Favorite Books of 2019
Reviews of the best biographies, fiction, and non-fiction I read in 2019
I read a ton of great books in 2019, many of which were biographies for some reason. Looking back on the year, a few gems stood out to me. Here they are:
ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
WOW WOW WOW!!!
I saw this book at Book Soup in Los Angeles and it piqued me with its unusual title. When I opened it to read the first page, I was hooked. I knew right there and then that this will be one of my favorite books of the year.
It’s not. It’s one of my favorite books of all time.
Ocean Vuong is a literary master in the making. I didn’t realize he was a poet until after I finished reading this book. His prose is impeccable and lyrical and heart-wrenching and so so beautiful. It’s one of the best written books I’ve ever read. The words strung together in a procession of tenderness and light reminiscent of that of Walt Whitman’s.
This is supposed to be a work of fiction but I cannot help believe it’s autobiographical. It’s too good and too personal to be fiction. It’s a letter a man has written his illiterate mother. Knowing she would read it if she could but she can’t, renders the narrator brutally honest.
In the letter, the narrator lay bear his heart, his wounds, his secrets, his very soul. He tells stories of family, country, identity, first love, loss, and language. I love his passages on language, especially this one:
“The most common English word spoken in the nail salon was sorry. It was the one refrain for what it meant to work in the service of beauty. …. Sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer apologizes, but insists, reminds: I’m here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. In the nail salon, one’s definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that’s charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.”
Now that’s an important commentary wrapped up in beautiful writing, don’t you agree?
There are so many gems like that scattered throughout the book. Here are a few more:
“Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”
“You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.”
This one gutted me:
“Did you know people get rich off of sadness? I want to meet the millionaire of American sadness. I want to look him in the eye, shake his hand, and say, ‘it’s been an honor to serve my country.”
And my favorite:
“Don’t draw attention to yourself. You’re already Vietnamese.”
This book is as remarkable as its author. Must read for the poetry alone. I already re-read it and it’s way better the second time around.
THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai
This is a heart-rending story about the cruelty of loss — loss of innocence, loss of promise, and loss of love. It’s also an unforgettable story about the burden of memory — memory of innocence, memory of promise, and memory of love.
The story moves back and forth in chapters between gay Chicago of the 80s and carefree Paris of forever. The characters are rich with detail, which I thought gave them an undeniable air of verisimilitude. The dialogue was fresh and the writing was engrossing. One of my favorite reads of the year!
Aside from being technically superb, what I loved the most about this book was the clever parallels drawn by the author between the Lost Generation of the 1920s and gay America of the 1980s; Both cohorts lived their lives out loud, dreamed of a different kind of freedom, and were coming of age during a period of intense interruption: The Spanish flu and WWI for the former, and AIDS for the latter.
Yet even with lives interrupted, they kept their hopes for a better tomorrow alive. They picked up the pieces and tried to move on. They never ceased to believe, which explains the book’s epigraph:
“We were the great believers. I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved–and who now walk the long stormy summer.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
It sounds like something anyone who’s gone through trauma would say. As we learn through the characters in this book, experiencing something so traumatic like AIDS in the 80s is never without consequence. The long stormy summers are aplenty.
I was 10 in 1985. I remember hearing about AIDS on the news and thinking that I was destined to contract it just by the sheer fact of being gay. It was a fear so paralyzing I still in some way live in its shadow. I was just a kid but the trauma my clan was going through managed to singe me.
The memory of shame and transience is in the DNA of every gay man I know who’s my age or older. This book captures that feeling incredibly well. I believe it’s an essential reading, especially for young LGBTQ people that grew up with PrEP and AIDS being a manageable condition.
Yale Tishman, one of the protagonists, felt so incredibly real to me. I can’t say much about him without giving some of the storyline away, but suffice it to say, he’s one character that’s stayed with me way after I finished the book. Fiona, the other main protagonist, was also too real, but sadly forgettable. I couldn’t connect with her, especially during her hapless search for her daughter in Paris.
Yale said, “No one wants to die before the end of the story.” I love that quote. We don’t want to leave before the encore. That’s just human nature. Before conclusions are drawn and credits start rolling. But the truth of the matter is, we begin and end a page in our story every single day. Some of us have stories 25 chapters long and some 89. My hope is that no matter how long or short our stories are, that we have authored them ourselves and they’re not written by someone else.
This book might be about loss and memory, but it’s ultimately a life-affirming story of love, friendships, and the power of authoring our own stories.
Read this book and let me know if you liked it as much as I did.
A LADDER TO THE SKY by John Boyne
Fascinating Characters. Inevitable Ending. Unforgettable Story
Imagine the talented Mr. Ripley with an MFA degree and you pretty much get our unforgettable protagonist, Mr. Maurice Swift. Swift is charming, ridiculously handsome, and unbelievably cunning. His raison d’être is to become a famous novelist yet he’s devoid of the talent required to achieve that. He’s a fraud driven solely by unqualified ambition. A menace with a disarming smile.
Yet, you can’t take your eyes, so to speak, off him. He’s as captivating as his victims, all of whom are brought to life so vividly by my Mr. Boyne’s rich prose.
