Why? Why has this taken me so long to do? I could explain that it was the holidays, or health issues, or indecision over what my favorite books were last year,...but the honest truth is that I just slacked off and then lost my motivation. And now...Now I just want to start talking about the new books I've read so far this year, but I don't want to leave any loose ends from yesteryear. So, enjoy my list of favorites from 2016 and know that I'm making good progress on my TBR list so far this year and will have a lot to share with you in the weeks and months to come!
Last year, by my calculations, I read 99.5 books for pleasure. It sort of kills me to admit that I didn't finish the very last book of the year to make my 100 books goal a reality, but honestly, I didn't like the book I picked and I just ran out of time. C'est la vie. You can't like every book, after all.
That said, I found MANY of my choices this year to be insightful, provocative, compelling, and deeply satisfying. I tend to read mostly new works and it's very reassuring to discover that so many people are publishing so many solid new works. Artistry and devotion are still very much alive in the 21st century, which can be forgotten amidst the cacophonous slog of daily news here and abroad, leaving human misery and disappointment in its wake, such a disheartening mass of information that one can barely wriggle out from underneath its weight. But books! They take us on journeys, they force us to abandon our twitter feeds and news alerts, they even help filter out the sounds of my children bickering with each other. Miraculous little suckers, aren't they?
I should note that I read many of the blockbuster books this year (The Nest, Underground Railroad, My Name is Elizabeth Barton, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, etc) and enjoyed most of them very much. The books that made my favorites list, though, are books that I didn't really see on a lot of other best of the year lists. Variety is the spice of life and all that. So. In no particular order, here are the books that made my dreary days more bearable and my beautiful days even better:
The Best in Fiction:
1. The Unseen World by Liz Moore
Moore creates an utterly believeable world that orbits around the relationship between a girl and her increasingly eccentric genius of a father. A beautiful, intelligent, moving investigation of the meaning of love, the vast interior world of memories, the breathtaking possibilities of technology, and what it means to make a family. Enchanting and provocative.
2. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
This novel bases itself on the assumption that the civil war never happened and that slavery still exists in several Southern states early in the 21st century. It's a warped and utterly engrossing story, so well constructed that it's easily believed, and the longer you read, the more uncomfortable you become, because of course you can't help but recognize that perhaps this imagined existence is really not so far from our own true one. The implications of trauma, the reality of fractured identities, and the awful tension between self-preservation and ethical conduct are front and center here. A really successful novel that deserved much more attention than it actually received, in my opinion.
3. Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
I hadn't read anything by an Indonesian author when I picked up this book on a whim at the bookstore one day. It drew me in quickly and completely, and I could barely stand to put it down. The author's ability to balance the book on a foundation that was outrageously funny, absolutely gritty, and even plain otherworldly in turns mesmerized and excited me. Felt a little like Marquez to me at first, but then it (or, more likely, I) found its stride and unfurled a mischevious tale of epic yet utterly readable porportions.
4. Fellside by MR Carey
Carey won me over with his recent bestseller The Girl with All the Gifts, a dystopian thriller featuring an unusually bright and blighted young girl (that is being made into a movie this year, I believe #ReadTheBookFirst) at the center of the action, so I jumped at the opportunity to devour another one of his tales, and this one, although quite different from the last, did not disappoint. It begins with a woman being sentenced to prison for a crime that she doesn't remember committing. As she settles into the eerie and claustrophobic world of the woman's high-security prison - the Fellside of the title - she attempts again and again to will herself to remember the moments leading up to and including her crime. But as she works to regain her memory, she also begins hearing voices, coming from the very walls of the prison itself. As she sinks deeper into the unknowns, strange things begin to happen at Fellside...This is a thrilling mystery that offers answers I never saw coming. My skin is prickling again just thinking about this book.
The Best in Non-Fiction:
1. The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander
Alexander relates the story of suddenly losing her beloved husband. How does a mother and her children recover from such a loss? Alexander shows us that with heart, with art, with honesty, you never recover, but you can gather yourself together and go on. This searing memoir will leave you in tears but it's worth every sniffle. A truly beautiful tribute to an extraordinary man and the family he left behind.
2. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
Set in my hometown of Chicago, this story of a young woman growing up in an upper-middle class enclave of black America during the Civil Rights era offers an eloquent and insightful look into a black community that rarely gets book-length treatment.
3. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey
Suddenly bedridden by a mysterious illness and the complicated autoimmune disease that follows, Elizabeth Bailey goes from an active, full life to almost no life at all. She's too exhausted and ill even to read or watch tv, and thus spends her days lying in bed in the semi-darkness. A friend stops by with a potted plant that has a little snail living in it, though, and much to Bailey's surprise, she becomes enchanted by her new roommate, who helps her reframe her situation and find new hope. A truly sweet and enchanting little book.
4. In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
I've never seen "Orange is the New Black," so I'm not even sure why I picked this book up. It may have been the cover, which features Guerrero holding a giant cone of cotton candy. In any case, it was a terrific find. Guerrero tells the story of her family: she was born in America to undocumented workers who had arrived (via visas, as the majority of undocumented workers do) from Colombia. Her childhood is one spent in the shadows, living within a vibrant community of Latinos (many documented, some not) but always afraid that INS will arrive and take her parents away. When the worst DOES happen, the teenage Guerrero suddenly finds herself having to patch together a life for herself mostly on her own (shockingly, neither INS nor the appropriate agencies within HHS follow up with her and guarantee her safety as an American citizen and a minor). Her ability to hide her trauma and life situation from her fellow classmates and friends is remarkable, as is her dedication to making her dream of college a reality. Guerrero's story should be required reading for anyone interested in learning more about the realities of families divided due to citizenship.
Favorite New Author Discovery:
Gail Carriger writes funny, appealing stories of (young) women who just happen to be "intelligencers" (spies), supernaturals, or a combination of the two. Hobnobbing with the London elite, which in her steampunked Edwardian setting includes influential members of the werewolf and vampire classes, Carriger's characters get caught up in all kinds of complicated plots. When they're not saving the British from themselves, her antagonists are floating through the skies in airships, drinking lots of tea, and (despite their best efforts) falling in love. Sitting down with one of Carriger's books automatically makes me happy. I blew through the Finishing School series, The Custard Protocol series, and the The Parasol Protectorate books in just a few weeks - and then I set out to reread them. She's started publishing novellas to provide the backstories of some of her best characters, and every time one appears, I can't stop clapping. She also has a most pleasing public persona; I wish I could meet her for tea some time.