12 ½ Books I Read in 2019

January 3rd, 2020

Trying to explain New Year’s resolutions to my five-year-old: “Think of things you want to work on doing differently. Like for me, for example, a New Year’s resolution might be “I’m going to eat less sugar.”

Eliza’s eyes light up: “And mine is going to be to eat more sugar!”

Touche, kid.

The truth is, I don’t necessarily set New Year’s resolutions as much as evolve my goals as these years go by. One recurring goal of mine is always to “read for pleasure” — meaning, more novels. Of the 12 ½ books I read last year, most fit the bill. A few were tough reads. One I simply could not get through. Life is short, and I have 88 other books on my list at the moment.

1

Milkman by Anna Burns

The first book I read in 2018: a very dark novel that won the Booker in 2018. It’s about the Troubles in Ireland, told from the perspective of a quirky outsider. I really loved this book but definitely did not walk away from it feeling soothed or placated about humanity.

2

There, There by Tommy Orange

A loooooot of characters —  all of them Native Americans living in the modern US, which gives this book an interesting perspective, although it’s also quite a depresso read.

3

Becoming by Michelle Obama

One of the only nonfiction books I read this year. I don’t need to tell you what it’s about. It was marvelous and inspiring (and depressing in light of our own Troubles — although maybe I just find all books somewhat depressing?).

4

Part of Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls

A fascinating and very detailed look at Thoreau’s life and the beginnings of the transcendentalism movement. I could not get through it, though. The only thing I really found depressing is that maybe I’m not smart enough to read an entire book about Thoreau. 

5

Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

A nonfiction book about being white and thinking you’re not racist even though you’re descended from Puritans and you still live in New England and race is so deep in your bones you can’t even see it. I related to this for sure, and I wish every white person from New England who thinks they’re “above race” would read this.

6

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

In an unnamed South American country, a group of guests convene for a birthday party headlined by the renowned global opera singer Roxanne Coss. The party goes sideways when a posse of terrorists bursts in and takes the entire crew hostage. Weirdly, this is a love story. I really enjoyed it; not sure why I never read it before.

7

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

A really quick, fun read that I utterly enjoyed, although I was surprised it won the Pulitzer. It had a bit of a frivolous flair to it. What they call a “beach book,” and, in fact, I read it at the beach. It’s about a famous but down-and-out aging novelist who flees heartbreak by traveling the world on a whimsical and misguided hero’s journey.

8

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This novel is a big fat wow for me. The New Yorker review cited “exquisite creepiness” and that about sums it up. This is how the book’s description reads: “An eerie, watery reimagining of the Oedipus myth set on the canals of Oxford.” Book descriptions, of course, tell you nothing about a book. Usually, I don’t even bother to read them, but instead open it up to read the first page. That’s how I know if I’ll like a book. A good friend and bibliophile (smooches, B) recommended this book. Her recommendations are always on point.

9

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick 

A riveting nonfiction account of the Mayflower voyage — and then what happened — in a way that neither glorifies the Pilgrims nor trivializes the Native Americans. The whole thing was a goddamn mess. I’m both proud and ashamed to have sprung from this stock of hearty, entitled outsiders. 

10

Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

Reading these two books back to back was a super interesting experience. While Mayflower told the epic story of the Pilgrims who landed on Cape Cod and went on to settle New England and sideline the native people in a pretty violent and harrowing way, Mr. & Mrs. Prince tells a smaller side story — of a Puritan-owned slave who bartered his own emancipation and went on to be the first black landowner in my state of Vermont.

This story takes place not longer after Mayflower ends, before the U.S. was officially a country and while we were still all trying to sort out our place in ethics and geographies. Abijah Prince was a legend in his time, although I had never heard of him until I moved to Guilford, Vermont, and started wondering about the dirt road near my house called “Abijah Prince.” In fact, it’s where Prince and his poet wife settled, and there’s a lot of fascinating history to be told.

11

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood (reread)

I first read this when I was in high school, right after it was published. I loved it dearly but never quite made it through the series that was recently on TV. When Atwood’s long-awaited sequel (below) came out, I decided to reread this one first. It held up well. 

12

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I wasn’t quite as crazy about the sequel. It had the flavor of a soap opera to me, with too many loose ends neatly tied together in basically implausible ways, and writing that glossed over the nuance and depth of the first installment. Ah well. Curious to hear what others thought.

13

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

My last book of 2019 was the hardest read that I managed to finish. I think at another time of year I could have gotten more engrossed, but over the holiday season, I was so scattered and strung out that it was tough to stay focused on the nuanced storyline about the narrator grieving her beloved grandfather, who used to sit and watch the tiger at the zoo — it turns out, for a really good reason. Beautifully written, and I would like to read it again.

But I have 88 other books on my list. 

Comments, recommendations, thoughts welcome in the comments!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What I’m eating:

I’m pretty much over sugar for a while, so that’s the good news. 

What I’m listening to:

VPR classical radio is my jam right now. There is nothing like driving your Subaru down a snowy dirt road, with the icy boughs arching, listening to loud classical music. Yes, I am a stereotype, and yes, I am probably wearing Sorrels and a black puffy coat. Sue me.

What I’m reading:

While doing some research for a client I came across the story of this fascinating computer coding pioneer and person who coined the term “bug in the computer.” Because there was a bug. In her computer. It was a moth. 

What I’m working on:

An ebook about diversity in the wellness events industry. A customer story about a town government in North Carolina on the cutting edge of digital technology. And lots of short stories about fascinating computery folks like the woman I mentioned above. 

 

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