Since 2014, I have kept a running list of every book I read for that year. I discovered that this practice creates a timeline of my life, tying experiences together with the pages of books. I associate memories and life events with the books I read and the relevance they held during those times. It is interesting to see how often times, those books ended up shaping my response to situations, and allowed me to handle any circumstance, even if sometimes all they could offer me was comfort. Books keep me from feeling alone.
It’s even more interesting to me to see how much I have changed in the past years, particularly since my 2015 book list was posted (you can read that list here). 2016 was somewhat of a hallmark year for me. I made some huge changes and took some big leaps of faith. As I have been keeping book lists for three years now, I can see patterns starting to emerge. Patterns of change and growth and self-assurance. I anticipate I’ll see many of those same themes in the next twelve months.
It’s no secret that I love books, but maybe it’s less clear why I love them. (How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.) I love books that help me escape from reality, and I love books that make me think. I love that each book allows me to see the world from another individual’s point of view. Books help me remain empathic. I have come to love books where all I pay attention to the writing: its structure, voice, and themes.
It is rare for me to find a book that I do not like, but it is even more rare for me to find a book that I love. One that I will read again and again and again.
Thus, here are a few of those whose pages I plan to turn over and over for years to come.
My Top Books in 2016
Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
I’m not sure I can describe how much I love Shonda Rhimes, so I definitely can’t articulate how much more I love her now that I’ve read this book. She is enticing and empowering and endearing, a TV-writing powerhouse. Her anecdotes and life stories touched me and I felt connected to her in many different ways. This book definitely holds themes that most self-improvement types do, but there is an authenticity to her words that struck me. I listened to it via Amazon’s Audible and she narrated, so that made me love it even more.
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
Like Year of Yes, this was another audiobook I fell in love with. It is riveting and intense and I had a hard time pressing pause. I was intrigued by its premise: a disease wipes out most of the world’s women (and infant mortality literally drops to zero), so a midwife disguises herself as a man to stay alive, and helps women as she goes. I ended up feeling more connected to this book than I thought I would, because the plot brings the character through Northern Utah, and she has encounters with members of the Mormon church (ahem, food storage *cough cough*). I will say, this book is not for the faint of heart. It is disconcertingly graphic, understandably cynical, and at times, downright disturbing. But I loved it.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
In contrast to The Book, this novel is so sweet and funny and innocent, so adorably gay. And I love it so much. I can’t even put into words how perfect this book is. I am silently, non-verbally gushing right now. Unable to use complete sentences. All the feels. Here are some quotes:
“Do your parents try to ruin all your costumes by making them weather appropriate? … THE GREEN LANTERN DOES NOT WEAR A TURTLE NECK.”
“A part of me feels like I jumped over some kind of border, and now I’m on the other side realizing I can’t cross back.”
“White shouldn’t be the default any more than straight should be the default. There shouldn’t even be a default.”
(Excerpts from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli)
I need you to just trust me and read it. Just go read it. Right now.
Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forrest
Oh how I love me a good lesbian romance novel, and this may be the best I have ever read. It was originally published in 1983, which is what I find most amazing about it. Many of the themes and challenges are still relevant, even 34 years later. Katherine V. Forrest writes about the nuances of sexual identity and discovery in a way that is both realistic and upbeat, something you don’t often find in LGBT literature. I found it an honest and accurate representation of coming to terms with your sexuality, and it paints a picture of a lesbian relationship that is absolutely lovely.
It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover
When I love an author, I have a tendency to read everything they have ever published, and Colleen Hoover is no exception to that. I look forward to her new releases as she announces them, because she although she writes “romance novels,” her characters consistently have depth and complexity that makes them realistic. Honestly, this book blew me away in ways I never anticipated. I don’t want to give too much away, but all I will say is that Hoover writes about abusive relationships with an awareness and gentleness that the issue needs. All of her novels are great, but this one is something special.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Small disclaimer: Young Adult Fantasy is pretty much my bread and butter. I love escaping into a fictional world where teenagers are stronger, braver, and more authentic than I ever was at their age. Honestly, I’ll probably be eighty years old sitting in my rocker and my pastel muumuu, shamelessly reading YA Fantasy like there is no tomorrow. (Which, to be fair, if I’m 80, there might not be.) This book was part of a duology (the second, titled Crooked Kingdom) and the two of them were not nearly enough for my greedy bookworm hands. (Do bookworms have hands?) The six main characters are diverse in gender, race, sexuality, and religion (which I love love love; this genre needs more of that) and each are broken and complex and beautiful. The tagline for this book sums it up perfectly: Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist.
