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The Best Books We Read in 2019

Each year, we ask every Literati Bookstore Book Ninja, "What was your favorite read of the past year?" The rules are simple: It can be any book read: An old book, a new book, poetry, cooking, anything, as long as it's a book and it was read in 2019!

Without further ado, here are our selections:


Hilary:

The Dutch House

I’ve been an Ann Patchett fan since college. I regularly recommend her writing, enjoying both her non-fiction and her novels over the years, but this is definitely her best work yet. I love this fairytale-like novel of two siblings Danny and Maeve, told through the eyes of the younger brother Danny and spanning from their childhood to middle age. It is the story of how our personal history is created partially by imagining the inner lives of those within our family orbit. Ultimately, it is the characters’ confrontation and grappling with their childhood perceptions of familial roles and situations that propel the novel. A thoughtful meditation on the shifting sands of personal histories and how the stories we tell ourselves, often clouded by misconceptions, can be radically altered with a little empathy.

Kelsey:

In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado

"This book stunned me. If you’ve read Carmen Maria Machado’s excellent short stories, you know that she plays around with genre and pop culture tropes in order to look at her themes in new ways. As fiction, her style is engaging and deeply creative. As memoir, it’s a whole new kind of writing, a dissection of a relationship through narrative and genre tropes that I can really only describe in bursts of feeling: it’s wild and dark and has all of Rilke’s beauty and terror, it’s crushing and brilliant and so completely revelatory, it’s vital and brave and required me to pause to take deep breaths as every chapter sparked a new flame of understanding in my mind. This book is a gift, an exploration of how to unpack our selves and our experiences, with writing at the growing edge of what writing can do. I will read everything that Carmen Maria Machado writes forever and ever."


Emma:

Amateur, by Thomas Page McBee

Literati Best Book 2019

If you ever read anything on masculinity—in this age where we grapple with both toxic masculinity and the future for healthy masculinity—let it be this. Author Thomas Page McBee was the first transgender man to box in Madison Square Garden, and this is how he enters into ruminations on the history of boxing—but more significantly, how he enters into fully understanding his transition into masculine privilege and power. With experiences presenting as a woman and presenting a man, McBee's demonstrates a keen understanding of gender dynamics while also sharing the profound experience of his transition and the losses and joys that go along with that. What I loved most was McBee's evident compassion and love for all people, hearing about his life, and his authentic grappling with this difficult moment of questioning as we redefine masculinity. One of the best books I've read, ever.

— From Emma's Picks


Mike:

An Orchestra of Minorities, by Chigozie Obioma

Told from the perspective of an ancient spirit, a man’s chi, I loved the language and precise character arcs throughout this novel. Obioma, a Michigan grad and a finalist for the Man Booker prize with his previous novel, The Fishermen, is a master of his craft.  This is a big, ambitious, at times hard-to-read novel, but I’d read Obioma describe a journey to his mailbox, let alone this sweeping, time-spanning saga. He’s that good. 

-Mike

 


Charlotte:

Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips

I read the first chapter of DISAPPEARING EARTH a while ago, and set it back down after thinking it might be too thematically intense for me, but I couldn’t really move on from it, something about it had left a new wrinkle in my memory, and I tried again. DISAPPEARING EARTH is told over the course of a year in the province of Petropavlovsk in Russia, and begins with the abduction of two young sisters in August.  Phillips describes her novel as a spiral, beginning with a tight, localized event, and expanding outward over the course of a year. She’s spot on with that analogy, you spiral through this story with the narrators you meet, (each chapter has a new narrator), getting the wind knocked out of you by this threaded community of women and the impact the abduction of these sisters has had on their lives.  Phillips guides you through her words to a place across the Earth; you can smell the muddy ice in the streets, the cigarette smoke, and the salt in the air. I think about this book and the places it brings to life almost everyday. Highly, highly recommend.

— From Charlotte's Picks


Carla:

Edison

When Literati's owners asked staffers last month to chose our "Best of 2019" book, I took a gamble that it wasn't one that I had read, but one that I had yet to read. My bet paid off when I chose to read Edison. The descriptions of his experiments were sometimes a challenge, my chemistry education ending at age 12, but the inspiring narrative propelled me on. Like other famous early business owners, Edison can be villified in our modern no fouls allowed culture. Yet his innovations in sound and light and running a research laboratory put him ahead of any other technologist of his era. There are many unforgettable stories here of eureka moments and near financial ruin (he was no titan). Morris, who died last May after working 10 years on his book, had access to unreleased family letters. (The excerpts from his second wife Mina's letters reveal a gifted correspondent deserving her own book.) Although Morris experimented with reverse chronology in this biography, it didn't detract from my enjoyment or understanding. A trip to Greenfield Village is on my calendar.

