Countdown to 2020: 2019 Books

2019 Books

Last year, I read 14 books! This year I also read 14! I surpassed my usual goal of 10 books per year. I also listened to a lot of podcast and will start including those at the end of this list.

One of those books was an A Series of Unfortunate Events book–I had started this re-read of the series with my babysitting charge and then finished it on my own. I have now read the complete series twice (and many of the books three or more times).I usually separate the children’s books out, but since none of these were really read during babysitting, I’m including them all as one group this year.

Overall, I read 8 fiction books (5 contemporary, 1 classic, 1 YA, 1 book of short stories–last year I read 5 fiction), 3 non-fiction books (2 books of essays, including a theater book of essays, and 1 theater history book–last year I read 5 non-fiction), 2 children series books, and 1 book of poetry. I read 3 non-American authors this year (only 1 non-English speaking one, however); last year I only read American authors. Last year I read 8 female authors, with 4 being women of color; this year I also read 8, with only 1 being a woman of color. 3 books were for my virtual book club with my college friends (last year there were 4), and 3 were for another book club at work (last year there were 2). Usually I try to read 1 book by someone I know, which kind of counts this year with reading Musical Theater Today. 1 book I read because it related to something I was writing/working on (same as last year).

These stats are fairly similar to last year’s. I am happy that I kept up with reading more women authors and increased the number of non-American authors, although I’d like to try to go back to reading more women of color next year. I did not keep my resolution to read 1 feminism book a year this year, however I did keep my good mix of fiction, non-fiction, children/young adult books, and poetry. I would have liked it to be a better balance between the fiction and non-fiction, but I read a lot for my book clubs this year, and all those selections were fiction. My resolution has been to read 1 poetry book a year, and I have stuck to that, as well as to my resolution to read 1 Thornton Wilder book a year. However, one of my resolutions last year AND the years before that had been to read a biography, and I still did not do that. I tried to this year, but did not have enough time. I basically achieved all my reading goals except for biography and a feminism book, though. Next year: Continue with at least a 50:50 ratio for women to men authors and continue with my reading variety–make sure to continue to read 1 poetry book a year, 1 feminism book a year, and 1 Wilder book a year–but make sure to read a biography as well.

I also read 6 New Yorkers (2 less than last year) and 6 New York magazines (1 less than last year) in between each book, as well as various other magazine/web articles. Plus, every Time Out New York until they cancelled the subscription. I’m a little disappointed I fell in my magazine reading. Next year: Try to bring myself up to previous years’ numbers of 10 New Yorkers and 10 New York magazines a year.

I’ll still list the online reading/writing classes I was in. This year, I did ModPo this fall and started an Iowa Writing Center class (Hidden Meanings: Creative Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Facts), to be finished next year. Last year I didn’t read any short stories except for those in the short story collection I read. This year, I read 2 as part of my new online class. Two years ago, I read 9, however, so there’s still work to do there as well.

My favorite book(s) of the year:
The Cleft by Doris Lessing
Everything was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies by Ted Chapin
American Characteristics and Other Essays by Thornton Wilder (I mean, I love everything by Thornton Wilder, so…)
Theory of Flight from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser by Muriel Rukeyser

The List:

1. In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
This was an enjoyable book to read but I can’t say I loved it. The characters’ backstories were compelling, especially Evelyn’s and Richard’s but I didn’t really care about how the dead body story resolved, and I think the most interesting relationship was between Evelyn and Frankie (and by extension the mom). The Richard and Lucia relationship was nice but not especially compelling as I figured they’d get together eventually. I also wasn’t sure if the narrative backstory sections were the characters telling their own stories or an outside narrator. It started as if it were the former but by the end it seemed like the latter. I think I would have preferred the story of Evelyn and her relationship with Frankie and living in that house and then with the Lucia and Richard helping her section being a small part of her story.
Finished: January 29, 2019

2. The Cleft by Doris Lessing
What a strange and fascinating book. At first it was like nothing I had ever read, and then I realized it reminded me of Thornton Wilder’s novels: ideas more than characters, a narrator as a framing device to piece together the past, ancient Rome. Still, there was so much originality in this book that it was fun to read even when a few plot elements got a tad confusing and the gender dynamics felt too on the nose and old-fashioned. The first half of the book was more compelling, as it traces the origin of the first human-like creatures–a race of women who could somehow self-impregnate (or were impregnated by the moon or the tides or the sea or whatever, they didn’t really know) and how the birth of men ultimately evolves us into the society we live in today with all its gender dynamics in place (well, today by way of ancient Rome). It was interesting also to see the evolution of ideas–the “other” (women vs. men, shore vs. valley), how men started as “monsters” then became “squirts” and then “men,” tracing the concepts of “love,” “jealousy,” and loneliness.” An evolution I’d never really considered when thinking about humans evolving over millennia. This book should have me thinking for a long time.
Finished: February 27, 2019

