10 Best Books of 2019

What a year 2019 was for reading!

Here are my top 10 reads of the year. These are the books I thought about months after I read them, the ones that most touched, entertained, educated or moved me.

  1. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. This book kicked off my 2019 reading and it set a very high bar. It’s a novel about how AIDS ravaged the gay community in 1980s Chicago, with ramifications for decades for those who knew and loved the men who died from the disease. (Review here.)
  2. Becoming by Michelle Obama. It’s a cliche at this point to gush over Michelle Obama’s memoir, but it’s just really good. I think about Becoming all the time, and I miss the Obamas terribly. (Review here.)
  3. Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. This novel about a lonely widow in Maine and the unlikely friendship she strikes up with a pitcher with the yips was the perfect summer read. It is smart, wistful and romantic without a trace of sappiness. I was sad when it ended. (Review here.)
  4. Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Brodesser-Akner hit a nerve this summer with her novel about modern marriage and divorce, Manhattan-style. Funny, observant and acerbic, the book took a narrative turn 3/4 of the way through that gave it much more depth. (Review here.)
  5. The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett Graff. This comprehensive oral history of 9/11 is very difficult to read, but it’s important and very moving. I recommend this book equally for people who lived through 9/11, and those born after it happened. (Review here.)
  6. In The Pleasure Groove by John Taylor. I loved this memoir by the bassist of Duran Duran, not just because I love DD and anything related to 80s music, but because he was smart and self-deprecating and lived a crazy life in the 80s. (Review here.)
  7. Forever Is The Worst Long Time by Camille Pagan. This is a bittersweet read about a man who falls in love with his best friend’s girlfriend and pines for her for years. When they eventually get together, will it work out? This book took some unexpected turns and I think back on it often. (Review here.)
  8. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane. This story about two families inextricably linked through tragedy will break your heart. (Review here.)
  9. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. I loved this book about a brother and sister who are forced to move from their childhood home after their father dies. Patchett traces their lives over the next few decades, exploring their relationship and how the house looms large in their identities. (Review here.)
  10. Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf. This quiet novel about two older people who find each other after their partners died is beautifully simple and moving. This was my first Haruf novel and I can’t wait to read more. (Review here.)

THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF 9/11 by Garrett Graff

The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett Graff is an oral history of 9/11, told by hundreds of people who experienced that day firsthand. Graff painstakingly reconstructed the chronology of September 11, 2001, from the four planes boarding and taking off and President Bush’s now-famous appearance at a school in Sarasota, FL, to the planes colliding with their targets, the falling of the buildings, and the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero and the Pentagon. While this is a very difficult book to read, it is incredibly powerful and one that I highly recommend.

The Only Plane In The Sky is structured as an oral history, with limited additional commentary and information by the author. Hearing the words of the people who lived through it made the whole day more immediate – and, in retrospect, even more scary – for me, and I have a better sense of what they went through and the enormity of the efforts by first responders in both New York and Virginia to rescue people in the buildings. Graff also interviews people who lost loved ones in the building and on the planes, which is of course unbelievably moving and a reminder of the grief that so many people still feel personally experience from 9/11.

I learned a lot from The Only Plane In The Sky as well. One of the people Graff interviewed describes how the nation’s air traffic controllers were able to ground 3,500 of the planes in the air at the time within the first hour of the attacks, and 700 within the first ten minutes. (Of course, one of the things many people commented on about the days after 9/11 was the disconcerting quiet of the planeless skies, punctuated only by the buzz of military planes patrolling major U.S. cities.)

Graff also interviewed people close to President Bush, such as Ari Fleischer and Karen Hughes, and I learned much more about what he did immediately after the attacks and how handicapped Air Force One was by a lack of information and crude communications technology. The president’s plane circled a Florida city while advisers tried to decide where to go, with their only source of news a local TV station whose signal would go in and out as the plane circled in and out of range. Bush and his staff were more in the dark than people watching CNN at home.

I was also unaware of the huge evacuation efforts that took place by boat from lower Manhattan as people fled Ground Zero. Thousands of people were taken to Staten Island and New Jersey by a fleet that consisted of pleasure boats, ferries, Coast Guard vessels, and even private yachts that NYPD broke into while docked to get people (some of whom were jumping into the Hudson River) out of Manhattan.

The Only Plane In The Sky was a tough read, and I did it over about two months because I just couldn’t read that much of it at one time. (I especially had trouble reading it before bed.) But it is one of my top reads of the year, and I feel grateful for the experience of reading it. I never like to call anything “required reading”, but I will call this “very highly recommended reading” for anyone who wants to really understand that happened that day, or who perhaps wasn’t alive in 2001 and didn’t experience it themselves.

I am especially impressed with Garrett Graff, who undertook the task of reviewing thousands of interviews from witnesses to 9/11 and synthesizing them into this highly readable and compelling format.  

2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge: Wrap-up

So this was the first year I participated in a reading challenge – on my blog or anywhere. I’ve always avoided them, because the ones I’ve considered always had categories that I just didn’t want to spend my precious reading slots on, like “books with a flower on the cover” or “books with something sweet in the title”. I read too slowly and life is too short not only to find books that fit the bill, but then to read books I otherwise wouldn’t have read.

