Books Read in 2019: Five-Star Fiction, Non-Fiction and Short Stories

Monday mornings are always a little painful because I stay up way too late and never sleep well and Monday is my early work day. It's a bit of a pleasant surprise, though, that they're only a little painful. I don't love dragging myself out of bed, but by the time I'm in the library booting up my computer I am perfectly happy to be there. I don't have any classes I don't like, but my favourite on Monday is the last of the day, which is nice because I always go out on a good note. The kids are engaged and ask about books a lot and are very sweet and grateful. Everyone has trouble pronouncing my name, which is both weird and not when I look at it, and this teacher has made her students practice it until they say thank-you perfectly.

Also, if you want to feel powerful and work in a kids' library? Choose books to face out at the end of the shelves. It's like they can't resist anything with a full cover showing. Almost every single book I face out will be checked out by the end of the day. I have to work not to get too caught up in it, in a 'with great power comes great responsibility' way, or I spend way too long deliberating about what gets put out this week.

Last book round-up post, wherein I feel a fairly immense sense of accomplishment and a bit at loose ends about what I will blog about now.


The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Synopsis from Goodreads: In this dizzyingly rich novel of ideas, Mann uses a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, a community devoted exclusively to sickness, as a microcosm for Europe, which in the years before 1914 was already exhibiting the first symptoms of its own terminal irrationality. The Magic Mountain is a monumental work of erudition and irony, sexual tension and intellectual ferment, a book that pulses with life in the midst of death.

Whew. This was the first Big Classic I attacked this year. As with Middlemarch, I started it with dogged determination and took a bit before I fell into the rhythm. I found it quite a bit less accessible than Middlemarch, though. It's a Novel of Ideas, and some of those ideas were a bit beyond me. There were characters that stood in for certain ideologies - humanism, radicalism, the Dionysian principle etc. - which doesn't really float my boat overly, and not just because I would read their long-winded musings over and over again without quite comprehending them. At one point the narrative lapses into French for several pages without any translation. I limped along gamely for most of it, but it really brought home that this book is kind of a "can't get there from here" thing for me. 

I gave this five-stars not in the more traditional (for me) meaning of "I loved it beyond all words", but in the literal "it was amazing" sense. It's amazing to me that Mann plotted this all out and wrangled it (over some twelve years) into a cohesive whole - what an enormous accomplishment. 

Because I was so unfamiliar with the traditions of this kind of novel-writing, I was sort of confused by what was happening - Hans Castorp goes to visit his cousin at a tuberculosis sanatorium before beginning his work, but just as he's about to leave it's discovered that he also needs treatment, in a manner that seemed slightly sinister, but I don't think it was. 

Then there's the fact that the novel makes sanatorium life sound positively blissful. There are sumptuous meals. There is mountain walking. There are hours of reading in the world's most comfortable chairs on balconies for hours in the evening, with fur blankets when the weather is cold (sign me the fuck up!) It sounds like resort living with a touch of fever. But I've had the flu twice and I know this isn't really true - it's not possible to enjoy this kind of thing when you feel like your lungs are shredding themselves in your chest. I understand that the realities of t.b. are not really the point, but it irritates me that Mann makes it sound so idyllic.

I don't have it in me to do the extensive quote pull-out for this one, but I really have to give you this one on how much Hans Castorp's bewilderingly extreme - one might even say unseemly - fondness for his Maria Mancini cigars. This follows his cousin Joachim's declaration that he's never smoked. 

