Time to recap my 2019 reading adventure! This was quite a year of books for me. I completed 200, for a total of 62,289 pages. Woo-hoo! Not sure I can do that again, but it was a fun year in books…
Now, don’t think this means YOU should try reading 200 books. Reading is like yoga – it is YOUR practice, not a competitive sport. Some years I was overwhelmed with responsibilities and I was lucky to read any books at all – and I love reading.
But now my children are grown, I have no partner (they are time consuming – as they should be) and, since September, I am now retired. And, I LOVE reading. If you have young children, or a partner/spouse, and/or a job, I hope you aren’t reading 200 books in a year because that means those that need you are likely missing you – a lot.
I start every day with coffee and a book. I need that time like I need water. Walking, cleaning and cooking are typically done also while listening to a book. I listen to books when I am in the car. After years of listening to Audible books I now typically set the speed at 2x. My evenings are also often spent reading. I belong to three bookclubs. I passionately enjoy reading.
What this means for you is that you can read my reviews and decide if a book may be for you or not. That is how I write my reviews – to let other readers figure out if a book I liked (or did not like) is a good pick for them too.
So what did I read in 2019?
In 2019 I tried to diversify my reading – I wanted it to look more like the people and world around me. So I read a book from each of the 50 US states, and from 34 different countries. The books I read sometimes reflected my point of view but also increasingly those from other perspectives. I tried to include a representative number of books written by People of Color, Indigenous people and those identifying as LGBTQ. Reading builds empathy muscles – I can never have enough empathy.
In addition to my favorite genres of historical fiction, mysteries, science fiction and contemporary fiction, I read quite a bit of nonfiction, including memoirs this year: I also include classics. I read no horror (yuck – too scary). My average Goodreads rating is in the high 3’s.
I try not to start books I don’t think I will like, as I have a hard time stopping a book before it is finished. But I did read some duds (IMO) in 2019. I won’t discuss them here, but you can see everything I read on Goodreads. Please friend me there!
2019 was a good reading year. I have come across some extraordinary books. The best of 2019 were:
Top 5 Books set in the United States
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on July 16, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Historical, General, African American, Literary
Blew. Me. Away. Whitehead’s most recent novel was plugging away at a solid 4 stars until I got to the last 50 pages and then – I am still recovering from the ending. No spoilers here, but please read this book. I almost did not as I was not a huge fan of Underground Railroad. Whitehead’s previous book was magical realism and I just don’t like that genre. Nickel Boys; however, is historical fiction without the magic. But it was a magical book. It was deeply moving. I haven’t been so struck dumb by an ending in a very long time. There were many memorable lines that made me stop and reread them but the following summed it up for me;
“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing shit to save lives. Run for president. All those lost geniuses – sure not all of them were geniuses…but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”
No better lines sum up the legacy of the trauma we inflict – directly or indirectly by not working to end it – on the children of this world.
Published by University of South Carolina Press on November 30, 2017
Genres: FAMILY & RELATIONSHIPS, Fiction, Historical, General, Small Town & Rural
State: South Carolina
I don’t remember how this book ended up on my list but it was fantastic so I am glad it did. This is a unique story, but has a universal theme of family/parenthood. The story is set in the 1950’s in rural South Carolina. McClain expertly portrays the experiences of a poor woman seeking meaning out of her life. Sarah, the heroine of the book, ends up responsible for her deceased husband’s child from an affair. If you like Catherine Ryan Hyde’s books or if you liked Where the Crawdads Sing I think you will also enjoy this novel. It is different, but still pulls at the heartstrings and gives the reader a true sense of rural poverty.Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
Published by St. Martin's Publishing Group on April 1, 2010
Genres: Fiction, Historical, General
Oh my heart. I am at a loss for words. My tear ducts are purged. This book was absolutely one of the best novels I read in 2019. If you like historical fiction I promise you will love this book. This book follows a girl sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i – which is now a National Historic Park. It is a story little told, but one so rich. I plan to travel to Moloka’i someday and pay tribute to all those who lived and served there. I was completely overcome by this book, as were the women in my book club.A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on January 5, 2011
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Family Life, General, Small Town & Rural
This powerful twentieth-century reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear centers on a wealthy Iowa farmer who decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. Ambitiously conceived and stunningly written, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride—and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.>
If there is such a thing as a sense of place, this book nails it. While having no direct correlates or comparable stories in my personal history, I still recognized the people and culture of my birth state. I felt it in my soul. My family never farmed, but it didn’t matter. I recognized the people; I understood the people; I new the people. It was almost eerie the sense of identification. The novel goes way beyond this though. It tells a deep and powerful saga in the spirit of King Lear. This novel is a perfect example of the staying power of Shakespere’s themes and plots. I don’t always like books awarded the Pulitzer Prize, but this literary treasure is deserving.
