It’s almost 2020. We’re going to need strength, inspiration, and sustenance—in other words, books.
I hope you will find some good reads in this list of the books I read in 2019. Fiction is first, followed by nonfiction. Enjoy—and please recommend some titles I should read in 2020.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
This smart and fast-moving novel tells a story of Cold War espionage from a fresh and skeptical point of view: a young, African American woman working for and underappreciated by the FBI, who goes undercover in the African country of Burkina Faso to help the CIA dislodge its charismatic Communist leader. Or so she thinks. The novel, which takes place in the U.S., Burkina Faso, and Martinique during the 1980s and 1990s, is told in the form of a letter from the spy to her young sons, whom she may never see again, and raises questions about morality and patriotism that are equally urgent today.
Caribou Island by David Vann
Bleak and beautiful novel about the flow and eddy of lives and connections in a small town in Alaska. At the center of the ragged net of relationships is a couple whose 30-year marriage is almost at an end.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Engaging novel about an upper-class young woman from upstate New York who goes to New York City in 1940 to stay with her aunt, who owns a theater and lives within a bohemian community of theater people. Vivian, the young woman, goes wild with freedom, breaks rules and the trust of people she values, and slinks back upstate to do penance. Then WWII calls her back to New York, where she spends the rest of her long and unconventional life (filled with lots of sex with lots of men, but no interest in marriage), and tells us all about it in the form of a letter to a younger woman. The novel offers vibrant views of how life changes through the decades for women in general and New Yorkers in particular, and insights about how fashion can be used to reveal or hide a woman’s identity (Vivian is a dressmaker). I think Elizabeth Gilbert is an extremely talented novelist, but the writing in this one was strangely flabby, and could have been tightened without losing the narrator’s tart, distinctive voice.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
Fabulous novel about the lives of women on the isolated Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Two young sisters are kidnapped from the busy center of the peninsula’s largest city, and the widening circle of people touched by their disappearance creates the novel’s web-like structure. The book takes place in the present day, but Kamchatka’s history—recently emerged from Communism, and still struggling with tensions between Russians and the indigenous Northern people who herd reindeer—and geography play a large a role in the plot.
The Dreamers: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker
In an idyllic, affluent town in California, students at the local college keep falling asleep and not waking up. Some die, but others sleep on. Soon the gentle epidemic spreads, and the town is quarantined from the rest of the world. I enjoyed the book but thought her previous novel, The Age of Miracles, was better.
The Dry by Jane Harper
Typical mystery fare about a family’s murder and a small town with secrets (is there any other kind?). The novel was made mildly interesting by its location in a rural Australian town slowly withering under a two-year drought, with vacant storefronts and farmers shooting their livestock to save them from a crueler death by starvation.
Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
A collection of excellent short stories about a wide variety of people who have some deep connection to Haiti: A home health nurse who learns the perils of trust; a Haitian-American college student whose roommate goes to Haiti and comes back utterly changed; a wealthy resort-owner trying to help an employee get treatment for AIDS; a woman reckoning with the affair she had with a man who later lost his wife and daughter, and his leg, in the Haitian earthquake; a Haitian refugee experiencing the last seconds of his life. Each story left me wanting more.
First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers
A surprisingly moving novel about the Soviet-era space program and their brilliant/horrifying idea to train identical twins as cosmonauts and send only one into space, so there was always a Soviet hero to hail, even when the actual cosmonauts never returned. The book offers fascinating behind-the-scenes views of the space program (I have no idea how accurate these are, but they sounded authoritative), cameos by Khrushchev, a heart-breaking description of a famine in Ukraine, and one of the most intriguing characterizations of a Soviet apparatchik I’ve ever read.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
I will read almost anything Sigrid Nunez writes. This novel is about a woman whose best friend—they are both writers in the upper stratosphere of the literary world—kills himself, and leaves his gigantic Great Dane to live with her in her 500-square-foot, no-pets-allowed apartment in New York City. A witty and erudite consideration of love, grief, loyalty, literature, dog behaviors, and whether storytellers relay the truth or create it.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
A teenage girl and her parents move to rural Alaska in the 1970s. Her father, a violent and abusive alcoholic, has failed in every job and every city, and Alaska is literally the end of the road for this family. We watch the girl grow up to love the wilderness which, despite its peril, is much safer than her own home. The author does a wonderful job of illuminating the daily tasks and existential challenges of homesteading in rural Alaska, and of portraying a fractured family and a daughter who realizes, almost too late, that her mother never will be able to leave her dangerous husband.
