Hugo House’s Best-Loved Books of 2019

Posted Tue, 12/10/2019 - 9:30am by  |  Category: , , ,

The end of the decade is here!

As we move in to the ’20s, we’re looking back on this past year to celebrate some truly great books. End 2019 with a bang (or start 2020 fresh!) with these 19 fiction and nonfiction recommendations from 20 Hugo House Winter quarter teachers.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
(tr. Antonio Lloyd-Jones)

Riverhead Books (Penguin Press), 2019

My favorite of the year is from the recent Nobel Laureate: this book is a gripping mystery, a revolutionary cry, a hilarious portrait of an old astrologer in rural Poland, and an ode to the weirdest poems of William Blake.

Honorable mentions: Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents; Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors; Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout; The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa; The White Book by Han Kang; Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss; and Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova

Joshua Marie Wilkinson, teaching Suspenseful Writing

Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

I belong to a truly awesome book club here in Seattle, and in our last meeting someone asked, prompted by our recent selection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, if anyone writes utopian fiction anymore. In this dystopian-feeling day and age, can writers successfully depict a better way of living?

I thought about this a lot in the days following our meeting, and realized that I had indeed recently read a book that, though not utopian per se, does feel like an answer to that question: Madeline ffitch’s Stay and Fight, which is also one of the most lively and moving novels I’ve read in years. Stay and Fight doesn’t take place in a world better than ours—many of the worst aspects of our current moment, from ecological destruction to racism to capitalism’s rapaciousness, show up in full force. But its protagonists are in earnest search of a lifestyle that honors their values, even (or especially!) if those values include conflict, radical compromise, and a whole lot of hard-won possum stew and acorn flour. The story follows Helen, an involuntarily solitary Seattle transplant who buys a plot of land in Appalachian Ohio and ends up constructing a ramshackle house and family with Karen and Lily, a couple raising their son Perley. The book is by no means sentimental about rural living or cohabitation—the bickering, the small disasters of homesteading, and the gradual incursion of an affably crazed arborist into the family’s lives made me laugh out loud many times. But there’s something rare and brave and truly wonderful about the ways in which Stay and Fight illustrates kinship outside the traditional nuclear family, and in how its characters navigate the extremely complicated ethics of trying to live right. It’s also a book that will win you over no matter what you love in literature: it’s got tall-tale scenes of mischief and havoc, hilarious dialogue, sharp and lovely sentences, and, in Perley, one of the best child narrators I’ve ever read. In my utopia, we read more books like this.

Liza Birnbaum, teaching Getting Inside Your Character’s Head and Henry James and Sally Rooney

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Penguin Press, 2015

I’ve never read a novel quite like Eileen. Equal parts captivating, grotesque, and deeply human, it’s a novel that’s sometimes difficult to endure and yet always enjoyable. Set in the early 1960s, it tells the story of Eileen Dunlop, a young woman who works at a boys’ prison and lives with her deranged, alcoholic father. The disturbing beauty of this novel doesn’t come from its plot, however, but from the depth and horrific honesty of Moshfegh’s writing. In addition, the novel is a masterful study of first-person perspective, with occasional glances and allusions to the narrator’s contemporary perspective on her younger self. For so many reasons, it’s a wonderful novel to read for students of writing — both advanced and new — and it’ll surely appeal to people who enjoy elements of psychological suspense mixed with masterfully crafted sentences and perspective. I thought Eileen was the best novel I read all year.

Raymond Fleischmann, teaching Close Encounters of the Third-Person Kind

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Anchor Books (Knopf Doubleday), 2003

For sheer writing prowess and readability, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. It portrays a dystopic slightly futuristic world with characters in a no-win situation, yet it’s hard to put down, and I’ve learned from her ability to sneak in a wide narrative range while convincing the reader she’s working in character voice. For sheer comeback value, I’d say Stoner by John Williams. It’s a great character study and an essential novel, though readers looking for complex female characters will find this novel frustrating. A novel I’m really looking forward to, recommended by friends and blurbed by Margaret Atwood, is There There, a debut novel by Tommy Orange set in southern California.

Scott Driscoll, teaching Fiction III

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Hogarth (Crown Publishing Group), 2017

From the first page, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, had me hooked (you’ll see what I mean).  Boyne is a first-class wordsmith and a master storyteller. I was in awe of his writing. The book is full of colorful characters, explosive events, witty dialogue, and some jaw-dropping surprises and coincidences. It’s like a gay, Irish World According to Garp (obviously, John Irving is an inspiration; the book is dedicated to him). I don’t often cry when I finish a book. With this one, I was blubbering—but smiling, too.

Kevin O’Brien, teaching Writing Suspenseful Scenes

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

Vintage Books (Knopf Doubleday), 2015

Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron came out in 2015, but the experience of reading it never left me. That you could write something so poignant and difficult and funny from a child’s point of view, that you could use irreverence and humor in a book that deals with one of history’s darkest periods, these were lessons I kept in mind while I was writing Costalegre, my own attempt at a World War II story from a child’s point of view. In the back of my mind, I think I’m always wondering, “What would Jim Shepard do?” when I’m deciding on a character’s voice, and the story that the character will tell. Jim Shepard’s first person POV work impacts like no other. 

