My Favorite Books of 2019

Choosing my favorites is hard because I read a lot of good stuff. I’ll cheat by using categories.

Best Historical Fiction
The Island of Sea Women


Best Set in a Boarding School Book (my favorite sub-genre)
The Swallows


Best Book about an Old Lady Serial Killer (also a nominee for Best Use of Cross-stitch)An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good


Best Psychological Thriller
The Turn of the Key


Best Romantic Comedy
The Unhoneymooners


Best Nonfiction That Scared Me Half to Death
I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer


Best Sequel
Olive, Again


Best Weird Book
The Need


Best Nonfiction That Confirms the World Is Terrible
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters


Best “Change Your Life” Book
The Myths of Happiness

Best Overall (Tie)
Home Fire  Girls Burn Brighter


Morning Reading

White Hot Mug on Book Near Linen

I’ve been trying to establish the habit of reading (for fun) for 10 or 15 minutes in the morning before I go to campus or start work. It’s been two weeks since I decided to begin Project Morning Reading.

Status update: zero days of success.

Reading for a few minutes every morning isn’t a new activity for me. I did it religiously as a kid–for as far back as I can remember. My favorite time at school was the silent reading portion of the day, so I decided to implement my own silent reading before school. It was heavenly. Later, when I was teaching class at 7 am–a schedule I got stuck with many times in grad school–I would arrive on campus 10 minutes early and hide out somewhere where nobody could find me. Reading for fun was sort of like meditation for me. It centered me and made me feel calm enough to walk into a classroom with the energy and focus I needed.

Somewhere along the way I lost the ability (but not the desire) to read for just a few minutes before starting the day. I realized why: Because now I use 10 extra minutes to check email, answer text messages, read headlines, watch Instagram stories, etc. Technology has ruined me!

Even if I do manage to turn off my phone and focus, I find that my brain is racing all the time. It’s like my focus muscle is broken. And that’s all the more reason to read at the beginning of the day. It’s all part of slowing down and preparing my brain for work that extends beyond Instagram.

So I’m committed to starting morning reading again. I’ll just start tomorrow…



Reading on Planes

One of my favorite things about air travel is turning off my devices. I know I could put my phone in airplane mode any time I want. I don’t. I allow myself to be distracted, largely by things I don’t care about.

But on a plane, I’m held captive. I can’t access anything because I’m too cheap to pay for wifi. I can be alone with books for as long as the plane is in the air, assuming I can signal to my seatmates that I don’t want to talk. That can be challenging since I attract talkers. (Case in point: I recently went to New Mexico and the cab driver asked me if I wanted to see her house. I thought it would be rude to say no. So I got to ride past her house where she showed me her new porch ottoman. Very lovely.)

The point is that planes are a great space for good reading, assuming you can ignore everyone around you and don’t mind being seated in a manner that must be the most clinically uncomfortable position known to humans. I like to take books that require a lot of concentration because I know that it’s either the book or talking to the guy in a Make America Great hat next to me. I’ll focus on the book.

I’m traveling this week, and I’m bringing A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future by Charles Van Doren.

If you don’t hear from me again, I’m trapped under a stranger’s ottoman.

Books That Take Time to Love (or Appreciate)

Have you ever read a book that you initially didn’t like–or even hated–and then you later realized your initial opinion was all wrong?

It happens to me fairly regularly. I think that’s because I’m a slow thinker. One of my wonderful colleagues once told me there are two kinds of thinkers: microwaves and crock-pots. She identifies as the latter; that is, someone who needs to simmer for a long period of time. It takes longer, but it’s so much richer. Microwaves can zap for thirty seconds and walk away with something fully cooked, but that food is never as good.

Here’s a list of four books that I initially didn’t like, until I put the crock-pot on simmer for a few years until my ideas were fully cooked.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
I read this for the first time in college and thought it was boring. I later re-read it, just for fun, and realized I was totally wrong. My initial response was complete disdain for the wife, O-Lan, because I wanted her to stand up for herself. Only after simmering did I realize that O-Lan’s selflessness is the only power she has. As a younger reader, I often fell into the trap of judging characters by second-wave feminist values.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read this in high school and it totally went over my head. I think that’s because, without even realizing it, I bought into the American Dream, that old canard that largely exists to serve the hegemony. I read it again in college and got closer to understanding. I read it yet again for a book club a few years ago and finally got something: This is the Great American Novel because it captures the essence of an empty culture that has built itself on false exceptionalism and gross consumption. And like most novels of its time, its attitude toward women and its toxic masculinity is on full display.

Everything Bad is Good for YouEverything Bad Is Good for You by Steven Johnson
Johnson’s argument is basically that TV (and other forms of entertainment that we’ve long considered mindless) is getting more and more challenging, both in terms of the critical thinking required and in terms of the narrative structure. I had trouble fully buying that argument until I taught a short class on pop culture where we used Johnson’s methods to analyze TV and video games from the 70s/80s and from recent years. Johnson is right: Pop culture as a whole is way smarter and far more rewarding. There’s still plenty of dumb stuff out there if you want it, but pop culture isn’t a wasteland.

