We read these 29 books in 2019. You should too
I am a reader. I cherish my time alone with a book, and there is never a time when I am not reading something. Like my colleagues, I am a news junkie dwelling in the froth of the daily headlines. For us, everything moves fast and requires a gathering and consideration of facts. But I'm also drawn to the slow act of reading, and I favor fiction.
Let me be clear: I don't consider reading a kind of escape. No, it's real life, a choice of how to live that is just as real (for me) and tells me as much (in its way) as the news reports we produce every day.
I am an advocate for books, reading, literature and literacy. In small ways: I travel a lot, seek out independent bookstores and buy a book, even if I'm not going to read it right away. (Our bookshelves groan.) And then there is what feels like a bigger way to be an advocate: through the interviews and author profiles at the PBS NewsHour and through our "Now Read This" book club. These are books and writers that interest me and are, we believe, worthy of your attention. I am not a critic, and I'm not telling you these are the "best." I am a reporter who happens to love reading, eager to find out more and pass on what I learn.
My tastes, therefore, are on the record and out there by the basketful (or maybe the binful, since I receive about a postal bin of books every day).
But, as the year draws to a close, if you want more recommendations for your own groaning bookshelves, my colleagues and I suggest adding these 29 books to your reading list, starting with three novels that stood out for me this year.
"Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead" by Olga Tokarczuk
Not newly written this year, but newly available in English. Before her novel "Flights," the Polish writer was little known in the U.S. Now she's won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature and more of her books are being translated and released here. Bring 'em on, please. "Drive Your Plow …" (quite a title) is about an aging woman who has retreated to a remote part of Poland. Around her, animals are dying. Then, people start dying. What's going on? This is a murder mystery — often hilarious, at times extremely sad. It is also a novel of ideas and identity.
"The Dutch House" by Ann Patchett
I read anything by Ann (who joins us on the NewsHour from time to time with her book recommendations), but I wasn't sure at first with this one. Two children and a house? Is something going to happen? Yes, life. This snuck up on me fast and held me.
"Night Boat to Tangier" by Kevin Barry
Two aging gangsters sit on a bench and talk for hours in a seedy terminal in the port of Algeciras, Spain. Something may be about to happen. Many things have happened. Goodness, can the Irish talk? And can Barry write? Yes and yes. Bonus suggestion: Pair this with Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman." You'll see what I mean.
Other books on my list …
"The Tradition" by Jericho Brown
Poetry that engages history and today's front page, in lyrical language that moves quietly and then lands with a punch. Brown's is a tough and tender voice. And if you ever get the opportunity to hear him read his work aloud, as I did recently at the Miami Book Fair, take it.
"Empires" by John Balaban
Balaban is a traveler through history and places at home and abroad, writing in a personal voice that has an uncanny ability to imagine the lives of others. His poetry comes from a deep reading of literature – among other things, he is a renowned translator of Vietnamese poetry — and a willingness to go out into the world to see things for himself.
"Underland: A Deep Time Journey" by Robert MacFarlane
You think you know something of the world? Think you've been places? Not many (not I) have really seen the world under our feet. MacFarlane offers geology, history, literature and myth, without overdoing any of them. It's an adventure story, many stories in fact, to strange places with unusual people (almost by definition, as they tend to spend much of their lives underground). I had to close the book a few times to take a breath as they squeezed through spaces far too tight for this claustrophobic reader. It was good to join along, above ground.
And finally, two books from the past that I read for the first time this year …
By way of preface, my life in the news business often influences my life as a reader. I'm traveling somewhere for the NewsHour and I seek out writers and books from that country or region. A great writer dies, I prepare an obituary and am reminded of someone and something I want to be connected to. So I reread a book or look for something I'd missed – a kind of homage, a way of acknowledging what's lost and what endures. In this latter category, in memoriam to two greats:
"Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison
I had the enormous privilege of meeting and interviewing her several times. These were brief encounters but – in my memory — they were not rushed. She emanated life and concern for the value of art. She engaged, just as she does on the page. And she laughed a lot. She was a writer who transcended the category of 'writer': She changed the culture and world for the better. I had read a number of her books over the years but somehow missed "Song of Solomon." Read it.
