Dah, dah, dah, dah!! Here is it, my annual list of the top ten best books I read this year. Not all of these were published in 2017, but they all made my year a little brighter.
As I look it over there are two takeaways for me. First, I was surprised I liked a fair number of these because they aren’t genres or descriptions I would normally gravitate to. This is a good push to more-than-occasionally dip my toe outside of my reading comfort zone. And second, if you asked me whether I preferred fiction to non-fiction, ten times out of ten I would say fiction. But my top ten list this year does not support that: it is dominated by non-fiction. Eight are true stories, five of those are memoir. I guess I can drop my perpetual goal to try to read more nonfiction. It seems to have finally worked.
Without further ado:
- You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie:No one is more surprised than I am that this is on my best of list; I have a long-held dislike for Seattle’s favorite author. I find him smug and condescending and have, to my detriment, avoided reading him because of this. But my book club forced me to read this gorgeous memoir earlier in the year and I was literally stopped in my tracks by the beauty of Alexie’s elegy for his mother and by the way he just laid open his heart, imperfections and all. It is a beautiful book on grief and difficult relationships. I’m going to read the rest of Alexie’s back catalog next year.
- Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas: I found a small hardcover of this book in my library, took it home, and devoured it in one sitting. Then I read it again. And then I obsessed about stealing it from the library, partially because some reader before me had dog-eared pages and underlined great quotes — magically the same ones I would have if it’d been my own copy– and partially because it’s now sadly out of print. Thankfully someone thoughtful tracked one down (thanks, Brooke!) and gifted me a copy so the original one made it back to the library system. It’s so good. It reads like it was intended to be a how-to book for older people who want to write their memoirs (it’s published by the AARP) but, like all Thomas books, it is charming and sweet and much more than a writing manual.
- Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel: The story of Chris Knight and the 27 years he spent living alone in the Maine woods is sad and beautiful and complicated, as is the story of Michael Finkel, the journalist trying to track him down and tell his story. This book is fascinating and well-written and it belongs on a very exclusive list of the best nature books ever written, right next to Into the Wild, The Golden Spruce, and Walden.
- Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear: A memoir of an ordinary year, one that finds the author preparing for the death of her father, managing her anxiety disorder, and learning about bird watching. This is a book meant to be read slowly, I think, and savored in bits and pieces. The writing is spectacularly beautiful and quotes from the pages fill my commonplace book. “Strong one moment, vulnerable the next, we falter because we are alive, and with any luck we recover.” “Every love story is a potential grief story.”
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: This is my favorite kind of novel — a multi-generational family drama that pulls you into the details of a world you previously knew nothing about. The story takes place in Korea over four generations, starting in the early 1900s and served as a great introduction to Korean (and Japanese) history. It’s about the unpredictability of life and the quiet strength of women and how, even after terrible things happen, life always goes on.
- Underground Airlines by Ben Winters: There’s nothing about the description of this book that would have led me to believe I’d like it. It’s an alternative history, where the Civil War never happened and in present-day America slavery is still legal in four Southern states. The story centers on a black man, Victor, who works for the government as a bounty hunter, and while the plot moves forward quickly, we also get a glimpse into how Victor arrived in this place. It’s shocking and brutal and makes for a great book club discussion.
- Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang: I’d seen an episode of the truly terrible ABC sitcom based on this memoir and had no desire to read the book until I started obsessively watching Vice’s Huang’s World. I’m so glad I finally did read it — this is a fresh and really smart look at the modern immigrant story. It’s funny and touching and taught me about Taiwanese and Chinese culture–not to mention American hip hop, streetwear, and by-the-seat-of-your-pants entrepreneurship.
- Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans: I wish that this book had been there two or three years ago when I was really struggling with a career change, but even so it’s an invaluable resource and I’m sure to go back to it next time I need to assess what I’m doing with my life. This also made me desperately want to attend Stanford’s d.school.
- Hunger by Roxane Gay: This book took longer for me to finish than any book in recent memory. It was beautiful, but filled with so much pain and a couple of scenes so intense I had to walk away and come back once I’d caught my breath. There are no epiphanies or easy resolutions to Gay’s story here; just an honest account of a complicated struggle that she’s faced for years and continues to chip away at one day at a time.
- How to be Champion by Sarah Millican: Right now go watch the YouTube clip where Sarah Millican, Vince Vaughn, and PDiddy are on the Graham Norton show. It is an awkward and hilarious few minutes where Millican shares a very personal story about farting. This is in a capsule Millican’s comedic genius. She is brutally honest, doesn’t care about looking good, and is brave in a way that warms the cockles of my feminist heart (ok maybe that last one doesn’t come through in the clip but it definitely does in the book). I listened to this on audio, mostly on a long plane ride, and I laughed out loud like a maniac for many hours. It’s good, and she’s a new favorite.