Courtney Maum, teaching Fall Back in Love with Your Writing

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

LENNY Books (Random House), 2017

Seattle has an amazing public library system (seriously—if you haven’t gotten on the bandwagon, I’m pulling you aboard), and when I read a special library book that captures me entirely, I immediately run out to the bookstore to buy my own copy. This happened for me with at least a couple books this year, but the one that emerged on top was: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang. I read these stories during the February snowstorm and felt so absorbed that I finished it in a day and a half. I bought the book because I knew I was going to want to refer back to it when editing my own writing—it’s a masterclass in short story craft. Zhang does amazing work in personifying the perspective of children who are grappling with very adult concepts as they grow up situated in the Chinese American immigrant landscape of NYC. And the first lines are about poop. What more could you want?

Close ties this year that aren’t fiction include: Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (what a great reader at Hugo House earlier this year!), The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang, and Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. A really intriguing craft book about unconventional plot structures should also be mentioned: Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Allison.

Jordan Alam, teaching How the Body Holds Its Stories: An Embodied Writing Workshop

The Simple Art of Flying by Cory Leonardo

Aladdin Books (Simon & Schuster), 2019

This book is about a grumpy parrot named Alastair who likes to eat poetry. I mean, how much better can it get? The story is about this anxious, grumpy parrot trying every strategy he can to reunite with his beloved sister, who learns along the way that sometimes the bravest thing to do is to simply let go. But don’t let the quirkiness fool you, because while it’s there in delightful spades, this book also brought me to tears multiple times. It’s the perfect next book for fans of The One and Only Ivan or The Underneath. It hits all my favorite markers for children’s books; an incredibly rich and voicey narrator, hilarity and heartbreaking poignancy perfectly mixed, and meticulous and poetic prose. This is a new book, out in 2019, that deserves to win all the awards for children’s literature. 

Sarah Allen, teaching Nailing Your Own Middle Grade Voice

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Janauda Petrus

Dutton Books for Young Readers (Penguin Press), 2019

This book has it all: Grit. Magic. Tragedy. Struggle against prejudice and the inevitable. It’s got uplifting, complex bliss and a whole heap of hard-won hope. Two sixteen-year-old women alternate the telling of this story. Audre arrives fresh to Minneapolis, bringing her Trinidadian diction and the earth magic she inherited from her badass grandmother. Amidst feeling terribly alone and missing the pastor’s daughter she fell for back in Trini, Audre meets Mabel. Mabel changes everything. The Stars and the Blackness Between Them is distilled queer magic (did I mention the book keeps time with themed poems marking the beginning of each astrological season?). It’s the type of YA book that’s so artful and full of hope it has something to offer people of all ages. The young women in this book taught me so much. I learned about Trinidadian cuisine, Whitney Houston, the prison industrial complex, and creative resistance. But most of all I learned about love. What an enriching joy, to witness these wise beings as they share between them the story of a great love blossoming.

Honorable mention: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. The gutsy nuanced utopia you didn’t know you needed (so desperately). Read it all in a single sitting.

Wryly McCutchen, teaching Dug up, Corrupted, Disarranged: Derived Poetry and Its Forms

Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helperin

Penguin Press, 2005

Generally speaking, the British royals aren’t a topic I’m remotely interested in, not even in fiction. All that changed when I read Mark Helperin’s Freddy and Fredericka, published in 2005 and chronicling the misadventures of a strangely familiar, dysfunctional royal couple who find themselves on an epic, unintended journey across America. While this book is satirical on its surface and sometimes delightfully Monty Python-esque in its humor—truly, no book has ever made me laugh out loud as much as this one—at its heart is a sophisticated and sweeping examination of more than one contemporary culture. The prose is brilliant, too. Ultimately, though, this is a book that delivers its greatest satisfaction by challenging its characters—and its readers—to discover what is most real and human about themselves. 

Alma García, teaching Fiction II

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino 

Random House, 2019

From the rise of athleisure to the decline of marriage as we know it, Jia Tolentino covers the whole spectrum in Trick Mirror, her new book of essays that, ultimately, describe the millennial experience with the blend of humor and nihilism we millennials have perfected. Her critique of online culture, even in the face of her own experience of persona-building and branding, is approachable, sharp, and unrelenting; and yet, she walks the reader through obvious contradictions and nuance with a steady, friendly hand. 

Honorable mentions: Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch, Orange World by Karen Russell, and Maid by Stephanie Land

Erica Sklar, teaching Deep Wordplay

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Penguin Press, 2013

This is one of the best books ever written about Seattle, even though the ostensible subject is rowing. Brown does an amazing job of putting the main character Joe Rantz and the rest of the UW crew team in the larger context of the Depression and WWII. He does this with humor, pathos, and unflagging American optimism. The book is full of poetic passages and luminous lore about rowing and human challenges and inspiring achievement. Like a sleek rowing shell, it gains momentum slowly and then surges across the finish line.

