A Year in Books

It’s become a theme in conversations with friends: 2016 was awful. Worst. Year. Ever. Our new favorite hashtag is #f***2016. We’ve been counting down the days till January 1 for months.

I’m not sure if this year has borne more suffering and disappointment than those before it, but I’ve sensed throughout that I need to bunker down, bulk up (intellectually if not physically), and hold on tight to my dear ones. Either in a survivalist response to 2016 or as a result of 30 years of trial and error, I’ve figured out this year how to take care of myself, revive long-distance friendships, pivot professionally, sleep deeply, and ramp up my weekly running mileage without disassembling my knees. I also conquered scabies (thanks for that, New York).

One component of self-care has been reading (“poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason,” etc.). It hasn’t been easy to justify this use of time, particularly as I studied for an exam and transitioned to a new job. But for my squirming, obsessive brain, a steady rotation of books has provided balance, stimulation and escape.

I’ve inventoried my most meaningful and memorable reads of the year below. Most of these books were published in 2016, a few in 2015. I’m still working my way through some of the most acclaimed books of the year (particularly in fiction), so please don’t interpret absence from this list as dismissal.

Fiction

I’m salivating over stacks of yet-unread 2016 fiction (e.g., Zadie Smith’s Swing Time; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am; Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing; Michael Chabon’s Moonglow), but they will need to wait for the first blizzard of 2017. Among the novels I’ve gotten through in the past year, I’ve most enjoyed the following:

The Vegetarian is unusual and haunting in the best way; it seared images into my brain and planted unanswered questions. I can’t wait to read Han Kang’s Human Acts, which will be published in English in early 2017.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers was another strange read in a non-traditional format. It’s tender and moving, and left me very curious about Ted Hughes and his crows.

Commonwealth was my introduction to Ann Patchett. I devoured it quickly and found it very American, very bittersweet.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. I’ve developed a literary crush on Helen Oyeyemi, who possesses an imagination that rivals my best wine-infused dreams. I like to imagine us as hanging out in her loft in Prague, swapping weird book ideas over absinthe and grilled cheese sandwiches. I digress. This collection of short stories is enchanting.

Mr. Splitfoot and The Girls have some overlapping elements, both relating to cults and their charismatic leaders. The former plays with the supernatural, the latter stays closer to historical fiction. Both flirt with the horror genre and are excellent summer reads.

Some of the best books I read this year were published in 2015. They’ve received so much well-deserved praise, I hardly need to repeat it:  The Sellout, A Little Life (proceed with caution: it will smash your heart with a baseball bat for 800 pages), H is for Hawk, A Manual for Cleaning Women.

The best fiction writing I read this year was The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. This book made me cry a dozen different types of tears (the blurry eye, the ugly cry, etc.). With every emotional punch to the gut Marra delivers in this collection of stories, he consoles the reader with morsels of humanity so tender and warm and wry and hilarious, you’re left begging, “please sir, may I have another?”

Nonfiction, Memoirs, and uncategorizable others

In my nonfiction reading, I tried to tap into the major themes I saw popping up in The Economist week after week. I’ve only attained a surface-level understanding of most of these topics, just enough to leave me feeling terrified and ill-equipped. Half kidding.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  If you read one nonfiction book in the next year, make it this one. Such a powerful, eye-opening project by Matthew Desmond.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. At first glance, the title seems judgy and elitist as hell (though maybe darkly satisfying for those who’ve used the term to explain U.S. election results this year), but the book is compassionate. Interesting to read in conjunction with “Evicted” and…

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. A heartfelt memoir of the author’s journey from an often unstable and abusive early family life, through rocky teenage years, to the Marine Corps, and finally to the alien landscape of Yale Law School, with social commentary and analysis sprinkled throughout. The story resonated with me because of some personal life parallels.

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. This is another excellent piece of reportage, closely linked to the theme of poverty in America as well as the failed “war on drugs” and resulting incarceration explosion.

After the above kicks in the gut, you might benefit from reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of TraumaKidding, but this is a seriously good explanation of how trauma embeds in our bodies and the ways it can be addressed.

Another timely read is Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. It focuses heavily on the personalities in the ISIS origin story and punctures the United States-centric bubble I’ve sat comfortably in for the past few years.

I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of Mohsin Hamid before I serendipitously found Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London in my favorite bookshop. I think he’s brilliant and can’t wait to read more. This book is interactive and endearing, and contains some remarkably insightful passages on pluralism, globalism, and many -isms shaping our world today.

In the science/tech realm, I learned enough from the following books to realize that I know nothing:

Some finance/economics/business reads, for my fellow capitalist pigs:

Now back to the fun stuff!

M Train was gorgeous. I have a starry-eyed, worshipful appreciation for Patti Smith. I swear to god, if 2016 tries to give her so much as a head cold, I will burn it to the ground.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent NationI’m prepared to be the spinster aunt/cousin who gives all her younger female relatives this book for birthdays and graduations. It may sound like old hat to modern feminists, but this material is pretty revolutionary in a historical context.

Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman and Sex Object were released around the same time, and I inhaled them both. I’d just finished reading Bad Feminist, and followed them up with The Beauty Myth and The Argonauts to round out my mid-life gender studies self-study syllabus. All excellent reads.

I read When in French: Love in a Second Language during a trip to Paris and London, appropriately. It’s a fun and funny exploration of linguistic theory through the experiences of a first-time French learner. As an American Francophile (and an American missing a certain Frenchman), it was pertinent and personal.

Finally, my favorite nonfiction/uncategorizable read this year is one that has become my version of a bible, in combination with everything Cheryl Strayed ever wrote (let’s call them The Tippet Testament and the Cheryl Gospels, or something like that):  Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. I’m not sure how to articulate how important this book was to me this year. It pumped life back into my heart and spoonfed me ideas I would have spit out as sickly sweet and spiritual just a year before. Read it and re-read it.

Happy holidays and happy reading, friends.

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