I eagerly anticipate this time of the year when the year’s best reads are published. I don’t compare the books I read with the writers/editors choices since most of the books I read (or listen to) in a calendar year are published in other years, I use these lists as books to consider reading next year or later.
With that said, here are my favorite reads of 2019, with only four of the titles published in the last twelve months (and one of them originally released about 1000 years ago). The list is in no specific order except for separating nonfiction from fiction; however, the first three or four titles in Nonfiction are my top reads of the year.
Most books I read/listen to in a given year are nonfiction and of these titles, my favorite are political. It is a hangup of mine that I wish I could shake, but to repeat a popular term, I am a political junkie.
We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement by Ryan Grim, 2019
This should be essential reading for all progressives. The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim tells the 30-year story of a popular movement that started with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Collision and has culminated in the rise of Bernie Sanders into the national conscience and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise into American politics (who may have coined the name of the book: “We’ve got people. They’ve got money”). Grim expertly shows how Ocasio-Cortez did not grow out of a vacuum but is part of a movement that’s time may have come. If I had to pick my favorite read of the year (regardless of when it was published), it would be this one! Note to audio book listeners: Chapter 16 is a mess, but after I contacted the author via Twitter, he sent me a clean recording of the problem chapter. For audio book enthusiasts, note that reader, Sean W. Stewart must have recorded the book on his back porch—you can hear birds tweeting in the background!
Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman, 2017
If Grim’s book is my favorite read of 2019, “Utopia for Realists” comes in a close second. The same goes for the authors: Grim is as gracious as he is knowledgeable. Equally, Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, journalist, and author is a brilliant thinker who is not afraid to tell it like it is, even when surrounded by multimillionaires and billionaires. If you haven’t seen him dressing down of the elite during the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, click here. It is a thing to behold! He has become one of the champions of universal basic income or UBI. Check out his 2017 Ted Talk. His book–that came out the same year–tackles that idea in detail as well as the 15-hour workweek, and open borders. He wasn’t convincing about the 15-hour workweek. I vaguely remember him writing about how John Maynard Keynes brought it up in the depths of the Great Depression, but reducing the workweek (without reducing pay) in America is an idea which time has come.
On Fire: The Case for the Green New Deal by Naomi Klein, 2019
Naomi Klein is quite possibly the most significant thinker of our times. I once read someone saying Klein is the next Noam Chomsky. An absurd statement. Chomsky is Chomsky, and Klein is Klein. Still, the idea that the Canadian author, journalist, and activist has risen to the heights of a Chomsky is an achievement. She is absolutely essential.
“On Fire” is a continuation of one of her masterpieces, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.” It reports from the front lines of the people and ideas that are looking for solutions like The Green New Deal. It is not as thorough and as in-depth as “This Changes Everything,” but I think it is meant to be a companion piece to it. Worth a read!
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by William Pollan, 2008
Pollan’s manifesto is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, when he says “food,” he is not referring to Twinkies, Snickers, all processed foods. There are 64 Food Rules in the book. Each rule is simple, and its explanation is only about a page long. For being a tiny book, it is deceptively dense in wisdom. I’ve been trying to lose weight, and this book has helped, though “Food Rules” is not, by definition a diet book, but rather a guide on how to eat right.
What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States by Dave Zirin, 2005
For some time now, my son has been trying to get my wife and me to read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” written by someone named “Check D,” a wrapper my son apparently likes. He hasn’t been successful, but on a long car trip, he had me cornered. I finally looked up the title and found out the book is actually written by The Nation Magazine‘s sports editor Dave Zirin. (Chuck D, turned out to write the Forward.) As a long-time reader of The Nation and a one-time listener to Zirin’s podcast, “The Edge of Sports,” I knew and appreciated Zirin. So I ended up ordering the book, and in the meantime, Zirin’s previous book, “What’s My Name, Fool?” was available in audio, so I started listening to that. I was not disappointed.
“What’s My Name, Fool?” (a refrain Muhammad Ali asked his competitors who insisted on calling him by his “slave” name, Cassius Clay) is about the confluence of sports and politics. The book’s main topics are Ali and his fight for dignity against a white establishment, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ expression of Black Power and racism 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and how the two continued to fight after the blowback. Zirin also compassionately expressed the other side of when George Foreman waved a small U.S. flag after winning his gold medal in boxing during those same Olympic Games. Zirin covers Jackie Robinson and the racism he had to face every day when playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the long-term effect that had on the ballplayer’s life. Other topics include the plantation mentality of the multi-billion-dollar NCAA, the Billy Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match, and other issues. I’m glad my son, indirectly pointed me to this book. Perhaps n 2020, I’ll read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which, if the critics are correct, is a sequel to “What’s My Name, Fool?”
