Every year around this time “best of” lists come rolling in. This year, in particular, has ushered in the horizon of a new decade, providing a further insufferable opportunity for us to endlessly debate our picks for “best of the decade.” Don’t get me wrong, I love these lists, but I’ve found it funny that they rarely feature the same picks. If you pull up five different “best books of the year” lists, you’ll find five different arrangements of published works critics are convinced were the best. Someone has to be wrong, right?
So, in the spirit of making sure I can’t be accused of having an incorrect opinion—and, more importantly, of trying to exhibit a little bit of critical humility—I’m simply going to share with you my favorite twelve books that I read this year. I won’t argue that they were the best books published in 2019. You can even disagree if you want. In fact, please do and then tell me which ones you thought were better.
Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene
I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me cry. Greene’s memoir has moved me one finger closer to losing that bragging right. On a normal afternoon, his two-year-old daughter, Greta, joins her grandmother for a carefree afternoon of fun. While sitting on a bench together in Manhattan, a brick from an overhead windowsill crumbles into pieces, one of which strikes Greta in the head, leaving her in critical condition. The book opens on this scene immediately plunging readers into a parent’s worst nightmare, culminating in the young child’s death. And that’s only chapter one. I began reading Once More We Saw Stars while my wife was out of town on a work trip, my six-month-old daughter cooing through the monitor next to me on the bedside table as she slept. Within the first few pages, I struggled to focus on the words through my tears, so much so that I put down the book and only picked it up again to finish it this week—and I’m so glad I did. Despite the heartbreaking circumstances at the heart of this story, Greene manages to capture the beauty of hope in the weight of grief and loss in a truly unforgettable way. He helps readers chart a course through heartbreak and into an open space that embraces life. Once More We Saw Stars is a read worthy of your tears.
Trick Mirror: Reflection on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
Few writers capture my attention through essays quite like Zadie Smith. Her writing is at once simple and encompassing, choice and unencumbered. And while I am reticent to garner many contemporary writers with such praise, that is not the case when it comes to Jia Tolentino. Trick Mirror is her debut collection with nine original essays exploring how our current culture propels us toward an obsession with self, largely without our knowing. Each essay approaches the subject through a particular cultural staple—the internet, literary form, optimization—to demonstrate how it handicaps our ability to see ourselves clearly. Tolentino is one of those writers I hate, but only with a deep affection because I’m simply jealous of her talent. Her ability to synthesize complex topics into palatable, even humorous, bites makes her one of the most interesting and important writers on the scene today. Tolentino writes as one beyond her time and she deserves your attention.
Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke
When I first read Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird, I could hardly wait for the second installment of her series. And Heaven, My Home did not disappoint. Texas Ranger Darren Matthews has emerged from his previous investigation intact, but not in the clear. With his marriage on a tightrope and his mother holding the potential of destroying his career, he’s simply looking for a way forward. When a nine-year-old boy goes missing in far east Texas, Matthews is assigned to the case. The only catch—the boy belongs to a family of white supremacists. At every turn, Matthews finds himself facing down racial animosity fueled by local history as well as the nation’s political climate in a town coming to terms with the fact that its demons will not die without a fight. Locke perfectly captures the Texas ethos and proves that she is far more than a literary flash in the pan.
Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade
Every year at least one book stops me in my tracks. Chris Arnade’s Dignity did the trick for me in 2019. For the last few years, he has occupied his time by traveling the country with a camera in hand to visit neighborhoods and areas the public tends to avoid. Dignity documents a three-year road trip across America offering a firsthand glimpse at those Arnade refers to as members of the “back row.” His subjects include drug addicts, sex workers, and homeless nomads, most of whom share their stories over a cup of coffee at McDonald’s. With the working class assuming a more prominent place in the public eye in recent days, Dignity offers not only an intimate look into the lives of those so many analyze from the outside, but it also does so in a responsible manner, allowing them to share their stories on their own terms rather than critiquing the various milestones that led to their present circumstances. In today’s climate, it’s hard not to give it the label of a “must read.”
Recursion by Blake Crouch
Sophomore slump, be damned. With his novel Dark Matter, Crouch established himself as a noteworthy voice among modern sci-fi authors and he has managed to relegate that book to the shadow of his newest thriller, Recursion—a novel so wild it’s difficult to adequately synopsize. The story opens on two different characters whose stories play out at separate points in time. One of them, a cop in New York. The other, a scientist determined to construct a machine that can digitally map the memories of its subjects in order to preserve the pasts of those who suffer from degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s or dementia. Both of them inhabit a world where a mysterious condition termed False Memory Syndrome has begun plaguing citizens of New York with doubts about reality. Only one solution exists, but does humanity possess the restraint to wield it responsibly? Recursion is a riveting ride from beginning to end and the final line . . . well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
For whatever reason 2019 saw the release of numerous books centered around a school or university. (Think The Swallows and Magic for Liars.) Ninth House turned out to be the only one that lingered with me after the final page. In some ways, it felt reminiscent of Harry Potter—an outcast receives a special invitation to join a secret society at an esteemed school that knows more about her powers than she does. But that’s about the extent of the similarities. It is decidedly not a YA novel and Bardugo trades in wands and spells to dabble in more mystical occult magic. The book follows Galaxy “Alex” Stern who has been able to see the dead, or “grays” as they are called, for as long as the can remember. When she is tasked with an advisory role in part of New Haven’s underground, the reasons behind her abilities begin to take form in unsettling and often deadly ways. The characters are well-rounded and interesting and Bardugo injects some poignant social commentary into her narrative, especially as it relates to abuse and gender. And based on how the book ends, she has positioned herself for what promises to be an excellent new series.
