December 21

I read somewhere around 65 books this year, not counting the 90+ poetry books I read this winter and spring when I was judging the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards contest. Most of the 65 were not poetry books because I was pretty much poetried out at that point. Mostly they were novels because that’s most of what I read most of the time and always has been since I started in on the complete works of Carolyn Keene (composite fictional author of the Nancy Drew books) when I was six and got obsessed with long stories about things that didn’t really happen.

(It’s strange to me when I talk about the books I’ve been reading and someone looks surprised: “Oh, so you mostly read novels?” Well YEAH doesn’t everyone? It’s always shocking to realize that everyone is not exactly like me.)

Because I’m always kind of jealous of the people who get to make those “best of the year” lists and always think I could do a better job if only anyone cared about my opinion, here is my petty, resentful list of my favorite 13 books I read this year.

My only criterion was that they had to be books I read for the first time this year, which is actually a significant limitation because about half of what I read are re-reads, and frequently they are re-re- or re-re-re- or re-re……re-reads. The books I really love I basically never stop rereading. I am still rereading some books I read for the first time at seven or eight. It’s still always worth it.

These are listed pretty much in the order I read them, not ranked in any way because that’s just exhausting. Also…13? What’s that about?

  • Born a Crime, Trevor Noah. If you’re interested in the human effect of legally mandated and bureaucratized racism, and also you would like to read about the most badass mother in the history of badass mothers, this one is for you. Note: Not a novel!
  • The Philosopher’s Flight, Tom Miller. Steampunk magic, alternate history, gender politics, telekinesis…there is really not anything irresistibly interesting that got left out of this book.
  • Brass, Xhenet Aliu. Set in a town not far away from the one I grew up in, powerfully evoked the familiar world of depressed New England former mill towns and their European immigrant populations and made me realize how much I had loved them all along.
  • The Power, Naomi Alderman. Yes, this is the one you’ve heard about. It’s as good as everyone says. Both compellingly readable and philosophically rigorous. Will not leave your head ever.
  • How to Stop Time, Matt Haig. Movingly and believably explores what it would be like to live a really (really, really, impossibly) long time…when everyone else you know doesn’t.
  • Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday. On everyone’s favorites list though I was prepared not to like it because it’s partly a roman à clef about Philip Roth and his 25-year-old lover (yes, the author) which sounds horrible, doesn’t it? But brilliantly, it’s ALSO about a man of Middle Eastern origin being unjustly detained and interrogated in an airport because…because it works, that’s why.
  • The Changeling, Victor LaValle. I know I loved this book when I was reading it; in its weird mix of realism and fantasy it is not unlike Murakami; but like many dreamlike books this one had faded in my mind to the rich texture of a barely-remembered but compelling dream. There are way worse things you could have in your mind.
  • The Expendable Man, Dorothy Hughes. Written in the 50s, a noir thriller that makes a stunning point, as salient today as then, by withholding one fact from the reader for the first couple of chapters to convince you to suspect someone completely innocent just because he is convinced, correctly, that he will be suspected.
  • Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman. If you’ve been looking for a dystopian novel that manages to also be an intense primer in evolutionary biology and also is kind of a love story and also (somehow) is really funny, you’ve come to the right place.
  • Severance, Ling Ma. This book might haunt me more than anything else I read this year. It’s a combination Bildungsroman/zombie apocalypse story and it works so much better than you could ever imagine. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder nervously whether you might be coming down with the fatal brain-eating disease that’s killing everyone in the world and if so, how much longer you should keep going in to your empty office and doing your stupid job.
  • A Terrible Country, Keith Gessen. I can’t stop thinking about this one either. It takes place in Moscow, where I spent a few months almost thirty years ago, but a post-Communist Moscow that is almost but not entirely unlike the Moscow I knew. And it has a denouement that, unlike the denouements of most novels for the last century or so, involves a stunning moral downfall that you don’t see coming until it’s already bashed your heart to pieces.
  • The Library Book, Susan Orlean. Hey, another book that’s not a novel! Or even fiction! But Susan Orlean writes like a novelist whose plot and characters just happen to mirror the real world so maybe it doesn’t count. Also, I loved being immersed again in the world that I left behind when I finished library school and didn’t get (or try to get) a job in a library.
  • Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver. Technically I have not actually finished this book yet, but I think I’ve read enough at this point to put it on my favorites list. The narrator/main character, unlike any of the other main characters in any of these books, is a woman not too far off my own age and her life is both disturbingly like and disturbingly unlike mine. Oh, also it takes place in one house in two different times of history and involves Victorian acolytes of Darwin, so I was never not going to like it.

Format breakdown: 11 novels, 1 memoir, 1 work of creative nonfiction
Genre breakdown of the novels: 6 speculative fiction; 3 contemporary realism; 1 thriller; 1 hybrid contemporary/historical realism

This actually seems like a pretty good representation of the kinds of things I read in the proportions I read them.

With regard to how much science fiction I read, I would just like to say that I think we’ve gotten to the point in history where science fiction seems so relevant to the range of our possible futures that it almost feels irresponsible to avoid it. (Also, it makes my brain feel good.)

Suggestions for next year’s reading welcomed in the comments.

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