Books and Writing

The Best Books I Read In the Second Half of 2019

I read some really fantastic books in the second half of 2019, between June and December. Everything from immersive novels to thought-provoking poetry. Below are my absolute favorites, culled from all my monthly reading wrap-ups. Have you read any of these? What did you think?

The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded by Molly McCully Brown

Poetry – 2017

This is an incredible blend of poetry and history. Molly draws on history, even including primary source documents, to tell the story of a woman inside the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. It paints a lyrical and heartbreaking picture of the height of the eugenics movement.

Why God Is A Woman by Nin Andrews

Poetry – 2015

Nin Andrews created a speculative fiction novel within the confines of prose poetry, and it’s incredible. She writes about an island where gender roles are reversed. Women have all of the power and men are considered inferior. For the record, it is not a feminist utopia – inequality flipped on its head is still inequality, and it still reads as disturbing and violent.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Novel – 2019

The factual basis for this book immediately drew me in. While I was aware of the concept of reform schools that were especially brutal to students of color, I was not familiar with the school in Florida from which Colson Whitehead drew his inspiration. This is a relatively short book, but Colson packs an incredible amount of plot and character development into that space, without it feeling rushed.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Nonfiction – 2016

Last year I read The Psychopath Test and I enjoyed Jon Ronson’s writing style – which is sort of journalist meets humorist meets realist. Then this book was recommended by several people, so I had to pick it up. The phenomena of public shame and cancel culture is so prevalent on social media today, and Jon Ronson explores it in a really nuanced way, interviewing victims of public shaming whom he treats with compassion, without forgiving or excusing their wrongdoings. I would highly recommend.

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Steifvater

YA Series – 2013-2018

Once I picked the first book up, I was hooked through the end of the last one. I instantly fell in love with Maggie Steifvater’s writing style, the characters, and the specific brand of fantasy. I love the psychic/supernatural/mythical history vibe of the books. They almost read as contemporary YA, but with some of my favorite elements. All the characters are well developed and real, and at turns take the stage as the protagonist. It is such a great read for all ages.

Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello

Essay Collection – 2017

This is a collection of essays organized around animals, some extinct, some well known in the present day. Each essay, individually, teaches the reader about the animal of focus, while still exploring more complex themes of humanity. Elena Passarello’s writing is sharp, funny, and poignant and she plays with form in the most delightful way.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Poetry – 2016

This was a beautifully written poetry collection – the kind that I had to buy immediately after I read a library copy, so I could re-read it and annotate it and just get as much out of each and every poem as I could. I can’t believe this is Ocean Vuong’s debut work, but I know I’ll be reaching for his novel (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous) soon.

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Nonfiction – 2018

This book balance memoir, biography, journalism, and social commentary, as it explores themes of sexuality and identity, acceptance and isolation, humanity and violence. The chapters alternate between Sandra’s experiences as a trauma cleaner, which showcase her empathy and ability to make anyone feel comfortable, and Sandra’s childhood and young adulthood as a trans woman in Australia in the 70s and 80s.

Shapes of Native Nonfiction by Elissa Washuta

Essay Collection – 2019

I included My Body Is A Book of Rules in my “Best Books I Read In the First Half of 2019” and had my name on the waiting list at the library for this book the second it came out. Elissa Washuta curated an incredible array of Native voices, sharing what it means to them to be Indigenous and to have a voice. Each essay was well-written, powerful, and oh so necessary.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Novel – 2017

I knew the premise of this book before I picked it up, since it had gone viral in the publishing world when it was first released. However, I was not prepared for how thoroughly visceral and upsetting it would, how quickly it would flip my worldview upside down and disorient me. Naomi Alderman deftly exposes the difficulties and tragedies of being female, all within the form of a page-turning dystopian novel.

Wave Form by Marcia Aldrich

Essay Collection – 2016

I picked this up because I recognized only a few of the contributors, and I love essay collections that feature a couple of writers I love, and in the process introduce me to new and exciting voices. This collection did just that. All of the women in this collection were brilliant, and it showcased an array of formal experimentation that was interesting and inspiring.

Internment by Samira Ahmed

YA Novel – 2019

Samira Ahmed hauntingly captured the fear that permeates the U.S. (especially among people of color and the LGBTQ community) during the Trump Administration. The scariest thing about this novel is that it doesn’t feel far-fetched. Internment camps are featured in the past and present of the U.S. – there is no reason to think they won’t feature in the future.

