Well. Are we bored yet? Perhaps even you reluctant readers are ready to pick up a book? Perfect timing, because here are the best of the best of my 2019 reads:
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Audiobook, narrated by Ruby Dee. 219 pages. Published 1937
If this one sounds familiar, it’s because it was a re-read. And still made my Top 5 the second time around. Young Janie Crawford trusts in love and thus, grows steadily and sadly wiser. Yet every disillusionment leaves her with a greater quiet strength and dignity. It is a story of a black woman in 1920’s Florida but the story is in no way defined by race, time or geography . Janie is an iconic character of modern literature. The book, considered a jewel of the Harlem Renaissance, is perfectly paced and the audio version, performed by the late, great Ruby Dee, is perfection. Bonus for those sheltering in place during this current storm is a harrowing account of the tragic 1928 Okeechobee hurricane.
Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel (Wolf Hall Series Book 2) by Hilary Mantel. Kindle, 434 pages. Published 2012.
I put off reading this book for several years, fearful that the sequel could never match the original. But Mantel did it again. The second book in her fictional account of Thomas Cromwell, brilliant and devious aide to Henry VIII is every bit as absorbing as the first, in part due to the astonishing portrait she paints of Anne Boleyn. Of her salacious behavior with men, Mantel writes “she opens her lips and out slides the devil’s tail.”Yes, you do need to read Wolf Hall first but you will not regret it. Brilliant. Both Man Booker Prize winners.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. Audiobook, read by Alan Rickman. 448 pages. Published 1878.
You don’t so much read a Thomas Hardy novel as inhabit it. His fictional “Wessex” locale in the southwest of England is as real a place as you’ll ever visit, and it’s hard to stay away, as evidenced by the return of the “native”, Clym Yeobright, who chucks his bright life in Paris to return to Egdon Heath. Each time I begin another of Hardy’s novels I wonder if I will really be able to relate to Victorian England, and each time I am rewarded with a most amazing gift of time travel. He is a master of creating memorable female characters: Tess, of course and Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd and he does it again here with the dangerously passionate Eustacia Vye. As vivid as any of his human characters is the heath, with its furze and its bonfires silhouetted against the night sky. Unforgettable.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Audiobook, read by Sean Barrett and Teresa Gallagher. 588 pages. Published 1853.
If you think “social justice” is a 21st-century invention, you should delve into this sweeping novel of nineteenth-century London, where an interminable lawsuit, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce lines the pockets of a teeming army of lawyers while consuming the lives of its unwitting principals. There are scores of major and minor characters, but don’t worry, each is so finely drawn you’ll have little trouble keeping track. No one draws a more stark picture of the differing fortunes of the rich and the poor than Dickens, and while the rich may become richer, or poorer as the lawsuit drags on, the poor, represented by the character Jo, are simply told again and again to “move along” to a disastrous end. There is enlightenment and there is tragedy and it is an altogether grand read, considered by some to be Dickens’ finest novel.
Dracula by Bram Stoker. Audiobook, narrated by Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, et al. 236 pages. Published 1897.
I downloaded this book last October as a lark, thinking I could knock off a classic and celebrate Halloween at the same time. I have studiously avoided all things vampire in the past; it’s just not a genre that interests me. So no one is more amazed than I am that this turned out to be my Number One favorite read of 2019. There are bats, there are wolves, there is Transylvania, Dr. Van Helsing and there is, in all his gothic horror, Count Dracula, complete with fangs and hairy palms. One analysis I read pointed out that the book reflected a late nineteenth century British aversion to immigrants: Count Dracula represented the fear of being “infected” by the unknown foreigner. Sounds strangely familiar. It is a classic of classics, so very well told. Audio version is superb.
And that (finally!) wraps up the 2019 reads. A year that, for all its challenges, seems so much simpler than our new dystopian 2020. But here we are, and like it or not, our calendars are cleared for the foreseeable future.
As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in another classic, The Fellowship of the Ring,
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
If all we have is time, I say let’s use some of it to read. Be patient, everyone, and be well.