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  • John Wood

Top Ten Books of 2019

Dear Friends Around the World:

One of my key goals for 2019 was to radically decrease my time on social media and apply those hours to reading great books. For the first time in two decades, I read 50 books. Hurrah! It was a great year of inspiring reading, and I’m thrilled to continue my annual tradition by sharing my Top Ten Books of 2019.

Notable things about this year’s list:

  • A good mix, with 4 novels and 6 non-fiction titles

  • Three of my favourite novels were translations from European authors (Italian and German), highlighting how much great literature is becoming accessible to us in this golden era for books

  • I finally took on the Robert Caro Challenge (more below) after years of timid avoidance

Please feel free to share my list with book-lovers in your life, and let them know they can subscribe to future book lists here:

Happy reading and happy new decade! John

10. City Beasts:  Fourteen Stories of Uninvited Wildlife, Mark Kurlansky

What happens when human settlements encroach on areas previously populated only by animals? Mark Kurlansky edifies us in this entertaining series of short stories. From a murder of crows wreaking their own unique havoc in Central Park to snakes invading a Cuban baseball field and scaring the hell out of the players to a wolf stalking a skier in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, these vignettes keep you turning the pages and coming back for more.

9. The Immeasurable World:  Journeys in Desert Places, William Atkins

From Corsica to Namibia to Utah, some of my favourite spots on earth are deserts, so I could not resist picking up this travelogue. One-third of earth’s surface is classified as desert, and yet we mostly think of them as blank spots on the map. William Atkins journeyed to eight deserts on five continents and wrote the perfect armchair travel book (e.g., he may be parched, but you can be drinking a glass of wine). He brings these spaces to life while taking the reader from China’s Gobi Desert to Sonora in the American Southwest and onward to Australia’s Great Victoria. This book is guaranteed to dial up your wanderlust.

8. Nudge:  Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler

I had the pleasure of hosting the Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. Richard Thaler for a Room to Read fund-raising lunch in Hong Kong last year, and in the week prior to his arrival I went back into grad school mode by binge-reading his seminal work (Gotta impress the professor!). Thaler and his co-author Cass Sunstein bring to life the field of behavioural economics in a way that is approachable, often humorous and eminently readable. Deservedly named a best book of the year by the Economist and the Financial Times.

7. Last Boat Out of Shanghai:  The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution, Helen Zia

I have long been fascinated by both human migrations and modern Chinese history, so I snapped this book up the week it came out, then proceeded to devour it. Helen Zia is not only a talented writer, but also the daughter of one of those migrants. Through hundreds of interviews with those who scattered to locations from Taiwan to San Francisco to Hong Kong, Zia brings history to life in a way that’s guaranteed to keep you glued to these pages.

6. The Seabird’s Cry:  The Lives of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers, Adam Nicolson

I bet you don’t know how fascinating seabirds are. I certainly did not until Amy and I picked up Adam Nicolson’s lovingly-researched bird-ography of these ocean voyagers.  Did you know that in search of food, puffins can dive up to 200 feet under water? That albatrosses have wingspans as wide as two NBA point guards and can fly up to 13,000 miles as they migrate (that’s like flying from Denver to Tokyo, and back!)? That the design of fighter aircraft has been influenced by studying the bodies of seabirds? I did not even know that I wanted to know any of this, but with one bird per chapter over ten chapters, this was a book I could not wait to pick back up.

5. The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  Means of Ascent, Robert Caro

Hands down, the best presidential memoir I have read in my lifetime. Robert Caro and his wife (and sole research assistant) Ina moved to the scrubby and unforgiving Texas hill country as a young couple because “nobody is going to tell us anything worth knowing about the young LBJ if they think we’re nosy outsiders.” The stories they were thus able to bring to life about LBJ’s unlikely rise to power make for a riveting read. Johnson’s roots and upbringing were humble, but his ego and ambition were anything but. This is one of those books that constantly had me searching for an excuse to go to blow off being social. My biggest reading goal for 2020 is to tackle volume 2.

4. Pereira Maintains, Antonio Tabucchi

Senhor Pereira is a lonely widower living under the “New State” fascist dictatorship in 1930s Portugal. He keeps his head down at his newspaper job, working hard to offend no one. The high point of his day is talking to his wife’s portrait upon his return home to his empty apartment. And then one day a dashing Italian anti-fascist recruiter walks into his life. Everything changes immediately, and he soon has much more interesting news to share with his wife. This tight novel rushes toward one of the most hopeful endings I’ve every enjoyed, and it’s all over way too quickly. Once we both read this book we booked our first trip to Portugal!

3. Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck

An unforgettable novel about the European refugee crisis set in modern-day Berlin.  Richard, a classics professor who has recently been forced to retire, is living a lonely existence. His wife has died, his mistress has deserted him, and like so many men he’s been too busy with his career to establish a deep bench of friends. Then one day he sees a television report about a group of African refugees staging a hunger strike in Alexanderplatz. He visits their shelter to interview them and learn their stories, and soon becomes caught up in their lives as a friend, coach and guide to modern German society. The best book on migration I’ve read since The Book of Unknown Americans.

2. A Devil Comes to Town, Paolo Maurensig

Life in the tiny Swiss hamlet of Dichtersruhe has been the same for many centuries. That all changes one day when the devil arrives in a chauffeur-driven black car and claims to be a hot-shot publisher from the big city looking for manuscripts. We soon learn that nearly everyone in town is an aspiring writer, with the exception of the village’s new priest, who is put in charge of a writing competition despite his checkered past. The mad dash scramble to be chosen for publication unleashes petty jealousies, rivalries and intense competition. Translated from the Italian, this is a tight novella that is not a page or a paragraph too long and can be fully read and enjoyed on a long flight or a lazy afternoon by the pool.

1. Working, Robert Caro

At age 84, Robert Caro has done two major things in his life: writing the definitive biography of Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and publishing four books on the life of Lyndon Johnson. The world is better off for his hyper-focus. He’s now at work on the fifth and final LBJ volume, and cheerfully admits that at his advanced age he’s in a bit of a race against time.  So it’s even more impressive that managed to write this mini-memoir.  It’s packed full of enlightening and often amusing anecdotes about his life as a writer, his advice on the craft and reflections on the life of the mind. He’s the only writer to ever make my Top Ten list twice in the same year.

Honorable Mentions:

Normal People, Sally Rooney

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris

Transcription, Kate Atkinson

The White Darkness, David Grann Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson

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Feb 03, 2020

Thanks for putting these lists together and making them available. The range is quite broad, and it is a welcome supplement to the usual year-end best-seller lists that largely overlap each other. I particularly like the selections of translated works - books that might not otherwise come to my attention. Mark Oline

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