Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Stef's Favorite Books of 2016

AKA The only thing I ever put on this blog! Go me!

I read so many great books this year. 2016 may have been a dumpster fire of a year in some ways, but it was a fantastic year for books, friends. I was so obsessed with reading these books that I neglected to read any parenting books, and now my child is a wild animal. Oh, well. At least he has a good reading role model, right?

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf)
This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that when I finished I felt like it had been an honor to read it. Even thinking that sentence to myself felt a little stuffy, formal even. Books are everywhere, hundreds of thousands of copies of this book will be in bookshelves across the country. We read books everyday. What made this book different? Not only did it feel like (here comes another stuffy cliché) a “labor of love,” an intricate working-out of lineage and history and ancestral lore and a true delight for anyone who loves a book written in exceptionally careful detail, but it also felt like someone trying to tell a True story. Not true in details necessarily but true in the big T sense. Reading it felt like being allowed to take a peek into someone else’s history, someone else’s life story, a story we don’t hear everyday but should hear everyday, over and over. And that’s a gift.

The Mothers by Britt Bennett (Riverhead)
The Mothers, a crazy-impressive debut novel, is heavy with the secrets we don't tell each other, the expectations we hold each other to, both low and high, the weight of love and youth, responsibility and shame. It's a story of fidelity and infidelity, of first love and lasting love, of families that stick together and that fall apart. It's just beautiful. Britt Bennett's characters, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, the titular Mothers, become so real to the reader-- like they are your neighbors, kids from your high school or church, the nosy, caring old ladies on your block. You will enter this world and you won't leave it. What happens in The Mothers isn't new, but Bennett's telling is so fresh, so wise, so tender, you'll feel like you're hearing heartbreak for the first time.  

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
This book is absolutely spectacular. It’s definitely a contender for best book of the year. I’ve never read a contemporary slave narrative that so powerfully captured the slave experience--both in the breadth of details and in the gut punch of the emotions (to be fair-- I need to read more slave narratives). It’s such an important book for this reason alone--we as a country need to be constantly reminded of what we did during slavery. We can’t ever get complacent or move on. It’s too big of a sin. That said, this book is not a polemic or morally didactic--it’s an intense page turner, a beautiful character study of a complex woman, Cora, and some of the best prose I’ve ever read. Don’t be turned off by the literal railroad either--I was a bit hesitant at first, but I found a way that it made sense to me as a device. Come talk to me after you’ve read it and we can compare notes!

News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Wm Morrow)
I just adored this little book. It’s an old-fashioned story, with a True Grit feel to it (without most of the violence and mayhem). Capt. Kidd and Johanna are the loveliest characters I’ve encountered in a while. This book manages to be both wonderfully familiar, with the trope of the older man, alone in the world, and the young child, needing protection (think Punky and Harold, my 90s-era-TV-watching friends)-- they both think they want independence, but they both just need each other-- while also being a wholly original story. If I ever learned about “traveling news readers” in the time of the Wild West, I don’t recall it now. Capt. Kidd goes from town to town with his passel of newspapers, reading stories of news from around the world to groups of townspeople, for 10 cents a person. People listen, rapt. It’s all the news they have of the world outside their small towns. There are bandits in this story, and daring escapes. But the friendship, companionship, and trust that build between these two lonely souls, the sweet warmth of it, is just perfect.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich (Harper)
This book absolutely gutted me. Her writing is exquisite and perfect, her characters are big-hearted and unforgettable, and the stories she tells are of people experiencing their worst moment, their lowest ebb, the time in their life that refracts back on everything else, coloring it, deepening it. It's also a vital read-- we don't have nearly enough Native American writers being published by the big houses, and their stories are so important to our national memory and identity. In LaRose, one of the story lines is about the Indian boarding schools that countless Native American children were sent to in the 1800 and 1900s, where their hair was cut, their language was forced out of their mouths, and their true selves shamed and lost. It's heartbreaking, and it's an atrocity we cannot forget or wipe away. This book has several incredible story lines happening at once and they are each so true and so powerful-- read it slowly, save it.