The book is an engrossing read, much like Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The characters are alive and well developed. The twists and turns feel fresh and uncontrived. The pièce de résistance, however, is when Gore Vidal (yes, the sharp-tongued author makes an appearance) confronts Mr. Swift:
“I’ve known a lot of whores in my life,” added Gore. “Both men and women. And in general, I’ve always found them to be good company, with a highly evolved sense of honor. A whore will never cheat you, they have too much integrity for that. But you, Mr. Swift, you give the profession a bad name.”
The story is about unbridled ambition and hallow aspiration in the literary world. But a fraud is a fraud in any profession or setting. You’ll find Mr. Swift echoing bits and pieces of many unsavory characters we know of in real life, be it directly or indirectly. Boyne delivers a character study so fine it’s worth the time we spend with it given how awful the protagonist is.
John Boyne is a storyteller nonpareil. He’s now definitely one of my favorite writers. Can’t wait to read what he writes next!
THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers
THIS BOOK!!! This book took me on a journey of epic proportions. Following the lives of nine seemingly random characters, I got an education on subjects many of us know little about–trees and time. The story is harrowing, life-affirming, hopeful, and devastating all in the same measure. It is hard to describe what a tremendous achievement this was. I’m at loss for words.
The book itself, as thick as it was, felt like a living sapling in the palm of my hand. Powers’ writing flowing through it at a slow, meticulous, and steady cadence. The characters it spawned were branches that touched and mingled as their stories unfolded over decades, spanning this sapling’s short history. The book, like the sapling it was, was conversing with itself and its branches and with me. It’s an experience I can’t describe. You have to feel it to believe it. It’s nuts!
The book is rife with profound stories, anecdotes, and passages like this one:
“Two immortals came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees — an oak and a linden — huge and gracious and intertwined. What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer.”
I loved reading and learning about the interdependence of trees and how they care for and support each other. How they protect one another and how they communicate, and how so little we know about their universe by which we’re surrounded. It’s heady and deeply moving. I especially loved the following passage because it truly changed how I think about trees:
“We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots. Common sense hooted us down. We found that trees take care of each other. Collective science dismissed the idea. Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks. A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.”
This is a must-read for every human being occupying this earth today. It’s primary education in the purest, most elemental, sense.
INDIANAPOLIS by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic
Wow. This was an incredible story, and an engrossing history lesson to boot. The tragedy of the USS Indianapolis and the unjust trial of its captain that ensued are told in vivid details. There’s something for everyone here: Crazy kamikaze plane attacks? Check. Secret mission that would change the course of the war and the world? Check. Gruesome shark attacks in the middle of the night in the Philippine Sea? Check. Courtroom drama, scapegoats and unjust verdicts? Check. Incredible journey to exonerating the beloved captain of the sunken ship? Check.
THE IDIOT by Fydor Dostoyevsky
How do you review a Russian Classic?
You don’t. It’s impossible. For starters, I won’t even know where to begin. The layers, the themes, the characters, the mood, the language… It’s an absolute masterpiece worthy of every moment spent on it.
Dostoyevsky is a master storyteller whose words and ideas come alive in the words of David McDuff. It didn’t feel like a translated work that’s how good McDuff’s work is.
I found the characters extremely sympathetic, no matter how flawed, and at times unlikeable, they may be. The magic of Dostoyevsky is how he manages to simplify complex characters and concepts down to first principles to make it easy for the reader to empathize with them.
In the end, this is an epic story about empathy. Highly recommended.
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde
The poignant words spoken by the devil (Al Pacino) in The Devil’s Advocate come to mind when talking about Dorian Gray. Especially his last line: Vanity, my favorite sin.
As a young, beautiful, and impressionable man, Dorian finds comfort in the company of Lord Henry, a morally corrupt aristocrat in Victorian England. Already teetering on the verge of chronic narcissism, Dorian is pushed off the ledge into the abyss of eternal damnation by Henry’s seductive, imaginative, and in the end, destructive talk.
This classic, cautionary tale of the woes of youth has vanity at its core. Dorian, like all of us, is afraid of becoming irrelevant and unloved as a consequence of old age. Only in his case, he let his paranoia, coupled with bad influence (Lord Henry), devour him. The story isn’t unique in the sense that it happens everyday in the form of inconsequential lives consumed by gyms, beauty salons, and drugs, chasing unrequited love and hanging on to ephemeral youth.
If you haven’t read this classic in school, I highly recommend you do now. Lord Henry’s lines, though evil, are very entertaining and almost too poetic. Like all evil, it comes with a certain charm to it. No man I know has the wit and tongue of Lord Henry, but again, he is not a man. He is the devil’s incarnate.
Read it and you’ll find the story ridiculously contemporary. It transcends time and culture and gets to the very heart of human nature. I dare say it’s one of the best books on human nature I’ve read. It’s also a window into Victorian mores and standards. Very entertaining, indeed.
ME by Elton John
I loved this book. Elton’s voice, humor, and candor were absolutely refreshing. There were no pretenses. A very vivid portrait of this superstar’s childhood, adulthood, neurosis, and vulnerabilities.
I definitely enjoyed the bits where Elton retells his encounters with Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, and Her Majesty The Queen herself! So funny I was dying from laughter the entire time.
He also talks about his struggle with cocaine and how the drug completely devastated his life, and he recovered from it all. I loved the audacity of being raw and unapologetic about his journey.
You gotta read it!