January to June 2019 Favorites
One of the best things to come out of tracking my reading is getting to reflect at the end of the year on all of the incredible (and not so great) books I’ve read. I love looking back at my list and remembering when and where I read each book, what I thought of it at the time, and which books have stuck with me. This year I’ve been reading more than ever so a mid-year look back seems like the perfect way to kick off my reading recommendations on the blog.
These books are the TWELVE best I read in the first half of 2019. (I’m excluding July even though it’s over because I read so many good books in July that they ended up displacing a lot of my favorites from earlier in the year. I still loved each of these earlier reads and releases, so I’m giving them the attention they deserve here.) I qualify best as the books that delight and inspire me in the moment, give me unshakeable book hangovers in the immediate aftermath, and keep me thinking about them well into the future. It wasn’t easy for me to narrow these down so I’ll be sharing more beloved reads in future posts. I hope something from my favorites list will become a new favorite of yours!
Favorite 2019 Releases
*Naamah by Sarah Blake. I love queer and feminist retellings of classic stories, and this one may be the strangest I’ve ever read. I mean that in the very best way, because I cannot stop thinking about Naamah. Noah’s wife is unnamed in the Bible, but here Sarah Blake gives her not only a name and a story, but also an unwavering desire, curiosity, and compassion. One of my favorite elements of the novel is how Blake examines Naamah’s life in detail on the ark and is concerned with both her quotidien and spiritual experiences. The logistics of caring for the animals is just as important to the story as Naamah’s ongoing communication with an underwater angel. Naamah also experiences tremendous grief over the lives lost in the flood, particularly the children, which is a heartbreaking and essential addition to the story of the flood. I truly just adored everything Blake did to round out Naamah’s character and to provide context to a story so many of us have heard . If you pick this up you should know that there’s a lot of sex in this book. I found Naamah’s intense sexuality to be an important part of her character and a perfect way of depicting both the physical and emotional sides of love, but these scenes will certainly not be to every reader’s taste.
*Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. The missing girl trope is all over our entertainment today. From Gone Girl to Serial to My Favorite Murder, so many of us revel in these mysteries of vanished women and girls. Whether this obsession is driven by fear, concern, or sheer voyeurism, this story-telling trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, which is why it’s so intriguing to see a fresh take on it. In Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips tells the story of two missing girls, but rather than a linear thriller, she spirals around the abduction story to introduce readers to women outside the primary plot. Each of these women has a connection to the kidnapping plot (some more directly than others), but every one of them is somehow affected by the girls’ disappearance. As Phillips reveals the lives of her characters, she also explores the other ways women can disappear to themselves or from their own lives. Whether they’re forced to hide their sexual orientation, trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship, or suffering through an emotionally draining maternity leave, each of these characters loses something of herself. This thematic connection combined with the propulsion to need to know what happened to the girls makes for one incredible read.
*Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. I’d never read a courtroom drama before, but I’ve always loved a good legal thriller on TV and in film. I’m so glad I picked up this book in spite of my naivete, because Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek is so much better than anything else I’ve seen in this genre. First of all, the crime is fascinating. It revolves around the explosion of a “miracle submarine”--a therapeutic hyperberic oxygen chamber. The explosion injures three people and kills a young boy, and its this boy’s mother who is facing charges for murder and attempted murder as the book opens. In addition to this unusual crime, Kim draws in readers with a diverse cast of complex characters. Kim’s characters all have shameful secrets but they’re trying to live their lives as best they can. Putting these powerful secrets into the inner lives of people readers truly care about allows Kim to explore social issues like immigration, the pressure of motherhood, autism spectrum disorder, infertility, and sexual assault in ways that feel personal, nuanced, and authentic.
Modern Classics I Finally Read
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite books of all time, but I turned my nose up at his Booker Prize Winner because I didn’t think the story of a butler coming to terms with his life trajectory sounded very interesting. I was so wrong. I cannot get this book out of my head. This is a book about choices and regret, about doing what’s expected versus doing what is right And the writing! I wanted to underline nearly every sentence. Ishiguro is the master at putting universal longing and pain into the most beautiful language. He’s intellectual, but soulful--my linguistic sweet spot. And just like Never Let Me Go, this book completely broke my heart and left me reeling for days. I’m so glad the Ishiguro canon is as wide as it is because I’m going to be craving this feeling again soon.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I’ve read and loved other Ann Patchett novels, but I hadn’t read her most well-regarded until this summer. I wasn’t sure what to expect since I was only familiar with Patchett’s quiet family dramas and a book about a hostage crisis seemed like a stretch from my (limited) understanding of her as an author. I never should have doubted her. Throughout the novel, Patchett brings her gift for quiet yet poignant human insight into a story that could have bent towards the melodramatic. I’m also a sucker for any book with multiple levels of meaning, and I loved the way Patchett was able to develop an allegory for the transformative power of art without sacrificing plot. This is a fantastic story that meditates on the human need to experience the transcendent power of artistic genius, and it reminded me of why I love to read generally while I was loving this book specifically.
