Top Reads of 2019

As the year (and decade) draws to a close, I’m looking back with satisfaction at the books I’ve checked off my list or stumbled upon at the library or thrift store. I’m an incredibly picky reader, especially when it comes to fiction, and I’m selfish with my time. If a book isn’t interesting in the first chapter, I almost always scrap it. And if the writing style is annoying or plain weak, I leave the tome behind—unless the subject matter is interesting enough to make up for it.

This year, I predominantly read nonfiction, and the list below reflects that. These six books are my top reads from the year—and my top recommendations for your 2020 reading list.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming'The first book I read in 2019, Becoming was a Christmas gift from my grandmother. I didn’t grow up in an Obama-supporting household, so it was interesting to read about Michelle from her own perspective, as opposed to the interpretations of her by talking heads on the radio that I heard all through high school. The book is long but incredibly well-written so it flows quickly. Michelle writes about her childhood growing up in Chicago, her pursuit of higher education (she has two Ivy League degrees), her struggle to find a career that fit her values, and of course, her relationship with Barack and the experience of becoming First Lady.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

QuietQuiet has been on my list for several years, and I finally got my hands on a copy (thank you, Denver Public Library). Deeply researched and well structured, the book has the grounding of an academic treatise with the writing of a storyteller. Cain dives into introversion from a variety of angles, including high sensitivity that can be witnessed in infants who grow up to become introverts, the difficulty introverts may face in certain religious settings, and what it’s like to be an introvert in an intimate relationship with an extrovert. A lot of what she writes are things I’ve learned about myself over the years, so it was interesting to see research back up my own self-understanding.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

No ImportanceThis may be my favorite book from all year. A Woman of No Importance follows the journey of Virginia Hall, an American woman who served as a spy for Britain during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Hall partnered with nuns and prostitutes (among others) to undermine Nazi rule before the Allies ever landed in France, and when a double agent discovered her, she escaped on foot and her wooden leg over the mountains and out of France. Later, she returned on a new mission to recruit French resistance members, coordinate supply drops with Britain, and sabotage the Nazis.

Sonia Purnell is a masterful storyteller. She takes countless historical details and weaves a story that drives forward without ever slowing down.

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes

GraceThis book should be required reading for pastors everywhere. An intimate, sensitive recounting of the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, where a white supremacist murdered African-American Christians at a Bible study, and its ensuing aftermath, Grace Will Lead Us Home introduces readers to the victims and their surviving loved ones. The book serves as a case study of a church failing to properly care for its people in the wake of a horrific tragedy that gained national attention. The narrative drives contemplation of the hard work of forgiveness, not sugarcoating the survivors’ thoughts or experiences.

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl: A Memoir by Jeannie Vanasco

TalkThings We Didn’t Talk About… is not a fun or entertaining read. Fourteen years after she was sexually assaulted by a close friend, Jeannie Vanasco reached out to the assailant to try to understand what happened that night from his perspective. Her memoir shares the resulting conversations, while also delving into questions like why supposedly good people do terrible things, what forgiveness means and entails, and if it’s possible to move on from horrific acts—whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator. I read this book in just a few days but was (and continue to be) challenged by the questions and thoughts Vanasco raises on its pages.

On Forgiveness and Revenge: Lessons from an Iranian Prison by Ramin Jahanbegloo

ForgivenessIt looks like the theme of this year’s reading was forgiveness, a value that is necessary to practice if you want to live in this world free of bitterness and resentment. This little book is less about Jahanbegloo’s prison stay in Iran, and more about the thoughts and reflections his experience produced. He draws from the works of philosophers the world over to present a case for the value and necessity of forgiveness, explaining how forgiveness does not ignore or excuse wrongs, but refuses to let wrongs have the final say.

One of many quotes I wrote down:

“Forgiveness…is a commitment to memory and truth. It is a project of reconciliation through moral repair. It is the promise of a new beginning without forgetfulness. Finally, forgiveness is the recognition of our ‘shared fallibility.'”

I’m aiming to read more classic literature and women’s biographies in 2020. Have a suggestion? Leave a comment.

Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains EchoedAnd the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to describe in a nutshell. Beautifully written, but not fast-paced, it’s one you sink your teeth into and relish. Only nine chapters, but they’re long and told from different perspectives as you travel from Afghanistan to Paris to Greece to California and elsewhere. Hosseini doesn’t just tell a story — he truly weaves it, pulling at different threads until they come together in a tapestry meditating on the human condition and how we hurt the very ones we love the most. If you start this book, stay with it until the end. The last pages made my heart well with a sad kind of joy that only a master storyteller can achieve.
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Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“All the Light We Cannot See” is a rich, evocative novel set during World War II. The third person narrator primarily follows two characters: a blind French girl whose father is a locksmith at a museum in Paris, and an orphan boy who is part of Hitler Youth and then conscripted into the Nazi military due to his mechanical gifting, particularly with radios. Doerr is a master of showing, rather than telling, and creates a world with as much texture as the real one. His characters are three-dimensional, conflicted, believably inconsistent. And the story that he weaves between them is equally heart-warming and heart-wrenching, stirring contemplation about how we fit into the world we’ve been given and what it means to have a choice regarding how to live our lives.

It’s only August, but this will probably be the best book I read all year.

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If you’ve read this book, I recommend reading this interview with the author.

Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A lot of nonfiction books get so bogged down with detail that they have no narrative drive. Unbroken doesn’t have this problem. From the beginning, Hillenbrand’s writing sets the story in driven, organized motion, drawing the reader in emotionally and painting clear portraits of characters, events, and settings. You get to know Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American with unequivocal speed and a childhood marked by thievery. Hillenbrand traces Zamperini’s life from childhood to adulthood, track race to Olympic trials to military service in the Pacific, where his plane goes down and he’s faced with a new war aimed at survival. Along the way, Hillenbrand writes about the necessity of maintaining dignity in the face of suffering and abuse. Human resilience is one essential theme. There’s also the theme of forgiveness, which dominates Part V.

Unbroken is long, but not droning. Every word and passage is merited, there for a purpose and carrying detail and development essential to the (true) story line. It’s a feat of nonfiction story construction that testifies of the author’s incredible understanding of her subject. The story moves at varying paces, but never left me bored. Like all great writing, it’s not just interesting, it’s thought-provoking and spurs inward reflection.

Highly recommend.

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Good Reads: Book review update

In my last post, I had promised a book review for mid-January. That did not happen.

Why?

Because I’m too darn picky. I got 70 pages into one book before practically throwing it in the trash, and I was three-quarters through another when I decided it was too slow and I was sick of it. I wouldn’t want to recommend those books to you, so here are two books I don’t recommend you read:

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards.

Problems: Narrative inconsistency. I was willing to overlook incessant overdescription and unrelatable female characters because the story’s concept was interesting: a doctor delivers his wife’s twins. One has Down Syndrome, which he can’t bear to tell his wife, so he sends the nurse with the baby to a home for the disabled and tells his wife the second baby died. The nurse, horrified by the home, takes the baby and leaves town.

But the concept wasn’t interesting enough to overlook a third-person narrator who couldn’t agree with herself on how a major character coped with her depression — did she avoid people or did she avoid time by herself? Within the space of four pages, the third-person narrator said both. Not buying it.

The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner

Problems: Trying too hard to be literary. At its bones, this is a story about a son trying to win his father’s approval despite their many differences. It could be very moving, if it was a short story. There simply weren’t enough layers to the story or plot to carry it over 200 pages. The whole thing (as far as I read) was: Edgar tries to do this thing to achieve happiness and his father’s approval. His father approves a little bit, but then he finds out more and no longer approves. Edgar tries another thing to win his father’s approval. It sort of works for a little while, until his father learns more and no longer approves. And again and again.

Then the description was overwritten and, often, confusing, because Edgar always sees things as creatures — whether a fallen roof or the inside of a clock — and the narration makes it feel like the story could turn to fantasy at any moment, but it’s not fantasy and it’s never creatures, so reading every fantastical description of yet another creature-like inanimate object, I had to repeatedly remind myself, no, in this book that means that’s how Edgar is seeing it. That’s not how it actually is. Many times this left me with a confused idea of what exactly I was supposed to be seeing.

Garner certainly didn’t use a lot of cliches, because every description — even of familiar items — was a brand new word picture. But you know how they say not to reinvent the wheel? Yeah, cubes don’t roll as well.

 

photo credit: Bookshelf via photopin (license)