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A Year in Books, Circa 2019

By Literature

Illustration by Reilly Branson

I’m a voracious reader (among other things; midnight snack aficionado, Harry Potter enthusiast, etc.) and to celebrate the new year I sorted through the books I read over the course of 2019, and picked ten of my top-rated books, five each of fiction and nonfiction, to share. From meditations on family, love, and loss to histories of espionage and even a cookbook, there’s something here for everyone. Take some of these recommendations into the new year, and celebrate 2020 with a brand-new book!

Fiction 

If We Were Villains, M.L. Rio, 2017

No book made me cry harder or recite more Shakespearean prose this year than If We Were Villains. Seriously, if you’re in the mood for Shakespeare, a murder mystery, collegiate antics and some good, old-fashioned angst, then this is the book for you. “If We Were Villains” follows seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an arts college, where relationships are tested, loyalties questioned, and, when one of them is found dead, an investigation into who is to blame. 

This book is best enjoyed with: A mug of spiced tea, a roaring fire, and the game of Clue. Elizabethan era costume not required. 

Rating: 5/5

My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, Patricio Pron, 2011

Reading “My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain” feels like delving into the hazy depths of memory, where swimming through meditative ruminations on identity, family and home is both illuminating and heartbreaking. Told through a series of vignettes, a young Argentine writer grapples with his father’s history and his country’s legacy in the face of loss and remembrance. This is Patricio Pron’s first book to be translated into English, but no matter what language it’s read in, this novel’s tender displays of humanity will leave you captivated. 

This book is best enjoyed with: A loved one. 

Rating: 4/5 

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid, 2017

Indescribably intimate, “Exit West” follows two young adults, Nadia and Saeed, as they are confronted with the reality that their homeland is no longer safe. Set amidst a backdrop of war and social upheaval, its subtle science fiction undercurrent lends a unique tilt to this quietly brutal story of what it means to leave your country, and what it is to be a stranger somewhere else. 

This book is best enjoyed with: An understanding of how this book parallels our own reality. 

Rating: 4/5 

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles, 2011

1930s New York City: glitzy high society, smoky jazz bars and the realization that the choices we make don’t always turn out how we might expect. Katey Kontent is a brash, unapologetic and endearingly flawed young woman making her way in the Big Apple. “Rules of Civility” tells a story of love, heartache, and the transience of time with a tongue-in-cheek, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps spirit.  

This book is best enjoyed with: Your best dancing shoes and a stolen diamond earring. 

Rating: 4/5 

Any Human Heart, William Boyd, 2002

A shameless re-read, “Any Human Heart” first found me in an airport terminal in England and lasted the duration of a full transatlantic flight where its twists and turns left me breathless and reeling. It is the ‘autobiography’ of the fictitious anti-hero Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, and the novel chronicles his quintessentially posh British upbringing to World War II, the New York avant-garde, and everything in between. “Any Human Heart” is funny, heart-wrenching and undeniably exciting, as, through the eyes of Mountstuart, we experience the 20th century in all its burnished gold glory. 

This book is best enjoyed with: A gin fizz and a tweed flat cap. 

Rating: 5/5 

Non-Fiction

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran, Hooman Majd, 2013

Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist documents everyday life in Tehran, with gloriously witty anecdotes about the mundane colored by an authoritarian regime and a tumultuous history. “The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay” provides a civilian look into life inside Iran, which is a perspective that can be difficult to find in Anglo-American literature. Relatable and educational, this book is a great read for anyone interested in cultural studies. 

This book is best enjoyed with: A healthy appreciation for other people also complaining about their family. 

Rating: 4/5 

Compassionate Counterterrorism: The Power of Inclusion in Fighting Fundamentalism, Leena Al Olaimy, 2019 

How can we adapt current counterterrorism strategy to reflect a more holistic understanding of the socioeconomic and political forces that create terrorists? Leena Al Olaimy situates her approach to compassionate counterterrorism in indisputable evidence and data, and anecdotal stories, illustrating that it is political discrimination, stagnant economies, a lack of opportunities and social marginalization, not religious radicalization that motivates terrorists. Al Olaimy outlines effective and clear strategies for addressing the political, social, and economic situations capitalized upon by terrorist groups, and how empathy and compassion deserve a place in counterterrorism policy. 

This book is best enjoyed with: A renewed fervor to enact social change. 

Rating: 5/5 

Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City, Elizabeth Minchilli, 2015

“Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City” is part cookbook, part memoir, full of sensational recipes and stories celebrating food, life and culture in Rome. Reading this book made me fall in love all over again with Italy and its food, and remember parts of my own childhood spent with creamy gelato and winding cobbled streets. Wonderfully written and designed, “Eating Rome” will leave you hungry for sunlit streets, a cool aperitivo, and, of course, a plate of pasta. 

This book is best enjoyed with: A glass of Prosecco, chic sunglasses, and a sun-kissed smile. 

Rating: 5/5

Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community, Dan Raviv, Yossi Melman, 1989

As its title suggests, “Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community” is a comprehensive and relatively unbiased (note: take it with a grain of salt when discussing Palestine) historical analysis of Israel’s intelligence community. Occasionally interspersed with dry humor, this book is a great resource for understanding the intricate historical background of politics in the Levant. 

This book is best enjoyed with: An interest in sociopolitics and a fascination with espionage history. 

Rating: 4.5/5 

The Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon, 1002 

I selfishly reserved the best for last — not only was “The Pillow Book” my favorite book I’ve read this year, but it also joined the ranks of my all-time favorite books, a high honor. Lady Shōnagon was a court lady to Empress Consort Teishi in the 990s and early 1000s of Heian Japan. “The Pillow Book” is a collection of delightfully funny and heart-stoppingly beautiful poetic introspections on court life. I can’t describe just how precious and joyful her writing is — even the simplest of descriptions evoke incredible emotion. Possibly the best part of “The Pillow Book” is that even if it was finished in 1002 (1002!!), it is still relatable to a millennial in 2019. Highly recommend! 

This book is best enjoyed with: A fun fact! “The Pillow Book” was written in an early form of Hiragana, a phonetic writing system which was originally developed by court women in Japan in response to being forbidden from learning Chinese, which was the dominant language at the time. 

Rating: 5/5

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