To clarify, these are not the best books in the world, or the best things that have ever happened to me. This list is fifteen books I really loved in 2019, five books I loved listening to, and five little things I discovered that made my life just a teeny, tiny bit better. Not in the way that family and faith make your life better, but in the way that a really great pair of jeans makes your life better. (I am yet to find the jeans.)
I will begin with books. But first the obligatory preface: the books I like to read are not the same as the books I like to listen to. Audio books and book-books are not interchangeable for me. When I’m driving, I need plot. Not layered or complicated plot, just plot that develops in a straight-forward way with characters I can keep track of even while looking for my exit. Not Danielle Steel or Twilight, but let’s just say I’m fine with less beautiful prose and depth if the storyline keeps me entertained on the long drive to Blacksburg, and the narrator’s voice doesn’t annoy me. When I read, I want gorgeous stories with writing that’s so good it’s almost painful, and layered, observant characters; a rich narrative that is beautiful, sentence by sentence. I want literature, but not the boring stuff they inexplicably make high school students read; not graphic war stories and sexual awakening stories or drugs-and-suicide stories. I want great but not perfect heroines, humor, beauty, and distinctive prose. (Whereas in the car, listening, I just want to stay awake and be entertained.) Some of the books I read might make for good listening as well, and vice-versa, but in most cases I’ll stick by this list.
I’ll start with the classic coming-of-age novels, though Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards might have made the top of my list over-all, regardless of genre. It’s about a girl named Frankie, an apple orchard, and a family pulled in different directions by change. Set in the 1950s and rich with family dynamics, seen through the eyes of a girl, I loved this one in the way I love Jane Smiley’s Some Luck Series, or Edna Ferber’s Giant. Deep and mysterious and bittersweet and funny, I felt full yet emptied when I finished it.
Another coming-of-age novel about family and a decade full of change is William Kent Kruger’s Ordinary Grace. If you can get past the first few pages, where the main character recalls the death of a little boy about his own age when he was a kid, it becomes a mysterious and moving story about childhood’s end, in a Stand By Me sort of way. Funny and heartbreaking and unpredictable, the book is about a family doing it’s best one strange and difficult summer, with characters so subtly flawed and believable it hurts.
Alice Mc Dermott’s Child of My Heart was one of those books about nothing and everything; about a fifteen-year-old’s observations as she babysits the child of a local artist one summer. There are no murders or great tragedies, but her description of families and human nature that idyllic summer are can’t-put-it-down compelling, and the narrator’s intelligence and storytelling made me sad to finish it. And After This, also by Alice McDermott, was a pull-you-in saga about a marriage and a family that narrates the little moments of ordinary family life in a way that makes you relieved that someone else noticed the beauty in the quotidian. John and Mary’s romance and years together will remind you of families you know, if you grew up Catholic in the suburbs; it hurts almost physically when the kids grow up and get pulled in different directions. It is an homage to how things used to be, the good and the bad.
Speaking of family dynamics and the American Dream, Matthew Thomas’ We are Not Ourselves was a sobering, beautiful book about another Irish family. The main character was born in 1941, and raised in Queens in a Tree-Grows-In-Brooklyn childhood. She marries a scientist and has a son, and is constantly yearning for a shiny reality she can’t quite get to, where the grass will be greener. A psychological shift in one of the main characters becomes a mystery that the others must solve with tenderness and loyalty, giving the story and narrative unusual depth. It is epic in the real sense as well as in the vernacular “epic.”
I didn’t love her other books but Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things astonished me with it’s breadth. I can’t believe this ambitious, epic masterpiece of a book was written by the author of Eat, Pray, Love. This one is about a 19th century English family whose patriarch makes a fortune in South America, and his American-born daughter who grows up to be a brilliant scientist. I learned about so many things: botany, the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, and the American Experience in general, but through fascinating characters and a storyline that doesn’t feel as though it is supposed to be educational. There is adventure and romance in this novel, and the heroine has that strong-delicate voice that transports you to another time. It’s not especially thick but it is a BIG novel. Quietly breathtaking.