But last year, my friend Stephanie came up with a list of categories that seemed pretty manageable, and with her permission and some tweaking by me, I launched the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge. My goals were to push myself to read some books that I should read but probably wouldn’t prioritize during the year, and to diversify my reading list a bit. I hoped that it wouldn’t become a chore and that I’d find some great books that, looking back in December, I’d be grateful that I’d been pushed to read. I knew going in that it wouldn’t be hugely mind-expanding – I didn’t choose categories like Political Memoirs or Science Fiction or Social Justice- but I did want it to broaden me a bit.

I would say the Challenge mostly accomplished those goals, but not entirely. Some of the categories – Memoir, Debut Novel – were very easy to fulfill, and I read several that fit the bill (all of which I would have read anyway). Campus Book and Short Stories were also easy. When I got to books like Unread Classic and Humor, my enthusiasm started to wane, because the books I read – while decent – felt like obligations rather than free choices, like when book club chooses something you don’t really want to read that badly.

By Q4, when I had Pulitzer Prize Winner and Self-Help and Birth Year left, I became downright resentful. There are so many books I am so excited to read, and between my various book clubs and this challenge, they were getting further out of reach. In the end, I am glad I read Interpreter of Maladies and The Best Skin Of Your Life Starts Here, but it was that process of getting myself psyched up, mentally, to read and finish them that I didn’t enjoy. I was cursing the Challenge and rethinking its direction and purpose.

So, I am relieved the Challenge is done, I am glad I did it, and I am most of all so happy that so many of you EDIWTB readers did it too. That has been the best part: the Facebook group and the camaraderie around it.

But I want to improve it.

Later this week I will reveal the categories for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, and I hope you all will return for it and invite your reader friends to join too. I’ve picked categories that are less onerous, in that they allow you more flexibility and freedom to read your bookshelves and choose the books you’re most excited about. I can pretty much find a book for each one that I genuinely want to read, and will hopefully avoid the dreaded December pileup of reading obligation. I want you all to feel energized and purposeful, rather than needing to cross categories off the list.

To conclude:

Favorite books I read for the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge: Becoming, In The Pleasure Groove, The Dreamers

Least favorite books I read for the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge: Charlotte Sometimes, I’ll Give You The Sun

Easiest categories: Memoir, Debut Novel

Least favorite category: Birth Year

Which were your favorites and least favorites??

Thanks again for participating, and stay tuned for the 2020 list!

CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES by Penelope Farmer

For the twelfth and final category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I had to choose a book that came out during my birth year. This proved surprisingly difficult. I had a hard time finding something appealing from that year that I could get my hands on easily and that wouldn’t take forever to read. (This category will not be making a repeat appearance next year.) I ended up choosing a children’s book called Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer about a time-traveling teenager in 1950s England who visits 1918 every other day.

(Incidentally, this book is the inspiration for the Cure song of the same name.)

First, YAY, I FINISHED THE CHALLENGE.

Second, Charlotte Sometimes was just OK. It’s about Charlotte Makepeace, a girl who starts at a new boarding school in England. After a few nights in her new school, she wakes up in the same bed and the same building, but 40 years earlier. She has changed places with someone named Clare, who is also attending the boarding school along with her little sister Emily. Every other night, Clare and Charlotte change places. This leads to much confusion among their classmates and teachers and poses challenges to the two girls themselves, who learn to communicate with each other via notes stuffed into the bedpost. When Charlotte (as Clare) finds herself trapped in 1918 because she and Emily are sent to live with a family and she’s no longer sleeping in the magic bed, she faces questions about who she is, where she belongs and what would happen if she did not return.

Here’s why I didn’t love Charlotte Sometimes. It’s slow and boring at times, with a lot of extraneous detail that bogged down the story and made my mind wander. I listened to Charlotte Sometimes on audio and it was a struggle to concentrate. But even more important, Farmer did not take advantage of time travel, which is a literary and narrative goldmine. Think of all the things that can befall someone living in another era: cultural confusion, astonishment at technological advancement (or its converse), and, of course, the ramifications of doing things that can affect your future self or the people you love. Time travel books make my head hurt in the best way; they are confusing and mind-bendy and intellectually challenging. Charlotte Sometimes barely scratched the surface of time travel. It almost never acknowledged the differences between the two eras, other than that there were no airplanes in 1918, and Farmer didn’t even address the logic fallacy of time travel until the very end. What a waste!

As I mentioned, I listened to Charlotte Sometimes on audio. Narration by Hannah Gordon was precise and dramatic like British narrators often are, but even she couldn’t keep me focused on large swaths of the book. Despite her capable narration, I was relieved when I finished.

OK – 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge completed. Stay tuned for my wrapup and the announcement of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

THE BEST SKIN OF YOUR LIFE STARTS HERE by Paula Begoun

You probably know people in your life who are good at makeup, intuitively know how to care for their skin and look polished and fresh all the time. I am definitely not one of those people. When it comes to my skin, I need all the instruction I can get. So when I had to choose a book for the Self Help category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I picked one about skin care that has been on my shelf since 2016: The Best Skin Of Your Life Starts Here by Paula Begoun.