I also found a surprising and welcome “Easter egg” in this book which led me to the 5th book on this list.Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rølvaag, Lincoln Colcord
Published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics on August 4, 1999
Giants in the Earth (Norwegian: Verdens Grøde) is a novel by Norwegian-American author Ole Edvart Rølvaag.
The novel depicts snow storms (the same winter that Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in The Long Winter), locusts, poverty, hunger, loneliness, homesickness, the difficulty of fitting into a new culture, and the estrangement of immigrant children who grow up in a new land.
Giants in the Earth was turned into an opera by Douglas Moore and Arnold Sundgaard; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1951.
State: North Dakota
I read it in high school (Iowa, Des Moines Lincoln) back in the 1970’s, and since then I remembered it as a remarkable portrayal of the early settling of the Northern Plains by homesteaders. The descriptions of the prairie and the psychological responses of the settlers to this extreme geography stuck in my mind for decades.
I wanted to read this book again – for years I looked for it but I could not remember the name and no amount of Googling helped me find it. Then earlier this year I read A Thousand Acres, described above.
Amazingly, somewhere deep into the novel the mother character is reflecting on her high school daughter and mentions she is reading Giants In the Earth. I immediately recognized the book – at last!! Was this novel standard reading in Iowa high schools in the 70’s?
With the title in hand I searched out a copy of the book and finally had an opportunity to read it again. It did not disappoint. This is not Little House on the Prairie. It is a deep psychological tragedy written originally in Norwegian by an author who himself immigrated to the US, farmed in SD and landed in MN as faculty at St Olaf’s College.
The book was written in the 1920’s, so the author had access to early Norwegian settler’s first hand accounts. If you want to really feel what it must have been like in those first years settling the prairie there is no better book to read. The sense of place and sense of being, total immersion into the psychological impact of the vast horizons, loneliness, hardships and precarious life of these settlers is all there. This book delivers. The point of view, through the eyes of Norwegian immigrants, provides deep in-sites into the culture and behaviors still attributed to the non-native people of this region. The book is fascinating. It now goes onto my very special shelf for very special books.
Top 3 Novels Set Outside the United States.
I am on a mission to read a book from every country in the world. I am about 25% of the way through and added 34 countries in 2019, including Nauru. The 2 books I read from Nauru did not make the top reads in 2019, so unless you are on the same mission you can miss Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru and I Have Seen the Moon. The three books you may want to read are:The Glass Palace by GhoshAmitav
Published by Penguin Books India on 2008
This is why I read. After reading this book I felt as if I had traveled to Burma and through history. I knew little about Burma before this book, just the little that hits our news.
This epic family saga is told through the eyes of an ethnic Indian who settles in Mandalay at the time of the defeat and ouster of the Burmese royal family. It takes the reader through multiple generations up to the 1990’s.
I was completely absorbed the entire time I was reading this book. It was particularly interesting to read a novel written by an Indian author and thus presenting a different perspective on the British Empire, specifically and colonialism, more generally.
I don’t remember how this book turned up on my to-read list but am so glad it did. Any historical fiction fan should love this award-winning novel. I also recommend it for book clubs as the content provides much to discuss.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by Knopf on September 12, 2006
I had heard the word “Biafra” but I did not fully understand this Nigerian war. I am very happy that far more literature from African authors is available now for us to read as it allows us to learn much more about the countries and peoples from this vast continent.
Nothing replaces the voice of a person writing about their own history and their country’s history. This book is a gift to those of us wanting to learn and experience more about the world around us. It is a validation of the people depicted in this book.
It was not planned, but Half of A Yellow Sun made an excellent companion to The Glass Palace. Both describe post colonial experiences through the voice of the colonized. They both honor the ordinary and extraordinary people from their respective countries.
I have said this before, but this is why I read literature. I could have looked up Biafra and learned the politics and facts of this civil war 9and actually, I did because I wanted more details as I read the book), but the descriptive language, compelling characters and relationships brought this region and history to life.The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
Published by Scribner on March 21, 2017
From #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See, “one of those special writers capable of delivering both poetry and plot” (The New York Times Book Review), a moving novel about tradition, tea farming, and the bonds between mothers and daughters.>
I LOVED this book. The story was compelling with twists and turns that kept me completely absorbed. The central characters are Akha, one of the ethnic minorities residing in Yunnan Provence in China and elsewhere in SE Asia. This is a fascinating culture and completely drew me in.
Reading See’s book drove me to other articles on line to learn more about the Akha – I wanted to visualize some of the items described in the book: the head dresses and traditional clothing, the wooden gate to the village, and the carved characters by the entrance (now these are indeed unique). The belief system and rituals of this remote culture were in such contrast to my own. I found the descriptions and portrayals absolutely fascinating.
