Read 68 books this year. I’m recommending 44 of them. Audiobooks are critical. Between work, graduate school, and writing a novel, I don’t really have time to sit down and read. I’m also worried about straining my eyes, since I already stare at computers and paper so much. I still read the occasional print book that I can’t find on audiobook (like titles from smaller presses, such as Jillian). But I read many of these books in audiobook format. It’s the perfect multitasking tool. You can read when driving, cooking, cleaning…thereby making those activities feel less like a waste of time.
Update 12/18: Added The High Cost of Free Parking, The Likeness, The Secret Place, Broken Harbor
Update 1/15: Added In the Woods, Garbology, and Hesiod’s The Works and Days. 2017 List Complete.
Megan Abbott. Dare Me (reread), 2013. The End of Everything (reread), 2012. Twisted crime fiction, written beautifully. What more could a reader want? Dare Me is a cheerleader murder mystery. In The End of Everything, the narrator’s best friend is kidnapped, and she tries to solve the crime.
M.T. Anderson. Feed (reread). 2002. Besides Oryx and Crake and 1984, this is the most disturbing and insightful (disturbing because insightful) dystopia I have read. In this novel, teenagers have the internet implanted in their brains. When they’re hacked during an excursion to the moon, the consequences are severe. M.T. Anderson is an astute observer of the effects of internet, advertising, and constant entertainment on our minds. See also: Amusing Ourselves to Death (below).
Margaret Atwood. Cat’s Eye (reread). 1998. A detailed and fascinating account of a Canadian childhood in the 1940s. One of the most striking aspects of this book is its scrutiny of bullying and its effect on the narrator.
A.S. Byatt. Possession. 1991. A novel of academics and literary sleuthing. When a young scholar discovers a famous poet’s letters to an unidentified lover, it sets off a string of startling revelations. As a writer, I admired the novel’s technical virtuosity. Byatt writes not only the main story, but also textbook chapters, poems, letters, etc. spanning several voices and styles.
Halle Butler. Jillian. 2015. Besides the excitement of seeing a 5 Under 35 winner come from a small press (Curbside Splendor), I absolutely loved this. Being in your 20s is supposed to be fun, or at least that’s what people say. Hilarious and cynical, Butler perfectly captures the unfun aspects, like being poor and unsuccessful. The narrator is a depressed, jerky young woman, and there is something so utterly satisfying about seeing this represented in literature. Bonus points for hating on the kind of people who don’t understand other people’s unhappiness.
Jonathan Dee. The Privileges (reread). 2010. A carefully observed, wonderfully written, deliciously voyeuristic novel about the lives of the wealthy.
George Eliot. The Mill on the Floss. 1860. Eliot brilliantly examines the childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of a woman who doesn’t fit with societal conventions. More than that, it’s a novel about family, a subject Eliot treats with compassion and warmth. She’s simply one of the best novelists in the English language, writing with incredible intelligence, wisdom, and generosity.
Tana French. The Trespasser, 2017. The Likeness, 2009 (reread). Broken Harbor, 2013 (reread). The Secret Place, 2015 (reread). In the Woods, 2007 (reread). In The Trespasser, a female detective has to solve a murder case while enduring harassment from her colleagues. The Secret Place is a boarding school murder mystery featuring bratty teenage girls. Broken Harbor is a murder mystery set in a hauntingly abandoned development after the financial crash of 2008. In The Likeness, a detective infiltrates the secret lives of a murder victim’s friends. Tana French is an expert at writing dark and twisty mysteries, while also going deep into character and setting.
Shirley Jackson. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 1962. Mary Katherine lives in an isolated house with only her sister and uncle, keeping separate from the village ever since the suspicious poisoning of several of her family members. When a cousin comes to visit, their carefully ordered existence is cast into disarray. Notable for the delightfully weird and creepy narrator.
