The 25 Best Books of the First Half of 2019
Italian noir! Music biographies! Harper Lee! Satire! 2019 has had it all and it isn't even close to done.
All talk of beach reads aside, summer really is a perfect time to pick up a book.
While any time of year is good for a bulky biography or a gripping noir, the lazy days that make up the middle of the calendar present the brief respites we need to sit around and catch up on the more manageable titles we may have missed.
Here, we present 25 books that you may have heard about (or even read!), and possibly a couple that you somehow totally missed out on because you were busy doing anything but reading.
We’ll forgive you, since life — especially in 2019 — doesn’t always lend itself to quiet time. But if you happen to find yourself with some time on a porch, in the grass or even, yes, on the beach, then we have 25 options for you to choose from.
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib
Think about a band that changed your life. Maybe it was hearing Run-DMC on the radio or the first time or seeing Fugazi live. Think of how that changed you and made you want to be something more. Here, one of our great critics and poets, Hanif Abdurraqib, does just that in a book that stretches out the limits of what we’d consider a music book. In lining up his own story with that of A Tribe Called Quest, Abdurraqib lovingly pays the group the highest tribute possible. Part memoir, part biography, all heart and all great.
Never a Lovely so Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher
We have our list of great American authors. It varies from person to person, but Melville, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Baldwin, etc. tend to be a few of the names you see. Although Nelson Algren was once one of the biggest names in American literature, the author of The Man With the Golden Arm basically disappeared and has been largely been ignored for decades. Deeply researched and endlessly fascinating, Never a Lovely so Real traces his family story all the way to the end of his life, uncovering details that give a better understanding why Algren went from prize winner to forgotten literary hero. Colin Asher has done a great service writing a proper Algren biography, one that should help us better understand a writer that fully deserves to be considered one of our greats.
Furious Hours by Casey Cep
We all know about To Kill a Mockingbird, and we all heard about Harper Lee trying to avoid the spotlight any chance she got after its success, but here, Casey Cep gives us something more. By exploring Lee’s obsession with Reverend Willie Maxwell, a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s, we see a different side of the author who was playing with the idea of changing things up and doing her own In Cold Blood. This is the incredible story of what did and did not happen. Part mystery, part literary biography and entirely engaging.
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer
“I am a copy editor,” Benjamin Dreyer starts off in a title that’s as much a love letter to language as it is a refresher on how to properly use it. While the premise might conjure up memories of high school English classes you have tried to forget, we promise this is a magical book that should be considered a classic for people of all ages.
Working by Robert A. Caro
The greatest living biographer, a guy who has produced less than a handful of books, each of them big enough to hold open a door, tells us how he does it. And while that might sound like your typical example of a writer going on about his craft because he owes his publisher another book, please be advised that it’s nothing like that. Like everything else Caro does, there’s a lot to learn from this one.
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob
If you haven’t already, meet author Mira Jacob and her six-year-old son, Z. He’s an inquisitive, sweet, funny kid who also happens to be biracial. His mom is Indian, his father Jewish; and his mom is trying everything she can to help him navigate the weirdness that is modern America. It’s a sweet and heartfelt graphic memoir, the likes of which conjure up the heart of an old episode of Mr. Rogers and the warmth and humor with a lesson underneath it of a Dr. Seuss book (sans cats in hats or anything like that). There are so many lessons to be learned by this, one of the most important and sweetest books of 2019.
Magic Is Dead: My Journey into the World’s Most Secretive Society of Magicians by IIan Frisch
Most of us believe in magic at one point in our lives. Then we find out how the rabbit comes out of the hat or read a biography on Houdini. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch somebody pull off a trick. Here, in this excellent exploration into the world of magicians and their practice, IIan Frisch has found a little corner of the world we’re all interested in, but probably don’t think too much of. Magic Is Dead is the sort of offbeat journalism we don’t see enough of these days. The sort of book that, if he were alive, Tom Wolfe would tip his white hat to.
Long Live the Tribes of Fatherless Girls by T. Kira Madden
How has it taken this long for somebody to write the great growing up in Boca Raton, Florida, memoir? T. Kira Madden navigates the nice (but ugly) houses, fancy cars, miles of golf courses as a queer, biracial teen. The only child of parents who have plenty of problems to deal with, and leave the writer trying to figure out how to navigate the affluent community, and the world, on her own. A harrowing story told by a hell of a writer.
Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by Mitchell S. Jackson
An electrifying, conversation-starting memoir about Mitchell S. Jackson, his family and growing up black in America. The whole purpose of a memoir is to shine a light into your life and give the reader something to take with them, to put them in your shoes and make them see the world through your eyes. Jackson does that, and we’re all the better for it.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
There is no shortage of great books that explore humanity’s connection with our home planet. That’s basically the foundation of an entire library of our most important books, a topic that unites every culture and generation. Here, in his followup to The Old Ways, Macfarlane explore our relationship with the unknown: how we explore it, and how we conquer it. It’s as much about the future as it is the past, a passionate investigation that makes this one of the best books on the natural world you’ll find in 2019.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
In one of the most important collections of essays you’ll read this year, Esmé Weijun Wang lets it all out, hides nothing and does a great service by exploring mental and chronic illness in such a personal and affecting way that it could change the way we as a society look at those things. A vital book.
The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy
As you can imagine, it’s easy to love a history of the most famous hotel in Hollywood and possibly all the world. From the golden age of cinema to John Belushi’s death all the way to the modern day, Shawn Levy neatly uncovers why this hotel remains so fascinating to us.
Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of the American Dream by Carson Vaughn
Real life Midwestern gothic at its finest. Carson Vaughn’s exploration into the strange rise and fall of the small town of Royal, Nebraska, is one of the most unbelievable but also totally believable stories you’ll read all year. Vaughn has a keen eye for detail and an understanding of what makes humans tick, and it translates over into a story that’s hard to stop reading.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
Here, Marlon James answers the question of how one follows up a sweeping, award-winning novel about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley: with an epic fantasy novel steeped in African mythology. Duh.
Nothing but the Night by John Williams
After his 1965 classic, Stoner, was rediscovered by a new generation of writers, it was just a matter of time before people started finding out about the rest of John Williams’ work. Now, with the re-release of his debut novel, we see that Williams was a master from the very beginning.
Lot by Bryan Washington
Every now and then there’s a movie, show or book that portrays a town in Texas and the people that live in it, and the end result is something unforgettable. Think about it: The Last Picture Show, Slacker, Friday Night Lights, King of the Hill, Dazed and Confused (almost anything Linklater, really). Here, the city of Houston and its diverse population gets the treatment from Bryan Washington, one of the best young writers in America.
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
2019 needed a new book by Elizabeth McCracken. What it got is maybe the greatest bowling novel … ever. McCracken, with all her wit and whimsy, gives us this strange tale of a New England bowling alley that, if you didn’t get to read when it came out in February, we’d suggest holding off until the leaves start to fall. It’s a cozy book to read over a chilly autumn weekend.
Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson
In case you haven’t heard, we’re living through a new golden era of horror and fantasy fiction, from Carmen Maria Machado to Victor LaValle. It’s not just straight genre fiction anymore. With this story collection, Evenson shows why he’s one of the best in that growing field of modern horror masters.
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
This “modern response to the male-penned, mid-century, mid-life crisis novel perfected by Philip Roth” is really the sort of novel you can’t get sick of, but we just haven’t seen many of lately. At least, we haven’t seen one this good. Roth, yes. Also, Updike, Bellow and even modern guys like Jonathan Franzen all come to mind in this brilliant exploration of modern-day life after marriage.
A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi
Coping. That’s at the heart of this sharp work by Nicholas Mancusi. This debut is a literary thriller with shades of Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy, but it’s the balance of heart, humor and dialogue is what makes it stand out from the rest of the writers that derive influence from those dirty realist masters. It’s the sort of novel that Breaking Bad fans should make sure to pick up as soon as they possibly can.
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
This slice of Sunshine State gothic has instant classic written all over it. Everything you find both weird and beautiful about Florida has been packaged up and turned into one of this year’s best debut novels. I mean, it’s set in Florida and features a family of taxidermists. What else do we need to say to sell you on this?
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad
You know what this list needs? A great period piece. Thankfully, Isabella Hammad has got us covered with this tale of Midhat Kamal, the heir to a textile fortune from the Ottoman Empire who leaves for Paris, then goes back to his home to find it under British rule. A stunning book sitting between Henry James and The English Patient, Hammad is a writer with enough grace and talent to keep people talking about this debut for years to come.
Hark by Sam Lipsyte
Leave it to Sam Lipsyte, one of our funniest, most astute writers, to look at the mindfulness craze and mine it for another brilliant novel. Everything is absurd, and nobody gets that quite like Lipsyte.
Cold for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone by Maurizio de Giovanni and (translator) Antony Shugaar
You know how every third person you meet is telling you to read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but they might not sound like your thing? Have we got a gift for you: this series of Italian noir put out by the same publisher is filled with passion and danger that you’d expect from the dark side of Naples. Yes, buy this, the third book of the set, but read the other ones first.
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
Somewhere between our obsession with wellness and cults (although some would say those two things rub up against each other, in many cases), Joanne Ramos has given us one of the best page turners of 2019 with this smart take on the American dream and the nightmares we’ll endure to achieve it.