So one thing I don’t like is when people put together one of those book lists with a whack-load of books on it and you’ve heard of maybe like, three of them. But then it’s prefaced with some sort of challenge in the title, like “50 books you need to read before you die,” or “107 books you should have at least tried to read this year, you uncultured person, you.”
I don’t want to do that because I know everyone’s reading abilities are varied. Frankly I think being able to read a full book today, with every kind of distraction imaginable at your fingertips, is a lot more impressive than it used to be. I read a lot, but it can be near impossible to get the motivation to crack something open. So this list isn’t here to make you feel bad about what you’ve been doing with your spare time.
It’s also not a bragging list of “Oh look at me, I read so many books and I’m trying to be a feminist, boo boo bee boo!” In truth, I don’t really think what I did was all that impressive. I was actually really far behind a lot of people in terms of what books written by women I had even read. This year really felt more like a chance to catch up, to challenge myself to read things I usually pass over in books stores. I realized early on last year that most of the books I naturally gravitate to are written by men, and while I don’t think my interests were intentionally shying away from women, I think I had an unconscious bias and I wanted to correct that.
I think deciding to read nothing but books written by women this past year was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I found so many amazing authors, finally got around to a ton of fantastic works of classic literature, and ended up trying a lot of genres and styles I normally stayed away from. Obviously there were some books I didn’t like, even some I sincerely regret picking up, but by and large there were so many great books that I actually had a really hard time putting together a list of favourites or recommendations. Honestly, I wanted to be able to talk about some of these books without yammering on and on or making it look like “Ooh, I’m so well-read, look at all these books.” But seriously, there were so, so many good ones I got to go through this year.
Anyway, I want to talk about pretty much everything I read, but no one wants to read that, so I separated this post into three sections. The first is all the books I liked the most that I think everyone would enjoy. I’d recommend those books to anyone, no matter what kind of reader you are.
The second section is a list of books I liked but recognize aren’t for everyone. Those ones are more complicated, bizarre, or are just harder to get into. If those things sound interesting to you, then have at it!
The final section is books I don’t recommend because they’re… look. They can’t all be winners. I know I shouldn’t really have a list of crappy books, but I… I have things I need to say and dangit if this isn’t the place to say them! If you want to hear my rants, just skip to that part.
Anyway, hopefully you can find something you like, but let me know if you have any thoughts on the works and authors below!
Part 1 — Books For Everyone
Fun Home – Alison Bechdel
I finally got a chance to see why Bechdel is so admired as an author outside of her titular “Bechdel Test,” which turns out does not do justice to the sheer talent she possesses. Her narrative style at first seems to be kept at an emotional distance, but through her storytelling and multilayered illustrations, I was pulled deep, deep into the story of her and her father. The graphic novel details Bechdel’s attempts to reflect on the enigma of contradictions that is her father and come to terms with her sexual identity and her own messy life, both of which are so infused with the type of complicated compassion that just completely wrecks you by the end.
We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo
A captivating story following a girl growing up in an impoverished Zimbabwean village and eventually moving to the United States. You get such a unique perspective from Darling, who starts as a young girl, play-imitating the soldiers that destroyed her village, to struggling with her identity as an African teen in America. The book deals with serious issues of poverty, depression, and illegal immigration, but through the eyes of Darling, everything is personally-affecting, emotionally-driven (in a good way), and painted in vivid—though not always flattering—detail.
Lust, Caution – Eileen Chang
Spies. Rebels. Assassinations. Forbidden romance. This book has everything in fewer than 100 pages. Set during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and Shanghai, the story follows Chia Chi, a young student who is tasked with seducing a high-ranking member of the Japan’s puppet government and luring him into a trap. Chang is a master story-teller and this book is such a great example of her ability to not just balance romance and suspense, but have them subvert one another for a truly haunting climax.
The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
This is a powerful book. I didn’t believe some of the reviews, but it is truly magnificent. Didion chronicles a year of her life following the death of her husband, detailing just how wrong we often are about the process of grief. It’s never simple, falling into five simple stages or a specified amount of time. Grief gets interrupted, it readjusts, and just when you think you’ve made it through, there’s a whole new part of the process. There’s no controlling it or reorganizing it to suit your own life; all you know for sure it that it changes you and refines you.
Love Medicine – Louise Erdrich
I actually read Erdrich’s Round House before this, which was a much simpler and raw story. While the book is prefaced with the type of family tree that would give Leo Tolstoy a headache, this book is much easier to read than any Russian tome, although arguably no less complex in presenting family dynamics and generational conflicts. Following the tangled lives of a group of Chippewa Native Americans in North Dakota, every chapter is told from a different character’s point of view, gradually assembling a fragmented portrait of belief, hurt, and new life.
