I love to read (obviously), but I also love to listen to music. I’m a Spotify user, and something the Swedish company does toward the end of every year is provide Premium users (fancy!) a graphically appealing “snapshot” of their year via music. Therefore, early December brings a flurry of people sharing factoids about their listening habits.
Spotify tells me that I spent 42 hours in 2019 listening to R.E.M. alone. Apparently I listened to 235 new artists this year and really “vibed with” Dan + Shay. (Huh? Really?)
What I also realized is that our family has held a premium membership since 2015 (Dad, happy to have you be the 5th user), and that 2018 was actually the year that I listened to Spotify the most (74,000+ minutes).
Stats like those are fun because of the presentation and the teasing out of what could just be another boring “best of” or “my favorites” list. Sometimes there’s something a little funny that maybe you didn’t realize about yourself and your preferences – like the fact that I apparently enjoy listening to country – that jumps out from Spotify’s vibrant graphics to tell you: Stop boxing yourself in.
So here, following a Spotify Wrapped format, is a rundown of my favorite books of the year. (Caveat: Not a list of books that were necessarily published this year; these are simply books that I actually read in 2019.)
My most listened to song of the year was:
You’re the One for Me, Fatty by Morrissey
A Lifely Read Comparison:
12 Shakespeare Plays
Well, that’s a little weird/embarrassing. (In my defense, I have that song on several different playlists, so I think that’s how that popped up.) On Instagram, however, I have made the joke that that song is an ode to my giant Riverside Shakespeare that is larger than a Family Bible. This past year, I committed to reading one Shakespeare play/month. I didn’t always do it on schedule, but I have (almost) done it. (1.5 plays to go, and I WILL FINISH!) Ergo, my most “listened to” (i.e. read) author is the Bard, and while ‘Hamlet’ probably wins as the “best” play that I read, I’m including this here as a way to encourage you to maybe set up your own mini reading challenge or simply branch out once in a while to something that seems daunting and perhaps not even particularly enjoyable. Who knows, you may end up finding something that pops to the top of your own Reading Wrapped.
The number of countries represented in my 2019 Spotify:
A Lifely Read Comparison:
Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
I’m not really sure how Spotify came up with 43 (seems like a lot?), but let’s go with it. I try to read globally (although I can never come close to Ann Morgan, who decided to ‘Read the World’ in 2012), and these two books were perfect, but for different reasons.
Elsewhere, Home is a collection of short stories that delve in to the immigrant experience using “home” as a frame. What happens when someone feels “neither here, nor there”? Aboulela is a Sudanese writer who lives in Scotland. Too often, Americans think of the “immigrant experience” from the vantage of their own country – in fact, someone I know (who happens to not be American) recently remarked that she is “tired of” immigrant novels set in New York City. Aboulela’s readable work is the antidote.
I absolutely loved She Would Be King, and if you’re looking for the type of book that explores themes of loneliness and community (as sacred cow Where the Crawdads Sing did), this is superb. Bonus: You learn about all about the West African nation Liberia, and specifically Monrovia, the second permanent African American settlement. Compelling story (that includes a big of magic) plus history lesson for the win. She Would Be King inspired my first blog post of 2019, and you can read that HERE.
My Top Songs playlist included:
Freedom by Wham!
A Lifely Read Comparison:
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Well, I would not necessarily say that George Michael (RIP) and Ann Patchett/Barbara Kingsolver go together. But these authors’ books – like Wham! – go down easy and are deceptively simple. If you’ve already read any of their books (I’m sure you have), you know they’re masterful and engrossing and well-written. Sometimes books have beautiful language, but you can tell the author isn’t super skilled at propelling a story forward. Likewise, some stories are engrossing and well-paced, but the writing is cloying.
Both The Dutch House and Unsheltered deal with themes of home (both physical structures and emotional environment), the daunting specter of “the past,” and family lineage. It can be argued that the primary character in both novels is a once-beautiful, grand, old house.
