(As I’ve mentioned in previous years, I’ve always reflected on my reading—books, articles, and essays—in my private journals. Several years ago, when I discovered the annual series run by The Millions where published writers share their notable reads of the year., I started the same on this site. During that time, the VIDA organization’s annual analysis of gender parity across the literary magazine landscape made me more purposeful and picky about my own reading. After all, if our reading matter is food for the mind, why shouldn’t we be just as deliberate about this intellectual nourishment as we are about our physical nourishment?)
This has been a year involving several months of travel so my reading has not been at my usual rate or even per the plans I’d made at the end of 2018. Despite that, it has been a year of lovely literary discoveries and much learning. And, if you’ve been following along for a while, you’ll know I don’t set much store in having high book-reading counts. Defeats the purpose, don’t you think? What I aim to do, with all my logging and counting, is to ensure I’m reading a good balance of genres and being inclusive and diverse with my book choices. Hence the charts at the end.
NOTE: The books listed are only those I completed in 2019. Books that I started in 2019 but either abandoned or intend to finish in 2020 are not included.
2019 Reading Project: Toni Morrison
The goal had been to read or reread all of Morrison’s books this year. I’ve done that with only four of her books: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and The Source of Self-regard. Most likely, then, I will continue this reading project in 2020.
Morrison’s writing always astounds because of its clarity of thought and vision and an absolute mastery of language to communicate it all. So few writers manage to communicate so much in such slim books. And the storytelling is still as fresh and relevant today as it was when these books first came out.
Why take on a reading project like this one? Watch this space as I have an entire essay brewing on this very topic.
My favorite fiction of the year was, surprisingly, more novels than short story collections. In no particular order, my five favorites as follows.
For a debut novel, Devi S Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues has a lot to say about America today. And, perhaps because I was able to identify with the issues Laskar has addressed (e.g. racism, immigrant life, growing older as a woman, etc.), this book stayed with me long after reading it. Laskar’s prose is perhaps a bit too poetic or lyrical at times for my personal liking. But she makes it work smoothly so that there are no jarring notes.
Mathangi Subramanian’s debut, A People’s History of Heaven, dropped onto my must-read rather suddenly early in the year. The irrepressible energy of this story, the ensemble cast of slum girls and women, and the cinematic fluidity of the prose kept me reading this one into the small hours of early morning. Also, the book is a perfect antidote to the typical Western view of India’s slums (see the Danny Boyle movie, Slumdog Millionaire) while also remaining true to its subject matter.
Chimerica by Anita Felicelli defies any neat categorization or description. I’ve loved Felicelli’s non-fiction and short fiction over the years. But this novel is a different beast. Beyond the magical realism (a talking lemur!), there are many layers to unpack here. Sometimes, it felt as if Felicelli rushed through scenes or plot points where I wanted to linger more. But there were several bits where I was happy to be swept along with the narrative in that ideal reader mode of wanting to know what happens next.
Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans was a timely, much-awaited novel this year. It delivered as the blurbs promised (which, these days, is becoming a rare thing in the publishing world.) The narrative goes back and forth with multiple points-of-view but Lalami handles this so deftly that we readers can trust her completely and simply follow along. Even when we’re able to guess what might be coming next, we don’t lose our sense of anticipation and our need to keep turning the pages. This is not a mystery or a thriller but there’s plenty here to get that rush of emotions going.
In the short story form, I was drawn to A People’s Future of the United States, an anthology of speculative fiction edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams. This is not a genre I read much but, as these stories spoke to our times, it seemed fitting. With works by a host of famous and not-so-famous writers, it’s one of the undersung books of the year. I wrote about it for PopMatters.
My biggest disappointment has been Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again. Ever since I read the first collection, Olive Kitteridge, I’ve been a Strout fan. There’s just something about her world and characters, especially Olive, that we want to live in that world through those people, no matter how uncomfortable it might get at times. So what was it about this much-anticipated follow-up that, for me, failed to live up to the first? Several things but the most important one is that I didn’t get as much Olive time as with the first book. In some stories, Olive barely makes a walk-on appearance. Technically, Strout is still a master at her game and each story here is still a mini-masterclass in its own way.
The next on this list: You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian. Despite the hype surrounding Roupenian’s story, ‘Cat Person‘, which got her this six-figure book deal, I wanted to read this collection because I had found that story interesting. Sadly, the stories here did not live up to the noise that had been made about them for many reasons as articulated so well by the literary critic, Parul Sehgal.
Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite living British writers. I had high hopes for Transcription. I may even have gushed a bit about it on social media while reading. But there was something about how Atkinson tried to force the different narrative threads toward a specific ending that bothered me. Atkinson didn’t disappoint in one hallmark trait of her books, though: the wry, ironic voice of her protagonist. I can still hear it in my head when I think about the book.
The final let-down of the year was another short story collection: Waiting by Nighat Gandhi. It was ambitious in its aims but it failed, for me, in its execution. I wrote about it for Scroll.
Books I Enjoyed Writing About
Sometimes, I enjoy writing about a book even more than actually reading it. There are several possible reasons but the most obvious one is that I get an opportunity to riff on a pet theme of mine because it happens to be one the book is also addressing.
One such was Preeto and Other Stories. This is an anthology of stories by male Urdu writers in English translation. In her introduction, the editor Rakhshanda Jalil, dwells on the theme of the male gaze in literature. This allowed me to riff further on it in my PopMatters review.
Another book I enjoyed writing about was Katharine Smyth’s All the Lives We Ever Lived. Using Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse, Smyth has constructed a grief memoir that’s also a bibliomemoir because it combines literary criticism and memoir. This bibliomemoir sub-genre is one of my all-time favorites. As is Virginia Woolf. What’s not to love? I wrote about how Smyth pulls it all off so well at PopMatters.
I also read 60+ short stories online in literary magazines for the six columns I wrote for PopMatters. These always give me great pleasure because I discover new writers, revisit old favorites, and always learn more about the short story craft through analysis.
Books About the Writing Life and Craft
Each year, I read a handful of this sub-genre. Generally, I prefer books here that are not straight how-tos as I’ve shared in this 2018 post series. Three books I enjoyed and recommend to all writers and lovers of literature:
—Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English
—Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode
—John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice
Books About Science and Psychology
I read the first two books below with my partner. The third, I discussed with him often. I’m beginning to believe that couples that read together, stay together. These books gave us plenty of discussion points and led us into interesting tangents. I look forward to more such shared reading in 2020. Although, we’ll definitely branch out beyond relationship psychology. Still, I do recommend these books to couples of all ages and relationship types.
—Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages
—John and Julie Gottman’s Eight Dates
—Alice Robb’s Why We Dream
2019 Book Stats
So let’s see where all this reading—21 books completed and several in progress but not included above— puts me this year.
I’ve read more fiction than last year. And more of it is in the novel form versus my perennial favorite short story form. I’ll be working toward more balance in 2020.
I’ve also read fewer translations this year but, if I were to count my own ongoing translation work, this count would jump up. Books that deal directly with India are also down from last year but, again, if I counted the books read for my translation work, this would be a higher number.
As usual, I have a spreadsheet in place for my 2020 books and I look forward to getting back to my usual cadence of book reviews at various venues as well.
Here’s to a productive, enlightened year of reading in 2020 for all of us. Please feel free to share your own thoughts about books you’ve loved (or not loved) this year and books you’d like to read in 2020.
(Coming soon: my Year in Writing post. Stay tuned.)