Note: The first half of this post has little to do with my recommendations of the books I read in 2019. If you want to skip to that part, scroll down to where it says ‘Honorable Mentions.’ However, if you’re curious why there is a photo of the Scooby Doo Mystery Gang at the top of this post and the title has ‘Zoinks!’ in it and what the heck these have to do with my reading year, read on.
Thirty books. That was my goal. One year, thirty books.
The thirty-book mark wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky dream. I had read that many books in a single year a couple times before; and I knew I could do it again. What’s more, I had role models showing me that it could be done. At the start of the year my kid sister set her peak at 35 books; it took a maniacal final-week book blitz over the holidays, but she bagged it. Bill Gates, in between eradicating polio, reinventing the toilet, and reimagining nuclear energy production, inhales fifty books a year.
Compared to the book reading ambitions of my kid sister and one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet, my goal of thirty was nothing if not attainable.
Yet as the sun descended on the last day of 2019, I found myself three books short. I felt disappointed, let down. I looked back on my year, trying to figure out where the time went, searching for something to blame.
And I found them. One by one I picked them out, the different things that had siphoned my time away from reading books, had prevented me from reaching my goal. I stared them down like the crook at the end of every Scooby Doo episode, my face freshly unmasked, shouting “I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”
My gaze rests on Velma first. When a Scooby Doo crook, in prison, tells the story of how she got caught, the first question she gets is a scoffing “You got caught by a bunch of zit-faced teenagers?” To save face and re-establish his place in the prison pecking order, the crook pulls out Velma’s resume. She’s a certified Einsteinian genius, ivy league bound, a future world-class scientist who will do something like invent a machine that achieves the speed of light or discover the cure to cancer. Velma’s so brilliant, the crook feels accomplishment in nearly fooling her and getting away with his crime. Her legendary genius is such that the crook is proud to have fallen victim to it. The crook cannot imagine a better end to his criminal shenanigans. Velma is my family. I spent a ton of time with them this year. I watched my kid turn one, learn how to walk, say words, and then to tell me ‘no!’ whenever I try to tickle him. I took the plunge and proposed to my girlfriend on top of Enchanted Rock, the box with the ring in it in one hand, a box with cheerios in the other to distract my fussing kiddo. Together, the three of us took vacations that took us from coast to coast. With our families, we barehand-touched jellyfish in aquariums, watched bats stream from the South Congress bridge in Austin, and took dips in the Pacific Ocean and in a lake way up in north Wisconsin. I made some good memories with family this year. I wouldn’t trade any of it for three more books. I failed my book goal, but I’m proud as hell that spending time with my family is one reason why.
Next, my eye meets Daphne’s. She looks back into mine, and there’s not a trace of fear in her eyes. The thing about this redhead, who’s nicknamed Danger-prone Daphne and is typically pigeonholed in the damsel in distress stereotype, is that she’s financially independent from her a ridiculously rich family. She could milk her folks for all they’re worth, live off a trust fund for the rest of her life (and then several other lifetimes). She could have a semi-glamorous pretend internet job that doesn’t actually earn her any meaningful income to help pass her days, like ‘Instagram model’ or ‘Twitch streamer.’ But she doesn’t. She goes out there and puts her ass on the line with the rest of the Mystery Gang, and, every once in a while, lucks into helping Velma bust a criminal. Why? She wants to be a detective one day. She’s independent, works to support herself, and has ambition. Daphne is, quite literally, my career. I work for a nonprofit with the mission of creating better futures for deaf people like myself. It’s fun. I work with some awesome people and learn something new everyday. I had a pretty big job change this year, and it’s brought on new challenges and new skills for me to learn. I enjoy what I do, and it helps me pay the bills and support myself and my family (along with my fiancée, who also brings in some dough of her own and supports the family as well). Without my job, I could read a lot more books. Hell, I’d probably beat Bill Gate’s bookworm ass if I didn’t have a job. But I’m blessed to have a job that I enjoy, with people I genuinely like and respect, and an income that helps put a roof over my family’s head and food on the table.
Fred is next. Some shows need eye candy. Donning a red ascot tie, Fred is the fancy sort: a Harry and David chocolate truffle. He contributes some to the Mystery Gang’s efforts, but it is marginal, easily replaced by the human being with average intellect and abilities. The crook mentions him in the telling of his story in prison, but nobody remembers him. Everything aside from his stupid ascot tie is completely, utterly unremarkable; he could be tossed out of the Gang and nobody would notice. Except. He owns the Mystery Machine. And there is no Mystery Gang without the iconic flower petal-adorned, classic sixties hippie van. Fred is streaming TV. Some people need an escape from the everyday stress of the world, a retreat in which the mind can wind down; turn off for a little bit. Streaming TV is mine. The contributions watching streaming TV makes to my life are honestly as marginal as Fred’s to Scooby Doo. It gives me cheap cultural currency with which I can purchase my way into conversations or buy references, either to understand or use. I used some of that currency from watching the Netflix documentary Decoding Bill Gates to construct one sentence at the very start of this blog post, for instance. But it uses up a resource of enormous value, time, to accumulate this currency of so little value. It’s not a very smart investment. Except. Every once in a while I come across a show that is so incredible, so thought-provoking, so rewarding, that the value derived from it recoups every bit of the value of the time wasted on all the other mindless clunkers. This year, that show was Fleabag. It was so good, I’d trade five books for a season of it.