Nick O’Connell, teaching The Romance of Travel Writing

Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Biographies aren’t usually my bag, but I was entranced by Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast. To tell the story of the poet’s life, Pulitzer Prize-winner Megan Marshall animates a trove of letters Bishop wrote to her lovers, her friends Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, and her psychiatrist. But the most interesting bits were the in-between chapters, where the author, Marshall, meets Bishop at Harvard and becomes her student. It’s a captivating work of one woman’s obsession with another, grown out of a deep respect for craft, struggle, and perfection. 

Margot Kahn Case, teaching Writing Home

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Avid Reader Press (Simon & Schuster), 2019

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself ensconced in the pages of Lisa Taddeo’s radical exploration of female desire Three Women. Taddeo’s reportage is based on ten years of research and multiple trips across the country, at times relocating to allow for firsthand observation of three women’s lives. At the level of craft, this book is quite striking in the use of third person close—consistently remaining within the point of view of its subjects—yielding a novelistic delivery that is consistent with a remarkable capacity for empathy. While many books have moved me over the course of 2019, Three Women serves to further incite my own heightened interest at midlife in asking for what I want. My thoughts center and circulate on how I might best express an underground sense of longing and overcome the fear of unraveling and asserting such latent awareness. Three Women makes this invitation.

Sarah Townsend, teaching Narrative Intimacy in Literary Nonfiction

We’re Going To Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

Harper Collins, 2017

No matter how successful and/or famous one becomes, one still has baggage from their past, present, and (fears attached to) a yet to-be-determined future. Union’s candor about race, sexual assault, infertility, and Hollywood is refreshing and poignant—often in equal measure. And as the title alludes, this read pairs nicely with a bottle of Pinot Gris…or Noir. 

Honorable mentions: The Comfort Food Diaries by Emily Nunn and Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan

Rachel Werner, teaching #OwnVoices: Digital Storytelling

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Penguin Press, 2019

During 2019, I read seventeen books of various types: memoir, novel, short story, poetry. The stand-out was On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. At thirty-one, he is a much-lauded poet, essayist, and novelist, and deservedly so. “I wanted to start with truth and art,” he said in an interview with Seth Meyers. Vuong wrote the book to his mother, although she cannot read English.

On Earth… broke my heart open. While I hesitate to assume too much, it reads like an autobiographical novel, an open wound. The protagonist is a young Vietnamese American who lives in rural New England poverty with his mother and grandmother. Both women have gone through the kind of trauma we shove to the side in our heads in order to go forward. Their stories are retold throughout the book, changing and revealing new details each time. The protagonist starts working at a farm, where the foreman’s son starts a relationship with him. The language is exquisite—like slowly chewing glass as we fret about the inevitable tragedy that will befall these two. Even as I knew things would end badly, I had to keep reading until I finished. As both a human story and an exemplar of spectacular writing, this book is a keeper.

Kathleen Alcalá, teaching Writing the Op Ed

When I picked this novel up, I wasn’t at all sure it was going to be the perfect airplane reading—I knew it was poetic, and I wanted something that would keep me riveted through turbulence. But then… I could not stop reading. Vuong’s prose is pared down and distilled, with lyric turns of phrase that are just as beautiful and crystalline as the title of the book. I love reading books that make me want to drop everything and immediately get back to the writing project I myself am working on, and this absolutely falls into that category. Even better is reading a book that does everything I want my own work to do—in this case, is lyrical, sharp, and full of power.

Arianne Zwartjes, teaching Under the Skin: An Exploration of Autotheory

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

Milkweed Editions, 2018

This Pulitzer Prize finalist from the last year has been called “the book on climate change that was missing.” Rush, who teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University, composed a lyrical account of change, uncertainty, and vulnerability that highlights how communities need help now, in the present. While the book is urgent, it is also hopeful, and even at its darkest moments manages to find beauty in the midst of rising seas. The book is a case study in how those who write creative nonfiction can go about the process of researching their work, especially in terms of interacting with people in the midst of crisis. 

John Farnsworth, teaching Writing Nature

Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon

The Great Courses, 2008

If there’s one book that made me want to grab the nearest megaphone and start preaching in the streets, it was Building Great Sentences. (Every writer I know is now rolling their eyes and saying, “Yeah, she told me about it like three times already.”) I’m feeling pressured to write a great sentence about it. Gah, I’m choking! Just read the book. You’ll see.

Paulette Perhach, teaching Going Pro: Your Freelance Writing Business

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Faber & Faber, 2014

What a pleasure it was to read a novel that reinvigorates the idea of the literary story. Outline is the first in Cusk’s trilogy (the others are Transit and Kudos) cataloging the writing, thoughtful, and introspective life. While all three are excellent, it’s Outline that made the greatest impact on me. It’s an engrossing yet rapid read. Perhaps its greatest appeal is that it relies not on the author’s personal agenda, but on a sense of nonjudgmental wonder about the world. Things happen in the author/character’s life, and she lets them. She meets a variety of people and allows them to be themselves. In these days of partisan, winner-take-all social and national politics, it is nice to know that such an outlook can still exist. 

Joe Ponepinto, teaching Submitting and Tracking Your Work and Flash Fiction Workshop