We peeled through far too many books this year to include all of them in a roundup. Even as ignorance seems to prevail in the world, our local booksellers are thriving, readings are sold out, and our mailbox is always full of compelling new hardcovers. Here’s a rundown of some of our favorites from 2019, including several whose authors we were lucky enough to interview this year.
Disgraceland by Jake Brennan
We hope it’s not an insult to say this may be the best damn bathroom reader since the Beastie Boys Book; like the hip-hop trio’s 2018 autobiography (written by the remaining two members, naturally), podcaster (and former member of the Boston bands Bodega Girls and Confidence Men) Jake Brennan’s compendium packs lots of fun quick reads that can be easily digested by the time your last meal rockets out the back door. Subtitled Musicians Getting Away with Murder and Behaving Very Badly, Disgraceland lives up to its eponymous promise, with tales “populated by gangsters, drug dealers, pimps, [and] groupies,” all peppered “with violence, scandal and pure unadulterated rock ’n’ roll entertainment.” Among the disgraced souls featured therein: Jerry Lee Lewis, Axl Rose, Colonel Tom Parker, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, and many more.
Fentanyl, Inc. by Ben Westhoff
In the time since we published a cover story about Westhoff’s groundbreaking book about America’s metastasizing new opioid epidemic, it’s since gone on to be hailed as one of the year’s top books by several major outlets. As we told you (first!): “From fast and furious nerdy bros brewing up alphabet soup in bunkers underneath the desert, to 20-something call center employees who peddle poison by phone from the back offices of semilegal chemistry labs in China, the stories in this book follow a theme: Everything you think you know about drugs has changed. Even the people packing, slinging, sniffing, and filling their vaults thanks to this garbage don’t know the half. Or the wrath. They mostly only care about the math.” A terrifying read from front to back.
More than Enough by Elaine Welteroth
Elaine Welteroth is a judge on Project Runway and formerly the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, where she was the youngest person ever to have that title at a Condé Nast publication. She is known for shifting the mag’s mission and making it more socially conscious, and in More Than Enough, which Welteroth calls “part-manifesto, part-memoir,” she writes about her time navigating the media industry and the struggles she faced. As the author told DigBoston about her time trying to get a seat at the table: “This book is my first table, it is my first offering to this audience, and I can’t wait to invite them to sit at the table and have conversations and break bread. This is just one of the many tables I will build. I have much more to do in my career.” No doubt about it, but for now, we recommend her debut.
Sea People by Christina Thompson
As Max Chapnick wrote in the Dig earlier this year, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia sets out to untangle some mysteries: How did Polynesians become “the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in world”? How did one “identifiable group of voyagers,” with a “single language and set of customs,” “a particular body of myths,” and a “‘portmanteau biota’ of plants and animals” spread themselves over this massive ocean?” Among other grand inquiries. Furthermore, “Because Thompson surveys nearly 500 years of theories about the Polynesian diaspora, from 1519 to 2018, she never lingers too long on any one period or figure. Asides and footnotes imply Thompson’s knowledge stretches much deeper than she reveals explicitly; she chooses only the most meaningful and relevant events.” Basically, a lot of bang for your book.
Radical Suburbs by Amanda Kolson Hurley
We were thrilled to throw an event earlier this year with Amanda Kolson Hurley of the Atlantic. As we wrote in our preview at the time, her book, Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City, may blow your mind. Specifically, the suburbs, she argues, don’t completely suck! Look closely, the author says, and you’ll even find some of the most progressive models of community in the entire country. “Misinformed cliches,” Kolson Hurley writes, “still define suburbia in the popular imagination, and it drives me crazy. I lived in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. I’m a suburbanite, but my life doesn’t revolve around manicured lawns, status anxiety, or a craving for homogeneity.” In addition to including fascinating history about this region and others, Hurley’s work may help open your mind about what is actually possible in Strip Mall, America.
i shimmer sometimes, too by Porsha Olayiwola
In April, Boston’s newest and third poet laureate, Porsha Olayiwola, told the Dig: “I feel like, for the last six years, I’ve just been working and working and working, and I hit a point where I felt like I couldn’t remember anyone ever having said thank you for it all—which is fine, that’s not why I do the work—but it was tough on me, I literally spent all my time, all my money, feeding people. And now it feels like, here it is, all of the thank yous I never got, this is that.” On that note, we should all thank Olayiwola for a stellar debut collection, as i shimmer sometimes, too, which hits the mark with poems that “dip their hands deep into the fabric of black womanhood, pulling out all of its threads.”
The Hard Times: The First 40 Years by Hard Times staff
Hard Times co-founders Matt Saincome and Bill Conway broke down their compilation of punk satire for Dig comedy writer Dennis Maler in August: “This book chronicles our existence of the past 40 years, as if we were a zine that started in 1976. It shows our maturation as a media empire. We created new articles from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. And then we have articles from the website as the back half. So there’s a lot of new material. There’s a narrative that runs throughout the book that explains our backstory. There’s a lot of good things that are completely original to the book that you cannot find anywhere else. … It’s all the best articles from the website and then new ones that could become your new favorites.”
Welcome to Hell World by Luke O’Neil
As Boston polemicist Luke O’Neil writes in the first book named for his popular newsletter (and subtitled Dispatches from the American Dystopia), in a chapter exploring his thoughts about the annual Veteran’s Day display on Boston Common: “The flags looked beautiful I have to admit but I don’t know why we make war memorials look good they should look terrible. A war memorial should be a guy with his guts hanging out crying for his mother or a guy without a leg getting denied mental health services at the VA. People want things to be like what they think they are like unless it’s war in which case they want it to look like a TV show.” We feel the same way about writings on contemporary matters, from politics to music—they should be beautiful but hideous at the same time—and O’Neil scratches that itch for a remarkable 538 pages.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Among the many things that author Ibram X. Kendi told the Dig in August that may compel you to jump on the bandwagon and buy his best-selling book: “Terminology comes from the need to define and understand. When talking about race, our terms come from our historical understanding of how the concept was constructed and used to create inequities among different racial groups, which are still present today. My intent with this book is to be as precise as possible when talking about all the intersectionalities of race, so that, for example, when we are talking about the racist ideas that lead to inequalities between white women and black women or Asian women and Latinx women, we can label that for what it is, as gender racism.”
Our Market Season by various
We wanted to include a cookbook on this list, but not any old recipe tome. So we went with the new release by the team behind the Union Square destination Juliet, which is known to do things differently, to say the least. Initially the vision of Katrina Jazayeri and Joshua Lewin, the Juliet + Company concept has since come to include much more than food; case in point: of Juliet, “a seasonal magazine that loosely traces the background, inspiration, and development of ideas that become menus at the company’s restaurant.” For their first book-length effort, Our Market Season, the crew included “25 recipes, loosely organized to flow with the seasonal offerings at a New England farmers market,” as well as “sections direct from the kitchen training at the restaurant, both in recipe technique and how the chefs think about and plan for the dynamic requirements of seasonal cooking, and career-long improvement.”