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
I really wish someone had sat me down and forced me to read this one when I was younger. It’s the sort of book that feels like it will stay with you whole life (and based on some online conversation I’ve seen, it really does) and I only wish I had had its influence much earlier. One woman’s life becomes a rollercoaster of creation and destruction, as lives, towns, and cultures and built and torn down before her very eyes. Janie is an exceptional literary character, changed by circumstances but constantly driven by a desire for that which the inadequacies of humanity can never give her.
The Last Illusion – Porochista Khakpour
n theory, Khakpour could have just written her whole book about Zal, a feral child who is raised to think he is a bird, and his attempts to overcome the trials of his upbringing. But this book is about so much more. Zal, after extensive therapy, travels to America and meets an increasingly bizarre cast of characters and goes on a journey of personal discovery, all leading up to a pivotal moment in modern history. I know that probably sounds pretty weird, but it’s also an intimate tale of father-son love and overcoming the limitations we constantly set on ourselves. Plus, Zal, the little devil, can’t stop eating bugs (y’know, ’cause he thought he was a bird).
Passing – Nella Larsen
Two friends meet up after years apart; deception, betrayal, danger, and romance ensues, as it usually does. Following two black women whose skin is light enough for them to “pass” as white in 1920s New York, Larsen’s story follows the anxiety and mistrust both women experience as they try to navigate between the wealthy but dangerous world of upper-class caucasians and a thriving but downtrodden black, Harlem culture. It’s an engrossing story about belonging and identity that is as taught as violin strings, strung and played by a master.
The Vagrants – Yiyun Li
Following the residents of small community following the public execution of a young girl convicted of criticizing the Communist Party of China, Li’s book details the effects of loss, fear, starvation, and loneliness on public life under a communist dictatorship. You get to see how the residents of a seemingly insignificant village do what they can to feel powerful, loved, and free despite an increasing sense of hopelessness in their own lives. OK, that all sounds super depressing, but this is a beautiful book that has some wonderful moments of levity amidst hardship and budding relationships amidst doubt and betrayal.
Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maude Montgomery
This is definitely one of the many classics I really wish I had read a long time ago. I really loved it, but I imagine it would have had a much bigger impact on me at a more impressionable age. But still, this book is beloved for a reason and if you’re like me and have managed to avoid it up until now, do yourself a favour and join Anne at Ingleside… but maybe stay away from the raspberry cordial.
Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison
Before this year, I really liked Toni Morrison. Now I absolutely love her. I actually got to read quite a few of her works, but Song of Solomon stuck out the most to me. Macon, a Michigan-born black man, traces his own lineage backwards to the farm where his great-grandfather was enslaved. I find it’s so hard to describe Morrison’s characters, since they are at times so outrageous (there’s a couple of people who possess some vague levels of divinity) but so true to life. Morrison is able to capture, I think, the truest forms of life on the page: those that are the most brutal, the most violent, and the most loving.
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
We’ve all been there, right? You’re taken in by a wealthy, handsome stranger but suddenly become haunted by the phantom of his former love, right? And you start growing super paranoid that something awful happened to this woman as her visage starts to follow you everywhere you go, in everything that you do, right? Yeah, totally. This is one of those spectacular classics I wish I had gotten to sooner. Better late than never… well, except for the characters of this novel (OOooOOooOOoo)!
Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
A phenomenal story about the secrets we keep, for better or worse. Told from multiple perspectives, you follow a family struggling to keep together after the daughter is found drowned in a lake. Her parents, a mixed-race couple living in 1970s Ohio, realize they never properly dealt with their own issues of rejection and inadequacy. Ng’s novel deals with issues of race, equality, and teenage depression in a way that is so familiar and honest, it was hard not to get too emotionally drawn into it all. There aren’t any easy solutions, but there’s so much hope and life in this book I can’t help but recommend it to everyone.
Dust – Yvonne Adiambo Owuor
I can only really describe this book as “a family drama thriller.” While the narrative starts with a family burying their son who was gunned down in the streets of Nairobi, the rest of the story is both a procedural mystery and an unfolding of family relationships, both of which delve uncomfortably deep in search of answers and reconciliation. The book apologizes for nothing, as the stark image it paints of its players becomes much darker as the story progresses, but this is, first and foremost, a story of forgiveness, the kind that cannot be dimmed by even the darkest of stories.
Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson
I have to admit right off the bat: I bought this one because I have read a grand total of 0 books by authors from my home province. So I didn’t go into this book expecting much, but holy crap was the whole thing an extended gut-punch. The story follows Lisamarie, who has just learned her brother has gone missing at sea. She goes back through her memories of growing up in the Haisla community of Kitamaat (which is not the other Kitimat) as stories of family turmoil and personal strife are punctuated by spiritual images and even a few Sasquatches. Lisamarie and her brother Jimmy are the emotional core of this book and are some of the few characters I truly fell in love with this year.
Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
There’s a reason you’ll find this one on nearly every “Greatest Graphic Novel of All Time” list. Satrapi uses very simple illustrations and layouts to tell a very complicated story about growing up during the Iranian Revolution and finding her identity through her travels abroad and finally back home. As she grows, so too does the style of storytelling, so you experience bombings and missing persons through the eyes of a child and see her try to assemble some meaning as a young adult, confused but determined.
Ghana Must Go – Taiye Selasi
Look… this is my favourite book I read this year, bar none. It’s so incredibly put together, with gorgeous writing and compelling characters that just… it’s so good, OK? You follow this formerly wealthy Nigerian family that has dispersed across the world after the dad suddenly and inexplicably leaves his wife and children behind. They all come together once more and it goes… well, as well as any family reunion goes when there’s a million things that have never been said, never been dealt with, and never been felt before. I cannot recommend this one enough.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
Another classic I should have read when I was younger. It’s darkly comic in a way, but it’s really more comically dark. Miss Jean Brodie—in her prime, as it were—takes a gaggle of students under wing and tries to instil them with her own personal virtues, opinions, and joie de vivre. This, of course, ends terribly. In both its skewed sense of humour and refusal to dish out simplistic, life-affirming platitudes, this book is the best possible yang to Dead Poet’s Society’s ying.
Ink – Sabrina Vourvoulias
I’m saving most of the sci-fi that I read for the next list, since I know the genre isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I have to recommend this dystopian book about a future United States where immigrants are labeled and tracked with government tattoos. While the premise sounds may sound exaggerated, the people in this story are anything but. Told from four different perspectives, you see how a government crackdown on immigration is objected to at first but slowly accepted by citizens who have no direct stake in the matter. There’s lots of rhetoric surrounding the North American immigration debate, but this book does such an amazing job of capturing the real relationships and real pain that develop amidst the class, race, and political divisions.
Part 2 — Books That You Might Like But Maybe Not, Who Knows?
So I really want to share these books as well, but I can’t guarantee you’ll be into any of them. I’ll keep the descriptions real short this time and add a genre classification. If it sounds like your jam, go for it!
Nightwood – Djuna Barnes
[Post-modern modernism] A book about love, entropy, and desire, it’s the sort of thing you need to read multiple times to get what’s going on. It’s so beautiful you just love all the things you don’t understand. T.S. Eliot knows what I’m talkin’ ’bout!
Zoo City – Lauren Beukes
[Urban fantasy] Not to be confused with Disney’s Zootopia, this book takes place in a future South Africa where the spirit of the first person you kill turns into an animal that follows you around and kills you if it is destroyed. Also there’s hacking, pop music, hard-boiled detectives, magic powers, and a comic-relief sloth! No, it’s not Zootopia, dangit!
Possession – A.S. Byatt
[Academic thriller] If you’ve ever thought “Man, I love cold-case mysteries but wish they had a lot more literary discussion and textual analysis,” boy is it your lucky day!
The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
[Fabulist magic realism] A series of fairy tales told and retold, each time re-contextualizing the relationship of men and women, fiction and reality, author and audience. These ain’t your grandma’s fairy tales.
Duplex – Kathryn Davis
[Surrealist suburban fabulism] Don’t you just hate it when books make sense and have, like, stories you can follow and subplots that make sense? Well never fear, because this cross between David Lynch, Jorge Luis Borges, and Desperate Housewives gives you all the innocuous weirdness you’ve always wanted! Plus there’s robots.
Geek Love – Katherine Dunn
[Weird fiction (no, that’s a real genre)] An absolutely loveable family of carnival oddities faces the opposition of not only the outside world but the dangers within their own ranks. I’d describe it like a cross between Tim Burton and X-Men, but it’s so, so, so much better than both of those things.
Dreaming in Cuban – Cristina García
[Generational drama] Remember how I described some of the family dramas in the first section as “dark”? Well they look like Hallmark Holiday Specials next to this one. Haha, families, amirite?
Brown Girl in the Ring – Nalo Hopkinson
[Urban fantasy / Cyberpunk] Jamaican folk magic and gang violence collide in future dystopian Toronto with some pretty intense results. And when I say intense, I mean gory.
Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli
[Metatextual post-modernism] A woman starts telling the story of her life, but in three separate layers, one of which is a biography of a lesser-known Mexican poet who may or may not be writing about her as well.
