Al's 2019 Books
I knew I was going to read a lot when I was home for Christmas, so I waited until the year had truly ended to round these up. I read 59 books this year, which is the most I’ve read in a year since I was a pre-teen. But I also read way more books than normal this year that I only felt okay about, and even read a handful that I didn’t like, which is unusual for me, since I have such a strong network of recommendations to pull from (the employees of Browsers and Unabridged, Annie Metcalf, Jessie Cadle, Leah Ricks, Jena Wallander, Rayna Caskey, and other book friends). But for a lot of the year I felt like I was looking for a type of book that didn’t exist - the artistry of literary fiction, the vulnerability of first-person narrative nonfiction, and the heart and warmth of YA - so I ended up picking up books somewhat at random, and that ended up, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Reading books you don’t love and don’t keep you company isn’t much fun, and I admire people who put down books they aren’t enjoying (going to try to do this more this year), but I still hit on some stars and through the missteps I feel like I touched on a broader range of types of books this year, which is a catalogue I like to have in my head.
But I was thrilled near the end of the year to feel my hunger for challenging writing come back to me, right in time for one of the most bountiful few months of book releases I’ve been aware of. Those combined with the books from the last few years that I really wanted to read but slipped by me means I have a huge list of books I’m excited to read this year and hope to prioritize, both because I’m confident these will all be good, and I already own them. Writing these down is my attempt to hold myself accountable to my forever-goal of reading more of the books I own before I get more. So, in the next couple months I’m excited to read: Frankissstein, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, How to Do Nothing, The Book of Delights, Supper Club, Reservoir 13, Make it Scream, Make it Burn, Good Talk, Christmas Days, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Ponti, Confessions of the Fox, Outline, All This Could Be Yours, The Sympathizer, An Unkindness of Ghosts, The Killing Moon, Exit West, The Education of an Idealist, Hausfrau, A Little Life (it’s time). But please, if you have any books from this year that you adored that are nowhere to be found here, let me know!!! I love recommendations! I also want to read more books by authors of color (especially women) (of course) so please hit me with those recs if you have them! I especially love memoirs, narrative nonfiction, literary fiction, YA, mysteries. Short stories and multi-generational stories aren’t usually my thing, but if you really, really loved a book that falls into those categories, I’ll definitely read it (looking at Homegoing, Pachinko).
So, finally, here are my very, very, very favorite books of the year (ordered alphabetically). If I could only recommend four books to someone from the year, the ones in bold would be those four. Those are the ones that felt necessary, the ones I'm so relieved I got to read this year. Throughout all three lists, I put an asterisk next to the ones that are at least somewhat gay. You're very welcome! And finally, a disclaimer: I COULDN'T FIGURE OUT THE SPACING ON THE IMAGES!
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel* - Alexander Chee
Autobiographical essays that cover a range of topics from rose gardening, tarot, queer and Koren identity, writing at Iowa Writer’s Workshop, writing in Ameica, writing about yourself, and Chloe Sevigny (among others). Until I read In the Dream House this was the best writing I read all year. Eventually I stopped picking up and putting down my pen whenever I came across something I wanted to underline - there were so many lines that were either too beautiful or too important to lose track of that I gave up and just held it in my hand as I read the rest of the book.
Catch and Kill - Ronan Farrow / She Said - Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Twin books about breaking the Weinstein story. Catch and Kill goes deeper into NBC’s (deeply broken) culture and the web of power that allows not just one lone monster, but so, so many powerful men to abuse their power without consequence, the scope of which shocked me more than I thought was possible, given how much I’d already read about this story. The first two-thirds of She Said unwinds the Weinstein story and then the last third pivots to Dr. Blasey Ford’s experience navigating the Kavanaugh hearings. Both great and very well written - Farrow’s feels more like a thriller in terms of the pace and tension, and Kantor and Twohey’s takes a slower, more thoughtful turn in that last third, reflecting on the impact of this story of the lives’ of the women who spoke, but also has ridiculously compelling momentum.
Hard to Love - Briallen Hopper
All of these essays were good, but while most of them have faded from my mind, two of them (one about accepting and embracing that we need other people to lean on and the other about being an un-partnered woman and the power and strength of friendship) made me openly weep on the bus and were among the best things I've ever read and I've gone back to them many times since then. I also really loved the two essays in here that were about a friend who was diagnosed with cancer (who recovered unexpectedly after getting into a clinical trial) and the care taking role Hopper took on for her.
