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: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

The Shock of the FallThe Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A stream-of-consciousness narrative tackling dual themes of mental illness (schizophrenia, in particular) and grief, “The Shock of the Fall” follows 19-year-old Matthew Homes as he seeks to write his story, partly on his treatment program’s computer and partly on the typewriter his grandmother gave him. He’s grappling with the death of his older brother a decade earlier — a tragedy he’s always blamed himself for. His brother had Down’s Syndrome. Matthew felt (and was often held by his parents as) responsible for Simon. Now, he’s gone. Actually, he’s been gone since a nighttime fall (hence, the book’s title).

This book moves quickly in chapters of varying lengths, moving back and forth in the time frame. It takes a little while to adjust to the non-linear storytelling style, but the style keeps you on your toes in a way that makes the book more intriguing. You’re in Matthew’s head, which is a fascinating, sometimes confusing, sometimes frightening place to be. And even though it’s a book about mental health that doesn’t try to tie things up in a pretty bow, the ending is satisfying, not hopeless. I, personally, felt better for having read it.

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Quotes from books I’ve read so far this year

“One friend with whom you have a lot in common is better than three with whom you struggle to find things to talk about.”

~ Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

“It is one of the tragedies of life that one cannot have all the wisdom one is ever to possess in the beginning.”

~ Zora Neale Hurston, Written by Herself

“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”

~ Zora Neale Hurston, Written by Herself

“I began to reflect upon life rather seriously for a girl of twelve or thirteen. What was I here for? What could I make of myself? Must I submit to be carried along with the current, and do just what everybody else did? No: I knew I should not do that, for there was a certain Myself who was always starting up with her own original plan or aspiration before me, and who was quite indifferent as to what people generally thought.”

~ Lucy Larcom, Written by Herself

“It was the ancient superstition that unhappiness resides in the country without, not within, and that one may cure a broken heart by a simple change of address.

~ Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow, Written by Herself

“To fall in love is very easy, even to remain in it is not difficult; our human loneliness is cause enough. But it is a hard quest worth making to find a comrade through whose presence one becomes steadily the person one desires to be.”

~ Anna Louise Strong, Written by Herself

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom had pronounced necessary for their sex.”

~ Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Add this thriller to the top of your list.

Rachel. Megan. Anna. They’re three women whose lives are woven together in known and unknown ways. Rachel is the divorcee of Tom. Anna is the homewrecker now married to Tom. Megan lives down the street from Rachel’s former and Anna’s current home. The train line cuts behind both houses, and it’s from the train that Rachel watches the life she wished was hers.

Until one day, Rachel sees Megan’s face in the paper. She’s missing.

Paula Hawkins’ debut novel landed #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for good reason. With simple language that firmly grounds you in the modern British setting and carries the story without unnecessary confusion, The Girl on the Train is a story that’s too frighteningly believable — and well worth your time.

Hawkins’ words don’t paint lush portraits or jump to poetic heights. They’re too busy drawing you close to the characters, especially Rachel whose perspective begins and ends the book. As you read, you immerse into the complexity that is a human being whose past she both regrets and can’t leave behind.

Girl on TrainYou won’t want to trust Rachel’s narration — she doesn’t even trust herself — but you will hold your breath and hope for her. You’ll grimace and groan when she messes up again. You’ll yell at her not to go back. You’ll care about her in spite of yourself, in spite of her.

The Girl on the Train is about assumptions. Assumptions and speculations that people make about others, especially when they see them from a distance, literally or figuratively. It’s about how our assumptions, and the hopes behind them, blind us to reality (at best) and put us in dangerous positions (at worst). Maybe we can trust ourselves, maybe we can trust others, but we can’t trust our assumptions or speculations.

The Girl on the Train is driven by the internal monologue of the three characters. Each chapter is from another woman’s perspective, with Megan’s set several months behind (made clear by a dateline at the beginning of the chapter).

The changing perspectives didn’t jar my experience, but it took me forever to keep the men straight: is Scott the one Rachel was married to? Or was that Tom? I have a ridiculously hard time remembering character names and I blame my ongoing confusion on them both having one-syllable names with an “O” in the middle. (It’s a decent excuse.)

That’s my main complaint, though. In the future, I’d hope Hawkins would work toward more depth and complexity in her male characters and more emotional strength in her female characters, but the characters in The Girl on the Train only bothered me at the level they were supposed to. I hated who I was supposed to hate, and I liked who I was supposed to like.

The book isn’t super quotable, but I copied down these lines near the beginning. They’re both from Rachel’s perspective:

“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it [that] said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.” p. 31

“I will never begrudge him happiness — I only wish it could be with me.” p. 43

Who’s this book appropriate for?

I’d set it at 17+. It’s written for adults and has some sexual content that, while not being explicit or gratuitous, I wouldn’t want my 15-year-old self (or my 15-year-old sister, for that matter) reading. I’d recommend it to both men and women, because the story itself could spark a lot of introspection in both parties, but it might be too emotionally driven for the stereotypical man to be interested.

