Great Reads of 2019: A Reading Year in Review

I love the practice of taking stock at year end. Before setting goals for the fresh new year, I reflect on the year just ending. What surprises did 2019 hold? What am I proud of? Did I meet my goals? And importantly, what great books impacted my life? It turns out 2019 was a banner reading year for me, and I’m delighted to recommend some great reads to my fellow book lovers.

My reading taste can best be described as eclectic. Or random. Or maybe odd? It does, however, fall into some basic categories: Fiction, Faith, Memoir, Politics & Culture, Personal Essay & Poetry, and Wyoming History. I’ll lead with my favorite in each category.

Fiction

I don’t typically reach for fiction first, but every now and then, I get a hankering for a good story. I indulged in five this year.

  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. This exquisite book captured me from the first page. I loved the lush and lyrical descriptions of the natural world almost as much as the characters. I found myself rereading passages just to savor the rich imagery a second time. Man, that’s good.
  • An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg ⭐⭐⭐. Last year I read Mark Spragg’s memoir, Where Rivers Change Direction, and was absolutely blown away. Perhaps my expectations were too high. This one was good, but nowhere near as good my first introduction to Mr. Spragg.
  • The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris ⭐⭐⭐. So maybe Holocaust stories aren’t beach reads, but I’m always drawn to real life accounts. The book is based on real events and real people, so it can’t help but inspire.
  • Open Season by C.J. Box ⭐⭐. I’m a hardcore fan of the Longmire Netflix series about a small-town Wyoming sheriff fighting bad guys in Western-justice style. When the series ended, a friend suggested I read the C.J. Box series to soothe my longing for Walt Longmire. It didn’t work. I still miss Walt.
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen ⭐⭐⭐⭐. It’s been years since I picked up a Jane Austen novel, and I had never read this one. You really can’t go wrong with Jane, but this book required more brain cells than I could muster for bedtime reading. I had to devote daytime hours to keep up with all the characters and the Victorian language, but it was worth the prime time. Did you know PBS has a new Jane Austen series coming soon? Sandition is an eight-part period drama based on the manuscript Austen was writing when she died. The first episode airs January 12th! More info here.

Faith

My nightstand always contains a few volumes to challenge and encourage my faith.

  • anonymous: Jesus’ hidden years and yours by Alicia Britt Chole ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. This was my first introduction to Alicia Britt Chole and now I’m a fan. When I found myself pulling out my highlighter in the Introduction, I knew I had struck gold. This book speaks to the longing heart of anyone feeling unseen, living life on the margins or in a waiting period of life. It’s deep but accessible, and oh, so relevant.
  • Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Rachel Held Evans wielded deep influence in the progressive Christianity movement, and when she suddenly died at age 38 this year, it prompted a tsunami of grief among all who loved her. I am new to her work, and even though I disagree with some of her theology, I see why she was so loved. She radiated passion and courage and deep love for hurting people. I loved the creative way she approached this book — impressive scholarship wrapped in compelling narrative. She certainly made me think. Her light continues to shine, and my heart is heavy for the husband and two precious babies she left behind.
  • This Beloved Road by Amy Layne Litzelman ⭐⭐⭐⭐. I discovered this book in a little shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming last Christmas, and it’s like having a private stash of chocolate. The writer lives in Jackson, and her devotional thoughts are deep and personal and warm. I’m looking forward to savoring her second book this year.
  • How Happiness Happens and Grace by Max Lucado ⭐⭐⭐. I joined a book club this year, and these were two of the selections we read and discussed. Had it not been for the book club, I probably would not have gravitated to these, but I’m glad I did. Lucado has a gift for making scriptural truth accessible and actionable. I can’t say I experienced any Eureka moments, but I can always use encouragement to put faith into action.

Memoir

I am always drawn to memoirs, and I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s sampling.

  • Coming Clean by Seth Haines ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. In prose both lyrical and stark, Seth Haines chronicles his first 90 days of sobriety. With the help of his therapist, he explores the roots of deep-seated doubt that undermines his faith. Page after page, he unravels his anger and hurt with raw honesty. Here’s how Seth summarizes the message of his book: “Read this less as a book about alcoholism and more as one about the pains and salves common to every life. My alcoholism is not the thing. Neither is your eating disorder, your greed disorder, or your sex addiction. Your sin is not the thing. The thing is under the sin. The thing is the pain. Sin management without redemption of life’s pain is a losing proposition.” Any breathing person will identify with something in this book.
  • Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover ⭐⭐⭐⭐. This book qualifies as my most terrifying read of 2019. Oh. My. Goodness. Tara Westover’s parents were profoundly paranoid of anything associated with the government, including schools and doctors. They indoctrinated their children with fear, preparing for the Days of Abomination. For someone who grew up in an environment steeped in fear, violence, and control, it’s remarkable she ever broke free. You might think her eventual liberation makes this a hopeful book, but I wouldn’t go that far. It was gripping, but overall, pretty dark.
  • Three Slovak Women by Lisa A. Alzo ⭐⭐⭐ and Oh, Beautiful by John Paul Godges ⭐⭐⭐. I’m doing an online course on how to write your family history, taught by Lynn Palermo, otherwise known as The Armchair Genealogist. It can be challenging to string facts and dates together into an interesting narrative when there are significant gaps in the story. Lynn recommended these two books as examples of folks who met that challenge well. The writers drew me into their family’s immigration journey, detailing the mindsets and values their grandparents brought from the old country and how those shaped the next two generations. Fascinating reads!

