The books I read in 2019

Previously in this still new series, the books I read in 2018.

What a year! I just finished my 53rd book of 2019, a nice nudge past my “official” goal of 52.

I started January thinking 52—one per week—was a bit ambitious, but realized at some point that this is a pretty good pace. There is a small piece of my brain that wants to try for 100, but I’ll avoid that stress for now and just enjoy reading.

Aside: I was astonished when I learned how many books Booker Prize judges read in such a short period. I’m not sure I’ll ever have that in me.

My final fiction/non-fiction split was not at all balanced: I count 43 fiction and 10 non, though some of the fiction does lean somewhat toward truth.

The balance in author gender (as mostly assumed by me) was much better than previous years: 27 female, 25 male, and 1 non-binary.

That said, I’m still trying to figure out the right ways to diversify my reading and have really enjoyed the books that I’ve come across. I’ll continue to make this a priority and I’m very much open to suggestions if you have them!

My favorites

I hesitate a bit at calling out favorites, but I read so much fiction this year that the “other fiction” section would be unbearable if I saved it all for a long list. These are a few of the books I really enjoyed.

“Den. How is extraction ever going stop? It can’t even slow down. The only thing we know how to do is grow. Grow harder; grow faster. More than last year. Growth, all the way up to the cliff and over. No other possibility.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory

The Overstory, by Richard Powers, was an extremely satisfying book. I say that even though I became slightly bored after the first several chapters. I was re-engrossed by the time I reached the second half and I finished in absolute awe of trees.

It was important to be in the know, to keep up with, especially when things here got added on to at such a rapid compound rate. On the other hand, being up on, having awareness, clocking everything – both of rumour and of actuality – didn’t prevent things from happening or allow for intervention on, or reversal of things that had already happened.

Anna Burns, Milkman

Milkman, by Anna Burns was very good. There was an initial difficulty because of her creative use of language—the narrator is unique—but that eases away pretty quickly. The book reads as an interesting commentary on The Troubles in Northern Ireland while remaining surprisingly relevant to today by acting in many ways as a warning.

He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery. How easy it is, to waste a life.

Esi Edugyan, Washington Black

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan, was intense and beautiful. It follows a boy’s life from slavery to freedom and the adventures in between.

No, Thea, there is no Melmoth, there is nobody watching, there is only us. And if there is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: see what must be seen—bear witness to what must not be forgotten.

Sarah Perry, Melmoth

I can’t remember ever reading a novel that actually had me staring in the corners of the room after turning off the light at night. Sarah Perry‘s Melmoth did that for me. It was an interesting combination of horror and parable that also plays the role of witness in itself.

Natalia Ginzburg

Even though I only read two of Natalia Ginzburg‘s books this year, I was so happy with both of them that I feel the need to call her out specifically.

“Tell me the truth,” I said.

“What truth?” he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long, long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of a window to wave a handkerchief.

I shot him between the eyes.

Natalia Ginzburg, The Dry Heart

The Dry Heart starts with its end: “I shot him between the eyes.”, and remains fun and completely readable throughout.

Lessico famigliare, translated as Family Sayings or Family Lexicon, was also enjoyable. It’s somewhat disguised as fiction even though everything is a true account of Ginzburg’s family centered around their lives in Turin.

I found myself wishing there were more books written exactly like this that gave a picture of what life was life in a certain place during a certain era while also being completely entertaining. James Joyce‘s Dubliners, which I just finished, came fairly close to the same feeling, but as more of a fictional snapshot.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Ginzburg’s work in the near future.

Book club

Year four of our book club was a success. We met a record (for us) 8 times in 2019. There was an even split between fiction and non-fiction. And for a gathering of five white guys, the gender diversity in our picks was nice: 5 female, 2 male, and 1 non-binary.

In that case, he said, I will spend the day in solicitude. You mean solitude, I said. I do beg your pardon, he said. Of course, I mean solitude.

Rachel Cusk, Outline (2014)

We started the year with Outline, by Rachel Cusk. I read this in 2018, but I enjoyed the reread and discussion as part of book club. I quickly followed with the second in the trilogy, Transit, and then later in the year added Kudos. All three books were very readable, and I enjoyed them thoroughly, but I’m not certain I could tell anyone exactly what the trilogy was about.

Even if we didn’t know the context, we were instructed to remember that context existed. Everyone on earth, they’d tell us, was carrying around an unseen history, and that alone deserved some tolerance.

Michelle Obama, Becoming (2018)

My review on Goodreads for Becoming, by Michelle Obama was simple: “I enjoyed this book so very much.”

And I did. It really was a lot of fun to read and gave me even more of an appreciation for Michelle and the work she has done. It would be easy to include this in a list of top books that should be read by anyone.

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah was one of the darker novels we’ve read. Lessons learned include probably not moving into the middle of nowhere Alaska and not being prepared.

Peter Frase‘s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism provided a nice framework for thinking about a world in which capitalism has failed or transitioned into something else. Stories throughout the year about climate change and large companies’ reliance on artificial intelligence take on different meanings when you think about who will find themselves in danger, who will benefit, and how that will affect people as a whole.

I enjoyed the experience of reading this book, and maybe I should rate it higher for that reason alone, as it was extremely creative, but I wish there was a little more to be terrified by for as much as its reputation preceded it. I’ve waited a couple days for the growl from the shadows, but nothing has appeared.

My Goodreads review of House of Leaves

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danelewski was a trip. I’m happy to have purchased the hardcover edition because the reading experience was one of the most creative I’ve made it through. It was a beast at 705 pages, though many of those contained just a few words.

We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don’t.

Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit, is an interesting series of feminist essays and sparked some great conversation in our group.

Every household has a radio attached to the wall that can never be turned off and can never be tuned to a different station.

Anna Fifield, The Great Successor

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, Bright Sun of the Twenty-first Century, by Anna Fifield, was almost jaw-dropping in parts. You go into something thinking you know, but we really have no idea. The line above was a direct reminder of Orwell’s 1984.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon, was our last book of the year and such an excellent story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to more from Solomon.

Sweden

In September, Michelle and I were fortunate enough to spend a few weeks in Sweden on holiday. I turned 40 and exploring a bit of heritage during the journey was a lot of fun.

To prepare for the trip, I piled up a series of books involving Sweden that seemed fun. I made it through a few before and during, and finally got around to finishing the last one today.

Trust not the moss, not the heather, not the rock; nature is evil, possessed by invisible forces who hate humankind. There is no place where you can safely set your foot. It is strange that your weak race can avoid so much persecution.

Selma Lagerlöf, Gösta Berlings saga

Selma Lagerlöf was the first female writer and the first Swede to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gösta Berlings saga was an excellent introduction to Swedish folklore and filled with great tales centered around a defrocked priest and his adventures.

The Emigrants, by Vilhelm Moberg, was a perfect read for our exploration into heritage. It follows a Swedish family as they struggle in Sweden and then prepare for the trip to America. Moberg interviewed many emigrants to try and paint an accurate picture of what life felt and looked like at the time. I’m looking forward to reading the other 3 books in the series that cover their lives once in America.

Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg, was dark, but interesting.

And I literally just finished Swedish Mentality, by Åke Daun, a social anthropologist who tries to dig into what makes someone Swedish. It’s dated by about 25 years and likely inaccurate in many ways, but still insightful.

Berlin

In June, I went to Berlin for WordCamp Europe and had a lot of fun familiarizing myself with the city through books.

Berlin Alexandrplatz, by Alfred Döblin was billed as the Ulysses of Berlin, so I was of course drawn to it. The main character, Franz Biberkopf, was flawed in all of the right ways, and the book painted an interesting picture of Berlin. It was fun recognizing many of the streets, squares, and other locations while I was there.

Heroes Like Us, by Thomas Brussig, covers the fall of the Berlin wall. I reviewed it as “Strange and entertaining; closes well.”

Loud songs do not a patriot make. The trouble with these fucking National Socialists, especially the young ones, is that they think they have got a monopoly on patriotism. And even if they don’t have one now, the way things are going, they soon will.

March Violets, Philip Kerr

March Violets, by Philip Kerr, is a fun detective novel that takes place in 1930s Berlin and drops plenty of critical opinion in its pages.

And Walking in Berlin: a flaneur in the capital, by Franz Hessel, was a great exploration of the city on foot—something I’m a complete sucker for. I didn’t finish this one until afterward, but I enjoyed it and will definitely reread before my next visit.

Poetry

In January, I ran into an article on “how young women are changing the rules of poetry“. Being unfamiliar with the rules of poetry, but also interested in figuring poetry out, I decided I might as well use this as a starting point.

I ordered Isn’t Forever, by Amy Key and Hera Lindsay Bird, by Hera Lindsay Bird to get a feel for what poetry with “changed rules” is like and then a few older collections to get a feel for what poetry with old rules was like.

Isn’t Forever and Hera Lindsay Bird were both interesting and I enjoyed several of the poems quite a bit. I’m looking forward to rereads now that I’m more familiar with the structure. I also have Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems by Stephanie Burt on my list for 2020 so that I have a better idea what I’ve gotten myself into.

One of the others I picked up is the famous Howl and other poems, by Allen Ginsberg, which I really enjoyed. It was somewhat easier to put myself in the place of the author, if only because of my familiarity with others of the beat generation.

I also read The Wasteland and other poems, by T.S. Eliot. I’ve been dabbling in trying to figure out modernism, and T.S. Eliot fits squarely in that label. The Wasteland is a poem I remember reading in high school, but had no real recollection of its content. I’ll admit still being confused—I thought a couple of the other poems in this collection were at least more approachable, if not better—but I think I started to get comfortable after a bit.

There are a handful of other collections in progress scattered about the house right now. That should mean another poetry section in next year’s recap. Let’s hope I learn something!

Politics

The restraint was real this year! I avoided the trashy candy and stuck with a few good books.

What makes a movement Fascist is not ideology but the willingness to do whatever is necessary—including the use of force and trampling on the rights of others—to achieve victory and command obedience.

Madeleine Albright, Facism: A Warning

Fascism: A Warning, by Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State, was an excellent book that I called “enthralling, informative, and concise.” I’ll repeat the word concise here because I’m still amazed at how she was able to take a subject she has so much experience with and not drone on and on. This book is both good and readable.

Early in the year I decided I would read a book by each of the democratic candidates. There were too many, so I read two (and Becoming didn’t count).

If my job ever depends on pleasing a couple of billionaires, I’ll quit.

Elizabeth Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight

Elizabeth Warren‘s 2017 book, This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class was a nice introduction to Elizabeth Warren. It took some things I knew about her and made me even happier. The quote above still makes me happy.

Kamala Harris‘s book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, is one of the only books I read this year that was published in 2019. It was eye opening for me. I had originally dismissed her as a candidate I would vote for because of a handful of headlines I had seen. I came away from the book with a much different perspective and was a bit disappointed when she dropped out of the race.

I started Booker’s book and thought about Mayor Pete’s book, but never got much further than that before deciding I didn’t need to read every candidate’s book after all.

Other fiction

There was so much fiction this year! I’m going to condense a bit.

Dubliners, by James Joyce, which I mentioned earlier, was a lot of fun and easily the most readable of his work yet. The stories got better and better as it went. Finnegans Wake awaits!

I dove into the world of Graham Greene with Our Man in Havana, which was very funny; The End of the Affair, which was enjoyable; and May We Borrow Your Husband?, a humorous collection of short stories that got better as it went.

Greene is a very good writer and I’m planning on a couple others this next year.

The Whale!

I finally read Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, by Herman Melville. This was attempt number 3 or 4 I think and I knew once I hit a certain point that there was no turning back. I’ll wait a few years for a reread, but will definitely revisit now that I’m familiar with the story and pacing.

I meant to read Sally Rooney‘s Conversations with Friends and Normal People in order, but accidentally read the newest one first anyway because of my confusion with holds and loans at the e-book library. Both were fun, quick, and thought provoking reads and I don’t think reading them in any order really mattered.

