Our Year in Reading 2019

The Odyssey, Homer, translator Emily Wilson

The astonishing translation by Emily Wilson

Last month I posted about my Ursula LeGuin reading project for 2019; here’s the complete list of everything my husband Dan and I read over the past year.

We read just two books in common this year: Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers, a superbly researched and rendered account of the lives of two young immigrants, and, in a wholly different vein, Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato’s eerie 1948 novel The Tunnel.

As usual, the books listed below are novels unless otherwise indicated (SS=short stories, P=poetry, NF=non-fiction, and—new this year—H=hybrid work). I also indicate if I “read” the book via audiobook, which I’ve been doing more of lately. Also, in the interest of transparency, I’ve linked the names of writers I know personally to their websites, Twitter accounts, or Wikipedia entries.

This is the tenth consecutive year in which I’ve posted our book list. Some of you have read the list every year. We hope you enjoy this one too, and here’s to another year of—well, God only knows what, but hopefully, at least, some good reading.

Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan books

Dan read the whole Neapolitan quartet

Dan’s books:

  • Magda Szabo, The Door (tr. Len Rix): A haunting story of relationships. May re-read soon.
  • Albert Camus, The Stranger (tr. Matthew Ward): I’d never been assigned this. Glad to finally have read it.
  • Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories: I will read anything by Shirley Jackson at any time.
  • Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said: Worth reading a Dick novel every so often to wake up a little to the possibilities around us.
  • Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (NF): This excellent little essay is too sadly relevant.
  • Seanan McGuire, Every Heart a Doorway: Not ashamed to enjoy some YA fantasy every once in a while.
  • Abe Kobo, The Box Man (tr. E. Dale Saunders): Whoa.
  • Anna Burns, Milkman: This won the Booker last year, and boy did it deserve it.
  • Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending: Also won the Booker and so did not deserve it. An unreliable narrator is fine, but a stupid one who’s meant to be smart is intolerable.
  • Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality (NF): The title grabbed me from the shelf at Powell’s; it was actually pretty good.
  • Richard Wrangham, The Goodness Paradox (NF): Didn’t really think his conclusions followed from his premises.
  • Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone: Again, worth reading YA fantasy every once in a while. But the ending seemed rushed, and the whole thing felt designed to be made into a movie.
  • José Revueltas, The Hole (tr. Sophie Hughes & Amanda Hopkinson): Recommended by folks at New Directions; an excellent classic novella about a few days in a Mexican prison.
  • Négar Djavadi, Disoriental (tr. Tina Kover): Gripping & moving autobiographical tale of an Iranian exile in Paris, interspersed with scenes from her family’s life in Tehran and escape from Iran.
  • Samuel Cohen & Lee Konstantinou, eds., The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (NF): I’m the cliched DFW fan who will even read essays about him. Particularly liked the one by Josh Roiland.
  • Christian Kiefer, Phantoms: Christian is a marvelous writer, and Phantoms a pleasure to read.
  • Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child: I’m not the typical Ferrante fan, but I read all four of the Neapolitan novels this year, and they were so totally worth it.
  • Mariama Bâ, So Long a Letter (tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas): Another novella, this one in the form of a long letter; a deserved classic of feminist Senegalese literature.
  • David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs (NF): This small book by everyone’s favorite anarchist anthropologist turns out to be the most perceptive analysis of our current political climate that I’ve read.
  • Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (NF): I heard Manne interviewed and immediately sought out this piercing deconstruction of systemic misogyny.
  • Ruth Ware, In a Dark, Dark Wood: Yowza did I not like this one.
  • Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: a Father, a Son, and an Epic (NF): I didn’t really get the point.
  • Mur Lafferty, Six Wakes: Every so often, it seems I need to read a science fiction novel based on a video game. Who knew?
  • Khaled Khalifa, Death Is Hard Work (tr. Leri Price): Now that’s more my style: a road trip through war-torn Syria to bury the narrator’s dead father’s decaying body.
  • Steven P. Erie, Globalizing L.A.: Trade, Infrastructure, and Regional Development (NF): I read this for work, but it was surprisingly interesting.
  • Madeline Miller, Circe: I lacked the cultural context to appreciate this revisionist retelling of the Odyssey. I had the same feeling with Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
  • Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night: Anders is such a good writer. . .
  • Charlie Jane Anders, Six Months, Three Days: …that as soon as I was done with her latest novel, I re-read her marvelous novella.
  • Sarah Kendzior, The View from Flyover Country (NF): Turns out this is just a collection of blog posts.
  • Lauren Markham, The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants & the Making of an American Life (NF): This long-form journalistic exploration of immigration was eye-opening and heartbreaking.
  • Han Kang, The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith): I’d been meaning to read this since it came out; so happy I finally did.
  • Tommy Orange, There There: Orange’s story(ies) of urban Indians deserves the acclaim it’s been getting.
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves: Hard to get emotionally involved in a typographically challenging novel about a guy who found a book by a guy who watched a movie. Just too many steps removed and trying way too hard.
  • Patrick Chamoiseau, Slave Old Man (tr. Linda Coverdale): A feat of translation from Martinican creole, and an amazing story.
  • James Willard Hurst, Law & the Conditions of Freedom in the Nineteenth-Century United States (NF): Re-read this collection of essays, one of the best things I remember from my undergraduate years. Surprisingly, it only slightly disappointed.
  • Adam Winkler, We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights (NF): Why do so many non-fiction books feel like they could just have been a short article?
  • Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (NF): Essays, mostly about music, by a writer with incredibly eclectic taste and a real flair for writing about his life through music.
  • Ernesto Sabato, The Tunnel (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden): The existentialist novel that Camus was trying to write.
  • Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle: As noted, I will read anything by Jackson at any time. I will specifically re-read this one again and again.
  • Sarah Monette, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves: After nearly every story in this collection, I exclaimed aloud, “Wow, what a great story!”
  • Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori): Creepy, unsettling, strangely affecting.
  • Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation & Other Essays (NF): I didn’t agree with everything, and I certainly didn’t understand everything, but the title essay and “Notes on Camp” are so era-defining I can’t believe I hadn’t read them before.
  • Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys: What can I say that hasn’t already been said?