 

— From Carla's Picks

Bennet:

Nickel Boys

Quite possibly Whitehead’s best novel, his latest explores the relentless gruesomeness of our nation’s foundational sins with a dreamlike rhythm and tender ferocity comparable to that of Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, or Jesmyn Ward.  A vivid, revelatory story about an unlikely friendship and an inescapable memory, “The Nickel Boys” is the next exceptional book from one of the most talented writers of our contemporary era.


Kaitlyn:

Endurance

If you want a good time, look no further. This truly is an incredible adventure! Twenty-eight explorers bound for Antarctica in 1915 get trapped on an ice floe without a ship or any hope of rescue. Based on interviews and crew members' diaries, Lansing presents this story of survival with fully fleshed characters (like the stowaway with his cat) and details (like the raw skin they all had at the ends of their noses from icicles forming and breaking off) that feels like fiction but is amazingly real. After reading this book I wanted to immediately start over at the beginning--it's that good.

-Kaitlyn

Madison:

The Blue Cliff Record

This is a collection of zen koans. How to talk about it? It's dense. It laughs at you, it whacks you behind the knees with a stick. It uses language to un-do what language has done, and if you think you get it, game over. I am constantly revisiting these koans and constantly learning how to read them. What I've found is that studying them is like climbing over walls of thought and self only to find another, and another, until I find what seems like a way out, then suddenly have to start all over again. It is as beguiling as it is joyous, and I can't help but laugh back at it. I recently read words that described it as "pure poetry." I think that's right. One of the most important books I've ever read. 


Rose:

Rose Pick: Literati Best Book 2019

I chose "The Golden Notebook" by Doris Lessing as my 2019 notable book of the year. The story is written via four notebooks: black, red, yellow, and blue. All work together to form this complex, thought provoking, and at times disturbing novel. Doris Lessing explores early feminism, class relations, race, and sexuality throughout this tale. In the conclusion, she and her romantic partner slide into madness and a "golden notebook." For readers who enjoy examining real life issues through fiction, give this a read. For readers who feel that their own stories are complex and confusing, reading this will give you solace and representation. 

— From Rose's Picks

Jill:

Pete Buttigieg Literati Best Book 2019

Even if you had never heard of "Mayor Pete" a month ago, you probably have now. But if not, he's the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Oh, and he's running for President. He's been described as having a bio that sounds as if it was written by Aaron Sorkin (of West Wing fame): Harvard-educated; a Rhodes scholar; Afghanistan war veteran; polyglot; and openly gay and married. This book, Buttigieg's first, is not only an autobiography, it's also a love story dedicated to his hometown and the Industrial Midwest in general. The book begins, in fact, with an especially lovely description of sunrise over the Indiana landscape. Extraordinarily intelligent, articulate and with a gift for narrative, a nuanced thinker, seemingly decent and kind, I think Buttigieg is someone we'll be hearing a lot more from. 

— From Jill's Picks

Sam: 

So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger

Sam Pick Literati Best Book 2019

I was utterly charmed by this book, a midwestern-western about a blocked novelist who accompanies his new friend (a boatbuilder and former train robber) on a journey to make amends with the wife he abandoned decades ago. Along the way they encounter cowboys, sharpshooters, Pinkerton agents, German movie stars, and the greatest snapping turtle in all of literature. Why Enger isn’t celebrated as one of our best prose stylists I can’t fathom—every page of So Brave, Young, and Handsome boasts sentences that astonish, illuminate, and delight. Few writers, moreover, know how to keep your heart pounding and breaking in equal measure, but with this gem of a novel Enger makes it seem effortless.

— From Sam

Stephanie:

Soft Science, by Franny Choi

Stephanie Literati Best Book 2019

"remember / all humans / are cyborgs / all cyborgs / are sharp shards
of sky / wrapped in meat" -p.69

Franny Choi is a marvel. Lucid and electric, her poems disrupt the boundaries between humans and machines. Cyborgs and drones assert their consciousness and consider: submit or revolt? Contain or explode? How are we all seeking autonomy, intimacy, and life beyond programmed performance? Choi takes on inventive, dazzling forms and renders the age of AI and the raging internet with both violence and tenderness. It's poetry at its most potent; I couldn't put it down.

