If you’ve seen my last post, you’ll know I’ve decided to further reflect upon my annual reads by compiling lists of my top three from each year. So far, this practice has helped me better remember which books have impacted me the greatest, as well as provided me with a way to organize my emotional and intellectual responses to the books I read.
Here are my top three reads from 2019. This was the year I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, started my first full-time, professional job, and began taking myself seriously as a fiction writer, finally making an effort to get published. I believe my changing identity as a writer also transformed the way I started to read books and the types I chose to read.
I found myself, in 2019, far more concerned with the quality of the written word than I had been before. Reading was no longer only about enjoying an entertaining plot line or analyzing literary devices, but also an exercise in sharpening my own writing skills, learning what works and what doesn’t, and becoming familiar enough with a variety of literature to form an educated opinion about what I consider quality writing.
As with my last reflection, I plan to keep my comments on what I liked in general rather than specific plot points, but it’s always possible there are spoilers below, so consider this your official spoiler warning for the following books!
If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.Oscar Wilde
1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
My last semester of undergrad, I took a class entirely dedicated to the literary works and lives of the Brontë family. I loved every book I read for that class: Wuthering Heights, Villette, excerpts of Jane Eyre. However, the one that stuck with me most was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne. The youngest and arguably most underrated of the sisters, I found her, in fact, the most bold, bearing wisdom I had yet to encounter in a 19th century novel. I remember thinking this piece to be remarkable; it was dark, feminist, and truly ahead of its time (1848, to be exact).
Helen, the main character, moves into a run-down mansion in an English village with her young son. She stirs up much curiosity in the small town and becomes the subject of many rumors. Some say she is not actually a widow, that she has been “promiscuous” and bore her son outside of marriage. Some say she is having an affair with her landlord. Others still claim she is a witch.
The novel explores the independence of women in 19th century England, social stigmas and expectations, double-standards for men and women, and the radical act of breaking the mold. Anne Brontë tells this story with informed insight and bravery, producing a bold critique of what she evidently believes to be unfair social “laws.”
This is a book I certainly plan to reread and one I highly recommend, especially to those who enjoy Victorian literature. It contained many of the key elements one might expect from a Gothic novel: old estates, rainy weather, mysterious women, and well-kept secrets (unfortunately, no ghosts, from what I can remember). Anne was both ahead of her time with this piece and true to the genre, historically.
2. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
This was the first book I read by Louise Erdrich, assigned for Native American Literature my senior year of college. She quickly became one of my favorites. She writes about Native American history in a way that is brutally honest and true to the Native experience, not altered or sugarcoated to be palatable for white audiences.
Erdrich’s characters are full, complex, and reflective of reality, as the author has experienced it. Erdrich does a phenomenal job creating characters and settings that expose her readers to the hard truth, offering firsthand insight on the Native experience. To read fiction centered around marginalized cultures and characters allows us to become immersed in the daily existence, the thought processes and desires, the unique passions and fears of people whose voices are often silenced. Fiction of this kind has the power to foster empathy.
I must include a content warning here, for those who would rather not read about sexual assault. I don’t remember exactly how intense the descriptions become throughout the book, but I remember feeling very uneasy at times. Sexual assault is, after all, the primary topic of this story. It’s hard to be uncomfortable and reminded of such horrible things, but it’s important (if you are honestly emotionally able to) to become accurately informed of the prevalence and impact of such issues. Sexual assault largely affects the Native community, and in this novel, Erdrich illustrates the ways Native people in particular are further harmed after initial attacks.
Although difficult to read at times, this book was honest and raw. It was informative and compelling. I did enjoy it, as Erdrich is a magnificent writer, even when depicting such horrific things. I would certainly read this book again, as well as any other of her works.
3. Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
This is probably my favorite work of fiction by Stephen King, but in all fairness, I’ve only read about ten of his more than sixty books. This one seemed, to me, the most politically charged and historically informed, compared with others I’ve read. Perhaps it’s my love of history and my being so drawn to historical fiction, but I remember this book just striking me as phenomenal.
A collection of five interconnected stories taking place from 1960 to 1999, Hearts in Atlantis offers a creative perspective on growing up and living through the horrors of the Vietnam War. King explores the various ways the war impacted the nation, how it affected many differently but greatly all the same.
In the titular story, King depicts a group of college students in the late ’60s, the risk some took to protest the war, how some coped with losing friends and loved ones, and the way others attempted to ignore its reality altogether. Each story incorporates something about the war, how even after it’s ended, the effects remain with those who witnessed the atrocities firsthand, not merely broadcasted on TV news. Among other things, King shows, through his characters, just how horribly cared for veterans are, as though discarded and forgotten, no longer important after they’ve fulfilled their use in the American war machine.
True to King’s style, the first story in this collection contains obvious elements of science fiction, even as it explores an era in recent history. This book was the most unique work of historical fiction I’ve read. Each story contained in it was entertaining and insightful in its own way. This is a piece of literature that I would certainly reread.