Wednesday, January 1, 2020

My Year of Reading: Best Books of 2019

In the final year of this decade, I read my ass off. It’s true; I model a new pair of jeans for my wife (who is also named Jean, go figure) and she goes, “I don’t know....they look kinda baggy on you. What happened to that cute, tight ass I’ve come to know and love?”

“The books ate it,” I say.

Reader, it was all pleasure, little pain. Well, save for that overlong bildungsroman about a tribe of lemmings struggling for survival in nineteenth-century Lapland. That one was pure Spanish Inquisition pain. That one I tore in two and flung the various pieces across the room in disgust, after reaching page 450 and realizing I had many more lemming-cliffs to go; I returned the book, patched with duct tape, to the library with a grimace and a warning. That novel will never make any lists in any year.

In the coming days, I’ll have more to report about my big, butt-chomping 2019 reading list, but to start things off, I want to say a few words about the crème de la crème. Here then, is a list, in no particular order, of the best books published in 2019 which passed before my ever-hungry eyes. (Though, by saying “in no particular order” I will admit that the first two on the list could be considered the Best Fiction and Best Non-Fiction of my reading year, thus they get a little more ink here.) This is a very personal, particular, and possibly peculiar list with many books you might not find on other Best of 2019 lists now making their way onto the web; you’ll note some of the usual suspects aren’t on here (books like The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, or Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, or On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong): in those three cases, and in many others, it’s because they’re still waiting to be read by yours truly, the always-overbooked gentleman who is constantly seeking ways to make his reading days longer.

But yeah, back to the 2019 books. These are the best ones to bite my ass (in a good way) this year:

by Tea Obreht

I can unequivocally state that Inland was my most anticipated book of 2019. As a fever-addled fan of Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, I had built skyscraper-high expectations that this new novel, eight years after that brilliant debut, would be lyrical and engaging and as beautifully-structured as a perfect snowflake. I was not disappointed. In fact, I loved Inland so much, I went through it twice: once in hardback and once in audiobook (I’m a little less than halfway through the narration by Anna Chlumsky and Edoardo Ballerini right now and am discovering fresh gems along the way). Obreht weaves together two story strands in the novel set in the late 1800s in the Southwestern United States: that of ghost-haunted Lurie and his camel Burke (also an erstwhile member of the famed, real-life Camel Corps); and Nora, a scrappy pioneer wife and mother trying to make it through one day on her drought-dry homestead. To say more about the plot would be to destroy the joy of discovery that abounds in these pages. Rest assured, everything comes together marvelously in the end. What most impressed me about Inland was Obreht’s fine-tuned ear for dialogue and writing style of late nineteenth-century American literature. If I didn’t know any better, I could swear Obreht owned a time machine and traveled back to 1883 armed with a tape recorder. A couple of fine examples of her style from two different places in the book:
Two breads, left to rise overnight, had burst out of their pans like dancehall girls leaning over the rail. 
It struck her at some point that all life must necessarily feed on willful delusion. What else could explain the existence―and still more surprisingly, the persistence―of a place like Morton Hole, this huddle of journeyed lives strung along a thoroughfare obdurately referred to as Main Street? Would it not have been more earnest to call it Only Street?
Inland bursts its binding with great writing: the dough overflows its pan in this, my favorite fiction of 2019.

