This wasn’t a year for devouring books for a variety of reasons. We’ve been busy at Berkeleyside certainly, and I think the cumulative exhaustion of national and global politics has taken a toll. But there were a number of books that stood out for me in 2019.
After watching HBO’s gripping Chernobyl, I thirsted for more knowledge of those grim days in 1986. Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe was compelling, and a reminder that when a government is built on lies, terrible things can happen. Want a further historical cold shower? I couldn’t put down Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies, a history of the partition of India and Pakistan. (That choice was also provoked by another medium: the wonderful three-part Thanksgiving special “The Jungle Prince” on The Daily podcast.)
Julia Lovell’s Maoism: A Global History shows how Maoism stretched outward from China and conquered many surprising places around the world. That wave of influential propagandizing all started with a determined American journalist, Edgar Snow.
My reading wasn’t all doom and gloom. In the year of Brexit, Robert Menasse’s thoroughly enjoyable The Capital does the unthinkable: spinning high entertainment out of Europe’s capital, Brussels. And David Epstein played to all my personal predilections in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Malcolm Gladwell is wrong.
In this turbulent year (when will it ever end?), I drew comfort from the novels that enveloped me, drawing me out of myself. The two best I read this year, The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai and The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason, were published in 2018 but I only got to them in 2019.
The Great Believers is the story of a group of gay men in Chicago at the start of the AIDS crisis. As someone who grew up in San Francisco and came of age during the era of the bathhouses and the debate that erupted over closing them and what that meant for personal freedom, the themes of this book felt familiar. Makkai creates rich portraits of young men in their prime grappling with love, mortality and community.
The Winter Soldier also deals with love and mortality but told through the story of Lucius Krelewski, a medical student from a well-to-do Austrian family who spends his time during part of World War I as a doctor in a remote hospital. There he meets and falls in love with the mysterious Sister Margarete and begins to treat a soldier who has PTSD. Mason’s writing is exquisite, his descriptions beguiling and horrifying.
Two other novels I enjoyed include Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger, the story of a physicist in search of happiness and The Lost Man by Jane Harper.
In Lost and Wanted, an MIT physicist gets a message from an old friend. The only problem is that her friend is dead. What follows is an exploration of the supernatural, success, privilege and love. An added bonus is the digestible lessons about physics.
The Lost Man is an excellent thriller set in the outback of Australia. It starts with the discovery of a man’s body at a remote grave. Why is he dead when water and shelter are nearby? The man’s brother investigates and unleashes a family’s past of lies and violence. The novel kept me guessing all the way through. I could not put it down and passed it along to friends with whom I was traveling. They all had the same reaction.
In 2019, I read two of the best nonfiction books I have ever read, ones that belong in the pantheon of best books of the decade. I am late to reading and appreciating Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which traces the Great Migration of blacks from the south to the north through the story of three individuals. Wilkerson documents the indignities blacks in the U.S. have suffered, from small insults to systematic oppression and murder. The pervasive racism of the south prompts blacks to head north, but they find whites there to be just as cruel and discriminatory. How to Survive a Plague by David France reveals another kind of recent discrimination: against gay people in New York before and after AIDS breaks out. This is another headbanger of a story of government neglect and indifference that cost thousands of men their lives as well as a tale of communities coming together to help one another.
Two books that complement one another – and are not redundant – are She Said by Jody Kantor and Megan Twohey and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. Both books recount Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting assault on scores of women in the film industry and how others in power looked away and kept silent. Both books recount in tic tock detail how these reporters got the story and the challenges they faced, making them read like thrillers. Two other notable books for me included The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett McGrath, an oral history of 9/11 and How We Fight for our Lives, a memoir by Saeed Jones of growing up black and gay in the south. The center of Jones’ book is the relationship he has with his mother, and to a lesser degree, his grandmother, and how they both supported and loved him and dismissed his sexuality.
Mal Warwick, whose reviews from his Blog on Books are a Berkeleyside staple, shares his 15 best books of 2019. (He reads 200 books a year).
Tell us about your favorite books you read this year.