As someone with an aversion to e-readers and no local library, my reading has tended over the past few years to be sporadic and opportunistic. This year, however, I was unusually lucky in my used bookstore finds. I also downloaded the app Overdrive, which let me check out audiobooks with my mom’s library card. This has resulted in a full and rich year of books for me. The following are some of my highlights:

Fiction

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne Robinson’s debut book is lyrical, atmospheric, and completely absorbing, the “literary equivalent of a Sigur Ros song” as I tried to describe it to a friend. The story is at once strange and intimately familiar, following two sisters and their unconventional aunt as they struggle in different ways to define home. Months after reading it, I still recall the descriptions of Lake Fingerbone, as vivid as any of the human characterizations.

La Casa de los Espíritus by Isabel Allende. Allende’s “The House of the Spirits” is the only novel I read in Spanish this year, and I’m so glad I made the effort to read it in its original language. This sprawling, multigenerational masterpiece of magic realism begins in a domestic setting, but extends out to include sharp critiques of economic and political realities in Latin America. The book is carried by its unique characters, especially its three generations of women, who each subvert social and family expectations in different ways.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I read less fiction now than I used to, but authors like Zadie Smith remind me of the joy of can’t-put-it-down reading. Swing Time is a smart and entertaining book about a young London woman who dreams with her childhood best friend of being a dancer, but finds herself instead as the personal assistant to a musical superstar with self-serving dreams of starting a girls’ school in Gambia. The book includes a laser-sharp critique of well-intentioned but poorly-planned development projects, something that easily made this one of my favorite fiction books I read this year.

Other favorites: Room by Emma Donaghue, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, Sula by Toni Morrison, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, and Where’d you Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.

Nonfiction

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. In this memoir, Dillard recounts incidents of her childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1940s and 1950s, which are remarkable not for the events itself as much as how carefully she is able to reconstruct her childhood understanding of them. Dillard’s book is not just about her childhood, it is about childhood itself, bringing to mind the marvel and mystery of those first self-aware memories that most of us can barely recall. One of the things I love most about Dillard’s writing is her attention to the ordinary, and reading about young Annie marveling over bugs or rocks or painting makes me want to see the world with an equal amount of attention and wonder.  

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. Anyone who speaks to me regularly has probably heard me reference this book, which is how important and influential it felt to me. With his characteristic detail and insight, Gawande looks death right in the eyes, either from sicknesses like cancer, or old age, and challenges most of our societal understandings of how we confront and prepare for it. I have never had to make the difficult decisions he describes in this book, but when I do one day have to, I will feel more prepared for having read this book.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. This book is a sprawling and fascinating human history stretching back to pre-human times, and highlighting the series of “revolutions” that have made our modern world possible. Also of note is Yuval Noah Harari’s second book Homo Deus, which takes this same incisive and analytical view to our future. Not everyone reading this blog will care for Harari, whose expansive history takes an admittedly cold and godless look at the past; however, regardless of whether you agree with all of his ideas, they can surely inspire rich debates.

Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat. This joyful, beautiful cookbook gave me a fresh understanding of what’s actually happening when I cook and has already changed my pasta forever (pasta should be boiled in water “as salty as the sea”). By breaking down cooking into elemental forms, Nosrat imparts wisdom on the theory of cooking and baking, something that had always eluded me as I worked only from recipes. Wendy MacNaughton’s watercolor illustrations provide helpful charts for determining anything from vinaigrette components to spice combinations for different regional foods.

Other favorites: Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans, A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, 1491: New Revelations of the World before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Narconomics by Tom Wainwright.

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