— From Stephanie's Picks

Deb:

That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour

That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour by Sunita Puri

This beautifully written memoir was my favorite book for not only this year, but of the last few years. Dr. Puri describes how she integrates her strong spirituality and belief in honoring life and accepting death into her medical practice. You might think that a book about palliative care would be depressing, but the stories of people able to make choices about how they spend the rest of their lives were incredibly uplifting.  This book makes you think about the choices you might want to make for your own life.  If you liked Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, you will love That Good Night.

Julia M:

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish

After their mother, Marianne, is institutionalized following a suicide attempt, Edie and Mae go to live with their estranged father. But it quickly becomes clear that the two sisters understood life with their mother very differently, and that there is much more to their parents’ relationship than they’d previously known. As the conflict between the sisters grows, questions arise about the past and the sway that parents hold over their children. But what makes this a remarkable novel is the intricate exploration of perspective and the false stability of narrative; when you look at the story from different sides, the idea that there is one truth crumbles. Each of Apekina’s characters arrive at the present  with full stories of their own, well-developed viewpoints and influences that drive them to understand events in different ways. What I loved about this novel is that it is, in a way, a literary mystery: whose story do we hold as truth?

— From Kelsey's Picks

 

John:

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

“As for narrativity,” Galen Strawson writes, “I suspect that it is, in the sphere of ethics, more of an affliction or a bad habit than a prerequisite for a good life.” The philosopher is here refuting what he calls “a fallacy of our age,” “that there is only one way in which human being experience their being in time.” A fascinating refutation of this fallacy might be found in protagonist Adam Gordon in Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, who is perhaps as well the Adam Gordon of Ben Lerner’s previous novels 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station. The Adam Gordon that is a maybe a cipher for the author, or traces of our own individual midwestern upbringings, “embodied echoes of the past, repetitions just beneath the threshold of existence.”

The end of Adam’s senior year of high school, his early and late childhood, his predestined National Forensics League national championship, his mid-college nervous breakdown, the horrific and violent trauma he witnesses and seems irrevocably entangled within the summer before he leaves home--that is, the events of this novel--do not form a narrative so much as they serve as instructive fragments. These are fragments Lerner masterfully links to sub-threshold family, cultural, and political histories, and interrupts with the stunning first-person recollections of Adam's parents and sketches of the emotional interior of the troubled subject at the center of that violent trauma. They are fragments Lerner has recovered and, with devastating emotional honesty, re-charged. To read The Topeka School is to experience the shock of the present as a disruption not just of our prior understanding of history's trajectory but of our tidy sense of ourselves within it. That reckoning opens up one of the most powerful, resonant inquiries available in contemporary fiction into what, in dangerous and disjointed times, might possibly constitute a good life

— From John's Picks

Jeanne:

Townie

This is a beautiful, excruciatingly honest, and brave memoir from a gifted writer of fiction. It's often too raw and shocking for comfort, but therein lies its power. The author's life changes forever when his father, the renowned writer Andre Dubus, leaves his mother for a young student. Thereafter they live in borderline poverty, and Andre evolves into an angry young man—angry with his father and with school bullies who humiliate and abuse the defenseless. As a teenager, he embraces violence as a means to right the wrongs of bullies in a superhero sort of way (in happier times he used to watch Batman episodes with his siblings and neighbor Kurt Vonnegut when his father and Vonnegut were involved with the Iowa Writers Workshop). For many years thereafter he tries in a slow, harrowing and riveting struggle to break free of this violent proclivity. Likewise, it takes him decades to come to terms with his feelings for his father, and to ultimately realize that anger at, and forgiveness and love for someone can coexist in one’s heart. His journey to becoming a great writer, a man of understanding who embraces empathy and forgiveness changed me in some way forever (maybe by seeing the possibility that no matter what baggage we are burdened with in our lives, it's never too late for redemption), and I can think of no higher praise for a book.

— From Jeanne's Picks

Lillian:

Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi

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If you aren’t already a fan of Choi's psychological mastery, intricate sentences, and acerbic wit, you will be after this book! Divided into three parts, Choi's novel takes us on a breakneck journey through the adolescent swamp of CAPA, a performing arts high school somewhere in the South, where teenagers put on the trappings of adulthood on and off the stage. Whether their childhood is shrugged off or stripped off, the protagonists of Choi's structure-bending book are inextricably pinned to their past at CAPA, burnishing the site in their art and their obsessions. The end left me shattered, in awe of where Choi left me, and also inconsolable. A tremendous novel.

