I will get caught up. I will get caught up. I will get caught up.
That has been my mantra this year. I never seemed to get caught up, however. In my last post (in October! gasp!), I mentioned some of the busyness and teaching difficulties I was dealing with. Just when things seemed to be settling down at the beginning of November, I was asked to take over an ENG 102 class when the instructor had to take a leave of absence. With only six weeks left, I had to teach a crash course in research writing to a group of tired and overwhelmed students. We all survived (and some really good things came out of the class), but my blogging, reading, and writing came to a halt. Now that I can breathe a little, I decided a good place to start back would be with a year end review of my favorite books this year.
Before I begin, I need to provide a few caveats.
- I have a love/hate relationship with end-of-the-year lists. I love to read them, to see what books other readers enjoyed, to affirm my own loves of the year, and to add to my ever-growing TBR. But, I also hate when books are overlooked, and I find it so difficult to come up with a list.
- I don’t read books that I don’t enjoy. If I don’t like it, I stop reading (there will be a post about this in 2017). The result is that my list of books at the end of the year is a list of books I loved–or at least liked–which makes narrowing the list really difficult.
- I challenged myself this year to read more diversely. I wanted to expand the genres I read, the authors I read, the places, experiences, and cultures represented in the books I read. In some areas, I succeeded. I read more creative nonfiction and debut novels (categories severely lacking in my previous reading lists). In others, I still need more work.
- Although I still don’t feel like it’s enough, I read more this year than I have the last three years. I’ve enjoyed something about every book that I read. The books that follow, though, are ones that have stuck with me the most.
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee was published early this year in February and also made my favorite-books-of-the-summer-list. This novel is a sweeping, decadent epic that tells the story of Lilliet Berne. The reader is swept into the world of 19th-century opera and follows Lilliet’s rise from farm-girl to circus performer to courtesan to spy and to diva. I never have much time to reread anymore, but if I did, this is a book I would happily reread again and again. And it’s perfect for winter!
The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis was not only one of my favorite books of 2016, but also one of my favorite debuts of the year. It’s also the book I recommended the most to anyone who would listen to me (you know who you are!) You can read my full review here, but I will include a brief summary. The Wolf Road is a genre-bending novel that tells the story of Elka, an orphan who finds herself on the doorstep of a man known only as Trapper. For the next ten years, Trapper takes Elka under his wing and teaches her to survive in the wilderness. Then, Elka finds herself on the run, fighting for her life and trying to reconcile reality and fiction, man and monster, family and blood. Read it!!
The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon is one of my most recent reads, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It was one of those books that came into my life just when I needed it and left me with a reading hangover when it was done. The novel takes place during the span of one day in New York City and is written from alternating perspectives. Natasha’s family, living as undocumented immigrants, are being deported, and on this perfect, fall day, logical, ambitious Natasha is trying to find a way to stay in the only home she knows and loves. Daniel is a romantic and poet at heart, but his parents, who emigrated from South Korea, have other plans for him. As he travels to an interview for Yale (the “second best school”) Daniel only wants to let fate carry him. Then, he meets Natasha. The story focuses on the small occurrences that change our lives–for good and for bad. When I finished this book, I only had three words to describe it: Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Hopeful.
This year I vowed to read more creative nonfiction and memoirs, genres underrepresented in my previous years’ reading lists. Sure, I read quite a bit of scholarly nonfiction, but I wanted to expand my horizons. Though the numbers still are not as high as I want, I’m pleased to say that I accomplished my goal, and it started with H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. This book is part memoir, part biography, part falconry manual, and part nature/science exposition. These parts form a wild, poetic, memoir that is about grieving and loss and healing. In her memoir, Macdonald begins with the loss of her father, a man who taught her how to see the world. As a long-time falconer, she retreats from the rest of the world and undertakes training a goshawk, one of the biggest and wildest of falcons. Interspersed with her experiences training Mabel, her goshawk, is a biography of T.H. White and his own experiences with training a goshawk. This book is another that came at the right time for me. I’ve experienced multiple losses (of different kinds) over the last few years, and at the beginning of this year, I was desperately trying to find my way out of grief. This beautiful book resonated with me when I listened to it on audio and continues to resonate with me now. So much so that I plan on getting a hard copy and rereading it this year.
If you are looking for a fun, geeky celebrity memoir, look no further than You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day. This book is nothing like the previous. Though Day touches on some serious issues ( like body image and Hollywood, gaming addiction, cyber- bullying, and feminism), this is a funny, quirky, and delightful story of Felicia Day’s life and career. I’ve been a fan of Felicia Day’s for years and admire her intelligence and strength and creativity. But, I think even people unfamiliar with her work can appreciate this memoir. I listened to this one on audio, too and loved hearing her narrate her own work. Oh, and the foreword is written and read by Joss Whedon. Seriously. This book is nerdvana.
I have to confess that I haven’t quite finished the last book on this list. I’ve been reading a chapter at a time, taking it slowly with The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams, but I should be finished soon. I know that this is one of my favorites of the year, however, and I have already begun incorporating chapters into my reading lists for classes I teach. The Hour of Land is another memoir that is also part nature book, environmental manifesto, and poetry (there seems to be a theme to my reading this year. I clearly need to take to the wilderness). Terry Tempest Williams published the book in honor of the centennial of America’s National Park system, but Williams doesn’t focus only on the most popular or glamorous of our parks. Instead, she explores those most important to her and those we need to remember. She tells her own story in connection with the parks while also celebrating the parks’ own stories. In fact, the more I think about it, the entire book celebrates stories of all kinds, but especially those of people influenced most by the land and the ways in which the wilderness is important to our stories and identities. The language in this book is breathtaking, and Williams’s passion makes you want to grab a back pack and find a spot of wildness to celebrate and to protect.
That’s my list! And I promise that I plan on being much more consistent with blogging. I have lots of plans for posts coming up and am considering inviting some guest bloggers to join in the conversation. In the coming days, expect some discussions about reading goals for the new year and reading challenges. But, for now, what are the best books you read this year? My TBR can always a handle a few more.