We Are Okay* - Nina LaCour
I found this shelved in YA* at Unabridged, but it could easily be shelved in literature as well. It can be read in one sitting - it's short and spellbinding - and is about a girl in her late teens who is lonely, independent, and starting to understand her queerness (yes, it bears a delicate, delightful resemblance to Dryland!). Marin’s grandfather passed away right before she left for her first semester of college across the country, and she’s barely holding it together when winter break comes and she’s left as the sole inhabitant of the dorms. Her best friend from home (their friendship is the headline, but it’s clear they have some kind of romantic history) is coming to visit for a couple days, and she’s dreading the visibility and accountability her presence will bring. I’ve never read anything capture so beautifully the way it feels when you feel invisible and overexposed at the same time - aching for someone who has known you to know the newest iteration of yourself, and terrified that once they see the ways your outline has shifted, they’ll find you alien and you’ll be lost. This book, despite grappling with a lot of sadness, does not drag you down, and is so full of the tenderheartedness I love YA novels for that is glistens.
*Find my YA soapbox under I’ll Give You the Sun - I wrote that one first then ordered these alphabetically
God Land - Lyz Lenz
I am blown away by people like Lyz who grow up inside oppressive ideologies and, seemingly through sheer force of personality alone, transcend them. Lyz understands conservative Christianity because she lived in it - for a long time - and was pushing back against pastors and communities and value systems that tried to silence her and other marginalized people (anyone who isn’t white, male, straight, cis, Protestant Christian, all of that) the whole time. Eventually, she reached her breaking point and this book is a combination of personal writing about how she got there (and left both the conservative church and her Trump-voting husband) and incredibly thorough reporting on the cultural state of middle America (her home) through the lens of church. She looks at the stereotypes that are imposed on middle America but doesn’t stop there - the book is most interested in examining the stories - religious and otherwise - that middle America (rural middle America especially) tell about itself and who those stories hurt (although she’s certainly not out to condemn conservatives, rural culture, or the midwest). If you, like me, find church both intellectually fascinating and emotionally moving, this book will have you firing on all cylinders, but even if you’re not a church person I suspect you’ll think this book is really fucking good.
In the Dream House* - Carmen Maria Machado
I finished this book on December 23 and knew before it was over that it was the best book I’d read all year. There was nothing about the end of the book that should have made me cry, but the force of the writing alone made me seek out the privacy of the coffee shop’s blessedly single-stall bathroom to burst into tears for 30 seconds before heading to a family friend’s Christmas party where I gazed into the middle distance and struggled to make conversation because all I could think about was this book, a genre-defying literary feat of genius about a relationship between two women that became emotionally abusive. Not the easiest party topic, and not the easiest recommendation to sell either, I’ve found - understandably, if you weren’t already a fan of Carmen Maria Machado and looking forward to this book, you might not light up at the thought of reading a book about emotional abuse. But while this story deals with hard topics, it doesn’t feel hard to read (with the caveat that I have never been in an emotionally abusive relationship) - Machado has too much reason to be telling this story, and too much skill in telling it, for it to feel bad. If you love reading, this book will feel like a precious gift - you can feel the form and potential of books and words expand as you read. What a gift to experience the fullest potential of something you love. If you aren’t a frequent reader, Machado’s skill will be just as enjoyable - she has done what I think is hardest of all by writing a book that I comfortably call genius that is no harder to read for its brilliance, unlike many of the books we’ve been told are the best of their kind but impossible to get through. It goes quick - save it for a weekend when you can really sink into it - and then talk to me about it!
Red, White, and Royal Blue* - Casey McQuinton
“EASILY THE MOST FUN BOOK OF THE YEAR. LONG LIVE RED WHITE AND ROYAL BLUE!” - the review I sent to my friend Leah. But in case that’s not enough to entice you: in a world where the president after Obama is a divorced single woman with biracial adult children, the first son, Alex, realizes he has feelings for HENRY, PRINCE OF ENGLAND!!!! There are so many fun (and hot) scenes in this book full of kind and smart people with good intentions figuring out the best and most fun way forward in life, love, and politics. And as a bonus, my sister went to see Casey McQuinton talk and reported back that she said all of her future books will be queer! We have no choice but to celebrate.
