Ann Patchett is not my patron saint but she might as well be: 2019 book list

“Every choice lays down a trail of breadcrumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a breadcrumb in sight. There are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss and you think, What now?”

—Ann Patchett, What Now?

Early this year I took the Strengthsfinder assessment, meant to identify key personal and professional strengths. According to the assessment, Context (hello, Master’s degree in history!) and Discipline ranked high on my strengths list, but to my surprise Connectedness came in at the very top. Gallup, the entity that administers the assessment, says that people with a strong sense of connectedness “have faith in the links among all things. They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has meaning.” To you this might sound a little woo-woo, but to me it pretty accurately describes the tingle at the back of my head that seems to tell me to sit up and pay attention because what happens next is going to make a big impact. I’ve learned not to question that sensation, and this year I’ve been trying to make space for it, to let go of the to-do lists and rigid plans of my daily discipline in favor of being open to what might surprise me, in favor of the connections I might not yet see.

I spent most of this year pondering the question, “What now?” Even before I found Ann Patchett’s slender little book with that title, I found myself wondering how I wanted to spend my life, the months and years ahead of me. What did I want to learn? What would I regret not pursuing? What kinds of things did I want to write? And after I found Ann Patchett’s little book (free! on Hoopla! read by the author!) I was hungry for more stories that took me out of 2019, taught me something new, and reminded me of what made me who I am. I dug into the works of Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Di Camillo, Patti Smith, and Edith Wharton for the first time, and giggled and sobbed and aha!ed with delight. I also reacquainted myself with old friends: I read Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Bronte, among the best books I have ever read and one that brought to life my literary patron saint in a way I can’t describe. I read plays because I wanted to. I went to see Ann Patchett speak in Elkins Park, PA, on my birthday, simply because I happened to see the sign and my occipital bone tingled with anticipation. I wondered about other new opportunities, paths that seemed to fork off the main route, and I read a lot of very short books because I am revising a very long novel that has needed a lot of brave and significant pruning.

Still, the thing I learned this year from reading was not to take anything too seriously. It’s okay to put down books you don’t find interesting, it’s equally fine to fall in love with a children’s book or graphic novel. One of those things might lead you somewhere wonderful and unexpected. The best thing we can do is open our ears, our hearts, and our minds, and ask, “What now?”

“When it comes to finding our way we’re better off taking in as much information, from as many sources, as possible… The secret is to keep adding voices, adding ideas, and moving things around as you put together your life. If you’re lucky, putting together your life is a process that will last through every single day you’re alive.”

—Ann Patchett, What Now?

  1. Here is New York, E. B. White
  2. Sheets, Brenna Thummler
  3. When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
  4. The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin*
  5. Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers*
  6. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
  7. Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
  8. Homeland and Other Stories, Barbara Kingsolver
  9. The Seagull, Anton Chekov
  10. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J. K. Rowling
  11. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
  12. Lila, Marilynne Robinson*
  13. Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
  14. Locomotive, Brian Floca
  15. Original Zinn, Howard Zinn
  16. What If?, Randall Monroe
  17. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James
  18. Les cigognes sont immortelles, Alain Mabanckou
  19. Good Dog. Stay., Anna Quindlen
  20. Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith*
  21. A Society, Virginia Woolf
  22. An Age of License, Lucy Knisley
  23. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Harumi Murakami
  24. Fortunately, The Milk, Neil Gaiman
  25. A Study in Emerald, Neil Gaiman*
  26. What Now?, Ann Patchett*
  27. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee
  28. The Body’s Question, Tracy K. Smith*
  29. Charlotte Bronte: a Fiery Heart, Claire Harman*
  30. White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo
  31. A Tale For The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
  32. Duende, Tracy K. Smith
  33. Cinderella Liberator, Rebecca Solnit
  34. The Transitive Vampire, Karen Gordon
  35. Algeria is Beautiful like America, Olivia Burton
  36. Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
  37. Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography, Zena Alkayat
  38. Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me, Jill Kolongowski
  39. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nahisi Coates
  40. The Dark Side of Empathy, Fritz Breithaupt
  41. Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Maria Semple
  42. Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks*
  43. What Now?, Ann Patchett
  44. The Excellent Lombards, Jane Hamilton*
  45. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf*
  46. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
  47. Dear Elizabeth, Sarah Ruhl
  48. The Duck Variations, David Mamet
  49. Millk and Honey, Rupi Kaur
  50. Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks
  51. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
  52. Cowboy Mouth, Patti Smith and Sam Shepherd
  53. Sunset Baby, Dominique Morriseau
  54. Elements of Fiction, Walter Moseley
  55. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  56. Persepolis 2, Marjane Satrapi
  57. Apollo, Fitch, Baker, Collins
  58. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  59. Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo
  60. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo*
  61. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
  62. Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton*
  63. What Now?, Ann Patchett
  64. Angels in America, Tony Kushner
  65. Woolgathering, Patti Smith*
  66. Hallelujah Anyway, Anne Lamott
  67. Scandinavia: A History, Ewan Butler
  68. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
  69. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
  70. Words Under Words, Naomi Shihab Nye

* books I loved

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