I read just shy of 50 new-to-me books in 2019, not including my class assignments (which included some chapbooks as well as short stories and poems). Of those, there are about a dozen that I am still thinking about, even if it’s been months since I read them. I love these books because they are finely crafted, or thoughtful and compelling, or fantastically imaginative, but mostly because I enjoyed the experience of reading them. With my current proximity to a university library well-stocked with best-sellers and new fiction and my slow but steady emergence from my post-doctoral fog, I’ve been able to lean into the pleasures of reading and writing this year. I’ve just been having a great time.
Even if you’re not practicing sobriety or the occasional Drynuary, and even if you are perfectly comfortable using alcohol to dull anxiety or ease social situations and don’t intend to stop (like me!), you should read Nothing Good Can Come of This by Kristi Coulter. She’s not trying to get you to stop drinking, she’s just telling you why she did and what happened next–and her telling is so smart and insightful into the ways contemporary culture sets us up to fail.
If you enjoy a good graphic novel, I was astonished by the empathy and gentle sadness and precarious hope of Good Talk by Mira Jacob.
If you love to get swept up in a richly imagined fantasy world, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty has all the magic and wonder and lore you could want. I read its sequel The Kingdom of Copper early this year and then re-read both books all over again; they are fast-paced and fascinating, and I cannot wait for the third to come out in 2020.
Speaking of fantasy worlds: it’s very unusual for me to read (let alone enjoy or recommend) a video game novelization, but I have gotten such a kick this year out of recommending Mass Effect: Initiation by award-winning author N.K. Jemisin. It’s good! If you loved the Mass Effect trilogy, even (or especially) if you hated the follow-up game Andromeda, it’s a pleasure to revisit that world care of a talented writer who loved the games as much as I did.
If you love a sci-fi or speculative short story with a big “what if” question, Ted Chiang wrote Exhalation for you, and editors Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams collected writing from some of today’s best writers in the genre to help you imagine A People’s Future of the United States.
If the last 5 years feel like a blur and you feel exhausted by the seemingly nonstop barrage of political crises, read Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister. I found it galvanizing and also appreciated the chronology and context it provides to recent history: yes, we lived through that, it happened, it meant something.
If you want a masterclass in multiple perspectives, you can read There, There by Tommy Orange or Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. There, There experiments with storytelling genres and styles with grace and an exuberance that belies the devastating climax each short character sketch is spinning toward. (Read it and then join me for some Free Library of Philadelphia events next year!) Sing, Unburied, Sing tells its stories with gravity and deep empathy; somehow she balances the forward motion of the plot (literally: it’s a road trip) with the characters’ thoughts and memories wheeling back and forth in time.
If you loved the densely layered prose and intellectual exercise of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books, and despair of ever reading the third, give Inland by Téa Obreht a try. Like Wolf Hall, it is packed with historical detail and richly imagined times and places, but the object of her exercise is not so much to transport you as it is to probe questions of what it means to be a person (in any time or place) and what we owe other people (and animals).
Some literary classics I can’t believe I hadn’t read until November: the atmospheric proto-feminist The Awakening by Kate Chopin and the charming, magical Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
Happy new year, friends, and happy reading.