The Internet Personified: The Best Books I Read in 2019
17 books I would recommend to you culled down from my master list of 158 (phew!)
Hello my friend,
I’m going to say three (3) cliches right now, so brace yourself, okay?
1) Oh my god, how is already the end of the year?
2) Fuuuuuck, I’m so COLD.
3) Wasn’t it just, like, June, yesterday?
I have now gotten those out of my system. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that for the first time since I started doing those Goodreads challenges, I won’t be meeting my final target goal this year. To be fair, a lot has happened to me in 2019: I finished writing the first draft of my crime novel which took blood, sweat and actual literal tears (I now have the mammoth task of editing it so it’s neater and tighter, but I am putting this off because I loathe editing so much), I had surgery to remove a couple of fibroids from my uterus, and then spent some time recovering from this surgery, I took a long holiday to Italy and wafted about that country from the top of the boot to the heel, I judged the Crossword Book Awards kids list which meant reading about 40 books and deciding on the best (none of which I logged into my challenge because I couldn’t talk about it then), I did a couple of lit fests at the beginning and the end of the year, I had an actual existential crisis which I wrote about afterwards and that also led to me hustling a lot more with my freelance career and also, I went out a fair bit, it’s been a very social year, and is ending also extremely socially because a dear friend is getting married this week so I am all WEDDING!! until January. So you see, I have good excuses.
But, I still wanted to send you my last newsletter of the year, which is my annual Best Books round up. The nice thing about logging these books into Goodreads is that I have a record of what I read and how I rated them, so it’s easy(ish) for me to pick the best of the lot that I recommend you read.
This was also the year I started my bookish Instagram account separate from my regular one. I don’t have a lot of followers there compared to my personal account, but it’s gotten excellent feedback and I’ve heard from quite a few people that they follow my recommendations religiously, so hey, I guess it’s served its purpose.
On to the list! I went through my extensive catalogue of books this year and brought it down to seventeen that I loved. Not a lot, I know, but it’s been a weird year, reading-wise for me. I anticipated a lot of books highly that let me down. I ditched a few others halfway. Some I read, but just didn’t hold my interest in the way I wanted them to.
(Note: these are just books I read this year, not necessarily published this year. Some are very old.)
My favourite translated novels:
Surprisingly, for someone who once claimed to dislike translations, a lot of my favourite novels were originally published in other languages.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk: This is the last new book I read, just finished a few days ago, so it makes it on to this list by the skin of its teeth. As someone who travels a lot, and for pleasure, this weird compendium of, I want to say, vignettes about travel spoke to me. It’s about restlessness and airports and travel, but a few stories carry on through the novel, like a man who goes on holiday to Croatia and his wife and son randomly vanish. Or this black courtier who was stuffed and displayed after he died, despite his daughter writing to the emperor who stuffed him begging that her father’s body be returned to her. Things like that. It’s a gorgeous book, and the only one I’m going to recommend you get as an actual physical copy, because I loved how beautiful mine was. (It has little maps also.) Olga Tokarczuk (Toe-car-shook) just won the Nobel also, so you see, you are right on trend.
The Dinner by Herman Koch: I belong to a book club. We are seven people, I think, or is it eight? And we choose our books alphabetically, which means the middle of the alphabet, where my name lies, only gets a chance to host every six months. And by then, I’ve read so many amazing books, it’s hard for me to decide which one I want everyone to read as well. I picked The Dinner this year for my book club, a lovely, sinister story, translated from the Dutch, about two families going out for dinner to discuss their wayward sons. I can’t tell you anymore, because SPOILER, but I read it all in one gasp, and it led to a very interesting discussion about gender and parenting.
My favourite thriller:
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith: I thought this would be a hard category to sift through, seeing as I read a lot of thrillers and murder mysteries this year, to stay in the Murder Mystery Zone, but when it came down to it, there was just one book I kept thinking about over and over again. Part of this joy is because I read it in Italy, where the book is set, and then I watched the film and then we kept making references to it, but the book is—wow—it’s chilling, and it unsettles you, because you don’t know who you’re rooting for in the end. If you’ve seen the movie, the end is different in the book, quieter, but gets under your skin more. Unlike a traditional murder mystery, you know who did it, you’ve entered into a conspiracy with the murderer, in fact, and you read it with a hand over your mouth, because you can’t believe what’s happening.
My favourite overrated book:
Normal People by Sally Rooney: Yup, it’s as good as everyone says it is. I was half-annoyed by the characters (you probably will be too) but the writing is light and sublime and will float you along like a bubble in the wind. The funny thing is, I remember I enjoyed it vastly, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember how it ended. Weird, huh?
