Best reading of 2019: Nonfiction, Literary Fiction, and One Purely Perfect Short Story

December 31, 2019 at 10:50 pm (Best of 2019, Book review, books)

Nonfiction

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, by Orlando Figes

    Stealing the Show: A History of Art and Crime in Six Thefts, by John Barelli with Zachary Schisgal

Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen

    Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London, by Claire Harmon

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold

Author Hallie Rubenhold

Renaissance by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, by H.W. Brands

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

Robert and Clara Schumann

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest To Break an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox

    Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, by Rachel Monroe

Little Dancer, Age Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas’s Masterpiece, by Camille Laurens

In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth, by Jack Goldsmith

Becoming, by Michele Obama

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, by Eric Foner

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University (left), presents the 2011 Pulitzer History Prize to Eric Foner.

[While pursuing his doctorate in American history at Columbia, my brother Richard had the great good fortune to study with Professor Eric Foner.]

  A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar. Lucky man, Hisham Matar, to be able to make this pilgrimage to a place steeped in such a gorgeous heritage. And such lovely writing:

The play of understated exteriors and magnificent interiors, of calm serenity on the outside and deliberate care and thoughtfulness on the inside, of a modest or moderate face concealing a fervent heart, is a Sienese habit, a magic trick the city likes to perform. It does this not only out of the desire to surprise but also, I felt during those early days, to demonstrate the transformative possibility of crossing a threshold.

Your friend forever, A. Lincoln : the enduring friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, by Charles B. Strozier. This book was the perfect companion volume to Louis Bayard’s Courting Mr. Lincoln, of which more below.

Fiction

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. Oh. Ian McEwan, you cunning artificer! You had me mesmerized, from the very outset, by this strange and disturbing invention.  (Ian looks great, but that cover creeps me out.)

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Oh dear…a book I wanted so much to like. And there were some memorable moments; of course there were; Kingsolver is such a gifted writer. But I have rarely read a novel in which the dialog was so annoyingly unbelievable. I kept wanting to exclaim, “C’mon, Barbara, real people don’t talk to each other like that – in long, rambling disquisitions on weighty topics – commentary that is more like a  series of rants than anything else! (I got through it, but barely.)

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. I just finished  this novel, and I believe it will haunt me for a long time. Among its many singular attributes, it takes readers to a place most of us know nothing about: the Kamchatka Peninsula,

Short story

“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” by Hugh Walpole. As sensitive and moving an exploration of human affection as I’ve come across in a long time.

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE

A final word on this year’s reading: I just completed a rereading of Courting Mr. Lincoln, and I think it is  brilliant. Not just in its category of historical fiction, but as a novel in any category, or just in its own category. Actually, with its wit, wonderful recreation of Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s, meticulous writing, and above all, bringing to such vivid life those  two singular individuals, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, everything about it is superb. Why has this book not garnered more notice? Lately I’ve started so many novels only to set them aside in frustration and dismay. But Courting Mr. Lincoln is a triumph. Kudos to you, Mr. Bayard!

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