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I devoured this in about an hour and then immediately read it again. 84 Charing Cross Road contains one of the most charming friendships I’ve ever encountered in the pages of a text. I was given this little nonfiction epistolary book as a gift from my sister-in-law, who saw it on display at the always wonderful Politics & Prose bookshop in Washington, D.C. I had never heard of 84 Charing Cross Road before she put it into my hands, but since learning of its existence I’ve seen it pop up everywhere, particularly on the lists of all-time favorite books of avid readers. And now it’s added to mine. This books is absolutely fantastic. The letters Frank and Helene write over the course of their twenty-year correspondence are witty and heartfelt, full of love for literature and affection for each other. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so open and earnest; it was profoundly good for my soul.
Books Outside My Comfort Zone
Columbine by Dave Cullen. This nonfiction account of the mass shooting at Columbine High School is out of my typical reading comfort zone for many reasons. In terms of genre, I don’t read a ton of nonfiction of this variety. I tend to prefer larger scale sociological looks at culture to in-depth journalistic approaches to singular moments. In terms of subject, Columbine is a really hard read for everyone, but it hits a different note for teachers who are forced to think about “what if” situations regularly. In spite of my hesitations, I was convinced to pick this up by Traci Thomas from The Stacks podcast who raved about the writing as well as the way in which Cullen handles the material. I couldn’t agree more that this is masterfully done nonfiction that helps readers gain clarity and understanding around an unthinkable tragedy. I learned so much from this book and, while I wouldn’t recommend it to every reader, I think the takeaways from Columbine about heeding warning signs and avoiding oversimplified narratives of these atrocities are unfortunately essential in our world. I’m very much looking forward to reading Cullen’s newest release, Parkland, which I’ve heard is more hopeful as it focuses on the March for Our Lives movement founded by survivors of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend. Nevermoor took me literally out of my comfort zone when I had to cross into the children’s section at Barnes & Noble to find it. I’m fairly certain that before encountering Morrigan, I hadn’t read a middle grade novel since I was middle grade age. Like many readers who grew up with Harry Potter, I’d been chasing that Hogwarts high by digging through endless young adult series that professed to be magical and finding more love triangles and teenage angst than I bargained for. Fortunately the lovely ladies of the Currently Reading Podcast showed me the light of Nevermoor. This is the first world since Harry Potter that I legitimately wanted to lose myself in. I want to move into the Hotel Deucalian, bask in the Smoking Parlor, and see what my room makes of me (just trust me on this, this is a magical place). Jessica Townsend is an absolute goddess at constructing this world and I will go with her anywhere. Wundersmith, the sequel to Nevermoor (which I’m saving for when I need a real pick-me-up) is already out and the third is set to be released in March of 2020.
*Bunny by Mona Awad. I actually went into Bunny thinking it was just my type of book: a campus novel, a female writer protagonist, and a group of mean-girl friends all wrapped into a social satire. I mean, that is basically my genre of choice right there. Bunny is all of those things but it is not at all what I was expecting. It’s hard to say much at all about Bunny without giving anything away, but this book is so weird and definitely veers into the grotesque. It has flavors of many other stories I love (My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, the movie Heathers) but is also unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s creepy and funny and will definitely keep you turning pages. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Mona Awad does next!
Books I'm Dying to Teach
*Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. This is the perfect contemporary book to teach alongside or even to replace two of the most revered texts in the English classroom: To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood. Casey Cep’s debut digs into the true crime story that fascinated Harper Lee as well as into Lee’s life itself. I loved the depth of research Cep brings to this book as well as her refusal to rely on hyped-up true crime tropes or the nostalgia surrounding Lee’s legacy to make the book sing. In other words, Furious Hours isn’t a page-turning mystery nor is it a glamorized account of the life of America’s favorite author. Cep points out the problems that arise around nonfiction novels like Capote’s and questions whether Lee was the forward-thinking writer many white Americans like to think she was, all of which make this book an essential read for any fan of Capote, Lee, or the idea of what American literature is and should be.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Ng’s second book Little Fires Everywhere got so much buzz last year. Not only did I read it and love it, but I immediately added it to the summer reading list for my Women in Literature class. I knew I had to go back and read her debut and I honestly loved this one even more. Ng creates such heartbreakingly flawed characters. This is one of those books where, as a reader looking in, you can see so easily how these characters could solve their conflicts, but they’re so well-developed that you can also understand why things are more difficult than they appear to an outsider. I felt like I understood every single character’s longings and inexpressible needs. It hurt to be inside these characters but also made me feel human and vulnerable in the very best way.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Tayari Jones is another author whose backlist I turned to after loving her 2018 release, An American Marriage. Jones dives right into the central conflict by opening her novel with the line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” The story of this family is then told by Witherspoon’s two daughters, only one of whom knows the truth about her father’s multiple marriages. Both girls are lonely in their own ways and when they meet as teenagers, the relationship they form becomes essential, yet devastating for them both. I love the way Jones depicts the sense of isolation teenagers can feel from their friends, their families, and themselves as they strive to figure out who they’re becoming. And like An American Marriage, this book will leave you heartbroken but reaching for the next Tayari Jones book to make you feel it all over again.