3. The Whole Thing Together by Ann Brashares
I read this book for a newly-formed Barnard alum virtual book club. I’ve lately been curious about how different book club formats work, and since the book was by Ann Brashares (a Barnard alum and author of the wonderful Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series) and YA (aka, most likely a short and fast read) I decided to join the club and squeeze the book into my busy reading schedule. The book club discussion did help in expanding my thinking about the book. I mainly agreed with everyone’s thoughts. The story and characters were not as rich as those in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, although the writing style was similarly thoughtful and lyrical. All the characters were interesting, but because there were so many and so little time, we only got a surface level understanding of them, or no time with them at all. As a result, I thought some characters didn’t get the sympathy and understanding they deserved, most notably the mom, Lila. I would love to see more about this family, either in another book or a TV show (which could really focus on all the characters over a longer period of time).
Finished: March 8, 2019

4. In These Times The Home is a Tired Place by Jessica Hollander
I finished this book a few days ago, for my online book club. What’s been interesting to me about this story collection is that I felt as though the stories weren’t really separate stories but variations on a theme with archetypal characters. These characters seem to have been laid out in the title story at the center of the book, which has a strange yet cool numerical or list form to it. I’m not saying the characters correspond exactly, but close. The effect this had on me was that toward the end of the book I felt done with it before I had gotten to the end. I don’t mean this in a completely negative way just that it had that effect, and I do like the overall variations on a theme idea. Looking back at this book, I doubt I’ll remember much about the individual stories (except for the few that really broke traditional form) but the overall themes and archetypal characters. I don’t read many short story collections, maybe one a year if that, so I haven’t really encountered this before. In general, the writing style is lovely, and I love anything that critiques the idea of traditional domesticity.
Finished: March 31, 2019

5. Musical Theater Today Volume 2 Editedby Ben Van Buren, Lucas Tahiruzzaman Syed, Ian Axness, Shoshana Greenberg, Timothy Huang, and Natasha Sinha
I’m listed as an author/editor on this, so it seems like a conflict of interest to review it. I’ll just say that I’m happy to have read the entirety of Volume 2 right before Volume 3 comes out so that I’m ready to start Volume 3 right away. Make sure you get all 3 volumes of this compendium!
Finished: April 28, 2019

6. True Grit by Charles Portis
I read this for our company book club, and I’m glad it came my way. I knew basically nothing about it at the start, and I very much enjoyed the narrator Mattie’s voice throughout the book. I felt like I had never met anyone like her, even by today’s standards. Her confidence and business savvy drew me to her immediately, even in a pages-long negotiation that with any other character would have been a slog to get through. What also struck me was how sparse the book is–there is a character with an understandable goal and she goes out to meet it despite many obstacles. The language and character detail are rich enough to make up for this simplicity, and while I could have used fewer gun fights/ showdowns, the climax was certainly riveting. I also appreciated reading a western set in the 1870s from a girl’s point of view. Mattie is both practical and daring, and it was fun to see her go up against the lawlessness of the wild west.
Finished: May 29, 2019

7. Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies by Ted Chapin
I bought this book when it came out in 2003–I was in college and had already seen two professional productions of Follies: Papermill Playhouse in 1998 and the Roundabout Theatre Company revival in 2001. I already knew all the songs by heart and had performed many of them in high school concerts and recitals. I have always listed Follies in my top tier of favorite musicals. It’s a wonder, then, that I waited until now to read Everything was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies. But maybe it’s appropriate that I read it now, 16 years and 3 more productions later, when my love of Follies had begun to fade. The last time I saw it, the script felt dated and I questioned whether the show was even worth doing without the kind of theater stars that don’t really exist anymore. I was nostalgic for my early years of loving this show and feeling its magic, and for those who don’t know, Follies is very much about nostalgia and the interplay of the past, present, and future. Even if I never again see Follies as when I saw it in 1998 at Papermill, or see it again at all, this book brought me back to loving it. Ted Chapin infuses a first-hand account, full of the excitement and emotion of experience, with research and fact. As a result, Follies’ road to Broadway (and to existence) feels lived-in, like we really are right there along with it, even though he’s telling the story from the present, which is now 16 years int the past, and looking back about 30 years prior. I’m glad I finally got myself to read it… before it became one of Ben’s “books I’ll never read.”
Finished: June 24, 2019

8. The End: A Series of Unfortunate Events Book 13 by Lemony Snicket
This was actually only the second time I’ve read this book. I’ve read every other book in the series at least three times, and that’s because this was the first entire re-read I did after this book came out back in 2006. And this was the most epic re-read. I began this re-read in 2012 when my babysitting charge was four years old and had just started chapter books. I started reading the first book to her when I babysat, and she took to it right away. Every time I babysat, I’d read a chapter or so. This continued through all the books, until the middle of Book 10 in the beginning of 2017. At that point, my babysitting charge was eight and reading on her own. She didn’t want to wait for me to come babysit to read the books and quickly finished them on her own. I didn’t want to stop in the middle of my re-read however, so I continued to read through to The End. I continued at roughly the same pace, however, this time only reading the books when I visited my parents’ house since that’s where they are now being stored. I really didn’t remember much about this last book, but the Netflix series came out before I had time to finish, so I refreshed my memory that way. Still, the book has so many pleasures of its own that it didn’t matter that I watched it and then read it.

