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  • Writer's pictureKatie Breen

My Favorite Books of 2019

Welcome to the third annual Femtastic year-end book review!

This year was my first full year in grad school, which is definitely reflected in the list. In 2018, I “read” 52 books, only 2 of which were audiobooks. In 2019, my total number is 48 books - 15 of which were audiobooks! Not bad, but shows that when I had free time in grad school, I was less likely to want to read (than say, listen to an audiobook…or more often, a murder podcast) because I was already doing so much reading for school. I clearly tended toward fiction rather than nonfiction for the same reason.

As usual, lots of books with strong female leads, authors of color, and WWII history - including a surprising number of WWII-era nonfiction and fiction released this year that is set in Italy, which is not the typical setting for most WWII books. Also many books set in the American South, and many immigrant stories.

Anywho, if you like Obama’s book lists, like in previous years some of my faves are his faves too or were already on my list for 2020!

All books are ranked in (very rough and inexact) order within each category.

Top 10 Fiction

1.    An American Marriage (Tayari Jones) Beautiful and enraging story about how our country and criminal justice system treats black bodies. This destroyed me (in a good way?)

2.    A Place for Us (Fatima Farheen Mirza) Ditto; felt like I needed a group therapy session to process but it’s gorgeous. If you’re a first-gen immigrant, particularly from a South Asian family, it will resonate.

3.    The Power (Naomi Alderman) Sci-fi bestseller that explores what would happen if women suddenly became the physically dominant sex. Everyone who grew up in a male body should read.

4.    Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward) Jesmyn is my favorite author discovery of 2019. She’s a two-time National Book Award winner, which she won for this book and the next on the list. Everything she writes is haunting, visual, and beautiful. This one is about family and poverty in Mississippi in the days leading up to (and just after) Hurricane Katrina. The Kindle version of this book is currently only $2.99.

5.    Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward) Ward’s second National Book Award–winner. As usual, her work is lyrical and moving. Again set in rural Mississippi.

6.    House at the Edge of Night (Catherine Banner) Transports you to a remote little island off the coast of Sicily. Anyone who grew up in a small town or is familiar with Italy will relate. Explores the impact of the Fascist party and both World Wars in Italy.

7.    The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna (Juliet Grames) Funny, moving, and generally excellent read for any Italian American or other person who descended from southern European immigrants that migrated to the American northeast in the 20th century.

8.    Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) Dystopian and will definitely freak you out about pandemics, but worth it. Couldn’t put it down. I probably wouldn’t have picked this one out for myself, but my friend lent it to me and I’m so glad she did.

9.    On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong) Gorgeous. Poetic. May resonate with LGBTQ+ folks, folks who are first generation immigrants to America (especially from east/southeast Asia), people who grew up in rural areas, those touched by the opioid epidemic…so basically everyone.

10. Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) If you grew up around marshland, you’ll be transported right back. If you didn’t, you’ll probably also be transported. There’s a mystery element as well, but it’s so different from any other book in the mystery/thriller category that it won’t feel that way.

Top 5 Non-Fiction

1.    I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (Michelle McNamara) Could not put it down. If you like true crime and serial killer stories, you’re welcome. The evilness of this man is astounding. If you get scared of the dark easily, are a woman who lives alone, or live in a detached family home with windows on the first floor…you might not be able to sleep for a while. Major trigger warning for sexual assault, physical violence, etc.

2.    The Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 (Stephen Puleo) INCREDIBLE story of the Great Molasses Flood (yes, really) of 1919 in Boston. Sounds funny and whimsical, but actually killed lots of people and devastated an entire neighborhood of poor, politically vulnerable Italian-American immigrants. Delves into the political climate and unrest of the time and how that culture contributed to the tragedy and shaped the trial in its aftermath.

3.    The Pope and Mussolini (David L. Kertzer) If you like World War II, you have to read this. Tells the story of how the Catholic Church was complicit (and knew it) in the atrocities committed by Mussolini and Hitler.

4.    Men We Reaped: A Memoir (Jesmyn Ward) I tried but I can’t put it better than the succinct description at the link: Ward “contends with the deaths of five young men dear to her, and the risk of being a black man in the rural South.”