Politics & Culture

I confess to having become a political junkie. We are living through tectonic shifts in our country, and the events covered in our nightly news broadcasts will be studied and debated for decades to come. We do, indeed, live in interesting times, and my inner nerd can’t get enough information. My reading reflects a keen interest in our legal process and the institutions upholding the rule of law in America.

  • Doing Justice by Preet Bharara ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. If I had to choose only one favorite book of 2019, it would be this one. Preet Bharara served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009-2017. He walks the reader through the practice of law, from investigation to sentencing, with colorful examples of SDNY cases and the people who handled them. To describe his objective in writing the book, Bharara said, “This is not a book just about the law. It is a book about integrity, leadership, decision making, and moral reasoning.” The book is notable for its unabashed humanity — something I did not expect in a book about crime and punishment.
  • The Soul of America by Jon Meacham ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Jon Meacham must have his own dressing room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, as often as he serves as a cable news panelist providing historical perspective on current events in Washington. He’s insightful and probing, but also warm and humble. I’m a fan. It’s tempting to think we’ve never seen such division and rancor in America, but Meacham walks us through periods of roiling turmoil we may have forgotten, reminding us that we came out stronger on the other side. We could all use a little hope about now, right?
  • A Republic, If You Can Keep It by Neil Gorsuch ⭐⭐⭐. Watching Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings, he struck me as amiable and grounded. The kind of guy you could have a cup of coffee with and not feel self-conscious. The book reinforced my opinion, but it was more law school lecture than coffee klatch. I didn’t mind the education though. I now know a lot more about the separation of powers, originalism, textualism, and precedent. Heck, I’m almost a lawyer! My favorite chapter was “On Ethics and the Good Life,” based on a course he taught at the University of Colorado. I was a paralegal for 10 years, and I’ve seen the underbelly of the legal profession. Sure, it’s possible to be a good lawyer AND a good person, but it takes vigilance. Gorsuch seems to have cracked the code.

Poetry & Personal Essay

I like to read for a few minutes before bed, so I keep a few volumes on my nightstand that are conducive to sweet dreams.

  • Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver ⭐⭐⭐⭐. I have loved poetry since I first learned to read, and this year I set a goal to renew that love. I was not familiar with Mary Oliver until I learned of her death and started looking at her work. Wow! Turns out, we are soul sisters in our love for nature and dogs. This collection is a worthy addition to your nightstand.
  • Reflections on a Life in Exile by J.F. Riordan ⭐⭐⭐. My favorite fiction last year was a 3-book series called “North of the Tension Line” by this author. While she was hard at work on the fourth book (coming soon!), she kept her fans happy with this collection of personal essays. No more than a page or two long, these are the perfect bedtime reading treat.

Wyoming History

Admittedly, my reading selections in this category will not appeal to everyone! I’m still deep into research for the family history book I’m writing about my great grandfather, who settled in Wyoming in the 1880s. (Part of his story here.)

  • An Old-Timers Story of the Old Wild West by Oliver Perry Hanna ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Written in 1926, this is the memoir of the first person to settle in Big Horn, Wyoming. O.P. Hanna built his cabin in 1878, two years before my great grandfather settled there. First person accounts of that era are rare and wonderful, and Hanna’s include Custer’s Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Johnson County Invasion and several encounters with famous outlaws and hungry bears. It’s a wonder he survived his adventures!
  • Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin: A Late Frontier by Lawrence M. Woods ⭐⭐⭐⭐. This is a thorough review of the settling of Wyoming’s last frontier. Well documented and well organized, this is one of my best resources to date.
  • Wyoming’s Historic Ranches by Nancy Weidel, Big Horn City by Judy Slack and Big Horn Pioneers ⭐⭐⭐. These little books are lovingly compiled by local historians, and they are gold mines! The scope is narrow but the books provide invaluable insights into the people and events that shaped pioneer communities.
  • Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart ⭐⭐⭐. When Elinore Pruitt Stewart, a widow with a small child, left Denver for the wilds of Wyoming to take up homesteading, her friends must have thought her crazy. And she probably was! This compilation of her letters provide a first person account of the rigors of the homesteading life in 1909. A fun read!
  • Atlas of Wyoming Outlaws at the Territorial Prison by Elnora Frye ⭐⭐⭐. I bought this one just so I could get my great grandfather’s mug shot! He wasn’t an outlaw, I promise, but he did spend an unfortunate year in the same facility that housed Butch Cassidy!

So what were YOUR great reads of 2019? I’m always looking for a recommendation! Happy reading!

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