My favourite underrated book:
Severance by Ling Ma: I really liked this millennial take on a Big Event Happens On Earth and Almost Everyone is Dead genre. It’s funny that both the most overrated and underrated books I read this year can be described as millennial, but I think we’ve been thinking about ourselves as a generation a lot more recently. Anyhow. A flu epidemic sweeps earth, almost everyone is dead, and our plucky heroine has to find a way to survive without completely falling apart. I love disaster novels, but an introspective literary disaster novel? Omg yes.
My favourite short story collection:
No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini: Another translation: this time from Kannada to English, stories set in Bombay, that I enjoyed hugely. Very slice-of-life microscopic views of the characters and so on, but so well-observed that I felt like I was right there, watching those people from close enough to smell them.
My favourite funny novel:
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: This book was first published in 1932, and was meant to be a satire about all those books where people had farms and were cold and poor and gritty and talked in heavy dialects. (See: Thomas Hardy.) It does this without mocking the people, instead it just doesn’t take itself super seriously, and it was also filled with lines that made me literally laugh out loud, like I was in on a joke with the author, like, “Coddled thee as a mommet.” What does it mean? Why, NOTHING. That’s why it’s so funny, get it, get it?
My favourite novels about families:
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: God, I love Ann Patchett. (Bel Canto is one of my favourite novels of all time.) The Dutch House did not disappoint. It’s about two siblings: an older sister and her younger brother, and this house their father bought, and this evil stepmother they suddenly get out of the blue. It’s mostly about the brother and sister though, their entangled lives, their sweet, sweet relationship. It made me wish I had siblings.
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell: No one does Wicked Stepmother more humanly and more loathesomely than Elizabeth Gaskell in Wives and Daughters. Her Evil Stepmother is not so much evil as she is really, really clueless, like say, if Mrs Bennett was suddenly to marry Mr Bennett, even though he had grown daughters. We’re invited to dislike her from her very name: Hyacinth, and we share an eye roll with her doctor husband and her sweet, sensible stepdaughter, but in all this, I must say, we’re also invited to have sympathy for poor Hyacinth, and the choices we all have to make to get along in this world. It’s a classic, published in the 1800s, but will read like gossip from your local RWA Whatsapp group.
My favourite historical novels:
Milk Teeth by Amrita Mahale: Oh boy, I loved this debut book, and was glad to see what a splash it made in the Indian literary scene. It’s about Bombay in the ‘90s, set in Matunga, primarily about a clash in a rent-controlled building but also about the relationship a young woman has with the changing city and her own changing self. Excellently done.
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This book—told through a series of interviews, a very clever literary device, I thought—sent me scurrying to ‘60s and ‘70s playlists on Spotify. It’s about a young woman called Daisy Jones and also, separately, a band called The Six, which is supposed to be like The Rolling Stones or something, and the relationship the lead singer has with Daisy, but it’s also about the music scene in America in that time of free love and rock and roll. Bonus: it has its own playlist, which you can listen to here.
My favourite anthology:
Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing edited by Annie Zaidi: Truth be told, I’ve had this book on my shelves for ages, and only just read it from cover to cover this year, which: oops, but also better late than never. Excellently done, from ancient poems all the way up to essays from our modern times, all in a book that’s still small enough to carry to bed with you.
My favourite book about nature:
Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli: As I get older, and as our garden gets older, I find myself asking, “What’s that tree?” a lot. I’ve always liked trees, and I can identify your basic suspects, but this book was a lively look at trees in Indian cities, along with a little bit of their origin story, some mythology, some history, all with gorgeous illustrations.
My favourite memoir:
Becoming by Michelle Obama: I probably wouldn’t have read this unless another of our book club members picked it, so I have her to thank for this surprisingly interesting book. I say “surprisingly” because I don’t really care that much about the Obamas. I’m not obsessed with them enough to read the former First Lady’s book, but I found it to be a heartwarming, inspiring story about how far an ambitious black woman can travel. Of course there were hurdles, but I liked that Barack himself only came in occasionally, it was a book about Michelle, and her journey, and it’s also very well-written (she didn’t use a ghost writer, from what I can tell) which is surprising for a celebrity memoir. I’ve used the word “surprise” a lot, but yeah, that’s how I feel. SURPRISE! MICHELLE OBAMA IS ON THIS LIST!
My favourite biography:
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser: I mean, this is super niche, and only of interest to fellow Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, but if you ARE one (please identify yourself! I don’t know any others!) this is a book you have to, have to read.
And finally, a bonus book I can’t think of a category for, but which I loved:
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer: Yup, the movie just came out and I read the book so I could watch the movie, but my god, the book was so good, I just could not finish the movie. It’s about a wife who’s always supported her husband’s literary ambitions and he wins the Nobel, and she’s sitting there in Stockholm and thinking about their life together. You see, she wanted to be a writer too. It’s excellent.
And that’s my list and the year, all wrapped up! Have a great rest of the year and we’ll chat again in 2020! (Holy fuck: TWENTY TWENTY.)
Where am I?The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you?Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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