5.    The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy (Michael Lewis) Written by the author of bestsellers like The Big Short, Moneyball, Flash Boys, etc. Anyone interested in or learning about government should read to realize how federal agencies impact policy in the background, outside the fanfare of Capitol Hill. Will make you angry and scared by how the Trump administration has gutted KEY federal administrations, removing executives with decades of expertise and endangering us all in the process. You’ll also learn a lot of very interesting (and sometimes fun) facts about the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture.

Top 5 Audiobooks I’m very, very picky about narrators, so any audiobook I actually finish is pretty good. I also listened to the entire Harry Potter audiobook series (7 books), which is obviously the number one winner of everything, always, but I won’t list it here because that goes without saying. Jim Dale narrated the whole series and I love him deeply. I started Book One during my spring finals, which is the best therapy money can buy.

1.    Beneath a Scarlet Sky (Mark Sullivan) Again, great for WWII junkies. I have read a ton about WWII but only in this year have there been any popular books that detail how the Nazi regime interacted with Mussolini’s fascist party in Italy. You need to read it if your WWII history lessons haven’t focused much on Italy (same goes for the next book on this list). Based on true events. Kindle version is currently only $5.99 and apparently it is “soon to be a major television event from Pascal Pictures, starring Tom Holland.

2.    From Sand and Ash (Amy Harmon) Excellent and amazingly narrated. “Italy,1943—Germany occupies much of the country, placing the Jewish population in grave danger during World War II.” It's also a love story involving a priest so there's truly something for everyone!

3.    Evil Has a Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation (Paul Holes, Jim Clemente, Peter McDonnell) I listened to this immediately after reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (McNamara), listed above, because I couldn’t get enough. Golden State Killer is the scariest serial killer I've ever heard of, and I've heard of many. McNamara’s book ends before he was found and arrested in 2018. This book goes into the details of how he was finally discovered (awesome genealogy lessons!) after evading authorities for 50 years.

4.    What the Wind Knows (Amy Harmon) A mix of fantasy and historical fiction about the violence in Ireland in the 1920s. Great narration. Lil bit o' romance.

5.    Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered (Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff) My favorite podcast is My Favorite Murder and this book is essentially a joint autobiography written by the hilarious hosts. If you don’t listen to the podcast, you probably won’t get it. If you do, you’ll love it.

Hankering for more great reads?

Additional Fiction

-      News of the World (Paulette Jiles): A top fiction runner-up. Post-Civil War Texas and interactions with Native American tribes. Soon to be a movie starring Tom Hanks, who literally could not be more perfect for the role of the protagonist.

-      The Summer Before the War (Helen Simonson and Ricarda Huch): Another runner-up for me. Classic historical fiction set in the English countryside.

-      And the Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini): By the author of The Kite Runner. You will learn a lot about the realities and complexities of Taliban control of Afghanistan and what it meant for women. Hosseini's books are always incredibly moving and provide a very informative, historical glimpse into various moments of 20th century Afghanistan.

-      Three Daughters (Consuelo Saah Baehr): Again, you’ll learn a lot about Middle Eastern politics through a sweeping story, described as a “historical saga that chronicles the lives, loves, and secrets of three generations of Palestinian Christian women.”

-      The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin): a story about  bonds between siblings that is a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. Starts in 1969 Lower East Side, journeys through the absolute terror of the early HIV/AIDS epidemic.

-      Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng): Bestseller, mystery, great beach read. Soon to be a Hulu limited series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.

-      Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman): Depressing but darkly funny in a very British way. Reese Witherspoon is producing a movie based on it.

-      The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Heather Morris): Based on interviews conducted with real Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov. If you haven’t read more than 10 books about the Holocaust, this was a 2019 bestseller so I’d recommend it. I’ve read so many about the topic though that this didn’t really stand out for me.

-      Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng): Ng always delivers on a great, contemporary, family-based thriller of a beach read.

