I wanted to make sure I got this one in before January was over!
I read 133 books last year, more than I expected to. I don’t do the Goodreads challenges and don’t really have a particular number of books in mind to read for a year, especially since the number is largely affected by the lengths and genres of the books you read. I get a lot of reading done on my (fairly long) commute on public transportation, which is how I got all of those books read. Some more numbers:
Books I don’t know how to classify (specifically, What Is the What and In Cold Blood): 2
Library books: 113
Books I bought: 12
Books I was given: 7
Book I found at one of those little free library things: 1
Female authors: 79
Male authors: 53
And here are my favorites:
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I read this shortly before the show premiered, and it’s one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time. I ended up being disappointed in the show because the book is SO much better. One thing the show got totally wrong was the tone of the book- despite the dark subject matter (murder and domestic violence are plot points), it’s actually very funny, with lots of digs at modern suburban parents. It’s like if Desperate Housewives had better writing and was set in Australia. But the show wasn’t funny at all. Read the book!
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This completely deserves all the hype it’s gotten. What a fantastic book. It follows two branches of a family through several generations, covering about two hundred years. It starts with Esi and Effia, two half-sisters in Ghana who have never met. Effia is married to a British slave trader, while Esi is sold into slavery in America. Each chapter follows a descendant of one of the sisters, alternating between Effia’s and Esi’s. There are a ton of characters, but they’re all so memorable that I never forgot who anyone was or lost track of anyone’s story. She also gets a lot of complete stories into a relatively short book, which is impressive. It’s almost like linked short stories. Gyasi also does a great job of painting a complete picture of a time and place I wasn’t familiar with- I knew zilch about life in eighteenth-century Ghana before reading this, but the scene is set with enough detail to give a pretty good picture of these characters’ lives. More importantly, this book says a lot about the legacy of slavery through the generations, and it says it in a way that’s effective without being preachy or heavy-handed.
Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
I am a big fan of J. Courtney Sullivan, so I’d been looking forward to this for a long time, and it did not disappoint. I love her writing style and her excellent dialogue, but I also love her knack for capturing life as an Irish-American in Massachusetts. There were so many details that I laughed out loud at because they were so familiar- like a character who lives in Weston, the richest town in Massachusetts, having an OFD (Originally From Dorchester) sticker on his car. Everyone in this book seems like a very real person. There were some things that I wish had more resolution, but this was wonderful, and I think you’ll like this book even if you don’t have a personal connection to the subject matter like I do.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Oh, my goodness, this book. It’s a sad but ultimately hopeful book about a socially isolated woman and her developing friendship with a coworker. Eleanor is such a great character- she’s awkward and inappropriate, but as we learn more about her and her tragic backstory, everything about her personality and quirks start to make sense. Her blossoming friendship with Raymond is genuinely touching. Also, this book touches on some beautifully uncomfortable truths about depression, loneliness, isolation, and finding purpose in life when you feel unloved- truths that, unfortunately, I could really relate to.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This had been on my radar forever- my mother and grandmother both recommended it to me years ago- and I just got around to it this past year. It did not disappoint, but the plot was also not what I expected at all. du Maurier does a fantastic job setting up a creepy, mysterious atmosphere where you know that SOMETHING big is going to be revealed, but the specifics are unclear. I actually recommend going into it as I did, knowing as little as possible (I knew that the narrator was the unnamed second wife of a man whose dead first wife still had a major impact on their lives, but that was it). This is an excellent book, and I can see the influence it’s had on a lot of modern thrillers.
What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan
This is a heartbreaking but very important book. It’s an expansion on an incredibly moving article Kate Fagan wrote for ESPN about the 2014 suicide of Madison Holleran, a freshman runner at U Penn. Madison seemed to have a great life- she was smart, gorgeous, and a talented athlete, with many good friends and a loving, supportive family. But she was a perfectionist who put a lot of pressure on herself, and when she had trouble adjusting to her freshman year of college, particularly with not enjoying track as much as she did in high school, it triggered a very intense depression. There’s no villain in this story, no moment you can point to where you can say that she might still be alive if x had happened. There are, however, a lot of contributing factors: the pressures student-athletes face in meeting expectations (the author, a former college athlete herself, shares her own story), the way students feel driven to achievements and prestige without taking their own happiness into account (interestingly, Maddy was also a soccer player and preferred it to track, but she turned down a chance to play soccer at Lehigh when she found out an Ivy League school was interested in having her on the track team).