Dad’s Maybe Book
by Tim O’Brien

I hated the first Tim O’Brien book I ever read. In a review, I called his 2002 novel July, July “banal, banal.” At the time, O’Brien’s other work―most particularly The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato―still waited for me in the near-distant future, and I did look forward to reading them despite my disappointment with July, July. None of us knew that novel about a class reunion would be the last book O’Brien would publish for 17 years. Seventeen years! In the publishing world, that even out-Tartts Donna Tartt who has spaced her three novels with “only” a decade in between publication dates. So what was Tim O’Brien doing all this time he was on hiatus from his legion of fans (myself included once I got to the Vietnam fiction)? He was busy being a father. And he was noodling around on his computer, dashing off paternal words of advice to his firstborn Timmy and then his second son Tad, neither of whom he thought he’d have much time to spend with here on earth. You see, he was 56 in 2003 when Timmy was born―right around the time I was dipping my pen in poison ink to write my review of July, July. Tad, came two years later. And so, facing the ticking clock of mortality, O’Brien set out to write a book not for us but for his sons. Maybe it will be a book, maybe it won’t, he muses. His wife Meredith assures him, “You don’t have to commit to an actual book. Just a maybe book.” And aren’t we all glad he did? The nearly two-decade wait was well worth it. Dad’s Maybe Book is one of the most delightful, inspiring, and entertaining books I read all year. At first, this new book feels like a bit of a departure for the man who wrote, in The Things They Carried, of a soldier who ties a puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezes the firing device. There are some of those gruesome echoes of war here, yes, but O’Brien leaves most of the grim stuff off the page and concentrates on the messages of love he wants to leave his two sons. “There was no literary impulse involved,” he writes. “There were no thoughts about making a book. My audience―if there would ever be an audience―was two little boys and no one else.” The depth of feeling in Dad’s Maybe Book is intensely intimate and we should count ourselves blessed to be able to read these notes between father and sons:
We are all locked up on death row, to be sure, but now, at age sixty-five, I've found myself trying to squeeze all I can into a rapidly shrinking allotment of days and hours. Where a younger father might tell his children he loves them sixty thousand times over a lifetime, I feel the pressure to cram those sixty thousand I-love-yous into a decade or so, just to reach my quota.
There are equally poignant observations about O’Brien’s lifelong admiration of Hemingway’s writing, coming to grips with the immorality of war, the homemade fun of family magic shows (Tim and his wife are both amateur prestidigitators) and, especially, lessons on writing....of which I’ll leave you one last gem from this book: “I write so slowly—how can I tell my kids all I want to tell them? Each of the scraps of paper on my desk seems to whisper, Tell me, put me in, don’t forget me, and yet this is only a maybe book, and I am only a maybe-writer, just as every writer was once a maybe-writer and just as every book was once a maybe book.”

Sun River
by Ben Nickol

This collection of short stories set in Idaho and Montana unfairly slipped off the radar after it was released in May of this year. I was lucky to read an advance copy of Sun River and provided the following words of praise to the publisher: Sun River is an impressive debut, driven by Nickol’s earnest concern for his characters and their well-being. It’s a good thing, too, because the people in these stories are often on the knife-edge of peril: they’re in transition, embarking on journeys, at breaking points, on icy marital roads careening toward divorce. Everywhere you turn in Sun River, hearts have skidmarks. As a reader, I found myself leaning forward in the seat, peering ahead, pressing down on the accelerator, whisking me through the pages. As the very last line of the very last story tells us, Nickol’s unforgettable characters are always “racing ahead of the storm.” I loved these stories and their heartbreaking lives.

We Love Anderson Cooper
by R. L. Maizes

Here’s another fresh collection of short stories that gripped me, hard, with its opening titular story and never let go. We Love Anderson Cooper begins with young Markus sitting on his bed thinking about his boyfriend Gavin and their first kiss (“behind the 7-Eleven six months ago, Gavin’s lips cold and tasting like raspberry Slurpee”) as he prepares for his bar mitzvah. The ensuing ceremony will be a disaster for middle-schooler Markus as he melts down in front of his family and friends, but it sets the tone for the rest Maizes’ terrific stories full of characters torn between the pangs of longing and the strictures of society.

by Raina Telgemeier

This is the fourth graphic memoir of Telgemeier’s I’ve read (after Drama, Smile and Sisters) and I once again find myself asking, “How in the world did Raina get ahold of the diary I kept in junior high and bring it to life with all its acne-riddled, headgear-binding pain and glory?” Like the author, I was a brace-faced, pathologically-shy teenager and here, in Guts, she taps into another little-discussed feature of my adolescence: my like-clockwork stomachaches (later diagnosed as a migraine stomach) which plagued me with puke for years. As I read, I was taken back to all those late nights when I hunched over the cold porcelain of the bathroom in our family home in Jackson, Wyoming. It was like I was reading my own fate and fortune in the swirl of the toilet. Telgemeier’s colorful illustrations (including Vomit Yellow-Green) perfectly complement the equally-vibrant lives of teenagers at a time when they’re so desperately trying to find their niche at school, with family, and in society at large. I can relate.

by Dani Shapiro

Already a fan of Shapiro’s previous books Still Writing and Hourglass, I started listening to her latest memoir, Inheritance, on audiobook soon after its release earlier this year. I was expecting a beautifully-written and intimately-personal account of the latest chapter of her life. I got that, yes, but what I wasn’t expecting was a trip full of shock and awe as Shapiro, almost on a whim, sends away for a DNA test to explore her genealogy. To say the results come as a surprise would be like saying someone shined a flashlight in the apostle Paul’s face on the road to Damascus. That one DNA test completely rocks Shapiro’s life down to its very foundation, making her question everything she knows about herself, including what she’s written in previous memoirs like Devotion and Slow Motion. Inheritance unfolds almost in real-time as we follow one of our best contemporary writers into a forensic investigation of the self.