Stephen King. The Shining (reread). 1977. One of the most perfectly creepy books I’ve encountered so far. Don’t let the movie fool you–it’s a lot more than a bunch of tawdry scare scenes. The book unfolds slowly, with much psychological depth and backstory behind Jack’s gradual unraveling. King is masterful at making unexpected things frightening. One of the scariest parts of the novel is when Danny tries to walk past a fire extinguisher–an ordinary object that becomes sinister in King’s hands.
Jean Hanff Korelitz. Admission. 2009. Like The Privileges, this one perhaps belongs in the voyeurism category. It deals with a cycle in the life of a Princeton admissions officer. An entertaining read, if you’re into campus novels.
Elizabeth Kostova. The Historian. 2009. An upscale vampire novel involving academics and lots of gorgeous libraries. In a nice shout-out to Dracula, it’s in epistolary format. An entertaining read.
Ron MacLean. Headlong. 2013. MacLean’s novel follows a journalist and a troubled teen during the Occupy protests (to be exact, a movement very similar to Occupy). MacLean has keen observations about the political climate in Boston at the time, and he does a great job exploring the nuances of how political sentiments change with our age.
Haruki Murakami. Sputnik Sweetheart (reread). 2002. A short, bittersweet novel with the dreamy surrealism that Murakami fans love.
George Saunders. Tenth of December. 2014. Saunders is notable for his distinctive voice, focus on working life, and all-around excellence as a story writer. I’m sure other people have said more eloquent things about him.
Sarah Smith. Chasing Shakespeares. 2004. Two very different graduate students think they’ve stumbled upon a Shakespeare conspiracy. Fun and fast-paced.
Zadie Smith. Swing Time. 2017. A friendship between two girls who want to be dancers changes over time. A fast-paced, interesting story with nuanced observations about race, politics, and celebrity.
Donna Tartt. The Secret History (reread). 1992. A pack of pretentious college students plot to murder one of their friends. Aside from the wonderfully melodramatic plot, Tartt writes some of my favorite sentences–she’s a keen observer of detail, dialogue, and character. Her writing is beautiful and specific. She also assembles a vivid cast of secondary characters. If you like campus novels, don’t miss this one.
Weike Wang. Chemistry. 2017. Wang was a 5 Under 35 winner this year. An unnamed PhD student in chemistry narrates her unraveling science career and relationship. The point of view is enjoyable for its take on a specialized subject matter
Sari Wilson. Girl Through Glass. 2017. A look at the world of ballet, with much fascinating professional detail.
Tobias Wolff. Old School. 2004. A young writer learns his craft while attending a fancy private school–and eventually tries to succeed by cheating. Wolff makes the daring choice of writing scenes featuring real writers, and he nails it.
Hester Young. The Gates of Evangeline, 2016. The Shimmering Road, 2017. Young writes literary thrillers–if you’re a fan of Megan Abbott or Tana French, you should check her out. Charlie Cates is a journalist who sees psychic visions about children in trouble. Her investigations take her to Louisiana and Arizona to solve crimes. These are the first two novels of a trilogy, with the third coming out in the future.
Hesiod. The Works and Days (translated by Richmond Lattimore). We’re not sure exactly when Hesiod lived; he is probably a rough contemporary of Homer. The Works and Days is interesting because of its cataloging of ancient Greek farming techniques–within the somewhat amusing context of explaining these things to the narrator’s “great idiot” brother.
Homer. The Iliad, The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fitzgerald). Somehow I’d managed to avoid reading these until this year. That was a major error. If you haven’t read them, you must. Immediately.
Sophocles. Ajax. Sophocles presents quite a different interpretation of Ajax of Telamon and Odysseus than we see in The Iliad.
Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire. 1968. It was refreshing to read such an ardent defense of wilderness. Abbey advocates preserving nature for its own sake, and not mindlessly building roads, buildings, and dams everywhere. Writerly qualities: a starkly individual voice, vivid place-based detail, and one of the most striking opening passages I read this year.
