Friday, January 24, 2020

Scooter & Hum's Top Five Books of the Year 2019

After setting the bar at 30+ books in 2018, I refused to go backwards, and ended up reading 36 books this year. According to Goodreads, that breaks down to 12,329 pages.

Many tended toward the harrowing and the unspeakable, but there were so many impactful reads that it was even more difficult to identify the winners -- a "problem" I hope to face again in 2020.

Without further ado ...

#1. "Sing, Unburied, Sing," by Jesmyn Ward

What I Say Now:

This novel represents a lyrical, lilting treatment of difficult subject matter, a beautiful telling of a tale that intertwines racism, poverty, history, and the supernatural. Ward's rhythmic writing carries a novel that is, at times, numbingly emotional, wryly humorous, and wince-inducing. A worthy winner in a year full of powerful works.

Passages to Remember: 

" ... with his father, my death-crowded household, behind. We move forward, and the air from the open windows makes the glass shudder, alive as a bed of mollusks fluttering in the rush of the tide: a shimmer of froth and sand. The tires catch and spit gravel. We hold hands and pretend at forgetting."

"I let her ideas drain from me so that the truth could pool instead. Sometimes the world don't give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds."

" ... look to my left and see that world again, and then it is gone. I claw at the air, but my hands strike nothing; they rend no doorways to that golden isle. Absence. Isolation. I keen."

"Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y'all one and it beats like your heart. Same time. Where my family lived ... it's a wall. It's a hard floor, wood. Then concrete. No opening. No heartbeat. No air."

" ... Because from the first moment I saw him walking across the grass to where I sat in the shadow of the school sign, he saw me. Saw past skin the color of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the color of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm."

#2. "The Sympathizer," by Viet Thanh Nguyen

What I Say Now:

This powerful work crosses and transcends a number of genres while tackling weighty social issues. Viet Thanh Nguyen balances hilarity and satire and irony and sadness in equal parts, creating a remarkable novel. The emotionally resonant closing passages end this book on a momentous note, yet one that speaks resonantly to and about our current political climate.

Passages to Remember: 

"She was a poor person, I was her poor child, and no one asks poor people if they want war."

"At least we'll live to fight again. But for now, we are well and truly fucked. What kind of toast is right for that? The words came to me after a moment. Here's blood in your eye, I said. Damn right."

"America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl! America, was there ever a country that coined so many 'super' terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?"

"So I fell in love with Phi Phi, a harmless enough emotion. I was to fall in love two or three times a year and was now well past due."

"But anything can always happen. That's what hope is all about. He shrugged, contemplating the end of his burning cigarette. Hope's thin, he said. Despair's thick. Like blood."

#3. "The Tattooist of Auschwitz," by Heather Morris

What I Say Now:

This overwhelming story is a whirlwind of emotions, absorbing you into its history and parameters. The so-so writing is more than overcome by the raw power of the tale itself, which handles the horror and violence of the subject matter in a circumspect but pervasive way. Morris handles the devastating material with the care it demands, resulting in a truly moving reading experience.

Passages to Remember: 

"His eyes seem to see nothing; this is a man whose soul has died and whose body is waiting to catch up with it."

"We stand in shit but let us not drown in it."

"He drops to his knees and dry retches. He has nothing to bring up; the only fluid in his body is tears."

"There will be a tomorrow for us. On the night I arrived here, I made a vow to myself that I would survive this hell. We will survive and make a life where we are free to kiss when we want to, to make love when we want to."

"Behind him, Baretski says, 'Shit.'
"That one word from a sadist only deepens the well of inhumanity that Lale is drowning in."

#4. "Love in the Time of Cholera," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

What I Say Now:

At times creepy, sublime, contradictory, beautiful, confusing, and staggering, this novel spans a life-long love affair. Setting is character for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who uses his gifts to gut-wrenching and moving effect in describing passion found and lost. We can all see common life experiences in aspects of this truly profound work from a one-of-a-kind writer.

Passages to Remember: 

"In any event, it was difficult for him to comprehend that two free adults without a past and living on the fringes of a closed society's prejudices had chosen the hazards of illicit love."

" ... but the girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later."

"He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell."

"So that it was reasonable to think that the woman he loved most on earth, the one he had waited for from one century to the next without a sigh of disenchantment, might not have the opportunity to lead him by the arm across the street full of lunar grave mounds and beds of windblown poppies in order to help him reach the other side of death in safety."

