Top Reads of 2019

For the past decade or so, I’ve tried to read 100 books a year. It’s been a worthy and mostly achievable goal, a nice round number, and incentive to be deliberate in choosing titles, because—hey, tick-tock.  I don’t log books that I didn’t finish (or almost finish—I included one 600-pager this year that I started skimming after diligently reading 400 mind-numbing pages).

I also don’t count children’s books, although some terrific YA titles have made the cut. I use GoodReads to archive titles, rate them one-five stars, and compose a brief review, mostly to remind myself what the book is about, especially series books. My role model is Nick Hornby, whose Ten Years in the Tub is, IMHO, the Way to Write Reviews.  That is, sloppily and non-linearly, reading multiple books at the same time, being honest about what I love and what moves me–and constantly changing my mind.

Therefore… no neatly ordered top ten titles, no bumping off a favorite because it doesn’t feel prestigious enough for an audience, always embracing good ideas and good writing while overlooking flaws.

I have 14 noteworthy books to share this year, seven fictional titles and seven nonfiction. I’ll begin with books about politics.

Politics

I read about eight politically themed, hyper-current books this year. I thought Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House was actually kind of a dull rehash of the daily news, and found American Carnage interminable and supercilious. I wish I could say I finished The Mueller Report, but it’s still sitting on my bookshelf with the little bookmark somewhere around 80 pages in. There were three books I thought captured the angst of the Trump presidency in unique ways:

Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump (Neal Katyal and Sam Koppelman). Two hundred pages of just the facts—a historical context primer, the point-by-point case for the necessity of taking action instead of trying to pre-determine political fallout, and best of all, a rationale for re-thinking who we are, as a nation, our core principles, so this doesn’t happen again. Katyal leaves the reader with a sense that no matter what happens, the impeachment was essential, morally required and what any thoughtful citizen should want.

The Fifth Risk (Michael Lewis) A blood-chilling account of just what it might eventually mean, in terms of human lives and well-being, that our country is being–What? ‘Run’ isn’t the right word, nor is ‘managed.’ That our government has been taken over by a cabal of unqualified, loutish and greedy people who are in the process of dismantling decades, centuries even, of sensible government policy and protocols. Just because they can. And maybe because someone has something on them. It’s an uneven, imperfect book that jumps around from topic to topic—but read it anyway.

A Warning (by Anonymous) Yeah, yeah. I know. Why give a book without a named author any credence at all? That’s what I thought. Then I went to the library to return some books, and there it was, brand new and on the Hot Titles shelf, so I grabbed it, and gulped it down. After, I no longer cared who wrote it. It’s a narrative Whistleblower’s Companion, the WH insider track that Michael Wolff wanted to occupy but didn’t have the weight.

The author is obviously very conservative—and very horrified that this president couldn’t (like previous presidents) be managed, or even influenced. There is a great deal of ruthless truth-telling, presaging and deep alarm in this book, something I’d like to see all conservatives who genuinely care about their country express. In some ways, not revealing the author’s identity made the book bulletproof. You had to focus on the revealed stories and ideas (shocking, appalling stuff) rather than seeing it through the lens of WHO.

Thinker Non-Fiction

Becoming (Michelle Obama) Best autobiography ever. A friend encouraged me to read it, saying it flows like fiction, a can’t-put-it-down tale, and that’s absolutely true. Obama outs herself as a person who has regularly shifted life goals and personas, some she’s more proud of than others—and she outs her famous husband as imperfect in so many ways, not all of them adorable or noble. Girl from the South Side takes her readers on an amazing, and very American, journey.

White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo) I went on a reading quest this year, to try to enlighten—is that the word? —myself, re: pervasive and ugly racism, the social milieu I admittedly swim in and don’t always acknowledge. The other books I read on the subject were less than helpful, ranging from self-congratulatory to confusing to densely theoretical. I have more books in the pile, but found White Fragility the most useful right now, in pushing me to turn and face things—your mileage, of course, may vary. Am I woke? Hardly. I know I have miles to go. But DiAngelo’s book was straightforward and a needed slap upside the head.

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (Rebecca Traister) This book made me genuinely excited. Traister encourages women to let ‘er rip—to go ahead and feel the justified rage that you’ve been suppressing for, oh, your whole life. Well-supported by logic and research and written in a breezy, sister-to-sister tone, this is one great (and, naturally, underrecognized) book. Read it.