 

poetry collections

poetry: it’s good for you

Naomi’s books:

  • Rae Gouirand, Glass Is Glass Water Is Water (P): No better way to start year than with this gorgeous new collection from a gifted poet & beloved friend.
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22. One of those classics I’d never read. Overly long, but justly a classic of anti-war literature.
  • Douglas Manuel, Testify (P): Stirring collection from young poet.
  • Helen Wan, The Partner Track: Highly readable novel that exposes misogyny, racism, & sheer drudgery of high-stakes corporate law.
  • D. Wystan Owen, Other People’s Love Affairs (SS): Beautiful, elegiac tales set in small English seaside town.
  • Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (NF): This excellent collection of essays a must-read for writers.
  • Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Reread for film release, for essay that was never published. Even more offensive the second time through.
  • Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Cenzontle (P): A collection of great beauty that is also one of the prettiest books out there.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea: The first book I read for my Ursula LeGuin reading project. This first book of her Earthsea novels is terrific.
  • Jamel Brinkley, A Lucky Man (SS): These powerful stories earned Jamel recognition as a National Book Award finalist.
  • Li-Young Lee, The City in Which I Love You (P): So glad I picked up a copy of this 1990 collection.
  • Lauren Markham, The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants & the Making of an American Life (NF): Every American should read this.
  • LeGuin, The Tomb of Atuan: Book 2 of Earthsea novels.
  • Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry. Well written, but I fundamentally didn’t “buy” it.
  • Crystal Wilkinson, Water Street (SS): Wonderful stories centered on residents of small Kentucky town.
  • Jenny Xie, Eye Level (P): Can’t wait to reread this fine, fine collection.
  • LeGuin, The Farthest Shore: Book 3 of Earthsea.
  • Toni Morrison, A Mercy: Read for 2nd time while teaching the book. Riveting story set in Colonial times. Morrison will be my 2020 reading project author.
  • LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness: Damn. Justly hailed as a masterpiece.
  • Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky (SS): Some amazing, fantastical pieces here.
  • Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing: A tough, important read. (Fellow emetophobes: you’ve been warned.)
  • Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women (SS): I’d been reading, re-reading, & teaching these for years & finally read the entire collection. Great stories that inspire writing.
  • Hiromi Kawakami, Manazuru (tr. Michael Emmerich): Excited by the wave of Japanese women writers appearing in translation. But this ghost story left me oddly unmoved.
  • Diane Khoi Nguyen, Ghost Of (P): A haunted, haunting collection.
  • Enchi Fumiko, Masks (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter): Didn’t wholly hold up on rereading, but still a creepy story of psychological manipulation.
  • Wisława Szymborska, Poems New & Collected (tr. Stanisław Barańczak & Clare Cavanagh): So so good.
  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (audiobook): Listened to Juliet Stevenson’s marvelous narration several times through this year.
  • May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude (NF): This lovely volume was in my cabin at an artist’s residency, and it really should be in every writer’s cabin.
  • Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing: If only I could get back the hours I spent on this predictable, poorly written, offensive mess.
  • Scholastique Mukasonga, The Barefoot Woman (NF, tr. Jordan Stump): An elegy for the family she lost in Rwandan genocide.
  • Julio Cortázar, Blow-Up & Other Stories (tr. Paul Blackburn): Strangely wonderful tales, of which the famous “Bestiary” is the best.
  • Sandra Simonds, Further Problems with Pleasure (P): A collection that challenges & delights in all the best, important ways.
  • LeGuin, The Dispossessed: Also justly lauded.
  • Esi Edugyan, Washington Black: Improbable story but still compelling & fun. Looking forward to whatever this writer does next.
  • Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (NF): Feels unfinished, which makes this posthumously published memoir about facing terminal illness even sadder.
  • Akemi Johnson, Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa (NF): Superb examination of subject.
  • Jurí Talvet, Yet, Love, Illumine Us (P, tr. H. L. Hix): My first foray into Estonian literature of any kind, translated by friend & marvelous poet Harvey Hix.
  • LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven: Compelling story, in part due to its setting in Portland, OR.
