Favorite Books of 2019

Hi!

Remember me?

I’m still around. Kind of. I’ve just been busy.

My life revolves around books. I work with books. I plan vacations around books. I research books. I buy books. I go to meetings about books. I recommend books. I write about books. Occasionally I get to read books. And here are my favorite books that I read in 2019:

2019collage

Severance by Ling Ma: This was the first book I read in 2019 and I’d been looking forward to it for a few months. A global epidemic is wiping out most of humanity, but Candace, a New York City office worker who is so wrapped up in her job, barely recognizes what’s happening around her. Her company execs have promised her big things if she sticks around to continue manning the operation. So she does. At the same time Candace starts a blog in which she photographs and documents the city in its abandoned state. In time, she joins up with other survivors. The group travels to a place called The Facility to create a new society. Here they must decide if their leader, Bob, is in it for the right reasons. The book is very subtle – there are no wow! moments, no shocking confessions or emotional peaks. And I liked that about it. The shock and awe has already happened. Most of humanity is dead. Instead, the novel focuses on these people who are just traveling through the world, trying to rebuild what they can while trying to decide if they should.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Prepare to be heartbroken. Jojo and his love for his little sister, Kayla, and his messed up mother, Leonie, was so complicated and beautiful. The characters are as complex as the consequences their decisions have created for them, or in the case of Jojo, the decisions his drug-addicted mother has created for him. Leonie, a black woman with a rich family history in Mississippi, packs up her children for a road trip to greet the children’s white father upon his prison release. The ghosts of Mississippi’s deep-seated racism and that of Parchman Farm come to a head as young Jojo tries to find his place among the multitude of haunted worlds in which he lives: black/white, mother/father, brother/caretaker, past/present/future. It’s a lovely story.

The Wall by John Lanchester: This was, quite frankly, a bit terrifying because of the possibility of it becoming so real. The world has been taken over by the rising seas. People are risking their lives traveling by sea to breach the wall, a massive structure protected by armed guards called Defenders who will risk their own lives to keep The Others out. The Others come from different parts of the world. They are desperate to reach dry ground. They are running out of time. As the Defenders grow closer in their camaraderie, they begin to question their leadership and their role in keeping the island nation safe from outsiders. However, if they fail at their task they will put out to sea themselves. This book isn’t even trying to be a metaphor; it’s a warning for what could actually happen.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: I lived in North Florida when stories of physical and sexual abuse that had occurred at the state’s reform school became public. This book is based on those stories, except Whitehead offers up the narrative from a young black boy’s point of view. Elwood and Turner become unlikely friends at The Nickel Academy, a school for boys who misbehave, commit petty offenses, run their mouths, or simply take up too much space in their own impoverished family’s homes. The staff behave in unspeakably horrific ways and the children, as they seem to have done their entire short lives, continue to endure. One scene in particular has stuck with me since I read it, in which I, a modern-day middle-aged white woman, found myself having judged a justifiably angry but scared young, black boy. What happens to him is unforgettable, unforgivable, and heartbreaking. But isn’t that how it is these days? We judge. We react. We move on. Except I couldn’t move on for over a month. The Nickel Boys was, hands down, my favorite read of the year.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: This book about a single plane crash survivor, a young boy named Edward, is also based on a true story. The other passengers’ complex lives and tragic ends are partly the basis of this book; the other part is how Edward manages to live each day after he is discovered to be the sole survivor amidst the wreckage in a Colorado field. After he learns his parents and brother have been killed in the crash, he is taken in by his childless aunt and uncle. Throughout the book, Edward tries to understand why he was given the opportunity to live and so many others were not. The story moves between Edward’s recovery (a process of years) and the terrifying unfolding of the doomed flight itself. (My suspicion is that Napolitano was inspired by what happened to Northwest Airlines Flight 255, the plane that crashed outside of Detroit in 1987. It killed all but one of the 155 people on board. The only survivor was Cecelia Cihan, a 4-year old who lost her parents and brother that day, too.)

I read over fifty books this year, some through audio during my long work commute, and most in actual print. And, while my list might not reflect it, I did take in a healthy amount of nonfiction. After looking through all the books I’d read in 2019, no nonfiction books were absolute standouts. Most were good, but not as good as the fiction books I listed above.

*****

As you’ve probably noticed, I have no interest in writing much these days. I’ve taken up painting, rescuing hamsters (totally serious) and road tripping (my most recent adventure trips have been to Mystic, CT and Burlington, VT) as more enjoyable ways to spend my time. Writing is a chore, but maybe I’ll pop back here once a year to write about my favorite books. Maybe I won’t. We’ll see.

There once was a girl named Julie

When I was ten years old, I learned my best friend had died from leukemia. Her name was Julie, and she once was my favorite person, in the way little girls choose their favorite person. We met in Italy in the first grade, in Mrs. Pendleton’s class. Or had we met in kindergarten and carried our friendship over into first grade? I don’t remember. Actually, after thirty-plus years I don’t remember much about Julie at all, but I do still remember how much I missed her not going on our class field trip to the zoo.

That morning I sat on a double-seat bench in the middle of the bus and didn’t talk to anyone else. Then I waited and waited and waited for Julie to climb aboard and sit next to me, except she never came. The bus started up, and Mrs. Pendleton and my mother, who had volunteered to be our class chaperon that day, whispered to one another a few seats in front of me. The engine was running; my classmates were being told to sit down. And I started to panic. Where is Julie? Why isn’t she here? I told Mrs. Pendleton that we couldn’t leave yet. We had to wait for Julie. Then Mrs. Pendleton and my mother had another quiet but short conversation. They invited me to sit up front with them where I was told, sympathetically but without much fuss, that Julie had moved away.

It wasn’t unusual for friends to move away. It wasn’t unusual not to have a chance to say goodbye to each other. Julie and I both lived in Italy not because we were Italian, but because our fathers were in the military. This is how life as a military kid works: you move, you make friends. Then you move again, and you make new friends. Sometimes you get to stay and your friend has to move and make new friends. You do this so much that it becomes second nature, but as you get older you recognize the importance of saying goodbye to people you might never see again.

This is not, however, the moment I learned that she had died. That moment came much later, when I was in the fourth grade at a new school, on the other side of the world from where Julie and I had become best friends. And when I learned she had died, I was devastated. Julie, it turns out, had moved away because she became sick. I was never really lied to, but her family had to rush her back to the states in order to get her the best treatment possible. As my mother stood in the kitchen telling me this, I was stopped midway on the stairs, not sure whether to go upstairs or down. So I just stood there. My mother asked me if I was okay. Yes, I was okay. She asked me if I had any questions. No, I didn’t have any questions. Then she asked me if I even remembered Julie. No, I didn’t. I didn’t remember Julie, my best friend. And that’s why I was devastated.

I remember there once was a girl named Julie who I absolutely adored. I remember there once was a girl named Julie and I missed her terribly on that class trip to the zoo. I remember there once was a girl named Julie and we were such good friends that we would sometimes hold hands. I remember there once was a girl named Julie, but I don’t remember her. Not her face, not the color of her hair, not the sound of her voice, or even the feel of her hand.

I remember nothing about her, yet I often find myself thinking of her.

“I feel more at home with the landscape…”

Everything I read and everyone I know says to “write, write, write!” I find I have a difficult time focusing on writing something unless I’ve been given a deadline and a specific assignment. I’m a better writer of history, of threading facts together to build a narrative. Because of that, I cannot wait for my master’s program classes to start. Two years of nothing but Civil War, Civil Rights, and the rebranding of the New South? BRING IT.

Well,  Colonial America and some Constitutional law will be sprinkled in throughout my studies. For the most part, though, I’m inching evermore toward a degree in American History with the help of a Florida-themed thesis. Why Florida when I’m so far away? I recently read this line in a book, a memoir written by a woman who ran away to the sea: “I feel more at home with the landscape than with the people.” These are words I have apparently been waiting years to read.

I won’t pretend I don’t enjoy the hell out of my current easy access to free-roaming bison and farm-fresh foods, because bison are awesome, but truth be told – You Are Temporary, Oklahoma. And while I’m sure I’ll look back on my Oklahoma years fondly (I don’t hate you anymore), right now I have other things to work on and other places to be, even if it is mainly inside my own head.

In the meantime, I have been writing, writing, writing! FINALLY. And Morgan Freeman is spending a lot of time in my head, too, but only because he’s the imaginary narrator to my short story. It involves a Seminole princess, the Devil, and a giant hole in the ground. It’s a real place, too.

more moss

boardwalk...going back up!

lovely moss

Places I Have Slept

Last night I fell asleep on the couch next to my snoring dog. I was watching my new favorite Netflix show called Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment. It features nine volunteers who have been dropped off somewhere in the Alaska interior. Their mission is to find their way back to civilization. They have to hunt and fish to feed themselves, keep themselves out of danger, and follow a map as closely as possible so as to end up after most day hikes in some kind of strategically placed shelter. They’re usually really excited to find any covered space in which to sleep at the end of every day.

