the name of end of year reviewing I wanted to throw in some favorites from beyond the literary realm. The best movie I saw this year was Us, a terrifying thriller from the genius director Jordon Peele. When I watched it, all alone, I put my phone down about a minute in, and didn’t pick it back up till the credits rolled. It was the most afraid I’ve been as an adult watching a movie. Scary and beautifully shot. Loved it. My favorite album of the year is Jamie, by Brittany Howard. It’s been on repeat in my house for months. And my favorite show would be Baskets. The 4th and final season was released this year, and it was fantastic. Louie Anderson should get an Oscar for his portrayal of Christine Baskets. I’d also like to give Marc Maron’s WTF a shout out as the Podcast I’ve been devouring this year. Long form interviews with comedians and other interesting folk. I can’t seem to get sick of it, even after hundreds of episodes. Boomer lives!
1. Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru 2011
This mysterious and deeply beautiful novel is set in the American southwest at a rock formation out in the desert. There are 4ish narratives which cross, oh I guess hundreds of years. There are a couple of vanishing and sometimes glowing children, a character called coyote who shows up multiple times in different timelines, hippies, a washed up rockstar, cults, native american indians, time travel, possibly aliens. At various and sometimes key moments the reader is left uncertain of what actually happened. I found it not frustrating, but glorious. It is a story that embraces mystery, and presents history as a shifting mosaic of endless variation. Is time real? If someone travels through time do they return changed? Can animal spirits visit us in human form? Are God and nature one entity? Do we ever really meet someone for the first time? Does anything truly begin or end? Gods Without Men is wise, spooky, unique and lush.
2. PopCo, Scarlett Thomas 2004
I have never read a book like this before. It is a tonic. A love letter to thinking, to radicals, to sabotage, to curiosity, and to maths. The protagonist is a young woman named Alice, who is quirky, independent, fiercely intelligent, and the kind of female loner we don’t see enough of in literature. She loves maths (that’s how the Brits say it) and codes, and puzzles, and being a subversive in a slick and sinister corporate world. This book made me want to study mathematics, and I friggen hate mathematics. My hats off to Scarlett for making math seem cool and rebellious, that’s some seriously good writing.
3. Bowlaway, Elizabeth McCracken 2019
I loved everything about this book. I want to live in this book. Candle pin bowling. Hell yes. Quirky, unexpected, and sorrow drenched love stories. Sign me up. Over the top whimsy. Yep. Elizabeth is not a prolific writer, but all of her (three) novels are pure gold as far as I’m concerned. And side note, if you haven’t read her 1996 novel, The Giant’s House, do yourself a favor and check it out. It is a little heart-breaker of a book that has stayed with me for more than ten years (since I first read it), and is definitely in my top 5 best novels EVEH.
4. Another Country, James Baldwin 1962
Challenging. Wild. Brilliant. Baldwin is one of the greatest writers of all time.
5. White Oleander, Janet Finch
6. Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver
7. Obasan, Joy Kogawa
8. Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
9. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
10. Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
11. The Institute, Stephan King
12. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
13. Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin
14. Strange Weather, Joe Hill
15. A Cruelty Special to Our Species: Poems, Emily Yoon
16. The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski 1965
I haven’t read a book this difficult, upsetting, and horrific in a long time. The Painted Bird tells the story of an orphan of world war II who is left to fend for himself, at age 5, in what is probably but not clearly identified as the rural countryside of Poland. It is a book filled with cruelty, abuse, and suffering, and has not a sliver of humanity. Read with caution, it is a world unto itself.
17. Art & Lies, Jeanette Winterson
18. Clock Dance, Anne Tyler
19. Plainsong, Kent Haruf
20. Morgan’s Passing, Anne Tyler
21. Difficult Woman, Roxane Gay
22. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
23. Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem
24. Authority, Jeff VanderMeer 2014
This is the second of the Southern Reach Trilogy. I loved the first book, Annihilation (which ranked high on last year’s list), but this one bored me to death. I literally fell asleep almost every time I sat down to read it. I am now apprehensive about seeking out the third. We shall see.
