Here are several lists, randomly ordered, starting with the best books I read in 2016 (ignoring publication date). I do not include books by friends on these lists, though, as you’ll see below, I did include a separate, brief list of some of the books my friends published during the year that I read. PLEASE don’t get mad if your book isn’t on there! I just really had to mention some of these books by beloved buddies, and it was hard not to open the floodgates….
And because I realize I didn’t do this write-up in 2015, I tacked on that list as well. I mean, why not? A good book is timeless, right?
Tiny Beautiful Things (Dear Sugar) by Cheryl Strayed: What can I say that hasn’t been said about the wise and empathetic generosity of spirit that Cheryl Strayed brings to her writing? Advice for all of us, and a hug to make you feel loved, sweetpea.
Manhattan ’45 by Jan Morris: New York City! Published in the 1980s, but researched to show us what NYC was like in 1945, at the crossroads of post-war America.
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit: An exploration of love and loss and the creative life, one of the most brilliant books I have read. If I were to meet Rebecca Solnit, I would stare in wonder at her.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: I can’t resist a girl-goes-to-New-York book, especially when she works in a restaurant! Read this for the New Yorkiness and the food and the astute observations and less for the plot.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: A classic for a reason. From the very first page of the road unfurling, this story pulls us through the cynical underbelly of politics and the South. (Okay, I got a big bogged down in the family history section, but then I’m from Iowa, not the South!)
Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles: Another girl goes to New York, and writes like the poet she is. Highly readable, so don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I would just read a sentence and set the book aside to ponder the language and its juxtaposition. I don’t get why this is called a novel, but who cares?
Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson: After he died this summer, I thought it was shameful I’d read only a couple of essays along the way…and I was right. These stories are stunning, especially the first two.
My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta: This is a flawed book, but when it was good it was very, very good—and inventive. A dark memoir told through a variety of forms, including lists and (especially brilliant) a dialogue with the TV show “Law & Order SVU.”
Toby’s Room by Pat Barker: I entered a phase of British/Irish writers while in residency at the Hawthornden Castle in Scotland and resumed my love affair with Pat Barker and her riveting novels about World War I. This is less-battle intense than the Regeneration Trilogy but no less harrowing. I inhaled it from the early shocker in the first chapter, as did two of my fellow writers in the castle! Bonus: It was exciting to be reading a copy signed by Pat Barker (one of my literary idols) that I found in the Hawthornden library.
A Bit on the Side by William Trevor: Another from the Hawthornden library. I’d read William Trevor in the New Yorker, but these stories were a revelation. I’m not sure if it was these stories all at once or that I was living somewhat in the landscape described, but the spare heartbreak of these stories was gorgeous. Please, sir, may I have some more? Luckily I can, despite his recent death…he wrote lots of books!
Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes: Okay, I didn’t read all of this (I had to return it to the Hawthornden Library and head home). But what I read was a thrill. No wonder Britain is still recovering from this poet’s towering presence. (I read some Sylvia Plath alongside for balance and conversation’s sake.)
As noted, I choose not to include books by my friends on my list, but it seems like I can certainly mention a few books by friends that I read (and loved!) in 2016:
Traveler’s Rest by Keith Lee Morris: snowy, spooky novel
Crash Course by Robin Black: short essays on life and writing
Echoes of the Tattered Tongue by John Guzlowski: wrenching poetry about his parent’s experiences in a German slave camp in WWII
You May See a Stranger by Paula Whyman: linked stories about a woman trying to carve out a life for herself
Invincible Summers by Robin Gaines: Claudia’s father dies, and this 60s-70s era Detroit family falls apart
Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst: a DC couple hopes a parenting guru can save their autistic daughter at this off-the-grid New Hampshire camp
Ghosts of Bergen County by Dana Cann: Ghosts, a dead child, and heroin…a potent combination
Heirlooms by Rachel Hall: linked stories about one Jewish family’s escape from WWII-era France and the burdens they carry into America
As noted, I see that I didn’t put together a list last year, so because I’m compulsive and a completist, here we go, minus the commentary because I have some Christmas tasks to get to!
Best Books (I read) in 2015
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay [essays]
The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald [unfinished novel]
The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing [non-fiction]
The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum [essays]
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link [stories]
Redeployment by Phil Klay [stories]
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel [novel…and I’ll butt in to say, this may be the book I’ve recommended the most over the past two years]
The Ice Cave: A Woman’s Adventures from the Mojave to the Antarctic by Lucy Jane Bledsoe [essays…the first two are a little slow IMHO…give it a chance!]
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger [non-fiction]
And some of my favorite books by my friends in 2015:
Pasture Art by Marlin Barton [stories and a masterful novella]
Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski [novel]
My Coolest Shirt by W.T. Pfefferle [poetry]
Count the Waves by Sandra Beasley [poems]
Washing the Dead by Michelle Brafman [novel]
Flying Home by David Nicholson [stories, set in DC]
And onward to 2017! I’ve got stacks of books I want to read, but even more exciting is to think about the random discoveries waiting ahead! Happy reading, everyone!