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My best books of the year list for 2019 is a mix of literary fiction and true crime and memoirs and essays. There are acclaimed authors here, as well as some brand new voices. The only thing that unites all these books is that, in my opinion, they are unputdownable.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has put together her list of the best books of the year, and it’s a mix of books by authors old and new. Here’s her top 10.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s just get into it. Here are my top 10 books of 2019.
“The Nickel Boys” is yet another extraordinary novel by Colson Whitehead. Like “The Underground Railroad,” which just came out in 2016, “The Nickel Boys” is rooted in history and American mythology, yet it’s painfully topical in its vision of justice and mercy erratically denied. In the early 1960s, an African American teenager named Elwood Curtis finds himself wrongfully convicted of a crime and sent to a brutal reform school called the Nickel Academy. Whitehead’s novel is short and intense, its chapters as compact as the isolation cells the Nickel Boys are thrown into and sometimes never leave.
Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise” is a deliciously sharp and self-aware novel set in the 1980s in a performing arts high school. Two first-year students, David and Sarah, fall in love within the hermetically sealed world of the school, and Choi somehow makes out of that teenaged affair a wily meditation on memory and art. Choi tells us that the theater students live by the adage acting is fidelity to authentic emotion under imagined circumstances. That’s also not a bad description of how this novel, or any powerful novel, works.
Any year in which a new novel by Ann Patchett comes out is a standout year in my book. “The Dutch House” is a subtle, devastating novel about a brother and sister who stand by each other through the loss of their parents, the home they grew up in and the bedrock certainties about their shared childhood. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve reread the ending of this novel at least five times trying to unpack its sad magic.
Out of all the novels that came out in 2019, “Lost And Wanted” by Nell Freudenberger is the one that I found myself buying over and over again to give to friends. Its main character, Helen Clapp, is a professor of physics at MIT. And when the story opens, her cellphone rings and an old friend’s name comes up on caller ID. The problem is that friend has just died. From that classic creeper premise, Freudenberger crafts a deeply engaging novel about friendship, midlife puzzlement and the mysteries of the universe.
Like Freudenberger, Karen Russell always has her eye on the big picture. “Orange World” is Russell’s latest short story collection, and it contains a masterpiece. That story, set in the Great Depression, is called “The Prospectors.” In 33 incandescent pages, Russell gives us the grit, desperation and hollow dreams of deliverance that characterized that era. The other seven stories in this collection aren’t so bad either.
Poet Ocean Vuong emigrated to this country from Vietnam when he was 2 and his autobiographical novel called “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” explores the vexed situation of a child who surpasses his immigrant parents. Vuong’s novel is structured in the form of a letter written by a son to his illiterate mother. Dear Ma, the novel begins, I am writing to reach you, even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are. In that single line, Vuong has captured the unintended rift that education can cause within a working-class immigrant family.
On to nonfiction. “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe is a panoramic investigation into the disappearance of a young widowed mother of 10 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1972, the era of the Troubles. “Say Nothing” belongs as much to the genre of narrative history as it does true crime. However you want to characterize it, it’s a stunning book.
“The Yellow House” by Sarah M. Broom is a sweeping multigenerational memoir focusing on her family’s house in New Orleans, which was blown off its foundations when Hurricane Katrina hit. Broom pieces together a larger narrative about race, class and the long-term toxic consequences of shame.
2019 was a very good year for essay collections, but of all the ones I’ve read, Emily Bernard’s “Black Is The Body” stays with me the most. Bernard writes with depth, poetic intensity and humor about growing up black in the South and living and teaching in the snow globe state of Vermont. Bernard’s personal essays on race never hew to the safe or expected paths.
And last but certainly not least in How We Fight For Our Lives, Saeed Jones writes about growing up black, gay and isolated in Texas. Jones’ voice and sensibility are so distinct. He turns the traditional coming-of-age memoir inside out and upside down. Along with Sarah Broom and Ocean Vuong, Saeed Jones is one of the three debut prose writers on my top 10 list, which is a hopeful thing to take notice of, I think, as we move into the next decade.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find her top 10 list on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you’ll also find a link to NPR’s Book Concierge, which includes hundreds of 2019 titles recommended by NPR’s staff and critics. So that’s at freshair.npr.org.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk about what happens to the clothes, furniture and electronics you drop off at the thrift store. More specifically, what happens to the stuff they can’t sell? And there’s plenty of it. My guest will be Adam Minter, author of the book “Secondhand.” Three generations of his family were in the junk business. He’s reported on waste and recycling for nearly two decades. I hope you’ll join us.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I’m Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.