"'I don't understand it,' Hans Castorp said. 'I never understand how anybody can not smoke -- it deprives a man of the best part of life, so to speak -- or at least of a first-class pleasure. When I wake in the morning, I feel glad at the thought of being able to smoke all day, and when I eat, I look forward to smoking afterwards; I might almost say I only eat for the sake of being able to smoke -- though of course that is more or less of an exaggeration. But a day without tobacco would be flat, stale, and unprofitable, as far as I am concerned. If I had to say to myself tomorrow: 'No smoke to-day' -- I believe I shouldn't find the courage to get up -- on my honour, I'd stop in bed. But when a man has a good cigar in his mouth -- of course it mustn't have a side draught or not draw well, that is extremely irritating -- but with a good cigar in his mouth a man is perfectly safe, nothing can touch him -- literally. It's just like lying on the beach: when you lie on the beach, why you life on the beach, don't you? -- you don't require anything else, in the line of work or amusement either. --People smoke all over the world, thank goodness; there is nowhere one could get to, so far as I know, where the habit hasn't penetrated. Even polar expeditions fit themselves out with supplies of tobacco to help them carry on. I've always felt a thrill of sympathy when I read that. You can be very miserable: I might be feeling perfectly wretched, for instance; but I could always stand it if I had my smoke.'"

Whew. All I could think (besides "seriously, are we going with 'a cigar is just a cigar' here?") is thank goodness the man never married.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Synopsis from Goodreads: Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction
A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn't show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets; she's fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull's new litter, dying one by one in the dirt, while brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child's play and short on parenting. As the twelve days that comprise the novel's framework yield to the final day and Hurricane Katrina, the unforgettable family at the novel's heart—motherless children sacrificing for each other as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce—pulls itself up to struggle for another day. A wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, "Salvage the Bones" is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.

I swear I don't only give five stars to books that are overwhelmingly sad. I just happened to have read a few books this year that are both luminously gorgeously written and, incidentally, about horrifyingly sorrowful circumstances. This happened to be one of them. It's not tragedy porn, it's just an incredibly evocative slice of life that makes personal something that is often only understood in general terms. 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Synopsis from Goodreads: Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; now that she's started college, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone—vanished from her life. Her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man. And there was something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern.
You'll have to find out for yourself what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other. 

I had read about this years ago, which sort of spoiled one of the main surprises, but that didn't really matter. I loved this. It's rare to find such a riveting story coupled with such beautiful writing - if I read with a highlighter, I would have been highlighting every second sentence. Family dynamics, the ethics of scientific research, all manner of dysfunction, quirky characters, dark screwball comedy and inconsolable grief - it's all in here. It made me wonder why I haven't read everything Fowler has written. 

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. Synopsis from Goodreads: Two boys – a slow learner stuck in the body of a teenage giant and a tiny Einstein in leg braces – forge a unique friendship when they pair up to create one formidable human force. A wonderful story of triumph over imperfection, shame, and loss.

This may be the best book as far as impact-to-page-number-ratio I've ever read. It's so slight, and so packed with insight and revelation. Every character gets their due, even ones that seem like they might just be types upon first introduction - Grim, Gram, Iggy, Loretta. Max's description of how he is imprisoned by his oversized body and his family history is wonderful, and the way he describes Kevin is perfect. I cried a lot.


Love Lives Here: a Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family by Amanda Jette Knox. Synopsis from Goodreads: An inspirational story of accepting and embracing two trans people in a family--a family who shows what's possible when you "lead with love."
All Amanda Jett� Knox ever wanted was to enjoy a stable life. She never knew her biological father, and while her mother and stepfather were loving parents, the situation was sometimes chaotic. At school, she was bullied mercilessly, and at the age of fourteen, she entered a counselling program for alcohol addiction and was successful.
While still a teenager, she met the love of her life. They were wed at 20, and the first of three children followed shortly. Jett� Knox finally had the stability she craved--or so it seemed. Their middle child struggled with depression and avoided school. The author was unprepared when the child she knew as her son came out as transgender at the age of eleven. Shocked, but knowing how important it was to support her daughter, Jett� Knox became an ardent advocate for trans rights.
But the story wasn't over. For many years, the author had coped with her spouse's moodiness, but that chronic unhappiness was taking a toll on their marriage. A little over a year after their child came out, her partner also came out as transgender. Knowing better than most what would lie ahead, Jett� Knox searched for positive examples of marriages surviving transition. When she found no role models, she determined that her family would become one.
The shift was challenging, but slowly the family members noticed that they were becoming happier and more united. Told with remarkable candour and humourand full of insight into the challenges faced by trans people, Love Lives Here is a beautiful story of transition, frustration, support, acceptance, and, of course, love.

