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2019 gifted us with a collection of memorable reads. But with so many “best books of 2019” lists out there, who has time to read them all? Turns out: I do. And to help you catch up, I scouted and rounded up all the best 2019 books, and then carefully picked the 10 most precious ones out of the bunch. You’re welcome!
So, if you’re looking for your next great read, look no further than this ultimate list of best books, 2019 edition:
1. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong
Poet Ocean Vuong made an impressive entrance into fiction in 2019 with his semi-autobiographical debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which instantly collected unanimous acclaim and best-seller status. The protagonist is Little Dog, a Vietnamese American writer just like Vuong, growing up in Connecticut with his mother, a Vietnam War survivor.
Little Dog has a troubled relationship with his mother and struggles to carry the weight of inherited trauma. All of this is narrated in the form of a letter addressed to his mother, which is heartbreaking both for the letter’s intensity and for the fact that she’ll never be able to read it.
A portrayal of generational suffering, violence, and poverty, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the kind of book that can and will bring you to tears.
2. “Nothing to See Here” by Kevin Wilson
A very unusual but incredibly moving portrait of parenthood, Kevin Wilson’s novel tells the story of Lillian, a 28-year-old woman who finds happiness in her life while caring for her friend’s two stepchildren.
It all sounds normal enough until you find out that these two kids have a slightly disturbing ability: they can literally burst into flames, without personally getting hurt, when they’re upset. Lillian is the kind of person who could barely manage a cactus, and yet she ends up accepting this challenge.
Through this exceptionally weird and somehow hilarious story, Wilson manages to capture the overwhelming emotions of caring for children and the incredible power of parental love.
3. “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead
2020 Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Nickel Boys” follows Elwood, a respectful teenage boy sentenced to a hellish Florida reformatory, the Nickel Academy, after mistakenly riding in a stolen vehicle. Together with his peers, Elwood tries to cope with his shattered dreams and his discouraging ideas of how his country will treat him in the future.
Whitehead clearly draws inspiration from real atrocities of America’s past, specifically from the Florida reform school for boys that in the 1960s became infamous for secretly torturing, killing, and burying its black students.
Whitehead describes a terrifying world of violence, pushes us readers to acknowledge the permanent impact of a cruel and unjust era, and finally finishes us off with a devastating plot twist.
4. “Normal People” by Sally Rooney
Look, I’m aware you’re probably tired of seeing Sally Rooney’s novels on so many 2019 must-read lists, but the fact is, her books are magnetic and I just couldn’t help myself.
Normal People tells the story of the demanding, exciting, and often-broken relationship between two teenagers as they grow up and find their true selves both together and apart. I can tell you’re starting to think this must be a frivolous romantic book, but I’m telling you, it really isn’t. It’s not even a love story, but rather an accomplished in-depth character study.
Sally Rooney is not only exceptionally skilled at writing, but she really just gets people, and with her great psychological acuity perfectly captures what it’s like to be young, confused, and imperfect.
5. “Mostly Dead Things” by Kristen Arnett
Dark, weird, almost uncomfortably so, Mostly Dead Things is a psychological scrutiny of a bizarre family dealing with traumatic loss.
Jessa, the main character, grew up working in her father’s taxidermy shop and finds herself struggling to keep her family and her family business together after her father’s suicide. Mostly Dead Things is a novel about grief and what inevitably happens when you don’t process it properly. It’s a beautifully written tragedy about sadness, love, unexpressed emotions, and silence. Trust me, you haven’t read anything like it.
6. “Gingerbread” by Helen Oyeyemi
I can tell you this for a start: Gingerbread is likely to be the weirdest book you’ll read all year.
A story within a story, Gingerbread tells the tale of Perdita and Harriet, an eccentric mother–daughter pair who lives in London and bakes delicious gingerbread cookies. Oyeyami is a true storyteller and takes the reader on a crazy ride through imaginary countries, talking dolls, and a general next-level magic realism.
It’s funny, original, imaginative and just a tad delirious.
7. “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood
Almost 35 years after writing her classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood comes back to answers all the questions that have tormented us for decades and continues her exploration of repressive regimes.
The novel is set in Gilead 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. The theocratic regime is very much in place, but there are clear signs it is beginning to rot. The story is narrated by the point of view of three radically different women: Offred, the protagonist of the previous novel, Agnes, a young woman sadly living in Gilead; and Daisy, a teenager living in Canada. With this thrilling sequel, Atwood brings us some closure with some of our favorite characters, and once again comes to warn us that tyranny is always lurking around the corner.
8. “Where Reasons End” by Yiyun Li
Written in the months after the author lost her son to suicide, Where Reasons End narrates an imagined conversation between mother and child, as they both relive the old days of being together and blissfully speaking to one another.
Much of their imagined discussions are philosophical in nature, few are sentimental, but most are about language technicalities, definitions, and etymology. Deeply moving and intimate, these conversations portray the pain of loss, the beauty of unconditional love, and a mother’s attempt to both hold on and let go of her son.
9. “Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi
Trust Exercise follows a group of theater students at a highly competitive performing art high school in an unspecified American suburb. Two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall in love, and their intense, passionate connection is noticed and somehow exploited by their acting teacher.
And yet, soon after, in a shocking plot twist, we learn that hardly anything we’ve read was accurate. But you know what, the less you know about this book before reading it, the better your experience will be. Suffice to say, Choi keeps readers guessing until the last page in this shifting and twisting novel, that questions the very ideas of innocence, truth, and trust.
10. “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death” by Caitlin Doughty
We wanted to finish off strong with a book that could either win the award for the best science book of 2019 or the most disturbing book of 2019 (or of the decade).
Every day, mortician and funeral director Caitlin Doughty receives dozens of questions about death. What would happen to an astronaut’s body if it were pushed out of a space shuttle? Can Grandma have a Viking funeral? In this book, Doughty answers these and other 32 questions she has been asked, specifically by children, tapping her knowledge of the body to offer an accurate and hilarious portray of what happens to our bodies when we die. Can learning about death be actually fun? Apparently, yes!