Gavin de Becker. The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence. 1999. A self-help-y book that would be light reading if it weren’t so terrifying…but ultimately helpful. This book is a good reminder to follow your intuition, which we often stifle in hopes of being polite.
Dennis Brian. The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science. 2005. Besides George Eliot, has there ever been a superwoman like Marie Curie? She was not only a genius and a hard worker, but also a humble and generous human being. It’s also incredibly uplifting to read about how Pierre supported her. It was due to his insistence that she was awarded her first Nobel prize–the committee had planned to award him, but not her. It was the first Nobel prize ever awarded to a woman.
Michael Braungart & William McDonough. Cradle to Cradle. 2002. This paradigm-shifting book reveals a startling and upsetting truth: recycling doesn’t work. Most recycled materials are actually “downcycled,” meaning they’re made into low quality products that are usually thrown out. As it is currently practiced, recycling only delays our products’ inevitable journey to the landfill. What would actually solve the waste crisis? Designing things that can be reused.
Rita Zoey Chin. Let the Tornado Come: A Memoir. 2015. Chin writes about her years as a teenage runaway and her later struggles with anxiety. Through all the difficulty, she finds an anchor in her love for horses. This lyrical memoir is a tribute to resilience.
Elizabeth Cline. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. 2013. Two alarming takeaways from this one: the polyester that most clothes are made of now comes from petroleum-based products; it’s synthetic and can’t biodegrade. And, for those of us who don’t think we’re wasting clothes because we “donate” them to charity: the volume of clothing donated is so overwhelming that charities can’t handle it, and much of it is thrown out. The cycle of buying cheap clothes regularly and donating them creates a huge amount of waste. After reading this, I went through my closet and realized that most of my clothes are made from polyester. And they’re made cheaply, with rapid obsolescence being an intentional part of their lifecycle. After a lifetime of shopping in cheap fast fashion stores, I’m not sure how to change my lifestyle, but I plan to 1) try second-hand shopping and 2) to keep my eye out for higher quality pieces made of cotton.
Dan Fagin. Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. 2015. This impressively researched volume chronicles the history of the Toms River pollution case. Fagin not only analyzes every event that occurred in Toms River, but also explores the history of the various sciences and technologies that came to bear on the case: epidemiology, dye making, toxicology, statistics, etc. This perhaps makes it sound like dry reading, but Fagin is also excellent at telling the human stories in parallel with the technical detail. It’s a deeply disturbing book. It makes you realize that corporations have a large stake in concealing their polluting practices–and, because it’s so hard to prove causation between diseases and specific pollutants, they can often get away with it, at least long enough to do massive damage to the environment and human lives.
Marya Hornbacher. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. 1998. A sad but fascinating and well-written memoir about eating disorders.
Edward Humes. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash. 2012. A fascinating and sobering overview of the truly astounding extent of our garbage problem.
Bea Johnson. Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste. 2013. Came to this book after learning about the Trash is for Tossers website. Some people, like Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer, have figured out ways to structure their lives so that they’re not producing any trash.
Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 1985. It’s not that entertainment is a bad thing. A small amount of entertainment is healthy. The problem is, in a world dominated by television, there is significant pressure to make everything into entertainment. Although the book was published in 1985, it’s a startlingly relevant diagnosis of much of public discourse today.
Donald Shoup. The High Cost of Free Parking. 2011. This tome addresses a surprisingly unquestioned feature of the American landscape. Why are so many suburbs blighted by huge, deserted parking lots surrounding islands of retail? It’s because of zoning laws. Shoup traces the history and origins of zoning ordinances related to parking, building a convincing argument that these ordinances have caused a wide range of problems.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 BC. A history of astounding depth and analysis. It’s also surprisingly objective, considering that Thucydides participated in the war on the Athenian side. Thucydides observes all the fascinating details of the war, from how cities defended against siege to how large-scale political convictions fueled actions and conflicts.