The Top Ten Books (I've Read) in 2019
Updated: Aug 18, 2020
A summary review
My goal each year is to read 50 books. Without any tremendous effort on my part, I completed 77 books in 2019. The majority of them were compelling, and many were delightful. Only one or two were a complete waste of time.
It is a little more challenging this year to select the Top Ten, so I am also including an Honorable Mention section for those books which still wowed me.
A Gentleman in Moscow
My mother-in-law recommended this one; she hasn’t read much in the past few years, so for her to rave about the excellent writing piqued my interest. Towles’ story of Count Rostov, who is confined to a fancy hotel after the Russian revolution, may not sound like a terribly engaging story, but don’t be fooled. Rostov is charming as he creates a new life under limited circumstances. Throughout, he never loses his decorum, and he even discovers deep friendships and familial love.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
Every single story in this science fiction/fantasy collection made me exclaim, “I wish I’d thought of that!” Jemisin’s inventiveness is matched by the precision with which she tells each story. Not one word is wasted. The stories address intersections of race, gender, and sexuality within fantastical environments, yet each world is readily recognizable. My personal favorite is “Red Dirt Witch,” which unveils the arc of racism over time and how future generations fight for justice.
Thoreau: A Life
Laura Dassow Walls
Henry David Thoreau fascinates me. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read Walden, and I’ve read a few bios. Walls’ work stands hands-and-shoulders above the others. Through careful analysis of Thoreau’s journals and published works, Walls places him in the historical context of his times. His time at Walden Pond is covered, of course, but there is so much more to his life than those two years. By the time I reached the end of the book – and of Thoreau’s life – I experienced such grief over saying goodbye to a friend.
The Hate U Give
I read several young adult/teen novels this year, and they were all amazing, but Thomas’s novel took my breath away. Starr Carter and her friend, Khalil, are pulled over by a white cop. Even though Khalil complies with the officer’s instructions, the cop still shoots and kills him. What follows is the awakening of Starr’s political consciousness, in particular how pervasive racism is within society, and how she gains the courage to stand up to it. It is a story rich with complex characters and situations.
Between the World and Me
A mandatory read: for what it says and for how it is written. Coates writes a letter to his teenage son about his own experiences of being perpetually policed in society because he is Black. He addresses the constant threat against the body: police shootings, lynchings, and all manner of oppression. Coates writes with fire. I read the book twice because I had to run to keep up. The images are bleak but necessary to face if racism is to be rectified.
The Book of Joy
The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
Joy is not simply happiness; it is a cultivated sense of appreciation and empathy. It is a practice to be developed. And if two immensely compassionate individuals – Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama – can rise above their troublesome times to learn how to practice joy, then that means I can as well. Their bubbly friendship is delightful to witness, and their personal examples are inspiring.
Salvage the Bones
I confess I debated whether to include Ward’s novel in my top ten. The story is so heart-wrenching that I often had to take a break from it. Fourteen-year-old Esch and her three brothers must prepare their home for Hurricane Katrina, while their hard-drinking father is often cold and distant. And Esch is hiding the fact that she is pregnant. What unfolds is gripping and grueling. Ward’s prose – rich in metaphor and poetry – is what kept me going. That, and Esch’s own courage in facing an uncertain future.
A Man Called Ove
Another recommendation from my mother-in-law, who kept pestering me: “Have you finished it yet? Don’t you just love the old coot and the stray cat?” Backman’s novel is about a curmudgeon with a strict set of rules to live by. Against his will, Ove is forced to interact with the young family that has moved in next door. A masterful lesson in empathy in that you should never assume you know why a person acts the way that they do.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Gripping, haunting, depressing. It should be speculative fiction, but instead it shines a spotlight on a disturbingly recognizable culture of patriarchy. Atwood carefully constructs each element of this dystopian world so that the events unfold to a foregone conclusion. In other words, given the fundamentalist principles at work, society can only look like this. Atwood recently published a sequel, The Testaments, which is on my to-read list.
From Baghdad, With Love
A marine, a dog, a rescue. What could have been a sentimentally sappy book proves to be a poignant and thrilling story of humanity at its best: we come together to help those in need. Kopelman does not shy away from the physical and psychic horror of war: IED, mortars, and firefights. And in the midst of this turmoil, he discovers a puppy who helps produce a profound transformation in this no-nonsense Marine. Redemption comes in many forms.
Girls Write Now
Girls Write Now, Inc. mentors young women in the art of writing as a means of discovering their individual voices. This collection features young writers tackling racism, microaggression, issues of religion and face, and immigration. Other essays are expressions of pure joy and celebrations of personal heroes. Reading these essays reassured me that the upcoming generation of writers already exhibit immense talent.
The Disaster Artist
Sestero examines his complex friendship with writer/director/actor Tommy Wiseau, whose film, The Room, is a train-wreck of a production. Entertaining in a rubbernecking sort of way.
My Life in Middlemarch
There are books that you return to over the course of your life. For me, it’s Walden. For Mead, it’s George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Mead examines the themes in Eliot’s work, not only in what they say about society, but also what they personally mean to her. Part biography, part memoir, part literary analysis, My Life in Middlemarch focuses on how we are deeply affected by the books that we read.
Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Simon has a secret pen-pal at school, where they can discuss what it means to be gay. When a classmate threatens to out Simon, what follows is messy navigation of maintaining friendships, keeping your privacy, and claiming authority over your true identity. Albertalli’s tale has a lot of heart, and the ending had me grinning.
Spirits Eat Ripe Payapa
Reverently irreverent: Svelmoe’s novel of a Bible college drop-out who takes on a teaching position at a missionary compound explores on the complex nature of faith. The author focuses on the individual humanity of the characters, in that every single person has a story about coming to their faith. But never does the story drop into a holier-than-thou attitude. It is rich and funny and poignant. My only reservation is with the ending. While I understand why the story ends the way that it does, I found it a bit of a hard resolution.
Bud, Not Buddy
Christopher Paul Curtis
Why have I not heard of this novel before? I want to tell everyone about it. Ten-year-old Bud is on a quest to locate his father. Along the way, his adventures bring him into contact with a wide variety of fascinating characters. Bud himself is sharp, witty, and resourceful, and he has his own rules to live by. I was not ready for this book to end, and I wish Curtis would write a sequel.
My wife and I have read all of Austen’s novels, but Emma was the one that took us the longest – somewhere around four years. What do you do with a novel in which you are not supposed to like the main character? Well, I decided to give Emma another go, and this time around I was charmed. I loved how Emma grew as a character across the course of the novel. Austen has a keen eye for presenting society rife with propriety, but none of her characters is infallible. Their quirks and charms make them richly human.
The complete list of books:
Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli
The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander
The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander
The Castle of Llyr, Lloyd Alexander
Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander
The High King, Lloyd Alexander
Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende
Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher
Foundation, Isaac Asimov
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Emma, Jane Austen
A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman
Thank You for My Service, Mat Best
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
Window, Amelia Brunskill
In Such Good Company, Carol Burnett
Don’t Let Go, Harlan Coben
The Places that Scare You, Pema Chödrön
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Bud, Not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis
The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls
The Best American Short Plays 2015-2016, William W. Demastes and John Patrick Bray, ed.
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson
Great Movies IV, Roger Ebert
Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
April Morning, Howard Fast
Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
Girls Write Now
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, Anissa Gray
Crow Planet, Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Dune, Frank Herbert
The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
All by Myself, Alone, Mary Higgins Clark
The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, Mark Hodder
Ghost-Writer, Michael Hollinger
We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, Wade Hudson, ed.
Tales from Development Hell, David Hughes
The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, N.K. Jemisin
From Baghdad, with Love, Jay Kopelman
Camber of Culdi, Katherine Kurtz
Saint Camber, Katherine Kurtz
Camber the Heretic, Katherine Kurtz
The Harrowing of Gwynedd, Katherine Kurtz
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carré
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
The Fifth Child, Doris Lessing
Superheroes!, Laurence Maslon
Sniper Elite, Rob Maylor
My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead
Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley
The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Yukiko Motoya
Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Nandawi
Fallout, Sara Paretsky
Shell Game, Sara Paretsky
Haunted, James Patterson and James O. Born
Laughing with Lucy, Madelyn Pugh Davis
The Godfather, Mario Puzo
The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach
Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Stephen Rebello
Henry and the Huckleberries, Sally Sandford
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alvin Schwartz
The Disaster Artist, Greg Sestero
Doubt, John Patrick Shanley
The Best American Comics 2013, Jeff Smith, ed.
Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (play), Simon Stephens
Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya, Bill Svelmoe
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
The Power of Now, Ekhart Tolle
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward
Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf