January 13, 2020

2019 By The Books

Since it's January, I can now safely reflect on my favorite books of last year without the risk of omitting something wonderful I read right at the end. My practice of waiting for the new year was even justified this time around, since one of my picks captivated me during the final week of 2019.

Last year I established that my reading patterns have become fairly consistent, and that remains the case, though my count of 39 books is an uptick from previous years. Two-thirds of those were 2019 releases, many that I was eagerly awaiting. I only read two books published before 2000, both toward the end of the year. I may continue the trend of mixing in older books with the recent stuff, but I'm also excited about a long list of books coming out in 2020, so I don't expect a major shift.

As tends to be the case, about a third of what I read stands out as exceptional. Rather than trying to narrow the list, I'm going to include them all, each with a pointer to the monthly recap that contains my original, fuller recommendation.

If asked to name a single favorite book of 2019, I'd go with THE OLD DRIFT by Namwali Serpell (July/August) for containing so much of all the things I love to read about. This epic tale of families tied together across generations details the history of Zambia, speculates on the technology of the future, takes mysterious and fantastical turns, plays with language, and throws wonderful characters into love and conflict. While THE OLD DRIFT does it all, these sorts of elements also recur in my other top books of the year.

Families entwined by past events are central to YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY by Steph Cha (December). In present-day Los Angeles, a Korean-American family and a black family are shaped as well as linked by the racial tensions and unrest of the early 1990s.

Race relations are given careful consideration throughout GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS by Mira Jacob (March). In collages of drawn characters, photographs, and speech bubbles, the author attempts to answer her biracial son's questions while reflecting on her own upbringing with Indian immigrant parents.

Trying to make sense of family is a big concern for the narrator of THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett (December). The story charts the bond between a brother and sister for decades as the rest of the family and relationships in their lives come and go.

It's the lives themselves that come and go (humor me here) in THE HEAVENS by Sandra Newman (April), a mind-bending story of alternate timelines. When the protagonist goes to sleep in 2000, she dreams another life as a nobleman's mistress in Elizabethan England, and each time she wakes up, she finds 2000 has changed into a more troubled era.

Sleep acquires a dangerous quality for the characters in THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker (January). In an isolated college town, students fall into a sleep they can't be woken from, and as the mysterious affliction spreads, the area is quarantined and panic mounts. (It's worth noting that I was nervous about two authors I liked putting out dream-related books, yet both ended up being favorites.)

(It's also worth admitting that I don't have quite enough even slightly reasonable transitions to thread this book list together.) A health treatment turns deadly in MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim (October) when fire erupts at a facility offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Through courtroom testimony and character recollections, the novel pieces together the mystery of what led to the tragedy.

Mystery surrounding the origins of a small girl and her guardian launches the plot of SISTER NOON by Karen Joy Fowler (March), a comedy of manners set in 1890 San Francisco. As the spinster main character investigates, she keeps running up against the tiresome forces of so-called polite society.

The investigations in THE RAVEN TOWER by Ann Leckie (March) are into political corruption in a world where humans coexist with many gods. When a ruler flees rather than sacrifice himself to the territory's protector god, it threatens to undermine intricate long-standing agreements.

Threats to diplomatic relations necessitate a ruse of friendship between the son of the US president and a UK prince in RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE by Casey McQuiston (May/June). In time, the reluctantly faked friendship becomes real, and then becomes a complicated love story.

There's complicated love in WAYWARD SON by Rainbow Rowell (September), as part of its exploration of how characters cope with the aftermath of saving the world. (The book is a sequel to CARRY ON.) Three British mages take a road trip across the US, making new friends, fighting dangerous new enemies, and attempting to heal from the traumas they survived.

Healing from trauma is at the core of ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman (October). The title character isn't entirely certain what happened in her past, but she has very firm ideas about everything else, which she gradually learns to reconsider in the course of a story that's heartbreaking but also frequently funny.

Frequent humor is used to good effect in explaining the linguistic principles behind BECAUSE INTERNET: UNDERSTANDING THE NEW RULES OF LANGUAGE by Gretchen McCulloch (July/August). The book chronicles how communication styles, slang, and other language elements have evolved with the changing internet.

The evolution of technology is a focus of many stories in the collection EXHALATION by Ted Chiang (May/June). Others contemplate fate and free will, many portray complex interpersonal relationships, and all are wildly inventive.

Phew, made it! I hope you found something on this list that piques your bookish interests, and I look forward to another great year of reading ahead!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ayşegül Savaş considers gendered expectations about the value of time in a wide-ranging essay on the cost of reading, writing, and parenting: "One of [the essays] was about the author's fascination with single paragraphs. He wrote about one that he admired in a novel he'd read long ago. He'd read the paragraph many times, without wanting to read the rest of the book. The opening paragraph, the author believed, held possibilities for the imagination that were diminished with the tedium of plot and story.... He liked to repeat that he was bored by stories and that he didn't enjoy reading entire novels."

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