The Heavens by Sandra Newman
Intriguing novel about a group of young friends, many of them progressive activists, and how they deal with a changing world—particularly since one woman in the group keeps dreaming new and different versions of the world into existence. Is she delusional, or is she the only one who can see that rooms, neighborhoods, relationships, historical events and national leadership keeps shifting?
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon
Two college students who never really fit in at their elite university find a home with each other—and with the other members of a cult and its beguiling, unpredictable leader. Secrets, revelations, and dangers exert their own power on these two students who have thrown off their histories and sought, with varying success, to inhabit frightening new truths for themselves.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
In modern-day Prague, a British woman who lives an ascetic life as a translator is introduced to the myth of Melmoth, the loneliest woman on earth, doomed to perpetually travel the world and witness its wrongs. As the translator feverishly researches this figure, who appears in many cultures, languages and centuries, she begins to realize that she too is haunted by Melmoth, and perhaps shares Melmoth’s destiny to bear witness to her century’s atrocities.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede is a nurse, the steady, serious, reliable older sister of Ayoola, who is flighty, gorgeous, and prone to murder the men who date her. With mordant humor, this novel skewers sexism, throws a light on women’s lives in modern-day Lagos, and uncovers the lifelong legacy of violence. And it has a great cover, too.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
A young woman who has lost both parents, tired of her shallow life of affluence and anomie, decides the cure is to “rest” by using a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals—some existing and some fictional—to maintain unconsciousness for a year. Darkly funny.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
A close-up examination of the intense and fluctuating relationship between two young people in Ireland—she a loner and outsider, he a popular athlete—who become lovers in high school and again in college, when their roles have reversed. These two can tell each other anything except, it appears, how they really feel.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. A poetic novel about a family of Vietnamese immigrants—grandmother, mother, and the young boy who, as an adult, narrates the novel in the form of a letter to his mother. He writes about growing up in essentially three worlds: the vanished Vietnam of his grandmother’s youth, the war-ravaged country his mother knew, and hard-edged, working-class Hartford, Connecticut, where the boy—an immigrant, a person of color, and gay—learns what it is to be an American.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
A gorgeous, moody novel about the residents of small villages on the banks of the Thames in Victorian times, whose lives are upended and braided together in new ways when a 4-year-old girl, apparently dead, is rescued from the river. To the shock of everyone, especially the local nurse, the girl turns out to be alive and unique; two families who lost daughters of the same age claim her as their own, and everyone in town wants to take the girl home and care for her. But the child does not speak, and the only connection she appears to feel is for the river itself. While the mysteries of who the girl is and where she came from drive the plot, the intimate views we get of the characters’ thoughts and lives are the true gifts of this book about the awesome pull of nature and the power of storytelling.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
A fast-moving novel that delves into the lives and characters of one Korean family over the course of 70 eventful years. Fascinating historical and cultural detail, particularly about the lives of women, with a plot that keeps unspooling into the present day.
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
In the 1950s, literature was considered so powerful that the CIA used it as a weapon of the Cold War by, among other things, trying to get Dr. Zhivago published and distributed worldwide—particularly in the USSR, where it was banned. Some of the most important operatives in this effort were women snatched from the CIA typing pool and trained in spycraft to operate behind the Iron Curtain. We follow two of these women, one an experienced spy who trains her newer colleague, as they carry out their perilous missions and, even more dangerous, fall in love with each other. The CIA typing pool is itself a sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued collective narrator, composed of women much smarter, bolder, and more talented than the men who give them orders.
She Would be King by Wayétu Moore
This novel takes three characters with outsized gifts (or curses), follows them through their epic travails, and unites them to help create the country of Liberia. Gbessa was born in the land that will become Liberia, but lives in exile from her village and her people, who think she’s a witch, in part because she cannot die. June Dey, whose mother does not realize she’s a ghost, escapes slavery on a Virginia plantation because he’s enormously strong and impervious to blades or bullets. Norman Aragon, born in Jamaica, can turn invisible. This is not a superhero story, but a novel that uses magic to tell a tale of Liberian history, narrated by the wind.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. It begins 20 years after a fast-moving flu has killed 99 percent of the world’s population, a loss so devastating the survivors start counting time anew, at Year 1. The novel sways back and forth in time, exploring the pre-plague lives of the flu survivors and their friends and families, who took for granted such marvels as electricity and the Internet, and the post-pandemic experiences of people trying to create a new kind of civilization to replace the one that was lost. At the heart of the story are the members of a troupe of performers—a symphony plus Shakespeare theater—who, in the years after the flu, travel the countryside to perform in small towns and settlements. While I wouldn’t want to live in the devastated world the novel creates, I was sorry to leave it and say goodbye to its characters and its examination of the roles we play in each other’s lives, both onstage and off.
