Best Books I Read in 2019

There hasn’t been a year since I started blogging in which I reviewed as little as in 2019. I also read less, or rather, I finished less books. I have two huge stacks of almost finished and half-finished books next to my bed. I’ve never done this before, given up on a book twenty to thirty pages before its ending but I did this year. Some of them will still be finished someday but many, I guess, won’t. Not sure why this happened. Did I make bad choices? Was I in a reading slump? A bit of both, I suppose.

That said, I have read some wonderful books this year.

And here they are, in no particular order.

Fiction

William Maxwell – They Came Like Swallows

Tragic and beautiful, Maxwell’s book is one of the few I reviewed. Here’s what I said:

I’m full of admiration for the craft and looking forward to reading The Château next. And I think it’s an outstanding portrayal of grief and the awkward ways people treat the bereaved. It also shows very well how devastating the influenza pandemic was.

Philippe Delerm Sundborn ou les jours de lumière

Anglophone readers might not be familiar with Philippe Delerm, but let me just tell you – it’s an absolute shame. He’s one of my favourite French writers. After having read Autumn, his book on the Pre-Raphaelites, I chose to read Sundborn last year. Sundborn focusses on the Scandinavian artists surrounding Swedish painter Carl Larsson. Delerm is outstanding at capturing colours, landscapes moods, and this book is no exception. Anyone who loves Carl Larsson or Soren Kroyer would love this book. It needs to be translated.

Carl Larsson

Soren Kroyer

Barbara Pym – Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle

No need to introduce Barbara Pym to the readers of this blog. She’s a favourite of many. These were two excellent, witty, sharp, and at times amusing books. I couldn’t say which one l liked better. Possibly, Some Tame Gazelle, as it is a bit gentler. I’m a bit mad at myself for not reviewing them but when I read them, I was still in too much back pain to sit at my desk.

E.F. Benson Mapp and Lucia

While I didn’t review Barbara Pym, I did write a post on E. F. Benson’s famous Mapp and Lucia. What a delightful book. One that left me with a serious “book hangover”. It took weeks until I was able to move on and properly enjoy something else.

Here’s a bit from the review:

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

Joseph Roth Der Radetzkymarsch

Death, dying, and the end of an era are all themes in this marvellous novel. Sometimes you wonder why a book is a classic. Not in this case.

Vigdis Hjorth Will and Testament

This novel by Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth was so good and I did review it.  Here’s a bit from the review:

Will and Testament was a huge success in Norway, and I can see why. It’s highly literary but nonetheless as captivating as a thriller. The plot is moving back and forth in time, slowly revealing the dark secrets at the heart of the dysfunctional family depicted in the novel.

Willa Cather – The Professor’s House

Since I’ve started blogging, almost tens year go, I came across so many raving reviews of Willa Cather’s work. Every year I said the same – I need to read her but then I didn’t. Last year, finally, I read my first Willa Cather and the only thing I regret is that I didn’t review it. What a wonderful book. One could say it’s almost two books in one, something I’m usually not keen on but it really worked. First we have the more interior parts, told from the point of view of Professor St. Peter. Anyone who has ever tried to carve out some time for her/himself, will know how hard it can be to work either creatively or do research when there are many demands from friends, family,  . . . Professor St. Peter tries very hard and succeeds and the time he spends on his own turns into a trip down memory lane. He thinks about his former student and friend, Tom Outland, who died in the Great war. His death brought great wealth to St. Peter’s family but also complexity and animosity. The second book inside of the book is Tom Outland’s story. And in that part we see what Willa Cather was so famous for – her landscape descriptions. It’s quite magical.

Crime

Simenon – Maigret et l’Homme tout seul – Maigret and the Loner

It’s been a while since I’ve last read a Maigret. They are a bit hit or miss, but this one was fabulous. A homeless man has been killed and it seems so absurd. He kept to himself, had no possessions. What could anyone gain from killing him? Maigret’s in the dark for a long time. The end is surprising.

Sarah Vaughan Anatomy of a Scandal

This is embarrassing. I read this last January, didn’t review it and have practically forgotten everything about it. I just remember I LOVED it.

Carlo Lucarelli Almost Blue

I love a good noir. The mood, the atmosphere. This has all that and more. It’s a rare beast as it’s a genre blend. A serial killer noir. Don’t let that put you off. It really is good.

