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The year in books: 2019’s recommended reads

November 27, 2019
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It has been yet another fantastic year for the written word, with many tremendous literary offerings hitting shelves in 2019.

Reviewing books is one of the best parts of my job. As part of that job, I’ve read dozens of books over the course of the past year. I freely admit that I tend to seek out works that I know will resonate for me – and hence usually enjoy the books I review – but even with that degree of curation, there’s no denying that there are always some that particularly stand out.

This is not your traditional “best of” list – that’s not my style. Instead, consider this a collection of recommendations. These are suggestions; I enjoyed them, so I thought that you might as well. I’ve also included selections from my writings about these books (please note that the full reviews are available eslewhere on our website). Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list. I’m just one man – there are scores more books out there, exceptional works that I simply never got a chance to read.

So are these the best books of 2019? I don’t know – it’s all subjective. What I can say is that every one of these works captured my imagination and my attention … and perhaps one or more of them will do the same for you.

Here are my recommended reads from 2019.

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The Body – Bill Bryson

Taking all of this information and distilling it down into something readable is an impressive accomplishment. To do that while also creating something engaging and entertaining is exponentially more so. And really, that’s the unique gift that Bill Bryson to the table; he finds the sweet spot in the center of the educating/entertaining Venn diagram as well as any nonfiction writer out there. No one writes about the travel experience quite like he does; it just happens to make zero difference whether the journey on which he’s guiding us is an internal one or an external one … a fantastic example of creative nonfiction, a clever and wonderfully informative trip through the human body led by a guide who’s smart enough to share what he knows and acknowledge what he doesn’t. You’ll learn things you never expected about the ways in which your body works and the reasons behind those workings – except when Bryson (and all the experts he encounters along the way) simply shrug their shoulders. Ultimately, while it’s fun to know why things work, it’s not always necessary. Sometimes, they just do – and that’s enough.

The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehisi Coates

Heartbreakingly powerful ... If you’ve read anything by Coates, you already know that he is a phenomenal talent, one of the best writers of his generation, both craft-wise and conceptually. Few have captured the African-American experience as completely and captivatingly as he has; it only makes sense that his fiction would have similar sentiments to express. That’s a big part of what makes this book so powerful – the energy that Coates brings, the knowledge and the passion … it shines from every page ... features page after page of powerful narrative rendered in sizzling, sharp prose. There’s a toothsome quality to Coates’s prose that lends itself perfectly to a story like this one, a tale of undeserved pain and power retaken. The harsh bleakness of the lives of the Tasked is rendered with unforgiving detail, while the more mystical aspects of the narrative are offered up wreathed in a gauzier, but no less meticulous manner ... Coates shines the burning beacon of his imagination onto that truth, generating a story that is a challenging mix of brutality and beauty – it is rapturously readable and straight-up compelling as hell.

Full Throttle – Joe Hill

There aren’t many writers out there who are as thoughtfully scary as Joe Hill ... Hill’s narrative gifts are tremendous, and he unleashes them here to full effect. His ability to construct such sturdily delicate plots, both solid and subtle, is a joy to experience. He creates worlds in which we can’t help but immerse ourselves …The journey is taut and fraught and emotionally charged; the destination is visceral and surprising and both exquisitely chosen and utterly unexpected. He earns every shocked disbelieving headshake he gets - and there are a few ... What you might not expect from a book of scary tales is how funny they are. Hill’s wicked sense of humor isn’t omnipresent, but when it pokes its s—t-stirring little head up, it makes a big impression. He’s clever, but not overly so; there’s none of the performative neediness you sometimes get when a writer tries to show off. There’s nothing needy or show-offy about Hill’s work; it’s more than strong enough to exist on its own terms ... an outstanding collection of work from the pen of an outstanding writer. Joe Hill began his career trying to step out of his father’s shadow, but that time has long passed. He’s not standing in the long shade anymore, if he ever was. Instead, he’s casting a shadow of his own, one that grows longer with every exceptional offering.

Evvie Drake Starts Over – Linda Holmes

A charming and engaging story that also proves willing to look at loss and how that can mean different things to different people ... There’s a wonderful juxtaposition at play here ... this is a debut novel from Holmes, although it certainly doesn’t read like one. There’s a smoothness to the storytelling that is a great pleasure to read, a gentle persistence of plot that bears the reader forward with deceptive speed – it’s the sort of book that you might read cover-to-cover in a single sitting if you’re not careful. The characterizations feel very full; Evvie and Dean are well-realized in ways both large and small. Oh, and it’s pretty damned funny in stretches too ... an ideal summer read, the sort of breezy book that offers strong relationships and compelling characters while also providing a fluid narrative flow. Few things are as captivating as love born from loss; this book offers that and more. If this is how Holmes begins her career as a novelist, I can’t wait to see what she does next.