The one that stands out, though, is the role that social media plays in communication and real life relationships. Although Madison confided in friends and family that she was unhappy at Penn, she hid the depth of her unhappiness, and it’s reflected in the Instagram feed that always showed her looking happy. Incredibly, just hours before killing herself, she Instagrammed a pretty picture of lights in a park in Philadelphia. Yet, even though a lot of her friends were also struggling, she believed that their happy social media feeds gave an accurate picture of them. When I was in college, social media was just becoming a thing- Facebook went live during my sophomore year and smartphones didn’t exist yet. I imagine college, which I loved, would have been a very different experience with today’s version of social media.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
This was SUPER interesting, and before I go on, I want to say that everyone who’s involved in the online book community should read it. One reason why I’ve been reluctant to get too involved in online book communities is because they LOVE public shaming- this article sums it up pretty well. It’s not enough for these people to dislike a book or object to something about it- they have to make sure that everyone agrees with them, no one reads the book, and those who do are shamed for it as well.
But anyway- in this book, Jon Ronson speaks to people who’ve experienced the life-changing consequences of online shaming. Some of the incidents he refers to I remember, some I wasn’t as familiar with, and some I’d forgotten about. There are some fascinating insights into the psychology behind shaming, and it was familiar to me. Even if I haven’t joined an online hate mob or demanded that someone be fired, I’ve been outraged at a stranger’s behavior and satisfied upon hearing of their comeuppance. But the story is often more complicated, and the book reminds us to keep things in perspective. It’s also a good reminder that contrary to what the Internet usually would have you believe, there is, in fact, such thing as an overreaction.
Half in Love with Death by Emily Ross
Back in 2009, I took a Novel in Progress class through Grub Street, and Emily Ross was a classmate. She was working on an earlier draft of this book, and I loved what I read- I was always excited when it was her turn to workshop. So I was so happy to hear that the book had been published and I could read the finished product!
This is well-written in every way- well-drawn characters, a relatable narrator, believable dialogue, and good description of 1960s Tucson. Caroline is such a great character- sweet and smart but very naive, and even as your sense of dread grows over the course of the book, you want to cling to her belief in a more innocent interpretation of events. Knowing what I know from back in 2009, it’s interesting to see how the story changed shape before reaching its current form.
After the Eclipse by Sarah Perry
I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by a memoir. This is super well-written, and it cannot have been easy to write about something so personal and so traumatic.
When Sarah Perry was twelve, she woke up to the sound of her mother, Crystal, being stabbed to death in the next room. She didn’t see the murderer and had no idea who it was. The killer remained at large for twelve years, until a man’s arrest for something else resulted in a DNA match linking him to the murder. Meanwhile, Sarah bounced around between friends and relatives for the rest of her childhood, and although her mother’s family was grieving, too, they weren’t always very understanding and didn’t always treat Sarah as well as they should have- one aunt was incredibly mean to her. The police also seemed convinced that Sarah knew more about the murder than she was telling them, even though she honestly told them all she could remember through hours of questioning.
The book is more of a memorial to her mother than a true crime story. While Crystal Perry certainly wasn’t perfect- in particular, she tended to get into a lot of toxic relationships- she was a loving mother who worked hard and would have done anything for Sarah. One thing that amazed me as I read this book was Sarah’s resilience. Despite the incredible trauma she experienced, and despite having a rather dysfunctional extended family, her hard work and talent for writing led her to graduate from Davidson, a very good school, and earn an MFA at Columbia. She had a period of heavy drinking in college and carries around a lot of anger, but on the whole, she turned out to be a successful, functional adult, and I think that’s a testament to the strong foundation her mother laid for her.
Honorable mentions: Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway, Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter.