I read a lot. A few of the books I read are very literary. Some of the books I read turn out to be pretty terrible. Many of the books are non-fiction. Many involve trees, or science, or murderous people in the UK. I get suggestions from blogs and friends and family and my library and NPR and the New York Times and Buzzfeed and lists of award winners. I like exciting, gripping plots, but they can’t make up for bad or cheap writing. I like strong, complicated female characters; adventure; detectives; learning about people and communities previously unfamiliar to me; suspense; tasty descriptions of meals; and lots of other things (not all in the same book. Although that sounds great.)
Here are some books I read in the last year and really enjoyed for one reason or another, in case you’re looking for suggestions yourselves. They’re classified as either nonfiction (NF) or fiction (F). This list is really in absolutely no sensible order at all, and undoubtedly leaves out many great books I read in 2016.
Unseen City, by Nathanael Johnson (NF): This book is about the wild animals and plants that thrive in close proximity with humans and our infrastructure. It has literally affected my potential career path, professional interests, and every walk I take in an urban or suburban area. It’s humorous, entertaining, and very well-researched, and reading it will provide you with a number of super fun facts (some useful, some gross, some beautiful) for wowing your friends on long road trips or dinner dates.
Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren (NF): Written by an incredibly smart female biologist, this book covers what it’s like to be a female scientist; a one-of-a-kind friendship; the challenges of mental health issues; and the innumerable, complex wonders hiding within plants. Jahren is a brilliant writer and I talked about this book incessantly while I was reading it. You should read it no matter what, but especially if you’re a lady in natural resources or any scientific field, or if you think trees are awesome.
Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler (F): This is a novel that takes place over the course of one year, and follows a feisty, anxious, apparently gorgeous, and surprisingly very relatable narrator who gets a job serving at a very high-end restaurant in NYC, falls in love with the bartender, drinks frequently and desperately, and learns about both food and grown-ups. There was something about Danler’s voice that I loved. I think she writes how I want to write. And if you’ve ever had a job in a restaurant, or moved somewhere new and utterly exotic as a young person, or had a very messy big crush on someone, I promise this book will speak to you. Or maybe not, I guess I can’t guarantee that. But it did to me.
In the Woods and the rest of the books by Tana French (F): If you just want a really well-written detective story with a page-turner plot and complicated characters, you should read all of these books. They’re really good, I promise you. I became somewhat obsessed with her. Here’s what the NY Times said about the first book: “Drawn by the grim nature of her plot and the lyrical ferocity of her writing, even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods.”
H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (NF): A beautifully written book about birds, family, grief, literature, big open fields, academia, T.H. White. It’s big and soaring and saddening and opening, and interest-seizing all the way through. Deserves all the nice things everyone has said about it.
Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (F): A collection of stories about three generations of Indian and Indian-American women. Again, beautifully written, and each story is fascinating and often very emotional. I’m getting worse at writing these mini blurbs. This book is interesting and made me sad and made me happy and made me think, so there.
Lost at Sea / So You’ve Been Publically Shamed / The Psychopath Test, and other books by Jon Ronson (NF): Just as I became obsessed with Tana French in 2016 and read every book she’s ever written in the span of a few months, so I did with Jon Ronson. His most famous book is the only one I haven’t yet read, actually – The Men Who Stare at Goats – but it’s on order at the library. He’s an investigative journalist who covers some exceedingly interesting topics and is very funny and clever. Get in there.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, and A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (both F): I read these books at similar times and they sort of merge in my mind, which is not to say that they’re not both separately extremely good books. Classics. They’re just both about boys at prep schools and the mysterious or sinister death of one of those boys, so you can see why I get confused.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (F): You’ve probably heard about this book. Adichie is a youthful genius, and this book has won a ton of awards and accolades. It’s funny and wise and eye-opening and I similarly recommend it wholeheartedly.
Version Control, by Dexter Palmer (F): I had a good time reading this book, in much the same way that I enjoy clever, suspenseful brainteasers or riddles. I don’t think I would have said while reading it, though, that it was on any best-of lists – it’s just that, many months later, I realize that I still think about its scenes and ideas with regularity. There’s definitely something to that. Read this crazy time travel book and then we can remember its ideas together!
Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari (NF): If you are between the ages of, say, 21 and 40, and are or have dated people, and have or had a cell phone, and have ever texted a human you had a crush on, then you will most likely find this book fascinating, relatable, often funny, and worth quoting to everyone you know.
The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (F): I’d heard about John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry, but to be honest I’d never learned or didn’t remember most of the details. This novel somehow managed to be very funny and clever, while also giving me an important history lesson, and wrestling with a lot of important conversations about race and equity.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (F): This is the first thing I’d ever read by Margaret Atwood! She is a feminist sci-fi badass and this was a creepy, suspenseful, and thought-provoking book.
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (F): I joined a book club! It’s great! And this was our first book. I will admit that there were moments, especially at the beginning, where I thought, “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT HE’S TALKING ABOUT AND THIS BOOK IS WAY ABOVE ME.” But it kept growing and growing on me, and turns out it’s incredibly funny, and layered, and serious. You should read it. Dig your heels in and think deeply about it.
Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones (F): I bought this book for like fifty cents I believe, a little used paperback, and I loved it about a thousand times more than I expected to. It also made me cry, heavily; just a warning on that.
BONUS: Some of My Favorite Recent Fluffier Reads
Not exactly great literature (not that a lot of the above are either, to be fair), but they’re fun and cozy and sometimes downright gripping, all right?
Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead (F)
Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia (F)
The Lost Girls, by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, and Amanda Pressner (NF)
Various things by Liane Moriarty and by Sophie Kinsella (F)