2019 could have been written by Gary Shteyngart. The president tried to buy Greenland this year. Who could have imagined reading that sentence four years ago? In 2019 the septuagenarian president’s staff photoshopped his head onto the body of a young Sylvester Stallone and then got all huffy when none of us believed it was real. In 2019 an Oscar-nominated actress went to prison for paying someone to sweeten her daughter’s SAT score. 2019 gave us an eight-way tie for first in the National Spelling Bee. Twenty-eight different people decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2019.1 In 2019 Jeffrey Epstein–credibly accused of sex-trafficking minors to a number of high-profile men–died while in police custody, spawning a thousand different conspiracy theories that spanned the entire political spectrum.2 Britain and Israel both spent most of 2019 trying to sort out who should run the countries and neither of them seem to have come up with a satisfactory answer, although Britain did manage to find time in its busy schedule to yell at its newest duchess–a biracial divorced American–for various imagined transgressions. In 2019 someone inexplicably agreed to marry Stephen Miller.3
And it wasn’t just the news that was weird: in 2019 my personal life was also extremely–well, let’s just say eventful. In April, right before the Game of Thrones premiere, my husband and I were smugly congratulating ourselves on weathering some family medical storms when we got a phone call that sent everything spiraling into chaos all over again.4 And still there was more: If you had told me on January 1 of 2019 that in less than a year I would be living in a different house in a different city with a different job, I would not have believed you. And yet here we are.
And so in 2019 I used reading mostly as an escape: with a couple of exceptions, I responded most strongly to non-fiction that allowed me to imagine a different reality and fiction that held out the prospect of a happy ending or, failing that, that offered me a pleasantly whimsical world to inhabit for a few hours. 2019 was not a year when I went in search of deep character development or narrative realism or emotional truth. In 2019 I wanted to play pretend.
Do not take that to mean that my favorite books of the year offered nothing more than escapism. No, the best books gave me everything: a different world, yes, but also beautiful prose and vividly drawn characters and original thoughts that made me put the book down and stare dreamily into the distance. What these books all have in common is that I’m still thinking about them now, weeks or months after I read them.
The list, in the order that I read the books:
- Bowlaway, by Elizabeth McCracken. It’s about candlepin bowling, and family, and marriage, and love. Some people didn’t like it because it isn’t super-plotty, but I loved hanging out with McCracken’s characters.
- L. E. L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”, by Lucasta Miller. If you read Miller’s The Bronte Myth, then you know to expect great things from her latest. I have never been a scandalous woman, to my eternal regret, but this book let me imagine what it might be like to be one.
- Golden State, by Ben Winters. I have been a Ben Winters fan since his Last Policeman trilogy. In this book he pays as much attention to plot and story as he does to world-building and the result is a captivating thriller in a world where lying is one of the most serious crimes you can commit.
- City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Look, I get it, Gilbert is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I love her characters and I found this book wildly engaging, a story about a fun, naughty girl who unashamedly loves sex. It reminded me a bit of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, but to be totally honest, I enjoyed this one more.
- The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple. Does impeachment even matter if the president is not removed? In this account of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Wineapple makes the case that it does. She must have started this book before January 2017, because there’s a lot of research here — but it still made for awfully comforting reading while the debate over the current president’s impeachment swirled.
- The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. A follow-up to Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Is there a bit too much fan service in this novel? Does Atwood channel Katniss Everdeen to an excessive degree? Yes and yes. I loved it anyway. I liked the way Atwood bounced off the television series, making some plot points canon while refashioning others, and you know what, the hopeful ending may not be realistic but I’ll take it.
- Sontag: Her Life and Work, by Benjamin Moser. There are few things I love more than big fat literary biographies. This one is smart and insightful and well-written, and will make you–as Jamaica Kincaid says–never want to be great. Sontag was a marvelous writer who was also a toxic parent, friend, and lover, and this book will make you consider, among other things, whether the one was worth the other.
- Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. OK, this one wasn’t escapism so much. On the other hand I think this is the first time I’ve ever had a best book list with two sequels on it.5 Maybe in 2019 I was trying to travel back in time? At any rate, this is Strout’s follow-up to Olive Kitteridge, a collection of short stories centering on one difficult woman that was my favorite book of 2008. The first book was insightful about love and marriage; this one is insightful about old age, loneliness, and coming to terms with yourself as you approach the end of your life.
- Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is a pretty amazing account of a murder in 1972 that would only be solved thirty-plus years later. I cared about the victim, and I especially cared about her children, and I even found myself caring for the murderers. Along the way I learned a great deal about the IRA and “The Troubles,” about which I knew virtually nothing before.
- The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin. I have been angry at Clarence Thomas since I watched his hearings in my dorm room in 1991.6 Now that I have read Robin’s analysis of Thomas’s judicial philosophy, I am not less angry, but I do take Thomas more seriously as a thinker. Robin’s argument is that far from being a faint echo of Antonin Scalia, Thomas has developed his own strain of conservatism grounded in black nationalism. Maybe this is not an uncommon thesis among Supreme Court watchers–I don’t read legal journals so I don’t know–but it was new to me and I found it fascinating. Another book that wasn’t really an escape to a different world, but there’s nothing I like more than a fresh perspective on a subject I thought I’d made up my mind about.
1 Although that may seem like a humorous exaggeration, it is the actual number.
2 I have to be honest, you guys, I think he probably killed himself.
3 This seems like a life mistake on par with marrying Anthony Weiner, but the heart wants what it wants.
4 Pro tip: Never smugly congratulate yourself on weathering a storm! It only tempts the universe.
5 It’s probably also the first time my list has featured three Elizabeths, but I haven’t actually checked.
6 I am also still mad at Joe Biden for the way those hearings were run, but that’s a story for another day.