Cory Doctorow‘s Walkaway was an interesting exploration of a post-scarcity world in which one could fork society by voting with your feet. I did think its messaging was a little repetitive.

I enjoyed two of Nnedi Okorafor‘s books: Binti and Akata Witch. Two beginnings of series that I now want to read more of.

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes, was yet another in my exploration of modernism.

The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass.

Ali Smith, Autumn

Autumn, the first in Ali Smith‘s seasonal quartet, was nice and I’m looking forward to the others. The line above made me laugh out loud while reading, which is always fun.

I had a memory from childhood about reading The Arizona Kid, by Ron Koertge. After searching and searching, I finally found the book, which matched various pieces of the plot I remembered, and ordered a copy. It was fun to revisit and I’m happy to not come away ashamed with what I was feeding my young brain.

It occurred to me that if I were really losing my mind, I might end by murdering somebody. In fact—said high-and-dry Humbert to floundering Humbert—it might be quite clever to prepare things—to transfer the weapon from box to pocket—so as to be ready to take advantage of the spell of insanity when it does come.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

On the opposite (?) end from The Arizona Kid was Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s amazing how a book can be so beautifully written while telling the story of such a creepy character.

Last year I read my first Terry Pratchett book so that I was more familiar with him before reading Good Omens, by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, which I wanted to finish before watching the series. This year I read Good Omens and it and the series were both fantastic.

So that I could keep typing the word fantastic, I also read the second in the Discworld series, The Light Fantastic.

There is always something happening, always something to be apprised of, never enough hours to feel sufficiently apprised.

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

I sadly don’t remember enough from Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, but I do remember really enjoying it.

I also don’t remember much about Denis Johnson‘s The Largess of the Sea Maiden, a collection of short stories, but I did rate it 4 stars, so I should probably keep his other work in mind.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler, was my first book of the year and a very good read. She is now a constant on my list of “I really need to get around to reading this” and I hope I make more time for her work in 2020.

And Coyote Doggirl, by Lisa Hanawalt, was my only graphic novel of the year. My review called it “quick, quirky, and fun.”

Other non-fiction

Two smaller books remain.

Activists and individual users struggle to have a voice in what has largely been a behind-the-scenes effort to define the rules for online expression.

David Kaye, Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet

David Kaye’s Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet, from the Columbia Global Reports series, was an eye-opening read that helped me look even more critically at how companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are treating information. It’s probably worth a reread and a visit to much of the cited material.

Not only did they not charge high prices, sometimes they didn’t even charge at all. Google would give you free email, free map apps, free cloud storage. Hence businesses like Facebook or Google needed to be seen as more akin to a charity. Who would sue the Red Cross for its “monopoly” on disaster relief?

Tim Wu, The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age

Another from the Columbia Global Reports Series, Tim Wu‘s The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, was also interesting and helped fuel some of my still developing opinions on growth. It also sparked an interest in reading more history covering other times in which monopolies ruled business.

I guess it wouldn’t be surprising if I ended up subscribing to this series and had several more for next year!

Okay.

That’s enough for this year. So many books. Time to get back to reading or uh, celebrating the end of the decade or something.

I’m going to keep the same goal of 52 books for 2020 and if I happen to surpass it by enough, I’ll think of raising it a bit for 2021.

And of course—if you read, and are comfortable giving your reading data to Amazon, you should add me as a friend on Goodreads. If you want to share or discuss reading in some other way, I’m open for that too.

How I share reading is yet another thing that will continue to roll around in my head as we start the next decade.

Until then, enjoy books! It’s the hobby I get happier and happier with every year. 📚

Jeremy's profile photo: a selfie taken while walking through Berlin.

Jeremy Felt posted this piece of content on the internet.

Reactions on “The books I read in 2019”

Replies

  1. I look forward to your thoughts on (spoiler?) inter-species sex with aliens, when you eventually get around to Octavia Butler's "Lilith's Brood" / Xenogenesis trilogy. :)

    One of my goals for this year is to finish all her novels.

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