Lightly: How to Live a Simple, Sceren, Stress-Free Life by Francine Jay, 2019
I don’t read very many self-help books, but I have read a couple of books on minimalism: the elegant “Goodbye Things” by Fumio Sasaki, and my first book on the subject, “Everything That Remains” by Joshua Fields Millburn, but “Lightly” is the first book that doubles as a field guide. That is, it is part theory, part “how-to” manual that someone like Marie Kondo might appreciate. It has been a while since reading the Sasaki and Millburn books, but I believe what I really love about Jay’s beautiful book is how she addresses global issues. While the other authors focus mostly on personal issues, Jay also talks about the importance of reducing your carbon footprint.
The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Andrew Yang, 2018
I like Yang, even if he is against minimum wage (a deal-breaker if he wants my vote). He has some good ideas: his “Freedom Dividend” (read: UBI. No better yet, read Rutger Bregman’s “Utopia for Realists,” mentioned above). His idea on how to pay for the $1k a month to every adult American is refreshing, but I prefer Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s better. Yang doesn’t seem to want to ruffle the elite’s feathers—he believes the Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming like a runaway train, and there’s nothing we can do about it, but take the $1k and deal with it. He does a great job here explaining how the Fourth Industrial Revolution (automation and artificial intelligence (AI)) is going to make a lot of blue-collar and even some white-collar jobs obsolete, but, as I recall, he offers few solutions besides a monthly check to remove some of the sting and the way he will pay for his “Freedom Dividend”—implementing a European-style Value Added Tax. (A tax that is placed on all products whenever value is added at each stage of the supply chain.)
Since I’m a socialist, I don’t think we should just roll over and let Big Tech and corporations steal all these jobs. AI and automation should be for the benefit of labor, not for the board of directors and shareholders. AI and automation should work to reduce the workweek, not the paycheck. Still, there are a lot of great ideas in this book. It’s worth a read.
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean, 2017
Just when I thought how the radical right took control of America, my friend at work handed me this hardbound bomb. I was ignorant enough to think the attack on the liberal gains of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society started with the Powell Memorandum in 1972. The Powell Memo was indeed destructive, but that was only one volley and Powell played a minor roll in the rise of neoliberalism in America. There was a far bigger player in this successful dismantling of the social programs and institutions that even Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon accepted as established. His name was James McGill Buchanan Jr.
“Democracy in Chains” is an explosive expose of the radical right’s most successful attempt at destroying labor unions replacing them with Right to Work laws, privatizing public education, privatizing the prison systems, hobbling health care, replacing pensions with 401k plans, launching multiple attempts to privatize Social Security, keeping as many of us as possible out of the voting booth, and, in general, disenfranchising the middle class. MacLean does an excellent job of revealing the hidden political establishment behind far-right foundations thought to be started by billionaires like the Koch Brothers. Buchanan stands head and shoulders above highly visible thinkers like Milton Friedman, Richard Fink, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises.
The most fascinating thing I found about this book is Buchanan, and his like-minded thinkers attack “democracy” in favor of “freedom.” I’ve never heard of democracy referred to as a dirty word in America until reading this book. Too, the term “freedom” has the convenient definition as something that benefits wealthy white men–a greater opportunity for the rich to get richer and for everyone else (especially poor people of color) to remain disenfranchised. The Nation awarded “Democracy in Chains” Most Valuable Book of 2017. It deserves the accolade.
Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing, and Conscious Action by Seane Corn, 2019
I should take it easy on the political books and podcasts. I didn’t know who to kill after reading “Democracy in Chains”–maybe start with me? I always feel better reading/listening to works like “Revolution of the Soul.” Seane Corn is a singular yoga teacher and this is an excellent read for being her first–part memoir, part the kind of instruction Corn’s followers have come to expect from her.
Her publisher, Sounds True writes, “Seane’s real purpose is to guide us into a deep, gut-level understanding of our highest Self through yoga philosophy and other tools for emotional healing – not just as abstract ideas but as embodied, fully felt wisdom. Why? To spark a ‘revolution of the soul’ in each of us so we can awaken to our purpose and become true agents of change. Seane writes, ‘When we heal the fractured parts of ourselves and learn to love who we are and the journey we’ve embarked upon we will see that same tender humanity in all souls. This is the revolution of the soul.'”
Each chapter of this memoir includes practical tools from the author: instructions on the chakra system, pranayamas, healing, forgiveness, the subtle body, and more. Not into yoga? Perhaps this book isn’t for you. What can I say? It’s my blog.
Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America by William Stolzenburg, 2016
The author traces the steps of an embattled mountain lion from the Black Hills of North Dakota, across the Great Plains, through the Midwest to Connecticut’s Gold Coast–a two-year odyssey. It’s a fascinating and, at least for me, tragic tale of how we are slowing killing off some of our most majestic mammals due to human encroachment and misunderstanding. Goodreads.com calls it “a testament to the resilience of nature, and a test of humanity’s willingness to live again beside the ultimate symbol of wildness.” I couldn’t have said it better.
The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2013 and The Wisdom of Wolves: Lessons from the Sawtooth Pack by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2018
This was the first year I ever started reading about wild cats and dogs. First, I read “Heart of a Lion” then I read “The Hidden Life of Wolves” followed by the he beautiful pictorial “The Wisdom of Wolves.” I came away with a similar feeling had had when a read books on sharks after seeing the film “Jaws”: how misunderstood these predators are.
