For the past dozen years, the first Book Banter column of the new year always meant taking one last look at the year before and see which books stood out for me over the previous 12 months. This past year, like ever other year, I read an average of 50 books, so that it can be reviewed in the pages of The Montreal Times practically every week. Choosing a book to review is always done through a personal process of elimination, and that same process is done as I decided which are the best books of 2019.
And what a memorable literary year this was. The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was the most hotly anticipated fiction book this year, and earned her the prestigious Booker Prize. Another book that was riding high on the fiction lists was Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens’ literary debut that also became an Oprah Book Club selection. Two popular memoirs – Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Tara Westover’s Educated – entered their second year on hardcover nonfiction bestseller lists everywhere. And finally, Triggered, Donald Trump Junior’s diatribe-in-a-book, debuted on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list at #1, which prompted me to blurt out “you have to be f—ing kidding!” when I first saw the list; thankfully, the New York Times gave the book its version of the asterisk, denoting that Triggered had triggered its way to the top spot because of bulk, and not individual, sales.
So, without further ado, here are best books of 2019:
Catch and Kill by Ronen Farrow – This is my choice for book of the year. It was an enthralling behind-the-scenes look at how Farrow became one of three journalists who broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal that destroyed his career as an “A”-list movie producer, brought about the “Me Too” movement, and cost Farrow his job at NBC News (but subsequently earned him a Pulitzer Prize when his story made it to the pages of the New Yorker). A must-read for the next generation of aspiring journalists.
Makeup Tips from Auschwitz by Tommy Schnurmacher – This memoir by the much loved and widely-read veteran Montreal columnist and broadcaster had quite a curious origin. It all started in the summer of 2018 as a series of wildly popular Facebook posts that Tommy wrote on a semi-regular basis that chronicled his career as a journalist and broadcaster, as well as his life with his mother Olga, a strong-willed Holocaust survivor who was not at all afraid to speak her mind (and at one point, had a very close resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor, circa 1963). It’s a book filled with plenty of heart, humour and heartbreak.
Working by Robert A. Caro – If you wanted to know how a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer plies his craft, then this was the book to read. In this compact hardcover, Caro gives his legions of fans a rare look at how he put together his epic biographies of New York City developer Robert Moses and former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, not to mention all the trials and tribulations that went along with it. And as an added bonus, he offered a sneak preview of the eagerly-awaited fifth and final volume of his LBJ biography, which covers the period from 1964 until Johnson’s death in 1973.
Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – Whitehead’s novella proved that his Pulitzer Prize for his previous book The Underground Railroad was no fluke. It takes place in Florida during the late 50s and early 60s during the dying days of Jim Crow and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement; in particular, it focuses on an orphanage for Black children that’s run like a prison. Based on a true story, this book shines the light on a dark, unknown aspect of Florida’s shady history that reads like a true American tragedy.
Hollywood North by Michael Libling – The original host and creator of CJAD’s Trivia Show has been writing plenty of short stories since he left the airwaves over 25 years ago. In 2019, he finally published his first full-length novel and what a literary treat it is. The narrative, which reads like a combination of a Stephen King novel and an episode of “Stranger Things”, takes place in Libling’s hometown of Trenton, Ontario during the early 1960s, in which the discovery of some rare silent film title cards unearths the town’s unknown (and dangerously secret) past as a Canadian film making capitol during the 1920s.
Three Days at the Brink by Brett Baier – I may not be a regular viewer of Fox News Channel, but Brett Baier, one of its hosts, has made a name for himself to book readers for his passion for the history of the office of President of the United States, and has given it an interesting twist in two previous bestsellers that dealt with just three significant days in the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. In his new “Three Days” book (the last of a proposed trilogy), Baier focuses on Franklin D. Roosevelt and the fateful three days he spent in Tehran, Iran in 1943 conferring with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin on when to carry out what will be the D-Day invasion of Normandy that will bring out the beginning of the end of the war in Europe, and indirectly, the genesis of the Cold War. This book is a breezy, but highly informative read about one tireless man and how the destiny of the free world fell on his tired shoulders.
Inside Out by Demi Moore – This was probably the best show business memoir of this year. Best known for her roles in “Ghost”, “A Few Good Men” and “G.I. Jane”, Moore gives an engrossing account of how she rose to fame from a highly dysfunctional, toxic family situation, and in turn, felt she was being punished by the Hollywood establishment for the sheer fact that she was becoming a respected, high-salaried actress in this old boys’ club. Also, you get the story behind her famous pregnant and nude Vanity Fair cover back in 1991.
Scotty by Ken Dryden – One of the greatest goalies ever to mind the nets in the NHL has once again exhibited his love for the game in his role as a critically-acclaimed bestselling author. This time around, he writes about the legendary coach who helmed the Habs to five Stanley Cups during the 1970s (in which Dryden served as its goaltender throughout that dynasty), Scotty Bowman. Through countless hours of interviews, Dryden manages to crack the exterior of this complex individual who became the NHL’s most successful coach, and how Bowman’s passion for hockey led to such an incredible career behind the bench and in the front office of six NHL teams.
The Institute by Stephen King – This year, King decided to go the dystopian route with The Institute, and he succeeded tremendously, proving that he could dabble in any literary genre so that he wouldn’t be labeled solely as a horror writer. Once again set in King’s familiar turf of his home state of Maine, the book tells the story of Luke Ellis, a young boy with special mind powers who is kidnapped from his Minnesota home and sent to a remote institution somewhere in Maine, where other children who share such similar powers are held so that they will eventually be indoctrinated and used as pawns of the U.S. government. This is another page-turner from the mind of Stephen King that loudly screams out regarding the injustices of a government holding innocent children against their own will for no apparent reason.
The Show Won’t Go On by Jeff Abraham and Bert Kearns – Who knew that a collection of true stories about well-known or obscure entertainers who literally faced their final curtains onstage could be such a morbidly-fascinating, read-in-one-sitting book? This duo has managed to take a depressing subject on the surface and turn it into a bizarre, yet engrossing catalogue of more than 300 years of final curtain calls ranging from heart attacks to onstage mishaps, which befell upon a variety of unsuspecting performers, whether they were comedian Dick Shawn, British comedian/magician Tommy Cooper, or 1960s entertainment curiosity Tiny Tim.
And that takes care of 2019. Have a great page-turning 2020.