A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

Short Story Collection – 2015

This is a short story collection that feels deeply autobiographical at times, in a way that makes the stories cohesive as opposed to disparate. Despite characters that seem similar to each other, the stories themselves highlight different aspects of life beautifully.

There There by Tommy Orange

Novel – 2018

I’m a sucker for multiple perspectives, but I initially worried that this book was weaving together too many perspectives. I was swiftly proved wrong. Tommy Orange creates a cast of distinct, enigmatic characters all on their way to a powwow. What ensues is an insightful look into Native American life in an urban setting, at odds with the more common narratives of reservation life.

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Joy DeGruy

Nonfiction – 2017

This book examines the intergenerational trauma that resulted from slavery, the specific kind of PTSD (which DeGruy has coined Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome) that African-Americans still wrestle with today. It is thought-provoking, and takes a unique approach to unpacking the racism that still permeates the United States.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Short Story Collection – 2010

This is the first full-length work of Adichie’s that I have read, which is my own fault and I must read more of her work soon. These stories were spell-binding in their depth, examining so many facets of African culture and assimilation.

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

Memoir – 2017

This memoir is a heartbreaking work, completed only a month before Nina’s death. She writes in such an exquisitely raw way about the pain of leaving her husband and children, and the clarity that comes from confronting your own imminent death.

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

Short Story Collection – 2016

This might be my favorite short story collection that I read this year, and I read some incredible ones. I fell in love with Lauren Groff’s authorial voice and style, as well as the complex, self-contained worlds she creates in so few pages.

Self Help by Lorrie Moore

Short Story Collection – 2012

The innocuous cover of this collection does not adequately prepare you for the mundane brutality of the stories contained within. Moore writes about everyday people and their own complex and devastating inner lives in a way that you just can’t turn away from.

Washington by Ron Chernow

Nonfiction – 2011

Ron Chernow’s books are intimidating. They tend to stand at upwards of 800 pages – behemoths that are assumed to contain dense and mind-numbingly detailed historical narratives. However, Ron Chernow writes historical biography in a way that is meticulous and academic, but also unendingly interesting and accessible. He draws on thousands of pages of Washington’s archived letters (his notes and sources sections are hundreds of pages long) and in doing so he dismantles the traditional narratives of Washington and reassembles him into a flawed, ambitious, insecure, but no less important figure in the founding of our country,

Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson

Poetry/Novel – 2019

I devoured this book, as the poetry format lent itself to reading in one sitting. There is a strong narrative thru line that keeps you turning the page. But more importantly, there is an individual poem in here that will speak to everyone. There are lines that just smack you in the face with their empathy and familiarity, and lines that you must swallow because they are exactly what you need.

It’s Okay To Laugh by Nora McInerny Purmort

Memoir – 2016

Another tragic memoir, but this one from the point of view of a spouse watching her husband and the father of their young son die. Cancer memoirs are a dime a dozen, but this one is worth your time. It is real, and funny, and heartbreaking, and captures Nora’s experience as well as the written word possibly could.

Nepantla by Christopher Soto

Poetry – 2018

This collection of poetry by queer poets of color should be sold on every street corner and taught in every school. It is brilliant in its own right, but it also introduced me to numerous poets I hadn’t heard of, and whose entire back list I now want to read.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Historical Fiction – 2018

I don’t know what I was expecting going into this novel. I don’t know if I knew what to expect. But what I found was a well-researched deep dive into Greek mythology that makes you feel like you are there, living among the gods. The writing is so rich and atmospheric that ancient Greece feels alive around you. And yet, at the same time, the story feels so contemporary and relevant. I cannot wait to read The Song of Achilles so I can re-enter Madeline Miller’s brain.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

YA Fiction – 2019

This book was recommended by Roxane Gay, which sold me instantly. This might be YA, but it is no stretch to enjoy it as an adult. Gabby Rivera is a brilliant writer, capturing the voice of Juliet as she navigates young adulthood and identity as a queer woman of color. This is a perfect example of the YA the world needs right now.

So there we are, all my favorite books from the second half of 2019. I was lucky to have found so many that will stick with me, and which I will revisit this year (I’m eyeing you, Nepantla.) Let me know what books you loved in 2019, and if any of these books made your 2020 TBR!

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