Still Life with Monkey by Katharine Weber
Did you know that tiny Capuchin monkeys are trained to serve as assistants to disabled people? Neither did the couple at the heart of this book, until they had to learn. Duncan survives a terrible car accident that kills his passenger, and must manage to adjust to a life where he can feel and control only a few fingers on one hand. His wife Laura was not in the car but was the third victim. She welcomes the help and liveliness of Ottoline, the monkey who can help Duncan achieve impossible tasks such as turning the page of a book or stirring his coffee. The situation is grim, but Weber brings her trademark dry wit and incisive intellect to the endeavor.
Transcription: A Novel by Kate Atkinson
In WWII England, a young woman is recruited, somewhat against her will, into MI5. It’s mostly administrative work, with some thrilling and terrifying forays into actual espionage. After the war, during a long career at the BBC, she finds that the hold MI5 has on its agents never ends, and she can’t escape the sense that she isn’t sure which side anyone is truly on.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
In 1830, a young boy born into slavery on a plantation in Barbados is lifted—literally—beyond the small, brutal world he’s known by his owner’s brother. The brother, a scientist, has chosen George Washington Black because the boy is the right size and weight to serve as ballast in the hot air balloon the brother is trying to build, and in which they make their escape from the plantation. From there Wash, as he’s known, serves as observer and narrator, taking the reader on the extraordinary journey of his life, from Barbados to Virginia to Antarctica to Canada and beyond, giving us a view of his mid-19th century world of scientific ideas and a glimpse of what it’s like to be no longer in bondage yet never fully free.
The Witch Elm by Tana French
The author writes a series of detective mysteries that have beautiful language and deep psychological insights. This novel, while not part of her series, has a murder and a mystery and family secrets galore, but at heart it’s a thoughtful exploration of the power of privilege.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
A sage and searing novel based on true events. In a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, the women and girls discover that the injuries and dizziness they’ve been suffering for months are not the work of demons but of the men in their tiny, isolated community, who have been drugging and raping them. The women are offered two choices by the religious leader of their patriarchal society: forgive the men, or leave. None of the women can read, write, or follow a map. They have never been outside their colony. They don’t speak Spanish or English; they speak an old German language used only by Mennonites. The men who raped them are the husbands, fathers, sons and brothers of the community. Faced with this almost unimaginable—yet true—situation, the women gather in a hayloft over several days to decide what to do. Their discussion comprises this brief, powerful novel.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
A 6 year-old white girl is abandoned by her family and learns to live on her own in the North Carolina marshes, ultimately growing up to become an expert naturalist and illustrator of her watery wilderness. Meanwhile, she must learn to live as an outcast, utterly unconnected and alien to the everyday lives of people in the nearby small town. An interesting premise, turned rancid by the racist (and historically absurd) depictions of the book’s only two black characters.
Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold
Near the small Pennsylvania towns of Amity and Prosperity, a nurse and single mom named Stacey Haney sold the mineral rights to her farm to an energy corporation, hoping the revenue would provide her kids with opportunities she never had. Instead, the corporation’s fracking throughout the region brought poisoned and water, dying farm animals, and the destruction of a rural community, its agriculture, and its social ties. No one protected the Haneys or the other local families who believed the corporation’s lies and phony research—not the state government or the EPA, no one but a wife-and-husband team of lawyers who spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own to fight for rural families who wanted nothing more than clean water. The well-told story is both infuriating and enlightening.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the bizarre rise and fall of Theranos, a company that claimed to revolutionize blood-testing and that succeeded in making a media darling and a billionaire out of its founder, Elizabeth Holmes—before it was revealed that the product and the company were frauds.
Be With Me Always by Randon Billings Noble
A collection of varied, lapidary essays about the things that haunt us, from almost-loves to bodily damage to the hidden meanings of the very words we use to express our longings and satisfactions. I suggest savoring these essays like fine chocolates, one per night. (Full disclosure: Randon is a friend.)