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet (Flatiron)
This is a captivating, old-fashioned novel that reminded me a bit of John Irving in its storytelling--the richness of the back stories, the traditions of the church and unconventional families, the beautiful back and forth of a well timed story. This is the story of four girls, inexplicably all named Guinevere, who live in a convent with other girls--some orphans, some whose parents write them letters and visit, and some like them, girls whose parents or parent are alive, but don’t, or can’t, want them. Each girl has a story and a secret, the details of which are meted out throughout the book with perfect timing. Though never explicitly stated, it feels like it takes place during WWII--the convent takes in wounded, comatose soldiers, four of whom the girls end up taking care of as part of their duties. Their “Boys,” as they call them, become the vehicles for the girls’ hopes and dreams outside the convent--dreams of being rescued, of being wanted, of being loved.
What Becomes Us by Micah Perks (Outpost19)
This book is lovely and strange. I’ll start by saying it’s narrated by Evie’s unborn twin babies. It might sound gimmicky, but it’s not--most of the time I didn’t notice, until they started talking about being squished into a uterus together. But for this book, it works. Evie, their mother, escapes an emotionally abusive husband and perfectly nice life on the West Coast for a small, backwater town in upstate New York, where she finds a house to rent and a substitute English teacher job at the local high school. (And I do mean she escapes, literally, out of a window.) She meets an unusual cast of characters living on Lonely Rincon Road, and quickly becomes enveloped in their lives, including their fascination with the colonial woman Mary Rowlandson, kidnapped by Native Americans in 1676. But everything is not as it seems and Evie quickly gets pulled into the web of secrets, lies, and forbidden love. It’s odd and beautiful, uncovering both the dark and the light in life.

The Past by Tessa Hadley (Harper)
I firmly believe that Tessa Hadley is one of our great underappreciated writers. Her writing is quiet and gorgeous, conveying profound, thoughtful musings on life--the mysteries of family, the entanglements of love, the lost innocence of growing up, and the strangeness of growing old. "Not a lot happens" would be a fair assessment of this book, but like with the deeply perceptive writing of Anne Enright, it doesn't matter. You're not here for a boisterous plot, break-neck pace, or a suspenseful finish. You read Hadley for the sentences, for the characters, and for the insight. The Past is no different. A set of siblings head to their family cottage for a several week-long holiday. Their separate lives come together. Sparks fly. Read it slowly and savor.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories by Helen Oyemei (Riverhead)
Like everything Helen Oyeyemi writes, this short story collection sparkles with magic and delight, romantic entanglements, bizarre characters and circumstances (I'm talking a whole story on puppetry, and she pulls it off too), and lovely, profound musings on love and belonging. It's strange and wonderful, sometimes dark and odd, but always bursting with intelligence, curiosity, and wisdom. "Presence" is the best story (well, it's hard to say because they are all so different), about a woman, unsure of her marriage, who begins a strange psychological study with her husband. I felt myself almost holding my breath as I read it, waiting for the other strange shoe to drop. (It drops.) 

The Gloaming by Melanie Finn (Two Dollar Radio)
This book is so, so good. The writing is truly wonderful (copious underlining of beautifully crafted sentences), and the story is deep and surprising and profound. Finn’s plotting is excellent too--the story skips back and forth between dates that are only a few months apart. How much could happen in a few months? A world. This is the story of Pilgrim Jones, a wife, a traveler, a woman whose life is both spontaneous and planned out, and how that perfect life falls apart in so many ways. It’s about love, lost and found, about grief, about passion and loyalty and fear and discovery. I don’t want to give away any of the story’s reveals by summarizing-- just know, it’s really something.

The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House)
The Manson story is nothing new but reading Cline's reinvention of it felt like peeking in through a curtain, through the life of a bored 1960s California girl. Our girl is Evie Boyd, whose parents' fractured marriage leaves a crack for her to fall through, and discover life on the other side of it. Lonely and out of place, Evie meets a group of girls in a park in San Francisco and falls headlong for their wild and free lives. She spends increasing time with them and soon meets Russell, the enigmatic and dynamic leader of the group. But Evie isn't drawn to Russell so much as Suzanne, the leader of the girls. Their relationship is complex and difficult-- Evie wants more than anything an older girl to love her unconditionally, but Suzanne is too far gone. Looking at the story from an outside perspective makes it easy to see the allure of what we today know is a completely insane cult-- it was a family, a haven, a place for these young girls to find themselves apart from their families of origin. Cline's writing is effervescent and strong, and her story pulls you along like a speeding car, knowing full well that it will all fly off a cliff at some point soon.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet (WW Norton)
This book was an odd little duck but I couldn't stop reading it. On one hand it's a straightforward suspense novel-- woman leaves husband, husband hunts her down. Definitely read that story before. But in this novel, not only is there of course a crazy ass twist but there is also Millet's completely gorgeous writing, some downright strange moments that we just go along with because that is what you do in a Millet novel, and her beautiful musings on life and the limitations of existence. This passage has stuck with me:

"Because if you're the kind of person who wants to know what's at the end of the universe, what's at the edge of being, and you grow older and older and comprehension settles on you that you'll never know, despair can well up. The question of what we don't see, what's beyond our capacity-- in the space where the answers should be, in the knowledge that nothing will ever give us that answer-- we have to pass through all the dark nights we live until we die. Never to see what's at the end of infinity, never to see the future of what we love, even the hidden lives of our children-- the knowledge breaks our hearts. It nearly cracks us open as we walk."

