It’s that time again! Unlike in 2018, I met my reading goal for this year (20 books), and since I only wrote full reviews for a handful of them, I thought a recap would be the perfect way to reflect upon 2019 and round out this year’s blog posts.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In my January-April reading recap, I stated that The Brothers Karamazov was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I still hold to that. What can I say that I haven’t already? My fondness for this novel has only grown, and for most of this year I felt as if I was in a hangover from it. The writing is clear, without frills, but laced with poignancy and humor alike; the characters are nuanced, multi-faceted, and unique from other stories I’ve read; the themes are real and true, not glossed-over, not neatly-packaged but not left relative or meaningless either. Yes, it’s long—quite long—but I love that about it, too. And, Alyosha Karamazov has my heart. I still, unsurprisingly, wholeheartedly, give The Brothers Karamazov 5/5 stars.
The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman
When I first read The Confidence Code, I gave it 3/5 stars, and after nearly forgetting that I read it earlier this year I suppose it still deserves that rating. I didn’t agree with all of Kay and Shipman’s philosophical or social conclusions, but they clearly did their research, show their sources, and present enough interesting scientific data about the nature of confidence to not make the book horrible for someone who doesn’t like self-help books (a.k.a. me). I can imagine that those who do enjoy this genre would find the book to be useful and engaging.
Eyes of the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 by Juan Williams
This book is also one that I forgot I’d read this year—which, in some ways, proves that it wasn’t noteworthy enough for me to bump it up higher than my original 3/5 stars. I still think that it’s a good text: it was well-written, full of interviews with people who were involved in the events being described and pictures of the events (the March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Crisis, etc.), and well-sourced. I also still think that the formatting was confusing at times, since interviews were often inserted in the middle of the main narrative, and there were moments when I wanted more historical context to understand certain events. All-in-all it balances out, though, and is a good starting place to learn about the Civil Rights Era.
Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown
Ah, another assigned reading. The beginning of 2019 was full of them, and sadly, I came away disliking most of them. Dare to Lead is my second-least favorite of that bunch. The fact that Brown is knowledgeable and successful in her field and so well-liked by readers did little to make me enjoy the book: the style was often obnoxious, chalked full of pop culture references and cursing that felt awkward, like a parent trying too hard to seem “cool” to their kids; the structure and pacing of the information itself felt repetitive, and by the end I couldn’t remember what information was found in what section; and, most of all, the phrasing and lingo used felt more like a very bad corporate meeting than a “new” or “fresh” take. I’m just grateful that I’ve forgotten most of the book (except the phrase “rumbling with vulnerability.” I think it’ll be engrained in my mind for eternity). I still give Dare to Lead a generous 1/5 stars.
Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of a Young Black Girl in the Rural South by Anne Moody
I find memoirs to be, generally, very enjoyable and enlightening reading, and Coming of Age in Mississippi certainly was. I knew very few details about segregation in the South, so reading a personal account of that time, including all of injustices and the strange contradictions of how society in the South developed to that point, gave me a lot of new information and a lot to ponder (and, also, a lot to be angry about). It was also easy to read, which made it more compelling. I’m dropping my initial rating of 3.5/5 stars to 3/5 stars, though—while good for many reasons, it didn’t stick with me like other memoirs I’ve read.
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
Why Not Me? is the first book I’ve ever given 0/5 stars, and though its details have since faded from my memory I still maintain my rating. To quote from my earlier recap post: “…I found the actual content of the book boring, her humor stereotypical and overly vulgar, and I can only take so many cultural references before I want to throw a book in the trash. The book has high ratings, so I can only assume that I’m utterly immune to this genre and Kaling’s personality.” I’ll leave it at that.
Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present by Thomas J. Misa
To me, Leonardo to the Internet is a classic example of a history book that suffered for want of style, not of content. I remember wanting to like this book so badly—tracing the development of technology, and seeing how technological development interacted with, responded to, and catalyzed social changes is fascinating! But the writing was often dry, sometimes littered with strange grammatical structure that wasn’t technically wrong but hard to read, and I found myself spacing out about half-way through each chapter. I had also hoped to learn more about global technology, but the book focused more on Western civilization (which, is fine, though slightly disappointing). I still give Leonardo to the Internet 2/5 stars.
A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
I have several memoirs written about North Korea on my TBR list, and A River in Darkness was my first pick (a bit arbitrarily, too, since I could’ve ordered any of them from the library). What a harrowing, somber, important book. Ishikawa’s life seems to be one tragedy and sorrow after another, even once he escapes from North Korea, and his account of the depravity and evil of the North Korean regime is important not just in a broad sense but in the present, since the people of North Korea are still suffering under the same evils. I give A River in Darkness 4/5 stars (for more details, check out my full review).
The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile
[Note: As of 2021, the original mini review no longer reflects my beliefs regarding Enneagram, since I no longer use or condone the system due to its origins in the occult. I’ve also removed the book from the ranking below. ]
Villager (Quelmirian Duology, #1) by Savanna Roberts
I’ve followed Roberts on Instagram for a while and had the privilege of being part of Robert’s blog tour for Villager, her third novel, earlier this year. Even though I never read YA and, personally, don’t like a lot about the genre, I thoroughly enjoyed this indie novel; Robert’s detailed worldbuilding, as well as her strong characterization and immersive writing style, shined through and pulled me into the story to where I finished it in one sitting. Because of this, I gave Villager 3/5 stars (for more of my thoughts, check out the full book review).
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Confession: I owned a beautiful edition of this book for well over a year before I finally picked it up. I also watched the movie before reading the book. Practically a crime in the bookish world, I know. But even though I knew the storyline beforehand, I was still enthralled with the story and found myself wondering why I hadn’t picked up a Christie novel before then. The mystery and plot unfolds at a perfect pace, the cast is huge yet easy to distinguish from each other, and Poirot is a fun, quirky, apt protagonist to lead readers through the process of deducing the identity of the murderer. Even those who don’t read mysteries would likely find this book engaging and enjoyable. Thus, I gave Murder on the Orient Express 4/5 stars.
The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin
Poetry is yet another genre into which I rarely dip my proverbial toes, but, in part due to the influence of some dear friends, I decided this was the year to amend that. I also wanted to branch further out into Russian literature, so this collection of Pushkin poems seemed the obvious choice. Poetry collections, however, are mixed bags—I really enjoyed some of the poems, while I disliked many others (and one, in particular, was sacrilegious, which I didn’t appreciate). I made a more comprehensive list of my favorite poems from this collection in an earlier review, but, overall, I think this collection was a decent introduction to Pushkin and deserves 3/5 stars.
Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
My streak of reading books outside my usual genre continued with Vincent and Theo, which I picked up not only because of interest in the content but because the cover is so beautifully designed. I wrote a more detailed review earlier in the year, but, to summarize: this book didn’t wow me as I hoped it would, particularly in terms of style, and there were moments where I wondered if the author’s personal views tainted the way they interpreted subjects (like religion), yet I was left with the desire to read more about the Van Gogh brothers and came away with a new appreciate for Vincent’s art. I also appreciated just how much research Heiligman did in order to write this book. Originally, I gave the book 4/5 stars, but I may bump it down to 3/5 stars, now, since I’ve had more time to reflect.
Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman
Vengeance Road was my first introduction to westerns, not just this year but ever (unless I’m forgetting books I read in childhood). I received it in a book exchange last winter and was curious, though a bit apprehensively, since the premise sounded fantastic but it’s YA (which is so hard for me to love). The positives: the style was really easy to read but not simplistic, the main character (Kate) was intriguing and sympathetic, the setting felt authentic, and the cover is one of the prettiest ones I’ve seen all year. The negatives (at least, to me): it’s YA, which means…a bit of teenage angst, and more than a bit of a romantic subplot that, to me, took away from Kate’s drive for revenge. I’m also thoroughly convinced that revenge plots are best when they involve religious characters, and this story didn’t have much of any religion (except for Kate commenting about her lack of belief). While this book was definitely enjoyable, it’s YA-ness ended up making it not live up to all of its thematic potential—so, I give it 3/5 stars.
Storyteller (Quelmirian Duology #2) by Savanna Roberts
Just like with Villager, I had the pleasure of being part of Robert’s blog tour for Storyteller—which meant I got to read a copy of the book before publishing and satisfy my curiosity about how the duology would end. The same strengths displayed in Villager were present in Storyteller: immersive and tight writing, a plot that built tension and threw in some twists along the way, detailed worldbuilding, and good characterization. It’s still YA, so there’s a level of me not being fully on-board—but, Storyteller still finished off the duology well, which is why I gave it 3/5 stars (for more details, check out my full review).
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
While I spent the whole summer reading books that pushed me outside of my genre comfort zone, I’d been in a book hangover from The Brothers Karamazov since January, and by the time autumn came I knew I needed to find another long, classic novel. Crime and Punishment was my choice for several reasons, and it was exactly what I needed. All of the things I loved about TBK, sans Alyosha, were found within C&P: complex, unique characters, a mixture of literary philosophizing and a mystery/crime plot, and the integration of important themes in the most natural way. Even though it didn’t surpass TBK, Crime and Punishment is now also on my list of favorite books—so it should come as no surprise that I give it a full 5/5 stars.
