Top Ten Reads of 2019

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

This year I’m doing something I wish I had done last year: a list of my ten favorite books of 2019. Most of these books were published before 2019, but this is the year I read them. Several of these books have been referenced in previous Creative Life Adventure posts. This list is not ranked, but instead is alphabetical by author. I’m including fiction and nonfiction because both are important. This list wasn’t easy to complete because I had the good fortune to read a number of outstanding books this year.

A photo of ten books from the fifteen titles cited in this blog post.
Some of my favorite reads from 2019

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found by Mary Beard

I’m often astonished at how much professionals can deduce about ancient history. Mary Beard has been described as “Britain’s best-known classicist.” The Fires of Vesuvius (published outside the U.S. as Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town) is the only one of Beard’s many books I’ve read so far. The book does not dwell on the Vesuvius eruption, but instead describes the daily life of Pompeii‘s residents. Beard is candid about what is known, and what is simply speculation based on available evidence. I would expect Pompeii to have largely vanished from history, but we can actually learn a great deal about life in this doomed town.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Even if you’re not a fan of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Michael Benson‘s Space Odyssey offers a lot of insight into the creative process of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke in creating this legendary film. From conception through story development, set design, visual effects, all the while developing both a film and a novel, the journey is frightening and inspiring.

James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters by Alistair Dougall

How do you represent an entire movie with a poster? As with Space Odyssey, you don’t necessarily have to be a fan of the Bond film franchise to appreciate the decades of art on display in this book. Art or graphic design fans will find a lot to enjoy. There’s not a lot of text by way of history or context, but we do get some sense of cultural preferences in different regions. Note how the posters become much less interesting in the 1990s, once digital photography composition is employed instead of painters.

Travels with Lizbeth by Lars Eighner

Thankfully I’ve never experienced homelessness. Lars Eighner‘s memoir did a lot to remind me how lucky I am. He was a published writer who suffered a series of misfortunes and found himself on the street with his canine companion Lizbeth. He entered homelessness with a few rules, one of which was that even if he went hungry, his dog would not. Eighner comes across as a thoughtful and likeable person who oftentimes deserved better than he got. Spoiler alert: Lizbeth is still healthy and in Eighner’s care by the end of that period in his life.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo‘s 1862 novel was my primary 2019 reading project. I won’t lie, a lot of this book was over my head. Hugo included a lot of French history, especially pertaining to the French Revolution. That didn’t prevent me from enjoying the novel. The primary saga of Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, and Marius (and the contemptible Thenardier) is a tale for the ages; the fact that Les Miserables is firmly rooted in its time and place only adds depth to the experience. It’s a long book but most of the chapters are short and, conveniently, there is a chapter for each day of the year.

Beneath a Ruthless Sun by Gilbert King

Gilbert King‘s book is an enthralling story and a well-researched journalistic account of actual events. I live in central Florida, not far from where most of these events took place, and I can assure you the brutal Willis McCall is not only entirely plausible, but that his attitudes are still terribly alive. Beneath a Ruthless Sun is not an easy read, but it is an important one. King reminds us that many people who think they’re on the safe side of systemic discrimination may, in fact, be next in line to suffer. Our true struggle is between the powerful and the powerless, and we have barely begun to fight it.

The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carre

Over the past few years I’ve read all of John le Carre‘s novels that feature his iconic character, George Smiley. Smiley is the protagonist in several books but he also shows up in a supporting role in a number of others, so this project included nine novels. I enjoyed all of the Smiley novels to varying degrees, but The Secret Pilgrim is my favorite. The novel’s protagonist is Ned, from le Carre’s earlier novel The Russia House. You don’t need to have read The Russia House to enjoy the story, but that history connects The Secret Pilgrim more firmly to a fully-formed world that is, in reality, our own. This is a rollicking journey through Ned’s career and the Cold War, and Ned’s education along the way becomes our own awareness that the differences between the good guys and the bad guys are not as vast as we’ve been led to believe.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I’m not a religious person, so I was skeptical that I could connect with Gilead‘s narrator/protagonist John Ames, an elderly pastor dying of heart disease. But the character’s thoughtfulness and compassion won me over, as did his bittersweet reminiscences of his father and grandfather. Marilynne Robinson has crafted a character that truly embodies the idea of “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” I wish I could write characters this compelling. Robinson’s novel is a fairly quick read, but take your time to experience it fully.

John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead

I had only read one Colson Whitehead book previously, Zone One, and while I appreciated his writing the book itself didn’t do much for me. Allowing for the fact that I’m not a zombie fan, I’m grateful I read John Henry Days. This is an audacious book that explores American mythology and how easy it is to lose ourselves in the great production machine of American-style capitalism. It took me awhile to get into the story, but by the end I was amazed.

The War On Normal People by Andrew Yang

At the time of this writing, Andrew Yang is campaigning for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. He is primarily known as the Universal Basic Income (UBI) candidate, but his platform runs considerably deeper. However, UBI (or what Yang calls the Freedom Dividend) will be necessary eventually if we want a sustainable society. While I believe Yang underestimates the insatiable greed of America’s entitled class, in The War On Normal People he does a fine job of describing why our economy is not as prosperous as we’re being told (and as an increasing number are witnessing first-hand), and outlining solutions that are entirely feasible if we get our priorities straight.

Honorable mentions

That technically makes this a Top 15 list, but the Interwebs likes Top 10 lists, so… : Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation by Yvonne Fern; Teenage Hipster in the Modern World by Mark Jacobson; The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen; The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre; Kill ’em and Leave, by James McBride

I also watched a lot of movies this year. Later this month, I’ll be compiling a list of my top 20 (or 25, perhaps) at my Letterboxd account, feel free to stop by. I hope you have a safe, satisfying, and creative 2020.

4 thoughts on “Top Ten Reads of 2019

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