SPOILERS: The crazy thing about this series is not only that it ends with the orphans raising a child but that the mysteries that have built up over the course of the books never get solved, and through this last book you realize the answers to those mysteries don’t even matter anymore. You’d think that would be an unsatisfying conclusion, but I found it deeply satisfying. These books have always been a coming-of-age story, and what is more coming-of-age than realizing that the secrets of your parents and of your past don’t matter anymore, that you are where you are and you just have to go from there. The orphans finally found a safe place and had a year of peace, and the book ends with them leaving that safe place to rejoin the world. It is probably the best ending of a book series one can ask for. I don’t know yet when and under what circumstances my next series re-read will be, but I hope it will be as wonderful and as satisfying as this one.
Finished: July 7, 2019

9. Lexicon by Max Barry
I don’t think this was a very good book, but there were a lot of interesting ideas in it, and it was a fun, quick read. I read it for a book club, which I think was the only reason I enjoyed reading it. There are so many issues with it, and it was fun to hash them out with people, to talk about the plot holes and what was confusing or just flat out didn’t make sense. The book has the feel of a film–many action sequences, quick cuts, few descriptions. One would also think it was part of a series, but it’s not. I think it would have been better as a trilogy, but not with two books after this one, with this one book expanded into three books. There’s so much more going on that needs to be explained and explored, but not with more plot, with more expansion. The main character, Emily, was compelling, complex and controversial, and I thought the book’s theme of feelings and vulnerability vs. emptiness and control played out nicely in her story. Eliot was also a great character and could have used more time to develop. I thought the villain, despite some effort to make him interesting, was a bit cartoonish, and the rest of the characters either fell flat or didn’t get enough time for development. I did appreciate that one of the book’s main locations was a real town in the Australian outback (where the author grew up apparently) that’s never been on my radar. The idea of words being used as weapons (although not the words we know, words we don’t even know we know) is fascinating and dangerous, but the development of that idea was too confusing. I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you were going to read it with a group. I do get a lot out of analyzing writing that has flaws, and that’s what I got out of reading Lexicon.
Finished: July 22, 2019

10. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
The Great Believers was beautifully written, deceptively epic in scale, and in certain moments slightly frustrating in its underdevelopment. The book had many themes, but, for me, I think it was about trauma, memory, and legacy, and how unless we have gone through a literal war we don’t usually acknowledge the traumas we may go through and pass on. And how some of that is also the feeling of responsibility to be the keeper of someone’s legacy. The threads and relationships between Nora and Yale, Yale and Fiona, and Fiona and her daughter Claire were strongest. The relationships among Yale’s cohort of friends in the mid-80s, almost entirely lost to AIDS, were less so. Those characters were more notable for their roles in Yale’s story than their personalities, though if they lived long enough we glimpsed a tad more of them. But even though half of the book was from Yale’s perspective, I thought this was really Fiona’s story–at least, she was the one that connected everything. Overall, this was a great read, and recommended.
Finished: August 10, 2019

11. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
I’m glad I finished this book on Rosh Hashana, the day we chant the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. The prayer is basically about how we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know who will live this year and who will die, and we must live accordingly. In Chloe Benjamin’s novel The Immortalists, the four children in a Jewish family go to a fortune teller and find out, at a very young age, when each will die. Over the course of the book, we see what this knowledge (whether they choose to believe the prophesy or not) does to them. The book wants to be written as though we never know for sure whether the fortune teller is to be believed, but when the first sibling dies from AIDS on his exact date, I took that to mean that the prophecies were real, even though the other deaths were more directly influenced by knowing the date. The question of whether you would want to know your death date permeates the book. The siblings who dies youngest was grateful to know because it allowed him to take risks and live his life to the fullest, even if it led to disease and death (although wouldn’t he have still died from AIDS if he hadn’t known his date?). Still, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that their lives would have been better if they had not gone to the fortune teller, that not knowing when you’re going to die is the human condition and a core part of faith and morality. I liked how the High Holidays were a small part of the family’s ritual–one of the siblings who moved away came home every year for them–and that makes the story’s connection to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer stronger, even though it’s not mentioned specifically in the book. I liked the book overall, it was a fast read, but there was something a little too simplistic about it, even though it was dealing with big themes. I would have liked to see the book touch a little more on illness and how some people do have an idea of their death dates because of that (the AIDS death in the book happened early in the AIDS crisis and was very quick). It was also difficult to focus on one sibling at a time, especially with the siblings we only really knew in their later years, like Daniel. Some sections bordered a little bit on soap opera (Daniel’s death, Varya’s journalist), and I was craving a stronger writing style to lead me deeper into the characters and themes/ideas. I’m excited, though, because this is the first book club book in a long time that I’ve finished before we meet and/or begin the discussion on it. I do love discussing books as I go along, however, so I’ll see how a later discussion will affect how I see the book.
Finished: October 1, 2019