The best book about friendship I have ever read has to be Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss. Two friends growing up in 1960s Pasadena, it has a Mad Men aesthetic, but it’s about a childhood bond. It’s a mystery wrapped up in dreamy friendship narrative that occasionally makes you laugh aloud and wish you were friends with them, despite everthing.
If you like books and movies about parents and their adult kids, The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore could be made into one of those dramadies where the kids bring home their adult problems in one memorable summer. William and Ginny are the parents who must always be parents, and they are such well-drawn characters that you’ll identify with them even if you are the age of their children. A little examination of a modern family that somehow reads as literature with just a touch of chic-lit.
A Piece of the World by Christine Baker Kline uses the rather dull (and yet super well known and often shown in movies) painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, as its subject. The main character, Christina, was indeed one of the real-life models for the painting, and this loosely historical fiction is about this young disabled woman’s tie to the family farm in Maine, her dreams and regrets and inspirations.
Another strong New England Heroine is Bea, in Anna Solomon’s Leaving Lucy Pear. One of those stories about abandoning a baby to escape shame, only to be reunited with her years later, it’s a page-turner with beautiful prose. The book reviews will say something about how it speaks to family and class and xenophobia, but I loved the writing and the post-war backdrop, and the abandoned baby and yearning mother plotline. I read this one at carpool and was so engrossed that got honked at when it was time to pull forward; I could not put it down.
Which brings me to the other abandoned baby book: M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between the Oceans. Everyone else probably read this years ago, and it became a Spielberg movie with Michael Fassbender, but I only recently got to it. No wonder they made a screenplay; this one has the post-war backdrop, but with an isolated lighthouse, a woman who yearns for children, a husband who just wants to make her happy but also do the right thing, and gorgeous writing. Haunting and unusual, this is one of those books that is why people say reading is “escaping to another world” even though it is not fantasy.
Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles surprised me with the distinctive voice of it’s ten-year-old narrator, and it’s sweet, haunting mixture of real and surreal, of childhood story and sci-fi. Julia is a precocious ten-year-old, worried about best friends and bullies at the bus stop, when scientists announce that the rotation of the Earth is slowing every day. Birds and the tides and human behavior are affected, and gravity sickness becomes normal. Julia’s family begins to fray, and she must discern what is a symptom of “the slowing” and what would have happened anyway, and what her future will look like. It will break your heart, and make you think about time and childhood and disater, but also leave you spellbound. I think someone is making a movie.
Another sci-fi-ish novel, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, made my list even though I generally dislike anything even vaguely apocalyptic. I only started reading this one because it opens with a production of King Lear, and seemed to be about artists and musicians, but it turns into an altered-universe story wherein a flu pandemic changes life as we know it. The main character is travelling around nomad-style with a group called the Travelling Symphony, who are trying to keep art and music alive. It is weird and depressing/exciting in the way that apocalypse stories are, but this one is set apart by its focus on the human need to see and hear beauty. For some reason it made me crave popcorn, like a good movie does.
The Curiosity, by Stephen P Kiernan, is a Frankenstein-ish thriller, time-travel novel, and chic-lit all rolled into one. It’s main character falls in love with a man from another century who has been frozen in ice, Captain America style, and whom scientists discover a way to re-animate. Their romance is delicate and doomed, but it is strange and beautiful while it lasts and makes you think what if through the whole story.
Last but not in any way least is Eizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible. The only short story collection on my list, this is like a little dessert sampler or tapas platter for readers, by a writer who is one of the heavyweights of our time. All the characters in these vignette-type stories are real and flawed, Olive Kitteridge style, and will make you laugh and break your heart. Strout’s observations of human nature and love and loss and longing rival any of the great writers, and she does it with humor and an economy of words that filled me with awe. She’s a female Hemingway, but uplifting instead of despressing.
To listen to while driving:
—What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon. Time travel and romance with really decent writing and an Irish backdrop. Listened to this one on my phone when I wasn’t even driving.
—Eleanore Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Hilarious and sad with a hopeful ending, Eleanore is like A Man Called Ove, but British and with a girl.
—Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. Based on a shocking true story about the Georgia Tann kidnappings, this is a well-told story with an old-school child heroine.
—The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. World War II story about sisters and love, it will shock you and the ending makes you gasp.
—The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes. Part one is a World War I story that revolves around a Mona Lisa type of painting and the love story behind it; part two feels like a different story at first but circles back to the painting, and the resolution of part one. Great for a long drive.
Other Best Things I discovered, in no particular order:
- Pomegranates! I knew I liked the strange, juicy-crunchy little seeds on my yogurt, and that they have tons of vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants, but getting those seeds out was too annoying until my sister told me how to peel them in a bowl of water. The membrane floats up and the seeds sink, so you just skim the top and drain. PLUS, they apparently have exactly 613 seeds, the number of Commandments in the Bible, which is random but interesting. PLUS, I read a book about Catherine of Aragon, who had pomegranates stitched into her clothing when she came from Spain at age 15 to marry King Louis of France, and she kept these “apples of Granada” as her personal symbol, though they were a symbol of fertility, all through her marriage to Henry VIII and beyond. Not that this matters to my health today, but Catherine of Aragon was steadfast to the point of bad-ass, so now I like pomegranates even more.
- The Instant Pot! I’m pretty set in my ways cooking-wise, but when the crock pot broke we replaced it with an instant pot that can double as a slow cooker. I decided tob e open to new things, and this one turned out to be low-key life-changing. Apparently pressure-cookers have been normal in other countries for decades, and were a big thing here in the ‘70s, but they were pea-green plastic and dangerously hot on the outside. Now they are back, and the Instant Pot brand is just a new name on the oldest trick in the book for turning big, cheap cuts of meat into tender, shred-able stew and taco meat. I actually think ceramic makes a better slow cooker, but it doesn’t matter because my instant pot can do everything a crock-pot can do but better and in less time. Chili, amazing beef stew, carnitas for soft tacos, fall-apart coq a vin, etc. all in under an hour. Plus you can make homemade yogurt in them, if you’re into that.
- Madam Secretary! Having never watched 24 or Homeland or Designated Survivor or really any non Masterpiece Theater show in a long time, I am surprised that I started watching this at all, and surprised how much I like it. Tea Leoni plays a former CIA agent-turned-professor who is asked to be Secretary of State. She’s polished and quick-thinking, smart and funny, and also the mother of three teenagers. Plus she’s soooo pretty, in an authoritative-yet-approachable way that seems natural and real, not like she’s trying too hard. The show has the West Wing quick dialogue, but the diplomatic crisis scenes are interspersed with warm, realistic plot-lines about her family, including her hot-but-cute husband, a CIA agent turned Catholic religious scholar, which has probably never been done on TV before. And her clothes! Her clothes make me drool.
- Hollywood Glamour Beauty Queen hand cream! It’s in a bubble-gum pink tube and smells like cherries and childhood, and moisturizes hands like nothing else I’ve ever tried and without feeling greasy. I want to take a bath in this stuff, it’s so awesome, but it seems to be available only at those old, dated Rite Aid stores that are about to be taken over by Walgreens. If you find it, buy several.
- Online grocery pick up! GAME CHANGER. What started as a one-time thing has become my norm: I fill my Giant cart while sipping decaf Earl Gray at home, and the next day I pull up and a nice lady comes out and loads me up. IT’S AWESOME. My groceries come in nice bags with handles, and the produce is nicer than what I could have found in the store. I used to think I had to see the food before I bought it, but I’m over that. (A decade ago, I never thought I’d do my Christmas shopping online either. Hahahaha.) I like having someone else gather up apples and onions and roast beef and for me, after I plan my recipes from the comfort of my own home. I like letting someone else find the arugula and the exact right kind of shampoo my teenager requested for his combination hair. I see other women in the store with huge carts, waiting in long lines and then loading up their own cars, and I want to roll down my window and yell Save Yourself! Order online! Grocery delivery still costs extra, but I’m fairly sure that ordering online and picking them up does not incur a fee. And if it does, it’s worth it.