Favorite Books of 2019

Favorite Books of 2019

Book Cover: The Library Book by Susan OrleanThe Library Book by Susan Orlean

non-fiction · history

“In total, four hundred thousand books in Central Library were destroyed in the fire. An additional seven hundred thousand were badly damaged by either smoke or water or, in many cases, both. The number of books destroyed or spoiled was equal to the entirety of fifteen typical branch libraries. It was the greatest loss to any public library in the history of the United States.”

Primarily about a major fire in the Los Angeles Central Library, this book reads more like fiction. Did you know that libraries are engineered differently than other buildings specifically because of the risk of fire? I learned a lot about the loss of libraries throughout history (and not just the Library of Alexandria), our cultural connections to libraries, and exactly how difficult it can be put out a fire when water is a greater concern than flames.


Book Cover: Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York by Stacy HornDamnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York by Stacy Horn

non-fiction · history · poverty · mental illness · prisons

“The dark shadow of crime spreads right and left, from the Penitentiary and the Workhouse, over all the institutions, the Asylum, the Alms-House and Charity Hospital; so that, in the minds of the people at large, all suffer alike from an evil repute.” Being poor had become a character trait that needed “correction,” like the impulse to steal or cheat. The Christian impulse to help the needy had been tamped down and replaced with an inclination to punish them.”

This is a horrifying book. There is no way around it. There's corruption, basically torture, ill-treatment of literally everyone in the state's care, disease, and the list goes on. If you're interested in the evolution of prisons in the US, the care of people with mental and physical disabilities, and/or state institutions, I think you'll learn a lot from this book.


Book Cover: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand GiridharadasWinners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

non-fiction · economics

"In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations. The society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve. The broad fidelity to this law helps make sense of what we observe all around: the powerful fighting to “change the world” in ways that essentially keep it the same, and “giving back” in ways that sustain an indefensible distribution of influence, resources, and tools.”

This book tackles the ethics of rich philanthropists, shining a light on the fact that many derived their wealth via questionable, immoral, or outright illegal means. Giridharadas connects the Gilded Age robber barons to the tech billionaires of today, pointing out how they continue to do harm, avoid paying their fair share of taxes, and while washing their reputation via foundations they control outside the democratic process. A week or two after I finished this book, the author was interviewed on Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act, which is worth a watch.


Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases by Paul A. OffitVaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases by Paul A. Offit

non-fiction · history · medicine

"He noted that only three types of hemagglutinins had ever caused pandemic disease in humans: H1, H2, and H3. Hilleman believed that the future of influenza pandemics could be predicted from past pandemics: H2 virus caused the pandemic of 1889. H3 virus caused the pandemic of 1900. H1 virus caused the pandemic of 1918. H2 virus caused the pandemic of 1957. H3 virus caused the pandemic of 1968. H1 virus caused the mini-pandemic of 1986. Hilleman saw two patterns in these outbreaks. First, the types of hemagglutinins occurred in order: H2, H3, H1, H2, H3, H1. Second, the intervals between pandemics of the same type were always sixty-eight years—not approximately sixty-eight years, but exactly sixty-eight years. For example, an H3 pandemic occurred in 1900 and 1968, and an H2 pandemic occurred in 1889 and 1957. Sixty-eight years was just enough time for an entire generation of people to be born, grow up, and die. “This is the length of the contemporary human life span,” said Hilleman. “A sixty-eight-year recurrence restriction, if real, would suggest that there may need to be a sufficient subsidence of host immunity before a past virus can regain access and become established as a new human influenza virus in the population.”

This book is a great history of vaccinations and a primer on how they work. I was amazed to learn that the majority of vaccines we currently use were developed by one man. It also covers the dark history of vaccinations - how many were tested on people (especially children) with disabilities without their knowledge or consent. It also covers the famous "vaccines cause autism" white paper, so it's good suggested reading for friends and family members who are either anti-vax or on the fence.


Book Cover: We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha IrbyWe are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

non-fiction · essays · memoir · humor

“What have you not found but would like to have in a relationship? Someone who will leave me the hell alone for extended periods of time without getting all weird about it. I have a lot of audiobooks to listen to on the toilet.”

I. Loved. This. Book. I identified so much with Sam, laughing out loud in places and crying in others. I'm excited that they're coming out with a new book next year!


