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Thursday, December 19, 2019

New Dork Review Best Books of 2019

Well, this is unusual. In fact, it's a first. My best books of the year list includes more nonfiction (6) than novels (4). I read a ton of great novels this year, of course — my top three of the year are novels! But maybe because writers are churning out great memoirs (and publishers are publishing them!) and other narrative nonfiction at an unprecedented clip, I read and connected with more of these terrific books than I ever had in a year before. And they were all over the place — from a magazine editor to a donkey racer to an examination of climate change and AI!

As always, it was a terrific year in reading. Here's my full year in books, via Goodreads, if you're interested. And  here are my top 10 favorite books of the year:

10. The Rise of the Ultra Runners, by Adharanand Finn — I ran my first ultramarathon this year (a 50k, about 31 miles), and if your first reaction to that information is WHY?!, then you should check out this book. Finn is a British journalist and above-average runner who set out to answer the question about what makes these ultra-runners tick. So to really answer the question, Finn took on the challenge himself, setting a goal of running the 100-mile Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), ultra-running's most prestigious event. Along the journey to get there (to enter UTMB, you have to accumulate a number of points by running other ultras), he meets and interviews the cream of the ultra-running crop, and tries to learn about their motivation for running 50-mile, 100-mile, even-greater-distance races. And he has to answer that question for himself. It's a riveting adventure story, good for runners and non-runners alike.

9. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett — Patchett can do no wrong. She's one of the best writers working now, and her latest novel is a fascinating dark fairy tale family saga that's one of her best. This was one of my most-anticipated novels of 2019, and I was so happy it lived up to the hype. (Side note: In 2019, I checked off a major bookish bucket list item by visiting Patchett's bookstore, Parnassaus Books, in Nashville. It's smaller than I expected it'd be, but still really great. Naturally, I bought one of Patchett's books there as a souvenir.)

8. Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall — Just a delight! The ultimate underdog story: A rescue donkey learns to run in the World Championships of Burro Racing, warming hearts everywhere! There's your ready-made movie tagline! And that's literally what happens in this terrific and hilarious book. But it's such a charming story. And along the way, McDougall (of Born to Run fame) teaches us about so much more than just burro racing. I laughed. I cried. I looked into adopting a donkey myself.

7. Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl — This is a memoir as much about the magazine business as it is about Reichl's signature subject for which she has legions of fan: food. I picked it up for the former, but loved it for the latter — she has a way of making food so personal with her writing, that even this non-foodie really loved it.

6. Nights In White Castle, by Steve Rushin — You want some comedy? This is some high comedy. With his signature wit and one-liners, Rushin gives us this memoir about his teenage years in suburban Minneapolis in the mid-1980s and his time at Marquette University soon after. If you're a child of the 1980s, too (though Rushin is a bit older than me), you'll love all the references and jokes here.

5. Falter, by Bill McKibben — Are we screwed? Yep, we might be totally and irreparably screwed. McKibben, who is one of personal environmentalist heroes, gives us three reasons why: Climate change, the rise of unregulated AI, and gene editing. All these have the potential to combine to wipe us all out. No exaggeration. He's worried. But he also provides some potential solutions. This is about his least cheery book, and that's saying something. But it's a vital read.

4. 26 Marathons, by Meb Keflezighi — You won't find a nicer, more personable athlete than Meb, the rare runner who has managed to cross over into popular culture. Meb recently retired and this book chronicles each of his 26 professional races, but it reads more like a memoir of his running career, detailing his successes and failures, injuries, sponsor problems, and so much more. You don't have to be runner to love this book; just a reader in need of inspiration and a good story.

3. Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig — The longest novel I read this year was one of the best. I love the premise here: What would cause our fragile, ultra-divided country to fracture? Would a mysterious sleep-walking disease do it? Wendig's such a cool, smart writer, whether he's talking about AI, religion, or epidemic, he's fascinating and funny. And this novel is populated with a ton of great characters — a fierce teenage girl, a small-town preacher, a disgraced former rock star, a brain-damaged cop, and so many more. This is a book you just get lost in.

2. Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid — This book feels so real it's hard to believe it's fiction. Of course, this "oral history" of the eponymous 70s band is a blast, but one of the reasons I really loved this novel is how it describes the creative process to write songs, and what it says about the inspiration for art.

1. The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo — As entertaining and well-written as anything I've read in a long, long time, this family saga about four sisters and their parents through the years in Chicago is what you want every novel to be. Honestly, when I was only about 50 pages into this book, I knew it'd be a favorite of the year — and that's held up through the next 500 pages, and also the six months since I read it in June. I really loved this book.

(Note: I'm currently about halfway through Samantha Power's memoir, The Education of an Idealist, and if I'd finished it before this post, there's a 100 percent chance it'd be on the list. It's spectacular.) 

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