This was a terrific year for books. At the beginning of the year, I set a goal to read 90 books, and 2/3 of them by non-White men. I didn’t quite hit my goal. While I read over 100 books, 43 of them were by white men. That’s 13 more than I was planning. I’m glad the majority were by non-white men, but it goes to show how hard I need to work to be sure I’m reading outside my lane. So we’ll see how I do next year.
For now, take a look at my list, and let me know what I missed.
Here are the best books I’ve read this year:
10. Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson is an amazing writer. Her plotting is always feels like a puzzle box – especially her Jackson Brodie books, of which this is the latest installment. Big Sky reads like a literary detective novel – the mystery isn’t wholly apparent until you’re well into the book. It’s helpful to have read the other Brodie books before you dive into this one, but they’re certainly not required reading.
9. Golden State by Ben Winters
Ben Winters is a master of strange worlds just a beat or two off from our own, as his previous work Underground Airlines demonstrated. Golden State is a near-future dystopia where California has made any sort of misrepresentation of reality illegal. That includes everything from lying to fiction writing to film. In this world, Winters tells a noir-ish murder mystery story. It’s a brilliant, fun and intriguing piece of writing, and one that’s all too alluring in this era of fake news.
Listen to our Fascinating interview with Ben Winters here.
8. The Water-Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates rose to prominence as a writer for the Atlantic, and he quickly became a prominent voice for Black America. After stepping down from the Atlantic, he’s been doing a lot more fiction (including terrific runs on both Black Panther and Captain America at Marvel). The Water Dancer is his first novel, and it’s terrific. Set before the Civil War, this is a story about Black Americans as architects of their own freedom. It’s got Black dignity instead of Black suffering, magical realism and a Harriet Tubman appearance or two!
Amanda and I listened to this book on a road trip, and the narrator is excellent. If you’re an audiobook person, check this out.
7. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
One of the great boons of the ascendancy of geek culture is how freely everyone plays with genre literature. So Marlon James, winner of the Man Booker prize, delivers the first book of a sprawling fantasy epic. Nearly the whole of the book is the narrator’s recounting of a failed quest to find a lost child. James draws from African history and folklore to create a lush, vibrant and bizarre world built on the foundations of epic fantasies like Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire but wholly unlike any of those Euro-centric stories. James’ tale is as brutal as it is beautiful. (And allegedly, the subsequent two books will recount the same story from other characters’ perspectives, which is a brilliant, fascinating and unique approach to a fantasy trilogy).
6. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer
Treuer identifies the Massacre at Wounded Knee as the end of the Native American in the US imagination. After a chapter tracing the history of Native nations up to 1890, Treuer explores how Native peoples are still alive and well. This book is a celebration of what Native nations are still doing in the world, contributing to us all. It’s an important, timely book.
5. Frankkissstein by Jeanette Winterson
I’d never considered Frankenstein’s monster a precursor to artificial intelligence, but Frankissstein makes a powerful case for exactly that. This novel has some of the most beautiful passages I’ve read in ages. The story bounces back and forth between a thinly fictionalized account of Mary Shelley’s life and a near-future where a trans journalist pursues a latter-day Doctor Frankenstein who is on the cusp of the AI singularity. Ultimately, this is less a prophetic warning about the future than it a portrait of humanity. What a beautiful book.
4. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Last year’s Stamped from the Beginning has proved to have massive staying power for me (I ended up listing it as one of my top three books of the decade). This follow-up from Dr. Kendi is a much more accessible guide to what anti-racism looks and sounds like in daily life. If there’s a weakness, it’s that Kendi doesn’t repeat himself from Stamped, so someone who’s new to the ongoing work of anti-racism might not understand where Kendi’s ideas and framework are coming from. That said, this is the a terrific balance of accessibility and engagement with critical race theory I’ve encountered yet.
3. The Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead’s latest is historical fiction. Nickle Boys is set in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement. A black boy in the South is arrested and sent to the Nickle Academy, a juvenile reformatory. The story that follows is predictably brutal. But Whitehead’s lyrical prose transforms this dark chapter of American history into an ode to Black resilience.
2. Exhalation by Ted Chaing
Ted Chaing’s first collection of short stories was mind-bending (one is the basis for the recent film Arrival). This latest collection is somehow even better. Chaing uses science-fiction premises to question the nature of humanity (which, yes, is what all great science fiction does, but seriously: Chaing is in a league of his own). Every story in this collection is a treasure.
1. Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers by Sady Doyle
You didn’t think you were getting a list from me without a horror pick on it, did you? This is a book on feminist philosophy and the history of horror. And those go together way better than you might imagine at first blush. Central to Doyle’s premise is that patriarchy defines personhood as male. Since this is the case, any expression of femininity is, by definition, monstrous. Doyle illustrates from both history and horror literature, how male power has demonized women simply for existing, then asks, “What’s so dangerous about womanhood?” This book is terrific. It’s fun, witty and brilliant. Easily my favorite book of the year.
Of course, not every book I read this year came out in 2019. Here are a few honorable mentions – books I wish I’d read a lot sooner!
1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Somehow I missed this amazing novel last year. The first two chapters tell the stories of two half-sisters in 17th century Ghana. One is married to a British Colonial administrator; the other is sold into slavery in America. Subsequent chapters alternate generation by generation down to modern day. It’s thematically rich, powerful and beautiful.
2. Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
I first heard about Jones because he has a very buzzy horror book coming out next year. Then I found out this 2016 werewolf novel won a ton of awards, so I had to dive in. I was hooked from page one. Mongrels is about a young boy raised by his aunt and uncle, who are both werewolves. The boy is too young to change… or may not be a wolf at all. This is literary horror, and the wolves you’ll meet in this book are more human than you can imagine. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking – more about poverty and family than things that go bump in the night.
3. Racism Without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
This book is technically a textbook, so it’s a bit dry, and it’s got a lot of charts. But, now in its seventh edition, this book illustrates how racism has evolved in the wake of Civil Rights to a subtler, more genteel racism. I read this with my book club on race, and all us white people were cringing at the reflections of ourselves we found in the pages. Bonilla-Silva illustrates how racist ideologies are constructed and disseminated. It hurts to read, but it’s a good hurt.
Click here to see all the books I read this year.