Book Cover: Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese LaymonHeavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

non-fiction · memoir

"There were so many things we needed in those classrooms, in our city, in our state, in our country that our teachers could have provided if they would have gone home and really done their homework. They never once said the words: “economic inequality,” “housing discrimination,” “sexual violence,” “mass incarceration,” “homophobia,” “empire,” “mass eviction,” “post traumatic stress disorder,” “white supremacy,” “patriarchy,” “neo-confederacy,” “mental health,” or “parental abuse,” yet every student and teacher at that school lived in a world shaped by those words.”

I've been a fan of Kiese's since I found his blog a thousand years ago, and this may be my favorite of his writing yet. It's deeply personal, heartbreaking, eye opening, and, well, heavy. I recommend the audiobook, which is read by Kiese himself.


Book Cover: Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival by Velma WallisTwo Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival by Velma Wallis

fiction · folklore · native american (athabascan) author

"Now, because we have spent so many years convincing the younger people that we are helpless, they believe that we are no longer of use to this world.”

I don't remember who originally recommended this book to me, but I loved it. Two old women are left behind by their community because they can no longer keep up during a harsh winter when food is scarce. It's expected that the women won't make it and the story follows them as they try to survive on their own.


Book Cover: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan BraithwaiteMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

fiction · thriller · nigerian author

“He looked like a man who could survive a couple of flesh wounds, but then so had Achilles and Caesar.”

One of the first books I read in the new year and then immediately made my sister read, lol. As the title implies, it's about a woman who is a serial killer and her sister who is forced to clean up after her lest she get caught. While there is murder, it isn't super graphic.


Book Cover: The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn JoukhadarThe Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar

historical fiction · fantasy · syria

“Don't forget,' he says, and Abu Sayeed looks up while he translates, holding the words back a little, 'stories ease the pain of living, not dying. People always think dying is going to hurt. But it does not. It's living that hurts us.”

This novel bounces back and forth between Syria in ~1200 and 2011 as the civil war breaks out. I fell in love with the determination of both main characters to survive and persevere in incredibly difficult situations. The writing is beautiful.


Book Cover: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-GarciaGods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

historical fiction · fantasy · mexican author

“Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there's power in the myth. Yes, the things you name have power.”

It's 1927 and a young woman in southern Mexico, tired of the poor treatment her family has subjected her to, decides she's going to run away. She's heard the trunk in her grandfather's room contains some kind of riches, but upon opening it is greeted by the Mayan god of death. 


Book Cover: The Night Tiger by Yangsze ChooThe Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

historical fiction · fantasy · malaysian author

“We were a chocolate-box family, I thought. Brightly wrapped on the outside and oozing sticky darkness within.”

A young woman and her brother get pulled into a complicated web of superstition after she finds a mummified finger.


Book Cover: Exhalation by Ted ChiangExhalation by Ted Chiang

science fiction · fantasy · short stories

"My message to you is this: Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

I can't sing this book's praises enough. I love Ted Chiang's writing and his way of seeing the world and the stories here are some of the best examples of that. My personal favorite is The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, a layered time travel story meets One Thousand and One Nights. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is an interesting examination of what happens when a company stops supporting proprietary software where that software has evolved into life. This collection includes quite a few stories that I had read in other places, so if you're a Chiang fan they may seem familiar.


Book Cover: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow WilsonAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

science fiction · fantasy · cyberpunk?

“They will wake up one morning and realize their civilization has been pulled out from under them, inch by inch, dollar by dollar, just as ours was. They will know what it is to have been asleep for the most important century of their history.”

A hacker is trying to protect his clients, himself, and also stick it to the security state he's living in. But when the state comes after him, he ends up getting help from a jinn. I loved this book and was so pleased to see that the jinn makes a repeat appearance in Wilson's new book, The Bird King, which I also recommend.


Book Cover: The Far Field by Madhuri VijayThe Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

fiction · indian author · kashmir

“There were no images of screaming, angry crowds; no shots of policemen and soldiers advancing slowly shoulder go shoulder; no bodies sprawled in the street; no blazing houses. It was as if it weren't happening at all.”

When I asked for non-fiction and fiction books to learn more about Kashmir earlier this year, a few people suggested this one. I struggled with whether to put this one on my list, only because of the ending. In all, it's a great book and I highly recommend it to people who aren't as familiar with the history of Kashmir.