The National Team - Caitlin Murray
This is a fairly straight forward history of the United States Women’s National Team (and the United State’s domestic leagues) but if you lost your mind during the World Cup and haven’t found it yet (or loved women’s soccer before then), it’s a blast. I love women’s soccer!!!
I'll Give You the Sun* - Jandy Nelson
This is technically a YA book and I say that not to discredit YA books, but to make it clear that if you think YA books are insubstantial and written for kids, you are wrong. Like any genre, there are plenty of not-so-great YA books out there, but I’ve found that the biggest difference between good YA and adult literature is that generally speaking, YA tends to have easier momentum to latch onto and is more heartfelt. This one is about high school twins who undergo trauma, some shared and some individual, make mistakes that hurt each other, and have to navigate the everyday difficulties of caring about other people and the ways that that makes you vulnerable. They learn that healing and joy happens in the space you build when you move toward, rather than away from, the people you love and love you, and this is the book that is closest to my heart from the whole year.
Trick Mirror - Jia Tolentino
I can’t put into words the brilliance of Jia or the joy of reading that brilliance applied to the most relevant aspects of our (millennial women’s) lives. After I was done, I felt like the window I see society and my place in it through had been replaced with a newer, slightly clearer pane of glass. It has level of academic and theoretical rigour that is both the source of that joy (our lives and the forces that affect them are worth this kind of thought!) and made me want to ask my college professors to convene a post-graduation class so that we could work through parts of this book the way we did our assigned readings back then. I plan to read this again in the first half of this year, both for fun and because there’s so much left in it for me to understand.
Honorable Mention (This is a long list, but this is basically everything that I would tell you I "really like" is worth reading this year if you googled it and thought it sounded interesting! The ones I barely left off my favorites are near the top, and then at some point they switch over to the order I read them in.)
Notes to Self - Emilie Pine (beautiful and clear personal essays)
The Great Believers* - Rebecca Makkai (on most best of lists from last year - I adored it and it destroyed me)
Disappearing Earth - Julia Phillips (one moment in this book made me gasp out loud and sit up, like I was in a movie)
The Collected Schizophrenias - Esmé Weijun Wang (narrative nonfiction about a lived experience most of us can’t imagine, communicated with precision)
Look Alive Out There - Sloane Crosley (mostly comedic essays, delightful)
Bad Blood - John Carreyrou (slow start for me, but once stuff gets going, this book was really a banger)
On a Sunbeam* - Tillie Walden (stunning queer space graphic novel)
Her Body and Other Parties* - Carmen Maria Machado (short stories don’t seem to be for me, but CMM’s too good)
On the Come Up - Angie Thomas (Not as good as The Hate U Give, because how could it be, but still so good)
The Cost of Living - Deborah Levy (short and healthy)
Throne of Glass series - Sarah J. Maas (oh my god, fun)
Her Royal Highness* - Rachel Hawkins (gay royal YA, I mean!)
The Summer Demands* - Deborah Shapiro (summer haze)
Magpie Murders - Anthony Horowitz (fun mystery)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post* - Emily M. Danforth (very good, watch the movie too)
The 6:41 to Paris - Jean-Philippe Blondel (French novella about two exes that run into each other on the train a couple decades after their relationship but don’t acknowledge each other and instead sit and think about what happened with their relationship)
Searching for Sunday - Rachel Held Evans (the theology of my dreams)
The Last Nude* - Ellis Avery (very gay, set in Paris in the late ‘20s)
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone - Lori Gottlieb (Very interesting for anyone interested in therapy)
Once More We Saw Stars - Jayson Greene (sad, yes, but also incredibly touching and open-hearted)
Conflicted! (The ones that I was glad I read and did enjoy but also have some mixed feelings about)
Circe - Madeline Miller (definitely enjoyed, but also wanted it to be different? Not a fair review, for sure)
The Recovering - Leslie Jamison (big portions are brilliant, but it is maybe too long?)
Three Women - Lisa Taddeo (to my surprise this book hasn’t really stayed with me)
Pages of You* - Sylvia Brownrigg (very gay, fun, also very uneven)
Fleishman is in Trouble - Taffy Brodesser-Akner (had a lot of fun reading this but also somehow didn’t love it at the same time)