Here are some good books I read this year. They are not necessarily books from 2019. Links take you to the book site Goodreads.
Discovery of the Year
The writer who I didn’t know about, and now I am gobbling down all of his books – Mick Herron. His “Slough House” books are about a group MI5 agents who have been exiled to Slough House in London, for doing something so inappropriate or so dumb that they can no longer serve in a traditional way. Instead they are given seemingly meaningless tasks that management hopes will make them quit MI5, saving the service the cost of their pensions.
But headed by Jackson Lamb, whose personal habits and skills are appalling, sometimes these derelict agents are called into action. The books are LeCarre meets a dark comic writer, swirled with plenty of topical political concerns. Engaging, funny, and filled with intrigue.
Spoonbenders by Darryl Gregory Funny story about a family with parapsychological powers, or maybe just great con artist skills. Lots of fun, lots of what ifs, and a feeling of inevitable doom of a looming deadline set by the Mafia. Hard to describe, great to read.
Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein. “Things had never been easy between Ava Fisher and her estranged mother Ilse. Too many questions hovered between them: Who was Ava’s father? Where had Ilse been during the war? Why had she left her only child in a German orphanage during the war’s final months?” The answers to these questions unfold slowly in strange and unexpected ways. A marvelous read.
Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome. A short book, with a moving story about a young black boy who moves with his recently widowed father from rural Alabama to Chicago in 1946, so his father can find work. Lost, teased and bullied by others because of his rural background, Langston finds solace in a local library and the writings of Langston Hughes.
Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love and War 1930-1949 by Janet Somerville. One of the best books I read this year. Martha Gellhorn was (mostly) a war journalist who went to the Spanish Civil War, several of the early invasions by Germany, leading up to WWII, went into Europe on D-Day, and so on. This is a collection of her personal letters, which show her to be passionate about truth, unable to accept the evil in the world, with a complex emotional life. She’s friends with some very interesting people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, H.G Wells, and Max Perkins and the Fitzgerald/Hemingway crowd. She was also married to Hemingway for a while.
Vibrant, delightful, sad, and personal.
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro. I’ve read it before, and I’ll happily read it again. In 1606, Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest plays: Macbeth, Lear, and Othello. This book examines both the plays and the historical context to show how contemporary issues and politics are integrated into Shakespeare’s work. An eyeopener.
Jefferson’s America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Natio by Julie M Fenster. We’ve all heard of Lewis and Clark and the exploration of the West after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. But did you know that Jefferson sent other explorers to scout the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the American Southwest? This book looks at both the explorations and the politics. A revelation for me.
The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagon. It’s a woman, Elizabeth Smith, in a science story and a love story, and a whole lot more. Starting in WWI, she and her husband-to-be started to crack codes, at that time a little explored process. They literally wrote the book on cracking codes. During the 20s and 30s she used codebreaking to help the Coast Guard find smugglers, and indict mobsters. During WWII she and her husband, working in separate organizations, attacked different versions of the Enigma code, and she became involved in counter-espionage activities to disrupt German activities. Fascinating people, who cared deeply for one another.
Up In Arms: How The Bundy Family Hijacked Federal Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Militia Movement by John Temple. Ok, the title gives you topic. What was fascinating to me about this book was helping me to understand a mindset that I knew nothing about. About how land rights, and a very particular interpretation of the Constitution lead to the first Bundy standoff. And how various political groups all joined in with very different agendas, making it hard to see what “the truth” of the situation was, as there were many truths on offer.
Hateland: A Long, Hard Look at America’s Extremist Heart by Daryl Johnson. Another eyeopener. A look at the rise of the radical right, from pamphlets and flyers in the 1980s to the giant echo chambers and recruitment drives of the Internet. How did we become so divided? This tells an important part of that story.