The Books I Read in 2019

I read a lot of books in 2019. Here’s a list with the ones I really liked and would recommend are in bold and there are some comments for the books for which I could think of comments. Favorite books of the year have two asterisks. Did you read anything worth reading this year? What’d you get to off this list?

*Past Tense (Jack Reacher, #23): Lee Child – I like a Jack Reacher book, sue me.
**French Exit: Patrick deWitt – Light, funny!
*Severance: Ling Ma – Decent, but Station Eleven was better.
*Attempting Normal: Marc Maron
*Washington Black: Esi Edugyan – Can’t really predict where this one’s going to end from where it started.
*Homegoing: Yaa Gyasi – It was complicated, but the family tree helped a lot.
*Ablutions: Patrick deWitt – Heavy, funny!
**Haints Stay: Colin Winnette – I like westerns!
*The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai – Extraordinarily well-written, but maybe 1/3 too long?
*Asymmetry: Lida Halliday
*Lake Success: Gary Shteyngart
*Convenience Store Woman: Sayaka Murata
*The Library Book: Susan Orlean – I didn’t know this was non-fiction until about 20 pages in.
**There There: Tommy Orange – Really excellent.
*Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen
*Jane Eyre: Charlotte Bronte
*Moby-Dick, or, the Whale: Herman Melville – I’d never read it and I loved the first two chapters.
*Slaughterhouse-Five: Kurt Vonnegut
*Where the Crawdads Sing: Delia Owens – Surprisingly well paired with Washington Black.
*The Wangs vs. the World: Jade Chang – Funny!
*Grief is the Thing with Feathers: Max Porter – Unique narrative.
*Redeployment: Phil Klay – Sometimes I read a collection of short stories and don’t know it’s a collection of short stories until halfway through.
*Romeo and Juliet: William Shakespeare
**Undermajordomo Minor: Patrick deWitt – This is my favorite book.
*Signs Preceding the End of the World: Yuri Herrera
*What Belongs to You: Garth Greenwell
*Catch-22: Joseph Heller
*Today Will Be Different: Maria Semple
*Sharp Objects: Gillian Flynn
*The Midnight Line (Jack Reacher, #22): Lee Child – I like a Jack Reacher book, sue me.
*No Middle Name (Jack Reacher, #21.5): Lee Child – I like a Jack Reacher book, sue me.
*Sourdough: Robin Sloan – Delightful!
*The Perfect Nanny: Leila Slimani – Menacing. Don’t read if you have young kids!
*Little Fires Everywhere: Celeste Ng – Well developed characters.
*Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout: Laura Jane Grace – I love Against Me! and tour stories, so featuring Against Me!’s tour stories is good for me.
**The Last Policeman (The Last Policeman, #1): Ben H. Winters – I love apocalyptic fiction.
*Countdown City (The Last Policeman, #2): Ben H. Winters
*World of Trouble (The Last Policeman, #3): Ben H. Winters
*The Christmas Scorpion (Jack Reacher, #22.5): Lee Child – I like a Jack Reacher book, sue me.
*Nine Perfect Strangers: Liane Moriarty
*Cherry: Nico Walker – Compelling narrative style, could have been shorter.
*Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: Gail Honeyman – I didn’t like this book until the end.
**The Power: Naomi Alderman – Alt-Future History? If that makes sense.
*Eligible : A Modern Retelling of Pride & Prejudice (The Austen Project, #4): Curtis Sittenfeld – It took a second, but then I was into it.
*Florida: Lauren Groff
*Artemis: Andy Weir – Not terrible, but I really didn’t like the voice of the narrative.
*Magpie Murders: Anthony Horowitz – Complicated structure, well written.
*The New One Minute Manager: Kenneth Blanchard
*Pachinko: Min Jin Lee – Long, but worth it.
**Whiskey When We’re Dry: John Larison – My favorite of the year. I have a thing for westerns.
**Daisy Jones & The Six: Taylor Jenkins Reid – I loved this one, an oral history about a fake band.
**Normal People: Sally Rooney – I loved this one.
*Fleishman Is in Trouble: Taffy Brodesser-Akner – Funny and well written, but definitely made divorce seem rad for men and a death for women. Omniscient narrator is also a character, which was confusing sometimes.
*Alexander Hamilton: Ron Chernow – Lin-Manuel lied about how fascinating this book was.
*Less: Andrew Sean Greer – Not bad, but it’s possible it was written just for the last line.
*We Live in Water: Stories: Jess Walter – Some really gorgeous parts/lines in these stories.
*All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1): Martha Wells – See Artemis.
*Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries, #2): Martha Wells
*An American Marriage: Tayari Jones
*The Unpassing: Chia-Chia Lin
*Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries, #3): Martha Wells
*Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries, #4): Martha Wells
*My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Chronicles #1): Elena Ferrante – I tried to start this last year and couldn’t get into it. Listening to it as an audiobook helped.
*The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Chronicles #2): Elena Ferrante
*Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – I liked the premise, but the story got annoying in places.
*Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Chronicles #3): Elena Ferrante
*The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Chronicles #4): Elena Ferrante
*Sing, Unburied, Sing: Jesmyn Ward

The Books I Read in 2019

The novelist who spied me (or something)

Gérard de Villiers is an 83-year old French spy novelist who has written 4-5 books a year for the last 50 years, and during that time has carefully cultivated a network of intelligence officers all over the world. His books all feature unique details and stories usually known only to those officers.