This kept me up until four in the morning even though I know how it ends - if that's not the hallmark of a great book, I don't know what is. If you know Amanda, it can be easy to forget that she has, not to put too fine a point on it, Gone Through Some Shit, even before her daughter and her wife came out as trans. This is an unflinchingly honest, unapologetic, hilarious, heartwrenching, clear-eyed account of a bunch of that shit. I guess coming through the fires of horrific bullying, adolescent addiction, sexual trauma, then finding out two of your family members were assigned the wrong gender at birth must really season the soul. As a long-time reader of Amanda's blog, I knew that she could write. As a fairly long-time friend, I knew that she was a big-hearted, generous woman. This book roundly confirms both of those things. She's neither naive nor cowed in the face of all the hate that is out there, much of it directed at her and her family daily. She just realizes that, for the most part, living well - and having the wittiest quips on social media - is the best revenge.

A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose by Samra Zafar. Synopsis from Goodreads: She faced years of abuse after arriving in Canada as a teenage bride in a hastily arranged marriage, but nothing could stop Samra Zafar from pursuing her dreams
 At 15, Samra Zafar had big dreams for herself. She was going to go to university, and forge her own path. Then with almost no warning, those dreams were pulled away from her when she was suddenly married to a stranger at 17 and had to leave behind her family in Pakistan to move to Canada. Her new husband and his family promised that the marriage and the move would be a fulfillment of her dream, not a betrayal of it. But as the walls of their home slowly became a prison, Samra realized the promises were empty ones.
In the years that followed she suffered her husband’s emotional and physical abuse that left her feeling isolated, humiliated and assaulted. Desperate to get out, and refusing to give up, she hatched an escape plan for herself and her two daughters. Somehow she found the strength to not only build a new future, but to walk away from her past, ignoring the pleas of her family and risking cultural isolation by divorcing her husband.
But that end was only the beginning for Samra. Through her academic and career achievements, she has gone on to become a mentor and public speaker, connecting with people around the world from isolated women in situations similar to her own, to young schoolgirls in Kenya who never allowed themselves to dream to men making the decisions to save for their daughters’ educations instead of their dowries.  A Good Wife tell her harrowing and inspiring story, following her from a young girl with big dreams, through finding strength in the face of oppression and then finally battling through to empowerment.

I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that I had heard about this book and felt a little dismissive, partly because it was so "popular" (that was snobby) and partly because it would most likely be difficult to read. Then I realized that I should freaking well make myself read it, because reading it wouldn't be a millionth as difficult as living it, and having a reminder that this kind of thing still goes on far too often is no bad thing. It is hard to read, of course - you go from being gutted with sadness to shaking with anger, all while reading breathlessly to see how she did "escape". She writes so insightfully and intelligently about how she became trapped in a horrible situation, even coming from a progressive family. It's a wonderful, important book, and I'm glad I got over myself enough to read it.

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. Synopsis from Goodreads: Any Baedeker will tell us where we ought to travel, but only Alain de Botton will tell us how and why. With the same intelligence and insouciant charm he brought to How Proust Can Save Your Lifede Botton considers the pleasures of anticipation; the allure of the exotic, and the value of noticing everything from a seascape in Barbados to the takeoffs at Heathrow.
Even as de Botton takes the reader along on his own peregrinations, he also cites such distinguished fellow-travelers as Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Van Gogh, the biologist Alexander von Humboldt, and the 18th-century eccentric Xavier de Maistre, who catalogued the wonders of his bedroom. The Art of Travel is a wise and utterly original book. Don’t leave home without it.