Book Review: To the Letter by Simon Garfield


A book recommendation, straight from the non-air conditioned apartment where I carry my fan around like a security blanket:

To the LetterTo the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield

“They expose a grand truth, and often the same truth we may feel when we read Shakespeare and Austen: no matter how original we consider ourselves to be, it is evident that our emotions, motives and desires have echoes in the past. We’re not so special; someone else has almost certainly been there first.”

Simon Garfield, To the Letter (p. 200)

To the Letter is a history of letter writing that travels all the way back to the Roman empire — first by telling the story of a batch of letters written on flimsy wooden slices that were uncovered in the mud during an excavation in Vindolanda (the former location of a Roman fort in Britain) in the 1970s.

The book traces the history of letters and postal systems, but not in the tone of a stuffy history professor. Garfield’s words engage you, draw pictures of the characters involved, and provide humorous asides in footnotes as well as the regular text. Each chapter tackles a certain aspect, era, or phenomenon of the letter writing world. You follow him to auctions and university collections, where he pores over forgotten and prized documents, illegible handwriting, and considers the contexts in which these letters were written.

In between the chapters, a special treat: letters from a British soldier to his sweetheart during World War II. By reading along, you get to see his love for her form and grow as he’s away, when he’s anticipating return, and then after their reunion. I definitely let out a few “aww”s when I read these pages (though not all the letters are G-rated).

Throughout the book, Garfield quotes notable letters alongside others that are just interesting, demonstrating a particular benefit of still having these letters around: You can tap the wisdom of centuries ago, learn from people whose lives were different but not really simpler than our own. Some favorite quotations from To the Letter:

“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate . . . All your bustle is useless. . . . You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.” Seneca the Younger (p. 56)

“You must try now to have the high opinion of yourself which the world will come to share if you do.” Pliny the Elder, writing to Caninius Rufus (p. 59)

“in a letter to the youngest Paston brother in 1477, a cousin advises him not to be discouraged by his prolonged pursuit of a wife, ‘for . . . it is but a simple oak that is cut down at the first stroke‘.” (p. 122)

“To be sincere in all my words and actions was the first precept of my early youth, I have ever since held it sacred.” From a letter writing guide (p. 161)

Lord Chesterfield (p. 168, 169):

“Very few people are good economists of their Fortune, and still fewer of their Time; and yet, of the two, the latter is the most precious.”

“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

In addition to learning about the various letter writing manuals that have existed since people started writing letters, how the postal system evolved (in Europe, anyway; there’s little mention of the American system — not a word about the Pony Express), and how letter writing has served historians, you’ll also learn that Jane Austen’s letters were dull while other writers’ letters were better than any of their published work and that, unsurprisingly, some letters are better left unfound.

Every page of To the Letter is packed with details that draw you in as a reader. The book is nonfiction (of course) and not an arcing narrative in the traditional sense, but there’s a flow of thought that Garfield builds and develops by showing us as many facets of “the post” as possible.

At the beginning, Garfield introduces us to Felix Pryor, a former manuscript specialist who moved into collecting letters into anthologies:

“He regrets that is it principally the letters of the famous that survive, and that among history’ greatest casualties are the letters of ordinary people, who survive on paper only in legal documents.” (p. 197)

At the end, Garfield illuminates the challenges archivists are facing with shrinking physical documents and disappearing digital ones.

Then, he entreats the reader to write some letters. Which I am all for.

One more quote:

“Love letters catch us at a time in our lives where our marrow is jelly; but we toughen up, our souls harden, and we reread them years later with a mixture of disbelief and cringing horror, and — worst of all — level judgment.” (p. 336)

5 more reasons to read To the Letter:

  1. It’s written extremely well.
  2. It’s chock-full of interesting things you don’t know.
  3. It has pictures.
  4. It digs into every century since, basically, the dawn of civilization. (There wasn’t civilization before letters? Hmm…)
  5. It exposes humanity on a deeply personal level, confirming that people then weren’t that different from people now.

(You can currently buy the hardback for one cent on Amazon — not my copy. I’m keeping mine.)

Thought-provoking quotes from unexpected places

It makes sense to expect great quotes from classic literature, but I get more excited when I find them elsewhere: in movies that may never make the honor roll, books that have been sorely overlooked, and friends’ and strangers’ blogs.

Here are some favorites for you to ponder:

So, Charlie, are we going back or moving on? ~Charlie St. Cloud

Your life is an occasion — rise to it. ~Mr. Magorium, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

Wherever you might be, all the people you see share one thing in common. They’ve all got a secret they’d like to keep hidden. ~Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb by Kirsten Miller

[I]t didn’t make you noble to step away from something that wasn’t working, even if you thought you were the reason for the malfunction. Especially then. It just made you a quitter. Because if you were the problems, chances were you could also be the solution. The only way to find out was to take another shot. ~Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen (Anyone who reads Sarah Dessen knows profound quotes are not at all unexpected.)

You can go wherever you want, see whatever you want to. But a place is only as good as the people you know in it. ~I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

A hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart. ~Zeuss, Disney’s Hercules

You cannot wait for Life to come to you. You have to go get it — pursue it in a wild, passionate chase that includes the foreboding depths of challenge and heartache just as much as the ecstasy of triumph and success. ~Kelle Hampton, Enjoying the Small Things blog

To live is to constantly learn, and my friends are the best teachers. ~Amy Bishop, The Wanderer