2019 in Books

2019 was not a banner year for my reading life (or my book blogging life…). I read 36 books, which I don’t consider a terrible number by any means (although it is the lowest number I’ve read in a year, at least since 2009, and I don’t know if that’s because I actually didn’t read that much or if it’s because I wasn’t being faithful to entering things into Goodreads yet).

The thing that makes my reading life truly lackluster is that only a single one of those 36 books got a 5 star rating, and it was actually a reread of one of my favorite books I’d read in high school. My average rating was 3.05. While technically a 3 star rating means “it was good,” and I do use it to mean that, it cannot be denied that it is on the lukewarm-er side of things. What’s even worse is that looking over the books I read, there were some I had seriously forgotten I’d read, that I would have seen in a bookstore and potentially not recognized. Likely in that situation, my memory would have probably kicked in, but it’s not great when you’re looking at a title of a book you read just months ago and think to yourself: “Really? Did I read that one? What even happens in it?” So, without further ado, a brief tour of my reading life in 2019…

5 STAR READS…ER, READ
The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne) was the only book I read this year that I rated at 5 stars. I had originally rated it as a 5, back when I read it for high school. Peter found my old assigned copy of it that I never turned in (I did pay them for it!) and decided to read it, so I decided to reread it. We had a great ~2 hour discussion about it that I recorded for my totally defunct podcast. I love this book! So good!!

MOST “CLASSIC” READ
This was most definitely Don Quixote (Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra), a horrible book. I decided during this year that I really wanted to get more familiar with the “canon,” because, outside of high school English classes, I never really got that part of an education. Since much of literature is in conversation with other literature and full of references to it or informed by it in some way, I felt like I was missing out on context/subtext/symbolism/etc of the literature I was reading. So, I picked up a book called A Well-Educated Mind that is kind of like a self-study course about the classics in literature. The first book it lists is Don Quixote, as it is the first Western “novel” (as opposed to a romance or other work of fiction). I really disliked it, but I read it with a group which made it, if not more tolerable to read, at least more interesting to think about. A lot of people think it’s very funny, which I can sort of see…but it’s not my style of humor at all, it’s all Three Stooges-style slapstick, people getting hurt or doing Jackass-esque things. It’s also repetitive as hell, which was the biggest drawback. So, so, so repetitive. The stories within stories add more depth and show that the author was clever, but… it was just bad. I slogged through this and I’m sorry I did. I actually didn’t finish it, but as I read about 800 pages of it (out of about 1,000), I feel like I still deserve to say I read it. Every allusion I’ve ever seen to Don Quixote only makes reference to things that happen in the first 20 pages or so, because it sucks, it truly sucks, and no one has actually read it because of how bad it sucks. Even though the reading experience was about 0 stars, I ended up giving it 2 because of the discussions it prompted; I could be convinced that the author was trying to do something or elucidate this idea or that idea—worthy ideas…with an execution not at all to my tastes.

MOST ~POPULAR~ READ
 
This would definitely have to be the A Song of Ice and Fire (George RR Martin) series, a.k.a. Game of Thrones, which I read aloud with Peter. We may have actually started this one in very late 2018 (I have it on Goodreads as started on January 5th, 2019, but I am also not always great at putting in our read-alouds on the exact day we start them). We finished Game of Thrones in late March, finished A Clash of Kings in September, and are currently maybe ~40% through A Storm of Swords. I watched the first season of Game of Thrones for my job as a research assistant and did not like it. Peter basically couldn’t watch it (too gory for him). But it’s been such a big cultural ~thing~ that he suggested we read it, so we did, and the book is actually very good. There are many authorial decisions I disagree with, but it does its epic fantasy thang so well.

MOST FUN READ
Probably Howl’s Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones)! It was just so cute and sweet and very very fun. Also it was the first book I actually read after a serious book drought (two months!! almost), and it was perfect for that purpose. Also fun, though in a completely different way: Watching You (Lisa Jewell), which was very suspenseful and extremely entertaining to read, since I could barely put it down.

BEST NONFICTION
 
This is a tough one; I think overall, How to Be a Person in the World (Heather Havrilesky) had the most highlights in it; if you’ve read the Dear Polly advice column, this is an advice book by that author. There is a lot of great stuff in it. I really enjoyed The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Stephen Greenblatt)–ancient Greek thought revived by monastic book hounds–as well, it was a joy to read even if it didn’t quite fulfill the promise of its subtitle. And although Blood Royal (Eric Jager)–murder most foul in medieval Paris!–did not feel fully fleshed out, some of its discussions and depictions of medieval cities and people’s attitudes at the time really stuck with me and I think about them often.

GLAD I READ IT
 

This has to be We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver). Probably the best book I read this year outside of The Scarlet Letter. I went through the gamut with this one, initially being very annoyed by it and almost putting it aside to thinking it was brilliant. I think I need to be more ruthless with setting books aside, but I am so glad I didn’t cut this one loose. I had many emotional reactions to it and was thinking about it constantly for a while. It’s well told and thought-provoking, ambiguous enough that you could make many arguments for what happened and who’s to “blame” (although of course I have my preferences!). Honorable mention: Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro). After I finished it, this one gave me creepy dreams for like three nights in a row.

WISH I SKIPPED IT

Laurus (Eugene Vodolazkin)…medieval Russian fable of miracles and saints, o cultural tale, o depth of characters… That’s what I was sold on going in, but it did not deliver even a little bit. The book has a 4.26 rating on Goodreads, so obviously I’m a little in the minority for panning it, but I did not enjoy it. And The Golden State (Lydia Kiesling), while not so bad as Laurus or Don Quixote, did not add anything to my life.

