These were the books I read this year. My favorites were the Frederick Douglass biography, Catch and Kill and A Good Provider is One Who Leaves. Finding enjoyable fiction remains a challenge. My favorite novel of the past year was The Overstory.
Asymetry by Lisa Halliday. A widely praised first novel, loosely based on the author’s romance with Philip Roth. High brow, perplexing and ultimately, for me, underwhelming.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight. A majestic biography of one of the greatest Americans of the 19th (or any) century. Born a slave, Douglass became a towering civil rights and political leader who celebrated emancipation but, by the end of his life, was “sickened once again by the power of white supremacy.”
Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy. During four astonishing seasons between 1963 and 1966, Koufax was otherworldly: He pitched four no-hitters, including a perfect game, won three Cy Young Awards and twice was named World Series MVP. Then, at age 30, he was done.
The Overstory by Richard Powers. A tangled tale about trees and the people who love them. Hard to describe, and long, but a pleasure to read.
The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin. Colorful stories about larger-than-life characters who lived during a tumultuous time.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Ostensibly the story of a 1986 fire that destroyed much of the Los Angeles public library, but really a tribute to the power of libraries, then and now. Digressive to a fault.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. How the youngest child of a survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho found her way to college and beyond. Self-educated is more like it. Fascinating.
Working by Robert Caro. How a great reporter and biographer does what he does. I’d read more books like this by extraordinary people.
Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva. An insider’s persuasive critique of establishment philanthropy. But is all great wealth really stolen?
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, this novel of two families moves along crisply even as it explores class, race, art and family. Coming soon to Hulu!
The Border by Don Winslow. The last of a sprawling and violent trilogy about a DEA chief and the jefe of a Mexican cartel boss he’s chased for decades. A page turner, fortunately, because there are 736 pages to turn.
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig. The little-known, fascinating and world-changing story of Gregory Pincus, the iconoclastic scientist who invented the birth control pill, and the allies who helped him do it.
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love, by Dani Shapiro: Beginning writers are told to “write what you know.” Shapiro took that advice to heart. This is her fifth (!) memoir. Still, she’s got a lively tale to tell, and a mystery to solve, set off by the discovery that the man who raised her is not her biological father.
Evvy Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. A young widow, recovering from a bad marriage, rents a room in her Vermont home to a former big league pitcher with great stuff who can no longer get the ball over the plate. Romance ensues. A fun read.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. When Charles Lindbergh – American hero, isolationist, Nazi sympathizer – defeats FDR for the presidency in 1940, everything changes for the Roth family of Newark. Democracy, tolerance and the rule of law are fragile, are they not?
On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Growing Old by Parker Palmer. Essays and advice, from a warm-hearted man.
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. The New York Times reporters who helped bring down Harvey Weinstein are terrific reporters, but this is disappointing. Nothing new.
Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Anker. A shrewdly observed comic novel about a failing marriage, set among Manhattan’s rich, becomes a more meaningful story about how “having it all” is “just a lie we tell girls to make their marginalization bearable.”
How to be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi. “Like fighting an addiction, being an anti-racist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism and regular self-examination,” Kendi writes, in a book that intersperses memoir, social history and polemic. A challenging read.
Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow. There are very bad people in the world (including at NBC News) and they want to stop the author from telling the truth about Harvey Weinstein. Nevertheless, he persisted. A captivating tale.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Center by Timothy Snyder. Those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. Critics loved this family drama, with its shifting perspectives and time periods, about a psychiatrist, a feminist author and their son. It confused and disappointed me.
The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals by Jenny Brown. An inspiring memoir by a vegan activist, but there’s more to the story.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. How we got to where we are. More fun to read that you would guess.
A Good Provider is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century by Jason DeParle. Three decades of the life of a Filipino family. Deeply-reported, insightful and timely. Immersive journalism at its best.
On to 2020! Up next are Elton John’s autobiography and the Booker Prize winning Girl, Woman, Other