My ten favorite books I read in 2019; naturally, given recent tendencies, more than half are memoirs:
10. Tracey Thorn, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
Thorn’s third memoir reconciles her past and present, with her teenaged diaries serving as a revealing jumping-off point. Ever perceptive, relatable and just a little wry, she details how she initially rejected a provincial life in favor of urban bohemia, only to eventually find a solid middle ground while also remaining a pop star (albeit a most unconventional one.)
9. Wiebke von Carolsfeld, Claremont
Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author, a German-born, Canadian-based filmmaker (Marion Bridge, The Saver). Her debut novel has all of the intuitiveness and empathy of her films; it also excels and engages both as a family kitchen-sink dramedy and via the rich sense of place in which she depicts downtown Toronto.
8. Susan Orlean, The Library Book
Only Orlean would probably think to write an entire book about the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, and only in her hands would it come off so personable and far-reaching. Anyone who’s spent time in a library whether as an employee or a patron will appreciate the lyricism Orlean locates in an underrated but vital municipal institution.
7. Hanif Abdurraqib, Go Ahead In The Rain
Following last year’s great collection of essays, Abdurraqib tightens his focus to an entire book about legendary rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Such is his talent and original approach to criticism/memoir that, even if you’re not familiar with the music here (like me), it’s not difficult to get wrapped up in the twin tales being laid out of artist and fan and how each one informs the other.
6. Ben Folds, A Dream About Lightning Bugs
Folds is so utterly himself—musical prodigy, everyman iconoclast, thoughtful goofball—that his own, often rollicking account of his gradual and relatively unusual rise to semi-stardom never plays a false note. Recommended to aging Gen-X-ers, power-pop admirers, recovering workaholics, divorced parents and terminal smartasses.
5. Andrew Sean Greer, Less
A witty comedy of errors that subtly reaches back to such luminaries as Wilde, Waugh and Wodehouse, it also somehow feels of the moment. Following his hero across several continents, Greer’s light touch, combined with an ever-so-slightly acidic demeanor proves irresistible—as complete and satisfying as, say, a Carson McCullers novel, only more generous.
4. Andrew Blauner (Ed.), The Peanuts Papers
How could a collection of essays about Peanuts, one of my favorite things ever, not end up in my top five? These thirty-odd pieces dissect Charles Schulz’s work in a myriad of directions, from comic precedents and critical analysis to memoir and even stylistic parody. All of it conveys that, twenty years on from its creator’s death, the potential Peanuts contains remains endless.
3. Guy Branum, My Life As A Goddess
Branum does not suffer fools gladly, which always makes for a refreshing, readable memoir; that he mostly avoids archness and navel-gazing makes for an uncommonly honest one as well. Whether dishing about former boss Chelsea Handler or writing frankly about obesity, he’s curious and stimulating instead of settling for bitter and bitchy.
2. Ruth Reichl, Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Reichl’s best book since Garlic and Sapphires, which also happens to be her last work-centric memoir, this is her long-awaited account of her ’00s stint as a editor-in-chief of the now shuttered magazine Gourmet. Previously an outsider to the industry, she provides a fascinating assessment of its politics and inner workings that, over time, turns into a requiem for a fading profession—with recipes, of course.
1. Amy Rigby, Girl To City: A Memoir
I didn’t even know this singer/songwriter, best known for her plucky 1996 solo debut Diary of a Mod Housewife, had written a memoir until I checked her blog a few weeks after it came out. And like Diary did for her music, this proves she’s a natural writer as well. Spanning mostly from her move to Manhattan from Pittsburgh at age 17 in the late ’70s to Diary’s release, Rigby both depicts a lost New York and completely nails the exhilaration and anxiety of being young and on your own and desperately wanting to create art and partake in culture when the everyday world makes it challenging to do so. It gets the top spot here because, more than any musician’s memoir I’ve read in the past few years, I’d recommend it to anyone, even if they’ve never heard a note of Rigby’s music.
Honorable Mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation; A.M. Homes, Days of Awe; Emily Nussbaum, I Like To Watch; Kate Atkinson, Life After Life; John Hodgman, Medallion Status; Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room
Here’s my complete 2019 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read–8 this year, which is twice as many as in 2018!):
- Susan Orlean, The Library Book
- Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
- Abbi Jacobson, I Might Regret This
- Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba
- Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test
- Robert Christgau, Does It Feel Good To Ya?
- Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known As The Human Condition
- Fredric Dannen, Hit Men
- Hanif Abdurraqib, Go Ahead In The Rain
- Merrill Markoe, What The Dogs Have Taught Me
- Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent*
- Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
- Elizabeth McCracken, Bowlaway
- Curtis Sittenfeld, You Think It, I’ll Say It
- Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark
- Tracey Thorn, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
- A.M. Homes, Days of Awe
- David Sedaris, Dress The Family In Corduroy and Denim*
- Paul Myers, The Kids In The Hall: One Dumb Guy
- Ruth Reichl, Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
- Guy Branum, My Life As A Goddess
- Peter Heller, The River
- Clarice Lispector, Complete Stories
- Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing
- Brian Raftery, Best. Movie. Year. Ever.
- Frank DeCaro, Drag: Combing Through The Big Wigs of Show Business
- Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
- Ani DiFranco, No Walls and the Reoccurring Dream
- John Waters, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder
- Emily Nussbaum, I Like To Watch
- Rob Sheffield, Love is A Mixtape*
- Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes
- H. Jon Benjamin, Failure Is An Option
- Andrew Sean Greer, Less
- Ramin Setoodeh, Ladies Who Punch
- Bob Stanley, Sleevenotes
- Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of The Dead*
- Douglas Coupland, Eleanor Rigby
- Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick, or, Lonesome No More!*
- Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
- Ben Folds, A Dream About Lightning Bugs
- Tom Spanbauer, The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon*
- David Crabb, Bad Kid: A Memoir*
- Wiebke von Carolsfeld, Claremont
- Richard Brautigan, So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away
- Andrew Blauner (Ed.), The Peanuts Papers
- Patti Smith, Year Of The Monkey
- Amy Rigby, Girl To City: A Memoir
- John Hodgman, Medallion Status
- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping*
- Lindy West, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman
- Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room
- McDonnell/O’Connell/de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman
- Vince Aletti, The Disco Files
- Alan Bennett, Untold Stories