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
In Alabama in the 1970s, a string of mysterious deaths took place. Murder or accidents? Investigators weren’t sure, and found few clues—except that all of the victims were connected to a local reverend, who had taken out heavy life insurance on each of them. (In those days you could buy life insurance on anyone, without notifying the insured.) But police and prosecutors could never build a strong case against the reverend, in part thanks to his lawyer, one of the few anti-segregationist Democrats in the state, whose family was threatened by the Klan. Harper Lee, an unwilling celebrity after To Kill a Mockingbird, determined to write this true crime story. She attended some of the reverend’s trials, and spent months interviewing his neighbors and family members (a challenge as she, a white Alabaman, tried to gain trust in the reverend’s black community). Yet she never finished the book, despite years of struggle to do so. This fascinating book of literary mystery and history tells us why.
Heartland by Sarah Smarsh
The author grew up in a white family living in rural poverty in Kansas. Through this memoir—weirdly addressed to a child she decided never to have—she seeks to highlight the causes and costs of this kind of white poverty, and reveal in gritty detail what this precarious, relentlessly arduous way of life is like.
How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays by Tyrese Coleman
As you can tell by the title, it’s hard to know how to characterize this collection of powerful and painful—yet often witty—stories about growing up black and female. Self-knowledge comes with a price, but closing her eyes is even more costly as a girl named T grows into a woman who knows too much yet has too many questions in a world where women like her are constantly being told who and how to be.
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
After taking a DNA test on a whim, writer Dani Shapiro learns that her father, the center of her universe as a child and the pillar of her family, was not her father. She was raised as a Jew in an Orthodox family, attended shul and yeshiva, yet was haunted all her life by people, including her own family members, telling her she didn’t look Jewish. Now in her 50s, a mother herself, Shapiro understands why she has always felt different. With her parents dead and no relatives to ask, a deeply shaken Shapiro sets out to find the truth about her own history.
In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
In the early 2000s, the feminist journalist Susan Faludi went to Hungary to visit her father, a violent, controlling man from whom she’d been estranged for years. After living in the U.S. for decades, he had returned to his home country of Budapest—where he’d hidden from the Nazis as a boy—and decided to become his “true” self: a woman. Faludi finds that Stefánie is just as extreme as Steven had been, embracing all of the feminine roles and stereotypes that Faludi had spent her life overturning. Through years of visits and emails, Faludi learns more—but never enough—about this maddening, secretive, self-aggrandizing, but very human parent.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
A narrative love song to all librarians and libraries, particularly the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, which burned down in 1986 and gave rise to this engrossing yet meandering account of its history.
Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox
A compelling memoir by a young woman who joined the CIA to save the world from terrorism and, while armed with the most advanced espionage training the U.S. offers, discovered that the strongest deterrent of all is to listen to your enemy, build trust, and connect to their humanity. Although the book is filled with lively details about her training and tradecraft (for instance, how to maneuver through a city when you’re being followed), there’s nothing at all gung-ho about this well-written, soulful memoir.
Madam President by Jennifer Palmieri
A brief greeting-card of a book comprised of advice from Palmieri to the first woman president—whoever she will be—based on the author’s experience in the Clinton and Obama White House and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Worthwhile mostly for a few backstage glimpses of these campaigns.
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
Detailed and chilling account of the Chernobyl nuclear accident: the decisions and conditions that made the disaster all but inevitable; the heroic rescue efforts of women and men who faced the radioactive hellscape with virtually no safety equipment; and the culture of secrecy and corruption that has kept some of the disaster’s lessons hidden to this day.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey.
I knew how the story ended—the New York Times series that ultimately brought down Harvey Weinstein and helped galvanize the #MeToo movement begun by Tarana Burke—but I had no idea how fraught and dramatic the story’s beginning was. Read this book for insights about what such ground-breaking journalism really takes, for illuminating context about how exactly Dr. Christine Blasey Ford ended up testifying against Kavanaugh, and for the chance to see some Hollywood actresses behave with gritty courage in real life.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
From the catacombs under Paris to caves in the English countryside to ice tunnels deep underneath Iceland’s glaciers, Macfarlane explores the Earth’s underworld with lyrical language, rich literary allusions, and a curiosity that often seems to counter common sense. He examines not only what is hidden underground, but what is now emerging from long-frozen depths as climate change thaws the land and releases its natural and bacterial history into our modern world.
The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom
With all the attention and awards this book has rightfully received (like the National Book Award), you probably don’t need my perspective. But this is a memoir unlike any: a smart and soulful examination of a family, a house, a community, and the constant grinding of racism that kept Broom’s family in poverty and her neighborhood off the map of New Orleans. The yellow house that was the heart of her family no longer exists, and Hurricane Katrina was only the final step in its destruction.