1A’s Best Reads Of 2019

We read a lot this year. So did you. We wanted to share some of our favorites.

Our bookshelf at WAMU is almost always full! (Gabrielle Healy/WAMU)

People tend to ask our production staff — how do you find show ideas?

Of course, there’s the daily news cycle that provides endless fodder for topics we cover all the time (hello, impeachment). But inspiration comes from everywhere, especially the books and articles that we read, the movies we watch and podcasts we listen to. So to share with you what we were thinking about this year, we decided to make a list of the best things we read in 2019.

Some of these are books and ideas we’ve featured on the program. Others are not. And of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list. But we wanted to share some of the stories that surprised and delighted us this year, just like we hope to do for our audience every day.

As our late-20s begin to come to a close, my friends and I see our early-30s on the horizon. This age has brought on an incredible amount of growth and self-assurance — in our careers and personally. It’s also an age that asks a lot of questions we don’t know the answers to yet. Do we want families? When will we start them? What will they look like? Farai Chideya’s piece about the ups and downs she’s faced as she tries to become a mother offers a real and raw look into one of the many answers.

First a book on a topic I knew nothing about — but it blew my socks off.

Stronghold — One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Salmon. We ended up speaking to them on the show in July. It’s an astonishing tale of the efforts of a few people to get Washington and Moscow to pay attention to the change that’s been underway in some of the remotest corners of the planet.

Second, a tour de force about one part of the country that I fell in love with years ago.

Brooklyn: The Once and Future City is jammed with as many characters as you’d hope to find on a hot summer’s day in Coney Island. I loved its drama and intensity. It left me with a much better appreciation for those who had the foresight to make sure this part of New York did not fall entirely under concrete.

Between Gods has been sitting on my bookshelf for five years. As someone who has a strong faith culturally, but less so spiritually, the title drew me in. I don’t know what finally led me to pick it up off my shelf this year, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Alison Pick, a fiction writer, brings her creative storytelling to a specific time in her life: when she found out her family was Jewish but had chosen to hide that heritage. It’s honest, gripping and I saw my own struggles with identity in her words. I felt seen.

Kathryn made this kale salad. (Kathryn Fink/WAMU)

Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman, by Jia Tolentino, hurt so good. She posits that our obsession with self-optimization has created a culture where we, say, exercise regularly and speedily refuel à la fast casual, so we don’t have to waste time thinking about our bodies or food the rest of the day; everything we do is a means to a more efficient end. While I’ve never been to a Barre class and I seldom eat at Sweetgreen, this essay got me thinking about the myriad ways I try to optimize my own life. I’m not sure when life hacks became the status quo for a working millennial like myself, but I don’t like it. I’m trying to slow down and immerse myself in the pieces of my day that make life feel richer.

Just because I’m the host of a show that requires me to be in control and keep it together, doesn’t mean I’m always in control nor always keep it together. This was a trying year for a lot of reasons, and there were moments where I felt very frustrated and cornered. I don’t remember where I heard of this book, but it was in the back of my mind as a story about what it takes to endure crushing circumstances. I bought it online one night, inhaled the book and found myself rethinking a lot of things: including the way I live my life and the way I face my challenges. It’s such a simple notion, but it’s true: the key to survival is having a strong enough reason to survive.

I read a lot of books in 2019 (and finished my 40-book Goodreads challenge with one book to spare!) but the one that stuck with me is “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai. I have a soft spot for stories that deal with death, legacy and the burden/privilege of being memory-keeper once your loved ones are gone.

“The Great Believers” tackles all of that with delicacy, beauty and tenderness. It is, at times, very sad — it’s been more than half a year since I read it, but I vividly remember the chapter that made me cry. Even so, it’s never depressing — and you walk away feeling honored that you got to know the characters, even if it was just for a little while.

Hear our conversation with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi about “How To Be An Antiracist.”

The book is “Parkland: Birth of a Movement,” by Dave Cullen.

I enjoyed this book because it gave a behind-the-scenes look at the March For Our Lives movement that started after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. You get a sense of how precarious this movement was, as a group of students who didn’t really know each other banded together to make change. It was inspiring to read how they figured everything out as they went and how they dealt with mistakes along the way. There’s also a great section where the students meet people who lived through the Columbine shooting nearly 20 years earlier and learn how much has changed. I thought I knew all about this movement but this book showed me so much more.

We also spoke to Dave Cullen about “Parkland” earlier this year.

*we know the title of this post says reads. But this episode was too good not to include.

Keeping in mind that every Heavyweight episode is the best Heavyweight episode, The Marshes is my favorite thing I’ve heard this year (and had me crying throughout the entire journey I listened to it). The premise of the show is based on host Jonathon Goldstein using his podcast powers to bring answers to long-standing questions. The Marshes follows a family who wants to reunite with a sister who had been adopted, but unexpected questions begin to emerge, and sets up the family for possible heartbreak. The episode took three years to make and confronts the truth we all sometimes try to avoid.

This comic was one of the few pieces I read that made home feel closer. Being from Indonesia, seeing my peers fight injustice and doing whatever it takes to right wrongs remind me that I’m not alone in this movement. Whether I’m in India or the U.S., my passion is shared and universal. I can be anywhere in the world and still celebrate my heritage as an Indonesian woman.

“The Most Fun We Ever Had” by Claire Lombardo is the best thing I read this year, though it battled for this position against the incredible “Circe” by Madeline Miller.

Lombardo creates wonders with words and her novel spans generations of the Sorenson family, telling a captivating story I couldn’t put down, with characters so real I felt like they were in the room with me while I read.

Four hundred years ago, in August 1619, a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia. By marking the beginning of American slavery, The 1619 Project by The New York Times reframed the country’s history. Through a series of articles and essays, it placed the legacy of slavery and the contributions of black Africans at the very center of the nation’s founding. It explained how from the banking system to health care, no aspect of the nation has not been touched by slavery. Hands down, this was one of the most groundbreaking works of journalism this year.

I read “The Crane Wife,” by CJ Hauser, on the bus this summer and skipped my stop to keep reading. It’s the story of a woman who calls off her engagement around the time she’s set to travel to Texas to research a species of crane for her novel. On her trip, she reflects over her troubled relationship and how she settled for a lot out of fear of being needy. There’s also a lot of moving science and nature imagery and she connects with this group of scientists who probably would never have come together were it not for these birds. It’s a really beautiful read and one of my favorites from this year.

This summer, we spoke with Colson Whitehead about “The Nickle Boys.” Charlie Fudge was another one of our guests. Fudge was incarcerated at the abusive reform school that Whitehead incorporated into his novel.

Candido and Brenda have two paychecks, three kids, and one mini-van. And it wasn’t enough to afford a home in California’s Salinas Valley. Every night, the family drove around, looking for a safe place to park their Toyota Sienna. This California Sunday piece followed the family as they experienced the consequences of a significant housing crisis in a place that feeds much of the country. It’s something we’ve talked about on the program several times this year, but this piece really identified the housing crisis’s effects on working people and their families.

Also, I always recommend the Longform “Best Of” lists if you haven’t gotten to it already. Many of my favorite pieces of journalism from this year are featured.

1A is the midday news show from @WAMU885 and @NPR. Find the podcast at npr.org/1a.

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