Staff Picks
by George Singleton

That booming, crashing sound you heard coming from western Montana last February? That was me, laughing (once again) at the riotously-funny words of George Singleton. Humor on the page is a tough trick to pull off―unless the rabbit has pooped inside the hat before you pull him out; now, that is funny―but Singleton, like his spiritual god Lewis Nordan before him, knows the magic of laughter. Staff Picks is further proof that George Singleton needs to be enshrined in the National Comedy Hall of Fame...or, at the very least, given a statue in a town square somewhere, one where pigeons can alight and chuckle at all they’re planning to do to his embronzed image. All the stories in this collection are terrific, but if you only read one (and if you stop at just one story, I’ll be so mad I’ll personally come to your house and pull out your dog’s toenails with pliers) then make it the first, titular one about a “hands-on” contest to win an RV. Your laughter will echo off the hills.

Deaf Republic
by Ilya Kaminsky

The majority of my poetry reading in 2019 was devoted to the Complete Poems of e. e. cummings (begun in July and finished on the second-to-last day of the year), so I didn’t have a chance to explore many new releases. But I’m glad I made time to discover Deaf Republic, easily one of the best books of any genre to come out this year. As described at the publisher’s (Graywolf) website: “Deaf Republic opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, Petya, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language.” What follows is a remarkable fable of repression and resistance. Here are a few lines that showcase Kaminsky’s incredible talent:
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.
Deaf Republic is one of the most unforgettable and important books I read all year.

Daisy Jones and the Six
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Here’s what I posted to Facebook in March:
Only 30 min into Daisy Jones and the Six and I can already tell this is going to be THE audiobook of the year. Admittedly, the novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid is clickbait for me, a boy who grew up bedroom-singing to Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, Rickie Lee Jones, Carole King, Thelma Houston, Nicolette Larson, Joan Jett, Blondie, and-and―should I go on for another two single-spaced pages? You get the idea: 70s and 80s female pop/rock/folk singers were my major jam (still are). So a novel about a rock band, led by the eponymous Daisy, told like an oral history from those who knew the once-great-now-flamed-out rockers is tailor-made for me....But the audiobook! My God, the audiobook! It has a cast of more than 20 readers (much like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo), and so far, they’re all great. But the real standout is Jennifer Beals who reads the part of Daisy. No, scratch that―she doesn’t just read the words, she BECOMES Daisy, with her burnt-out voice that sounds like she just went around licking all the ashtrays in a bar at closing time. And that’s a compliment.
I’m happy to report the remaining eight-and-a-half hours of the audiobook more than fulfilled this early promise of greatness.

The Big Impossible
by Edward J. Delaney

The Big Impossible, a collection of short stories and one novella, showcases all the qualities that make Edward J. Delaney’s writing so great: depth of feeling, a sneaky punch of wit, and beautiful sentences that soar to great heights. Delaney had me in his spell throughout the pages of this book, which took me from the chilly interior of a school shooter’s mind, to a man reviewing past lives via Google Street View, to a family in 1968 torn apart by, among other things, the sartorial choice of bellbottom pants. And if you’re someone who likes to puncture pretentious behavior at cocktail parties―especially those literary in nature―you’ll want to read the scathing and witty “Writer Party” (sample lines: Billy Collins’s success confounds them. “Billy Collins!” one shrieks, as one might shriek, “aerosol meatloaf!”).

Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?
by Brock Clarke

This latest novel by Brock Clarke (An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Exley, et al) unspools in crazy, happy fashion like a great Wes Anderson movie. It’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s laced with poignancy, and it put me under a spell for the space of 300 delicious pages. Here are the opening lines:
My mother, Nola Bledsoe, was a minister, and she named me Calvin after her favorite theologian, John Calvin. She was very serious about John Calvin, had written a famous book about him―his enduring relevance, his misunderstood legacy. My mother was highly thought of by a lot of people who thought a lot about John Calvin.
It just gets even better from there as we follow Calvin B. and his aunt Beatrice (who could also very well be named Mame) on their rollicking adventures around the globe in search of, as the title indicates, their very selves.

City of Girls
by Elizabeth Gilbert

Just as Daisy Jones and the Six transported me to the sunny vibes of the 1970s California music scene, City of Girls took me time traveling back to World War Two-era New York City and the marquee-lit theater scene. The novel follows nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris who, after being kicked out of Vassar College, is sent by her parents to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg (another flamboyant auntie character who brightened my reading year) who owns a midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. Gilbert’s canvas is large (but not too large) and full of colorful character-types who feel like they tap-danced directly off the screen from movies like Stage Door and Gold Diggers of 1937 and right into our laps. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the pitch-perfect Blair Brown, a smile on my face the whole time.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate your list and thoughtful remarks. Thanks for sharing your favourites.
    Happy New Year 🥳