What was especially fascinating about the Dutcher books is how the couple and Manfill were able to become accepted in the Sawtooth Pack in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. (At one point Jamie Dutcher is allowed into a she-wolf’s den after after she has given birth to pups!) The products of this kind of acceptance is an excellent study on how wolves live and some absolutely stunning photography.
America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis, 2016
“Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Wallis writes, “America’s problem with race has deep roots, with the country’s foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another. Racism is truly our nation’s original sin. It’s time we right this unacceptable wrong.” I have read Wallis’ books and editorials for years in his Sojourners Magazine–a Christian progressive monthly.
In “America’s Original Sin,” Wallis tells of how he was driven away from his faith by a church that didn’t want to address the problems of racism in the 1960’s. He turned to working with civil rights groups. He returned to the church when he found a faith that commands racial justice. “Yet as recent tragedies confirm” he writes, “we continue to suffer from the legacy of racism. The old patterns of white privilege are colliding with the changing demographics of a diverse nation.”
I probably read one book of fiction for every three nonfiction books, but after reading each of these books I felt I was missing out.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth, 1987
Roth won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this masterful work of loss and distrust recounted by a family friend during a high school reunion and spans about fifty years, starting in the early 20th century where Seymour “Swede” Levov’s father starts a profitable glove manufacturing business and continues through the idyllic 50’s when the son, All-American college star, Swede Levov, and his trophy wife, Dawn, watch their seemingly perfect life, with their daughter, slowly unravel through the tumultuous ’60s. For me, it is one of the most heartbreaking yet compelling books I have ever read, and the first book I have read by the lauded Philip Roth.
Ohio by Stephen Markley, 2018
Shortly after Philip Roth, one of the most significant figures in American letters died, Stephen Markley publishes his first novel. I’m not trying to claim Markley has taken Roth’s mantle, I’m only saying “Ohio” is worthy of a master’s offspring. “Ohio” is a brutally vivid story of a community in the rust belt where the American Dream is all but dead, and the opioid epidemic is in full swing. Told from the perspective of four former classmates who return home after the untimely death of a friend in Iraq. The four return on the same night, with different motives and none of their homecomings, go as planned. The novel ends with a terrifying act of violence, the culmination of a set of lives that have been destroyed by abuse, drug addiction, hatred, war and poverty.
Vox by Christina Dalcher, 2018
Something like a fundamental Christian theocracy takes over the U.S. government and begins to roll back liberties–especially for women and young girls. On the day, the government decrees that women are allowed to speak no more than 100 words a day. At first, Dr. Jean McClellan thinks this will pass, but it doesn’t. She, her daughter, and all females have a counter fascinated to their wrists to monitor and govern their speech. Soon, women lose their jobs, girls are no longer taught to read or write in school. A moment comes when McClellan can step up and do something about this injustice. This is no “Handmaiden’s Tale,” one reader commented, but “Vox” is clearly not trying to be that story. It is more subtle and, in a way, that makes “Vox” more terrifying.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, 2014
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.…”
Nope, that wasn’t a spoiler, that’s how the book starts, and it is because of this setup that everything that follows so tragic. Lydia is torn between the demands of her mother and the different expectations of her father while her own desires ans aspirations are ignored. Thus paving the way to the established climax.
The structure, while not completely novel, is executed expertly. “Everything I Never Told You” is a moving story of a Chinese American family living in a small town in 1970’s Ohio. It is a moving story about a family divided by cultures, gender, and generations.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen, 2015
Pip (Purity) Tyler, a young woman, straddled with college debt and a burning question: who is her father. Her eccentric mother knows but won’t tell her. She fled from him before Pip was born, changed her name, and retired to live in anonymity in the woods of Northern California. Pip begins an internship with the Sunlight Project, the organization founded by the famous and charismatic German leaker, Andreas Wolf (fashioned after Julian Assange). Pip moves to Bolivia, where the Sunlight Project is based, with the hope of being able to use hacker technology to discover her father’s identity.
I enjoyed the odd sexual tension between Pip and Andreas, the dark secrets revealed in intimacy, and the betrail. Like Franzen’s previous book, “Freedom,” the pacing might be slow at first, but the story picks up momentum and is well worth sticking with it.
Beowulf by Unknown, between the 8th and the early 11th century (Okay, the version I read was transcribed by Francis Barton Gummere and translated by Seamus Heaney)
I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime I have seen the The Lord of the Rings, based on J.R.R. I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime, I have seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reading Beowulf, I see where he got his inspiration. It is one of the most essential works in old English literature and can take credit for a lot of European works from Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” operas to “Game of Thrones.”
The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, who has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel, and much gallantry is displayed. After reading the epic poem, I bought and enjoyed Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s large-format graphic novel version of the seminal piece of Old English lit. It was a nice encore.
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