LIKELIEST TO RECOMMEND TO OTHERS

The Gentleman of Moscow (Amor Towles) wins this category; although I only gave it 3 stars, I think it has the right mix of elements least likely to offend along with interesting characters in an interesting setting, as well as writing that is accessible yet stylish. I definitely preferred his other book (Rules of Civility), but this one was enjoyable.

Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks

Title: Ghost Ship
Author: Brian Hicks
Genre: Nonfiction / history

Rating: 3 / 5

Goodreads

I was accompanying someone to a medical appointment when I saw this book sitting in the magazine basket. I had enough time to read part of the prologue, which was super gripping. Maybe it’s because the prologue was great, maybe it’s because it was during work hours, but it was really interesting! I took it home with me.

The Mary Celeste was a ship slated to transport alcohol from New York to Genoa. It was found sailing, without its crew, in pristine condition. The last entry on the log, ten days previously, noted calm weather. There were no signs of struggle, there was very little water in the bilge, six months of provisions… so what happened?

I only gave this book 3 stars because I really wanted to focus on this mystery, but the book has a little extra padding besides that, which for me detracted a bit from the enjoyment of reading it. It’s not important to me whose first cousin is sisters-in-law with who and how many siblings the father of the captain’s wife had or whatever. It’s tedious and doesn’t add much. If you just want the goods, you can read the prologue and then skip the first two chapters (as well as seven and eight, which were more relevant but I still found kind of tedious).

The author does a good job of telling a pretty interesting story without sensationalizing it too much. Of course there are many things like “and that would be the last person to see any of the 10 ever again” scattered throughout for dramatic tension, but overall it felt pretty respectful to those involved. Many theories are gone over, some more plausible than others, and in the end the author puts forward a satisfying (if super tragic and distressing) solution to a problem that has been hailed as the “greatest maritime mystery of all time.”

If you’re looking for a real world mystery this fall, this one might fit the bill.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Title: The Bean Trees
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 2.5 / 5

Goodreads

In the same week, someone gave this book to me and someone else checked it out of a library for me to read. I figured that was good enough reason to give it a shot.

Leaving her rural community after the huge accomplishment of not getting pregnant before she graduated, Taylor Greer’s car breaks down on a Cherokee reservation where a local promptly gives her a small child. Taylor travels on and ultimately settles in Tuscon, where she tries to start her new life.

It’s a quick story and reads easily enough. Maybe too easily? For a book that deals with such weighty issues as immigration and totalitarian governments and poverty and adoption and sexual trauma and etc etc etc, not much is explored with any real depth. Even more frustrating because, while I don’t disagree with the author’s views, she presents her politics in a pretty ham-fisted way.

The writing leaves something to be desired. The characters don’t have a whole lot of oomph. The folksy charm laid on a little too thick. Also do all of her books have naive white women from hick towns becoming romantically fascinated with educated, unattainable men of color?

This is her first book and I think it kind of shows. Although I criticized Flight Behavior for being heavy-handed with its politics as well, the characters in that one felt a lot more developed and the way the issues were presented seemed to have more weight than in this one.

This book is not bad, I just don’t think Barbara Kingsolver is my jam. It’s a quick read and is kinda topical right now, due to the immigration theme. But overall, for me, it was a little too fluffy, a little too flat, but still a passably enjoyable way to spend some reading time.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Title: Shutter Island
Author: Dennis Lehane
Genre: Fiction / thriller

Rating: 2.5 / 5

Goodreads

Time slips by and I neglect to write reviews. However, I’m realizing how much I forget about books I’ve read and also how much I do enjoy talking about the books I’ve read. The best way to do that is in a book discussion with actual other people, but it can be hard to find people who are reading what I’ve been reading. And so, the blog.

I read Shutter Island this past weekend while flying out to the East Coast and back. The trip was not for the happiest of circumstances and the layovers and flights were long and tiring. So this book probably did not have my full, undivided attention as most books I read too, and maybe that factored in to how I felt about it. However, many other people in the airports looked as if they were reading similar fare–best sellers and thrillers, mysteries or “chick lit” that is easy to get through. This seemed like it would be a good airplane book, which is why I chose it.

The story centers around Shutter Island, a combo prison/mental health treatment facility. It’s set in the early 1950s, probably so that the author would have somewhat of an out when people like me, who work in the mental health field, go “pfft.” I say “somewhat” because, really, come on. There has been a prison break at Shutter Island, and two US Marshals arrive on the eve of a huge hurricane, turning over their weapons as the last ferry leaves and the island loses radio contact. Once they start investigating, odd things keep cropping up–codes from prisoners, behaviors from staff that contradict the story they were given, refusals to turn over standard documentation. What could be going on…

Like a lot of bestselling thriller/action/mystery books, it’s kinda cheesy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; like I said, I chose it with the plane rides in mind. Often Peter would look over and snicker and say “wow, so graphic, feces” or because chapters started with “Are you fucking crazy?” or “BULLSHIT!” It was fairly enjoyable, although it didn’t stop me from falling asleep a couple times; however, I was pretty tired, and maybe this should not be held against the book.

It brought up questions of humane or appropriate mental health treatment, ideas of truth, and the effects of trauma. I think there is enough of this stuff in the book that would make for a fairly lively discussion in a book club setting.

Spoilers below the cut.

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