Fellow readers, I present to you my “Best Books of 2019” list, as always with the huge caveat that very few of the books were actually published in 2019; they’re simply my favorite books I read during the year. There are no rankings here; like the songs on a sweet burned CD from high school, this list is mixed.
Full Throttle by Joe Hill
While reading this one in a waiting room, a fellow waiting guy recognized Joe Hill’s name on the cover and asked me about the book and Hill in general. I told him that typically, Hill’s stuff is just as good as his living legend of a dad’s, Stephen King, a statement that sort of surprised me after making it, but one that I do really believe to be true after further reflection. That’s some sky-high praise, but Hill undeniably shares his pops’ knack for crafting stellar short stories, a truth that is made awesomely evident in Full Throttle, which collects thirteen stories that mix and match horror, fantasy, and realism, with dark insight into the human experience as a constant. My personal favorites are “Dark Carousel” (your childhood fears about creepy carousel animals coming to life are realized here), “Faun” (some unlikable hunters go fantastical game hunting in a Narnia-esque world) “All I Care About is You” (themes of socioeconomic shame and friendship are explored on a disappointed teenager’s birthday), and “Twittering From the Circus of the Dead” (a genuinely horrifying zombie story that also, as Hill himself states in the book’s conclusion, makes you think about who the real “zombies” are in the social media age).
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
Being about cats, for me, this book was born on literary third base: It was positioned to score easily when it came into existence, and all it had to do was not screw things up. Thankfully, it delivers a sweet story that all cat lovers can relish and relate to. A good mix of feline humor (oh, how they love their cardboard boxes) and touching sentimentality, it’ll make you want to snuggle your precious, precious babies a little tighter (as if you needed an excuse).
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
After reading this fictional oral history of the rise and sudden disintegration of a ‘70s rock band, I was surprised I hadn’t read anything like it before. If Behind the Music has taught us anything, it’s that the inner workings of bands and all the associated sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are more often than not an unlookawayable train wreck of entertainment. Daisy Jones and the Six wasn’t even a real band, but that doesn’t make you care any less about the addictions, feuds, affairs, petty grievances, failures, triumphs, and redemptions of its members. The interview format of the story doesn’t give the author much room for omniscient character building, but she does a great job of conveying a strong sense of who her characters are solely through their quotes/dialogue. Readers with experience in the music world will get an extra kick out of the talk of the songwriting process and band member squabbles. That said, you definitely don’t need calloused guitaring fingers or a Rolling Stone subscription to enthusiastically rock out with this read.
Things My Son Needs to Know About the World by Fredrik Backman
With this book, my guy Fredrik Backman takes a break from writing about curmudgeonly older folks being uplifted by the simple beauties of life and heaping doses of quirk (A Man Called Ove, Britt-Marie Was Here) and the heavy, relatable truths of humanity (Beartown, Us Against You) to give some fatherly advice in non-fiction essay form. As the titles suggests, the advice is directed at Backman’s son, but just as is the case with his fiction, the messages and wisdom shared in Backman’s musings are applicable to all. As I’ve said before, the man just gets it, and while there’s plenty of joking around throughout and some silly essay titles like “What You Need to Know About Motion-Sensitive Bathroom Lights,” when you get down to it, Backman is a man who is full of love, not just for his wife and children, but for life and the experiences we all share. It’s infectious and inspiring. Read this book for the humor and the feels, but also surprisingly for some truly innovative food ideas.
Noir by Christopher Moore
Much of the joy of reading Christopher Moore comes from his unique comedic artistry with words. In Noir, he gets to add wacky 1940s terms to his palette, which really lets him slather on fresh strokes of silliness. Sure, the romance that somehow gets tangled up with extraterrestrials and other out-there hijinks is a mostly entertaining enough story, but I’m here for the goofy-yet-smart-yet-so-goofy dialogue and descriptions. I particularly loved the kid who thinks all funny-sounding words are profane insults and delivers such gems as “You stinkin’ wallabies are in hot water now” and “ya dirty solenoid.” That kid deserves his own book, and I’d gladly read it. Until that happens, enjoy this one, ya mugs.