25. Lit Life, Kurt Wenzel
26. The Sunset Limited, Cormac McCarthy
Memoirs, Biographies, Personal Essays
1. Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, Richard Holloway 2018
A real gem of a book. A former bishop of Edinburgh, now in his 90s, reflects on the positive, meditative, and profound lessons death can bring into our lives. I found it deeply touching and wise.
2. Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay 2014
Holy smokes, I discovered Roxane Gay this year, and I am slayed. This is one of the best books on feminism, intersectional feminism, and the current state of our culture that I’ve ever read. My favorite thing about it is that it is not preachy at all. It is honest, and vulnerable, and best of all hilariously funny. I laughed out loud, a bunch. Roxane Gay is my new hero. I admire the crap out of her. She reviewed Bad Feminist (her own book, something I’ve never seen another author do) on Goodreads, and wrote just this: This writer certainly has a LOT OF OPINIONS. I mean…
3.Figuring, Maria Popova 2019
Maria Popova is the sole creative force behind Brain Pickings, a website that explores interesting things across a multitude of topics. I love it. This book, which delves into the extraordinary lives of past progressives, is a revelation. Bringing you down into the intimate lives of people like Emily Dickenson, Maria Mitchell, Rachel Carson, and many others, she somehow presents new and fascinating information about these well known figures. She presents a sort of alternative history of great people, mostly women and mostly queer, and explores their intersecting trajectories and brilliant minds. Awesome book.
4. Life, Keith Richards
5. This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, Gabourey Sidibe
6. Attempting Normal, Marc Maron
7. No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin 2017
I read this in tandem to Waiting for the Last Bus, they are seemingly companion pieces. Another brilliant person reflecting on life, death, and our world, from the last great frontier, old age. She passed away in January of 2018, after an amazing and inspiring life well lived. I adore her fiction, and this book of essays is a true gift to her fans. To all of us, really.
8. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay
9. Robin, Dave Itzkoff
10. Toil & Trouble, Augusten Burroughs 2019
This was great. Did you know that Augusten Burroughs is a witch? I believe it to be true.
11. Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Woman of the Fog, James Grissom
12. Don’t Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff
13. After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, Sarah Perry
14. Shockaholic, Carrie Fisher
15. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
16. The Lady and Her Monsters: The Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece, Roseanne Montillo
17. How to Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen
18. You’re on an Airplane: A Self-Mythologizing Memoir, Parker Posey 2018
One of the worst memoirs ever. I love Parker Posey as an actress. But this book made me rethink her entire existence. And not in a good way. I gave it one star on Goodreads.
1. Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything; Helen Scales 2018
The aptly named Helen Scales is another discovery from 2019 that left me breathless. A marine biologist, writer, and broadcaster, her unique and engaging voice is mesmerizing. This book is about fish in the ocean. Yes, fish. And it is fantastic.
2. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Mathew Walker 2017
I am a masterful sleeper. I get a solid 8 hours, at least, every night, and I am not ashamed of it. But I was a severe insomniac, for years, in my twenties. I’ve read up on sleep a lot, but this book blew what I thought I knew wide open. The last twenty years of sleep study, presented in fascinating and accessible detail by neuroscientist and sleep expert Walker, have shed light on the vital importance of sleep on our emotional health, physical health, ability to learn, immune function, metabolism, memory and so much more. Did you know fetuses sleep almost all the time, and that it is vital to their brain development? I didn’t. Fantastic and informative book.
3. Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, Camille Paglia 2012
Did not expect this book to show up here! I got this “art book” to skim, and ended up reading it cover to cover. A remarkable dive into visual art across the ages. I read it like poetry, or philosophy. I should have gone to art school.
4. Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, Thomas Moore
5. Mindfulness and the 12 Steps: Living Recovery in the Present Moment, Therese Jacobs-Stewart
6. Modern Romance, Azis Ansari 2015
Boo, Azis. I don’t even know what this book was supposed to be. It wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t particularly informative. “An in-depth exploration of modern romance from one of this generation’s greatest comedic voices.” NOPE.
7. In Praise of Wasting Time, Alan Lightman