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches – Tyler Kepner

This book delivers exactly what its title promises. It is a fascinating deconstruction of the nature of pitching by those men who did it best. It is a cross-section of the game’s history, showing us the ebb and flow of the craft and how pitches have come into and fallen out of favor over the years ... Kepner’s passion for the game permeates the narrative he has constructed. The book offers intricate detail mixed with stories of the game – he blends the tangible notions of grips and spin rates and throwing motions with the ethereal myths of baseball’s bygone legends. It’s a combination that serves to elevate each element, a rich and engaging reading experience for any true fan.

The Institute – Stephen King

There’s a timeliness to this book, an of-the-moment quality that also possesses a sense of universality ... another strong entry into King’s prolific and ever-more-impressive late-period oeuvre, a continuation of the storytelling ranginess that he’s put on display over the past decade-plus ... Nobody captures what it means to be a kid quite like Stephen King; so much of his best work seems to deal with adolescents and adolescence to some degree. He evokes not just the complexities of childhood, but also a real sense of the adult a child might grow up to be...Luke and his friends are the latest in a long line of exceptionally-crafted kid characters in King’s work ... King’s certainly no stranger to outsized representations of supernatural terror, but he is also one of our best at digging into the most human aspects of evil ... All of this, by the way, is packed into one hell of a thriller. King’s plots are unfailingly propulsive; the manner in which he unfurls his stories compels the reader’s consumption to an almost-greedy degree. And the settings he creates are exquisitely vivid; he evokes place with an easy, immersive grace ... more outstanding fiction from our greatest storyteller. It is a book of the moment in ways both large and small, a thoughtful and thought-provoking tale that is exquisite in its anger and steadfast in its hopefulness.

Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction – Chuck Klosterman

Few writers today have been working the cultural criticism beat as long and as successfully as Chuck Klosterman ... strange and offbeat, small and skewed glimpses of the zeitgeist through weird-colored glasses – think “Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror,” only in a much bigger hurry. And while they vary in length, style and tone, all of them ring loudly with the author’s distinctive voice ... shot through with cleverness and an element of the absurd, capturing the unique inquisitiveness that is a Klosterman hallmark. There’s an ironic detachment throughout the collection, a sense of remove that comes through even when a narrative is unfolding in the first person ... not all of these stories are home runs; some suffer due to Klosterman’s tendency toward abrupt endings, others never quite get sufficient room for their ideas to flower. But even the relative misfires are entertaining despite whatever flaws they might have ... a fun, fast-moving collection of quick hits. No one looks at the world quite like Chuck Klosterman does; for him to turn that vision in a slightly different direction is a welcome change. Shining that perspective through the prism of fiction makes for a grand and strange good time. There’s wisdom and a surprising amount of pathos as well.

The MVP Machine – Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik

An incredibly well-reported look at one of baseball’s bleeding edge frontiers. And for a book addressing a dense and fairly wonky subject, it proves remarkably readable as well – Lindbergh and Sawchik are both talented writers who have a particular knack for finding engaging, understandable ways to present complex ideas … Lindbergh and Sawchik go deep, talking to figures up and down the game. They dug into data-driven development philosophies on levels ranging from broad to granular, looking at how things are handled on an organizational level while also talking to individual coaches and players about what they have discovered buried in the numbers … Anyone with a desire to learn more about how baseball’s future is being built in the here and now should really check out this book. The ways players learn and the ways we learn about them are changing … a magnificent exploration of what those changes mean for the game we love.

Running with Sherman – Christopher McDougall

A magical read, one that elicits surprised chuckles even as it tugs at the heartstrings. The motley crew – both human and animal – that it introduces is an absolute delight; McDougall clearly has a gift for fully rendering the people that he meets. The term \'inspirational\' is a loaded one when it comes to books, but it’s an apt descriptor here; the story of Sherman’s journey – and McDougall’s alongside him – does inspire, capturing the beautiful spiritual connection that exists between man and animal ... And while McDougall is at the story’s center, it is the characters at the tale’s outskirts that truly fascinate ... It’s a special thing to genuinely fall in love with someone you meet in the pages of a book. Rest assured: you can’t help but fall in love with Sherman the determined donkey. Running with Sherman is charming and hilarious, heartfelt and sincere. It’s a wonderful read for anyone who has loved an animal that needed to be loved … or has faced a challenge that seemed insurmountable but had someone there to stand (or run) alongside them.

Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan

A quirky and enthralling work of alternate history, a counterfactual conflation that brings forth a world quite different than our own, albeit populated by personalities that will ring all too familiar ... Rendered in McEwan’s indomitable and inimitable prose, “Machines Like Me” takes the reader inside a love triangle unlike any our world has ever seen, a romantic tangle involving a man, his upstairs neighbor—and a machine ... Machines Like Me brings a lot of ideas to the table. So many, in fact, that one occasionally worries that they might overwhelm the story being told. And in the hands of a lesser writer, they likely would have. But with a maestro like McEwan directing the show, concepts slide together rather than clash, serving as complementary pieces in the service of a larger, more intricate narrative – cogs in the machine, if you will ... an exceptional addition to the alternate history oeuvre, combining compelling characters with dynamite storytelling in the creation of a fully-realized and familiar-enough world. McEwan demonstrates a real curiosity about the nature of self and an earnest desire to probe the moral and ethical underpinnings of what it means to be human. It’s a story that will capture your attention in the moment, but the ideas that it explores will be present long after the final page is turned.

Middlegame – Seanan McGuire

McGuire juggles the narrative back-and-forth expertly. The story switches perspective as well ... It might sound confusing— and if it was even a little less well-executed, it would be—but again, McGuire deftly shifts from POV to POV without missing a beat ... There’s a fantastic through thread that involves excerpts of [a] children’s book—titled “Over the Woodward Wall”—and serves as a lovely companion to the narrative. It’s a lovely continuing detail that seasons the rest of the story just beautifully. One of the smartest choices in a book full of smart choices ... [The protagonists] are compelling, fully-realized characters about whom we are invited to care—their honest interplay is as magical as anything in the book ... It has been a while since I read a work of genre fiction that resonated with me quite like “Middlegame” did. The complexity of the world building is impressive, with a real depth of thoughtful detail. It’s stylistically challenging in the best way, making the actual reading experience all the more engaging.

How To – Randall Munroe

There’s a wonderful intellectual generosity inherent to “How To” – Munroe’s love of knowledge is evident on every page. And through his willingness to push beyond the rational into the realm of the absurd-but-still-kind-of-maybe-possible (or at least calculable), he invites the reader to embrace the joys of the world around us. He pushes the envelope to a ludicrous degree and has a great time doing it … and hence, so do we … a fast read, but one that invites further exploration. “How To” is a delight the first time through, but subsequent looks reveal even more, encouraging the reader to dig deeper … Yes, it’s all very silly. But that’s what makes it fun. Munroe’s ability to take complex ideas and render them both easily digestible and wildly entertaining is unparalleled; it’s the foundation of his success with xkcd and it only shines brighter with more room to run … smart and sly and weird as heck in all the best ways. Anyone with the slightest interest in the way the world works will derive great pleasure from Randall Munroe’s convoluted journey to solve simple (and a few not-so-simple) problems.

Archaeology from Space – Sarah Parcak

It’s a chance to gain a closer understanding of the complexities of Parcak’s work, as well as the value that comes from digging into our ancient past. It’s a compellingly-written piece of popular science. But it also offers something that other science-oriented nonfiction doesn’t—the warm, impassioned and funny voice of Sarah Parcak ... But what makes this book really shine is how much of Sarah Parcak we get. Her passion for her work is omnipresent, leaping from every page with an enthusiasm that is undeniably infectious ... Creating a narrative flow with a book like this is tricky, but Archaeology from Space is a real success in that regard ... One of the joys of this book (of which there are many) is the heartfelt humor that Parcak delivers. The tone could be described as mildly self-deprecatory with a little bit of an edge; she’s unafraid to punctuate thoughtful and/or technically dense segments with jokes that are unabashedly goofy ... a wonderful piece of work, a book that entertains as it informs ... She shows us how she uses the bleeding-edge of the future to dig deeper into the past, all while telling tales in a writerly voice that is sharp, witty and charming as hell.