Needful Things by Stephen King
My first exposure to the concept of Needful Things came not from my dear King’s book, but rather an episode of Rick and Morty. In the episode, a devilish man named Mr. Needful runs a store called Needful Things (if some references are a cap tip, this one pulls the top hat all the way down over your head), which sells irresistibly coveted items (that’s good) that are terribly cursed (that’s bad). Ever the cynic, Rick denounces the whole operation as hacky, which in modern times it probably is, and maybe it even was in 1991 when Needful Things was published, but in the expert hands of Stephen King, any concept can be executed into an impressively satisfying tale of compulsive readability. If Marie Kondo hasn’t already converted you into a devout stuff hater, this book, in which people give up their better judgment, grip on reality, and very souls in exchange for some things they think they want, will likely finish the job.
10% Happier by Dan Harris
I’m a fledgling and, in all honesty, increasingly sporadic, meditator. Dan Harris, however, can’t be held responsible for my fall off the wagon (or bolster, if you will), as his book 10% Happier, with its brutally honest assessment of the difficulty and skepticism hurdles of starting a meditation practice and plain language, everyday Joe-flavored advice on the subject, makes meditating seem highly doable and was genuinely helpful in further shaping my outlook on it. My initial introduction to meditation was more of a spiritual-tinged one, and while that was and has been beneficial for sure, commiserating with Harris’s humorous venting on the frustration of such an approach is admittedly fun and comforting. The book world is flooded with meditation books, many of them aimed at the a-ver-age bear, but I’d say 10% Happier, which combines the context of the author’s personal journey toward and with meditation with its cold, hard advice, is a good place to start for those interested.
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
To be totally honest, I don’t remember a ton of details about this book; I mainly remember the feeling of reading this book, which is ethereal, float-y, and kind of magical. So, while the plot, which is reminiscent of Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties (a great book that made this list last year) and involves people contracting some sort of illness that sends them into an apparent never-ending sleep, is actually a quite strong hook, read this one more for the feel and experience of it. I know that just sounds like something someone would say to put a spin on a book that is actually #notgood, but just trust me on this one.
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said the best thing about reading Christopher Moore is his way with words? That holds true, but in A Dirty Job, Moore’s snappy, zany writing is woven through a well-conceived and executed story, which makes the experience of reading it that much sweeter. The premise of a widower being unwillingly pulled into playing the role of Death (well, “death merchant”) while having to raise his toddler daughter lends itself to plenty of supernatural shenanigans, all told most cleverly, comedically, and quirkily. As you might have surmised, the stakes are literally life and death, but with few exceptions, the tone is light and breezy, even in the most dire situations. It’s a good book for those who like any gravity in a story balanced in kind with copious levity. I look forward to reading the sequel, Secondhand Souls.
Movies (And Other Things) by Shea Serrano
Shea Serrano has moved on from 2017’s Basketball (And Other Things) to…other things with 2019’s Movies (And Other Things). Shea brings the same goofy passion and uber-casual, conversational style that made BAOT so lovable to his movie book, and the result is a read that is often insightful, frequently ridiculous, and always entertaining. Each of the books chapters asks a different movie-related question, and, a lot of movies are covered, so unless you’re a major cinephile like Michael Bolton, there are bound to be a few you aren’t familiar with. The good news is the chapters are standalone units, so if you’re not as big of a fan of the Fast and Furious universe as Shea is (spoiler: you’re not) and would rather not read a whole chapter on it, it’s easily skippable. However, I found that even when encountered with a stretch about a movie/movies I’m not familiar with, I still had a good time just reading Shea’s writing and takes on things. Of the 30 chapters/questions, I only find two to be busts, one due to intentionally absurd logic (“Were the Jurassic Park Raptors Just Misunderstood?”) and one due to weird logic that made it feel like an especially pointless exercise (“Did Denzel’s Race-Forward Football Camp Work or Not?”). My favorites are “Who’s in the Regina George Circle of Friends?” (fictional high school students from all teen movies are considered), “What Happened at the Michael Myers Press Conference?” (a press conference-style back-and-forth with the stab-happy villain), and “Did the Rockford Peaches Make the Right Decision Trading Kit?” (and I haven’t even seen A League of Their Own, nor do I even like baseball that much, so this is an impressive feat by Shea).