— From Lillian

Shannon:

Vanishing Fleece

Shannon Best Book Literati 2019

What would you do with a 676-pound bale of fleece? Clara Parkes wasn’t completely sure either, even after it arrived; but just like any good knitter, she had some…ideas. What would be any knitter’s dream came true for Carla, ---or would come true--as soon as she could cut the straps off the huge bale without the ball of rather dirty fluffy stuff exploding all over the warehouse she found big enough to hold such a delivery… This great sheep adventure from Maine to Wisconsin will have you thinking about an industry that is still necessary but often forgotten. If it is made of fiber, it was most likely made on machines where the parts have been pieced together (and often held together) with duck tape after being found or rescued from mills that have long ago shuttered. Before reading this book, I had no idea how long a journey fleece went on to reach my needles, What ensued is a surprising adventure, history lesson and a behind-the-scenes tour of a fading industry that I could not put down.

— From Shannon's Picks

YoungEun

Underland 

Rich, chewy prose. I never knew how fascinating sinkholes, icebergs, tree roots, and the deep sea could be. Beyond mere fascination, this book provided a necessary tie to this Earth when life got particularly surreal. MacFarlane has a way of writing that opens your heart / brain pores. I don't have time to re-read books anymore, but I am re-reading this one happily. 

Books: 
Staff Pick Badge
The Dutch House: A Novel Cover Image
$27.99
ISBN: 9780062963673
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Harper - September 24th, 2019

I’ve been an Ann Patchett fan since college. I regularly recommend her writing, enjoying both her non-fiction and her novels over the years, but this is definitely her best work yet. I love this fairytale-like novel of two siblings Danny and Maeve, told through the eyes of the younger brother Danny and spanning from their childhood to middle age. It is the story of how our personal history is created partially by imagining the inner lives of those within our family orbit. Ultimately, it is the characters’ confrontation and grappling with their childhood perceptions of familial roles and situations that propel the novel. A thoughtful meditation on the shifting sands of personal histories and how the stories we tell ourselves, often clouded by misconceptions, can be radically altered with a little empathy.


Amateur: A Reckoning with Gender, Identity, and Masculinity Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781501168758
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Scribner - May 14th, 2019

Staff Pick Badge
An Orchestra of Minorities Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9780316412407
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books - October 8th, 2019

Disappearing Earth: A novel Cover Image
$26.95
ISBN: 9780525520412
Availability: In Stock at Publisher - Usually Available in 1-5 Days
Published: Knopf - May 14th, 2019

Staff Pick Badge
The Blue Cliff Record Cover Image
By Thomas Cleary (Translated by), J.C. Cleary (Translated by)
$49.95
ISBN: 9781590302323
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Shambhala - April 12th, 2005

Staff Pick Badge
Edison Cover Image
$38.00
ISBN: 9780812993110
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Random House - October 22nd, 2019

Staff Pick Badge
Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9780465062881
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Basic Books - April 28th, 2015

Staff Pick Badge
In the Dream House: A Memoir Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9781644450031
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Graywolf Press - November 5th, 2019

Revolutionary Road (Vintage Contemporaries) Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9780375708442
Availability: In Stock at Publisher - Usually Available in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - April 25th, 2000

Staff Pick Badge
The Golden Notebook: A Novel Cover Image
$18.99
ISBN: 9780061582486
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Harper Perennial Modern Classics - October 14th, 2008

Staff Pick Badge
Shortest Way Home: One Mayor's Challenge and a Model for America's Future Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9781631494369
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Liveright - February 12th, 2019

Staff Pick Badge
So Brave, Young, and Handsome Cover Image
Email literatibookstore@gmail.com or call 734-585-5567 for price
ISBN: 9780802144171
Availability: Special Order
Published: Grove Press - April 8th, 2009

Soft Science Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9781938584992
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Alice James Books - April 2nd, 2019

Staff Pick Badge
The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9781937512750
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Two Dollar Radio - September 18th, 2018

Staff Pick Badge
Townie: A Memoir Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9780393340679
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - February 6th, 2012

Staff Pick Badge
The Topeka School: A Novel Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9780374277789
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - October 1st, 2019

Staff Pick Badge
Trust Exercise: A Novel Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9781250309884
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Henry Holt and Co. - April 9th, 2019

Staff Pick Badge
Vanishing Fleece: Adventures in American Wool Cover Image
$23.00
ISBN: 9781419735318
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Abrams Press - October 1st, 2019

Staff Pick Badge
The Blue Cliff Record Cover Image
By Thomas Cleary (Translated by), J.C. Cleary (Translated by)
$49.95
ISBN: 9781590302323
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Shambhala - April 12th, 2005

Staff Pick Badge
Underland: A Deep Time Journey Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9780393242140
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - June 4th, 2019