I always title my end of year posts “A Great Year for Reading” because I feel confident that every year, no matter its ups and downs, is still a good one if I get to read books.
2016 tested the shit out of that hypothesis. It's been widely acknowledged that in many ways, 2016 has been a dumpster fire of a year. But despite my fear and uncertainty, my reading has taught me that to hope in the face of darkness and evil is one of the bravest, most righteous things we can do.
So in that spirit, I'm here to round up my favorite 11 books I read this year. (Yes, I always give myself one extra, because I make the rules.) I love looking back over the books I read each year, remembering the ones that broke my heart, that inspired me to change, that made me laugh out loud, that warmed the cockles of my skeptical and sarcastic heart. Reading still comforts and challenges me, renews and restores me. I'm a better person because I'm a reader.
And as difficult and scary as 2016 has been politically and socially, I can't deny that it's been a year of positive change for me on a personal level. In January, after a health scare that affected one of my family members, I started thinking about my own health and the choices I was making and decided it was time for a change. So I started running, lifting weights, and practicing yoga, and I changed my diet. Basically, I became a completely different person. Because I am sure the people who knew me “back when” could not picture me jogging unless I was being chased by a bear.
I'm thankful that people can change. I am happy to be fit and strong (and somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 pounds lighter). I can do things physically that I never dreamed I would be able to do. I get up at 5:30 in the morning to exercise. I run 5 days a week. I eat quinoa and find it delicious. I can even do pushups (just like Ruth Bader Ginsburg).
For a long time I have had various narratives about myself, like, “I'm not a morning person” or “I'm not an athlete” or “I'm not into health food” or “I'd be the first to die in the Hunger Games.” As powerful as those narratives have felt to me at various times in my life, when I finally decided to change, they were not actually that hard to knock down. Like cardboard painted to look like granite. Not so scary after all.
Also, I'll say this: running = more time for listening to audio books. :)
And I'm really glad I have my audio books, because they help me keep a respectable total number of books read on the year. Just over a third of all the books I read this year were audio books. That blows my mind, considering how reluctant I was to try them out. I pretty much started listening to audio books out of desperation, because I hated how much time I spent every day putting on makeup and styling my hair just to look presentable. Audio books turn boring and crappy tasks into reading time! Like magic! I definitely plan to bring my audio book addiction into the new year.
Thanks in part to all those audio books, assuming I can finish one more book today, I'll have read 147 books this year, which is right on pace with my total from last year. Of course, I'll always wish for more time to read, but 147 is a number I'm pretty happy with, all things considered.
Last year I committed to reading more books by authors of color, and I was so delighted by how much richer my reading life became that seeking out books by people from marginalized groups is now an integral part of my reading life. This year over 40% of the books I read were by authors of color, and next year I just might shoot for 50%. If this isn't something you've thought much about before, I encourage you to bring some intentionality to your reading choices and try out books written by people who don't look like you. You won't regret it, I promise.
My lifelong penchant for women writers continued this year as well—just under 75% of the books I read this year were written by ladies, a stat I'm proud of, do not apologize for, and see no likelihood of a change in anytime soon. But that's probably just my militant feminism talking.
Whew! That was a lot of personal reflection followed by a lot of geeky statistics! Without further ado, here are my 11 favorite books read this year. I hope this list leads you to find some new favorites of your own!
1. Heartless by Marissa Meyer
This is my most recent favorite (I just wrote about it in a post on Wednesday!), so maybe it benefits from being fresh in my mind, but mostly it's just a stinkin' great book that everyone in the entire world should read. It's an origin story for the Queen of Hearts set in the world of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and it's a dark, angry glory of a book. I have never rooted so hard for a character to completely lose her shit on the people around her. And when she finally does, it leads to one of the most devastating, crushing, yet satisfying endings I've ever read. Too perfect for words. I'm a Marissa Meyer fan for life.
2. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson is an attorney who founded a non-profit law firm in Alabama with the goal of reducing sentences or exonerating people condemned to death row. I hadn't thought much about the death penalty since reading Dead Man Walking as a high schooler, but damned if I can't stop thinking about it now. I hadn't ever felt comfortable with the idea, and if pressed, I'd have probably said I was against it, but now that I've read Just Mercy, I'm absolutely convinced. I could try to summarize some of Stevenson's best points here, but I'd never be able to do him justice. He's so eloquent and intelligent, you really owe it to yourself to read the book. Read the original post.
3. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue can do what she wants. I've now read three of her books, and they just. keep. getting. better. She is one of those authors who never does the same thing twice, and it's such a thrill to discover what she'll do next. This time around, she zooms in close on a tiny Irish village, where an eleven-year-old girl named Anna has, it is claimed, been living for four months without food or sustenance of any kind. The locals, all devoted Catholics, call it a miracle. Lib, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale herself, is decidedly more skeptical. Hired to watch over the girl and ensure that she isn't surreptitiously breaking her fast, Lib assumes the girl is a cheat and a liar, plans to expose her as such, and wrap up her vigil within a couple of days. However, as the days pass and she gets to know Anna better, it seems the truth will be more complicated—and heartbreaking—than Lib expected. Read the original post.
