The books I read last year, in order, with a one sentence review.
And some recommendations and a best of list.
1. Peter Moskowitz, How To Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighbourhood (2017)
Very informative, well researched and argued book about gentrification and state racism; includes case studies on San Francisco, New York, New Orleans and Detroit.
2. Dani Shapiro, Devotion (2010)
Another gorgeous offering from Shapiro, Devotion is a deeply personal reflection on the author’s changing relationship to faith, family, and god.
3. Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018)
Oluo’s eloquence and wisdom stand out in her first book, which includes personal narrative and concrete advice.
4. Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (2017)
A stirring narrative about migration and family, made lighter and hopeful through elements of magical realism.
5. David Graeber, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (2011)
A very useful, well-researched history of the development of money and the circulation of debt in various societies over time, which centres a study of the history and function of debt over money or coinage, and therefore emphasizes the relational basis of exchange under capitalism; most usefully it breaks down the moral narratives we construct around debt, while illustrating its violence and animating imperial relationships between countries as ones of debt, suggesting that challenges to capitalist debt logic have the ability to challenge imperial power as a whole – i.e. worth reading despite its heft and, at times, overly self-satisfied tone.
6.* Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
Reread of an old favourite of mine (I even wrote my honours on it): a multigenerational story from the perspective of an annoyingly brilliant and kind and obnoxious 11 year old who loses his father in the World Trade Centre, interwoven with his grandparents’ stories from the Second World War – a weirdly whimsical novel about survival and memory.
*Originally numbered 5 on my Twitter list, as I must have missed that I’d already read number 5.
7. Gabrielle Union, We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated and True (2017)
Union on trauma / sexual violence, judgement, money, relationships – very good for a celebrity memoir; pretty good, and only about 25% obnoxious for a regular memoir.
8. Jenny Zhang, Sour Heart (2017)
Excellent, uncomfortable, truthful debut short story collection about family bonds, growing up as girl and second generation guilt; accurately described by Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker as “frequently disgusting”.
9. Dr. Willie Parker, Life’s Work: From the Trenches, A Moral Argument for Choice (2017)
Insightful, moving memoir by one of America’s few late term abortion physicians, who is also Christian, and a powerful and principled advocate for abortion rights and racial justice.
10. Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (2018)
From incisive columnist and Rutgers associate prof, Cooper’s memoir is accessible, deeply incisive, and generously personal, with tons of insights about academia, blackness, womanhood, and America.
11. Richard Russo, Trajectory (2017)
Classic, enjoyable Russo short fiction; I also don’t remember anything about its content.
12. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)
Coates at his finest – a deeply insightful and truth-filled letter to his son that is equal parts memoir, legacy-building, parenting, and call to arms for justice.
13. Ramona Ausubel, Awayland (2018)
Another weird and pretty good short story collection, heavy with magical realism, balanced with creepiness – perhaps trying a bit too hard?
14. Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (2017)
A rich, captivating character novel about parenting, privilege, freedom, and what we owe each other; set in an upper middle class American suburb in the 90s.
15. Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do (2017)
Gorgeously stunning graphic memoir that recounts the author’s family history and journey as Vietnamese refugees, and later, her own upbringing and coming into herself as a person and mother in America.
16. Morgan Jerkins, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America (2018)
Another beautifully insightful memoir about growing up as an observant, thinking black girl in America, coupled with penetrating contemporary critique.
17. Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat (2013)
A raw, intimate, somewhat uneven memoir that gives much more depth and truth to the story portrayed in the sitcom adaptation.
18. David Sedaris, Calypso (2018)
Undoubtedly Sedaris’ best and most intimately honest comedic memoir – not so much a departure from his earlier work, but a deepening and breaking open of it, with a significant focus on his mother, her alcoholism, and their family’s relationship with both.
19. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness (2010)
Meticulously researched, vitally important book that makes the undeniable case that mass incarceration is an overtly, while not explicitly, racist state project that renders black people second class citizens in America and mirrors core elements of Jim Crow apartheid.
20. David Chariandy, I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter (2018)
David’s gorgeous book addressed to his daughter about their family, home, and life as a black, mixed race person is characteristically incisive, tender, and startlingly hopeful.
21. Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood (2016)
Informative, enjoyable memoir about Noah’s childhood, coming of age, and his relationship with his mother – quite overhyped, but good.
22. Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory (2014)
Informative, super readable memoir about the author’s life-long relationship / fascination with death, and what she learns by working in the death industry.
23. Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You (2005)
This short story collection is quintessential Miranda July: energetic, surprising, and appealingly uncomfortable – rereading it a decade after I fell in love with it at 22 was a trip.
24. Mary Karr, Lit: A Memoir (2010)
Lit follows The Liars’ Club and Cherry – Karr’s gorgeous memoirs from a decade and a half earlier that helped shape a subgenre, and were the first memoirs I read at 13 – among the best memoirs I’ve read about drinking and womanhood.
