An Open Book: What I Read in December

From the White House to deep in China’s interior, December was a delicious journey in books.

In fact, it’s been an all-around wonderful year of books. 

Every year I participate in the Goodreads challenge, and 2019 blew every previous year out of the water.

According to my Goodreads stats, I read 78 books this year. The longest book I read was A Little Life, which, you might recall, I thought was far too long.

I read a wide variety of books over the year — lots of fiction and non-fiction — but if I had to pick a few that topped the list, I think I’d narrow them down to the following: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Becoming by Michelle Obama.

Here’s to more good reading in 2020!

book covers

For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favorite Drink by Sarah Rose (3/5 stars)

Three-line review: This is an interesting story about an interesting product, but I’m not sure the hyped-up title is necessary. What I liked most about this book was the historical backstory mixed in with botanist Robert Fortune’s travel tales from China. The audio book, read by the author, was particularly grating, however.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (4/5 stars)

Three-line review: Based loosely on a village that suffered through the plague, this novel is interesting, insightful, and infuriating. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, but Brooks did an excellent job of transporting me to this time and place of immense suffering. The only odd part is the out-of-place epilogue; just stop reading after the final chapter and skip the epilogue altogether.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom (2/5 stars)

Three-line review: What a bizarre, wandering novel. I think it’s meant to be a piece of literary fiction, but nothing seemed to be well developed or fully thought out — not the characters, story line, motivation, or conflict. It certainly wasn’t the worst book I read this year, but nothing about it was memorable.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (3/5 stars)

Three-line review: Ng is spot on with character development, pacing, description, and all the other elements that make for the perfect piece of fiction. Yet, despite all the things I loved about this book, it felt too chaotically in sync, like all the imperfect characters and unfortunate plot points perfectly aligned to create this engaging story. I liked the first 25% the best, before we hit the Jodi Picoult-esque twist that set the tone for the remainder of the book.

book reviews

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower (3/5 stars)

Three-line review: I love that a book opens the doors on one of the most secretive and powerful residences on the planet: The White House. This is a brilliant book that offers a very intimate look at a physical place meant to be comforting amid constant chaos and uncertainty. Though repetitive at times, I appreciated this book conveying the stories of presidents (even those I didn’t care for) on a much more personal level.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (4/5 stars)

Three-line review: I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about race issues, and this was a good one to close out the year. Every chapter of Oluo’s book walks through specific questions that bump up against racism, and she answers them with a witty sense of humor. In many ways, this books feels like a series of essays.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (3/5 stars)

Three-line review: What I most loved about this book was learning about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, a largely unknown aspect of the Holocaust when French police collaborated with the Nazis and thousands of French citizens (especially children) were murdered. de Rosnay wove the story line of a young girl caught up in this roundup and the story of a journalist researching this act seamlessly in the first half of the book, and this was worth five stars until the point. But then act two started, and the book took a sharp turn toward the journalist’s self-absorption and weird romantic plot twists that drove this book downhill for the remainder of its pages.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (5/5 stars)

Three-line review: All the accolades this book has received are well deserved. Owens, a 70-year-old zoologist, does a stellar job of setting the reader right into the marsh with its overgrown reeds, abundant wildlife, and homegrown “marsh girl,” who raises herself from a young age far on the fringes of society. This is a mystery novel, but the characters, their human connections and instincts, and the beautifully described setting steal the show … and that’s completely okay.

Her: A Memoir by Christa Parravani (3/5 stars)

Three-line review: When Parravani’s identical twin dies of an accidental overdose, her life spirals wildly out of control and this is the memoir she wrote as a result. This book is her way of dealing with the tragedy, and while it’s highly readable and compelling, I’m not convinced it needed to be published and shared with the world. Being an identical twin obviously results in some very strange and twisted life circumstances, and Parravani’s writing clearly weaves her life with her sister’s in a way that makes them impossible to untangle, even in death.

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