2019 Year in Books

2019 Year in Books

I read 52 books this year, including the chapter books I read with my daughter. Not too shabby for having an infant, if I do say so myself. Loved them or hated them, they’re all here. As with last year, these are (generally) very brief, incomplete thoughts. But if you need some recommendations for good reads in 2020 (or want to avoid some bad ones), I hope this list will help. I’m always up for discussing books, so please let me know your thoughts!

1-7) The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

I read this series with my daughter throughout the year. Here’s how I rank them:

  1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Easily my favorite. It was wonderful re-reading and discovering the magic of this story with my daughter. I read this when I was five or six (Elisabeth was seven when we read this) and I still remember hoping that if I found the right wardrobe, perhaps a hidden door somewhere, I would discover my own Narnia.
  2. Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  3. The Magician’s Nephew
  4. The Silver Chair: I might have ranked this lower but for Puddleglum, my favorite character in the entire series. He is delightful.
  5. Prince Caspian
  6. The Last Battle
  7. The Horse and His Boy: Hated this. I thought the dialogue was far too complex for a child; I had to constantly stop and explain the plot to my daughter. I know many people will disagree with me, but I would have been completely fine had this not been included in the series.

8) Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This was a re-read for me, but I had forgotten pretty much everything about this book, including that the opening line is one of the most famous in literature. Whoops! I also forgot how much crazy is in this book. I mean, whoa there’s a lot of crazy. But there’s a reason this book has never gone out of print –it’s a dark, tense psychological thriller that kept me engrossed, even though nearly every character is just awful (because they’re all psycho).

9) Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

This was fascinating. I’m no psychiatrist, but Elizabeth Holmes has to be a sociopath, right? I was baffled throughout the book how she continued to con all these incredibly smart, successful people. I mean – how!? A really interesting, but also very disturbing, read.

10) The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I have a habit of reading books that have been recommended to me without knowing anything about them, which was the case here. Many, many people had recommended this book, but I had no idea it was a WWII story. I was not emotionally prepared! It definitely lived up to the hype, but the ending wrecked me. I appreciate stories like this that, though fiction, serve as a reminder of the ways “ordinary” people do extraordinary things.

11) Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

I’m a sucker for any story about the old glamour and excitement of New York City, so I loved this.  Interesting characters, good pace, overall well written. I also love books about books, and there’s a lot of love for literature in this.

12) Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Whoa boy, this was not what I expected. Very dark with graphic violence. It was a page-turner, but very unsettling.

13) Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis

Guys, did you know Rachel Hollis founded a wildly successful lifestyle brand all on her own? If you’ve read this book, you should, because she mentions it every other page. I wish I had written this review back when I read the book early in the year so I could better capture how much I hated this but gosh was it awful. I am generally wary of self-help and motivational books (I think I’m pretty okay, thanks!) but I kept seeing this everywhere and my curiosity got the best of me. This book is supposed to be hilarious, but let’s get this straight: This book is not funny. (A quick skim of Hollis’s Wikipedia page claims she has been accused of plagiarizing many influential people including Eleanor Roosevelt, which made me laugh more than anything in the book.) This book is not original. And for a book written supposedly from a Christian perspective it’s not very theologically sound. I have a lot more to say about the message of this book but don’t want to use up any more here – if you’d like to chat about it, let me know!

14) An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I understand why this received a lot of praise but I didn’t love it, and I can’t really express why. There’s a lot to digest in this book, and it’s definitely thought-provoking, but it’s also sad and I was uncomfortable with the husband-wife relationship.

15) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum

The movie is so embedded in my brain that even after reading this with my daughter, I can’t remember that much about it. I must’ve been very tired while reading this, which is likely since I was either pregnant or had an infant this entire year. Elisabeth enjoyed it!

16) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I really enjoyed this! A good, engaging novel. Quirky and surprisingly heartfelt and thoughtful. I thought it would be a light read, but there’s definitely some gravitas to it.

17) When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Oh, this was an incredible book. A memoir published posthumously, it’s a short, quick read but very impactful. I cried.

18) Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel

This was a book club selection, chosen after the movie got a lot of buzz. It was not as exciting at I’d hoped, and honestly, I think I might have appreciated it more if I was, um, of an older generation.

19) Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Incredible book. One of my favorites all year. It’s an epic multi-generational story following the descendants of two half-sisters, daughters of an Asante woman, as circumstances of the slave trade lead one line to live on in Africa and the other in the United States. It’s beautifully written. I couldn’t wait to see how it would wrap up, and it did not disappoint. Highly recommend.

