Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. —Frederick Douglass
I believe that one of the best ways we can live well is to read, and read a lot.
Given my love of reading and books, I read a lot. When I’m in the middle of a book I can’t put down, I walk around with my book, and tote it with me everywhere until I can finally turn the last page. In recent years, I’ve had less time to read as many books as in years past. But it doesn’t mean I haven’t read good books. If anything, I’ve learned I make less time for books I don’t enjoy. Ones that don’t catch me in the first sample pages are books I put down for good.
As the years go by, I’m reading a greater variety of books, and, inspired by my friend Nina Badzin, have been setting reading goals for myself for at least the past 7 years.
Why do I make books a priority? Because I strongly believe that books help us to grow, to understand others, to walk around in others’ shoes for a while and see the world through different eyes. That, over movies and other forms of immediate entertainment, is what makes novels, and books, special. They let us enter the head of another person and experience their world, their choices, their motivations. These literary experiences make life richer, fuller, and open doors, I believe, to a better world.
It’s true. I have some definite favorites. I find many of the books I want to read from multiple book resources: Goodreads, Shelf Awareness, GreatNewBooks.org, Twitter, and through reading friends whose opinion and taste I get and trust.
My 5 Favorite Books of 2016
Georgia by Dawn Tripp
I remember the first time I came across Georgia O’Keeffe in high school art class. Her paintings of Southwestern-themed landscapes and cow skulls made an impression, but the color-saturated forms of her flower close-ups are images I can still see in my head. Her work is unique, brilliant. I love her poppies, their gigantic shapes and ripples and forms. Every time I see a Georgia O’Keeffe, I pause. I guess that would make me a lifelong fan.
When Dawn Tripp’s Georgia hit the literary scene, I saw the cover and immediately loved it. It is the perfect art for a novel based on Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, and probably will be my favorite cover this year. But for the story, I wasn’t so sure. I don’t often enjoy autobiographical historical fiction, as the voices imposed on the characters tend to be indulgent of the author’s obsession with a particular person of the past. I hesitated to begin Georgia for fear the novel would take me down roads I didn’t want to go with Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist. I didn’t want the novel to be a romanticized version of her life. Georgia O’Keeffe expressed herself and her life on her own terms. I didn’t want that to change in my mind.
Why did I pick up the book? I read a nice review from a respectable and unswayed source. She wasn’t a friend of the author, and likely chose Georgia because she authentically loved the book – much like what we try to do at Great New Books. I bought the book and hours after getting it home began reading. The first sentence sounded just like an artist: “I bought this house for the door.” I read on, through Georgia’s early beginnings, her poverty, and what drove her to New York City, where she met Stieglitz, who “discovered” her. I didn’t like him. And the more I read on, my dislike for Stieglitz increased. I had to continually ask myself why.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Here in the United States, it is sometimes difficult to imagine a life much different than what we have the privilege to live. When we are hungry, we go to the grocery store and can choose to buy whatever fresh fruits or vegetables, fresh meats, ice cream, processed chips, water in plastic bottles, etc., that we would like to have. When we need a piece of furniture, we can go to a store, try each piece in their inventory, pay, and walk out with that piece, ready to put where we would like it in our home. What we need can be acquired. What we want also can be, usually, if we have the means. But this is not the way the entire rest of the world works.
A few months ago, a new hardcover book came out on shelves called A Gentleman in Moscow. It is must-read fiction. The cover photograph is apt—a finely dressed man peering out a balcony door and window. What is he looking at?
In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, the main character, Count Alexander Rostov, has been sentenced by the Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest for the remainder of his life to the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. At the time of his sentence in 1922, he was in his thirties. His crime was that he had been born into the aristocracy. Would he be allowed to leave the hotel? No. Never.
With that setup the book begins.
I can say this now that I have finished it – never have I read a more interesting narrator. Never have I loved a main character as much. Never have I hoped more for a character than I have for Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow.