"A Tale of Love and Darkness" by Amos Oz
I met the Israeli novelist just once, on what happened to be one of the saddest days of my life, as we learned my friend Gwen Ifill was near death. My producer told Oz what was happening and when I arrived he asked if we should go ahead with our interview. I thought, yes, there is a solace sometimes in talking about art and beauty. And Gwen — well, she and I used to talk about books we were reading. Oz was as gracious as could be. And what an observer of life and teller of tales. I had read several of his books but missed the greatest: "A Tale of Love and Darkness." It is a memoir, I guess, but for some reason is most often found in the fiction section. It doesn't matter. Another must-read.
And now, our staff picks …
"Three Women" by Lisa Taddeo
Take three women, share their pre-#MeToo personal histories — of longing and sex and stereotypes and trauma and frustration — in serious and respectful detail, and you have a much-buzzed-about summer book. These real lives don't have perfect, explosive endings, and I found myself wishing for more diverse stories of women's desire. (All three are white, cisgendered and straight.) But the remedy is to hear more from more women, and the (seemingly) seamless liberation of their hidden feelings onto the page feels like a feat of narrative journalism.
— Molly Finnegan, online editor
"Crispin: The Cross of Lead" by Avi
This is a book I read with my son this year after it was recommended by his teacher. It is a true coming-of-age story, as the protagonist has to find his way in the world while learning who he is. Set in England in the Middle Ages, it is unique in that it tells the story of peasant life rather than that of lords and ladies. Because of that, some of the story is pretty grim, but my 9-year-old absolutely loved it. He could not get enough. There are pervasive religious references in the story, which felt historically accurate as that would have been the lens through which the main character saw the world. I confess to keeping my son up more than once because we could not put it down.
— Magan Crane, senior editor, digital politics
"Norse Mythology" by Neil Gaiman
If you watched any of the Marvel movies featuring Thor and wanted to know more about the myth behind the modern take on the God of Thunder, this is the book for you. In "Norse Mythology," the few surviving stories we have of the Viking gods feel alive and cohesive, which is no easy task.
— Tori Partridge, producer, digital video politics
"Finite and Infinite Games" by James Carse
James Carse's thesis is simple: Human activity can be split between the two kinds of games, finite and infinite. One is mundane, the other mysterious, and while finite games are played to be won, infinite games are played solely to assure the continuance of play. Arcing the chasm between sociology and self-help, Carse — a religious scholar — plots a secular, warm and surprising map for why people do what they do, and how we derive meaning from action. Highly recommended if you're looking for a way to rewire your brain for the new decade. And at a breezy 150 pages, it's far more economical than that other famous book with "infinite" in the title.
— Zachary Frank, associate producer
"Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate" by Mike Giglio
If you're interested in how ISIS became ISIS and the story behind the rise and fall of the caliphate, this book is a must-read. As a reporter who was there from the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Giglio's first-person accounts are harrowing, fascinating, and critical to understanding how a terrorist group can evolve at the speed and ferocity that the Islamic State militant group did. You'll spend time on the front lines of the street battles in Iraq, plenty of time on the border of Turkey and Syria, and always inside the murky space between the orderly world we know and the dystopian reality that ISIS built. I read it over my summer vacation and couldn't put it down. It made me appreciate just how quickly our worlds can change if we're not paying attention.
— James Williams, executive director of digital strategy
"Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA" by Amaryllis Fox
I met Amaryllis Fox this summer– as she was beginning to talk about her memoir, "Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA" — and was struck by how my own biases presented themselves. "This is not what CIA spies usually look like," I thought. And, of course, that is part of the reason that her story of a peripatetic young scholar (Oxford and Georgetown) made her an unlikely and very successful spy.
She was recruited at 22 — one of the youngest female officers — after the agency heard about an algorithm she designed looking at "the ratio of hookah bars to madrassas and percentage beneath livable wage a border guard gets paid" in order to identify likely terrorist safe havens. Her passion to join the clandestine world was also borne out of a personal tragedy related to 9/11, and she launched a career that included eight years traveling the world posing as an art dealer while recruiting arms dealers as assets. Yes, this reads like a spy novel, and while the real-life tale is action-packed, it also causes the reader to pause and ask her/himself what the priorities of the country should be and how to achieve them.
— Anne Davenport, senior coordinating producer, CANVAS/Arts and Culture
"Normal People" by Sally Rooney
After reading Sally Rooney's books, you start to understand why she's often dubbed as the quintessential millennial writer of our time. She seems to have an innate understanding of the ways in which today's young people think about themselves and navigate relationships — both in person and online — with one another. Rooney also writes about sex and intimacy really well, which makes her books even easier to devour.