  • Ottessa Moshfegh, Homesick for Another World (SS): Dark, dark, dark. Impressive, but sometimes I needed more than accomplished darkness.
  • Rae Gouirand, The History of Art (NF): Concise, complicated, and sexy.
  • Michelle Obama, Becoming (audiobook): So soothing to listen to former first lady’s voice telling her story. Best parts are about her life before Barack became president.
  • Matthew Baker, Why Visit America (SS, galley): Coming in August 2020! Stories that are at once sardonic and compassionate.
  • Rainer Maria von Rilke, Duino Elegies & Sonnets to Orpheus (P, tr. Stephen Mitchell): Oy. Simultaneously lofty & ponderous.
  • Mari Coates, The Pelton Papers (galley): Coming in April 2020! Meticulous fictionalization of life of early 20th-century artist Agnes Pelton.
  • Daphne duMaurier, Rebecca (audiobook): I meant to listen to this book just to help me fall asleep. Ha! Too interesting & fun for bedtime.
  • Jericho Brown, The Tradition (P): Some poems I just read over and over and over, they were so good.
  • Alexandra Chang, Days of Distraction (galley): Coming in March 2020! Impressive debut novel. Appreciated its not-very-sentimental depiction of a certain northern California college town.
  • Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic (P): Unsettling in the most needful way.
  • Lafcadio Hearn, The Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn (ed. Andrei Codrescu): A beautiful selection of some of Hearn’s best retellings of Japanese stories.
  • Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller Essays (NF, ed. Samuel Titan, tr. Tess Lewis): An interesting & readable selection of Benjamin’s essays and the essays of predecessors & contemporaries who influenced him.
  • Ernesto Sabato, The Tunnel (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden): A deliciously dark little novel.
  • Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account: Terrific post-colonial historical fiction. Riveting.
  • Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red (H): Marvelous novel-in-verse.
  • LeGuin, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (SS): Some real gems here; loved LG’s short introductions to each story.
  • Peg Alford Pursell, A Girl Goes Into the Forest (SS): Disquieting fairytales for 21st century.
  • Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (NF, I think): Genre-defying memoir/novel.
  • LeGuin, Tehanu: Satisfying conclusion to Earthsea cycle.
  • Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (audiobook): I prefer We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but this was good, hair-raising fun.
  • LeGuin, No Time to Spare (NF): Mini-essays that originated on LeGuin’s blog. Some gems here.
  • André Gide, The Immoralist (tr. Richard Howard): Someone should retell this grim story from the longsuffering wife’s point of view.
  • Richard Adams, Watership Down (audiobook): I’d read the book years ago, but Peter Capaldi’s terrific narration had me on the edge of my seat.
  • LeGuin, Catwings: Charming children’s book.
  • Dexter Booth, Scratching the Ghost (P): Haunting, searching, gorgeous debut collection.
  • Miyazawa Kenji, Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa (SS, tr. John Bester): Whimsical & weird & sometimes just meandering.
  • LeGuin, The Word for World is Forest: People were right about similarities between this 1972 novel & the 2009 film Avatar. Only LeGuin’s tale has more intelligence and morality.
  • Sadie Hoagland, American Grief in Four Stages (SS): Terrific debut collection reflecting on varieties of American experience.
  • Katherine Mansfield, In a German Pension (SS): Alternately poignant & savage sketches of denizens of German spa town in pre-WW1.
  • Jos Charles, feeld (P): Wow, you can do this with language? Mind-expanding.
  • LeGuin, Finding My Elegy (P): She was a better prose writer.
  • Homer, The Odyssey (H, tr. Emily Wilson, audiobook): Wow wow wow. Wilson’s translation of this classic-of-all-classics delighted & astonished. I was skeptical of Claire Danes as narrator, but she is amazing.
  • Ann Patchett, The Dutch House: This well-written novel was so very … white.
  • Monique Truong, The Sweetest Fruits: Fascinating treatment of the life of Lafcadio Hearn, told through the voices of the women in his life.
  • Rae Gouirand, Must Apple (P): A bounteous love letter to Northern California that I just had to read again this year. And yes, I read three books by Rae this year!
  • Ursula LeGuin, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (NF): It would be fun to teach this book.
  • John Freeman, Dictionary of the Undoing (NF): The daily devotional book for progressives in need of hope. Already planning to re-read.

What was on your reading list this year? Any favorites? Any reactions to our mini-reactions? Feel free to share in the comments!

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