Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Best Books (I read in) 2019

Yes, yes…I know these books were not necessarily published in 2019. But it’s my list, so I can organize it as I please! Every year I cull down the books I’ve read over the year to 10ish or so of my favorites. Because I don’t want to stress myself out or hurt anyone’s feelings, I choose not to include books by friends or even “friends” I interact with on social media; instead, I list books I’ve read (and loved) that were written by friends in a separate section. And I’m sorry if I’ve bought your book and not yet read it…I’ll get to it. One of the great pleasures of reading is finding the exact right book for the exact right time and place and mental space. (That’s why I’ve always got at least 250 unread books ready and waiting!)

So, in no particular order:

Dare Me by Megan Abbott: Megan Abbott gets lumped into the mystery/thriller sections, but no one is better about writing about women and girls and power and secrets and friendships. Yes, dead bodies show up, but Abbott’s work is really about group dynamics, and Dare Me may the best of all, exploring the dark world of competitive cheerleading. Read the book before you watch the new series on the USA Network. (Now that I’ve typed that, I’m stressed out, wondering if You Will Know Me is better than Dare Me. Hmmm…read them both!)

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld: Dark and elegant, literary and gripping, a book you can’t put down. There’s a missing child, so beware if that’s a trigger for you, but Denfeld finds the humanity in each character. The ending is something of a miracle, and that last paragraph makes me tear up, just thinking of it right now.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: This book had been on my shelf forever, and it was my experience last year with falconry that finally got me to crack open the cover. What a stunning memoir, weaving together the author’s grief over the death of her father and the way she copes with this loss, by training a beautiful, wild goshawk named Mabel. I’m not usually one for long passages of descriptive writing, but I would listen to Macdonald describe the pavement on a strip mall parking lot. Luckily, she chooses instead to describe meadows and birds and trees and nature. An exquisite eye, a singular memoir.

*The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder: Keep reading, even if you think this doesn’t sound like your kind of book! A group of 22 men meet once a year to re-enact the horrifically iconic football moment in the 80s when Lawrence Taylor tackles quarterback Joe Theismann and his leg gruesomely snaps as millions watched on Monday Night Football. (Do NOT google this video.) The book has a tight focus—this one weekend, at this one hotel where the men gather—but the point of view is expansive, touching (I believe) each of the men. (That’s right: 22 POVs!) And while it’s helpful to know something about football, this book is really about men and love and the meaning of ritual and aging and nostalgia and so much more. *Tied for my most favorite book of the year!

Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty: A lyrical memoir of grief set (mostly) in weather-wracked Provincetown, MA. Doty’s lover has died of AIDS, during the height of the epidemic, and how can one find the words to convey such a loss? How can one find a way to continue living? Metaphors of the natural world and the landscape of Cape Cod feel one thousand percent fresh here; Doty is a highly-regarded poet, and each word in this memoir feels perfectly, effortlessly selected. Possibly the best grief memoir I've ever read.

The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey by Toi Derricotte: Hard questions about identity and race. Not a single easy answer, only difficult self-revelations leading to more difficult questions. Feels to me as relevant today as it was when published in 1997. If you responded to Citizen by Claudia Rankine, you’ll respond to this book…and if you’re me, you’ll actually prefer Derricotte. (Did I really just say that??!!) 

The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt by David Griffels: My husband randomly picked up this book in an independent bookstore in a town we were visiting, loved it, and suggested I read it, especially as I was touring through the Midwest this summer. I loved it too: essays about growing up in the “Rust Belt”—which is a place not an oft-annoying political voting bloc—essays that muse about the area’s rise and fall, and what it means to live in a place that used to “make things.” If you grew up as a Cleveland Browns fan, there’s an essay in here that you can’t miss!

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Focused and spare, the haunting story of an African American boy in the 60s who unfairly ends up in a horrific juvenile facility. Equally awful is the depiction of regular life outside the facility under Jim Crow laws. (Based on a real institution in Florida that for years covered up countless deaths of young boys.)