I get being so exhausted that you could sleep anywhere. But, truth be told, I, like most people, love my bed. I love my bed so much that, after moving from the couch to my bed, I slept nearly 12 hours last night which. I must clarify something – that is extremely unusual for me. What’s more unusual are the stories that involve other places I’ve slept over the course of my life. We all have a list of them. Here’s mine:

  • In the Sturdiest Tent in the World: As a young child I went camping with my neighbors in Italy while my parents stayed home. We pitched our tents on a cliff overlooking a gorgeous lake. The boys braved the cliff’s edge and the girls chose to set up camp farther back near the cliff wall. That night a brutal storm blew in, scaring the boys into our tent just before a gust of wind uprooted theirs and sent it, and all their belongings, over the edge. We spent the next morning picking up what we could from down below.
  • Cabin in the Woods: During my Girl Scout days our troop spent a weekend in the Upper Michigan woods once a year. We trudged through snow that came to our waists, always with a bathroom buddy and safety whistles (in case of bears), and only fell asleep after the last girl stopped yammering on about how Ted Nugent lived nearby. (Ted Nugent was just as terrifying to little girls as Jason from Friday the 13th was.)
  • In a Parking Lot: Hundreds of us were evacuated from our homes to the center of our military base during a massive wildfire. After an evening spent playing hopscotch and basketball, most of us kids just hunkered down in the grass with jackets or crawled inside our parents’ cars. The evacuation was finally lifted in the middle of the night, closer to early morning. It was exhausting.
  • The Church from Hell: I was once invited to a church lock-in by my sixth-grade friend who attended services there, but she bailed right after my dad dropped me off. Left without her and not knowing a soul, I agreed to play along with the group’s hide-n-seek game. I can’t blame them for not coming to find me, especially since they didn’t even know who I was (or that I was missing). The church group leader finally let me into the locked church after much door-banging (It was winter, by the way, in Upper Michigan. It always seems to be winter in Upper Michigan). As I later cozied into my sleeping bag and watched The Parent Trap with the rest of the group, the kid next to me started horking up Doritos all over the place. Oh, screw this shit. I’m out!  I called my father around 2 o’clock in the morning and went home. WORST SLEEPOVER EVER.
  • In my Best Friend’s Bed With Three Other People: In high school I woke up to find a huge, rude cop had busted into her bedroom looking for another friend of ours who’d run away from home that night (but told her mother where she’d be, like a horrible runaway, but lied about that, like a good runaway). There were cops all over her house. Her sister had just come home from the hospital the day before and was recovering from massive sinus surgery. She kept staggering around in the hallway doped up on pain medicine and begging everyone, “Please don’t touch my face! Please don’t touch my face!”. After it was determined that the girl they were looking for wasn’t with us – and that the sister was, in fact, NOT a victim of child abuse, or drunk – we were left in peace. BEST SLEEPOVER EVER.
  • A Backyard: It was after a party during which I imbibed a bit too much, I guess.
  • Under a Coffee Table in A Strange Man’s House: My friend knew him well, but I’m pretty sure he was a gang member. Anyway, see above. Note to the Internet – it was on this night that I was deemed by said gang member “one of the coolest white girls on the planet”. Psssh…yeah.
  • In a Hurricane Evacuation Room: Hurricane Floyd was battering the east coast and my hotel served as an evacuation center. I was the front office manager but the auditor and I agreed to share a room so the hotel would be very minimally staffed. I fell asleep early; he went out and got drunk. When he returned hours later, he professed his undying love to me for an hour while I pretended to be asleep the whole time. Have you ever tried not to cringe while fake-sleeping? It’s difficult.
  • At Work While Typing a Memo: Sometimes I am able to fall asleep – or, perhaps, my mind just falls asleep? – while the rest of me keeps going. I woke up at my desk once having finished typing a memo to the board members of one of our ritzy island home communities. The content regarding some of their balcony reconstructon? “We are young. Heartache to heartache we stand. No promises, no demands. Love is a battlefield.” I like to work with music playing in the background. Pat Benatar’s lyrics must have seeped into my subconscious while I was snooze-working.