"Then he looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits."

#5. "I'll Be Gone in the Dark," by Michelle McNamara

What I Say Now: 

It's nearly impossible to read this book without a touch of heartbreak infringing on a number of levels. The passion and intensity of McNamara's connection to the hunt permeates every word, every clue. A ray of sunshine breaks through only in the recognition that the arrest of the object of her obsession was due in no small part to her life's work.

Passages to Remember: 

"There's a scream permanently lodged in my throat now."

"What gripped me was the specter of that question mark where the killer's face should be. The hollow gap of his identity seemed violently powerful to me."

"They hunted a man whose face they didn't know. Didn't matter. The action of moving forward, their hands unrestrained, of physically doing something, was all that did."

"If you commit murder and then vanish, what you leave behind isn't just pain but absence, a supreme blankness that triumphs over everything else. The unidentified murderer is always twisting a doorknob behind a door that never opens. But his power evaporates the moment we know him."

"This is how it ends for you.
"'You'll be silent forever, and I'll be gone in the dark,' you threatened a victim once.
"Open the door. Show us your face.
"Walk into the light."

Honorable Mention (in 10 words or less):

"Young Lions," by Irwin Shaw: Staggeringly well-constructed, if dense, story of World War II.
"Where the Crawdads Sing," by Delia Owens: Lively, emotional coming-of-age book that drifted toward YA.
"Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel," by George Saunders: Fascinatingly unique in structure and style, occasionally hard to follow.
"Henderson the Rain King," by Saul Bellow: Highly quotable tale with fully rendered characters and sardonic tone.
"The Girl with All the Gifts," by M.R. Carey: Visually arresting story that translates better to screen than page.
"Paradise," by Toni Morrison: Beautiful, poignant, sparse prose tackles dizzying collection of damaged characters.
"Good as Gold," by Joseph Heller: Hysterical, inane, pedantic work from the everlasting master of irony.
"Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI," by David Grann: Terse, matter-of-fact, meticulously detailed accounting of true crime.
"Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland," by Patrick Radden Keefe: Bland prose, but painstakingly researched and vividly detailed Irish history.
"Dialogue," by Robert McKee: Great ideas and stellar examples, tending toward preachy and verbose.
"The Institute," by Stephen King: Political escapism, "Stranger Things" + "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Notable (in 7 words or less):

"Cal," by Bernard MacLaverty: Rhythmic, terse, foreboding exploration of The Troubles.
"Hunting Eichmann," by Neal Bascomb: Comprehensive account of the search for evil.
"Full Throttle," by Joe Hill: Frantic collection of macabre, oppressive short stories.
"Fates and Furies," by Lauren Groff: Implausible story is vivid, if overly wrought.
"New York 2140," by Kim Stanley Robinson: Clever concept weighed down by competing storylines.
"Billy Bathgate," by E.L. Doctorow: Lyrical, heavy-handed depiction of Mob indoctrination.
"Cilka's Journey," by Heather Morris: Emotional, gut-wrenching "Tattooist of Auschwitz" complement.
"The Chain," by Adrian McKinty: Creepy, bold premise lacking pacing and nuance. 
"The Lovely Bones," by Alice Sebold: Strange, beautiful commentary on grief and reverberations.

The Rest (in 5 words or less):

"The Girl Who Lived Twice," by David Lagencrantz: Forgettable extension of Millennium series.
"Omerta," by Mario Puzo: Mafia legend out of ideas.
"The League," by John Eisenberg: Historical look at NFL creation.
"Throttle," by Stephen King & Joe Hill: Action-packed short story collaboration.
"Face in the Crowd," by Stephen King & Stuart Nan: Another eerie short story collaboration.
"Sportswriter: The Life and Times of Grantland Rice," by Charles Fountain: Poorly written look at legend.
"Go Set a Watchman," by Harper Lee: Controversial piece of "Mockingbird" world.
"Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors," by Sarah Stodola: Intriguing concept with meh results.
"Wonder," by R.J. Palacio: Surprisingly emotional kid lit entry.
"Restart," by Gordon Korman: Required parental reading on bullies.
"Crusader's Cross," by James Lee Burke: Formulaic work with saccharine ending.

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