20) The Borrowers by Mary Norton

A re-read from my childhood that I wanted to share with my daughter. She liked it so much I bought her the complete set of Borrower books for her birthday. 

21) Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas     

I really enjoyed this biography. I knew next to nothing about Louisa Adams but her story truly is extraordinary. Her life was plagued with heartbreak and sickness, her relationship with her husband often volatile, but she was an intelligent, brave, formidable woman. A really fascinating story, parts of which read like fiction.

22) The Power by Naomi Alderman

This piqued my interest at first, but I grew frustrated with the narrative. I rushed through it just to be done with it.

23) Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Dare I say that this was… mediocre? I know everyone else loved it but I thought it was meh. I did read it quickly because I was curious how it ended, but all the naturalism stuff bored me, and the metaphors were way too heavy-handed. And WHAT was with that ending? So weird and unnecessary. But no spoilers here, so I won’t go into it.

24) Ghosted by Rosie Walsh

This dragged on. I remember there was a sort of surprising twist at the end – which I always appreciate – but I can’t actually remember what the twist was so it couldn’t have been that great.

25) When Life Gives You Lululemons by Lauren Weisberger

I had no idea this was a spin-off of The Devil Wears Prada, and wouldn’t have read it had I known. (The Devil Wears Prada is one of the rare instances of the movie being better than the book.) This was typical chick-lit fluff, but it was entertaining enough.

26) Circe by Madeline Miller

This was really good. I loved studying mythology growing up, and I really enjoyed being re-introduced to so many of those characters through Circe’s perspective.

27) I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson (audiobook)

Last year I said that although I love Bill Bryson I wasn’t going to listen to another of his audiobooks. Yet here I am. He did not narrate this one, which made it more enjoyable for me. This would have been hilarious back in the day, but it felt SO dated listening to it 20 years after publication. Oh well.

28) Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Reading about Louisa Adams’ time in Russia inspired me to read something – anything – about the Russian Empire, and I decided to start with Catherine the Great. So much drama and intrigue – I loved it. What a life, and the cast of characters surrounding Catherine were all equally interesting. I went down a lot of Google rabbit holes reading this book.

29) The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

One of the better thrillers I’ve read recently – engaging and tense. But there is a plot point later in the book that gutted me. I might have avoided the book had I known. No spoilers here – so ask if you want a warning.

30) Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Another one of my favorites this year! I loved this book, a fictional oral history of a band from the 1970s. I got very invested into this story and appreciated how all the characters, though flawed, were very relatable. I was rooting for them. There was just enough humor and a lot of heart. I actually cried at the end.

31) Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Ugh this was so boring. I really wanted to like this, but it read like two history majors presenting opposing theses on the Cuban Revolution.  The dialogue was formal and awkward, sucking all the romance and drama out of the story. Skip it.

32) The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I thought this was going to be a historical thriller – a la Devil in the White City – about the L.A. Central Library’s 1986 fire. It was certainly a thoughtful history of the Los Angeles Library, and libraries in general, but it was far from a thriller. The actual arson and whodunit is but a small part in this book, with no satisfying answers. A disappointing read, but perhaps because my expectations for this book were misguided.

33) Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling

I wasn’t super impressed with Kaling’s first memoir but I wanted a light, humorous read and this mostly delivered. I think her sitcom writing is funnier than her memoir writing, but what do I know?

34) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I’ve wanted to read this for years but never urgently. I’m so glad I finally read it. Just a lovely coming of age story.

35) There, There by Tommy Orange

I hated this. I know – it’s an important, critically acclaimed book, etc. etc. but it was so unbelievably grim. I read this right after having a baby and was definitely not in the right mindset for this kind of book.

36) Matilda by Roald Dahl

I was so excited to finally read this with Elisabeth. This was one of my absolute favorites as a child, and I still found it delightfully weird and funny. As a side note, my husband and I read a couple of other Roald Dahl books with James, who’s currently in kindergarten. They are great introductions to chapter books for young readers because they are all equally delightfully weird and funny and can hold a young reader’s attention without a lot of illustrations.

37) Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

I’ve never been particularly interested in Steve Jobs mythology and therefore knew very little about him but whoa, what an a-hole. Brennan-Jobs certainly had a bizarre upbringing, and given her circumstances, a totally outrageous one. I spent a lot of this book in anger and disbelief (not at her, to be clear.) 

