10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, A Tribe Called Quest, Alexander Chee, Aminatta Forna, Best of 2019, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Elif Shafak, favorite books, Go Ahead in the Rain, Hanif Adurraquib, Happiness, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Lost Children Archive, Marcy Dermansky, Mennonite, Miriam Toews, Olga Tokarczuk, Richard Powers, The Overstory, Valeria Luiselli, Very Nice, Women Talking
I miss writing here like I used to, sitting down after work to jot notes about a recipe I was excited to share. I am so busy these days. I no longer work from home, so my more-challenging job (which I love) is coupled with a commute. Most nights I eat dinner, talk for a while with my husband, and fall into bed. I studied for and received my first professional license in September, practiced for and earned my driver’s license (yes, really, and finally!) the same month. Despite all the changes to my creature-of-habit routines this year, one practice I have been able to preserve is reading, and this year I read a lot. My goal was 100 books; I read 102. 78 were fiction, including 12 collections of short stories (which seems relatively low to me, as I traditionally gravitate toward stories). 72 of the books I read were written by women, including Ruffage by Abra Berens, my favorite cookbook of the year. I went outside of my comfort zone to read fantasy novels like Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James and translations like Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza. I discovered backlist gems: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, Sweet Talk by Stephanie Vaughn, and Edinburgh by Alexander Chee, to name a few. In reviewing my year of reading, I painstakingly narrowed down to a list of seven novels, one short story collection, and two books of essays that were my favorite reads of 2019*. Here they are– the books I savored and still think about, talk about with friends, give as gifts– presented to you in no particular order but with my emphatic recommendation.
Happiness by Aminatta Forna
A full third of my top 15 was read in January 2019, and Happiness is one of those books. My friend Debbie, who knows my taste so well that I will read nearly anything she recommends, mentioned how much she enjoyed this novel and encouraged me to give it a try. I knew nothing of the plot and was unfamiliar with the author. Within fifty pages I had a feeling that it would be a favorite, and I was right. This is the story of Jean and her foxes, Attila and his dancing, and their budding friendship. The language is smart, and the author has an impressive talent for weaving compassion and subtle humor through the narrative. A side note: this began a curious theme of foxes in 2019, popping up in books and movies, even spotted on the roadside as we drove home one night.
Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky
A marvelous little book, expected to be a fluffy summer read and in actuality one of the sharper novels I read all year. The intrigue begins right away with a college student and her professor behaving badly, progresses into an unlikely housing situation, and is chock full of drama until the last page. The moving pieces of the story– character interactions and plot twists– fit in unexpected, entertaining ways. So much fun, and a (dare I say) very nice read.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
I was bowled over by this novel, one I almost didn’t read: I picked it up once and read about ten pages, then put it down in favor of another book. Two days before returning it to the library, curious to understand why it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I began reading again, and this time it caught me. It’s a difficult book to summarize. Told from the perspective of a dying prostitute, with 10 minutes and 38 seconds of life before her brain shuts down, the story progresses via flashbacks which introduce the people Leila loves and has helped and expose the nuance and richness of her short life. Notions and preconceptions are challenged as the reader learns how beloved and selfless Leila has been; this is made particularly clear in a scene near the end best described as comical. I loved Leila and her devoted friends and found the author’s method of plot reveal so clever and creative. And yes, I was able to return it to the library on time.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
In this novel, which must be called epic, I discovered some of the most beautiful descriptions I read all year. I had been intimidated by the size and scope of The Overstory and avoided starting it for a full eighteen months after acquiring a copy. Do not follow my lead: this is a lyrical, masterful book with more branches than the trees it describes, but it is not difficult to read. I have read other books by Mr. Powers and always marvel at his character development. Here there are a dozen, maybe more, and time is given to introduce each properly before connecting them. I found the details about each person, combined with the immense overarching narrative, thrilling. I remember very distinctly finishing the book on a warm, sunny day, sitting on the deck, listening to breeze in the tall pines around our backyard, wondering when I would find another novel as beautifully crafted as this one.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee
An essay collection that inspired so many feelings in me, including that of finishing a book on the third day of the New Year with absolute confidence that it will be one of the best books I read all year, and perhaps for many years. I was correct, at least about this year. The variety of these essays, the honesty and wisdom they contain, prompts me to say that Mr. Chee is and will continue to be one of my favorite writers and I will read anything and everything he ever writes. Here he discusses identity, literature, fitting in (or not), politics, love and roses, writing, teaching… and my summary list doesn’t even tell you about the quality and precision of his writing. I cannot choose a single highlight because the collection itself is so fluid, the chapters blend and flow in a way that I have rarely encountered in a collection of essays. To create flawless essays that fit together into a flawless volume– this is impressive, awesome, the best nonfiction I read in 2019. I will always remember that we both have grandfathers named Goodwin who farmed in Maine.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
With unquestionably the best title of the year, and starring my very favorite character, Janina (who does not want to be called that, thank you very much), Drive Your Plow is my first exposure to the translated work of Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. I have struggled in the past with translations, but this book was so good I have been seeking out other translated work, to make sure I don’t miss anything as enjoyable. The novel is best described as a literary murder mystery starring independent, smart, opinionated, deeply sympathetic, quirky Janina and her nicknamed neighbors and friends. She loves animals, William Blake, and astrology and hates hunters. The rest you will have to discover on your own… and you should. Though I said my books are in no specific order, I have to admit that this was one of my three favorites of the entire year. Grab a copy if you haven’t read already.
