Every year I take the GoodReads.com challenge and set a target of 52 books. Despite a couple months of traveling without reading, I got back on the horse and managed to knock off 55, which means I’ve met my goal five years running. Commitment! There were a few clunkers among them, to be sure, but here are the books I felt really stood out as the best of the bunch in 2019. Not all of them were published in 2019 — though some were — and I did return to a few classics. But here you go:
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
This showed up on several 2019 recommended reading lists, and as I am familiar with Bangkok and some of its history, I gave it a go. This is one of those collections of intertwined short stories that these days are described as novels. The stories occur in various time periods from 19th century Siam to a speculative future Bangkok. The writing is excellent, the characters well written, and it was just good enough for me to get over my hang-ups about What Is a Novel? Some good cultural insights as well as a look at some dark moments in Thai history. The speculative portion seems spot on.
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh
This is one of those important-type works I wish more people would read. I can’t say how it compares to similar reads that focus on the cycle of poverty or poor white culture, but by itself it’s worth reading. The author “got out” as they say, but one can see how much something like that takes, and she questions what the term even means. So much depends on luck – good and bad – and the idea that hard work will fix anything is a horrible myth. Part of the narrative device is that she is telling her story to a child she never had: she is unusual in her community in that she never got pregnant at a very young age. (Some readers hated that, but even if you turn your nose to the device, it is not done so much as to be distracting.) Enlightening. Read it!
The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz
Another new take on time travel by a writer with quite a bit of tech/nerd/editor cred! The time travel device itself is a bit unusual, but the focus of the travel – to help shape women’s rights for the positive against a group that is working for the opposite – is a curiously new one for me. The author works in a lot of non-mainstream history and figures to give some heft. No need to Google some of the names: she has an extra chapter at the end of the book dedicated to summarizing the true historical bits.
1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin Sandler
One can go on and on about how crappy history class was in high school. Useless memorization of dates, horrible biases, focus on particular characters rather than grander movements, and the hidden figures who have had tremendous impact on the present. We’ve all heard of the damn Teapot Dome Scandal but what the hell was that and tell me without asking Alexa. (And if you do look it up note how that scandal sounds like business as usual now.) In 1919, the author focuses on the events that took place right after World War I. The book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, but don’t think this is just for teenagers. We all can learn something here. It is divided into several topics, such as women’s right to vote, labor conflicts, the fear of communism, and race riots (way more than just the recent exposure given to 1921’s massacre of blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma). This is highly readable and level-headed, with text boxes that provide closer examination and context, and abundant photography. Would make an excellent extra textbook in an American History class.
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
A novel narrated by a teenager whose father was a Filipino immigrant. Something happens to his cousin back in the Philippines and no one in the family will talk about it. He returns to the Philippines under the guise of a family visit to dig up the truth. It’s a solid coming-of-age story that deals with family, cultural identity, faith, and poverty with the indiscriminate extrajudicial violence of the Duterte regime as the background.
Little Faith by Nickolas Butler
I’ve liked everything Butler has written so far, but this is my favorite. Set in a small Wisconsin town, an older couple struggles with their adult daughter who consistently pushes them away. They fear for their grandson’s well being as the daughter gets caught up with a religious cult. Inspired by a real-life moment of tragedy-by-blind-faith, it’s a moving story and made real by a well written grandfather figure. What to do when you want to help someone who refuses reasonable help? This one sticks with you.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by L. Ryan Stradal
What’s not to like here? Strong women characters, great humor, an honest look at the ceaseless work and challenges people face in real life when they can’t catch a break, and then the heroes without capes — friends, neighbors, strangers who in ways large or nearly imperceptible, have lasting impacts on the paths of our lives. It may help to be a Midwesterner to fully appreciate all the details here and I found myself laughing out loud not just at the scenes the author created but even at some of the telltale Minnesota/Wisconsin language of the narration. And as a lifelong beer person — collecting beer cans as a kid, writing brewery travel guides and craft beer articles as a… uh… bigger kid — I loved that this book brought that world into a literary novel, another of my life’s loves. On a side note, I know some of the real people in the story, and many in the acknowledgements. Not too bad.
The Overstory by Richard Powers (plus The Hidden Life of Trees)
I knew nothing about this book beforehand, having grabbed it at the “impulse loans” at the library, and for the first few chapters I thought this “novel” seemed more a collection of really fine short stories… and then it all starts to come together. Weaving in a boatload of new tree science, this eco-novel is the book we need right now. It’s a humbling view of Life on Earth’s long game, and while there isn’t much hope for some of us humans, the trees and life will continue on long after we are gone. It also just so happened to win a Pulitzer Prize. A fantastic read and as I went along I felt like some of the almost supernatural elements read as if they were based on science.
This compelled me to pick up the nonfiction The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Yes, this is all real and very new science. Mindblowing, I’d say. Great books to read together. I will also be checking out Powers’ other works!
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
If there is a winner for the year for favorite read, it’s this one. The novel is Great look into the post-Bolshevik Russia, with a very likable character, loads of great little surrounding characters and their stories. A story with a lot of heart and humor, with moments of reflection and philosophy that made me pause and think about bigger things. For fun, pair this with watching The Death of Stalin first. The main character is a member of the aristocracy – many of which are being executed by the Bolsheviks. The book opens with a court transcript of this character’s trial wherein you immediately see his sense of humor. Because he is associated with a work that inspired many of the revolutionaries, they don’t have him executed, but rather condemn him to house arrest – in his favorite hotel The Metropole in Moscow. Loved this one.
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
What can I say? I think I could spend the rest of my life reading the abundance of diverse novels that have risen out of World War II. Here’s another but it deals with a group of non-Nazi German women who lose their husbands and their place in society. The story takes place primarly after the war, during a desperate period that doesn’t often get as much coverage. It’s as much a tale of survival as anything. The author is inspired by many family stories, so there is an air of authenticity.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
An enjoyable time travel story with a serial killer at the center of it. One of his victims survives and goes on the hunt to find him. While the time travel device doesn’t have much logic to it (see Stephen King’s 11/22/63), it nevertheless makes a fun story possible, so I just went with it.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Another World War II-related story. This is a classic and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors, and this was a book it took him a long time to figure out how to write. At its heart is Vonnegut’s real-life experiences as a soldier in the Battle of the Bulge and his subsequent time as a prisoner of war. He was being held in Dresden when the Allies fire-bombed it to hell, and he was forced to gather burnt corpses. PTSD? Critics say that now, but his suffering created this incredible story and informs the great humanism for which he and his novels became known. It’s an odd story at times as his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time,” but roll with it. There are also aliens from Tralfamadore. Trust me, it works.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
The adventures of a clever artistic slave with aspirations to be a naturalist who runs off with the adventurist bachelor brother. Some brutal looks at life on a Caribbean plantation, the complexity of his relationship with his former companions, his new master but not master, and the challenges of being a talented man of color as emancipation finally came around but didn’t necessarily bring true freedom. It’s much more than just an adventure story, but it is also that, which moves the reader along. Great stuff.