38) Inheritance: a Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

Another day, another memoir. This was good! The members of my book club and I all agreed that Shapiro is slightly self-absorbed, but her story is intriguing and brings up a lot of questions about family and identity.

39) The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix

After two memoirs I wanted a good, meaty novel. This wasn’t it. Uninteresting, un-relatable characters I couldn’t bother to care about.

40) Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

I struggled with this book. Kwok is trilingual – which is incredibly impressive! – and her characters speak English, Dutch, and Chinese. I don’t know if there is a translation issue at play here, but the dialogue felt stilted and awkward and, similar to Next Year in Havana, way too formal. I couldn’t get past that to get into the story. Plus, the mystery wasn’t all that exciting.

41) Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Here we are again – another supposedly important work that I really didn’t like. Although I suppose you’re not supposed to enjoy a book like this. Grim and depressing – just made me think about how broken our world is.

42) The Vacationers by Emma Straub

I wanted an escapist novel after Three Women and this was just okay. I read Modern Lovers last year and it seems Straub has a formula that works for her. It’s not exactly groundbreaking or deep or even particularly interesting, but it’s fine for what it is.

43) Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

I highly recommend this. Gottlieb did an excellent job of weaving together her own journey with those of her patients’. I definitely cried, multiple times, but it was actually really uplifting and encouraging.

44) The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger

Well this was just delicious. Helicopter Parents Behaving Badly. Underneath the – sometimes ridiculous – drama, there was some very wry commentary on our education system. I think anyone with school-age children would enjoy this.

45) The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson.

Historical fiction. Fashion. The Royal Family. I should have LOVED this. But it was meh. I’ve read several books with this dual past/present narrative structure – where one person in the present is seeking to uncover some mystery or truth about the past event and I’m tiring of it. The past narrative is almost always meatier than the present, and would usually stand alone just fine!

46) Normal People by Sally Rooney

I found this very tedious.

47) The After Party by Anton DiSclafani (Audiobook)

I think I have a thing for books with covers of 50s-era women in fab clothing. I wanted a juicy novel to keep me interested during a long roadtrip. Great literature? Nah. But I enjoyed the southern high-society drama.

48) Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

This book actually repulsed me at first, but I gradually got more invested in the story. I didn’t end up loving it, probably because all the characters are really unlikeable. Really, they all disgusted me, but they are all very human. And props to Brodesser-Akner for writing an incredibly realistic depiction of anxiety and insomnia. So realistic that it actually made me anxious reading it. Well done?

49) Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War 1 by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Mariah Webb  (Audiobook)

This was just okay. It doesn’t hold a candle to my favorite wartime epistolary novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  (Apparently I am now the type of person who has a favorite wartime epistolary novel.) Anyway, it lacks the heart and depth of Guernsey, and I found the protagonist silly and self-absorbed.

50) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Finally! I’ve been waiting to read the Harry Potter series with Elisabeth and decided she was old enough to read at least the first few. I hadn’t read the first one in who knows how long, and I had great fun rediscovering it with Elisabeth. It really is just a wonderful story. She’s now obsessed with all things Harry Potter and her favorite character is Hermione, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever met Elisabeth.

51) The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home by Heath Hardage Lee

This was a book club selection. My book club is mainly comprised of naval aviator wives, so this story – part of which takes place in our neighborhood – really resonates with us. Last year we read Defiant about the Alcatraz 11 POWs and their wives. It was an incredible book that I would recommend before The League of Wives. I had a little trouble getting into this book – indeed it took me several months to finish – but it goes way more into the weeds of the wives’ stories. They were all remarkable, brave women whose lives should absolutely be shared.

52) The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

I loved Daisy Jones and the Six and was hoping I would love this just as much. I didn’t, but it was still enjoyable. Again, I’m into stories of old school glamour, and this is full of that, this time in Hollywood. As it got to the end I actually was surprised at how invested I was in he characters, and how emotionally I reacted to a certain event. And unlike The Gown or Next Year in Havana, I thought the dual past/present narratives came together and paid off in an unexpected and interesting way.

Books I started but didn’t complete:

Them by Ben Sasse

This book is not political; it’s really about the importance of community. I actually really wish I had finished it, but I borrowed it from a friend and needed to return it before I was done. A relevant, timely message that crosses party lines.

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