Some Favorites: Books I Read in 2019

It’s time for the fourth annual book recap! 

(Which is apparently all I use this blog for anymore. You can read 2018’s list here, 2017’s list here, and 2016’s list here.) 

A special shout-out to Hennepin County Libraries, which is where I get nearly 100% of the books I read in any given year. In 2020, do what you can to support (and patronize!) your local library system, whether that’s volunteering, paying your overdue fines promptly, donating to a friends group, or just thanking your librarians on a regular basis. They give our communities more than just free access to a nearly unlimited supply of knowledge in paper form (as if that wouldn’t be enough) – including study groups and homework help, advice on legal rights for marginalized groups, story time for little ones, and often, book delivery for home-bound community members. Check out this awesome This American Life episode.

Here are some books I read this year that I really liked. They made me happy, or they taught me something about the world, or they were superbly written, or some combination thereof. Books are listed in no specific order. (F) denotes fiction and (NF) nonfiction. I list them here because you should read them too, so that we can talk about them!

  • If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin (F) 
    • A story about a young couple in love. One is unjustly imprisoned. I think we all know that James Baldwin is a genius, and you do not need me to tell you that he is an excellent writer. 
    • “…The strangeness at the heart of the book: a romance that turns on social outrage, a family drama that’s also a searing protest against the carceral state.” – Slate
  • Calypso, by David Sedaris (NF) 
    • A collection of essays about family, physical and mental health, and seaside homes. Sedaris is not for everyone, but I’m a big fan. Sometimes very devastating/heartbreaking. Sometimes very very funny. 
  • There, There, by Tommy Orange (F)
    • A novel that follows twelve Native characters in California and revolves around the enormous Oakland Powwow. Holy shit, this book. This book! It’s gonna rip at your heart. It’s gonna move you to action. It is full of loving people, humor, romantic dramas, friendships. (Also it was one of Obama’s favorite books of the year.)
    • “What’s impressive about Orange’s writing isn’t its pacing, though a strong current of physical and emotional movement, especially when a story is told through many braided stories, is nothing to undervalue…It’s the close-up work that puts this novel across, however, the quotidian details of blasted lives. That Orange manages to link these details to a historical sense of outrage at how America has treated its native people, in a manner that approaches scarifying essay without dropping over the fence into lecture or sociology, adds to this novel’s smoke…” – NYTimes

  • EleanorDavis_MainYou & a Bike & a Road, by Eleanor Davis (NF, illustrated memoir)
    • A graphic memoir (graphic in the sense of “graphic novel,” not as in gory and explicit) about a young woman’s attempt to bike across half the country alone. She is not a super-athlete, but she is a super-artist and writer. The illustrations and story are delightful and human. I read it in about 45 minutes and then Niko and I proceeded to tell everyone we know how wonderful it is.
  • How to Invent Everything, by Ryan North (NF ish)
    • The premise of this book is that it comes with the personal time machine that you purchased from a slightly devil-may-care company. The book’s goal is to help you survive and re-invent modern human civilization of one form or another, should the time machine malfunction and strand you thousands of years in the past. It’s funny, clever, and painstakingly researched. While reading this book, I talked about nothing else except the fun facts I’d learned – about things like potatoes or iodine in salt or how engines work or whatever (I was probably very annoying.) 
  • Gravity is the Thing, by Jaclyn Moriarty (F)
    • A novel about a woman who accepts a weird invitation in the mail to attend a private workshop, and the people she meets there. It also explores how traumas affect our lives, and has a touch of magical realism. It’s kind of a weird book, and it might not be your thing, but it appears that people who love it ARE INTO it, and I’m one of those. I loved the writing, the characters, the goofy premise. You should read it and tell me what you think.
  • 51Hi93W3GEL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Thanks, Obama, by David Litt (NF)
    • David Litt was one of Obama’s speechwriters, specializing in funny speeches like the Correspondents Dinner. As you might thus guess, he’s a funny guy and it’s a funny book. I liked this book for the charming, fascinating insider stories about Obama and working at the White House, but also for the vaguely patriotic, almost optimistic stirrings some of Litt’s more earnest, let’s-be-serious-for-a-minute passages evoked in me, feelings that had previously been dead and smushed since late on the night of November 8, 2016. 
  • The Maze at Windermere, by Gregory Blake Smith (F)
    • A novel about characters in Newport, Rhode Island throughout time: a set of characters in 1692, 1778, 1863, 1896, and 2011. As the New York Times put it, “Each story is about courtship, sexual attraction and the moral choices people make when they love, or fail to love, one another.” This feels like a great book to read over a long weekend in front of a fire in a stony manor somewhere; it’s rich, a good story, lengthy but continuously gripping. (Also Smith is a prof at Carleton College, just south of the Twin Cities! And he went to Bowdoin, where Niko also went.) 
  • Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe (NF)
    • Okay, this is going to sound like a silly book, but it’s just freaking delightful. The whole book consists of letters written by Nina to her sister when she was a nanny for a slightly eccentric and intellectual family in England in the eighties (the mom being both now and then the lead editor for the London Review of Books. Famous writers are neighbors and friends.) There is no plot, per se. Just a bunch of odd, literary ducks living their lives and having funny little clever conversations and caring about one another in deeply meaningful but unsentimental ways. 
    • “Here, you think, is a book that wants to throttle you with its charm, as if intended to appeal to the owners of bookstores that mostly stock potpourri, clip-on reading lamps and complicated bookmarks…Mea maxima culpa. It turns out that “Love, Nina” is indeed charming, but only in the best ways. It’s observant, funny, terse, at times a bit rude. It affords a glimpse into a rarefied London social and literary milieu. It’s an “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey” of sorts, set not in a manor house but in the genteel bohemian home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, the longtime editor of The London Review of Books.” – New York Times