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor Forever Amber
I unfairly dismissed this as a romance novel. (Not that there’s anything wrong with romance novels. Just that I categorized it as one that didn’t have much substance.) I was wrong. This is a fantastic historical novel about Restoration England. I read it twice and then gave a copy to my grandmother who told me that she’d read it years ago, back when it was released in 1944. It was considered a “sexy” novel back then, but it’s as good of a history lesson about the time period as you’ll ever get. Now I want to read it again.


What Kind of Reader Are You? A Grazer or a Gulper? Or Both?

It’s taken me a long time to become a grazing reader; that is, a reader who can pick up a book and read a page or two and then put it down and continue on with all the other quotidian tasks of life that don’t involve reading.

I used to think reading was an occasion. I felt like I couldn’t read until I had everything else done. Only then could I sit down (or lie down) to gulp, usually at bedtime when my energy was at its lowest.

At some point in my life, I had inadvertently absorbed the lesson that day-reading is a sign of sloth. Or worse, a sign of decadence. I sort of viewed day-reading like day-drinking: It’s great fun, but you don’t want the neighbors to know you do it.

These days, I’ve decided it’s okay to day-read, whether grazing or gulping. If I have time, I’ll sit down and gulp IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. I don’t even close the curtains.

During the school year, when I’m teaching, I have less time to day-gulp, but I still graze. I can read a page or two before class or while I’m waiting for a student or while I’m eating lunch or while on the bus. (I used to fill that time with email until I realized, after noisily complaining about how much email everyone sends, that I send more than everyone else combined.)

The trick to grazing is having a book that you can dip in and out of easily. I save more complicated books for gulping. (And the hardest books are for day-gulping). Here are some books I read recently that are great for unapologetic day-grazing:

You think it i'll say it

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
Short stories are always good for grazing. This collection is a funny and thoughtful meditation on gender, love, and sex, among other things. My favorite thing about Curtis Sittenfeld as a writer is that she isn’t afraid to create characters who are embarrassing and awkward.

DArk MatterDark Matter by Black Crouch
This one is an excellent yarn with short, propulsive chapters. It’s two parts thriller and one part sci-fi about a guy who sees how his life would have changed had he made different choices. Fun and exciting, but not at all taxing on the brain (and I mean that as a compliment).

Our souls at nightOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Everything Kent Haruf writes feels as comfortable and quietly profound as a porch swing at dusk in June. This novel is about a widow and a widower who find something incredible together. Kent Haruf died a few years ago, which means I’ll have to be satisfied re-reading his work for the rest of my life.

Standard DeviationStandard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
You don’t need to know anything about the plot for this one. It’s just riotously funny. Perfect for laughing out loud.

So what kind of reader are you? What are your favorite gulps and grazes?

Four Books I Didn’t Like That Everyone Else Loved

Unpopular opinions
“I have unpopular opinions.”

I’m always disappointed when I read a much-hyped book that all of my favorite reader friends loved, only to find that I just didn’t get it.

I mean, I understand that everyone has different tastes. Books come into your life at the right or wrong time. Every reader is unique. Et cetera. Et cetera. So not liking a popular book says nothing about the book itself. It just means it wasn’t for me.

The Hobbit
“You are a very stupid book, but this coffee seems fine.”

Still, it bums me out when I don’t love popular things because I always feel like I missed something obvious that everyone else can see.

Like Star Wars. I’ve seen three of the 400 interminable movies and they are just dumb and boring, right?

Same with Lord of the Rings. I saw the first movie and found myself wishing I was watching paint dry–or worse–watching golf.

I tried to read The Hobbit in junior high and decided I’d rather read my algebra book. Around the same time, my best friend lent me her beloved copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I couldn’t get past the magic closet.

It’s pretty clear that I just don’t do fantasy well. I read the first three Harry Potter books and heartily agree that they are charming, imaginative, and well-written. I just didn’t care what happened. I don’t like reading anything where an elf or a magical wood sprite or something could appear at any moment.

Unsurprisingly, I tend to avoid fantasy books, but occasionally I’m willing to try magical realism, especially if trusted readers recommends something. Here are four (relatively) recent books that the world loved but that gave me Hobbit vibes.

4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
I was really disappointed that I didn’t like this one because I love Saunders’ short stories, especially the kooky ones. But this novel just made me feel like the voices in my head had ADHD. Too many people. Too much talking. Too much chaos. If I wanted that, I’d socialize on the train at rush hour.

3. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I should have known this one wasn’t for me because I hate magicians. I feel like they are always just waiting to pull a rabbit out of a hat when I’m not looking. The writing is beautiful, of course, but it just wasn’t for me. Maybe if it been, say, The Night Library or the The Night Movie Theatre, I would’ve liked it more.

2. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
This book made me feel the same way I feel when a couple I don’t like hold me captive and tell me their uncondensed how-we-met-and-fell-in-love story. I get it: You overcame odds. You are still insufferable. Please stop telling me your “love” story

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (RIP)
On the plus side, there was no magic, no talking dead people, and no time travel. On the negative side, there was a mediocre white man solving mysteries while objectifying a manic pixie dream girl. My favorite parts where when Blomkvist was making sandwiches. I estimate that was at least thirty percent of the book. I’m classifying this as fantasy because I don’t believe Blomkvist would ever be irresistible to any human woman.

What books did you hate that everyone else seemed to love?