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn (WW Norton)
This is a spectacular book, even more so for being Dennis-Benn's first. Her characters absolutely pop on the page-- especially the four women at the heart of the story, Margot, her sister Thandie, their mother Deloros, and Margot's lover, Verdene. These are complex women-- fighting their past, motivated by a desire to survive and get out, to do better than the generation before. Set in Jamaica, this novel shows another side to the island than what you would see if you stayed within the bounds of your beach resort. These are the people who work at the hotels but aren't paid enough to get by. The communities whose villages will be bulldozed to build more resorts. This is a tough book and the characters are not always likeable, but it's such an indelible portrait of a family, of a community, that I couldn't stop reading, and I couldn't forget it when I was done.

Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht (Tin House)
This is a story of sixteen year old Livy, a girl who lives in a small blue collar town in Pennsylvania, and the summer that changed her life, a beginning and an end. A fugitive from the Republic of Georgia is believed to be hiding in their small town and the FBI quickly moves in and shuts down the roads and cuts the power to the town. There's a tight lens drawn on their lives, and the feeling Knecht creates is almost claustrophobic-- the heat, the fear, the barricades. When Livy encounters the man, she has to decide what to do and who she can trust. It's a coming of age story about Livy, but it's also a coming to terms story for one small town when faced with the idea of terrorism and outsiders. The fear and mistrust the townspeople feel is increasingly relevant now.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (Amistad)
What a gorgeous book. Woodson often writes in verse, and that writing style, the restraint, the careful choices, the lyricism, comes through in her prose here. It's thoughtful and quiet and beautiful. This is the story of four girls-- a fierce group of friends who find each other in their neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1970s, just when they need one another the most. One of the girls, August, lives with her father and brother, having moved to New York from the south after a family tragedy. There are moments of joy and of heartbreak in their stories, as they navigate their very different families, expectations, and the sometimes harsh realities that come alongside growing up and becoming women. Woodson circles back to the tragedy that broke August's family apart, the hurt that changed her forever. It's tough and sweet and just beautiful. 

Marrow Island by Alexis Smith (HMH)
This is a beautiful quiet story, a story of lost friendship, new love, and an ecological mystery. Lucie, a fledgling journalist, grew up on an island, located off the coast of Oregon, once the site of an oil refinery explosion that made the place uninhabitable. She left when her father died in the accident, and never returned-- until she receives a mysterious letter from her best childhood girlfriend, revealing that a commune has sprung up on the island, and that people are living there and thriving. Lucie can’t resist finding out what on earth is happening there, but delving into the past is never simple. This story is rife with the healing power and mythology of the earth, secrets and lies between friends and lovers, a mysterious death, and the hope and belief that places can be reborn, that people can change, that the truth matters, above all. The writing is really good--worth the read.

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey (Little Brown)
This book is a delight. It is a little zany, very funny, suspenseful, romantic, abundantly clever, and perfect for fans of language and literature. And it has one of the best first pages I’ve ever read. Go on, read it. It’s delightful. When Beatriz Yagoda, a famous Brazilian novelist, goes missing in her home country, her American translator, Emma, feels pulled to go to Brazil and search for her. (Part of it is wanting to get away from her boyfriend.) When she arrives, she meets Beatriz’s children and the adventure begins. 
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
I don’t think I can overstate how important this book is. The housing crisis in this country is REAL-- many people are spending way more than the typically recommended 30% of income on housing, and what many of them are paying for is substandard conditions. Inner-city slumlords are getting away with charging outsized rents for falling-down properties because there are no good alternatives for people who have been evicted or have bad credit. Evictions affect millions of people a year, but disproportionately poor, black women, for a variety of reasons. An eviction is like the first domino falling--after that, it can be hard to find another place, keep a job if you have to go to court or relocate, keep kids in the same school, and keep yourself together mentally and emotionally. Desmond did years of research for this book, living in the very places he describes. He also offers practical solutions-- if only the right people would read it! Or maybe if we all read it, we can make the change our country so desperately needs. Anyway, read it.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West (Hachette)
Do you know about Lindy West? If, A: you do, then you know she is hilarious and honest and genuine and doesn’t take a single iota of bullshit. If, B: you don’t know her, refer to A. She wrote for the Stranger, the Seattle-based alt-newspaper, and came to even wider acclaim as a writer for the website Jezebel. She has loudly proclaimed that she doesn’t mind that she’s fat, that she isn’t ashamed she had an abortion, that she doesn’t think rape jokes are funny, and that she has zero tolerance for internet trolls. She is THE BEST. She is ALL OF US. Talk about “voice of our generation.” Ladies, and all people, we are so lucky that Lindy is speaking for us. I laughed, I cried, I cringed. I couldn’t put it down. And when I finally did, I, in full Millennial fashion, tweeted at her that I loved the book. And she, in full bad-ass amazing-lady fashion, tweeted me back how much she loved to hear it.

Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good by Chuck Collins (Chelsea Green)
This book is fantastic. Collins grew up in the 1%, inherited more money than he realized he needed, and decided to give most of it away. But that’s not what this book is about. It’s not an inspiring story you read and say, “Wow, I don’t know if I could do that,” then go back to your life. It’s a blueprint for how we can bring the wealthy back into the fold of our communities by encouraging them to give back. It’s about not vilifying the 1% but about working with them--figuring out how we can sensibly fix tax laws so everyone pays their share and use the structure of our government to solve our social problems. It’s about recognizing privilege and figuring out how to communicate that to the wealthy so it’s not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps but about how we can help each other. It’s full of practical ideas and solutions--from the local level to the federal, from personal change to widespread revolution.

The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood by Belle Boggs (Graywolf)
I was floored by The Art of Waiting. It contains so much-- Boggs' personal experience with infertility and assisted reproduction, but also her research into motherhood in animals, adoption, race, forced sterilization, and society's views and expectations of motherhood. It is compelling in its curiosity and brimming with the generous spirit of someone who truly wants to break open the idea of motherhood, making it less opaque in a world that so often sees families in only black and white. Belle is a gifted writer and definitely one to watch.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere But Here by Angela Palm (Graywolf)
It sounds so trite to say, but I just fell in love with this book. And with Angela Palm, the Every Girl at the center of the story​, with her observations on family and the stickiness of your hometown and neighborhood-- you want so bad to leave, but when you do, you can't stop thinking about what's missing. About what you left behind. The boy you left behind. The boy who left you. Without spoiling it, Angela's journey towards and away from and eventually back to Corey, the love of her young girl's heart, honestly brought me to tears. It's one of those memoirs that brings your own memories, your own past, up to the surface as you read her recollections, her regrets, sorrow, and the joy. God, it just broke my heart over and over again. I loved it. Loved. 

Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives by Gary Younge (Nation Books)
Such a powerful, important book. It needs to be read. Younge is a black, British journalist who, while living in America, decided to look at gun violence through the lens of the children shot and killed on one single day. He writes moving and heartbreaking portraits of ten such children, all killed on November 23rd, 2013. Some are accidental, some are homicides, some are collateral damage of wider violence. Their stories are haunting and infuriating, but Younge remains respectful and compassionate, even when he’s frustrated. Some of the families want to talk; some don’t. Some see the bigger picture; some understandably, do not. It’s a really tough read. He intersperses the human drama with statistics about gun violence, activism against it, journalists who cover it. He paints a full picture. It’s shocking, but also not once you read the book, see the stats, meet the kids. These kids’ stories need to be shared-- their deaths deserve some meaning.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer (Doubleday)
Well, this book is f***ing terrifying. The influence of money in politics is far-reaching, invasive, incredibly powerful, and often invisible. Mayer looks at the influence of the ultra-conservative, radical right, people intent on lifting environmental and financial regulations for their own financial benefit, and clearly shows how they, led by the infamous Koch brothers, have strategically infiltrated every level of politics and government. The stories she tells about the Koch brothers' businesses putting workers, and the public's, safety on the line in the name of profits made my blood boil. The lengths they will go to to save a buck are shocking and sickening. She profiles many other conservative bigwigs, most of whom no one outside their circle has even heard of, and shows how their money has influenced policy and political opinion in this country. The writing is clear and the research is thorough-- this is an important book that needs to be read. We can't allow this to continue.

Picture Books
The Journey by Francesca Sanna (Flying Eye Books)
There were many wonderful picture books that came out this year, but this one is something truly special and one I haven't been able to get out of my mind. It tells the story of a nameless family, in a nameless country that is beset by war-- the father is taken, and the mother and children must flee. Sanna uses fairy tale imagery and larger than life illustrations to portray the family's journey as fleeing refugees. They arrive at a wall only to be confronted by what appears to be a twenty foot tall guard chasing them away; they take a ferry boat across a body of water filled with terrible creatures that want to eat them; a looming dark shadow of a man finally deposits them over the fence. They watch the birds flying above them, migrating seamlessly across invisible border lines. They seek safety and belonging. It just broke my heart.