What did you read this year? Steve Pfarrer shares some of his top books of 2019

Staff Writer
Published: 12/19/2019 8:46:20 AM

It’s that time of year again: reviewers piling up their “best of” lists for movies, albums, books, TV shows and the like. I’m not exactly a full-time book reviewer at the Gazette, but I write about books and do author interviews throughout the year, and last December I had a lot of fun picking out my 10 favorite reads of 2018, so I figured I’d have another go at it this year.

The list below is in no particular order and consists of books that came out in 2019 or mid/late 2018 (with one exception noted).

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead — This novel is a worthy successor to Whitehead’s previous book, “The Underground Railroad,” which won the a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for fiction in 2016. Whitehead based his new work on a horrific true story about a Florida “reform” institution, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, at which adolescent boys for decades were brutalized physically and psychologically to turn them into “honest and honorable men.” Some were simply murdered.

Whitehead narrates the story, set in the early/mid 1960s, primarily from the perspective of two African-American teens, Elwood and Turner, showing the degradation blacks already faced in the Jim Crow South before their lives become even harsher at what’s called the Nickle Academy. The stripped down, understated prose is a match for the world Elwood and Turner inhabit: one lacking empathy, decency or hope. Yet “The Nickel Boys” is also about the importance of bearing witness to the past and honoring the memory of friends.

The Last Whalers by Doug Clark Bock — Caveat noted here: Bock is the elder son of one of my cousins. But before you think I’m biased, note that the “The Last Whalers” has won a number of awards, including being named a New York Times Notable Book of the year, and Times book critic Dwight Garner calls it “an immersive, densely reported, and altogether remarkable first book.”

“The Last Whalers” tells the story of the Lamalerans, a small tribe of hunter-gatherers on a remote island in Indonesia who still hunt whales with team-rowed boats and harpoons carved from bamboo, just as their ancestors did centuries ago. But the modern world is steadily encroaching, creating tension between different generations on how they’ll carry their traditions forward — if they even can. Bock’s close observations of the daily life, rituals and personal relationships of these men and women make for both an absorbing picture of a very different culture and a number of well-drawn individual portraits.

In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark — I really enjoy historical fiction, so discovering the work of a writer I hadn’t heard of before was a pleasant surprise. Clark’s newest book examines the case of a series of fake Van Gogh paintings that surfaced in Weimar Germany in the late 1920s, ensnaring art critics, dealers, artists and others in their wake. She brings the story forward to the first years of the Nazi regime in a narrative with interesting characters, some based on real-life figures; she also examines Germany’s sense of victimization after World War I.

Spying on the South by Tony Horwtiz — Horwitz was one of my favorite nonfiction writers, a guy who melded a fresh look at history with his funny travelogues and unerring ability to talk to a wide range of people. So it was quite a shock to hear that he’d died, at just 60, this spring as he began a tour to promote his new book, “Spying on the South.”

What turned out to be his last book makes for great armchair travel, as Horwitz retraces the route that Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect, took in the 1850s when he journeyed through the U.S. South as a New York Times correspondent. Horwitz compares the divisions over slavery in America that preceded the Civil War with the political and social polarization of today in a narrative that is in turns sobering and funny; it’s also a worthy bookend to his best-selling “Confederates in the Attic” from 1998.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks — OK, this historical novel actually came out in 2011, but though I’d read three of Brooks’ other novels, I’d never tried this one. I read it in part because she was married to Tony Horwitz, and I felt, in a way I can’t really articulate, that doing so would show some sympathy for her loss.

Regardless, “Caleb’s Crossing” might now be my favorite Geraldine Brooks novel. It’s based on just a sliver of Colonial American history: how a young Wampanoag Native American from Martha’s Vineyard attended Harvard College in the 1660s. This exploration of the clash between two very different cultures is narrated by a young Puritan girl, Bethia, who befriends Caleb on the island and then ends up an indentured servant in Cambridge as he attends Harvard. It’s an absorbing narrative that, as the New Yorker puts it, Brooks tells “with exacting attention to the language and rhythm of the seventeenth century.”

The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson — Atkinson won accolades as well as a Pulitzer Prize for his three-volume “Liberation” history on the U.S. military experience in Europe in WWII, and now’s he’s in the midst of a new trilogy on the American Revolutionary War. “The British Are Coming” traces the first two years of conflict — Bunker Hill, the Battle of New York, Washington crossing the Delaware — and these oft-told accounts get a fresh treatment that neatly blends rich narration with telling details.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land — A bit reminiscent of Barabara Ehrenreich’s “Nickle and Dimed,” Land’s unflinching memoir looks at how, after a middle class upbringing, she ended up a single mother trying to pay the bills by cleaning people’s houses, while also trying to escape domestic violence. It’s not an examination of public housing, welfare policy, or economic inequity, but rather a straightforward look at being part of the working poor and the daily hardships and indignities the author faced.

The Spectators by Jennifer duBois — In her third novel, Williamsburg native Jennifer duBois, now living and teaching in Texas, again showcases her ironic wit, keen sense of observation, and ability to pull together different storylines. Matthew Miller, the host of a 1990s tabloid TV show on which violence sometimes erupts, faces harsh criticism when two teenage boys — fans of his show — shoot up their high school. The author sheds light on the enigmatic Matthew through the voice of his former lover, Semi, a disillusioned playwright who watched most of his friends die during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The novel’s other main character, Cel, Matthew’s beleaguered publicist, brings both comic relief and her own difficult past to the narrative. A host of well-drawn secondary characters also help make “The Spectators” a vivid examination of the cultural zeitgeist of that era.

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by Tyler Kepner — A must-read for the serious baseball fan, and a book even the casual one should enjoy. Kepner, a national baseball writer for the New York Times, interviewed dozens and dozens of current and former MLB pitchers, batters and coaches to tell the story of the history, folklore and quirks of baseball’s defining pitches, from the fastball to the curve to the slider to the knuckleball. It’s chock full of great anecdotes and insights about the classic confrontation between pitcher and batter.

Tombland by C.J. Sansom — This is the seventh book in Samson’s “Shardlake” series, mysteries set in Tudor England and narrated by the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, a good guy with a sense of morality and justice in an era lacking both. In the series, he continually gets caught up in the machinations of the movers and shakers in the royal court, as well as the often vicious religious strife of the era. In “Tombland,” Shardlake ends up in the middle of a violent peasant revolt in Norfolk in 1549. Great period flavor and a gripping plot (though the novel weighs in at over 800 pages).

I’d also like to give a nod to three fine books by Valley-based writers: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the novel/memoir by Ocean Vuong; Imperial Twilight, an expansive history by Stephen R. Platt of the Opium War and Chinese-British relations in the 19th century; and Annelies, David Gillham’s speculative novel about Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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