The final two members of the Gang remain. Here I have passed the point of true humiliation. In prison, the Scooby Doo crook chooses his words with the greatest care, hyper-vigilant of the tripwires that are Scooby Doo and Shaggy. One false step, one careless slip of the tongue (or hand if the crook happens to primarily communicate in ASL), and the crook can kiss their place in the prison pecking order goodbye. The other prisoners would rapidly descend on him like vultures on a roadkill carcass. “Wait,” they’d interrupt the Scooby Doo crook. “You got caught by a moron named ‘Shaggy’ whose catchphrase is ‘Zoinks’?” When the crook tries to explain, they cut her off. “…and a talking dog?” Game over. The point being, these two rank among the real and imaginary Earth’s most mortifyingly embarrassing beings for a criminal to be busted by.
We’ll start with Scooby Doo. We won’t debate how embarrassing it’d be to get caught by a dog. We cannot, however, gloss over the facts. Scooby Doo is: a universally beloved cartoon character whose show is named after him; a first-ballot Cartoon Hall of Fame member with an outside shot at the Mount Rushmore of cartoon characters; a Great Dane that talks. All in all, Scooby Doo is, undeniably, pretty cool. Scooby Doo is disc golf. This year, I was bitten by the disc golf bug. Yeah, I came down with a bad case of the disc golf craze. I went out and bought a disc golf basket, planted it in my back yard, and practiced my putting so often the grass around it is now flat and lifeless. I went to my first disc golf tournament, flying all the way over to Las Vegas for it. I suck at it mostly, but I find myself enjoying it more and more the better I play. I’d probably have read maybe 10 more books with the time I spent on disc golf. Do I regret it? I don’t know. I’m confused. I don’t really remember the thread linking Scooby Doo and disc golf anymore. They’re both pretty cool, I guess?
Last is Shaggy, an imbecilic moron that cannot speak a sentence without uttering the word ‘like,’ go a minute without talking about how, like, insanely hungry he is, or shave off the inches-long whiskers off his chin. He’s equally, if not more, as embarrassing as Scooby Doo for a crook to get caught by, and he doesn’t have Scooby Doo’s saving grace of being pretty cool. With him, there is only humiliation and a million half-munched pizza crusts. Shaggy is fantasy football. I played in three leagues last football and have poured gasoline on and set afire piles of time preparing for drafts, shuffling my lineups, scouring the waiver wire, negotiating trades (that never actually happen) only to waste even more time watching ‘my’ players screw the pooch again and again on Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays. In the end, the biggest thing I won was the Toilet Bowl and I didn’t even get to fully enjoy that because, due to a scheduling glitch my commissioner misattributed my victory and I had to text him to reclaim this completely worthless honor (and the $10 extra that came with it). These last few sentences made me incredibly sad. Maybe I’m just a bitter loser. I am a sore loser, a loser of time that could have been spent reading books, and many, many fantasy football matches. Don’t play fantasy football, kids. Read books instead.
And that’s all of the Mystery Gang. Of course, everything I just typed didn’t really mean anything. Because, what the Scooby Doo crook never realizes, is that this entire time, the fault laid entirely in her own hands. Just like my failed book goal lies solely in mine.
Despite the many other stuff I did my life with, I did complete a fair bit of reading, and I do have a few favorite books I’d like to share with you. I present to you: Zoinks! The 2019 Book Review Extravaganza!
The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss – A fun as hell fantasy read. Had an outside shot at the top 5, but the author pulling a GRR Martin keeps this book out.
Factfulness Hans Rosling – An eye opener that will change your bird’s eye view of allt he stuff that’s going on in this world. I appreciated the optimism in this book and I think you will, too.
Wanderers Chuck Wendig – A lazy comparison: ‘poor man’s The Stand by Stephen King.’ It had a heck of an ending. Check it out!
A Time to Kill John Grisham – Another lazy comparison: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird set in the 80’s, with an alcoholic Atticus Finch. Every year for a Christmas family exchange I ask my secret Santa to give me their favorite book with an explanation why and received this from a cousin who’s currently in law school. I hope my cousin becomes Jake Brigance in real life, with less beer drinking, of course.
A Brief History of Seven Killings Marlon James – This started slow, and the writing style, the voices of all the different characters, made it a heavy read. But it gave me a window into Jamaica I’d never peered into before, and taught me a new word: Bombocloth!