Oh my freaking god I loved this. It's on our book club list so I borrowed it from my friend who recommended it, but I've already ordered my own copy. I don't for a moment think that everyone will love it this much, but it's amazing to me because he's captured so many of the things I've thought about travel but articulated them brilliantly. He soars from the most minute of details to the most expansive conclusions, without arrogance or mawkishness. He synthesizes a large body of examples and illustrations into a series of tightly focused yet expansively expressed reflections. I couldn't stop reading it, which almost never happens for me with non-fiction.

Short Stories

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang. Synopsis from Goodreads: From an award-winning science fiction writer (whose short story "The Story of Your Life" was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated movie Arrival), the long-awaited new collection of stunningly original, humane, and already celebrated short stories
This much-anticipated second collection of stories is signature Ted Chiang, full of revelatory ideas and deeply sympathetic characters. In "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," a portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and the temptation of second chances. In the epistolary "Exhalation," an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications not just for his own people, but for all of reality. And in "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," a woman cares for an artificial intelligence over twenty years, elevating a faddish digital pet into what might be a true living being. Also included are two brand-new stories: "Omphalos" and "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom."
In this fantastical and elegant collection, Ted Chiang wrestles with the oldest questions on earth—What is the nature of the universe? What does it mean to be human?—and ones that no one else has even imagined. And, each in its own way, the stories prove that complex and thoughtful science fiction can rise to new heights of beauty, meaning, and compassion.

I discovered Ted Chiang when I read The Story of Your Life (several times), which was then made into the movie Arrival. I then resolved to read all the Ted Chiang stories I could find. A lot of them are harder sci-fi than I usually like, but somehow he strikes the perfect balance between cerebral and soul-stirring.

Laughter at the Academy by Seanan McGuire. Synopsis from Goodreads: From fairy tale forest to gloomy gothic moor, from gleaming epidemiologist’s lab to the sandy shores of Neverland, Seanan McGuire’s short fiction has been surprising, delighting, confusing, and transporting her readers since 2009. Now, for the first time, that fiction has been gathered together in one place, ready to be enjoyed one twisting, tangled tale at a time. Her work crosses genres and subverts expectations.
Meet the mad scientists of “Laughter at the Academy” and “The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells.” Glory in the potential of a Halloween that never ends. Follow two very different alphabets in “Frontier ABCs” and “From A to Z in the Book of Changes.” Get “Lost,” dress yourself “In Skeleton Leaves,” and remember how to fly. All this and more is waiting for you within the pages of this decade-spanning collection, including several pieces that have never before been reprinted. Stories about mermaids, robots, dolls, and Deep Ones are all here, ready for you to dive in.
This is a box of strange surprises dredged up from the depths of the sea, each one polished and prepared for your enjoyment. So take a chance, and allow yourself to be surprised.

Yes, that is five Seanan McGuire (writing as herself or Mira Grant) this year, and three of them in the five-star lineup - unapologetic fangirl, get used to it. I was excited to see this anthology, but I've read so many McGuire stories in so many mixed anthologies that I expected I would have seen many of them before. Then I discovered that I hadn't seen the majority of them, and remembered that McGuire is one of the most insanely prolific writers ever. There is a marvellous range of weirdness here - dark urban legends, twisted fairy tales, sinister science stuff - all with the usual sharp and haunting prose. 

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders. Synopsis from Goodreads: -A master absurdist...Highly recommended.- --The New York Times
Before the success of her debut SF-and-fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders was a rising star in SF and fantasy short fiction. Collected in a mini-book format, here--for the first time in print--are six of her quirky, wry, engaging best:
In -The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model, - aliens reveal the terrible truth about how humans were created--and why we'll never discover aliens.
-As Good as New- is a brilliant twist on the tale of three wishes, set after the end of the world.
-Intestate- is about a family reunion in which some attendees aren't quite human anymore--but they're still family.
-The Cartography of Sudden Death- demonstrates that when you try to solve a problem with time travel, you now have two problems.
-Six Months, Three Days- is the story of the love affair between a man who can see the one true foreordained future, and a woman who can see all the possible futures. They're both right, and the story won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
And -Clover, - exclusively written for this collection, is a coda to All the Birds in the Sky, answering the burning question of what happened to Patricia's cat.

I've read this multiple times, and I love it more than I can say (especially now when I am reviewing book 98 of 99, I'm sorry friends, my adjective tank is on fumes). It's an amazing combination of shockingly original ideas and fantastic writing. I loved all the stories, but As Good As New -- a funny, quirky, moving version of the genie in a bottle story - is my favourite. 

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Dominik Parisien. Synopsis from Goodreads: An all-new anthology of cross-genre fairy tale retellings, featuring an all-star lineup of award-winning and critically acclaimed writers.
Once upon a time. It’s how so many of our most beloved stories start.
Fairy tales have dominated our cultural imagination for centuries. From the Brothers Grimm to the Countess d’Aulnoy, from Charles Perrault to Hans Christian Anderson, storytellers have crafted all sorts of tales that have always found a place in our hearts.
Now a new generation of storytellers have taken up the mantle that the masters created and shaped their stories into something startling and electrifying.
Packed with award-winning authors, this anthology explores an array of fairy tales in startling and innovative ways, in genres and settings both traditional and unusual, including science fiction, western, and post-apocalyptic as well as traditional fantasy and contemporary horror.
From the woods to the stars, The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales takes readers on a journey at once unexpected and familiar, as a diverse group of writers explore some of our most beloved tales in new ways across genres and styles.

I am endlessly fascinated by fractured fairy tales - I've made multiple displays of them in my school libraries and they're always a big hit - and I've read a lot of them. I feel like this is THE definitive anthology of modernized fairy-tales retellings. The twisted Western feminist version of Little Red Riding Hood. The horrifying retelling of The Pied Piper. The awesome super-dark super-gay Sleeping Beauty. The science-y Snow Queen. The flat-out hilariously amazing stoner version of Hansel and Gretel (love love love). I had read Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver before, but hugely enjoyed reading it again. Then there were a couple where I didn't know the source material and I enjoyed the author's notes about it. I've given multiple copies of it away already. It is magical. 


StephLove said…
I read the Magic Mountain for book club a while back (7ish years ago) and I remember it was at a time when I was feeling full of malaise and reading about people who were paralyzed in their lives was not... the best fit. But I did recognize the majesty of the book. And for a long book in which not much happens, the ending is really packed (a seance, a duel, WWI breaking out).

And I agree about Salvage the Bones, very powerful piece of writing there.
StephLove said…
BTW, my memory for books is not as good as it looks above. I wrote about it on FB and recently saw the memory.
Nicole said…
Oooh I have some of those on my to-read list AND I've read a couple of them! I really liked A Good Wife, it was fascinating and horrifying and inspiring. I'm going to put some more on my to-read list.

I'm glad Mondays aren't horrible. My Mondays improved immensely as you know when I gave up my morning class. Honestly, I used to dread everything about it, and now I'm practically whistling a happy tune Monday mornings (figuratively, I cannot whistle).
Ernie said…
Have I mentioned how happy I am to have found your blog? I am elated to have these lists yo refer back to when I am looking for a good book. I did join a book club last year thru my alma mater's alumni group. The last book we read was AWFUL. I did not even finish it. 'Next Year in Havana.' I am going to attempt to join in on a book club with moms from my kids' grade school. I just found out about it and I am racing to finish 'the Tattoist of Auschwitz.' I like oretending I have time to read 2 books a month.

Glad you enjoyed your Monday. I keep hoping that the one family I sit for will bump over to tues-thurs and give me Mondays off.
Ernie said…
Oh and I wanted yo add thst I do the same thing 'oh everyone says you have to see this or read that- I think I will skip it' so I totally get it. I admit, I am not into sci-fi but I need to know why that girl does not really talk anymore and the one about the hurricane katrina family. OK -I think that covers it. Are we still friends if I dislike sci fi?

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