Each year it gets more difficult to choose my favorite books. Narrowing it down to ten proved to be quite difficult, so you’ll find one book - an honorable mention, if you’ll permit - that I just couldn’t bear to exclude. I read a number of these books in the beginning of the year and they have stayed in my mind over the months, their lasting impact still felt through the almost 100 books I managed to read in 2019.
And about those almost 100 books - I've been thinking about reading goals. I had two reading goals this year and I don’t think that I’ll meet either of them. I wanted to read 100 books and I wanted to read Middlemarch by George Eliot. At the time that I’m writing this I have just finished my 95th book for the year, and Middlemarch is not among them. I was feeling sort of bad about that, but then I tried to pull back from that feeling and examine my life this year. While I may not have accomplished either of these goals, I have accomplished quite a lot in other areas of my life. And so, giving myself some grace, I have decided to stop feeling badly and to instead keep reading because I love it - not because I hope to reach some goal. I’ll try again next year for Middlemarch.
I say this in the hopes that someone reading this may give themselves some grace about as yet unmet goals they set for themselves in 2019. Instead of focusing on what you didn’t do, focus on what you did.
So, without further adieu, and in alphabetical order, my favorite books of 2019.
In All the Wild Hungers, Karen Babine, a cook, Minnesota native, and devoted daughter shares a year of her life through a series of short essays. When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, Babine and her sisters rally around their parents, supporting each other in any way they know how. Cooking becomes a metaphor for care and coping, as does searching thrift stores for vintage cast iron pans. Babine explores our society’s relationships with both food and illness, especially in reference to women. Her impatience with a health system that infantilizes and distrusts women in their reporting of pain is mirrored in her frustration with society’s belief that a single woman of a certain age without children couldn’t possibly be both happy and fulfilled in those choices. Her writing is eloquent and powerful and the love that she and her family share is felt in every word. All the Wild Hungers was one of the first books that I read this year, and I still love it as much as I did when I finished it. I’m still struck by the grace with which Babine welcomes her readers into her family at such a difficult time. It was a privilege to read this book.
With Little Faith, Nickolas Butler has written his best book yet. It is a beautiful book, full of love, patience, and forgiveness. Lyle, the protagonist of the book - and a character taken from, in my opinion, the best short story in Beneath the Bonfire - "Apples," is a grandfather with a deep love for his family, his friends, and his home. When his daughter gets involved with an extreme church, and the beliefs of that church put his grandson in danger, Lyle is forced to interrogate his own faith, and the faith that he puts in his family and friends. As I write this, I’m struck by how inadequate these words are for the way this book made me feel. I really loved it. I loved that it took place over a year, so Butler could take Lyle through each season in Wisconsin. I loved that some of the most important parts occurred in an apple orchard, a place that has always felt rather magical to me. I loved that I was allowed a glimpse into long-lasting, male friendships based on respect, generosity, and honesty. I loved Lyle’s relationship with his wife. I could keep going. Make sure that you read Little Faith - it really is wonderful.
Deaf Republic was rightfully shortlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry. It is a stunning collection. If, like me, you find it challenging to approach poetry, this collection is a great gateway into exploring the genre. The poems tell the chronological story of an occupied town. At the outset, a deaf boy is killed in a skirmish, rendering the entire community deaf. Poems are narrated from the perspectives of a young, newly married couple; Mama Galya, an older woman and pillar of the community; Mama Galya’s girls who take justice into their own hands; and the community as a whole. It is a very visual collection - sign language is pictorialized throughout - filled with poems of love, hate, war, despair, triumph, and the beauty of the everyday: laundry drying on lines, the smell of a baby’s head, the endless possibility felt during new love, and the deafening sounds of silence in the face of political injustice and unimaginable cruelty.
In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado's personal memoir of an abusive queer relationship. She structures her narrative like an academic essay, complete with footnotes, seeming to anticipate those who choose not to believe the female and queer voices of survivors of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. She beautifully articulates her fear of both sharing and not sharing her experiences, aware that not sharing her story suggests that domestic violence does not exist in queer relationships, and that sharing makes her vulnerable to the specific phenomenon that attaches itself to minority narratives: her story becomes THE story. I'm so thankful that Machado chose to share In the Dream House with readers. I'm so thankful to be a reader at a time when Machado is a writer.
Dina Nayeri’s beautifully written and fascinating memoir, The Ungrateful Refugee, was a tough one to put down. Nayeri weaves her own immigration story with the stories of others she meets at various refugee camps throughout Europe - mainly Italy. This book feels so intimate, like readers are being let into a secret room, allowed to listen to private confessions of hopes, dreams, fears, and searches for new homes, all while mourning the loss of their previous homes - which are not all war-torn hovels without running water, despite what we assume to be true. This is a timely and essential read; it forced me to interrogate the assumptions that I make about people who have fled their homes in search of a new one, and I am grateful for that.
