Best books of 2019: What Ronan Farrow, Susan Orlean and more writers we love couldn’t put down
The first year of the Los Angeles Times Book Club was eventful. Hundreds of Angelenos gathered monthly to hear from such bestselling authors as Susan Orlean, George Takei, Laila Lalami and Ronan Farrow. The discussions were meaningful, the questions were sharp and the conversation flowed.
Our book club embraces the idea of the community read — that when we all read the same book we have a common point of reference to start a discussion. We might have different opinions, but we can share the common experience of reading a meaningful book. Then we bring Times readers together to listen, talk and ask questions.
As the year ends, we’ve gone back to some of our book club authors and guests to ask about the books that kept them up at night. Their selections cover a wide range, including fiction, memoirs and graphic novels.
Susan Orlean (“The Library Book”)
What was the book you couldn’t put down this year, and why? “The Old Drift” by Namwali Serpell. The writing is so exquisite, and the sweep of the story is so powerful that I couldn’t resist it.
What book are you recommending to others? Besides “The Old Drift,” I’ve been recommending “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong, another triumph of exquisite writing but one that’s very intimate and interior, vs. the epic ambitions of “The Old Drift.”
Did you have a favorite audiobook this year? I loved “Barbarian Days” by William Finnegan. He read the book himself, and since it’s a memoir, it was great to hear it in his own voice.
What’s your next project in 2020? I’m adapting “The Library Book” for television, which should keep me busy all year!
Ronan Farrow (“Catch and Kill”)
What was the book you couldn’t put down? I tried to read authors I loved while I was writing the book, and that included a lot of (Haruki) Murakami. “Kafka by the Shore,” in particular, was a joy.
What are you recommending? I am constantly recommending Cynthia Ozick’s “The Puttermesser Papers” to people. She’s one of my favorite stylists and this one’s a great, accessible way into her work.
Favorite audiobook? Listened this year: John Malkovich’s reading of “Breakfast of Champions” is a weird delight. Released this year: Jia Tolentino’s reading of “Trick Mirror.” I listened to this in the booth while recording the “Catch and Kill” podcast because I think she has this great authentic quality to her delivery.
Your next project? I’m a reporter, so I’ll keep reporting!
Father Gregory Boyle (“Barking to the Choir”)
What was the book you couldn’t put down? “Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics” by Mirabai Starr.
What are you recommending? “Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World” by Pema Chodron.
Favorite audiobook? “Calypso” by David Sedaris.
Your next project? A third book, “The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness.”
Laila Lalami (“The Other Americans”)
What was the book you couldn’t put down? Maaza Mengiste’s “The Shadow King.” It’s a riveting historical novel set during the second Italo-Ethiopian war and told from several perspectives, including those of Ethiopian women warriors. Mengiste manages the rare feat of writing a war story with depth, nuance and grace.
What are you recommending? Rajia Hassib’s “A Pure Heart.” Set in Cairo and New York, this novel follows Rose, an Egyptian archaeologist who travels back home following the death of her sister in a suicide bombing. As she mourns this loss, Rose excavates pieces of her and her family’s past, drawing connections between them even as their lives have taken different trajectories.
Favorite audiobook? During a long drive this year, I listened to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” I ended up getting a paper copy of it because there were so many passages that I wanted to underline and think about further.
Your next project? I’m currently going over page proofs for a book of nonfiction called “Conditional Citizens,” which looks at the diverse experiences of people who don’t yet have access to the full rights, liberties and protections of citizenship. It will be published by Pantheon in May.
George Takei (“They Called Us Enemy”)
What was the book you couldn’t put down? I’m currently reading Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez’s fascinating father/son autobiography, chapters being alternated by the two, titled “Along the Way.”
What are you recommending? We acquired the film rights to Jamie Ford’s novel — also a father/son, and a love story that involves the internment of Japanese Americans titled “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.” So I’m recommending it to everybody.
Your next project? The film version of “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”
Justin Eisinger (co-author “They Called Us Enemy”)
What are you recommending? As soon as I opened Malaka Gharib’s “I Was Their American Dream,” I couldn’t put it down and read it straight through while mostly standing in my kitchen. Beyond the specific and fascinating insights into her family and their story, the underlying message about our desire to fit in and figure out our own identity hit me right in the feels.
Favorite audiobook? Does a podcast count? I’ll pretend it does and say that I make time to listen to Chris Hayes’ “Why Is This Happening?” And I try to catch “Gaslit Nation” with Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa.
Your next project? So many great books! But the one I can talk about right now is “The Mueller Report: Graphic Novel” that’s coming in April from Shannon Wheeler and Steve Duin.
Jeffrey Fleishman (Times senior writer)
What was the book you couldn’t put down? The book I kept going back to this year was “The Long Take” by Robin Robertson. It’s a novel about a World War II veteran who ends up as a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles. It’s an extraordinary mix of poetry and prose infused with the style and feel of a classic noir film. It’s full of miscreants, homeless, opportunists and double-dealers who roam the dark side of the American dream. Robertson, who is a poet, twists the prism of language to give us a city that’s a “smear of neon” with scant absolution.
What are you recommending? I’m recommending two books: “The Long Take” by Robin Robertson and “Frankissstein” by Jeanette Winterson, a clever, funny love story about artificial intelligence, sexual identity and the ghost of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
Your next project? I’ll be awaiting the October publication of my new novel, “Last Dance,” a noir about a Russian ballerina whose body is found in a downtown Los Angeles loft. It’s the second in a series.
Keep reading: Sign up for the Los Angeles Times Book Club newsletter to keep up with book news and upcoming 2020 events.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.