25. Miriam Towes, All My Puny Sorrows (2014)
A novel about two sisters: a disturbingly vivid and truthful story about the gruelling work of staying alive when you’re chronically suicidal, and the heartbreaking struggle of loving someone who’s doing same.
26. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018)
The most important book I read this year – I learned so much from this and think about it almost daily: a deliberate, well-supported guide to understanding the depths of white supremacy in our society, and tackling one’s ingrained racism, unconscious bias, and patterns of defensive white privilege – a must read for fellow white people.
27. Carol Off, All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey into the Lives of Others (2017)
A gorgeous memoir from one of my favourite CBC journalists: a riveting exploration of what we owe each other, both on the personal, and global geopolitical levels; I also learned a bit more about Canada’s war in Afghanistan.
28. Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (2017)
Rich in intertwining, epic family drama, spread over generations – Lee’s storytelling is gorgeously vivid and detailed, this novel grapples with survival, slow violence, and family and private joy.
29. Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (2018)
A good quick read about the role of truth and lies in contemporary public discourse from the New York Times legendary book critic.
30. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (2013)
Complex family drama about the tyranny of violent patriarchs, on national and familial scales; reliably excellent, given that it’s from Adichie, but it didn’t quite grab me like her other fiction.
31. Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (1999)
A sharp, seductive collection of minor stories of relationships and moments in India and America – a reread of one of my favourite books of fiction.
32. Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End (2007)
A delightful sardonic novel about office politics and other things.
33. Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (2018)
Engaging and very readable memoir from one of BLM’s creators about making a movement and making a life.
34. Miranda July, The First Bad Man (2015)
As usual with July’s work, this novel grabs and pulls you uncomfortably into its world; while it’s remarkably effective, I’m still unsettled by the work the novel does (CN for predatory relationships with minors).
35. Seymour M. Hersh, Reporter: A Memoir (2018)
Just excellent – captivating, informative, endearing, but honest; this memoir spans Hersh’s entire career, including his breaking of the My Lai massacre and decades’ worth of work challenging the American military’s atrocities and political corruption through his reporting.
36. Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (2018)
Significantly better than I expected, Traister’s very readable, well-researched book narrates the roles women’s anger has played in revolutionary change throughout history, as well as the ways we denigrate, erase, and police it, especially when expressed by WOC.
37. Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (2018)
Brown’s memoir utilizes genre-bending elements to weave personal narrative with broader analysis; she focuses on navigating the world as a black woman of faith doing racial and social justice work.
38. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014)
Rankine’s stunning, poetic work on violent anti-blackness in America lived up to its considerable reputation – a remarkable feat.
39. David Sedaris, Holidays On Ice (1997)
A fun, festive collection of Sedaris’ holiday stories, some autobiographical, some fiction – his account of working as an Elf in Macy’s Santaland is particularly great.
40. Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (2017)
Classically brilliant Ahmed, this book incisively and deliberately deconstructs the everyday work of feminism and institutional critique; academic, but more approachable than most of Ahmed’s books.
41. Ayobami Adebayo, Stay With Me (2017)
This much-revered first novel from Nigerian writer Adebayo is a moving and engrossing family drama about loss and the limits of love, partnership, and trust.
42. Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply (2017)
Levy’s memoir is an engrossing read on relationships, work, motherhood, losing it all and starting over; at times it feels a tad obnoxious, but perhaps that’s overly harsh as I found Levy to be a bit oblivious-white-lady-annoying at times.
43. Joan Didion, South and West: From a Notebook (2017)
Excerpts from Didion’s notebooks during two trips in the 1970s, one to California and the other through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; reads as alarmingly relevant to today, although perhaps not quite as extra as I’ve come to expect from Didion.
44. Terese Marie Mailhot, Heart Berries
Breathtaking original memoir about the author’s childhood in Seabird Island, her adulthood of studying writing in the American south west, and occasionally in inpatient care; seamlessly infused with incisive critique and exploration of poverty, colonial and intimate violence.
45. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century (2017)
A practical and informative list of lessons on recognizing and combating tyranny on large and everyday scales from Yale historian Synder; comrades likely won’t agree with all his analysis, but this is an undeniably useful how-to guide for these dark times.
46.* David Rakoff, Half Empty (2010)
A reread of Rakoff’s wonderfully melancholic and humorous personal essay collection on depressiveness and writing as work and life; I knew I loved it when I first read it eight years ago, but didn’t recognize at the time that part of why is that our writing shares some common traits, and reading Rakoff’s windingly wordy, deliberate prose gives mine permission.
47.* Seymour M. Hersh, The Killing of Osama bin Laden (2015)
A thorough, informative, and deeply troubling account of the US’s murder of bin Laden – the perfect antidote if you’re drowning in nostalgia for Obama as Commander in Chief.
(not in ranked order)
- Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do
- Terese Marie Mailhot, Heart Berries
- Carol Off, All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey into the Lives of Others
- Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
- David Chariandy, I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter
- Seymour M. Hersh, Reporter: A Memoir
(I.e. you should read these books!)
- Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
- Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do
- Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
- Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race
- Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
- Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric