As I’ve mentioned in this newsletter before, I scour all end-of-the-year book lists delightedly; it’s one of the best parts (there are many good parts) about the end-of-the-year season. This year’s crop is particularly good because it’s also the end of the decade, so everyone is in a general list-making frenzy and books, happily, have not escaped. Here are some of the lists I read this month, none of which I’m endorsing—everyone besides me is always, of course, wrong.*
*(In all honesty, I’ve read few of the 2019-specific books—the ones that sound good will make it onto my reading list for next year, which is, hopefully, the whole point.)
But because everyone besides me is always wrong, whether I’ve read the books or not, here is my own list of Best 10 Books Read But Not Necessarily Written in 2019. (I left re-reads off the list, because that felt like cheating—of course I think they’re the best, or I wouldn’t have picked them up again.) It’s not, of course, actually the end of the year yet, but it’s not the end of the year for the New York Times or the Washington Post or Literary Hub either. What it is is the beginning of gift-buying season (or, if you are my parents and the requested gift is “all of Game of Thrones,” it’s getting it from the library and wrapping it and putting it under the tree with a note that says “due back in two weeks” season). And with that:
Normal People, Sally Rooney | read in January | Rooney is one of the revelations of the decade, an author who can write with such unsettling precision about exactly how it feels to be a young person relating to other young people: the shame and joy and hesitancy of trying to live not-alone.
The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai | read in February | Lushly detailed, visceral in its grief, I could not put down or stop thinking about this story of friends living in AIDS-rampaged Chicago.
Heavy: An American Memoir, Kiese Laymon | read in February | Laymon writes with incredible nuance, really drawing you in to the narrative of his life, its bright spots of joy and friendship and love even in a landscape of generational pain and oppression.
Such Good Work, Johannes Lichtman | read in March | A warmly, generously fumbling attempt to be—and write about being—someone good in an overwhelming and often-bad world.
Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan | read in March | Historical fiction that’s excruciating and beautiful at the same time, the story of black jazz musicians in Nazi Germany that invites a series of obvious but not at all wrong story/music metaphors.
No Name, Wilkie Collins | read in March | A deeper cut from the author of The Woman in White, this book is equally (or almost as) good on a cold, rainy night—a curl-up book, a mystery/thriller full of the best heroines, villains, and comic relief there is.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn | read in July | Expansively, exhilaratingly imagined, squeamish and sick, full of love, all at once, with an ending that’s like flying.
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir | read in October | Pure fun for established fantasy/sci-fi fans, this is an all-out thrill of a book: space necromancers, murder and mystery, and a central relationship that holds it all together and makes it matter.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk | read in October | A mystery that makes you re-examine your own life for clues, with a central character unlike anyone I’ve encountered in books in a long time.
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead | read in November and reviewed below! | The kind of book where beauty and cruelty heighten each other, not lessen—and where beauty wins (in its way) just enough to make reading it bearable, even good, even lovely.
Here are The Honorable Mentions, messy but memorable 4-star books that I felt like I couldn’t put on a best-of list but that I couldn’t help wanting to, regardless:
McGlue, Otessa Moshfegh | read in January | A drunken slip of a book, reeling and retching, with a pulsating heart buried firmly inside it.
Spring, Ali Smith | read (appropriately) in May | The third (and so far best) in a series of novel-collages, strange litanies that feel impossibly spot-on for this strangest of times.
Trust Exercise, Susan Choi | read in November and reviewed below! | A book whose style and frame fit its subject superbly, this is a story about teenagers full of all the too-muchness—the bodily discomfort, the excrutiating detail, the self-importance, the feelings—that make teenagerhood what it is.
And, finally, the Five Worst Books Read in 2019. Do not buy these books for anyone this holiday season. Request, if you can, that they not be bought for you!
They Both Die at the End, Adam Silvera | read in January | This well-intentioned LGBT YA romance is quite simply terribly written, a mess of cliched statements about Life’s Meaning and stodgily told-not-shown action sequences. The story, what there is of it, cannot escape the mire.
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens | read in February | The worst book of the year! Roll-your-eyes characters, lazy plotting, laboriously spelled out “Southern dialect,” a healthy dose of racism, and some truly awful original poetry thrown in for no discernible reason. Do not read this book.
The Art Forger, B.A. Shapiro | read in February | Nothing the author writes about, from museums to the art market to historical research, Works Like That. (Actually, forgery does Work Like That, but having expended that effort at verisimilitude she appeared to throw up her hands re: the rest.)
If We Were Villains, M.L. Rio | read in April | The only thing I have to say about this half-hearted ripoff of a book is that the book it tries and fails so sadly to rip off is superb, and you should read that book right now—Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (re-read in April). Go!
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern | read in June | How timely! This author, who has never heard of a “plot” or “characterization,” has just come out with another book that, based on confused reviews from former sadly misguided fans, seems to have even less of each of those things! I will never read her second book, and I suggest you never read either one.
Happy holidays! As always, even more of my opinions are below.
November book reviews
[Click each title for a plot summary]
The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt [***]
A tough book to start the month off with, because it came so highly recommended—not just by a friend with whom my reading taste usually aligns, but also by just a lot of the reading public, everywhere. This is one of those books that people would take with them to a desert island, I think, and maybe that’s exactly where it faltered for me. Which is to say: this is a lot of book, a dense multilingual literary amalgam of a book that you could probably read 20 times and still never fully absorb; great when it’s your only reading material somewhere in the middle of the ocean, but difficult for me this time. For whatever reason, I found pretension where I might have found richness, and impenetrability in place of complexity. Still, I think that in another mood, if I ever give it another try, I could come to see what so many people adore about this layered, thoughtful story about mothers and children and what we owe to those we love.
Trust Exercise, Susan Choi [****]
This is a weird and messy narrative—the word freaky feels right—chock full of self-conscious framing devices and grotesque descriptions of various kinds of abuse. But it’s also (while definitively aimed adults) about teenager-hood, and that’s what saved it, for me: the grostequerie and freakiness and visceral bodily imagery and pretentious framing were perfect for a story about a cohort of students at a performing arts academy, pretentious lovesick kids who are the exact age at which literally everything feels exaggerated, excrutiating, pulsatingly intense. The too-muchness of this book was precisely what it did right.
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead [*****]
Another recommendation—this time from my cousin Kate, who promised me that I would be able to handle this, a book I’d been avoiding out of sheer emotional fear ever since it came out. I didn’t think I would be able to take this story of the racism and abuse that took place at a Floridian reform school in the 1960s, but what I overlooked in my reluctance to read it—a well-received book by an author I already like—was the main thread of the plot: a defiant friendship, a story of two richly- and wonderfully-drawn boys that carries through, even if it cannot always (or even often) overcome, all of the rest of it. That thread of goodness at the heart of this story is what makes it both bearable and impossible to bear. Whichever it is, I am glad I read this.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey [***]
If this book had stopped after 200 pages I would have given it four stars for its gripping inside look at how the Harvey Weinstein story was broken, finally, by the authors and the women who finally decided to say something. I love a juicy piece of non-fiction where the villain is finally taken down (see, as always, Bad Blood), and the first part of this book delivered exactly that: watching the reporters watch Weinstein squirm is intensely fun.
But, whether because the authors felt they ought to in order to make a larger statement about sexual harassment in the United States today, or whether because the book was simply too short without it, the story takes a sudden turn at the just-over-halfway point into a recounting of the Kavanaugh trial. There is some detail about Christine Blasey Ford’s decision-making process that dovetails in some ways with the narrative of the collective coming-out of the Weinstein accusers, and of course the cold shock of the Kavanaugh story does make for a more accurate assessment of how much the Weinstein reporting and MeToo movement really did, but it just felt weird to me—to go from a deeply inside look at one story to a mostly outside look at a second was jarring. Plus, I did not want to relive the Kavanaugh trial, frankly, and I honestly wish I hadn’t been tricked into doing so!
Checkmate, Dorothy Dunnett [*****]
Is this a five-star book? In some ways no, not at all—this, the conclusion to Dunnett’s sweeping Scottish historical fiction sextet (and my own delighted re-reading saga) is a mess of strange motivations and deus ex machina resolutions and old-fashioned romance tropes, of detailed recountings of French battles that you don’t really care about, of plot devices that we would certainly, in 2019, declare Problematic. But in other ways, this is the perfect book. The first time I read it, I wrote down a line from the last chapter in my diary because it so moved me!! This, the second time, I cried when it ended and then moped for days. “Was it that sad?” my long-suffering boyfriend asked. “No,” I said, “I’m just so sad that it’s over.” When the 600-page conclusion to a six-book series ends and all you feel is grief at the loss of its lovingly-crafted complexity, its characters that you still feel you have only just begun to really know, its landscapes and its sense of living history—that’s a five-star book, okay, no matter what else.
Verity, Colleen Hoover [**]
When you finish a thriller and think to yourself, “Law and Order: SVU could have done more with this plot and it would probably have been less misogynistic to boot,” you know it wasn’t a great thriller, already a genre with a low bar for greatness. Everyone in this book is unlikeable, the plot is full of pointedly meaningful details that the author then seems to completely forget about, the basic premise is ludicrous. Two stars because I really do think the bar for thrillers is low—even a terrible one sort of understands what the point is. This book is certainly a hot mess, but that’s much better than being boring.
The Library Book, Susan Orlean [****]
This book is very much just a book-length New Yorker feature about, like, a new kind of turtle or the history of bagged tea. If you just thought, “I’d read that,” then yes, you should read this book. If you like libraries—I love libraries—you should read this book. If you are my uncle Rick, who loves books that are titled Salt or Cod or Noun, you should read this book. Anyone else maybe should skip this book, which is defiantly and lengthily just about libraries: broadly, their history in the United States and in Los Angeles, and specifically, the history of the 1986 Los Angeles library fire. Being in the third category above, however—a library-lover—I really liked this book, mostly because it felt so nice to spend time with someone else’s worshipful thoughts about libraries, their potential and their generosity, their comforts, how necessary they still feel even when everything is online anyway. How lost I, at least, and Susan Orlean with me, and everyone who mourned the 1986 fire in strangely deep ways, would feel without them.
Thank you for reading! See you at the end of the year, for some self-indulgent reading stats and maybe even a graph or two. In the meantime, if you know someone else you think would enjoy this newsletter, please share!