My 10 favourite books of 2019
(none of them published in 2019. sorry.)
- My Year of Meats – Ruth Ozeki (1998). This tale of meat production and motherhood (yes) is sensitive, empathetic and inclusive right up to its last five pages, when it takes a hard left into “domestic abuse is ok so long as Tru Luv”. Which is a shame. But I loved Jane and Akiko’s stories so much: the grace Ozeki affords her flawed and broken characters is beautiful and heartbreaking. (I think this might be the first year I’ve ranked a litfic novel first in one of these lists!)
- The Gate to Women’s Country – Sheri S. Tepper (1988). OK, this is another one where I had to overlook Teh Problematic to enjoy it. I was fully prepared to hate this SF novel, which depicts a post-apocalyptic society of women who’ve exiled their men to garrisons to spend their aggression on each other, for its explicit pathologisation of queerness and its gender essentialism. But, despite those very real problems, it turns into something complex and dark and morally ambiguous by its close, asking that old question, “what price utopia?”
- Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986). This classic graphic novel features a dysfunctional group of superhero vigilantes, each of them struggling with their own particular problems. It’s dark and violent and its treatment of women is pretty questionable, but I found its exploration of what happens when different moral universes clash compelling and original.
- Raven Stratagem – Yoon Ha Lee (2017). I found this second novel in Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy much more accessible than its predecessor Ninefox Gambit. It’s set in a world that is uncompromisingly bleak and violent, a dystopia that uses torture to enforce a consensus reality, a society that is built on constantly redrawing the boundaries of “citizen” and “heretic” in order to stay functional. Yet it presents a kind of radical hope in its characters, who are equally uncompromising in their quest to create something that is at least marginally better.
- The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern (2011). Ah, this was just nice, this tale of a travelling circus and the battling magicians who maintain it. I tend to think that it wastes the radical potential of its circus imagery a little bit, but its glamour and mystery were enough on their own to draw me into its world.
- New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2017). I just finished this and of course it was great. A century and a bit into the future, the melting ice caps have flooded downtown New York, but that hasn’t stopped people living there, in waterproofed skyscrapers and dangerously unstable brownstones. This is the tale of a co-op running the MetLife Building, now converted into residential accommodation, and their bid to fight off the forces of capital that have devastated much of the world without checking their stride.
- Woman and Nature – Susan Griffin (1978). What a strange book this is! A work of second-wave feminism that explores how the patriarchy treats women and the natural world (anything, basically, that isn’t a man or made by one), its pitting of the voice of male rationality against that of the exploited world makes it more like a poem than an argument, a call to emotion over reason – which is very much the point.
- The Children’s Book – A.S. Byatt (2009). What is it like, being the child of a children’s author? To have your existence storified, commodified for an adoring public? That’s one of the questions Byatt asks in The Children’s Book, which is in a wider sense about our own conceptions of childhood, and how those conceptions are based chiefly on nostalgia.
- A Song for Arbonne – Guy Gavriel Kay (1992). I really liked Kay’s treatment of courtly love in this fantasy tale based on medieval Provence: his recognition that courtly love was highly performative, founded more in politics than romance, and that it had little to do with actual sexual or romantic freedom for women. This was one of those rare fantasy novels where all the characters come alive, balancing their own personal values with the demands of society and stability.
- The Reading Cure – Laura Freeman (2018). Laura Freeman’s memoir recounts how fictional feasts supported her recovery from anorexia. It made me cry. Enough said.
…and some spreadsheet fun!
- I read 99 books in 2019, by some margin the most I’ve read in any year since 2014.
- The longest book I read was Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, sprawling and overambitious and ostentatious and kind of brilliant; the shortest was Zadie Smith’s kind-of forgettable Embassy of Cambodia. Overall I read 35,803 pages this year – quite a lot more than last year’s 30,048.
- The oldest book I read was, huh, The Hobbit, first published in 1937. The average age of the books I read this year was just 14 (considerably down from last year’s 44). Hmm.
- Genre: just 31% of my reading this year was fantasy, down from 36% last year. 26% was science fiction, up from 21% last year. 19% was non-fiction, up from 12% last year; 15% was litfic, down from 17% last year. At this level of granularity genre definition gets a bit hairsplitty; but I’ve recorded 6% of my reading as “contemporary”, plus one horror book (Ghostly, a collection of ghost stories edited by Audrey Niffenegger) and one manga (Love Is War volume 1, by Ake Akasaka).
- 11% of my reading was re-reads, up from last year’s 9%.
- 48% of the books I read this year were by women, down from last year’s 53%.
- 24% of the books I read this year were by authors of colour, the same as last year.
- 5% of the books I read this year were queer authors, with the disclaimer that this information isn’t always publicly available.