To kick off the new year, Gramercy Books will host a panel of serious readers—an author, library associate, and book critic moderated by yours truly—talking about their favorite book(s) of 2019, books they wished they read, those recently published books they’ve read and loved, and the early 2020 book titles they’re most looking forward to reading.
Since I will be moderating, and because I’m an author, a bookseller and a big reader, I’ve thought a lot about the books I might include. I am always reading a book and thinking about the next book or two that sit ready on my nightstand. In looking back at the list of books I read in 2019, I was amazed to see that I read 49 books, five more than the previous year.
My favorite books published in 2019 include three novels and two memoirs. First, for anyone who loves music, I recommend Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid (March). This novel is a very unique telling of an imaginary rock band in the ‘70s, complete with the lyrics to each song in their fictitious breakout album offered in the back of the book. Written as an oral history, this fast-paced novel makes all the characters and their experiences over that decade very real. It gives an insider perspective to the challenges, the highs and lows, the drugs and pressures that are part of band life—recording, touring, and working as a team. The Nickel Boys (July), Colson Whitehead’s latest extraordinary dramatization of America’s history of violence, is both a mystery and a thriller, an examination of race and social injustice, and a literary treasure. It tells the story of Elwood, a promising high school senior brought up by his grandmother who is wrongfully sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-Florida. Based on the real story of the Dozier School for Boys that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a stunning narrative of exquisite restraint and startling insight. A different but equally compelling read was Olive, Again (October) by one of my favorite novelists, Elizabeth Strout. This is the follow up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, which introduced readers to the most beloved, maddening, confounding, and compelling character in fiction. Strout’s spare yet beautifully rendered prose set in the rugged state of Maine left me rooting again for Olive, despite her many shortcomings. As she stumbles through life and growing old, I was reminded that it’s a messy business being human, filled with moments both poignant and surprising.
Two memoirs made a deep impact on me. Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (April) by Robert Caro is a vivid, candid, and deeply moving recollection by one of the greatest reporters and THE best biographer of our time, while providing a deep appreciation for the process he undertook in writing his epic books on Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and Lyndon Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson). Caro’s memoir is small and charming and gave me a sense of why he chose these two particular subjects (his fascination is with power, so his subjects are men who channeled, wielded and embodied power) and his meticulous and legendary work habits, aided in research by his wife, Ina. Just 200 pages, Caro took as little time as possible from his current work on the 5th Johnson biography—meticulous in how he works, each new book takes him a decade to complete. So, this is just a taste of his working life. Caro’s desire is to do a full-scale memoir, something he knows he might not have the chance to get around to given his age (83) and the time it takes him to produce each book. Witness: Lessons from the Classroom of Elie Wiesel (October) was the other memoir that made a deep impact on me. Devoted Wiesel protégé and friend Ariel Burger chronicles both his intimate conversations with Wiesel over decades but places us right inside Wiesel’s classroom at Boston University where the Holocaust survivor and humanitarian taught for forty years. Here, the art of listening and storytelling unite to keep memory alive. Here, we have a front row seat to witness some of the most extraordinary exchanges that have the power to change us.
So, what books am I excited about that are coming in 2020? American Dirt (January 21) by Jeanine Cummins, for one. This novel has been called “an urgent, blistering, unforgettable book” and hailed as the “Grapes of Wrath of our times.” In her portrayal of a mother and son forced to leave their Mexican home, Cummins has given face to migrants everywhere who flee violence and near-certain death in search of a chance at life. The novel is Gramercy’s March book club selection. Coming March 3rd is Deacon King Kong and no one can spin a tale like James McBride! Deacon King Kong is original, entertaining, feisty, and big-hearted with the trademark energy, humor, charm, and humanity that readers have come to expect from a writer with McBride’s talent and imagination. This wise and witty novel is about what happens to the witnesses of a shooting. It’s as involving as the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird and as emotional honest as The Color of Water. Gramercy Books will be hosting James to launch his new novel on March 5th! Later in March (17th), Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit (The Wives of Los Alamos) will be released and is the gripping retelling of the Plymouth colony’s first murder. TaraShea will share her new novel with Gramercy readers at a March 26th visit. I read every book by Columbus’s own master storyteller and Ohio State University writing scholar Lee Martin (The Bright Forever) and, in 2020, he has a new novel out, Yours, Jean (May 12). He’s also coming to Gramercy two days later to tell us about it. Based on a true crime, it is a powerful novel about small town manners and the loneliness that drives people to do things they never imagined.
Two upcoming memoirs got my attention and I’ve invited their authors to come to Gramercy Books. First, Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens The Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era (Feb. 4) by Jerry Mitchell. He takes readers on the twisting, pulse-racing road that led to the reopening of four of the most infamous killings from the days of the civil rights movement, decades after the fact. Mitchell played a central role in bringing Klansmen to justice for the assassination of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, and the Mississippi Burning case. Jerry visits us on March 30th. Finally, RUST: A Memoir of Steel and Grit (March 3) by Eliese Goldbach is an eloquent tale of hard times in working class America. Appealing to readers of Heartland and Educated, RUST is an intimate look at Goldbach’s Rust Belt childhood and the people she sees as the unsung backbone of our nation. Eliese will visit Gramercy on March 9th.
There are three novels and one memoir from 2019 that I can't wait to read: Trust Exercise (April 2019) by Susan Choi, The Dutch House (September 2019) by Ann Patchett (this novel is Gramercy’s January book club selection), The Water Dancer (September 2019) by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Gramercy’s February book club selection), and The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir (September 2019) by former UN Ambassador Samantha Powers. (I am already a third of the way through The Dutch House.)
Happy Reading and Happy New Year!
Written by Linda Kass
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. It won a Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction from the Independent Publisher Award Program and was a 2016 Foreword INDIES Award Finalist. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.