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  • Louis Arata

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

Amor Towles

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?

N.K. Jemisin

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

Angie Thomas

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

Ta-Nehisis Coates

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

Jesmyn Ward

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

Fredrik Backman

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

Margaret Atwood

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

Jay Kopelman

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.

Honorable Mention

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

Greg Sestero

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

Rebecca Mead

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

Becky Albertalli

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

Bill Svelmoe

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.


Jane Austen

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

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