12. American Characteristics and Other Essays by Thornton Wilder
American Characteristics and Other Essays is not just essays by Thornton Wilder; it’s a collection of his ad hoc writings–lectures turned into essay form (the American Characteristics of the title), introductions to books by other authors, tributes to the recently deceased for various publications, and a few papers on literary research he was conducting. Its eclecticism made it all the more interesting to read through, even though, like any book of essays, some entries were more interesting to me than others. Overall, what I loved most was his assessments of the work of other authors, in particular Gertrude Stein, whom I’ve studied elsewhere, so I welcomed another perspective on her work. Even authors I hadn’t studied, such as James Joyce, came into sharper focus through Wilder’s written on them. The American Characteristics essays/lectures had been of interest, so I was glad to finally read them, although the Emily Dickinson one was the most disappointing–for some reason Wilder put a great deal of focus on what her writings suggest about her behavior, which came off as a big misogynist, a word I had never used to describe Wilder before and see no evidence of anywhere else. Like anything Wilder has written, many gems of ideas and quotes stuck out, which I will use or have already used. Even though I still have some novels and short plays of his to read, I’m glad I finally got around to these essays and other non-fiction writings.
Finished: November 30, 2019

13. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: New School Nightmare by Carolyn Nowak
I really enjoyed this graphic novel/middle school version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s Buffy, but a slightly younger version that was similar to the TV’s show’s take on the character but also different enough to feel like its own thing. Aside from Buffy and her mom, all the characters and the setting are new, although, again, similar to the TV version. Buffy has a female watcher, and she has two friends who, it turns out, have powers of their own. The story was well-structured with diary entries and graphic novel scenes, and I appreciated the new voice for Buffy and her world. I started this because I saw a young girl reading it on the subway and my babysitting charge was reading it. I’m glad I checked it out, even if it’s for a younger crowd. I may continue with the series…
Finished: December 23, 2019

14. Theory of Flight from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser by Muriel Rukeyser
Muriel Rukeyser has been my favorite poet since I stumbled upon two lines of her poetry on NYC’s Library Walk some 15 years ago. In 2013 I bought her book of collected poems, but it was so big I didn’t know how I would tackle it. It sat on my nightstand, and I thought I’d pick it up every now and then and read a poem. I did that, like, twice. Finally this year I decided that for my “at least one poetry book a year” requirement I would section off this huge book into the various smaller books it’s broken into, and each one would be a book I’d read each year. I started with the first one, Theory of Flight, which she published in 1935. I know a few of her poems, and one, “The Speed of Darkness” very well, but I was still not prepared to be immersed in her poetry for 70 pages. Theory of Flight is broken into three sections, and the second one, called Theory of Flight, beautifully uses airplanes and plane flight as a metaphor for all kinds of things. Sometimes the poetry gets technical, sometimes more narrative. I found this section the most stunning, and I kept picturing it as an avant-garde short film full of images and small narratives and lots and lots of airplanes. There are some terrific poems in the first and third sections as well, including the opening lines of the first poem, “Poem out of Childhood”: “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” And the last lines of the last poem, “The Blood is Justified,” about how we have to fight what the previous generation gave us: “We focus on our times, destroying you, fathers/ in the long ground : you have given strange birth/ to us who turn against you in our blood/ needing to move in our integrity, accomplices/ of life in revolution, though the past/ be sweet with your tall shadows, and although/ we turn from treasons, we shall accomplish these.”
Finished: December 31, 2019

Short Stories
“The Boys of Karachay Lake” by Angela Pelster
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges 

Essays/Long Articles:“Why Did You Do This” by Jessica Contrera

Online Classes:
ModPo, 7th Year (University of Pennsylvania)
Hidden Meanings: Creative Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Fact (University of Iowa)

Anthem: Homunculus
Decoder Ring
Dolly Parton’s America
Scene to Song
The 29-Hour Podcast
The Authority: Exploring the World of His Dark Materials
The Big One: Your Survival Guide
Three on the Aisle
Token Theatre Friends

And episodes of:
Death, Sex, and Money
Poem Talk
Strong Songs
The Fabulous Invalid
The Subtext
Theater People
Where Should We Begin

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