This is my fourth end of year reading reflection I’ve posted on Medium, and it ended up being both the easiest and most difficult one I’ve done. Easy because I read so many great books this year, even if I did read a little less this year than last. Difficult because now I have to decide which ones I’d consider the best, hopefully without writing something so long no one will manage to get to the end of my post.
Before I get started, note that these are in no particular order, other than my top pick, which I’ll save for the end. Also, if you prefer watching as opposed to reading, which seems unlikely based on the fact that you’re on Medium and reading an article about books, I did publish a video on my little book themed YouTube channel talking about most of these.
On with it.
The Great Believers
by Rebecca Makkai
A beautiful, tragic, character-driven story about a group of close friends in the middle of the AIDS crisis in Chicago. The characters all feel unique — Makkai does an incredible job conveying how desperately they try to live their lives while dealing with their friends dying all around them, the threat of AIDS constantly on their doorstep.
There’s a dual timeline aspect interesting enough to carry a book on its own. That story explores the long, damaging effects of the AIDS crisis, which was not at all unlike the emotional fallout of surviving a war. When the book would switch to the alternate timeline, I had very mixed feelings. I was annoyed that I had to stop reading about the story I was focused on, but excited to get back to the other one, which is probably the best thing you can say about a dual timeline story — you want to read both at the same time!
If you’re up for it, this book is absolutely worth your time. The prose is beautiful, the story heartbreaking, the characters memorable. I loved it, even though it destroyed me.
The Grip of It
by Jac Jemc
If the years preceding it were dominated by Sci-Fi, 2019 was my year for horror. My appetite for the genre was likely brought on by the large number of boundary-pushing horror films, and this book satisfied that hunger perfectly.
If you’ve seen it, the best thing I can compare this book to is Ari Aster’s movie Hereditary. Not in story so much, but in the way that it is both absolutely a genre piece while at the same time elevating itself above the fray of the average work in that genre. The Grip of It is a good haunted house story, but it’s also a story about a troubled relationship, and the horror elements of the book serve to accentuate the tension felt by both partners in the crumbling marriage. This is incredibly clever, because it connects something everyone has stressed out about in their lives at some point (troubled relationship) and links it directly to something that is much more fantastic, which causes the fantastic to feel grounded and much more terrifying.
Full disclosure, this book is very polarizing, so your mileage may very, but I loved this book and plan on reading more by Jemc ASAP.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
by Iain Reid
My other favorite horror book of the year, and another genre-bender. I don’t want to spoil too much, which I think I kind of did for a friend of mine who read it based on my aggressive recommendation, but the end made me immediately start the book over and read it a second time through a different lens.
Charlie Kaufman is heading up a movie adaptation of this book, which, if you’re a Kaufman fan, is probably enough to get you interested. It has a kind of Lynchian otherworldly nightmare tone that persists throughout the novel and haunted me long after I had finished it.
The number of highly negative reviews for this book is both surprising and not. Ending Things is cloudy, which is off putting to some, but just like many of Lynch’s films, even if you can’t figure out what the hell just happened after the credits roll, you can at least appreciate the way it made you feel. I think that even if I was 100% confused with the happenings of this book, I would still say I enjoyed it.
The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead
Inspired by the revolting true story of a Jim-Crowe era “reform school,” The Nickel Boys is an absolutely devastating book that is hard for me to talk about.
I feel unqualified to discuss race issues in a meaningful way, since I have only experienced life in the body of a pasty white dude. But if the last four or so years have proven one thing to me beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s that we have a long, long way to go on the path to equality, and as much as it hurts, and as uncomfortable as it is, it’s important to try to understand and confront racism and its deep roots in America. We’ll never get anywhere if everyone is too nervous to approach the problem.
What The Nickel Boys does is tell a moving, human story that gives a peek into how unjust and awful life can end up for a person of color who innocently ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s both hard to recommend and essential reading.
by Meg Wolitzer
2019 is the second year in a row a Wolitzer book has made my top list — and I’m worried that I’m reading them all so quickly I won’t have any of hers in contention for next year.
The Position centers around a broken couple who wrote a Joy of Sex type book in the 70's, and their adult children. Like all of Wolitzer’s books that I’ve read so far, the strengths of the novel are in how plausibility real the characters feel, and the beauty and meaning Wolitzer manages to inject into the mundane. Wolitzer seems like the kind of person who you could meet once and would understand you better than you understand yourself. Her talent is immense.
Another thing that I admire about Wolitzer is how quiet her brilliance is. Her prose is so understated that if you’re not careful, you can accidentally breeze right through some deeply moving moments. Just incredible stuff.
Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami
I disappear into Murakami’s books in a way I rarely do any other authors. His writing is hypnotic, even though it often feels so simple and straightforward.
The story of Kafka is strange, even by Murakami standards, and includes many of the aspects you come to expect from him. Passive male protagonist, lots of cats, absurd dream logic, magical realism, etc. Where Kafka shines brightest is in its relationship with the character Nakata and his relationship with a truck driver named Hoshino. They have their own odyssey that runs parallel to the title character’s story that’s funny, moving, and just a blast. If Kafka’s story is the backbone of the novel, Nakata’s is the heart.
If you’re like me and enjoy getting lost in a story and not worrying about when the next major plot point is going to come along, Kafka on the Shore, and Murakami in general, is easy to recommend.
by Donna Tartt
I was late to the party with this one (what else is new), but I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and wouldn’t shut up about it for like a month after.
In many ways, it’s comparable to Kafka on the Shore. It’s this big, sprawling thing with tons of characters and a passive male protagonist trying to make sense of his messy, screwed up life. Also, just like Kafka, I could have kept reading it for another thousand pages and still end up wanting more. At some point in the book I empathized and cared about every character, and at other points I hated them all. No one feels two dimensional, they all could have been the star of their own stories.
The writing was deeply affecting, but I found the passages about beautiful objects being a way to connect to the universe particularly moving.
The Goldfinch made me want to go to a museum, listen to classical music, and sip a stiff drink while gazing at a busy city street through a hotel window. It made me grateful to be alive, while at at the same time breaking my heart with the reality of how unfair and horrible life can be. It is not a book I will soon forget.
And there you have it, my personal favorite reads of 2019. In terms of the quality to quantity ratio goes, it’s going to be a tough year to beat, but here’s hoping to more great books in 2020.