Dear all, Around this time of year, when people are starting to make resolutions, I am often asked for book recommendations. I find this a very difficult request without a knowledge of what you already like: is your beach reading 50 Shades Darker, Bleak House, or In the Woods? Reading is so personal that I am always afraid I'm going to screw up the recommendation and then be hated forever, especially since I read so widely myself that I sometimes wonder if I've lost all sense of what normal boundaries people have.
This year I have decided it would be useful to compile the best books I read. Not the ones that came out-- I probably only read about 10 books that actually came out this year, so I am no authority-- but a personal report on the great stuff I got to peruse for leisure and work. I had a fantastic reading year, although few books truly reduced me to a puddle of gratitude and mind-blowing revelations. Mostly, I read a lot.
Why I Read What I Read:
- The complete works of Judy Blume, for the Twain House
- The complete works of Joan Didion, for the Twain House
- About 10 other books to prepare for other Twain House programs and book clubs
- 20 books for Literary Disco
- The entire Walking Dead series, on a zombie binge
- About 10 books on various vacations
- About 6 audiobooks
- About 15-20 additional books for pleasure
TOTAL: About 125 books (guesstimate: 15 of those are graphic novels and 35 are YA, leaving 75 "regular" books)
So without further ado:
15. The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau (or, Best First Novel)
A harrowing, almost Shakespearian story about an American at war and a middle eastern teenage boy sent to the United States as a refugee, this novel is a little bit mystery, a little bit buildings-roman, and a little bit lyrical novel. Full disclosure: I know the author, Stephen Dau, very well, but when I read this book sitting in a coffee shop in New York (one sitting, rooted to my seat) I completely forgot that I knew who'd written it. I can't believe this is Stephen's first book and I also can't believe more people haven't read it. Most of you will like this book, many of you will love it.
14. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (or, Best Biography, or, Best Book You Got For Christmas Last Year but Haven't Read Yet)
Last Christmas I swiped this from my brother and read most of it before the New Year-- then bought my own copy because I was desperate to know what happened to Woz and the gang. I'm in no way a technophile, but it's hard to resist the intersection of technology, culture, and the cult of personality. Jobs is, famously, unlikeable, and so is the cult of Apple products, but there is absolutely no denying the impact of both on our current culture. Really worth a read, and very quick for a biography. And I dare you not to fall in love with Woz. This book is full of little myths and origin stories that I absolutely promise you will retell over dinner.
13. Treasure Island!!! by Sarah Levine (or, Funniest) If you like Girls, you'll like Treasure Island!!! It's the same mix of horrifying awkwardness and a total lack of self-awareness. Imagine if Hannah never even made it to New York because of so many levels of self-denial and bad behavior. Imagine if you stole a parrot. Imagine if you tried to live your life by the principals of a children's adventure story. It's great. Read it. But, if you have no sense of humor about people who are self-absorbed and vaguely shitty, don't read it. First, get a sense of humor, then come back.
12. Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil by John Berendt (or, Best Nonfiction)
I'm so late to this party it's not even worth putting this on my list, because you've all probably read it already, but this book is just a spectacular example of lyric nonfiction. Originating as profiles of the weirdos that populate Savannah, this book became a nonfiction mystery when the author found himself friends with a potential murderer. Social and cultural issues are dealt with on the sly, but the real reason to read it is simply the hilarious portraiture of men who walk flies instead of dogs, open up piano bars, and hang Nazi flags for bizarre reasons. Highly recommended for all. I can't think of a person who wouldn't like this book.
11. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (or, Best Young Adult)
Tiger Eyes rocks. It's the most literary of Blume's works, and came somewhat late in her career. Most of her books take place in my beloved New Jersey, but this one takes its characters out west to a town where bombs are manufactured. Its themes are personal and cultural obliteration. I won't say much more, but this story of grief and a stark landscape should be more popular than it is.
I had a very hard time choosing a single Joan Didion novel. My read-a-thon was quite intense-- I read 2-3 full Didion books a day, in chronological order, so I'm having trouble nailing down one that really stood out on its own. Didion writes obsessively on the same few things in her fiction: politics, depressed women, grief, and colonialism. Democracy is great because the writing is self-conscious and Didion herself is the narrator-- the kind of conceit I adore. Truth be told, I still prefer Didion's nonfiction, but for fiction this encompasses all of her strengths. Side note: all of Didion's books are readable in about 4 hours.
9. The Walking Dead (or, Scariest)
Our Literary Disco readers were absolutely clamoring for us to read this, and since I'd seen a bit of the show, I went whole-hog and read 14 Walking Dead graphic novels in three days over Thanksgiving. (About an hour per volume, if you're wondering how big the investment is-- less than the TV show, that's for sure.) There are some truly scary and horrifying drawings, and I'm in love with a few of the settings (namely, a prison). It's worth both reading and watching because the TV show has completely changed the plot-- it's an alternate universe of the same story.
8. Sailor Twain by Mark Segel (or, Best Graphic Novel)
Drawn with charcoal, this book is dark, Victorian, creepy, and sexual. And it's about mermaids. It's so far from a comic that it feels weird to even put it in the same category. It truly got under my skin and I am now vaguely obsessed with asking myself what my own personal mermaids are.
7. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (or, Best Epic)
A six-part Russian-doll of a book. Mitchell writes in six wildly different styles with such mastery that I'd easily believe they were written by six different people. For someone who adores so many styles of writing, like me, this was such an enjoyable read. When I was most into it, I was getting up at 6 AM so I could read more of it before work. Absolutely loved this one.
6. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (or, Best Book You Haven't Heard Of)
Read last January when I was at home writing for two weeks. Reduced me to a sobbing mess if you like that sort of thing. This novel looks at one man's long life on the island of Guernsey, from the late nineteenth century through the 1960's. I don't know about you, but the idea of one person living through that span of time absolutely blows my mind, especially in a small community where each change is felt to the core of each resident. A very personal book told in a weird voice, this one is for serious fiction aficionados.
... and for my Top 5, you'll have to wait until our next Literary Disco episode (coming out in about a week!) Then I'll post them in list form. In the meantime, get reading!