2019 was a wild year for me — I drafted and scrapped a memoir, quit my job, wrote a romance novel and became a Brooklyn Library obsessive. I also read more books this year than I’ve been able to read in ages, and I did my best to record highlights on my Instagram. If you’re not already following me there, get on that. Please. You can find me at @brosandprose!
It’s an impossible task to boil down the best books out of all those titles, and I know better than to try. But here’s an assortment of my recommendations for those of you still looking for gift ideas or a novel to lug with you on the plane. Not all of these books came out in 2019, but they found their way to me this year.
I’d love to hear about the best books you read in 2019 in the comments. Happy reading!
Bad With Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Shit Together, Gaby Dunn
Based on her fantastic podcast of the same name, Gaby Dunn’s book about personal finances is not a financial bible. It’s a wake-up call about the economic exploitation of an entire generation. With her reliable humor and revealing personal stories, Gaby weaves together practical knowledge about making, saving and spending money as a young person without a safety net. Gaby isn’t a “guru” or an “expert,” and her ability to write as a self-described “fuck-up” means she isn’t selling a boot-strap myth. Her advice is compassionate, well-researched and inclusive of the marginalized communities that have been ignored by personal finance writers all along. At the end of the day, we’re all at the mercy of a broken capitalist system, and Gaby’s book is a must-read for anyone baffled by student debt, health insurance, taxes, and how we’re all pretty screwed. Buy this book for the innocent high schooler in your life before they make a six-figure commitment to a school that may not be worth it, and for your cranky parents who love to bitch about lazy, entitled millennials who demand things like livable wages and paid internships.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport
Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism was the book I desperately needed as a burned out social media manager. Rather than encouraging digital detoxes or purging all wifi connectivity, Newport helps you use technology in ways that better align with your values, your goals and your happiness. His advice is realistic and actually applicable. He makes the case that digital life has stolen our solitude from us, and we need to take back those quiet moments of reflection where we are alone with our thoughts. The concept of solitude as a period of mental freedom from inputs and stimulation stuck with me, and it helped me change my screen habits in long-lasting ways. I made an effort to stop turning on music while I’m in the shower, stop listening to podcasts when I’m doing laundry, and stop distracting myself on my phone while waiting for the subway. Amazingly, I found my focus returning and my time sent on more rewarding activities (like reading!). Digital Minimalism is more practical than preachy, a must read for anyone who wants to reconfigure their relationship to their iPhone and take their attention and power back from Facebook, YouTube and Apple.
Three Women, Lisa Taddeo
Taddeo’s deeply reported book about the sex lives of three American women was one of the most controversial titles of the year. Let’s get this out of the way up front: despite its general title, this is a book about cis white women who are for the most part very straight. It reads like a novel, which makes the line between fact and Taddeo’s assumptions blurry. Flaws aside, Three Women is a watershed exploration of desire, power and women’s sexuality in the 21st century. Taddeo followed the lives of three women for years, embedding herself in their affairs and their insecurities. One woman is in a loveless marriage and desperately yearns to be kissed; she begins a tumultuous affair with her seductive but selfish high school sweetheart. The second woman is just a teenager when her high school English teacher grooms her for a secret and predatory relationship — only for him to win Teacher of the Year. The third woman is a wealthy and well-bred submissive who sleeps with other men to satisfy her husband’s fetish. All three women grapple with their own desires and autonomy, confined by a sexual double standard and a society that boxes them in. While it was billed as a scandalous, sexy read about women’s inner lives, it’s more of a heartbreaking look at how rarely women are allowed to be sexual and sensual on their own terms.
Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls, Carrie Goldberg
Goldberg’s new book is one of the most disturbing and impressive titles I’ve ever read. Part memoir of a victim’s rights lawyer, part analysis of how the internet facilitates new levels of depraved sexual exploitation, Nobody’s Victim will infuriate you and activate you to join the fight against digital abuse. I’ve had horrifying experiences with cyber stalking and violence, and it was cathartic and enraging in turns to hear the stories of Goldberg’s clients. She eviscerates the myth that trolls should just be ignored — those motherfuckers should go to jail. This book could have been re-traumatizing in less powerful hands, but Goldberg is an agile storyteller who matches her legal expertise with heart and stone-cold fury. A self-described “ruthless motherfucker,” Carrie Goldberg’s work is a game changer for this world. We’re lucky to have her.
How to Date Men When You Hate Men, Blythe Roberson
Don’t let the brilliantly aggressive title fool you. Roberson’s How To Date Men When You Hate Men is a funny, honest exploration of heterosexual dating in 2019. It’s a cathartic, relatable read for any woman who has considered giving up on men entirely in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, or who has wondered if dating men is even worth it when they are the sole beneficiaries of a system that oppressed us. Roberson writes like the chatty friend you text for pep talks when things go south: I loved her self-awareness and articulation of the stupid dating shit that has bothered me for years. For example, what even is a “date” now? Is “getting drinks” a date thing now? Is trying to decode if this is a date a way for the patriarchy to steal time from me, time that I could be using to start my small business instead? Read it if you hate dating, or if you love your boyfriend but hate men (as the kids say, big mood).
Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Donna Freitas
This new memoir by Donna Freitas is a chilling, suffocating account of being stalked by her graduate school professor (who was also a Catholic priest) for more than two years. Freitas captures his dark obsession and the way it destroyed her life with upsetting precision, from the hundreds of letters he sent to her and her family to the chokehold he put on her academic career. Freitas will make you question everything you thought you knew about violence against women, sexual harassment and Title IX. I couldn’t put Consent down, and I was grateful for the wound Freitas opened up for us. Give this book to your male friends who don’t understand that harassment doesn’t have to be physical in order to be traumatizing and dangerous — and why not taking “no” for an answer can seriously harm the person you’re pursuing.
Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger, edited by Lilly Dancyger
If you’re as pissed off as I am about the state of the world, this essay collection is a balm to the soul. Burn It Down is a diverse, brutal and personal powder keg about women’s anger and how it is intentionally suffocated by patriarchy, racism and transphobia. I went to a reading done by some of its contributors at the Memoir Monday series and I found myself rendered speechless throughout the event. It was that moving to see women owning their rage and articulating its origins. As a kind friend explained to Dancyger when I stammered my appreciation for her collection, “Ella’s really angry.” It’s true, I am f*cking angry! I’m angry about politics and money and cat-calling and transphobia and work and my mental health and the Democratic primary. This book helped me understand that I’m not the only one, and that I’m not weak or crazy or unfeminine for being angry as hell. Burn it all down.
Severance, Ling Ma
Much hyped, this short novel with its millennial pink cover is such a strange little gift. It tells the story of Candace Chen, a checked out bible designer with an underwhelming non-boyfriend. When a deadly epidemic called “Shen Fever” sweeps New York City, she starts a photography blog documenting its ghostly decline. Severance is part apocalypse novel, part exploration of millennial exhaustion, and part generational story of immigration to the United States from Asia. I don’t know how Ling Ma managed to tackle so much and still have this satirical sci-fi gem read so effortlessly. Severance is an artful blend of reflection and adventure, of terror and malaise, and I couldn’t put it down. Read it with a friend if you can — you’ll have a lot to discuss and unpack when you hit the open-ended conclusion.
Touch, Courtney Maum
A summary of Maum’s deeply weird and funny novel Touch might come across as anti-technology. Trend forecaster Sloane is hired by Mammoth, a Google-like tech company with sprawling influence and a petulant, sexist CEO, to come up with new products for the “anti-breeder” consumer market. Her boyfriend, Roman, is a French thought leader who wears a Zentai suit and thinks sex is headed toward a non-penetrative, entirely digital future. But the future Sloane anticipates is steeped in empathy and a return to the tactile, much to the horror of her boss and her life partner. Maum’s novel is a biting, tender page-turner about how much we crave human connection and intimacy. As someone who works in digital media, I appreciated Maum’s thoughtful approach to how technology impacts human relationships. Touch was a beautiful reflection on where technology truly adds value to our lives, and where it can hurt us.
The Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemisin
I devoured this Hugo-Award-winning science-fiction/fantasy series in a few weeks, and I was floored by each masterful twist. N.K. Jemisin creates her worlds with deft, magical precision, each with their own complex histories of prejudice and injustice. The story of Broken Earth is too elaborate to boil down in a neat summary here, but its themes of climate change, state violence and parenthood are deeply rooted in our world despite the fantastical elements. It was fascinating to see how Jemisin’s perspective as a black woman contributes to her masterful critique of power and fear, and how victims of a hateful world can resist or enable their own oppression. Diverse voices make the fantasy genre so much better. Start with The Fifth Season, and don’t be afraid to bring a pad of paper with you to keep track of the world’s names and systems.
Evvie Drake Starts Over, Linda Holmes
This is a great romance novel for people who don’t typically read romance novels. It’s a thoughtful, kind novel about a woman rebuilding her life after her husband’s sudden death, with the help of a former Major League Baseball player who moves into her house to help pay the bills. Sound predictable? It’s not. I expected Holmes’s debut novel to be a classic romance about a widow learning to love again — instead I found a quietly compelling story of recovering from emotional abuse long after your abuser is gone. Evvie has a lot of work to do to put her late husband behind her, which is made no easier by her friends and father, who remember Tim as an upstanding local doctor. Holmes doesn’t rush Evvie through any of that growth, resulting in a novel that is as much about loving the hunk in your attached apartment as it is about forgiving yourself.
Red, White and Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston
Yooo, this book. Red, White and Royal Blue is one of those viral, word-of-mouth hits that gives me new faith in the publishing industry. It’s a funny, progressive blockbuster of a queer romance, and it’s heading to a movie screen near us hopefully as soon as possible. Alex Claremont-Diaz, the son of the first female President of the United States, causes an international incident when he butts heads with his nemesis, Prince Henry, at a royal wedding. Alex and Henry must pretend to be friends for damage control purposes, and THEN THEY FALL IN LOVE LIKE TOTAL DORKS. Part of what makes McQuiston’s debut novel so intoxicating is her clever deployment of fan fiction and romance tropes: enemies to lovers, fake relationship, pining (so much pining). It’s hilarious, bisexual, and wonderful escapism for millennials devastated by this current political moment. Just f*cking read it.
Don’t You Forget About Me, Mhairi McFarlane
My taste in romances leans toward the regency era, but McFarlane’s newest novel is my favorite contemporary romance by far. It’s Fleabag meets Bridget Jones, darkly funny and painfully relatable. When Georgina gets fired from her shitty restaurant job, her straight-laced sister’s husband gets her a gig at a new bar… which happens to be owned by her high school sweetheart. She and Lucas broke up under traumatic circumstances that Georgina has buried way down deep within herself, and all that pain comes bubbling up to the surface as she and Lucas work side-by-side. Throw in an emotionally abusive step-dad and a manipulative, self-absorbed standup comedian boyfriend, and you have a clever, politically conscious and unforgettable novel. Georgina and Lucas’s love story is only part of this wonderful book about starting over and finding your voice.
The Day of the Duchess, Sarah MacLean
I’m still working my way through Sarah MacLean’s entire catalogue, but Seraphina’s story is my favorite. This Regency-era romance is enthralling and dark: after years living in exile, the Duchess of Haven returns home to London to seek a divorce from her husband. Malcolm and Seraphina have many, many layers of dishonesty and pain to heal together, and MacLean doesn’t flinch away from the nuances of their complex relationship. In this essay for the Washington Post, she reflects on how Trump’s election impacted The Day of the Duchess specifically. “That hero? The one I’d lovingly crafted in that mold of masculinity that romance readers have loved for centuries? Sure, I had plans for him to see the promise of gender equality, but at that moment, I wanted him gone. This dude wasn’t just aggressively masculine. He was toxic. Indeed, I suspected he would have voted for Donald Trump. And I wanted nothing to do with him… Reader, I rewrote him.”