Education

I used to read a dozen education books every year, but my thirst for ed-books has diminished. Mostly, I’m tired of Big Sexy Ed Ideas, endlessly generated and eventually discarded. There are only a few enduring principles in ed-world (the connection between teacher and student, for one, or a nurturing of curiosity) and these principles have been mainly ignored, for a couple of decades, in favor of various tools.

After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform (Andrea Gabor) is a rare exception, a book that isn’t peddling anything new, simply sharing some thick case studies of schools and districts and people who focused on local, genuinely custom-tailored reforms, and stuck with them until they bore actual fruit, for real students and educators. The book kind of rambles around without a coherent thesis about how to ‘fix’ anything, which is, oddly, one of its strengths; it demonstrates that we can only improve public education one school, one city, one classroom at a time. All else is folly.

Fiction

I read a lot of good fiction this year. When I went through the list, there were several books that were lightly touched with magical realism, and more than a few that depended on historical events and settings. I could easily have nominated 20, but here are seven absolute gems.

Washington Black (Edi Edugyan) A swirling amalgam of places (from a tropical sugar plantation to the frozen north), the advances of science, divergent social beliefs and unique characters. Reading it is like flying across time and space in a dirigible. The book never loses hope in mankind, and poses continuous questions about the meaning of identity, friendship and equality.

The Women of Copper Country and  A Thread of Grace (Mary Doria Russell)  I discovered Mary Doria Russell last year, reading The Sparrow, Children of God, and Doc. I am enamored of her intelligent writing and sprawling command of subject matter. Women of Copper Country is her latest, and set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, based on real people and events. It’s a heartbreaking book, including a tragedy that happened on Christmas Eve, 1913—the Italian Hall disaster.’ It left me wrung out and tearful—but so did Thread of Grace, which traces events in remote northern Italy near the end of the World War II, as the Axis was crumbling and loyalties were hard to pinpoint, when Catholic clergy were hiding Jewish refugees, and every day brought acts of bravery as well as treachery. Both books are powerfully written.

This Tender Land (William Kent Krueger) A latter-day Huckleberry Finn—another story that will break your heart, and also revive your belief in human goodness. Four motherless children, a mighty river and plain old faith are at the center of this adventure. Krueger is perhaps best known for his Cork O’Connor series, but his two stand-alone novels are both masterful.

Virgil Wander (Leif Enger) Another all-American story tinged with magic (I seem to be attracted to whimsy and nostalgia in the era of Trump). The story is pretty slight, but the writing is absolutely delicious, and for anyone who wants to believe that sometimes, things turn out OK even when prospects seem the most dim, this book will give you the heart and the will to go on.

The Dutch House (Ann Patchett) Ann Patchett may have become my favorite author with this book—and Commonwealth, her previous novel, which I loved just as much. (Bumping off Barbara Kingsolver, whose most recent book was, IMHO, a dud.) Patchett’s two most recent books have avoided being quirky—no magicians or life-saving tree extractions from South America—and have stayed focused on the uniqueness of family. Dutch House has some great characters—Maeve, the cynical older sister, and the World’s Most Wicked Stepmother—and traces a simple but ultimately believable story, centered around a magnificent house.

The Testaments (Margaret Atwood) Recently, a Facebook posting asked readers to list the five books that have most influenced them and changed their lives. I didn’t bite—Really? Five books? —but it was interesting to read responses, see what posters wanted us to believe about their exemplary reading habits. Besides, I could think of only one book, offhand, that fit in the category: The Handmaid’s Tale.

I recently re-read Handmaid, after 30-odd years, and found it just as powerful as, if not more than, my initial encounter. Lots has happened since then, in the real world—both politically, and to Atwood’s seminal work which has now been retrofitted and expanded into a visually arresting, horrifying TV series that I am absolutely hooked on. I ordered The Testaments in advance, read it in a single day, and loved it.

I think the trick to appreciating all that Atwood packs into Testaments (and there’s plenty of irony, humor, horror, adventure and loose-end tying) is to not expect it to be Handmaid, Part II. In Testaments, Atwood does what she’s been asked to do, thousands of times: she finishes the story. She leaves the Deep Meanings and Metaphors and Dark Lessons in place—but layers on a rousing ending to Gilead, orchestrated by a character who turns out to be much more than anyone expected, back in the mid-1980s. She celebrates strength and savvy in women. And she gives us a rollicking good story–nothing wrong with that.
MARGARET-ATWOOD-MARKIAN-LOZOWCHUK-BETHUNE-SEPT06-810x810-1567799151

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