As a lead-up to my post on my favorite books of the year (coming Tuesday), I thought I’d write about the books I read this year that can be seen most often on this year’s best-of book lists. Many of these I found really good but a few were disappointing, and my own best-of-2019 list will look pretty different. For each, I’ve noted one list where the book can be found.
For a great analysis of which books showed up most on a variety of best-of lists, see this post on Books Are My Favourite and Best.
Which are your favorite best book lists? My favorite is probably the New York Times – I like that they give you 100 Notable Books for a good variety of books, but also a top ten. Other good lists include Slate, Washington Post, Modern Mrs. Darcy, Reading Women, and Publishers Weekly. The Guardian gives you suggestions from other authors but not really a best-of list. And NPR has its “concierge” which I didn’t find all that helpful because there are too many selections and ways to filter the list (unless that’s what you want).
Here are the books I read this year that show up on quite a few lists:
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Publishers Weekly): I thought The Nickel Boys was excellent. It tells a powerful story about real-life abuses at a correctional school for African-American boys. I remember the news about this school but as always, a good fictional account really brings it to life.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (The New Yorker): This is a beautifully-written book. It reads like a memoir though it’s a novel. Vuong tells the story of a young man writing to his Vietnamese mother, even though she can’t read. It’s a story of growing up Vietnamese and gay in the United States, and it’s also a story of love, abuse, addiction, and forgiveness.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (Slate): easily one of the most lauded books of the year, and I hated it. I found it pretentious and painful to read, especially the second half. My review here.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (New York Times): Atwood won the Booker Prize this year for her follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale. This was a worthy follow-up, although it won’t be my favorite book by her. She tells the story of how Gilead was created, through the eyes of Aunt Lydia and two other women. We get to see more in this book of how Gilead interacts with the outside world, and we also get to see how it falls apart. The book is chilling in that we can see how a new governmental structure can be created, how people can be intimidated and oppressed. And yet somehow, this book isn’t as memorable as The Handmaid’s Tale or many of Atwood’s other books.
The Need by Helen Phillips (New York Times): I just finished listening to this book. In the beginning I found it riveting and very creepy. Phillips’ writing is visual and very descriptive. But this very short book sort of lost me by the end. For one thing, descriptions of bodily functions like lactation, vomiting, even constipation kind of got to me after a while. The book started to feel repetitive and I’m not sure where the story ended up.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (New York Times): I loved this book, and I especially loved the audio version read by Tom Hanks. My review here.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Oprah): Oh how I love Elizabeth Strout. She’s one of those authors who absolutely lives up to all the critical praise. And this book, happily, was just as good as Olive Kitteridge. So few books are told from the perspective of the elderly, and this one is done so well, we should all read it. My review here.
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Slate): There were things about this book I liked a lot. I loved the complexity of the two main characters and the way each struggles with different issues. I loved the idea that two people can love each other but never quite be right for each other. And yet at times this book felt a bit ponderous. For me it wasn’t really an enjoyable read, but a thoughtful one. My review here.
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (New York Times): I’m listening to this one right now.
And here are the frequently-listed books that are going on next year’s TBR list: Know My Name, The Topeka School, Girl Woman Other, The Water Dancer, Red At the Bone, The Yellow House, Say Nothing, How We Fight for Our Lives, and Disappearing Earth. Have you read any of these?