When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
I bought this book from Strand Bookstore in NYC and read it in its entirety on the train ride back to Boston. I wept when I finished the last page. This book contrasts dynamics of voice and gender roles as women, and–as a fellow ex-Mormon I appreciated this–the complexities of those two things within Mormon culture. Terry Tempest Williams wrote this book after her mother died, who left her all of her journals from her life as a wife and mother. When she went to read the journals after her mother passed, she discovered that every single one of her journals was blank.
“Can you be inside and outside at the same time? I think this is where I live. I think this is where most women live. I know this is where writers live. Inside to write. Outside to glean.”
“My mother gave me voice by withholding hers, both in life and in death.“
(Excerpts from When Women Were Birds, pg. 161-163)
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
I have this running joke that Ernest Hemingway is my spirit animal. Which, is like totally a joke, but it’s also absolutely 100% true. I have felt connected to him as an author since I first read A Farewell to Arms in high school, and that connection only grew as I started working at the JFK Presidential Library a few months ago. Because of a friendship between Jacqueline Kennedy and Mary Hemingway, much of Hemingway’s work was salvaged from Cuba after his death, something that was near impossible during the missile crisis. Being able to see some of his correspondence, belongings, and first drafts of novels is something I will never forget. A Moveable Feast was written about Hemingway’s time in Paris when he was a starving artist. From the cameos of Shakespeare & Co. and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to the beautiful passages on his writing process, I fell in love with this book instantly and hopelessly.
A Court of Thorns and Roses Series by Sarah J. Maas
I may have mentioned once that I kind of like YA Fantasy, I think. Maybe once. This book series might have claimed the top spot in my long list of favorites this year, maybe ever, and it might be my favorite love story of all time. Sarah J. Maas is an expert at creating strong leading female characters who are realistic and flawed and brave. This series is lightly based on Beauty And The Beast and there are layers and layers of correlations, like a little gold mine of comparisons. I love it. Don’t just take my word for it, though. The second book in the series, A Court of Mist and Fury, won the 2016 Goodreads award for Best Young Adult Fiction.
“But I forgot to tell him…that the villain is usually the person who locks up the maiden and throws away the key.
…He was the one who let me out.”
(Excerpts from A Court of Mist and Fury, by Sarah J. Maas)
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
I think I can count on one hand the number of books whose words have struck me so deeply, so profoundly, that I will never be the same. Eat, Pray, Love is one of those few. Elizabeth Gilbert writes about how she healed after devastating heartbreak through indulgence in Italy, mediation in India, and love in Indonesia. I feel so connected to this book due to similar experiences after my own heartbreak, traveling in Europe and practicing yoga. This book has become somewhat of my own Bible, not only for its relevance in past experience, but for its continued importance in the times to come. It’s a tribute to what I have been through, and a reminder of who I want to be. Attraversiamo!
2016 Honorable Mentions: The Winner’s Curse Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, Separation Anxiety by Karen Brichoux, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coelho, and Decisive by Chip & Dan Heath
Favorite Quote: “But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.” (Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo)
Favorite Characters: Rhys (A Court of Thorns and Roses) and Nina (Six of Crows)
Favorite Relationship: Wylan and Jesper (Six of Crows)
First-Reads for 2017: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
As another new year starts again, I find myself feeling hyper-aware of my own growth, character, and goals. I want to continue to build on the good things I started in 2016, but I also want to push myself to be more than I have been before.
Reading has become both an outlet and a medium for change in my own life. I entertain new ideas, consider other alternatives, and feel emotions akin to those in my own life. Most importantly, books have always had the power to fill me with hope, love, and optimism.
With the current state of our nation, I think I could use more of each of those things.
Even if you aren’t “much of a reader,” I challenge you try to be. Try reading one book more than you did last year (even if last year’s number was zero). I honestly think there is something out there for everyone; you just have to find out what that is.
Even if you aren’t a “reader,” I challenge you to adapt the mindset of one. Consider entertaining ideas that aren’t your own. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Allow yourself to hope that things will work out in the end. Find understanding in the things you don’t understand, and find ambiguity in the things you think you’re certain of.
At the end of the day, reading books is something I love and something I’m good at. But odds are, what you’re passionate about looks different to you than it does to me. So, in addition to those challenges above, I also challenge you to find your passion and chase it. If it makes you happy, fills you with emotion, reminds you to be grateful, do it. Do it in abundance. And never stop.
In my opinion, no matter what happens, there will always be good in this world, if there are good books to read and better people to love.
Happy New Year, my loves.