In 2019, I joyfully turned the (digital) pages of 79 books. I read on trains, planes, automobiles, and occasionally in the bathroom (it’s quiet in there!)
If you have a goal to read more in 2020, these suggestions should give you a few ideas of where to start. If you’re looking for even more suggestions (!!), take a look at my top six books from 2018.
Fleishman is in Trouble [Taffy Brodesser-Akner]
Oh boy. Where to start with this book?
First, READ IT TO THE END. The very end. THE LAST PAGE!
I suffered through this book. I texted my friend Meg (who recommended it to me) “When will this book end? I hate it. Will someone die? Is it a thriller? A death would add a lot to the plot.”
Spoiler alert: nobody dies.
But. BUT! The end is magical. It changed the way I think about relationships and marriage and childcare and sharing responsibilities with my spouse. It showed me again how good writing can change you.
My one complaint is that it’s dreadfully slow at times. And it’s long. But I promise you, the slog is worth it.
Once More We Saw Stars [Jayson Greene]
I debated putting this book on my list because it was so heartbreakingly sad. But I felt it went beyond simply telling a sad story and took a close look at grief that every parent wishes they never have to experience.
In 2015, Jayson Greene’s 2 year old daughter was killed by a brick that fell from the facade of an apartment building in New York. In the wake of an unfathomable accident, he beautifully remembers his daughter’s life, and shows how grief isn’t linear.
The Chestnut Man [Søren Sveistrup]
I have a thing for bad thrillers. They’re speedy reads and the predictability is soothing, like a lullaby or a glass of wine before bed.
The Chestnut Man, however, was a really good thriller. It’s good in the way that few thrillers are – a decently paced plot, language that isn’t overwrought, and characters that are slightly interesting and have some depth beyond “messed up childhood!!!” and “good cop who wants to do good for the world!!!”
The book focuses on a serial killer who leaves behind little figurines made of chestnuts and matchsticks, which I suppose is a popular thing to do with leftover chestnuts in Denmark. There’s a second plot about the missing daughter of a government minister, and it all ties together in a very satisfying way at the end.
Waiting for Eden [Elliot Ackerman]
Weighing in at only 192 pages (and it’s a fast read), this little novella sucks you in and holds on tight.
Narrated by the dead best friend of a solider who was badly injured in the Iraq war, the book is chock full of Biblical parallels (a nurse named Gabe, anyone?) and dives deep into what happens before, and after, Eden’s accident.
The Great Believers [Rebecca Makkai]
My friend recommended this book to me by telling me the cover looks like a bowl of uncooked spaghetti got dropped on the floor. Now I can’t unsee it.
The book is a fascinating and deeply sad look at the AIDS crisis in the 1980s through the eyes of Yale Tishman, a development director at a small art museum trying to secure a bequest from an elderly donor. It’s the sort of novel you pick up when you want to look deeply at characters over time, and you don’t mind that it’ll take 431 pages to reach the end.
How to Change Your Mind [Michael Pollan]
Truth be told, I’ve had really mixed feelings about Michael Pollan over the past few years. Some of his more recent books and articles have felt really preachy and inauthentic to me, and I was hesitant to pick up another massive tome.
How to Change Your Mind surprised me. I found myself reading it before breakfast while on a work trip in December, savoring my muesli and vanilla black tea while learning about the history of psychedelics.
Pollan makes a compelling argument for their value in the treatment of terminal cancer patients and alcoholics, which is a value that’s been buried given the criminalization of hallucinogens in the United States. I found his personal experiences, and the experiences of others participating in clinical trials, far more interesting than the history of psychedelic research. But even that section sheds light on aspects of current drug policy that I wasn’t previously aware of.
One more note about Michael Pollan: I also didn’t hate his book about building a house (A Place of My Own), which he wrote shortly after he became super famous post-The Omnivores’ Dilemma. Maybe I actually am a fan of his?
Bonus: The Red Tent [Anita Diamant]
This book has been banging around on the edge of my consciousness forever, and this year I finally picked it up. I’m usually not keen on books that are extensions of other stories (in this case, the story of Dinah from the Bible) but The Red Tent really lives up to the hype.
That’s all for this year! If you end up picking up one of those books and love it (or, heck, even if you don’t love it), drop a comment below!