  • Bluebird, Bluebird, and Heaven, My Home, both by Attica Locke (F)
    • Two mystery novels set in the swampy south that both explore subtle and overtly violent racism, the complicated love of a hometown in which one is not always welcome, and complex family relationships in addition to their detective stories. I love a good mystery novel, but the writing and big picture subjects that Locke does beautiful things with made these especially good. 
  • Educated, by Tara Westover (NF)
    • Another memoir that you certainly don’t need ME to recommend – I think it’s been on a thousand best of lists. Because it’s very, very good. 
  • 41MV+foRGbL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Less, by Andrew Greer (F)
    • A very funny, very likable portrait of a man avoiding the wedding of his ex-boyfriend via the extreme method of world travel and accepting a slew of big invitations and requests. 
    • “Like Arthur, Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less” is excellent company. It’s no less than bedazzling, bewitching and be-wonderful.” – New York Times
  • Exhalation, by Ted Chiang (F, short stories)
    • A collection of short stories (and one so long it’s almost a novella) that explore the role of technology in our lives and relationships in a near and tangible future. It’s a little bit like a less dark, less scary, literary Black Mirror. Very thought provoking. Chiang’s writing is very simple, very direct. 
  • Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday (F)
    • A novel told in three parts: a young woman in a relationship with a much older, more famous, wealthier man; a young Middle Eastern man being detained in an airport; and an interview with that first older man, years later. The stories connect, in a way, at the end, but don’t tie together in any sweetly perfect bows. But the New York Times, always, says it better: 
    • “Halliday has written, somehow all at once, a transgressive roman à clef, a novel of ideas and a politically engaged work of metafiction. “Asymmetry” is extraordinary, and the timing of its publication seems almost like a feat of civics. The effect on the reader feels identical to the way Ezra describes a piano suite by Isaac Albéniz, which he selects near the program’s end. “Each of the pieces builds on the last,” he says. “They’re discrete and yet all the richer for being heard together, and you just ache with the mounting intensity of it.”” – New York Times
  • Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney (F)
    • A novel about a friendship, class differences, and an affair. The main character isn’t incredibly likable, but she’s very witty and she’s very believable. Rooney’s writing is spare in just the way I like, and she uses IM and text conversations so well within the text. I read this on Drayton and Heather’s Kindle while in Japan, and I wanted it to be a dozen times longer. I’ve had Rooney’s newer novel, Normal People, on hold at the library for like A THOUSAND YEARS and I can’t wait. 
    • “Perhaps as a result of such swift execution, the novel gave me the curious feeling that Rooney wasn’t always sure where she was going but that she trusted herself to find out. She writes with a rare, thrilling confidence, in a lucid and exacting style uncluttered with the sort of steroidal imagery and strobe flashes of figurative language that so many dutifully literary novelists employ. This isn’t to say that the novel lacks beauty.” – New Yorker
  • To Night Owl From Dogfish, by Holly Sloan and Meg Wolitzer (F, YA) -and- When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (F, YA)
    • The two above are YA novels, but they’re clever, emotional, and, I will admit, made me tear up a little. There’s room for some YA in your life too! Get into the minds of young people, the turbulent whirlwind of a teen brain, for a spell!
    • The first is a series of letters back and forth between two girls whose dads are starting a new relationship between one another. There are summer camp mishaps and all of the beautiful friendship stuff we want. (“Built on a foundation of absurdity, coincidence and the occasional rather good one-liner, the novel manages the difficult balancing act of using increasingly ridiculous, and often funny, situations to drill home the idea that every close relationship takes hard work…” – New York Times.)
    • The second is about a mysterious set of letters and characters. (“In this taut novel, every word, every sentence, has meaning and substance. A hybrid of genres, it is a complex mystery, a work of historical fiction, a school story and one of friendship, with a leitmotif of time travel running through it. Most of all the novel is a thrilling puzzle.” – New York Times) 

In progress: Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo (F)

Books About Education:

I’ve been in an education master’s program and getting a high school teaching license since June, and have done a lot of reading, including some incredible articles by people like bell hooks, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and James Baldwin. We’ve also read some books – below are a top three.

  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire
  • Teaching for Black Lives, ed. Dyan Watson, Jesse Hagopian, Wayne Au
  • Make Me, by Eric Toshalis

On the docket: We Want to Do More than Survive, by Bettina Love

Honorable Mentions:

More books that I liked, but that due to some capricious decision-making, did not make it to the annotated list above:

  • This Could Hurt, by Jillian Medoff (F)
  • Bitter Orange, by Claire Fuller (F)
  • Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris (NF)
  • The Current, by Tim Johnston (F)
  • Would You Rather?, by Katie Heaney (NF)
  • Almost Somewhere, by Suzanne Roberts (NF)
  • Dirt Work, by Christine Byl (NF)
  • Intimacy Idiot, by Isaac Oliver (NF)
  • Social Creature, by Tara Burton (F)
  • Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling (F)
  • The River, by Peter Heller (F)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (F)
  • Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao (F)
  • The Shakespeare Requirement, by Julie Schumacher (F)
  • The Flatshare, by Beth O’Leary (F)
  • The Leavers, by Lisa Ko (F)
  • Four Souls, by Louise Erdrich (F)
  • Sounds Like Titanic, by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman (NF)
  • Breaking Wild, by Diane Les Becquets (F)

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