It chronicles the relationship between Connell and Marianne, two friends from vastly different backgrounds that grow up in the same small Irish town before heading to study at Trinity University in Dublin. While they fall in love early on, their relationship is full of ups and downs as both pursue different paths into adulthood, growing apart at times but always staying in each other's orbit. Their story is captivating — at times devastating — and the book is full of pointed observations about class, sex and society.
–Courtney Vinopal, general assignment reporter
"NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity" by Steve Silberman
I'm FULL of feelings and cannot recommend the book I'm finishing right now enough. It's called "NeuroTribes" by Steve Silberman. It is the most thorough, understanding, accurate and good-hearted explanation of the history and present reality of the study of autism and autistic people I've ever seen. It answered questions for me about my own brain, my family members, students I've taught, teachers I've had, and generally many of my favorite people. The book centers autistic people and their accomplishments, rather than sidelining them to concentrate on their disabilities or their parents. I think I'm gonna read it again in a few months.
— Vicky Stein, freelancer
"Lone Wolf and Cub" by Kazuo Koike. Art by Goseki Kojima
2019 has been a stressful year for me. I had a lot of personal difficulties; I also planned my wedding. I spent the year looking to media to escape, and escapism doesn't get much better than "Lone Wolf and Cub." Set in Edo-era feudal Japan, "Lone Wolf and Cub" surrounds Ogami Ittō, the Shōgun's executioner who is framed for murder and is forced to walk the path of assassin for hire with his infant son. The world is vivid, the plots are captivating and the artwork is gorgeous. As someone who's never really been into graphic novels, let alone manga, this series has completely blown me away. "Lone Wolf and Cub" is held up as one of the medium's best for a reason.
— Michael Boulter, production assistant
"This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto" by Suketu Mehta
Suketu Mehta adds an important document to the national conversation on immigration. His reporting from visits to the southern border of the U.S. and the Mediterranean, and his dive into historical facts, inform this pointed take on who is responsible for a world on the move.
— Hari Sreenivasan, PBS NewsHour Weekend anchor
"Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago" by LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman with David Isay
Told from the vantage point of two boys from the Ida B. Wells housing project, LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman tell their harrowing stories of growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Aided by an NPR reporter, these boys take on the mantle of journalism and report back on their day-to-day lives in an America that many would barely recognize or imagine. This is a story of a multi-sided America that is far from idyllic and that reveals how much more we need to overcome as a country in order to reach equality.
— Marcus Markle, communications manager for Student Reporting Labs
"It's Ramadan, Curious George" by H. A. Rey and Hena Khan
This book is one that we have been reading to our son, Kareem, since he was born. It has been a way for us to show him how the religion and tradition that he is being raised in can be relatable, and something he sees regularly. It also helps that one of the main characters in this book — aside from Curious George — is named Kareem. The book is well illustrated, and has a great message, which are always the trappings of a great children's book.
— Yasmeen Alamiri, digital news editor
"Berlin" by Jason Lutes
"Berlin" evokes the rich world of pre-WWII Berlin that Lutes has written about since 1996. This work of historical fiction weaves together real events and people, with a half dozen main fictional characters, including a cynical journalist and young woman, trying to navigate the city and their inner lives. It resonated with me because of how well it had been researched, as well as the graphic novel's dialogue and drawing. What seems most prescient to me in these ever-more partisan times is how similar the events and attitudes Lutes records are to what we see in the news every day in 2019. I couldn't put it down, and even if sometimes it felt like a history lesson, it felt like a lesson I needed to hear.
— Casey Kuhn, associate producer for PBS NewsHour West
"The Only Plane In The Sky" by Garrett Graff
It's been more than two months since I read "The Only Plane In The Sky," and yet I still find myself regularly thinking about Graff's book. Yes, we know how the events of Sept. 11, 2001, tragically unfolded, but the detailed experiences of individuals in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania (and elsewhere around the country) aren't remembered as clearly. In this oral history, Graff successfully — and movingly — reminds us in vivid detail of the sights, sounds and smells, and the range of emotions so many Americans felt on one of the most traumatic days in our nation's history.
The book is a compilation of stories, several of them haunting. They include that of a fireman in the World Trade Center lobby who acknowledged with his fellow firefighters that they may not survive the day, shook hands and went to work anyway. And the passengers on United Flight 93 who waited until their plane was over a rural area to try to take back control of the plane from the hijackers. As time goes on, it's important to the nation's collective memory that we're reminded what individual Americans experienced on 9/11. And Graff does that with incredible tact and dignity.