Here’s what’s good about this book. It gives very clear instructions for exactly how to take care of your skin. This is the kind of self-help book I like – one that gives very practical guidance that you can implement as soon as you read it (like Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up or Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Hungover). I am not into self-help books about being happy or productive or relaxed, or business books about effective habits and smart leadership. But a book that tells me to use a cleanser and then a toner and then an exfoliant and then a moisturizer? Yes.

The Best Skin Of Your Life Starts Here covers how to establish a skincare routine, which essential elements should be part of that routine, how to tell what kind of skin you have, how to treat acne, how to treat other skin problems and what plastic surgery and injections can accomplish. The book can be repetitive, but that just made me learn the content faster. A few key takeaways:

  • The most important thing you can do for your skin is wear sunscreen! ALL THE TIME.
  • Vitamin C does wonders for your skin.
  • Consistency is key when it comes to skincare regimens.
  • Don’t buy products in clear glass bottles or use old products.

I learned a lot from The Best Skin Of Your Life Starts Here and have implemented a new skincare routine since I finished Chapter 2. I also totally overhauled my bathroom counter and now actually understand what I have and what it’s used for.

Soon I’ll look 10 years younger. Right?

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri

For the Pulitzer Prize Winner category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I chose Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I am a big fan of Lahiri’s, and enjoyed her books The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland. Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories that follows the same themes as Lahiri’s novels: immigration, loneliness, identity and connection in unexpected places.

Most of the stories in this collection involve Indian immigrants to the U.S., usually in the 70s or 80s, and usually to Massachusetts. There are couples learning to love each other after arranged marriages, graduate students trying to assimilate into American culture, and Americans to understand immigrants. Like in her other books, Lahiri has deep compassion for her characters and, in her quiet, elegant way, conveys the isolation and rootlessness they feel living in a new place and trying to find their way. There is restraint to Lahiri’s writing, just as her characters are often emotionally restrained in how they relate to each other and express their feelings.

I don’t love short stories because I often feel they lack staying power, and I feel similarly about Interpreter of Maladies. I enjoyed the stories a lot while I read them, but to write this review, I had to flip back through the book to remind myself of the different plots. The strongest one is the first, “A Temporary Matter,” about a married couple finally communicating with each other about the stillborn baby they lost months earlier. Sadly, the gulf of silence that has grown between them proves to be uncrossable and they separate by the end of the story. I also enjoyed “Mrs. Sen’s”, a story about an American boy who spends his afternoons in the care of an newly immigrated Indian woman who is isolated in her house because she’s too afraid to learn to drive.

I am glad I finally got to Interpreter of Maladies, which had been on my shelf for years. (Also my daughter is going to read it for school in January, so I can talk about it with her.) And I ticked another category off the challenge list. One more to finish!

ONE DAY: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF AN ORDINARY 24 HOURS IN AMERICA by Gene Weingarten

Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten rolled the dice in 2013 when he asked three strangers to pick three numbers out of a hat. Those three numbers would form a date, and for his next book, he would find noteworthy things that happened on that day and tell those stories. The date he ended up with? December 28, 1986. Weingarten was triply disappointed – 1986 wasn’t terribly newsy, and the 28th of December – a Sunday, ugh – fell during the sleepy lull between Christmas and New Year’s. He had his work cut out for him.

One Day: The Extraordinary Story Of An Ordinary 24 Hours In America is the collection of some of the stories he unearthed while researching what happened across America on December 28, 1986. There’s a wide range here – some love stories, some crime stories, a story about race relations in New York, a story about two men who died of AIDS on the same day, and many more. Most of the stories use that date as a launchpad but continue decades into the future, relating the strange and improbable turns that many of the lives took in the decades that followed. Most of the stories have some sort of a twist – the couple with the abusive husband has stayed together; the baby pulled from the burning home survived; the woman accused of killing her parents never served time. Weingarten was clearly most interested in writing about times when people beat the odds and managed to make it past that fateful day.

Some chapters of One Day are more interesting than others. Looking back now, having finished the book, there are chapters that bleed into each other in my mind, and few that truly stand out as memorable. But that said, I enjoyed One Day quite a bit, and I admire the book perhaps more for what it accomplished than for the actual substance of the chapters. I can’t imagine the amount of research that went into this book – identifying stories that had their germ on that day and then tracing their resolution to determine if anyone would want to read about it, and then setting up and conducting all those interviews. Weingarten said that writing One Day took four years longer than he expected, and I can see why.

If you enjoy books like A Day In The Life Of America (I was obsessed with this book as a kid), this is its prose-format cousin.

I listened to One Day on audio, which I don’t recommend. It is narrated by Johnathan McClain, and I found his delivery to be too glib for the subject matter, which often included death, murder, abuse and other serious topics. I was put off by the tone he often used when he relayed some of the chapters. He’s not a bad performer; he just wasn’t the right choice for this book.