Two Favorite Books of 2019
by Jude Joseph Lovell
’Tis the season for year-end lists! Picking up on a new “tradition” I started last year in these pages, and as someone with a passion for reading and writing about books, I now offer my favorite nonfiction and fiction titles from those I read in 2019.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner, 2010)
The timing for my taking on this large, possibly intimidating study was not accidental. One of my beloved family members was diagnosed this year with Stage IV ovarian cancer and is currently engaged in the fight of her life. But I had heard about Mukherjee’s book many times before and had contemplated reading it earlier. It received universally strong notices and has recently been cited more than once on “Best of the 2010s” book lists from national publications. The book deserves its excellent reputation. While its subject matter may not appeal to everyone’s reading taste, it seems a difficult reality that all of us are likely to encounter this frightening illness, one way or another—if we have not already. But what is cancer? How many forms of it exist? How long has it been with us, and how has humankind fared in trying to identify it, plunge headlong into its fearful mysteries, and fight back? Mukherjee’s meticulously researched and elegantly written account, the result of years of effort and personal experience (he is an oncologist), examines all of these questions in detail. But it does so with great respect, a compassionate heart, and a true artist’s flair for language. The reader learns all about the incredible, arduous battle between the human intellect and this shape-shifting malaise, stretching back for millennia. We come away with a new understanding of everything involved: the heroic industry of the doctors and caregivers; the extraordinary courage of so many who have lost (or won) their fight; and the stunning, unfathomable power of nature itself. The Emperor of All Maladies educates, awes, and humbles all at once.
Cloudstreet, Tim Winton (McPhee Gribble, 1991)
One of my favorite things about reading in general is that it allows me to “travel the world” when I lack both the time and the resources to do so otherwise. So while this selection may seem obscure—a novel by one of Australia’s modern masters of storytelling—Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet was easily the most impressive work of fiction I read this year. There’s a peculiar but potent magic to this novel that I think has to do with the writer’s deep grasp of basic humanity and his unique command of language. That is how a story set in a suburb of Perth, Australia, in the latter half of the 20th century is really about each one of us. After the end of World War II, two large families, both of whom have endured tragedies, move into the large, unique house that gives the novel its title. One family is poor but hard-working and buoyed by faith; the other is jaded and down on their luck, given to flights of madness and self-inflicted suffering. The sprawling tale of these two families’ intertwining fates over two decades contains multitudes of compelling elements: fascinating characters, all seasons of life, a talking pig, and a sense of wonder at the majesty of the land and all of its wild inhabitants. Cloudstreet is a gorgeous book with the sweep of a Biblical epic. Citizens of every nation would do well to read it.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.