— Stephanie Kotuby, senior editorial producer
"Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World" by Anand Giridharadas
Giridharadas' book explores the role philanthropy plays in our world and whether well-meaning, uber-wealthy changemakers — each with their own multi-million dollar initiatives — can do a better job fixing society than the government. Giridharadas argues they can't, based on how most of them got rich in the first place: a rigged system that favors the wealthy.
The book made me think of my life as a former civics teacher and how I needed to do a better job explaining to my students what government actually does each day. I may have been too critical of government as a way to teach students, well, critical-thinking. I like Giridharadas' idea of restoring trust in government, given it seems to be in the best position to make the systemic changes the country needs.
— Victoria Pasquantonio, education producer
"A Warning" by Anonymous
As the 2020 election approaches, a seemingly moderate Republican and senior Trump administration official has decided to speak up by authoring "A Warning." This is not the first time the author (who voted for then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016) has raised the alarm. Last year, they wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that set to calm an uneasy republic by exposing the "quiet resistance" inside the White House that has allegedly thwarted President Donald Trump's worst tendencies. I was skeptical about the author remaining private — as many of you probably are — until I read why: "Removing my identity from the equation deprives him of an opportunity to create a distraction. What will he do when there is no person to attack, only an idea?" the unnamed author wrote.
This is a book for Republicans, Democrats, independents, urban and rural Americans alike. "A Warning" weaves in a plethora of historical knowledge on America's past presidencies with thoughtful reflection in every chapter on the moments that defined us as a nation — just as 2020 will.
— Courtney Norris, reporter-producer, national affairs
"The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt
This book changed the way I think about myself, as well as the people with whom I disagree. Haidt, a social psychologist who researches the foundations of human morality, argues that, although we all like to think of ourselves as making rational, logical decisions, the human mind is more like a rider on top of an elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning, and the elephant is the other 99 percent of our mental processing — occurring outside our awareness, driven by our feelings — that governs most of our behavior. Despite the heavy topic, this book was an easy read. It's full of interesting anecdotes and thought-provoking moral questions, and particularly relevant during this time of deep political polarization.
— Marie Cusick, Student Reporting Labs Youth Media producer
"Breakdown of Will" by George Ainslie
The premise of Ainslie's book is that each of us is a multiplicity of "selves" that compete with one another for control — like the alcoholic's rational self, taking medication in the morning to induce vomiting, when the alcoholic self can't resist a drink in the afternoon. Which self wins? Why? When? What strategies can the rational self employ to keep the destructive ones at bay? Read and find out.
— Paul Solman, business and economics correspondent
"The Turn of the Key" Ruth Ware
Ware's latest novel is a reimagining of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." There is the secluded house where the lonely young woman is stuck caring for bratty children. But where there was a governess in James' novel, there is a modern nanny in Ware's take. In place of an old haunted house, the heroine is instead plagued by a modern "smart" home.
In all of her novels, Ware's heroines resonate not for their perfection, but for their flaws – in their daily lives and decisions. In this mystery, you're wondering, "Why would you go into that creepy room?" as often as you're asking "Why are you making such a bad life choice right now?" Ware has been touted as the Agatha Christie of our time and, even knowing where the plot may go, I was still on my toes reading this update.
— Alison Thoet, associate producer/national affairs
"The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet" by James Griffiths
As a designer and developer in the IT/media industry, I always feel responsible for the fair use of technology for social good. I also have personal interests in technology and censorship, and its potential danger when misused. I believe this year is the perfect time to think about it. Griffiths "The Great Firewall of China" is full of good examples about what it would happen if technology is used without any moral or ethical considerations, and how it could potentially damage our society by harming justice and human dignity.
— CY Park, senior UX/UI designer
"Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton
A college friend and I have a secret pact: If one of us sees the film adaptation of "Jurassic Park" on television, we immediately inform the other and watch it. Safe to say I've watched the movie 30 times in my life. Yet until recently, I hadn't read the book "that started it all" by creating a world where genetic technology has resurrected dinosaurs.
The most delightful part of the book is its richness. Crichton "spares no expense" when it comes to prehistoric details and the descriptions of a genetic innovation run amok. On the latter, the book is horrifying. A reader truly feels stalked by a large predator — though the most terrifying dinosaurs in the book are not the ones focused on in the movie. (And you'll also be surprised by whom dies in the book versus the movie.) Crichton's portrayal of the promise and peril of genetic technology is also surprisingly prescient in light of discussions about modern-day advances like gene editing with CRISPR. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the book, so there's no better time to consume it.
— Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer