The year’s Best Of lists are coming out, and I’ve barely gotten through the New York Times and Wall Street Journal’s best books ones. The prospect of doing so made me realize I feel envious of those lucky folks who get to compile them, so I decided to make my own. Here are six of my favorites from 2019.
- Ron Chernow’s “Washington”
My youngest daughter got me hooked on “Hamilton,” which required my reading the book that spawned Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play. That in turn made me an avid Chernow fan, and I had to read his biography of our first president. If the sheer volume of sources that Chernow has gone through doesn’t impress you, his simple and powerful writing will. As he did with Hamilton, Chernow makes Washington accessible and honorable, without shying away from exposing his faults and, in the latter’s case, the number of times the great man had sets of teeth made! Chernow makes clear that Washington’s perseverance and fortitude, as well as the strength of his personality, kept the Continental Army from falling apart and ensured the colonists’ attempt at independence was successful. He also shows that despite Washington’s stated desire to retire from public life and “sit under his own vine and fig tree,” he seemed called to the higher purpose of launching this thing we call the American experiment. He well knew the venture and his role in it were ones for the history books — Washington kept impeccable records that he carried with him throughout the war.
Other points that stood out? Washington’s honor. The first president would not take a salary, and even once he retired, he found repugnant the idea of being compensated for the constant entertaining he did in service of the country: countless guests visited Mount Vernon, wanting to meet what so many described as not only a great man, but a good one.
His maintaining slaves remains a painful part of his legacy. Even once Hamilton and another aide, John Laurens, awakened in him more abolitionist tendencies, he did not do enough to end the horrific practice, either nationally or on his own plantation. In fact, he was baffled that a long-serving slave, Hercules, kept running away, and once the Revolution ended, Hercules managed to get away permanently, showing us that Washington’s instincts that all men — and women — are entitled to equal liberty under the law were, and still are, the right ones.
2. Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys”
If Washington’s life reflects the dual narrative of the American story — one that unfolded for white men one way, and for blacks another — Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, “The Nickel Boys,” thrusts that duality under an interrogation lamp. A repeated motif in the book is, in fact, like this or like this, a reference to the main character Elwood Curtis’s visit to an eye doctor, who tests out which lenses Elwood needs. The line becomes a symbol for the different Americas one sees, depending on who’s doing the looking.
“The Nickel Boys” is set in mid-twentieth-century America, in Nickel Academy, a reform school for both black and white boys. The novel is based on the true story of a school that operated in Florida for 111 years. Whitehead researched the dreadful history of the school, which was a horror house of physical and sexual abuse. Some of the children were put in solitary confinement for years, others were tortured, sometimes to death, and a culture of terror and violence reigned. Whitehead does a masterful job of walking us through what was a living nightmare for its inhabitants, keeping us on a razor edge of suspense and offering up a surprise ending that leaves us reeling. The black boys at Nickel are, of course, mistreated even more than their white counterparts, and so Whitehead’s depiction of Elwood and his aptly named friend Turner is also about what it is like to try to remain sane not only amidst degradation and brutality, but also in a system which seeks to destroy black talent.
3. Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing”
Whitehead is only one of a number of richly talented African-American writers and thinkers limning today what the black experience has been and is like in America. Jesmyn Ward is another, and her memoir, “Men We Reaped,” is an account of how she dealt with the grief of losing not only her younger brother, but four other young men close to her. In “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Ward draws on both the “Odyssey” and William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” as she depicts a road trip to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman, one of the most notorious prisons in the country, particularly infamous for its exploitation of black labor. (Freedom Riders were also jailed there during the Civil Rights era.) The trip is undertaken by Leonie, a young and careless black mother, who is going to pick up her white husband, Michael, who has been freed. Though her children live with her parents, who are their loving and primary caregivers, she decides to take her 13-year-old son Jojo and 3-year-old daughter Kayla with her. Ward explores the past and current violence that surrounds Jojo as he navigates the complexities of his existence and identity on the way to adulthood. The novel’s richness lies as much in the telling of its own unique story as it does in the way it recalls the well-known tropes of the famous works it references.
4. Sayed Kahua’s “Second Person Singluar”
Dual identities and narratives also are at the heart of Sayed Kashua’s geopolitical psychological thriller, “Second Person Singular.” I have to admit that I’m cheating a bit with this choice, since I originally read it a few years ago for the book club I facilitate, but I reread it this year to share with the women of my Salaam Shalom Sisterhood chapter. (Salaam Shalom is a national organization that brings together Muslim and Jewish women.) Kashua is a Palestinian who was born and raised in Israel and who writes in Hebrew. In 2004, he won the Prime Minister’s Prize in literature, and his popular satirical Israeli TV show, “Arab Labor,” won the award for best television series at the Jerusalem Film Festival. “Second Person Singular” won the Bernstein Prize in 2011. Kashua left Israel and has taught at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and in Chicago.
“Second Person Singular” follows the lives of two Israeli Palestinians, one a lawyer known throughout the book only as “the lawyer,” who has built up a successful practice in West Jerusalem and has constructed for himself the kind of affluent existence that he sees his Jewish counterparts enjoying. The lawyer’s success masks a deep insecurity about who he is as an Arab in his own society and in the Jewish state. This is also true of the book’s other main character, Amir Lahab, a social worker who, like the lawyer, is from a poor village in the West Bank and who also seeks to leave his past behind as he carves out a new existence in Jewish Jerusalem.
Amir’s attempt to appropriate a Jewish identity becomes even more drastic than the lawyer’s, as he cares for a Jewish man named Yonatan, who is his age. Gradually, Amir begins to take on Yonatan’s identity, with the blessing of the Jewish man’s mother. To say more would ruin the plot of this suspenseful novel, but the way in which the two men’s lives converge adds another layer to the book, the objectification of women. At its core, though, the novel explores not only what it means to be an Arab in Israel today but also shows the universal longing of any outsider to belong, to “pass” in a world that seems made exclusively for one kind of person or group.
5. Madeline Miller’s “Circe”
If “Second Person Singular” got you hooked on seeing the world through another’s eyes, then you might enjoy “Circe” by Madeline Miller. It’s a feminist retelling of Greek myth from the point of view of Circe, the enchantress famous in the “Odyssey” for turning Odysseus’ crew into swine. Odysseus remains on her island, Aeaea, for a year, and leaves her with a son, Telegonus, who comes to play an important role in Miller’s novel. Don’t worry, to read this novel, you don’t have to know Greek myth by heart; Miller, a classics scholar, weaves the original tales into her book, providing a glimpse of them from the point of view of Circe, the daughter of Helios the sun god, of whom she quickly runs afoul. We find out, for example, that Circe comes to her deserted island when her father banishes her, and that she feels more comfortable in the world of mortals, despite the powerful witchcraft she’s capable of, than she does with the gods, whom she finds narcissistic, cruel, and thoughtless. I’ve heard criticism that the novel is mythological chick lit, but I thought it deftly, cleverly, and with great heart deploys the motifs of myth to ask us what it would mean to have the courage to live life as our authentic selves.
6. Rabbi Aryeh Cohen’s “Justice in the City”
One more great read from the year: I’ll end where I began, not with a novel, but with a work of nonfiction, an analysis, actually, of Talmud that is also a call to action for us all to build a more just world. Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, a professor of rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has written a thought-provoking and compassionate book, “Justice in the City,” one which I’ve referenced before. The book uses talmudic sources to argue that we have a responsibility to build just cities that work not only for select groups, but for all its members, including the ones who are most vulnerable: the poor, the homeless, the countryless. Cohen shows that this stance is embedded not only in Torah texts that advocate for the marginalized — Tanach calls them the widow, the orphan, and the stranger — but in Talmudic halachic decisions that show the rabbis were dwelling and deciding psak — Jewish legal rulings — in urban settings where all sorts of people were bumping up against each other. Thus, Rabbi Cohen shows how we can use rabbinic discussions and rulings about topics such as finding an abandoned corpse between two cities, homelessness, labor law, lex talionis, and more to help us be compassionately creative as we more intentionally and deliberately form cities that are refuges for those who are struggling in their midst and at their borders.
I hope you enjoyed some of my favorite reads of 2019, and I’d love to hear yours. I made a promise that I wouldn’t buy any more books until I’ve read the ones I have, but naturally I keep slipping, so if you make a good recommendation, you know Jeff Bezos can have it in my house by next Shabbat.
Happy reading in 2020!