I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was 12. (Yes, that is obsessive—but also a great personal document to have, much more enlightening then My Year in Facebook.) Here’s a list of the ten I most enjoyed this year—not all of which were published this year.
I read fewer books than most years because, as Editorial Director of Shebooks, I had lots of submissions to read and e-books to edit—and published 71 of amazing quality. You can read the rest of my list, this year and back to the 80s, on my website.
This year’s top books, in no particular order.
Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín
This book is on everyone’s top ten lists, as it should be. A memorable and complicated literary character, the Irish widow Nora Webster’s emotions simmer just under the surface as she rises to the challenges of grief, loss, and living fully again.
Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave, by Elena Ferrante
I’m obsessed with Elena Ferrante, the nom de plume of an unknown Italian female writer from Naples. This is the third in her Naples trilogy, an epic chronicle of a complicated female friendship between two brilliant girls who grew up in a tough Naples neighborhood, who alternate in their successes and knocks. I am so obsessed with being immersed in her world that I read the second one in Italian (slowly!) and am about to start the fourth, since it isn’t translated yet.
At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcón*
Set in an unnamed Latin country a lot like Peru, a young actor joins a guerilla theatre troop in a revival play with one of the original leaders. Their tour of the country reveals political and emotional scars, as well as personal turmoil. A meditation on the consequences of actions and gestures–our own, and those we’ve come to believe are our own.
A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava
Recommended by Daniel Alarcón, above. Usually I’m a big fan of minimalist writing, but in the right hands—William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, for one favorite, or David Foster Wallace—I love frenetic, maximalist books with manic stream-of-consciousness riffs and a fiesta of memorable characters. This book by De la Pava, whose bio charmingly reads, “A writer who does not live in Brooklyn,” is (by and) about a New York City public defender and the absurd world of the criminal courts he inhabits. Originally self-published in 2008.
The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St. Aubyn
These are actually four novels in one volume–Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk–and a fifth in another, At Last. Acerbic, posh Englishman writes about his truly horrifying childhood with tremendous style and wit, with a devastating result.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The witty, deeply-felt story of a Nigerian immigrant who comes to the U.S. on a college scholarship, whose experiences with culture shock and racism, from the hair-braiding salon to her romance with a wealthy white man, lead her to write an audacious blog on being a Non-American Black about Racial Disorder Syndrome.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, by Francine Prose
The title refers to a photograph taken at a cabaret club in 1932, and the book follows the subjects of the photo, including a memorable female villain, through personal treacheries and tragedies of World War II.
Abroad, by Katie Crouch*
A psychological thriller inspired by the university murders in Puglia, full of bad decisions, beautiful Italian scenery and history—an altogether irresistible read.
The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol*
Spare and emotional, these stories are about worlds and cultures colliding–Eastern Europe, Russia, the U.S., old worlds vs. the new–full of wisdom and humanity.
Whatever Doesn’t Kill You: Six Memoirs of Resilience, Strength, and Forgiveness, edited by Laura Fraser
Okay, as you can see, I edited this anthology, but it’s still the best, most moving collections of memoirs I’ve read. Gorgeous and inspiring memoirs on overcoming such challenges as war reporting, sexual abuse, disappointing birthmothers, medical problems and racist treatment in the doctor’s office, parental death, and alcoholism by Mary Jo McConahay (“Ricochet”), Barbara Graham (“Camp Paradox”), Susan Ito (“The Mouse Room”), Ethel Rohan (“Out of Dublin”), Faith Adiele (“The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems”) and Beth Kephart (“Nest, Flight. Sky.”)
*I know and like these authors in real life, but I would have loved and recommended their books anyway.
Random notes on other books I read this year: I will read anything by Ian McEwan, and liked The Children’s Hour almost as much as any; Solar, less. Getting tired of Murakami with his schematic Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. As an American Studies major and feminist, I couldn’t have been more poised to like The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore; how could such great subject matter, story, and reporting be so dry and dull? Read the wonderful Home by Marilynne Robinson in anticipation of Lila. Why had I never read Women In Their Beds by Gina Berriault before? Fabulous stories—maybe the terrible title? Many honorable mentions: You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik; Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley; The Circle, by Dave Eggers; Transatlantic by Colum McCann. Also read Tinkers by Paul Harding; with a Pulitzer Prize, he doesn’t need my five stars, but wow, he has Faulkner written all over him, so gorgeous.