The Memory Police, written by Yoko Ogawa and beautifully translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder, is a hauntingly quiet novel. Like snow falling on an empty field, Ogawa's prose is never showy, always restrained - powerfully gentle and tragically resigned. The unnamed narrator of the novel, a writer herself, lives out her days in the home in which she was raised by her parents, both deceased. Her community experiences disappearances of everyday objects, like roses and hats. Curiously, when a disappearance occurs, the objects themselves don't disappear, but the people's memories of those objects do. They dutifully destroy these objects in order to avoid the attention of the Memory Police. Some members of her community, however, do not lose their memories, putting them in danger of being taken by the Memory Police if they share their memories. Is it more tragic to know exactly what has disappeared, or surrender your mind and memories to an outside force? While the subject matter of this book is dystopian - and it is tempting to compare it to George Orwell's 1984 - the narrative and figurative style of the book is like nothing I've read. I couldn't put it down.
Authors like Margaret Wilkerson Sexton are rare. The Revisioners, from the first word to the last, is an impressively constructed narrative with both immediacy for today and reverence for the past. Few authors imbue their characters with so much life. The connection of the past to the present is fantastical while still feeling authentic and insightful. This book is a history of race relations in the United States, and an expression of the power and connectivity of motherhood through time. It is tough to find stronger female characters than Josephine and Ava. I'll read everything that Margaret Wilkerson Sexton writes.
I read Women Talking back in January and I still absolutely love it. This book blew me away. Based on true events, the story takes place in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia where women and children have been sexually abused and assaulted by the men of the community for years. I was immediately drawn in and intrigued by the narrative choices the author made. Her ability to create a male character that the reader trusts in a story full of violent, disrespectful, reprehensible men is incredible. August is a fully drawn character - and yet, he is still a man speaking for women. Can we trust him? Have we received all of the words of the women? Within this horrific story, there are also moments of so much joy at the beauty of the world and the possibilities of freedom. This is perhaps my favorite book of the year.
Ocean Vuong has previously published two volumes of poetry; this is his debut novel and it is incredible. Written as a letter to his Vietnamese mother who cannot read, Vuong’s protagonist, Little Dog, dives deep into masculinity, sexuality, addiction, and Americanness. His prose is lyrical, daring, and challenging - all the things I personally love in a work of fiction. Little Dog’s relationship with his mother is complex. She has expectations for her son that differ from his expectations for himself. He struggles to reconcile those expectations, often asking what he owes to a mother who gave up everything for him. I'm not sure how this book hasn't been nominated for (and won) every award ever. It is stunning.
I really loved Oval. It is a complex novel, alive with characters, all seen through the lens of Anja, a fascinating woman whose awareness of her own privilege affects all of her actions. Her empathy is palpable immediately as her boyfriend, Louis, returns to Berlin from the United States after the death of his mother. While he pulls away, she burrows deeper into what she imagines he is feeling. Their home on a, theoretically, entirely sustainable man-made eco-mountain faces challenges that echo the issues in their relationship. While many debut novels would collapse under the various themes Wilk addresses - climate change, commodification of art, social decline in an industrialized city, lack of generosity and empathy across class lines, among other things - her book sparkles, or perhaps glistens from the sweat of living in a home that is being overtaken by a man-made rainforest, coming in through the windows, roof, and walls. This is a strange one in all the best ways.
HONORABLE MENTION: I’m including this next book because it took me completely by surprise. This a genre I wouldn’t normally pick up, but I ended up really loving it, and it has encouraged me to pick up a few more books (i.e.: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey - Loved it!) that I wouldn’t normally and I have really enjoyed stretching myself. Here’s to more stretching in 2020.
On the surface, Miracle Creek falls into the mystery/courtroom drama category that doesn’t usually interest me. After I had read only a few pages, I knew it was not going to fit neatly into any category, and I couldn’t put it down. Angie Kim is a lawyer who moved to the United States from Seoul, South Korea when she was a kid. Her experience as a trial lawyer lends an authenticity to her writing that I really loved. The book is narrated by a rather large cast of characters, all involved in an explosion at Miracle Submarine, a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter to “cure” ailments like infertility and autism. The events surrounding the explosion are shrouded in mystery - each character working to cover up various secrets about their lives. And so, while the plot sounds dramatic, the strength of the narrative comes from the honesty and diversity of the cast of characters that tell the story. At its core, Miracle Creek is a story about motherhood - its challenges and triumphs, the complex emotions of giving so much of yourself to another person, and the beauty that comes with that sacrifice.