I’ve fallen off the wagon where my reading roundup posts are concerned, but because I read too many good books not to talk about them, I thought a general “read these ten amazing books in 2019 or else” post was due. As always, they run the gamut from historical fiction to historical non-fiction to mainstream fiction and to my new thing, current events.
As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner
If there’s a period in modern history I’d like to read more on, it would be the Spanish Influenza or the 1918 Flu Pandemic as it is also referred to. Many people (myself included) fail to grasp the enormity of this horrific outbreak due to the fact it happened when World War I was still going on, and in its immediate aftermath, when people had to come to grips that 40 million (civilians and military personnel) lost their lives during the war. And yet, 50 million people around the world died as a result of contracting the flu. Yes, 50 million people died in a span of little more than a year.
One of the main reasons I was drawn to As Bright as Heaven was that it’s set in my hometown of Philadelphia (so few books are outside of the colonial era) and actually opens in Quakertown, Pennsylvania (a shout out to anyone who knows). But it also intrigued me because it tells the story of three sisters and their mother from the time of when talk of the flu was akin to a pesky rumor that people were brushing off to where the flu truly crippled a city like Philadelphia. I liked the fact that each chapter was told from the voice of one of the sisters and the mother; you got their individual perspective on what life was like during this unimaginable period.
A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines by Anthony Bourdain
I was devastated when I heard of Bourdain’s death, especially as he and Kate Spade (another favorite of mine) both died in the same week. He was brash, overly opinionated, rude and mean (everything I am not), and yet from a food and caring about the world and its people perspective, he was everything I love.
A Cook’s Tour is somewhat older (it was published in 2002),written when not many in the mainstream world were familiar with him (yet). It tells of his global adventures around the world, all in search of the perfect meal. Having watched enough of his shows from both the Travel Channel and then CNN, while reading his written words I could truly hear his voice in my head. My favorite chapters were the ones about his vodka adventures in Russia and hang time in a Vietnamese fishing village. If you love food and travel and for some reason this book had eclipsed your reading shelf (like it had with me), then read it immediately. It will be the best global escape to take that won’t cost a penny.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I tend to avoid mainstream fiction simply because I like to feel I’m learning something when I read (hence, why I love historical fiction). But with all the buzz that An American Marriage was getting I felt like I couldn’t not read it. So I did, and honestly, it was one of my favorite reads from 2018. It tells the story of Roy and Celestial, two newlyweds whose lives irrevocably change one night when Roy is arrested and subsequently sent to jail for a horrific crime he didn’t commit. It is slow and steady; there’s nothing thriller or fast paced about it. But from the moment you start, you’re immediately drawn to the characters, almost feeling like they’re talking directly to you.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read Adichie’s debut work Purple Hibiscus during my senior year of college and even though I adored it, for some reason I never read any of her followup works. When looking for a new book to listen to during my commute last summer, I came across Americanah and am so glad I did. It tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerian teenagers in love who find their relationship tested when Ifemelu goes off to America for college and Obinze is forced to go down another path as he is unable to secure a visa. I loved learning about the Nigerian culture even though I have yet to make jollof rice…But all in all, Adichie is a master storyteller.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
This was the book circulating like wildfire at the library where I work, so when I was in need of a new audio book to listen to, I added this to my queue. Let’s just say I loved it a whole lot more than I thought I would. Eleanor Oliphant tells the story of Eleanor, a 20 something British woman who lives her life feeling as though she is the perfectly sane one, while its the rest of the populace that is off its rocker. Although the beginning leaves the reader feeling mad and irritated by Eleanor’s peculiar, sometimes outright rude behavior, as the story progresses you begin to see and understand why she is the way she is. And by the end, you’ll definitely be feeling a lot of sympathy, and genuinely care about her too.
The Envoy by Alex Kershaw
Having previously read two of Kershaw’s other historical non-fiction works, I was intrigued when I discovered The Envoy, his account of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic attempts to rescue as many Hungarian Jews as possible in the waning months of World War II. As someone interested in the Holocaust, I certainly knew the background on Wallenberg but not to the extent that Kershaw presents. Also worthwhile is the profiling of some of the Jews that Wallenberg succeeded in saving. You not only learn about the man but also about many whose lives he helped save.
The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria by Janine di Giovanni
It’s sobering to think that the Syrian Civil War has been going on for eight years, especially since America’s Civil War lasted only four. And even though news media would make you think that it ended since it’s not talked or written about AS much anymore, that’s hardly the case. The Syrian people continue to suffer. I read another book about the Syrian Civil War recently (No Turning Back : Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria) as this is a topic I would like to know more about. However, I much preferred The Morning They Came for Us as it was entirely about the civilian demographic, and had nothing to do with soldiers on either side of the fight.
A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Survival in World War Two by Caroline Moorehead
In the last couple of years, I’ve gotten extremely fascinated by all things having to do with France during World War II, specifically from the angle of the Resistance (those who fought against the Nazi occupiers). Novels like Nightingale and The Lilac Girls were a great introduction to learning about the heroic depths that so many French women went to in their fight against the Germans. However, A Train in Winter is the real thing, the incredible story of countless French women of all ages and from all backgrounds who risked their lives in this effort, and the many who lost their lives. In what these women did and endured, it’s just hard to imagine they were “ordinary.”
The Bedford Boys by Alex Kershaw
Clearly, I’m a fan of Alex Kershaw. The Bedford Boys tells the story of a small Virginia town that lost 19 of its boys in the first minutes of D-Day. Let that sink in- 19 soldiers from a town whose population was just 3,000, died in mere minutes of the start of the D-Day invasion. And before the campaign was over, three more would die. This is one of the saddest books I have read in a long time, namely because any one of those 22 young men could have been my grandfathers or their brothers, boys from small town America who grew up as children during the Depression, only to die in combat on the other side of the world.
Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Ann Fowler
I’ll admit, I knew next to nothing about Zelda Fitzgerald, save that she was a drunk and mentally unwell and the wife of one of 20th century literature’s most famous writers. Oh, and that the actress Alison Pill did a great job portraying her in the Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. What I didn’t know was how incredibly talented she herself was as a writer and how unfortunately her literary talents suffered as a result of the time period when she lived, as in, no woman could be so smart with a pen. Like so many people who are misunderstood and incorrectly “labeled,” this was definitely the case with “Z.”
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