Nonfiction

Amy Liptrot – The Outrun

Another one of the very few I’ve reviewed. Such an amazing memoir about the way nature can help us heal.

Here’s a bit from the review:

I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s an amazing insight into someone’s addiction and recovery and a fabulous account of life on Orkney. I could see the many migratory birds, feel the icy cold of the water, the force of the gales, and the beauty of the constellations in the night sky.

In defiance of this dissatisfaction, I’m conducting my own form of therapy through long walks, cold swims and methodically reading old journals. I’m learning to identify and savour freedom: freedom of place, freedom of damaging compulsion. I’m filling the void with new knowledge and moments of beauty. (p.180)

Elizabeth Tova Bailey – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

If I had to pick one favourite of all the books I’ve read, I’d say it was this one. It’s beautiful and fascinating. Elizabeth Tova Bailey contracts a mysterious viral or bacterial infection that leaves her tied to her bed for years. During an especially bad phase, a friend gifts her a terrarium with a tiny forest snail in it. This tiny being becomes her companion. She’s so fascinated by it that she begins to read up on gastropods. The world she discovers is amazing. (Did you know snails have between 1’000 and 12’000 teeth?). The result of her research is an absolute gift to the reader. But the tiny snail does more than fascinate. It gives her comfort and solace.

44 thoughts on “Best Books I Read in 2019

  1. I am in a bit of a reading slump myself. I do not have many did – not – finish however.

    I also discovered Willa Cather recently. I have not read The Professor’s House however. Perhaps I will give it a try soon.

    Happy reading!

    • Thank you Brian, you too.
      I know you read Wills Cather and I bookmarked the posts. It was an all over reading slump including blogs. Here’s to a better year for both of us.

  2. I’m getting better at not finishing books. Or maybe at discerning which books don’t merit finishing. This is fairly new for me too, since I’m more accustomed to pushing through unless I absolutely can’t stand what I’m reading. But life is short, and I let go quite a few books I started this year.

    I too read The Professor’s House (thanks largely to Wuthering Expectations) and had a ball with it. It’s an intriguing look at education, has a more than a few bizarrities, and the New Mexico section is splendid. I spent too much time trying to figure out what might have served as Cather’s model for that butte.

    Coincidentally I picked up a Simenon novel just today. I’m in the mood.

    • I think it certainly has a lot to do with the realization that there simply isn’t enough time and I’m also far less patient with newer books that feel like I’ve read it all before but better.
      I was quite surprised by Cather’s book. Or how much I liked it. The two stories build such an interesting contrast. It put me in the mood to go to New Mexico. Would be interesting to know what site she took inspiration from.
      I hope your Simenon is a good one. But maybe it’s not a Maigret and the romans durs are more reliably good.

  3. Same! Didn’t finish my Goodreads challenge and didn’t review as much. Do you think it’s because there were too many distractions elsewhere *waves hand in general direction of outside world*? Anyway, here’s to a better 2020, books-wise and outside world-wise.

    • Glad I wasn’t the only one. The outside world played a part as well but mostly I picked a few real duds that just put me off reading.
      But yes, let’s hope for a better 2020. For you as well.

  4. I’m glad you managed to read some great books in 2019 even if the year as a whole felt somewhat disjointed. Pym is such a constant source of delight, isn’t she? I loved Some Tame Gazelle, especially the dynamics within the Bede household. The Cather is another favourite too. I have a lovely green Virago edition of The Professor’s House tucked away somewhere – a book I read a few years ago but didn’t get around to writing up at the time. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much.

    Of the other books on your list, Will and Testament is probably the one that appeals the most. It sounds so atmospheric!

    • Thanks, Jacqui. Pym is very reliable. I will read more of her soon. The Professor’s House was such a pleasant surprise. Those green Viragos are the best. If you haven’t read William Maxwell, I would say it’s the book or author you’d like the most of this year’s list. But Will and Testament is good.

  5. Nice range of titles there! I think we *do* sometimes have slumps – my reading was very slow in early December but picked up at the end, which tells me my work is probably impacting on my reading and I need to win the lottery and retire early… ;D

  6. When i get slumps (which I do) I usually try to change genre for a while or something like that. Or just do something else for a bit. reading is for pleasure ultimately after all.

    Still, not a bad list at all Caroline. The Hjorth I just saw appears on Grant’s list too and had quite passed me by. Pym is marvellous, Excellent Women was on my list and I’ll pick up Some Tame Gazelle.