My Top Songs playlist also included:
The Story by Brandi Carlile
A Lifely Read Comparision:
The Body Papers by Grace Talusan
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
“All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am.” – Brandi Carlile (you can see the video HERE)
I don’t normally read memoirs, but I read two this year – and they were both superb.
I found out about Talusan’s book after reading “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years” in the NYT, and several online commenters argued that The Body Papers should have received a mention. Because it’s a fairly fast read with sparse prose, it took me a minute to register and digest all of the obstacles that Talusan has faced. It’s a lot. This is essentially Talusan’s life story, all framed around the theme of “body.” I wrote about that book – in tandem with The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields – right HERE.
Chung’s memoir received some good press at the end of 2018, but I didn’t get to it until early 2019. In All You Can Ever Know, Chung – a Korean-American adopted by white parents – recounts her childhood growing up in small-town (i.e. homogenous) Oregon. Chung’s adoptive parents’ “gloss-over” approach to adoption leaves her feeling unsettled, unanchored, and – not surprisingly – curious. Where would Chung have been “better off” growing up? Upon finding members of her birth family, Chung of course sifts through these extra layers of identity, but – because this is real life, after all – no orderly resolution ensues.
According to Spotify, I am:
A Lifely Read Comparison:
Destroy All Monsters by Jeff Jackson
Milkman by Anna Burns
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My “default status” for music is pop or “singer-songwriter” type stuff. But it’s good to branch out (like it says, I’m “genre fluid”), and one could make the argument that these three books are “experimental novels.” (But hey, I guess that’s relative: What is different for one person is regular ol’ fare to another.)
Check out Jeff Jackson’s Destroy All Monsters for a sharp take on the indie music scene and how young people deal with violence and their quest for authenticity and creativity. This novel – Jackson’s second – has a bit of a David Lynch vibe (i.e. unexpected, dark, and a bit cryptic), so don’t expect a tidy plot diagram. (In fact, the novel actually has a clever A- and B-side…read A first.) You can read my thoughts about Destroy All Monsters (as well as Geek Love by Katherine Dunn and Nirvana) right HERE.
Milkman won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and is sort of a dystopian take on The Troubles. No names or places receive proper titling, and while the overall tone is dire and desperate, moments of sly humor peek out. You can read my post about Milkman (wherein I tie-in themes of the book with the movie La La Land) right HERE.
Have you seen the Amazon series Forever starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen? It’s like Lincoln in the Bardo minus the historical framing. (Well, ok, what I mean is that they’re both about people on the other “side” of life.) I thought this book – a collage of recollections (both real and fabricated by Saunders) about the death of President Lincoln’s son – was so clever. (This book won the Man Booker the year before Milkman, which shows that judges are happy to reward – and perhaps prefer – “difficult” books. (Read my thoughts about difficult books right HERE.)
Bonus Tracks (aka Honorable Mentions):
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: Beautiful, readable prose as we follow along with David, an American living in Paris, as he tries to figure out who he is.
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger: Not quite as impactful as The Time Traveler’s Wife, but wow, lots of interesting things to think about the afterlife and how we remain connected to people. (Perhaps read this in tandem with Lincoln in the Bardo…)
Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee: This book touched upon my favorite topic: Home. Lee skillfully circles this theme without actually (and blatantly) naming it. (Btw, I was honored to have Mira T. Lee participate in the inaugural Book Covers event!)
Swann and Unless by Carol Shields: I could write a lot about Carol Shields; I spent the entire year chronicling my (re)reads of all her books on Instagram using the hashtag #FridaysWithCarolShields. These two books were the ones that, upon reading for the second time after many years, surprised and delighted me the most. I used to give short shrift to these two in particular…perhaps that was immaturity and youth speaking. I celebrated a “palindrome birthday” last week (thanks, Marcela, for sharing that phrase with me), so maybe with “double digits” comes newfound appreciation for things once dismissed.
A post about New Year’s Resolutions (and Alice Munro)