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Adurraqib
This collection of essays is a treasure chest of stories and an absolute joy. I still remember how giddy I felt reading, often on a public bus (I almost missed my stop, twice!) during the first few weeks at my new job, about the music I discovered in high school and college, my formative years. A Tribe Called Quest is still in heavy rotation in my house: on Spotify while I work, on an ancient iPod during workouts, on CD in the car. The insight into the hows and whys of music-making during this era– writing, producing, group formation and dissolution, etc.– was nostalgic and pitch-perfect. I loved every page. The nods to Phife and his mom near the end were poignant, just beautifully done.
Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell
Orange World contains some of the weirdest and most wonderful stories, gifted to us by the reigning queen of magic realism. Immediately catapulted into my book pantheon, and undoubtedly one of the finest collections I have ever read, each story is wildly creative, seamlessly told, fascinating, sometimes funny, often touching, and usually bizarre (in the best possible way). I shamelessly thrust this book into the hands of anyone willing to take a chance, and my enthusiasm hasn’t missed the mark yet. The last story in particular is wedged in my brain; I can’t stop thinking about how strange and titillating it is. What it must be like to have a mind so creative, to conceive of such tales. If you are ever able to see or hear Ms. Russell speak, it is as much of a treat as reading her books.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
How to do justice to this book, with a simple-sounding plot (women talking in a room) and infinite layers of complexity (women with no power deciding the fate of their entire community, on a tight schedule)? Based on the true story of a Bolivian Mennonite village in which many women were drugged and raped, their reports of the attacks dismissed or attributed to the devil, Women Talking is set after the rapists’ arrests. Eight women from the community are meeting secretly while the men are away in the city to raise bail money for the rapists. The women’s discussions are tense and passionate: should they leave before the rapists return? Should they stay for the children? Should they fight back, and if so, how? The women are illiterate and have no societal power; they embody conflicting loyalties and opinions. There are men in the village they love. There is worry about the unknown of the outside world, as well as a fierce desire to escape being attacked again. It’s a slim novel, filled to bursting with tension and emotion. I read it breathlessly and have recommended it to many, including my favorite local librarian, who enjoyed it as much as I did.
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
If forced to choose, this was my favorite book to read in all of 2019. From the start of the year Debbie recommended it adamantly, even sent me a readers’ copy, and her generosity and gentle pressure encouraged me to move it to the top of my reading queue. I think of it constantly: every time I hear or read about the Southwest border, children separated from parents, parents missing their children, road trips, love, loss, hope, frustration… Friends, it is a breathtaking novel. Here’s what I wrote on Goodreads in February; I can’t summarize any more eloquently:
‘Easily one of the best books I have ever read. I marvel at the brain that pieced this together; the planning and research to deftly include so many cultural references in a book about one of the greatest humanitarian crises in our history. The characters are spot-on: the children are believable, distinct, thoughtful, funny. The parents are frustrated, trying, failing, trying more, selfish, loving. The weave of the family narrative with the details of Geronimo and the Apaches and the stories of the lost refugee children is seamless. I can find no fault with this novel, other than the fact that is over and I can never again experience it for the first time. An immediate favorite, a book I will recommend forever and reread often.’
What a thrill to reminisce about some of the books I enjoyed most in 2019. It is difficult to distill an entire year into a short list, and these are only highlights of what was a good reading year for me. If you would like to see everything I have read, or follow along with my reading progress this year, you are welcome to follow or friend me on Goodreads. Here’s to even more delightful books, and infinite time to read them all, in 2020!
*Honorable Mentions: Because narrowing 102 books to a short list of favorites is very difficult, here are five more books that just missed the cut, when I endeavored to be very strict and limit myself to ten: Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper, Inland by Tea Obreht, Dominicana by Angie Cruz, Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li, and Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.