The trouble, of course, with reading a good book is that there is always another one lurking around the corner. Now that I've had a couple of months away from the last year, I feel confident that I can point to the books that actually changed my year in 2016. There were a few essays and short stories that re-opened my eyes to the world around me, but I've decided to stick with full-length books out of simplicity. Also, there's not any order to this list; some of these books I believe I'll re-read a hundred times, and others I plan on letting go. What is important, above all, is that I think we should all be reading more things, and hearing more voices, and listening better, and these books have made me better at that kind of sensitivity in some small way. I thought that I should avoid being gushy - for a minute - and then I decided I'd rather gush about these books. This is my reading testimony, not reviews. With that said...
Bird By Bird - Anne Lamott
There are a few books that we all have to read to understand what it is that we do as writers, and this is one of them. Very few books are the kind that I immediately turn around and recommend to others. If you've ever wanted to make something, read this book, or at the very least, the first two sections, which can be found in PDF form here.
Operating Instructions - Anne Lamott
When I make these sorts of lists, I do my best to avoid including the same author twice, but that's just too bad this time around. If Bird by Bird is the writer's guide to writing, Operating Instructions was my guide out of a very dark place. It came to me at just the right time, and I'm grateful. It tells Lamott's own story of having her son and losing her best friend in the same year. It is heart-wrenching in the sense that it stretches your heartstrings: they can now play music again.
If on a winter's night a traveler - Italo Calvino
This book blasted open the edges of what a story can and cannot do. If you think you know how books work (as in, how they must and always work), I would humbly suggest this particular book, in which you will fall in love and see story in a whole new light.
The Cocktail Party - T.S. Eliot
This is a play in verse that explores the ability of the sacred to invade the most ordinary of situations. It's what I needed to know could exist to become the kind of writer I'll be one day.
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
Stories written as epistles aren't uncommon. What is rare is the delicate kindness with which Marilynne Robinson explores the depths of her main character's soul. Like Anne Lamott, she asks questions of faith that may not have easy answers, but does so in an entirely different mode - an aging preacher with a young son - instead of an autobiographical account. There are three books (so far) that take place in the town of Gilead, and I recommend all of them.
Civilwarland in Bad Decline - George Saunders
This is a series of interconnected short stories that will make you question America, whether you are a liberal or conservative or somewhere in between. The book is not even political so much as it is personal: what kind of ordinary, decent people experience disaster, and how does it change them? Do they recover? How? This is a book I'm going to read again.
A River Runs Through It - Norman Maclean
Of all the books I've read in prose, this is the one that comes the closest to reading like poetry. It is a book that merits reading by a fireplace. Rather than explain what this book is "about," know that it is a story that will show you a river, fly fishing, family, and love in a light that is always fresh, because it is always true.
All Involved - Ryan Gattis
Remember what I said about listening to different voices a few lines up? Try listening to 17 first-person narrators telling their stories through the horror of the Rodney King riots. If you follow my blog, you know this book has come up over and over, and it is because it is a book that will make you look through eyes that are often shut too young, shut down, and silenced by violence against either the bodies they inhabit or the words those bodies say.
Little Bee - Chris Cleave
This book and All Involved came to me at the same time and from the same person - needless to say, I'm grateful. It's a hard book to explain without giving anything away, but once again, this is a book that will reach your core.
Nine Horses - Billy Collins
Billy Collins is a great poet of the ordinary things in life. I've read individual poems before, but last year, I finally read a book of his and was blown away by its simple exploration of an ordinary life, and how well he sustains this love of life through the ups and downs of his ordinary joys and losses. There is a reason he was the Poet Laureate of the United States. Now I know it.
Bandersnatch - Diana Pavlac Glyer
Wanna know how collaboration works? Read this and learn from the Inklings, one of the greatest groups of writers of all time. If you'd like to know more, I will refer to the original review I wrote about Bandersnatch last year, which can be found here.
Romance's Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction - Talia Schaffer
Academic books rarely make it easier to read source texts. Sure, there are basic explanatory notes, but interpretations are not always helpful for the reader (as opposed to the scholar). This book was an exception; it made it easier and, in fact more enjoyable, to read Victorian fiction. While I might not recommend actually reading this book to everyone, I was pleasantly surprised by how helpful Schaffer's book was. Scholarly work should be useful. Schaffer's book (and Glyer's) are.
What books made your 2016 better? Leave a comment!