It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario
Sometimes, in all the fiction reading, I need to seek out something real–a true-to-life story, one that inspires me, gives fresh perspective, and reminds me of the wider world beyond my current Ohio town. Though it fixed itself upon my reading radar many months ago, I finally picked up a copy of Lynsey Addario’s new photographic memoir, It’s What I Do. It’s a book I now count as one of my favorites, for many reasons, on many levels.
First, if you don’t know of Lynsey Addario by name, you probably know her by her photographs. The subtitle for the book is A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. She has traveled the globe for more than 20 years, photographing locales from as near as New York City and Cuba to Afghanistan, Libya, Darfur, for publications like the New York Times, National Geographic, and Time.
Lynsey’s poise amidst all she has experienced for her work is astounding. She has been kidnapped, fired upon, and mistreated, but focuses on the positive result — gaining empathy for those around her in order to capture images which tell the truth. Her gender provides another obstacle in a world filled with male photojournalists. But Lynsey followed her heart, pursued a career doing what she loves, which is exposing the truth and making headlines real for readers around the world.
The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kettler
I love finding a book that is impossible to put down, especially when it’s fun to read and the story sweeps me into the pages. But it’s rare to find a book that is not only unputdownable, but also beautifully written, each word and scene carefully wrought. This is the case with The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter. From the opening page of The First Time She Drowned, the clean, meaningful writing combined with the compelling story makes for a book that is impossible to stop reading.
Officially a Young Adult book, The First Time She Drowned is about eighteen-year-old Cassie O’Malley as she stands at a crossroads in her life. Since age sixteen, Cassie has lived in an adolescent mental hospital, turned in and left there by her parents for reasons she does not understand. At eighteen, Cassie ages out and is provided the opportunity to attend college, a chance to begin her life anew. Thus, the crossroads. But the outside world is full of unknowns, especially when she hasn’t been given any tools to cope. The characters who enter her life at the crossroads are vibrant and flawed, and play an essential role in Cassie’s emergence.
This is a book for adults and young adults alike, one perfect for book clubs and mother-daughter discussions. It is one for those with painful pasts and difficult upbringings, who will feel lighter and lifted up above the surface, to breathe, if even for the first time.
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
Years ago, I fell in love with a movie called Out of Africa. It starred Robert Redford and Meryl Streep and was about the relationship of safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and author Karen Blixen, who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen in 1920s colonial Kenya. A woman on their periphery was Beryl Markham, the heroine of a new novel, Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. The cover alone had me, but when I found out it was an extension of Out of Africa, I knew I had to read it.
I’ve written the book recommendation (below), which has gone live this morning at GreatNewBooks.org as well, but here on my personal blog, I have a bit more to say. I love books about women overcoming impossible challenges. Is that because I can identify? I don’t know. But I do know I admire strong women who choose to silence fear.
The original woman I remember admiring for her sense of adventure and complete fearlessness is my maternal grandmother. She grew up in a house full of women, with a few (very tall) sisters and a mother who survived her husband (their father), who died at a young age.
My grandmother decided in her early teens that she would learn to fly, so she took on a job at an amusement park to pay fo
r her flying lessons. Soon, she earned her pilot’s license, and decided to apply for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in WWII. She was slight in build and apparently on the lower threshold for the weight requirement. She once told me that the morning of her physical, she ate 2 bunches of bananas to try to weigh more. Apparently, it worked.
My grandmother did fly for the WASPs, and throughout her life afterward, she continued to do things most women didn’t do. I love her for that, for setting the example that women can do the same things that men can. And why not?
It’s just another reason why I had to read Circling the Sun, because it opens up that world — it surpassed my expectations.
For more great book recommendations, visit GreatNewBooks.org, where the team is talking about their favorite book of the year this week. Happy reading, and have a wonderful month of December, full of presence.
Please share your favorite books of the year with us here in the comments… Thank you!