Welcome to my third annual reading round-up, my extremely biased list of my favorite books of the year. As I’ve said before, I don’t read the newest books, so if you want reviews of the new bestsellers you’ll have to find someone who gets paid to do that. Here are 25 of my favorite books of the year, plus some bonus ones thrown in there because I’m bad at decisions.
Bragging Rights 2k17:
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow — This may have inspired the musical Hamilton, but unless you really, really aren’t satisfied with the musical and wikipedia, you don’t need to read this. It is very thorough and well-written but it is very long and now I know more about Alexander Hamilton than I ever thought I would.
How to Survive A Plague by David France — I knew almost nothing about the AIDS crisis going into this book, and it truly didn’t matter. France captures the rising panic in New York’s gay community as AIDS spread and killed more and more gay men, and captures the personalities and contributions of the major players well. Despite knowing how the story (sort of) ends, I was engrossed.
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison — which I talk about here
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard — This is a collection of essays about Florida, which sounds boring and myopic at first glance, but soon you realize Gerard isn’t writing about Florida, she’s writing about America, and being a female American, and being human. Also, you learn some truly bizarre facts about that truly bizarre state.
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat — This is ostensibly a book about how to write about death, but it is also a memoir of the death of Danticat’s mother, and a close reading of much death-writing in Western literature. It reminded me most of Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s short and fascinating, heartbreaking and hopeful.
On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety by Andrea Petersen — A large part of my year has been devoted to managing my anxiety, and trying to understand what anxiety is and how to move through the world as an anxious person. This book is a hybrid memoir of Petersen’s struggle with anxiety and an examination of anxiety and mental health in America, from scientific research to cultural perceptions. It’s excellent for anyone who suffers from anxiety or loves someone who does.
Honorable mentions: All The Lives I Want by Alana Massey; Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson; My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos — which I talk about here
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood — which I talk about here
When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams — This is short and enchanting. Williams’ mother left her all of her journals, 54 of them, all of which turned out to be blank. Williams explores her mother’s life and death, and what it means to be a woman and have a voice. It’s a quick read, so try and find it at the library.
And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy by Adrian Shirk — I found this at my local bookstore in Seattle and then listened to an interview with the author that sold me on it. Shirk is a millennial exploring the religions of America, which are held up by women who prophesy and testify and break the boundaries imposed on them. Her explorations range from Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson to voodoo priestess Marie Laveau to Southern saint Flannery O’Connor. It is both informative and personal.
Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty — Read this after you read up on the AIDS crisis, if you don’t know much about it. This memoir is about the death of Doty’s lover from AIDS. It was written in the midst of his death and the aftermath, and Doty makes few concessions to people with little knowledge about the disease. This book is heartbreaking and incredibly beautiful and ultimately hopeful, and I definitely cried my way through it.
Honorable mentions: Hunger by Roxane Gay; Insomniac City by Bill Hayes; The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson — This was my year of Shirley Jackson. I read “The Lottery” early in the year because I missed it in high school, and I was hooked. Castle is widely regarded as Jackson’s masterpiece, for good reason. Merricat and Constance Blackwood are two creepy sisters living in a decaying house that you root for in spite of yourself.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather — If you love classic literature, this is for you. Structured in a series of connected vignettes rather than one long story arc, it’s good for reading in short spurts (if that’s what you need). It is subtle and lyrical, and Cather meditates on faith in beautiful and surprising ways.
It by Stephen King — Look, this book is probably twice as long as it needs to be, but I love it anyway. It’s weird and bulky and uneven in places, and there is at least one *ahem* SUPER PROBLEMATIC scene. But if you like being genuinely frightened while reading good writing, this is for you. It’s impossible to find a cheap paperback copy of this right now, so get it from the library if you’re a fast reader.
Silence by Shusaku Endo — Martin Scorsese made this into a movie that I don’t plan on seeing because I cried all the way through this book. It gutted me. Silence is one of the most honest portrayals of missionary experiences that I’ve ever read, and on top of that it is brutally well-written. Through the story of Portuguese priests sneaking into feudal Japan in search of their mentor who has supposedly apostatized, Endo explores heavy topics like colonialism, doubt, cross-cultural communication, and the gray areas of faith. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth it.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix — This is like an 80’s horror movie in book form. I’m not usually a huge horror reader, but this strikes the perfect balance of creepy, heart-felt, and occasionally truly horrifying. It’s a super fun read and the cover design is incredible as well.
Honorable mentions: Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas — Everyone you know is reading this for a reason. The main character, Starr, witnesses a white policeman shoot her childhood friend, a black teenager, in the first chapter, and the rest of the book is an emotional rollercoaster that feels entirely too current. The book hits the language and ever-shifting social media etiquette of teenagers spot-on, and the ending is satisfying without coming across as unbelievable. It’s also being made into a movie starring Amandla Stenberg, so read it now.
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon — This was already made into a movie, also starring Amandla Stenberg. Maddy can’t leave her house because of a lifelong illness, but as she falls in love with her new next-door neighbor, a boy named Oliver, she starts to test the limits imposed by her illness and her mother. Yoon has stated that she wrote this book to give her daughter, who is half-black and half-Korean like Maddy, a story to relate to. I thought it was a beautiful love story, if it did stretch the limits of believability at points. Get it from the library.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth — This book is a little more explicit than most YA books I’ve read. Cameron, the main character, lives in a small Montana town and falls in love with the prom queen of her high school, but when their relationship is discovered she’s sent to a conversion therapy home that’s based on real-life campuses run by Exodus International. While it’s definitely for older teens, the book deals with important topics like losing friends, figuring out sexuality, and the death of parents and role models, and I loved it.
Once and For All by Sarah Dessen — I’m a Sarah Dessen stan so I read this as soon as it came out. It’s not as good as her last book, Saint Anything (which might be the best book she’s written) but it’s still a fun, light read. Get it (and all of her books) at the library.
Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden — This is a classic of both YA and lesbian literature. The narrator, Liza, meets Annie in an improbable meet-cute, and romance ensues. But it’s 1960’s New York, so a number of obstacles get in their way before they ultimately live happily ever after. The story is a little bit cliche and some characters are more like caricatures, but I felt a lot of feelings while reading it.
Christian (because, contrary to some reports, I am one of those):
Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World by Amy Peterson — which I talk about here
Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted by Richard Beck — I was about as skeptical of a book about the devil as I am about a literal devil with red horns and a pitchfork, but this is a thoughtful and provocative meditation on the devil in American Christianity. It won’t leave anyone, theologically conservative or liberal, feeling comfortable at the end. I didn’t agree with all of Beck’s conclusions, but I did appreciate how he got there.
Walking on Water: Reflections on Art and Faith by Madeleine L’Engle — Did my year really count if I didn’t read at least one Madeleine L’Engle book? As always, I loved reading L’Engle’s thoughts about how faith informs art, and vice versa. It felt particularly topical this year, as I struggled through some guilt over committing to an MFA program and devoting myself in some way to art, in the face of so much injustice in the world.
So Nice I Read ‘Em Twice (notable re-reads):
the entire Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling — In this hellscape of a presidency, we all need a little escapism. I chose magic.
Best Web Thing I Read All Year:
The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems | Courtney Martin for BRIGHT
What were your favorite books and articles of the year? Let me know in the comments!