Books I Loved In 2019

The end of the year is traditionally a time for crooners. Rich baritones like Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole fill the airwaves, evoking a wistful kind of nostalgia that is particular to Decembers. When I’m looking back on the year and feeling wistful and nostalgic myself it feels only appropriate to borrow their language. So to steal a phrase from Frank Sinatra when I am in the autumn of my years and think of my life as vintage wine, I know with absolute certainty that I will call 2019 a very good year for reading books. 

I read just under 50 books this year, which I think is a decently respectable number. It could be higher but it could also be lower, and reading isn’t supposed to be about amassing a kill count anyway. I don’t want to look at my shelves as full of paper carcasses that I’ve slaughtered, but instead as brimming with tokens of past loves. I’d rather read only a few books and really adore them than reach that elusive goal of finishing 100 books in a year on the strength of stories that were only okay.   

If you feel the same and are looking for more books to adore, I hope you’re able to find something on this list that catches your fancy. I put these in the order that I read them because pitting books against one another in order to determine a champion is something I cannot do. Here they are, the books I loved in 2019:  

One Day (David Nicholls) 

Image result for one day david nicholls

At the beginning of 2019 I went through an inexplicable phase of hopeless romanticism. For weeks I was only interested in love stories; traditional epics, romantic comedies, tales of a longing that was deliciously unrequited up until the moment it was not. One Day was the best of all of these. It was recommended to me by a creative writing professor many years ago and had been kicking around my “to read” list ever since. If you add it to yours, please don’t make the same mistake of delaying this perfect reading experience. David Nicholls has a masterful understanding of human hearts; of how fragile and defensive they are, and how the only thing that terrifies them more than getting broken is getting exactly what they want. 

A Spark Of Light (Jodi Picault)

Image result for a spark of light by jodi picoult

This book is based on the not-at-all-controversial premise of a shooting that takes place at an abortion clinic in Mississippi, a plot which obviously not a single reader will have any instinctively strong opinions about. It is also structured so that the story is told backwards, hour by hour, beginning just after the hostages have been rescued and working back up through the morning. At first this choice seemed more like a weird flex by a bored pro– like that February game in 1986 when Larry Bird randomly decided to only shoot with his left hand. But as the novel unfolded, I came to understand how the mechanics served the story and its themes. The issue of abortion is complicated by the emotions people bring to it, and those emotions are shaped by complicated backstories. I was impressed by the consideration with which Jodi Picault treated her characters, even the ones she surely disagrees with herself. Nobody in the book experiences any significant change of heart, which feels true to life, and she doesn’t appear to expect her readers to walk away with their minds changed either. There is a note at the end which details the research she put into writing this book and it is that effort to understand and empathize with others that is the work’s lasting impact 

A Man Called Ove (Fredrick Backman)

Image result for a man called ove

If I’m going to recommend this book it is only responsible for me to also recommend that you have plenty of tissues at hand. My tears were infinite, but they did not come from a place of sadness but somewhere deeper, some place maybe we all have access to where the fullness of the human experience can be revealed and understood. If it sounds like I have been spiritually radicalized by this book and am now evangelizing to others, I hope you take that as a good thing. One of my very favorite things in life and in fiction is the concept of found families, of unlikely groups of people choosing to connect and care for one another not because they feel obligated to but because they feel enriched by the bond. Ove is an unlikely candidate for this kind of relationship. A curmudgeon far older than his 59 years, his top priority is finding the proper time and place to commit suicide, but his efforts are complicated when incidents in the lives of his various neighbours intersect inconveniently with his own. This could be dark subject matter but Frederick Backman treats it all with the lightest, tenderest of touches, exploring the impossible question of how to measure the value and meaning of one man’s life. There is a particular passage that traces the overarching narrative of Ove’s life by recounting the cars he’s owned and it is so unexpectedly moving even thinking about it now makes me feel an unwelcome pressure behind my eyes. Grab the book, grab a handkerchief and prepare to feel everything all at once.

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone (Lori Gottlieb) Save Me The Plums (Ruth Reichl) Born A Crime (Trevor Noah)

Now for a quick detour down Memoir Lane. When I was in high school I worked at a bookstore and whenever it was time to stock the shelves in the Biography section I was struck both by how many titles there were and how little I wanted to read any of them. I suppose that’s down to the self-centredness of youth, an age when you only have the emotional capacity for your own life story. Now, I can’t get enough of other people’s interesting lives. The titles here belong to vastly different people. An LA-based therapist and the meandering career path she took to get there. The former editor-in-chief of deceased grande dame Gourmet magazine during the halcyon (and post-halcyon) days of publishing in 90s/00s New York. A famous comedian’s difficult childhood in apartheid South Africa. Each of these writers accomplishes the impressive act of looking at their lives from ten feet back, able to examine the experiences that shaped them and the lessons they’ve learned. Lessons that can be appreciated by every reader, so long as they’ve grown beyond being an ego-driven teenager and are willing to listen. 

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead) 

Image result for the underground railroad book

Awestruck is the only word that comes close to approaching how I felt while reading this book. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so I am hardly breaking new ground here, only adding my voice to the chorus out there already singing its praises. The scope of imagination at work here (the book conceptualizes the Underground Railroad as a literal system of underground trains) combined with an unflinching account of the abounding cruelties of the pre-Civil War south makes for a reading experience that is often painful but always profound. Colson Whitehead writes with an intimacy that almost feels like memoir, except the story he is telling is that of the soul of America itself. His eyes are wide open and after reading this seminal work, yours will be too. 

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