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Best Reads of 2019 - Ashley's Picks

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

2019 was a great year for reading for me. Many of these books were not written in 2019, but they were new to me this past year, and they were phenomenal. From Michelle Obama's Becoming that I read in right at the beginning of the year to John Boyne's The Heart's Invisible Furies, which I read very close to the year's end, I definitely read some keepers this year that I will be recommending and revisiting for a long time to come.

These were all five bookish hearts books for me -- some hit my emotions harder while others helped me think of the world in new ways, but all of them were amazing books that I'd highly recommend.

Fredrik Backman's Beartown - I talk about this one in our Unabridged Awards 2019 episode. I listened on audio and loved it so much. I was captivated by the stories and amazed at how Backman could see the issues that unfold in the book from SO many different perspectives. Backman made me think very deeply about humanity, the connections between people, and the way that sports teams and the desire to win at all cost can impact those connections.

John Boyne's The Heart's Invisible Furies - Phew, I loved this novel so much. I was captivated by Cyril's journey and was fascinated by watching the pieces of this epic story fit together over time. It was both heartbreaking and hilarious; Cyril's perspective on circumstances, many of which were tragic, made me laugh out loud many times, but I also shed many tears over the painful encounters he had throughout his life and the ways that he felt forced to pretend to be someone he was not. I listened to this one on audio, and I loved the narration.

Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Race - This book really impacted me and gave me lots of new ideas to consider. DiAngelo helped me see more clearly how many seemingly benign actions are directly upholding the infrastructures of white privilege and white supremacy within American society. It's brilliant and is a must-read for anyone, but especially for white Americans who believe they are liberal, open-minded, and interested in making a positive impact in relationship to race relations in America. I listened to this one on audio (I'm noticing a trend here that I hadn't realized before!) and appreciated the narration.

Mira Jacob's Good Talk - This was my other pick for the Unabridged Awards for 2019. I LOVED IT. Seriously, you should pick this one up today and start reading. This graphic memoir shows with humor and insight what it is like to navigate hard questions from young children about race relations in an increasingly polarized cultural landscape. This one was brilliant.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele's When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir - This is a powerful memoir that shows through a firsthand account so many of the problems people of color are facing in America today, and it also accounts the journey toward creation of the Black Lives Matter movement and the problems encountered along the way. I listened to this, and it was read by Patrisse Khan-Cullors; I loved hearing it straight from her.

Min Jin Lee's Pachinko - I stumbled into this one when flipping through my Kindle books, and I was captivated from the start. This epic novel recounts the complexities of the relationship between Korea and Japan going back to the early 1930s and spanning up to present day, traveling through generations and across countries. I learned so much about what life was like during the Japanese occupation of Korea and what it was like for Koreans in Japan. I loved seeing the relationships between the characters and how those relationships changed over time.

Mira T. Lee's Everything Here Is Beautiful - I listened to this one on audio and was swept away by this story about two sisters and what is it like to live with mental illness. This rich story speaks to how hard it is to support our loved ones and how challenging mental illness is for everyone involved, but Lee's story ultimately highlights how beautiful life in all of its complexity really is.

Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers - This phenomenal book focuses on two time periods and interrelated storylines. One storyline focuses on Boystown Chicago during the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis as one of the main characters, Yale, and his friends began to see the sickness and to learn about the epidemic. The other storyline shows present day France where the sister of one of the characters works to reconcile her relationship with her estranged daughter. Makkai's novel is heart-wrenching and profoundly beautiful. SO GOOD.

Casey McQuiston's Red, White, and Royal Blue - This brilliant novel is hilarious, tender, and fun while taking on important issues. It shows an alternate contemporary history where the president of the United States is a white woman from Texas with a Hispanic-American family. It was exactly what I needed in my life right now; funny and ultimately so very hopeful.

Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles - Although I did not talk about this one on Unabridged Awards 2019, I have managed to bring it up in just about every other recent by that marker, I think I should have talked about it on the Awards episode ;-). Anyway, I was blown away by this one. I loved Petroclus's perspective on Achilles, and what I am left thinking about is how far love can go but also how no matter how deeply we love another person, we still cannot change who that person is or the choices that person makes.

Michelle Obama's Becoming - Oh my goodness, I LOVED this book so much. I was amazed by how humble and honest Michelle Obama is in her account all of her life experiences including the transition into Barack's political campaign and even the transition out of the White House. I listened to Michelle Obama herself read this on audio. Phenomenal.

Lisa See's The Island of Sea Women - This phenomenal book taught me so much about the tradition of the haenyeo, the female divers living on the Japanese-occupied island of Jeju in Korea. This epic historical fiction novel moves from the 1930s through the Korean war and into present day, and it shows the way relationships can fracture and break but how important the ties between us are.

Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy - This book. Wow. I'm so glad I finally read this; we discussed it for our June 2019 book club episode. The film is playing in theaters right now. Addressing the injustices of death row and prisoners experiencing life in prison, Stevenson brilliantly shows the brutality and flaws of our justice system in the United States. This book forces readers to look straight on at a very ugly part of our society, and it leaves us thinking long and hard about the changes that need to be made to make our justice system function more effectively and fairly.

What were some of your favorite books from 2019? Let us know here or on social media @unabridgedpod.

Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.


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