My Top Five
Born a Crime Trevor Noah
Celebrity memoirs are rarely top-shelf good, and I think it’s because many celebrities don’t really have memorable stories to tell. They’re just famous and know they can sell a lot of books because of the platform they have, so they hire the best ghostwriter they know to churn out a halfway decent product then watch their bank accounts blow up like poor Violet in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Trevor Noah, though, has some damn good stories to tell. Like the book’s title, his birth as a half-black, half-white human was against the law in apartheid South Africa. I love a lot of things about this book—the brief history lessons in bold before every chapter, Trevor Noah’s unique, very hilarious voice. Bottom line, excellent read. Props to Brendan Stern for the recommendation, from when he wrote it for his year-end book review last year.
Girl At War Sara Novic
This book fascinated me for a couple reasons. First, the topic was the Croatian War of Independence, a war I knew very little about before reading this book. Second, it showed the war through rarely viewed lens: the eyes of a young girl, and later, a young lady. The story begins innocently enough, but early in the book, there is a sudden heart wrenching moment that flips the tone of the book upside down and leads us down a very dark path, going places I did not expect. One hallmark of very good novels is a scene or image that sticks with you for very long afterwards—Girl at War has that, and more.
Homo Deus Yuval Noah Harari
The subheader for this book is ‘A brief history of tomorrow,’ which is a distinguished way of saying this is a book of predictions. It makes plenty of those, but the best part is how Harari uses the history of humankind to support his arguments for these predictions. Inside these arguments are where I found the real gems—descriptions of humanity’s millennials-long shift towards our current primary religions, techno-humanism and data-ism. Homo Deus was scary and mind-bending at times, but always fascinating.
Where My Heart Used to Beat Sebastian Faulks
I admittedly did not have high expectations for this book. It was recommended after I posted my year-end book review two years ago on Facebook, and sat in my Book Queue for a year and a half before I found it at sitting on the shelf of a used bookstore. Sometimes, low expectations are a gift: they allow the thing to pleasantly surprise you. Faulks’s novel, centered on a protagonist that had been a soldier in World War 2, had the best war scenes I’d read since Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn. Like Girl at War, this was also a war story uniquely told; it told war stories, but Where My Heart Used to Beat was really about how war wreaks havoc on the mind. Near the end, there is also a shocking, poignant reveal, which made an already memorable book all the more unforgettable.
Three Body Problem Trilogy Liu Cixin
OK, I cheated. My top pick is actually three books: The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, which comprise the Three Body Problem Trilogy. Remember how I said sometimes low expectations are a gift just now? Stuff with high expectations have it tough—it’s dang hard to meet them and they often just end up disappointing folks. It’s not fair to the thing, but it is what it is. However: in the extremely rare occasions that a thing with high expectations actually meets those expectations… it’s manna from heaven.
When I first learned about The Three Body Problem, the same article mentioned that Barack Obama was a big fan. In fact, he liked it so much, he asked for an advance copy of the translation of the second book and got to read it before it’d been released for us lowly commoners in America. Perks of being the prez, eh? The point is, that set expectations crazy high. Metaphorically, expectations were set probably higher than the bar was for the world record high jump. (Have you watched video of that, though? The bar is insanely high! Like, I thought it was for a warm up pole vault, that’s how high. Don’t believe me? Just look at it!) So. World record high jump-level expectations, courtesy of Barack Obama, hung over this book.
The Three Body Problem cleared that bar by a mile.
I can’t describe it. Trying to do so wouldn’t do it justice. So I’ll just tell you the bare plot points. The Chinese construct technology that can send messages into space. It reaches a civilization that’s actually, galactically-speaking, ‘in the neighborhood’ in the Milky Way galaxy. The civilization responds via a weird video game, which presents this message: their planet is barely hospitable, and they’re coming to take ours. They have way more advanced tech than humans do, but even then, it’ll take their space ships 400 years to reach Earth. And then chaos ensues. There’s way more; this is just the plot of half of the first book. The story continues through the three books, each with different protagonists, and the story expands exponentially by scale and imagination. There’s so many memorable parts, I can’t describe them all. One of the many awesome things about the trilogy is that it stretched your mind. Made you think of possibilities far beyond the Earth and the year, day, hour, minute and second you exist in right now. Another awesome thing about it is how it made me feel genuinely excited to read it. Books, in general, have an effect that’s more what I’d call deeply rewarding. You feel contented as you read. It’s like eating a good, juicy cheeseburger after a long day’s work. It takes a special book to make you feel a different kind of satisfaction. It’s like eating a bag of your favorite chips…. that you haven’t had in years because it’s so rare and hard to find and you’ve spent all week craving it and the first bite is so good you’re just giddy with yourself you finally got to eat the thing you’ve wanted to for so long and you keep eating it, munching chip after chip, until the bag’s gone and you’re so sad because that was the last bag and you don’t know how long it’ll be before you find another one.
That’s sort of how reading Harry Potter felt as a young boy. And it’s how The Three Body Problem Trilogy made me feel this year.
I knew after I finished the last line of the first novel, back in January, that this would take the top spot in my year-end book review. Eleven months later, I was right. Boy, just writing this made me feel sad I won’t ever get to read The Three Body Problem for the first time ever again. But you might. And that makes me happy.