There is also an international adoption storyline that also spoke directly to my heart. The perspectives of birth mother, child and adoptive mother are portrayed with accuracy and compassion. The conflict of removing a child from their birth culture to provide a secure family is addressed also with compassion.
So, I smiled, cried, cheered, fumed, gasped and received with gratitude everything this book gave. Oh, I also learned a bit about tea.
This would be an excellent book club read.
Top 3 Non-Fiction BooksBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Published by Metropolitan Books on October 7, 2014
Everyone should read this book. Everyone! Why? Well, we are all mortal. We will (hopefully) live a long life, but we will eventually die, as will our parents.
I was drawn to read this book (it had been on my to-read list for a while) after, in 2018, my mother entered hospice care in her home in Iowa. I was the person called upon in our family to have the discussion with my mother about stopping medical interventions and living out her remaining days at home with supportive care and family.
My mother had only been able to eat 50-100 calories per day for months and this was not going to sustain her life. She had spent the last year experiencing more frequent, longer and more invasive hospitalizations and she was not going to get better. She hated the hospital and was terrified of a nursing home.
We had the talk and it was hard, but she chose to stop the interventions and receive hospice care and have a death where she controlled the setting. This was such a good decision for her.
The hospice providers were wonderful to all of us. My mom was untethered from medical equipment for the first time in months. After so long surrendering control to doctors and medical treatment that was not helping, she finally had control again. It was hard, make no mistake about it, but my mother lived for almost 2 months (despite being told it would be days by her doctors). She had her family around her and was able to speak to us and to her friends , explaining her last wishes, sort through her quilts – finished and unfinished – and handing them off to her family. My father was able to process this passage and the two of them had time to say goodbye, sleep and comfort each other in their own bed, and say what needed to be said. It was a good death.
I should have read this book before all of the above happened but I, instead, read it afterwards. Probably to help process what had occurred.
This book walks the reader through the natural course of aging and mortality and suggests ways to think about how end of life can look. He gives solid advice on how to talk with loved ones to find out what matters most to them and then to help them arrange things so their desires and needs are met.
The risk of not thinking about this ahead of time is losing all control over those last days, weeks or months. It is the risk of getting swept away by decisions made for you instead of with you and by you.
No one wants to think about mortality, but if you do – and if you explain or write out your wishes, and seek those answers from loved ones – it will be transformative.Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton, Cari Lynn
Published by The New Press on April 18, 2017
One woman’s remarkable odyssey from tragedy to prison to recovery—and recognition as a leading figure in the national justice reform movement
Susan Burton’s world changed in an instant when her five-year-old son was killed by a van on their street in South Los Angeles. Consumed by grief and without access to professional help, Susan self-medicated, becoming addicted first to cocaine, then crack. She cycled in and out of prison for fifteen years; never was she offered therapy or treatment for addiction.
On her own, she eventually found a private drug rehabilitation facility. Once clean, Susan dedicated her life to supporting women facing similar struggles. Her organization, A New Way of Life, now operates five safe homes in Los Angeles that supply a lifeline to hundreds of formerly incarcerated women and their children—setting them on the track to education and employment rather than returns to prison. Ms. Burton not only humanizes the deleterious impact of mass incarceration, it also points the way to the kind of structural and policy changes that will offer formerly incarcerated people the possibility of a life of meaning and dignity.
This is a memorable book. Of the 200 books I read in 2019, this was the highest rated by Goodreads. It also made it to my Best Female Memoir list.
Ms. Burton is a woman we should all know about. Her story as a former incarcerated woman who became a re-entry advocate kept me emotionally hooked, sometimes crying, sometimes outraged, and always in shock.
I still have more to learn about our criminal justice system. Most of us would benefit from knowing more. If you only read a few books in 2020, I suggest you put this book on your to-read list. It ranks up there with Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
Published by Beacon Press on June 26, 2018
The New York Times best-selling book exploring the counterproductive reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged, and how these reactions maintain racial inequality.
Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what can be done to engage more constructively.
This year’s winner for “Most Provocative Title”. But don’t let the title keep you away from this short book.
I want to give this book 100 stars. Seriously. It put so many of my unarticulated thoughts into words. It pushed me beyond my comfort zone by challenging my world view, touching on my sensitive spots and finally, by suggesting some attainable actions I can own to further my personal growth and ultimately to help change the world. That is a lot from a 250 page book.