*The Blind Side by Michael Lewis: Another football book? Well, yes—though this book is much more than a book about football. It’s a book about the education system, white privilege, money, class, how college recruiting really works, how NFL recruiting really works, and the myriad ways talented kids fall through mile-wide cracks. If you’ve got in mind that dopey “white savior narrative” movie starring Sandra Bullock, THIS BOOK IS NOT THAT. That storyline is tucked in, and of course that’s what Hollywood would choose to focus on, but on the page, no one escapes Lewis’s sharp eye, and he is both merciless and merciful. A thorough reporter, but also a superb narrative writer. *Tied for my most favorite book of the year!

Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback by George Plimpton: More football?? (Confession: I’m writing a novel about a football player.) Anyway, this classic is a bit dated, but still hilarious and smart about football and what makes a “team.” Paris Review editor George Plimpton is a charming and self-deprecating narrator/reporter who goes “undercover” at the Detroit Lions training camp for the 1963 season…okay, so no one believes the skinny guy who went to Yale is a professional football player. But he manages to blend in enough to hear all the good stories, and he even finds himself out on the field, playing quarterback—!!


Here are the books written by my friends that I loved reading this year:

Crude Angel by Suzanne Cleary: Smart, sharp, and funny poems by my fabulous Converse low-res MFA colleague/roommate, tackling a range of subjects to include Morgan Fairchild’s lipstick.

Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye: Lovely short stories that take on the writer’s most challenging topic of all, happiness. Yes, a collection can be cohesive without being linked. This is one to study if you’re assembling your own collection.

Stay by Tanya Olson: Masterful poems, especially the long poem “txt me im board” that takes us through a hairy airplane ride through life and death and art, with these lines I love so, so much: “God takes no poet / until his best poem is written / You my friend will save us all.”

Meteor by C.M. Mayo: Gorgeous prose poems that offer a sense of narrative, along with an extraordinary wash of language and images.

Anything You Want by Geoff Herbach: Hilarious and voicey YA book about the world’s most heart-breakingly optimistic boy, by my new Converse MFA colleague! For all the humor and deluded optimism, these characters have a tough road, and the author pulls no punches. I loved this book in 2019, but wow, would I have really loved it when I was 14, back in 19-mumble-mumble.

The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose by Denise Duhamel & Julie Marie Wade: Incisive essays for people who don’t think “feminist” is a bad word co-written, back and forth, to various prompts, by two of the most creative writers I know. (Denise is yet another fabulous Converse colleague, and Julie has visited our program several times!)

The Lightness of Water by Rhonda Browning White: Gritty and voicey short stories set (mostly) in Appalachia by my Converse MFA fiction thesis student! I admired these stories when I worked with Rhonda on her thesis, and to see the whole collection honed to a razor's edge, makes me as proud as can be. (debut)

Be with Me Always by Randon Billings Noble: Blazingly honest and elegant essays about the ways things and absences haunt us. If you don't believe me, you can read a very short essay from the collection right here...and thank me later: https://brevitymag.com/nonfiction/torn-muscle/

One Night Gone by Tara Laskowski: Two storylines intertwine and intersect in this fabulously atmospheric mystery about a missing girl set in an East Coast beach town, seen in the full onslaught of summer in the 80s, and then in the eerie off-season in contemporary times.

Scattered Clouds: New & Selected Poems by Reuben Jackson: Real DC of “Chocolate City” days, jazz, Trayvon Martin, and modern life tinged with elegiac undertones create a powerful brew. (I played Ellington as I read, which was just perfect.)

Once Removed by Colette Sartor: This collection of short stories won the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award, and it’s easy to see why. Lush and aching, each story is a deep dive that could be its own novel. I didn’t want this book to end. (debut)

~~Happy reading in 2020--and happy new year to all!~~

I'm guessing that Work in Progress will be quietish (if not fullly quiet) until mid-January, when I'll start up with another round of author interviews. As always, thank you for reading this blog that now contains more than 2000 posts!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.