    Radetzky March is definitely in my TBR and I already have a copy. The other that struck me was Mapp and Lucia which I read as a teenager (plus several others in the series). It’s brilliant and nice to see it flagged here for those who haven’t discovered it yet.

    I’ll take a look at the Lucarelli, which otherwise I wouldn’t have since I’m more than sick of serial killers. Still, I don’t get the impression you like them much more than I do so that’s a recommend to pay attention to.

    Good luck for 2020!

    • Thanks, Max. I need some reading luck. I did change genres and tgat didn’t work either. That’s said, not for fiction. I was more drawn to nonfiction but I’m always reading several at the same time, so ultimately didn’t finish many. Hjorth is well worth reading. I’ll read more Pym; she’s so reliable. I never expected to like Mapp and Lucia as much as I did.
      There’s the one or the other serial killer book I like but it must have something completely new. Overall, it’s often lazy storytelling. This one is different. Radetzky March is brilliant. I’d love to see how you get on with it. And it’s so short.

  7. Wonderful post, Caroline! I was so looking forward to it! I want to read Philippe Delerm’s The Small Pleasures of Life. The English translation, unfortunately, is out of print, and hard to find. His Sundborn looks wonderful from your description. I loved Willa Cather’s O Pioneers. I want to read The Professor’s House now 🙂 The Simenon book looks like a fascinating mystery! The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating looks so wonderful! I want to read that! Thanks so much for sharing your favourites list! Loved it!

    • I read only the first part of The Radetzky March, but I loved it. I got distracted by real life and so couldn’t continue the readalong. Hoping to read the next two parts this year. Thanks so much for hosting this readalong 🙂

    • Thank you , Vishy. You’d love The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. It’s so wonderful. Delerm never disappoints. I read the one you mention. Too bad it’s out of print. I think I have O Pioneers somewhere. I’m so glad to hear you liked it. The Professor’s House is very special.

      • Goodness, Vishy, you missed something. For once I read my answer to your comment again and auto fill had written this: “Celery never disappoints.” I corrected it but I’m still laughing. How did Delerm turn into a celery? 😂

  8. I adore They Came Like Swallows & Pym, very worthy additions to your list!

    I’m hoping to get to EF Benson this year, the world of Mapp and Lucia sounds highly entertaining! And I have Willa Cather buried in the TBR too…

    I also had a blogging slump in 2019 – I wish us both many wonderful reads in 2020!

    • You too? Sorry to hear about your. I wish it will be better for both of us thus year.
      Isn’t Maxwell wonderful? I’m so glad I have still one on the piles. So is Pym. I’m looking forward to reading how you like Mapp and Lucia. It still lingers. A wonderful 2020 to you.

  9. Great list, even if 2019 wasn’t an outstanding reading and blogging year for you. I hope it gets better in 2020. You’re right to abandon books when you don’t like them, our reading time is too short.

    I really liked the Willa Cather I’ve read and I loved Excellent Women.
    I’m the French among the commenters and I’m glad that Sundborn is good because I have it on the TBR. I thought that Autumn was fascinating, I knew nothing about the Pre-Raphaelites before this book. I like the Delerms, father and son.

    I’ve read two Simenons in 2019 and both were short and good: L’homme de Londre and Betty.

    • Thanks, Emma. I do hope next year will be better.
      I liked Autumn more because I’m a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites but this was very well written and extremely interesting. I can’t remember whether he added a fictional character in Autumn. He did here and that’s the only criticism I have.
      I’ll be reading more Simenon, that’s for sure.

  10. Here’s to a better year in 2020, Caroline! Even in a bad year, though, you managed to read some wonderful books. Coincidentally, I also read my first Willa Cather books this year, although they were different ones. I love William Maxwell too, and I can recommend So Long, See You Tomorrow (it’s also short, so not a big investment if you’re worried about your bad reading luck continuing!). Thanks for hosting the Radetzky March readalong even though it took so much of your energy. I enjoyed it!

    • Thank you, Andrew. There were books I loved. I’ve read So Long, See You Tomorrow. It was my first Maxwell book. Absolutely loved it. Such luminous writing. I did enjoy the readalong a lot too. I was just suffering from terrible back and headache and could hardly hold the book. Berlin Alexanderplatz was another story. That was chewy. I hope we will read along again o e of these days. Would be so nice.

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