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
Maid is a story begging to be adapted for the big screen. And I mean that as a compliment. In her late twenties, Land had big dreams of leaving behind her hometown to pursue a degree and a career as a writer, but those dreams dissolved when she found herself unexpectedly pregnant with a man who wanted nothing to do with the child. Unable to attend school, Land becomes a housekeeper to make ends meet, all the while trying to provide for her daughter and keep her hopes of becoming a writer alive and well. Maid both humanizes and personalizes poverty in a way few books have, pulling back the curtain on how many of the systems we have in place contribute further to the problem rather than providing relief. It is an unflinching look at the experience of American impoverishment, one that will shake your confidence in the “work hard and you will succeed” aphorisms, which have proven largely hollow time and time again.
Tisby has long been a strong voice on the topics of race and Christianity and penned one of the most read—and, in my opinion, convicting—articles we’ve ever published at Fathom. This year, his voice finally found its way into his first book. The Color of Compromise surveys American Christianity from the colonial period up to the present day, specifically with an eye on how the church played a role in perpetuating racism. In a time where nationalistic nostalgia tends to trump reality, it is crucial that we face the facts no matter how painful—especially when it comes to matters of our faith. We may live in a post-slavery, post-emancipation, post-Jim Crow society, but racism remains alive and well and the church is not immune. Tisby’s book is a piercing reminder of that fact and a practical call for Christians everywhere to face the past, refuse to look away, and embrace one another to find a better way forward.
What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics by Rachael Denhollander
If I were picking favorites based on the cover alone, this one would be hard to beat. Rachael Denhollander first came to my attention in early 2018 when her closing statement at the Nassar trial went viral. I was awed by her poise and boldness while listening to her weave together the pillars of justice and mercy, speaking with such prophetic compassion to a man accused of assaulting over 250 women, one of them being Denhollander herself. What Is a Girl Worth? chronicles Denhollander’s role in the landmark trial, beginning with her emergence as the first victim to speak out against Nassar. But it’s more than simply an autobiographical account of that important moment in modern history. Denhollander, a trained attorney, provides pointed direction for how to create safer environments for women everywhere and advocates for victims with tender care. She is a voice we would do well to listen to closely in the days ahead.
Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations & Observations by Craig Ferguson
Craig Ferguson has always been my favorite late-night TV host. I hated to see him go off the air. His show was irreverent and off the rails, but a deeper humanity seemed to shine out of him from beneath the surface. For whatever reason I always sensed a melancholy that allowed him to engage with people and laugh in ways others could not. He treated his guests like normal people and was rewarded with a committed following for it. Through the years he’s been open about his history of alcohol and drug abuse and now, looking back, he has a wealth of reflections to offer. Riding the Elephant is a compilation of essays that swings from his trademark comedic asides to moving meditations on topics like faith, marriage, and fatherhood. Rather than sweeping his mistakes beneath the rug, he owns them to examine the man he has become. Before reading the book, I didn’t think it was possible to love him any more than I already do. It turns out, I was wrong.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
The first installment in James’s Dark Star trilogy landed a spot on nearly every most-anticipated list this year—and for good reason. With Black Leopard, Red Wolf comes a sprawling fantasy world steeped in African lore and a fresh protagonist named Tracker. Known for his nose, he can hunt down anything that leaves behind a scent. When he accepts a contract to track a boy that went missing three years earlier, he joins up with a group of travellers engaged in the same quest, one of them a mysterious shape-shifter named Leopard. Along their journey, they face menacing enemies, gravity-defying specters, and untrustworthy friends that cause Tracker to question whether or not anyone knows the full truth behind the boy’s disappearance. Excepting its gratuitous and, many times, uncomfortably graphic amounts of sex, Black Leopard, Red Wolf marks the beginning of a rich new world ready to bloom in the world of fantasy.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
This brief novel was my first encounter with Sarah Moss’s writing, but it will not be my last. Ghost Wall is told from the perspective of a teenage girl named Sylvie. Her father, a north England bus driver and history buff about all things pre-Roman Britain, packs up Sylvie and her mom to join a local university’s anthropology course as they camp in the forest for two weeks in an attempt to live out an Iron Age lifestyle. They forage plants, kill wildlife, and survive off the earth. For Sylvie’s father, it’s his dream vacation, but there’s also a darker side to his obsession, one willing to twist history into justifying his cruel disposition. Moss’s prose is gorgeous and her pace perfect. For such a short novel, Ghost Wall packs a punch leaving readers with plenty to consider in terms of whether or not we can truly leave the past behind.