I don’t typically underline, highlight and make notations in books – at least I haven’t since I was a student. But this book (I bought the paperback) is annotated, dog eared and full of “wows”, explanation points and stars. One quote that resonated deeply with me as a personal statement and a call to action;
“… I know I have blindspots and unconcious investments in racism. My investments are reinforced every day in mainstream society. I did not set this system up, but it does unfairly benefit me, I do use it to my advantage, and I am responsible for interrupting it. I need to work hard to change my role in this sytem…”
|One of my book clubs read this book and about half had some major eye rolling when it was picked – they did not want to read it. Now they decree it was the best book we read last year and recommend it to anyone who might listen.|
Please read this book.
Top 2 Memoirs
I have started enjoying memoirs more the last few years. Maybe it is because I am older and I appreciate hearing about a life well-led and challenges overcome. The vulnerability it takes to write a good memoir impresses me. I read two that stood out this year.Becoming by Michelle Obama
Published by Crown on November 13, 2018
I share most readers’ opinion of this book. Loved it! I felt like I spent the day sitting down and chatting with the former FLOTUS over a cup of coffee. She is just the bomb. She makes it real.
Any mother, working mother, partner, woman, man ….. almost everyone should enjoy and appreciate MO sharing her story. If you like/love Michelle Obama you will be glad you read this book.
I read it in one long listen during a cross country flight (audible at 2x). I loved every single sentence. She did not use a ghost writer and she reads the book herself so it is Michelle telling you about Michelle.
If you don’t like her, the relatable, direct, vulnerable telling may change your mind. If you hate MO as a person, then, well, you’re just a hater.On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Published by Pocket Books on July 3, 2002
"Long live the King" hailed Entertainment Weekly upon the publication of Stephen King's On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer's craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King's advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported near-fatal accident in 1999 -- and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it -- fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.(back cover)>
Stephen King’s book on writing was actually more memoir. I read it for the writing advice, but ended up liking the most as a memoir. I don’t even read Stephen King’s books – don’t “do” horror.
If you have a favorite Stephen King novel post it in the comments section as I need a suggestion — not too horrifying please.
Best Sci-Fi for 2019The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1) by Becky Chambers
Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform on July 29, 2014
I read all three of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series this year and fell in love with her as an author. If you enjoy science fiction – try out Becky’s books.
Notable Mystery Series I continued in 2019
I did not start any mystery series this year, but continued with three of my favorites.Monkeewrench (Monkeewrench, #1) by P.J. Tracy
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 6, 2004
Monkeewrench is the first of this series written by a Minnesota origin mother-daughter pair. Love the series (I am on book 6) and my father and daughter do too.The Coroner's Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1) by Colin Cotterill
Published by Soho Crime on April 7, 2015
Laos, 1976: Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old medical doctor, has been unwillingly appointed the national coroner of newly-socialist Laos. Though his lab is underfunded, his boss is incompetent, and his support staff is quirky to say the least, Siri’s sense of humor gets him through his often frustrating days.
When the body of the wife of a prominent politician comes through his morgue, Siri has reason to suspect the woman has been murdered. To get to the truth, Siri and his team face government secrets, spying neighbors, victim hauntings, Hmong shamans, botched romances, and other deadly dangers. Somehow, Siri must figure out a way to balance the will of the party and the will of the dead.
Number 14 of Cotterill’s Dr. Siri exploits came out this year. So much fun. I never had SE Asia very high on my travel bucket list, but after reading these books I am anxious to go to Laos.
And …. My Favorite Book of 2019This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
Published by Flatiron Books on January 23, 2018
This is how a family keeps a secret…and how that secret ends up keeping them.
This is how a family lives happily ever after…until happily ever after becomes complicated.
This is how children change…and then change the world.
This is Claude. He’s five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess.
When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl.
Rosie and Penn want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be. They’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Soon the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret. Until one day it explodes.
This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever.
"This is a novel everyone should read. It’s brilliant. It’s bold. And it’s time.” ―Elizabeth George, #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Banquet of Consequences
I could not stop reading this book. I read it early in the year and pegged it then as a likely contender for “Favorite Book of 2019”.
This book was as emotionally satisfying as the very best episode of Call the Midwife or This is Us. If you watch either of those shows you will understand what I mean.
The subject matter is different from either of the TV shows, but the emotional journey and readers’ experiences are comparable. The book depicts the life of a large, complicated family as they support the youngest child’s realization that they are transgender. The dialogue, the situations, the conflicting emotions and the lack of a clear roadmap all come together into a cohesive, engaging and memorable tale. There is not one thing I would change in this book.
And that sums it up…
2019 is over, 2020 is beginning. Join me on my reading journey this year. I plan to start a virtual book club – watch for announcements. Let me know in the comments if you are interested, and if so should I focus on fiction or nonfiction?
And let me know what you are reading – I am always looking for suggestions. Just post them in the comments. What was YOUR favorite book of 2019??