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini – Joe Posnanski

Posnanski does a wonderful job bringing Houdini’s story together ... we also learn about Houdini through some of the people who have been inspired by him. It’s here where Posnanski really shines, these conversations with those whose love of magic was born when they learned of the great Houdini ... So many people whose lives were deeply and permanently impacted by the man himself. Posnanski gives us insight into them all, capturing all of it with his usual blend of gentle sentimentality and low-key sharp wit. “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini” is a different sort of biography, one willing to view its subject through a prismatic lens; diligent research and first-person reportage allows for a diverse set of perspectives on Houdini ... Joe Posnanski has given us a unique look at a unique man, an iconic figure in American cultural history. In an irony that the man himself would almost certainly appreciate, even now, a century later, Houdini remains inescapable.

First Cosmic Velocity – Zach Powers

An absolute gem of a book, a tale of tragedy disguised as triumph. It is a beautifully-crafted work of literary genre writing—part historical fiction, part sci-fi, with hints of family drama and magical realism thrown into the mix as well. It’s a story unlike anything you’ve read, told from a perspective unlike any you’ve experienced ... Everything about “First Cosmic Velocity” works. The concept is outstanding and the execution is exceptional. The attention to detail is phenomenal, allowing for a clear and vivid picture of the behind-the-scenes chaos of the Soviet effort ... the characterizations are sharp, capturing the inner turmoil of those struggling with the moral and ethical ramifications of the work being done—and the willingness to push through in the name of scientific achievement and nationalist glory. What Powers does so beautifully is immerse the reader in the world that he has created.

Quichotte – Salman Rushdie

It’s a layered metafictional take on the tale, a story that succinctly blends the modern with the postmodern as well as a deft use of a classic touchstone to explore a much more current cultural landscape ... Rushdie keeps every plate spinning, moving swiftly but smoothly from idea to idea. There are numerous places where it seems as though one or more of these plates might drop—that they MUST drop—yet the author always arrives in the nick of time, ensuring that everything remains in constant motion, always advancing toward the shared conclusion. Even as the pace accelerates toward a raucous, over-the-top conclusion that is nevertheless somehow perfectly logical, the story stays the course. The story-within-story writer-as-character trope has long been a mainstay of postmodern fiction, but Rushdie manages to give the conceit some fresh heft ... “Quichotte” is an exceptional work, one that searches for hope even against a deeply cynical belief that nothing matters. If it’s possible for a book to be optimistically nihilistic, then that’s what Rushdie has given us with this one.

Grand Union – Zadie Smith

A magnificently wide-ranging selection of stories so diverse and divergent that it sometimes seems that their only shared quality – the one thing that marks them as the work of a singular author – is their excellence ... if anything, the exceedingly high quality of this work is being undersold. Yes, among these 19 pieces are works that maybe don’t shine with quite the same brightness, but they too offer their luster. The stars shine less brightly than the moon; the moon in turn less brightly than the sun – are any of them any less captivating because of a disparity of lumens? ... a sense of intellectual challenge is buoyed by preternatural prose gifts, resulting in stories that dig into your brain and set up shop, burrowing beneath the surface only to pop up to offer even more unanticipated insights ... astonishing. Anyone who has ever read a word written by Zadie Smith knows what a talent she is, but when you sit down and pore through this collection, filled with weird tales and autofictional intimacies and experimental explorations, you’re confronted with the sheer magnitude of her abilities ... a masterful collection from an exquisite storyteller. Few writers have the talent to pull something like this off. Fewer still have the audacity to even try. How lucky we are, then, that Zadie Smith has both.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

“The Nickel Boys” is Whitehead’s seventh book – and arguably his best yet. He eschews the genre flourishes with which his previous storytelling ventures have been peppered, instead committing to a straightforward realism that allows just the briefest glimmers of hopefulness against a nigh-unrelentingly bleak backdrop ... one of the most emotionally fraught books I’ve read since...well, maybe ever ... So much of Whitehead’s work involves race and how race impacts the American experience. Those themes are explored again in “The Nickel Boys,” albeit more directly than in past offerings. That directness lends even more heft to the already-meaty discourse he drives ... The slim volume comes in at just 224 pages, yet still overflows with furious poetry and intellectual rawness. It unspools with pacing that feels breakneck while also managing to elicit a sense of stasis; the whole thing practically drips with the frustrations of the societal status quo ... we have to recognize the narrative brilliance that Whitehead brings to the table. There’s a stunning vividity to his language ... Thought-provoking, powerful and shatteringly sad.

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 November 2019 06:24

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