Selador: The Book of Time by Kacie Rogers
If I were to sum up my reads of 2019, I’d say it was the year of Dostoyevsky and the year of indie authors. Selador was the third indie book I read this year, also as a result of Instagram. This small little tale is the atmospheric, almost allegorical story of Nella, who finds herself in a mysterious new realm in need of her writing abilities to protect them from evil forces looming just beyond their forest home. While I would have liked to see a lot more worldbuilding details and character development (neither of which were touched on much), and perhaps more development of the narrative voice, I still enjoyed this book, and I give it 3/5 stars.
True Grit by Charles Portis
Vengeance Road piqued my interest in westerns, and after watching the 2010 movie adaptation of True Grit and learning that it was based upon a book, I knew I wanted to read it. Flash forward a month or so, I found it in a bookstore, bought it, and finished it over the course of an evening/the next morning. True Grit surprised me with its vibrant protagonist, curt and dynamic narration, solid plotting, and vibrant setting—other than Dostoyevsky’s novels, I didn’t read a book this year that was as enjoyable as this one (you can read more of my thoughts in the full review). True Grit deserves a full 5/5 stars, and if this one’s not on your TBR list, put it on there ASAP.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
One can’t always luck out with anticipated reads, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was, perhaps, one of them most disappointing books of my year. I’d heard such good things about it—and the technique of handling very serious, even egregious subjects through the innocent eyes of a child is one that can work so well when done correctly (see: To Kill a Mockingbird). But this story fell flat. For one, I never liked the main character, Bruno, whose behavior better suited a 5 or 6 year old than an 8 year old. His perspective was not just innocent but ignorant of what was happening around him. Secondly, the wordplay of Bruno mispronouncing German words with English ones drew me out of the story. As I said in my Goodreads review, a German child who spoke German wouldn’t accidentally call Auschwitz “Out-With,” or Führer “Fury.” And lastly, I don’t think real atrocities like the Holocaust should be made into “fables.” The real stories are enough to remind us of how horrible and godless humanity can be, and making those realities vague in order to write a children’s book is a disservice to the real people who suffered and to children who need to learn about history. However, the story wasn’t completely horrible (in terms of style, namely), which is why I give it 2/5 stars.
Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends
Dostoyevsky is the literary bookends to my 2019—I began the year with The Brothers Karamazov, and ended the year with a collection of his letters. Granted, I began reading this collection in April, set it aside for many months during the summer, and slowly went about completing it this fall/early winter. But my turtle-like pace doesn’t equate to lack of quality: the letters, which span the course of nearly his whole adult life, are full of commentary about subjects like literature, his creative process, religion, politics, human nature, financial troubles, the loss of a child, and parenting. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into his personal life, the events surrounding the creation of his different stories, and his personality, and I’m glad that I picked the collection back up after leaving it alone for months. I give Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky 4/5 stars.
Here’s the final ranking of this year’s reads, just for fun:
- The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
- Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
- True Grit (Charles Portis)
- A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea (Masaji Ishikawa)
- Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)
- Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends
- Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (Deborah Heiligman)
- The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin
- Vengeance Road (Erin Bowman)
- Storyteller (Savanna Roberts)
- Villager (Savanna Roberts)
- Selador: The Book of Time (Kacie Rogers)
- Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of a Young Black Girl in the Rural South (Anne Moody)
- Eyes of the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (Juan Williams)
- The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know (Katty Kay and Claire Shipman)
- Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present (Thomas J. Misa)
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne)
- Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. (Brené Brown)
- Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling)
To round out this post, you may be wondering about my reading plans for 2020—and to that I say, I don’t have 2020 vision!
In all seriousness, I’m such a mood reader—very little of what I projected in 2018 came true in 2019, and that’s not something I’m mad about. However, I do have some stories that I would love to read this upcoming year, so here’s a little list:
- Little Women (the new movie has renewed my interest in this classic, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long)
- The Idiot and, possibly, Demons (more Dostoyevsky? Of course)
- The first two books of Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church (which I began this year but, am yet to make much progress)
- Russian history books like Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East (Martin Sixsmith) and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, 1921-1933 (Anne Applebaum)
- 1984 (a classic I intended to start in 2019 but never did)
- More North Korea memoirs like The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee and Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea by Kenneth Bae, as well as other memoirs like Paradise of the Blind by Dương Thu Hương
- Cranford (as a long-time fan of the BBC miniseries and, now, long-time owner of the book, I finally need to read it)
- Rook Di Goo by Jenni Sauer (another indie author I follow on Instagram, who’s releasing her first book in 2020—I’m quite excited to finally read some of her writing and get to fully learn about her stories!)
- More poetry (though by whom, I’m not certain)!
- More classics (because I can never have read enough of them)!
These are loosely-held goals, that perhaps I’ll reach and perhaps I won’t. Part of the beauty of reading, and being free to read what you wish, is that your choice of books can adapt to wherever you find yourself and whatever new or old subjects suit your fancy. So here’s to 2020 and whatever stories I read along the way!