In between my work as an Instructional Designer, making art and managing my small business, I read. A lot. This year I read 156 books (52,853 pages!) I’ve narrowed it down to my top 10, because what would be the point of reading all these books if I didn’t tell you which ones you need to read. So, here you go.
10. This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel* tells the story of a family trying to do the right thing for their transgender child, and not always getting it quite right. I found this refreshing. It seems to me that we, too often, hear only two types of stories: those who somehow always get it right, and those families who are so terrible they don’t deserve to have children at all. Frankel tells the story of two parents who want desperately to make everything OK for their child, but discover that’s impossible, so they must find a way to help their child live in an imperfect world.
9. Missoula by Jon Krakauer examines the campus sexual assault epidemic by giving us a rare inside look at the judicial process that is supposed to protect victims. As a survivor of sexual assault, and an employee of a large university, this was a vital read. Hearing from the victims directly, as well as hearing about their emotional and legal battles, made me feel less alone. It also helped me better understand what’s wrong with the system, and perhaps, how we can work towards fixing it.
8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides tells the story of Madeleine Hanna, an English major on the East Coast trying to understand the marriage plot, and in turn, her own life. I’ve rarely related to a character on such a deep level. I think Eugenides captured the strange experience of becoming a “real adult” so well—of trying to figure out what matters, and who matters, and how to untangle yourself from the dangerous people in your life. And it has the most delightful ending!
7. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid* is a fantastic work of magical realism that follows Nadia and Saeed as they attempt to escape their war-torn homeland. They discover a network of doors that allow them to escape to “the West.” But here’s the catch: you never know where you might end up when you go through the door, whether it will be better or worse. And there’s rarely an opportunity to go back. This book will force you to think more deeply about the refugee crisis, about your privilege, and about your obligations to your fellow humans.
6. The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota* is one of the most raw books I’ve ever read. It tells the story of three men and one woman as they leave India and attempt to build new lives in England. Leaving home, the place you loved and grew up, is hard no matter what. But there are so, so many challenges I never considered for refugees. This book will break your heart, but you will be better for it. Sometimes, our hearts need to be broken.
5. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a fantastic and heartbreaking novel about Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s, and the people who were swept up in the fighting. Again, much like I think we shelter ourselves from the true realities of the refugee crisis, we shelter ourselves from the realities of war. Adichie makes war personal, as all wars are to the people who experience them. You’ll be thinking about this powerful work long after you read the last page.
4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas* is a young adult novel about Starr Carter, a 16-year-old trying to navigate the poor neighborhood where she grew up, and the fancy prep school she attends. Thomas does a fantastic job of bringing home the issues that minority communities (and especially minority children) face every day—issues like racism, police brutality, poverty, and drugs. This book will remind you that everyone has a story, even if the whole story isn’t told on the news.
3. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanthi is one man’s memoir about what it’s like to die, and in turn, what it means to live. Kalanthi studied English before he became a doctor, so he has a rare ability to understand science and communicate it in deep, moving ways. This book will force you to think about what’s truly important—what makes life living. His wife wrote the final chapter, and if it doesn’t break your heart to hear her talk about him, nothing will.
2. Beartown by Fredrik Backman* is one of those books I will shout at everyone I meet to read. As a victim of sexual assault, I often feel that authors (and especially TV shows and movies) detail assaults without detailing the aftermath. Rape is awful. But the days and months and years afterwards can sometimes be worse. Backman details what it’s like to live through it so well. He reminds us what it means to be a survivor. If you want to understand what it’s like to have everything taken from you, and then to fight like hell for the rest of your life to get it back, read this book.
1. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward* is the best work yet by an incredibly talented author. If you haven’t read Ward’s other works yet, read those first. Then read this fantastic story of a family in Mississippi struggling under the weight of racism, poverty, drug use, and incarceration. Ward’s use of the supernatural to portray the weight of the South’s history, and the way it still impacts those living today, is perhaps the best use of a ghost story I’ve ever encountered. Beloved is a fantastic book, some say the best of all time. Sing, Unburied, Sing may be Beloved 2.0.
*books published in 2017