4. The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer
The most empowering book I’ve read since my fabulous, fashion-forward grandma and I paged through Color Me Beautiful circa 1991 and I learned why I always look like a warmed-over corpse in pale yellow. (It’s not my fault! I’m a Summer!) Amy Schumer is just the BEST. If you’re not 100% sold on her raunchy brand of humor, read her book and prepare to be totally convinced of her awesomeness. If you thought her book would simply be a series of vag jokes, you thought wrong. What most impressed me: she can switch gears from funny to serious and back again with no lapse in momentum. A list of topics Amy covers in the book would be downright depressing: rape, terminal illness, bad parenting, domestic abuse, and gun violence are all on the menu, and she somehow covers everything in an uproarious way without ever making light of it. How?! Thus is the genius of Amy Schumer. Read the original post.
5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
I don't think it's an overstatement to say that The Underground Railroad is an absolute masterpiece. The novel is a slave narrative following the life of Cora, born into slavery in Georgia, but it takes place in a slightly skewed historical reality. In Cora's world, the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad under the ground, a rickety network of tracks and ramshackle cars leading from hellish bondage to supposed freedom in the North. Some might wonder, why make that choice? Why deviate in such an obvious way from what we know to be historically true? To me, the answer gets at the heart of why I read fiction. Whitehead knows historical fact and truth are two different things. Sometimes, if you really want people to take in what you're saying, it's best to approach the truth at an oblique angle. Read the original post.
6. The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward
It's hard to know what to do when the problems in our country seem so huge and insurmountable. I want so badly not to be part of the problem. I want to quit agonizing over my privilege and do something that matters. So, I read. I listen. I try to understand. I try to imagine what life is for other people. Books like The Fire This Time help me do those things. It's especially effective because it's an anthology, a collection of many voices. I learned a lot from it, and it made me hungry to learn more. If you only read one book this year, it should be this one. Read the original post.
7. What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera
How do you recommend a book that is so crushingly sad? How do you justify encouraging people to read a story certain to devastate them? I don’t know, but I am recommending this book anyway. The writing is near flawless. The main character’s painful life and personal failings make me want to weep with empathy. Life can be so, so hard, can’t it? What Munaweera does so brilliantly is demonstrate how our past determines our future. Pain in the past does not disappear; it lies in wait, ready to spring back years later with renewed force. People do not make terrible, haunting choices in a vacuum. My heart is still bleeding, but I’ll be reading everything Munaweera writes from now on. Read the original post.
8. The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco
The Prince of Los Cocuyos is hands-down the best memoir I’ve ever read. Richard Blanco does absolutely everything right. Each chapter tells a single story small enough to be fleshed out in full detail, but themes of belonging, family, and finding your place stretch effortlessly throughout each one, connecting them all into a resoundingly satisfying whole. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s flippin’ hilarious, with the timing of a stand-up comedian. (Be careful reading the chapter about his family’s trip to Disney World in public, unless you don’t mind snorting in front of an audience.) Everyone who is a person should read this book. Read the original post.
9. Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
Don’t read this book. Listen to it. It would be positively criminal to read a print copy of Echo when such a stunning audio version exists. Before anything else, this is a book about music. (And that blues harmonica duet? Get outta town.) In print, you only get half the story. This is my feel-good book of the year. Read the original post.
10. Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell
Rindell sets her sophomore novel in the high-stakes world of 1950s publishing houses, a world her characters are desperate to break into, each in his own way. Some more desperate than others. My reading experience felt like a breathless sprint around continuous blind corners. I will say that Rindell’s writing is, for me, the perfect balance of plot momentum and character development. All three characters who take turns narrating became 100% real to me, and somehow Rindell is able to achieve that without ever slowing her pace. I don’t know how the hell she does it. If I did, I’d bottle that secret sauce and sell it to novelists everywhere for $4.99 a pop. Read the original post.
11. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
After becoming obsessed with the Hamilton cast album this year, I couldn't resist reading the biography of Alexander Hamilton on which the musical is based. Chernow’s book is a meticulously researched scholarly analysis that reads as addictively as a supermarket tabloid. It’s easy to see why Lin-Manuel Miranda was engrossed enough by Hamilton’s life story to write a musical about it.
Back in May when I wrote the original post about my Hamilton obsession, I said, “I’m too much of a realist to even entertain the thought of getting tickets to see it on Broadway. Not gonna happen.” But because dreams really do come true (and because I have an awesome sister-in-law), I'm heading to New York in early 2017 to see Hamilton on Broadway.
Let me say that one more time, because I still can't believe this is my life.
I'M GOING TO SEE HAMILTON ON BROADWAY!
And we might be staying in a hotel that used to be a library.
So yeah, I have high hopes for 2017 being a flippin' GREAT year. :D (And you can expect a detailed post with the full scoop on our trip to the Big Apple!)
What was the best book you read this year? What books are you most excited to dig into in 2017? Comments are open below.
Happy New Year, reader friends!