I had no idea what kind of “substance” until a friend urged me to look at “La Liste Hariri,” one of de Villiers’s many books set in and around Lebanon. The book, published in early 2010, concerns the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. I spent years looking into and writing about Hariri’s death, and I was curious to know what de Villiers made of it. I found the descriptions of Beirut and Damascus to be impressively accurate, as were the names of restaurants, the atmosphere of the neighborhoods and the descriptions of some of the security chiefs that I knew from my tenure as The Times’ Beirut bureau chief. But the real surprise came later. “La Liste Hariri” provides detailed information about the elaborate plot, ordered by Syria and carried out by Hezbollah, to kill Hariri. This plot is one of the great mysteries of the Middle East, and I found specific information that no journalists, to my knowledge, knew at the time of the book’s publication, including a complete list of the members of the assassination team and a description of the systematic elimination of potential witnesses by Hezbollah and its Syrian allies. I was even more impressed when I spoke to a former member of the U.N.-backed international tribunal, based in the Netherlands, that investigated Hariri’s death. “When ‘La Liste Hariri’ came out, everyone on the commission was amazed,” the former staff member said. “They were all literally wondering who on the team could have sold de Villiers this information — because it was very clear that someone had showed him the commission’s reports or the original Lebanese intelligence reports.”

When I put the question to de Villiers, a smile of discreet triumph flashed on his face. It turns out that he has been friends for years with one of Lebanon’s top intelligence officers, an austere-looking man who probably knows more about Lebanon’s unsolved murders than anyone else. It was he who handed de Villiers the list of Hariri’s killers. “He worked hard to get it, and he wanted people to know,” de Villiers said. “But he couldn’t trust journalists.” I was one of those he didn’t trust. I have interviewed the same intelligence chief multiple times on the subject of the Hariri killing, but he never told me about the list. De Villiers had also spoken with high-ranking Hezbollah officials, in meetings that he said were brokered by French intelligence. One assumes these men had not read his fiction.

The novelist who spied me (or something)

New Zadie Smith short story in the New Yorker

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith in this week’s New Yorker.

Next door to the embassy is a health center. On the other side, a row of private residences, most of them belonging to wealthy Arabs (or so we, the people of Willesden, contend). They have Corinthian pillars on either side of their front doors, and—it’s widely believed—swimming pools out back. The embassy, by contrast, is not very grand. It is only a four- or five-bedroom North London suburban villa, built at some point in the thirties, surrounded by a red brick wall, about eight feet high. And back and forth, cresting this wall horizontally, flies a shuttlecock. They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash.

New Zadie Smith short story in the New Yorker

Kurt Vonnegut in Sports Illustrated

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He often said he had to be a writer because he wasn’t good at anything else. He was not good at being an employee. Back in the mid-1950s, he was employed by Sports Illustrated, briefly. He reported to work, was asked to write a short piece on a racehorse that had jumped over a fence and tried to run away. Kurt stared at the blank piece of paper all morning and then typed, “The horse jumped over the fucking fence,” and walked out, self-employed again.

I looked in the SI Vault and couldn’t find anything written by Vonnegut, but this anecdote is reported widely around the web.

Maybe there will be more evidence at the memorial library opening soon in Indy.

Via Brian Sample

Kurt Vonnegut in Sports Illustrated

Mossy Teeth

I think I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time in…crap, I have no idea when, it was a long time ago. Ever since, I’ve remembered Holden referring to his roommate’s ‘mossy teeth’ in this quote. And every time I use this descriptor, no one knows what I’m talking about. So, if we’re ever talking and I bring up mossy teeth, this is what I’m referring to:

He started cleaning his goddam fingernails with the end of a match. He was always cleaning his fingernails. It was funny, in a way. His teeth were always mossy-looking, and his ears were always dirty as hell, but he was always cleaning his fingernails. I guess he thought that made him a very neat guy. He took another look at my hat while he was cleaning them. “Up home we wear a hat like that to shoot deer in, for Chrissake,” he said. “That’s a deer shooting hat.”
“Like hell it is.” I took it off and looked at it. I sort of closed one eye, like I was taking aim at it. “This is a people shooting hat,” I said. “I shoot people in this hat.”

Also, I didn’t know Chinese Democracy had a song called Catcher in the Rye, did you?

Mossy Teeth

An Unscientific Survey of Books People Love Annoyingly and Books People Hate

Waxy pointed to a question on Metafilter asking What books do people proselytize about and said, “Someone needs to compile this into a list, ordered by mentions.” How could I not?

I took every book and author mentioned and compiled a list for both. If a book was listed with an author, this was counted as an entry for the book only. The Metafilter question asked for fiction books only, but this rule wasn’t really followed so I counted everything. I did this fast and any errors can be blamed on speed, Drew’s Cancer, or both. Finally, it becomes obvious quite quickly, that this list is more about books people don’t like, as opposed to books with fanatical fans. This is summed up best by commenter OhHenryPacey, “If this list proves anything it’s that assholes are assholes and will be assholes about just about anything or book you’d care to mention.” You can’t argue with logic like that.

Interesting findings:
-Ayn Rand blew away the competition in the author Category with 11 mentions, while The Celestine Prophecy edged out Harry Potter 8-6 in the Books category.
-There are 124 titles on the Books list and 56 Authors.
-People mentioned Jonathan Livingston Seagull 3 times, spelling the name 3 different ways.
-Twilight had 4 mentions, though I expect this to grow over time.
Kottke will be happy to note that while Infinite Jest is on the Books list 4 times, David Foster Wallace is not mentioned on the Authors list.
-Looking quickly, Ayn Rand inspires the most assholish proselytizing with a combined score of 16. But what do you expect with a name like Ayn.
-Seriously? The Wizard of Oz? You must not like anything.

Full list below: Continue reading “An Unscientific Survey of Books People Love Annoyingly and Books People Hate”

An Unscientific Survey of Books People Love Annoyingly and Books People Hate