-      Exit West (Mohsin Hamid) Fiction but definitely gives you a glimpse into the terror going on in places like Syria. “A New York Times bestseller, the astonishingly visionary love story that imagines the forces that drive ordinary people from their homes into the uncertain embrace of new lands.”

-      Unsheltered (Barbara Kingsolver): Beach read-ish. A little mystery, a little historical fiction, a little present-day family drama.

-      Gilead (Marilynne Robinson): This won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. I can see why because the writing is beautiful. But is also very…rambling. You might like if you’re from the Midwest or South. “An intimate tale of three generations, from the Civil War to the 20th century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart.”

-      Split Level (Sande Boritz Berger): This review by Foreword said it best: “sets a 1970s Jersey housewife on a provocative collision course…a sharp portrait of female empowerment. Through sensitive insights, a woman finds an honest version of herself after realizing that her ideas on the nuclear family have made her erase vital parts of her identity.”

Additional Non-Fiction (many of which were written by our talented Femtastic Podcast guests!):

-      When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew (Hendrika de Vries): Memoir of growing up in Nazi-occupied Germany. I felt honored to have Hendrika on the podcast to tell her story.

-      A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II (Sonia Purnell): true story of female spy, Virginia Hall, and how she changed the course of WWII through her work in France  

-      What a Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and its Aftermath (Karen Stefano): Trauma and recovery in the aftermath of assault, including interactions with an insensitive criminal justice system. Karen spoke beautifully on the podcast about taking baby steps to healing after trauma.

-      Being Mean: A Memoir of Sexual Abuse and Survival (Patricia Eagle): I LOVED interviewing Patricia on the podcast, where she talked about the illegal abortions she received pre-Roe v. Wade. The podcast is the first time Patricia had ever spoken about her abortions publicly, but she felt it necessary to speak out given the recent attacks on reproductive rights in many states.

-      We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor (Editors: Marika Lindholm, Cheryl Dumesnil, Katherine Shonk, Domenica Ruta): Funny and heartwarming, with stories from people like Amy Poehler, Anne Lamott, and Elizabeth Alexander. I interviewed co-editor Marika Lindholm on the podcast about what it’s like to be a solo mom in 2019.

-      At the Narrow Waist of the World: A Memoir (Marlena Maduro Baraf): Memoir of growing up between Panama and the U.S. as a Spanish Jew with a mentally ill mother in the 1950s and 1960s

Additional Audiobooks:

-      The Silent Patient (Alex Michaelides): Bestselling thriller. Starts off a bit slow but then gets entertaining. Fantastic British accents.

-      Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman): Fantasy. I was looking for something to listen to that would fill the void I felt after listening to the entire Harry Potter series. It’s no Harry Potter, but I understand why it was recommended as a rebound after HP.

-     Where the Desert Meets the Sea (Werner Sonne): Jewish refugees in Post-WWII Palestine

Started but didn’t finish mostly because my library loan expired before I could get into it and I wasn't attached enough to get on the waitlist for them again:

-      There, There (Tommy Orange): I couldn't get into it but I’d try again because so many people love it. Contemporary Native Americans living in Oakland.

-      The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan): Couldn't get super into it but might rent again because it won the Man Booker Prize. Australian countryside.

-      Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders) – Yes, that Lincoln. Fantasy mixed with historical fiction? Couldn’t get into the unique writing style, but many people love it.

-      Circe (Madeline Miller): fantasy/mythology. People recommended to me but I did not like. 

-      Small Fry: A Memoir (Lisa Brennan Jobs): Written by the daughter that Steve Jobs abandoned in her early years. If you’ve read about Jobs (which you should – read the Isaacson biography), you already know that he was an asshole, so this is just a look into the specific ways in which he was an asshole to his daughter and her mother. Poetic writing but I got bored because it felt like more detail than I wanted about her life at the time, and I already knew a lot about Jobs and his relationships from the biography.

-     The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins): Bestselling psychological thriller that became a movie starring Emily Blunt. I was listening to this on my waterproof iPod while swimming laps but I never finished it because I stopped doing pool workouts. Haha. I only got a maybe a couple hours in, but it was definitely entertaining and well-narrated with nice British accents. I'd restart it! 


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