Beginning a new tradition, I want to list out all the books I was fortunate to read in 2019. Some people orient their memories of a year around what they ate, what they bought, whom they met. I tend to do the same with books, mingling their characters with particular seasons or life events.
A writer-friend once asked his class to tell the story of a year in 100 words or less. I'll tell the story of 2019 in 23 books:
1) Them - Joyce Carol Oates
2) Beloved - Toni Morrison
3) Indignation - Philip Roth
4) Aerialists - Mark Mayer
5) The Human Stain - Philip Roth
6) Andersonville - MacKinlay Kantor
7) The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
8) The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
9) Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout
10) A Shout in the Ruins - Kevin Powers
11) La Casa en Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros
12) Songs for the Missing - Stewart O'Nan
13) The Ghost Writer - Philip Roth
14) The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo - Ian Stansel
15) The Assistant - Bernard Malamud
16) The House of the Spirits (originally La Casa de los Espíritus) - Isabel Allende
Drama: (all Shakespeare)
1) Wrestling with God - Ron Rolheiser
2) Narrative of Sojourner Truth
3) That All Shall Be Saved - David Bentley Hart
4) The Mueller Report
You can see what happened this year: New friends arrived just as the world was saying goodbye to them (Toni Morrison, Philip Roth; I have Morrison's A Mercy in my to-be-read pile).
Dark stories became beautiful just because of words (Shakespeare - five plays and a biography in the TBR).
Reality followed art (MacBeth and The Mueller Report were read around the same time ;)
For the first time, I used all the residual power of my high-school Spanish education - and my pocket dictionary - to read a novel in another language. La Casa en Mango Street was a perfect gateway - compact, poetic, both deeply moving and deeply challenging. I took three or four times longer to finish it than I would have in English, but I'll always remember the story as it was expressed in Spanish. Maybe I'll remember some of the vocab, too.
And finally, I found my religious beliefs shaken, seasoned, and strengthened by two spectacular nonfiction works. Rolheiser's Wrestling with God relates to people young and old, in unpretensious language, the struggles that result from a lifetime of doing just what the title says; and in the process he confronts the actual substance of people's religious doubts and longings, their "headaches and heartaches," as he phrases it. David Bentley Hart's small but incendiary That All Shall Be Saved argues for Christian universalism, the belief that all human beings will eventually be reconciled to God through the death of Christ. Whatever your belief, Hart's unsparing reasoning and formidable knowledge of the New Testament may force a personal reckoning with a view that mainstream Christians often prematurely rule out.
Below I have made myself pick out some favorites from the above lists. May your 2020 be well rested, well regarded, and well read!
Best Fiction: Toni Morrison's Beloved
Best Drama: Hamlet
Best Non-Fiction: Rolheiser's Wrestling with God