Mr. Fox – Helen Oyeyemi
[Metatextual cross-genre fabulism] I honestly could just recommend any of Oyeyemi’s stuff here, but this story of an author whose creation comes to life and drags him through a series of overlapping, interwoven short stories is my absolute favourite.
Part 3 — Books That Are Just The Worst
Ugh. Look, I try to keep an open mind and understand that even if I don’t care for something, it can still be meaningful and important.
But these books are just… so frustrating. I’ll keep this one short, too. But man, have I got stuff to say!
Fledgling – Octavia E. Butler
Also known as: Exposition: The Novel!
Look, vampires are pretty simple to write about. And I get that you want to create your own mythology to make the story more interesting. But if you still have to explain all the little details of your fictional vampire society IN THE FINALE OF YOUR BOOK, maybe you should simplify a bit.
Nearly every dang chapter is these long, drawn-out conversations about how your vampires can live in a secret society with their brainwashed servants but they’re not technically brainwashed ’cause they can choose to become servants of other vampires but only if certain criteria are met and if they’re not, then the original vampire master has to ask permission of their servants to converse with their new masters, but only if the vampire has discussed the matter with their other servants, who in turn oh gosh I think I just burst a blood vessel in my eyeball.
The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
I like hard sci-fi. You can deal complicated subjects in an interesting setting without having explosions and space battles on every page. But that doesn’t mean your writing should be… well, dry.
This book is sooo dry. Like, OMG dry. Like, Oscar Wilde and Stephen Wright were dying of dehydration in the middle of the Sahara after both getting attacked by a sentient dehumidifier and saw this book there on the sand and they were both like “OMG, that book is, like, so dry!”
Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
ETHAN FROME (mumbling at the top of his lungs, fuming, eyes literally shooting daggers at everyone he looks at): LIFE SUCKS!
ETHAN FROME (screeching like a barn owl, having abandoned subtlety): LIFE CONTINUES TO SUCK!
MORAL: You’re a terrible person.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
CLAYTON AND THE MAIN CHARACTER JEANETTE HAVE A CONVERSATION
INT – A LIBRARY OR SOMETHING – DAY
JEANETTE: So growing up gay with a repressive, Protestant family was quite an ordeal!
CLAYTON: Wow, I bet! That must have been really hard!
JEANETTE: Yeah! My family is so wacky! One time, thinking I had a demon inside me, they tried to perform an exorcism on me!
CLAYTON: Holy crap, that’s awful! What was that like?
JEANETTE: Well they were acting so silly, singing and chanting all this weird stuff…
CLAYTON: But that must have been traumatic, right?
JEANETTE: No, not really. It never really came up again. OK, but this one time, my whole church community stood outside my window and was singing hymns!
CLAYTON: Oh, OK, that must’ve been—
JEANETTE: So wacky, right? Man, they are so weird!
CLAYTON: … so what did you do about it?
JEANETTE: Haha, not much. Eventually, they went away. But what a zany thing to do, right?
CLAYTON: Yeah, I guess that’s one way to put it. So what kind of affect did that have on you?
JEANETTE: Why would you want to know about that? Anyway, my mom is so insane! She kept trying to “convert” me to be “normal”!
CLAYTON: That must have been terrible to—
JEANETTE: Well, it was more funny than anything. She’s so out there!
CLAYTON… umm, I feel like you may be glossing over some of this stuff. I can’t imagine how difficult your story must—
JEANETTE: Yeah, it was hard! So many awkward moments! Hey, you know what the title of the book means?
CLAYTON… um, it is about how you were expected to act heterosexual, but you found out there’s other ways to live your life?
JEANETTE: No, see, it’s like… imagine if there was only one kind of fruit: oranges. So, your whole life you’re told there are only oranges, y’know, like only being attracted to men or whatever. Then one day, you find out there’re are other fruits! Oranges aren’t the only fruit, geddit?
CLAYTON: Yeah, I get it.
JEANETTE: See ’cause like… there are other fruits. And the fruits represent your identity. So you think there’s only one kind of fruit, oranges, but it turns out—
CLAYTON: Please stop explaining the metaphor to me.
JEANETTE: —they aren’t the only fruit! Which means my identity isn’t just oranges, it can be another kind of fruit! Hey did I ever tell you about this one time, my mom—
CLAYTON: Please stop.
JEANETTE: She finds out I’m dating this one girl—
CLAYTON: Are you going to go in depth into that relationship at all?
JEANETTE: Nah, it’s not important. So anyway, my mom—
CLAYTON stares into empty space, praying it will all be over soon.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this list, which ended up stupidly long anyway.