The best books that I read in 2016, pt. 1

This year has been a record year for me in terms of number of books read. I am well past eighty at this point, and October isn’t even over yet. So I’ve decided to make two separate posts with my book recommendations from this year: one for the books I read between January and August, and another for books I read from September to December. For obvious reason, part 2 of this installment won’t be up for a few months, but in the meantime, part 1 should provide some worthy reading material for those in need of a good book recommendation.


Bluets by Maggie Nelson


A short collection of thoughts (meditations) on the color blue and its relation to life and love. Philosophical, honest, and thought-provoking. I loved its poeticism. I’d love to revisit this one at some point.

“For to wish to forget how much you loved someone– and then, to actually forget– can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”

After Birth by Elisa Albert


This was the book that actually got me started on making these book lists public. I wanted every person I knew to enjoy the perfection that was this book, and I didn’t know how to let them know. So I decided to make recommended book lists from previous years’ readings so that by the time I got to 2016, it wouldn’t seem weird or out of place. This is a short novel about the first year after the narrator gives birth to her only son, and it covers themes of female relationships, societal expectations of women (in general and for child-rearing in particular), marriage, and parenting. It was exactly what being a parent was like for me: the depression, the isolation, the love for the child while craving my own life and independence again. I loved this book. I think every new mom should read it.

“Another day gone, okay, and I get it, I got it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there’s all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby, and disappear.”


Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest


A collection of poetry centered on the mythology of Tiresias, who was born a man but spent seven years as a woman before being turned back into a man and being blinded. The poems are part prophecy, part confession, and some of them gave me chills. The best one, I think, is “Man Down,” which touched on accessing the male and female within us all– a very Jungian idea. I would love to read these again to understand them better.

“And he saw then: no matter how far you have come,

you can never be further than right where you are.”

[from The Man Tiresias]


Freud’s Blind Spot, edited by Elisa Albert


An anthology of essays about siblings in all their various forms and intimacies and strains– my heart is still aching from the last one. Some were not very interesting to me (probably because they don’t resemble my own sibling relationship), but many more were funny or poignant or spot-on with my own experience (“Who Will Save Us Now?” by Nalini Jones could have been written by my older sister). The introduction alone– about the editor’s own siblings– was heartbreaking.

“The story of my siblings is the story of who I am. I suppose this is true for all of us. How do we write the stories of who we are? If there were only one answer, life would be very, very boring.”


“It can’t be easy to be related to us. By which I mean me.”


thx thx thx by Leah Dieterich


A cute and creative collection of thank-you notes to both animate and inanimate objects, they made me see some things in a new (and grateful) light. I loved how the author phrased some of them and how annoying situations were reframed to have some positive aspect.

“Dear Restraint,

Thank you for allowing me to refrain from asking questions I don’t need to know the answers to, like “do you love her?”

Best, Leah”


“Dear Morning Bathroom Visit,

Thank you for making room for breakfast.

All best, Leah”


The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit


There was so much to this book– though it’s not long– that it’s hard to summarize: it’s about Solnit’s difficult relationship with her jealous and psychologically-trapped mother and how it becomes easier as the mother goes through the stages of Alzheimer’s towards death; it’s about the power of stories and the various ways we can interpret the facets of our lives and weave them into the stories we tell; it’s about light and darkness and change and loss and acceptance. It was beautiful to get wrapped up in the labyrinthine writing. I felt more expansive reading this book.

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.”


“Maybe the word forgive points in the wrong direction, since it’s something you mostly give yourself, not anyone else: you put down the ugly weight of old suffering, untie yourself from the awful, and walk away from it.”


The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer


I already wrote a post on this one, but it’s going on the list anyway. I love how well Palmer connected the various threads of her life– her job as a living statue in Harvard Square, relying on friends and fans for help in every way, her marriage, her mentor Anthony’s sickness, trolls– under the themes of asking, trust, connection, and empathy. She seems like such a genuine, chaotic human, and I believe her when she writes about the love she feels for her fans (and people in general). This was such a heartfelt, occasionally heart-heavy book. I loved it.

“And another local journalist wrote an op-ed wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far. Wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far? To erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of understanding. To erase the possibility of empathy is also to erase the possibility of art. Theater, fiction, horror stories, love stories. This is what art does. Good or bad, it imagines the insides, the heart of the other, whether that heart is full of light or trapped in darkness.”


Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis


A collection of really short stories (including letters to organizations, dreams, and pieces inspired by the letters of Gustave Flaubert), they were both entertaining and perfect snippets of life. I loved how succinctly something could be said and still tell such a full story (sometimes just in two lines). 

“Her Geography: Illinois

She knows she is in Chicago. But she does not yet realize that she is in Illinois.”


Incarnadine by Mary Szybist


A lovely collection of poems that made me think about how I could experiment with my own poetry more. I loved Szybist’s wording, the way she transitioned so seamlessly between the spiritual and the carnal. Stunning and incandescent. I will definitely be re-reading these.

There were so many things I wanted to tell you

Or rather,

I wished to have things that I wanted to tell you.

What a thing, to be with you and have

no words for it. What a thing,

To be outcast like that.”

[from Long after the Desert and Donkey]


Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel


Another comic drama about Bechdel’s life (as a sort of prequel to Fun Home), this one is about her relationship to her mother (as opposed to her father, which is the basis of Fun Home). I am always blown away by how layered her storytelling is– how it can bounce back and forth while maintaining a coherent story and a relevant thread of literature to tie it all together. The specificity of her life is what makes her story so relatable. She is so good.

“But I am not ultimately interested in writing fiction. I can’t make things up. Or rather, I can only make things up about things that have already happened.”


Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott


A journal of her son Sam’s first year, it brought me back to my first foster parenting days of feeding the babies and watching with love and awe as they grew while feeling lonely and exhausted all at once. It was also terribly sad when she found out her lifelong best friend was diagnosed with cancer. But Anne Lamott writes about everything with grace and humor. 

“I naively believe that self-love is 80 percent of the solution, that it helps beyond words to take yourself through the day as you would your most beloved mental patient relative, with great humor and lots of small treats.”


“Actually, backwards is just as rich as forward if you can appreciate the circle instead of the direction.”


The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander


A paradigm-shifting, earth-shattering book about mass incarceration in the U.S., its racial roots, and how it has created a racial undercaste. It was somewhat dry, but it is nevertheless so essential. We need a revolution here– I have no doubt about that. Every politician (and citizen, for that matter) should read this book. We need the change Alexander is calling for desperately. (And the fact that she ends the book with a long quote  by James Baldwin only strengthens my stance.)

“The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial difference.”


When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz


A collection of poems that range from the author’s brother and his meth addiction to her lovers to life on a Native American reservation. They were stunning– heartbreaking and lovely and so easy to get absorbed in. The stories they told and images they conjured (like the one about why she doesn’t ask her brother about flowers) were captivating. 

“Angels don’t come to the reservation.

Bats, maybe, or owls, boxy mottled things.

Coyotes, too. They all mean the same thing—

death. And death

eats angels, I guess, because I haven’t seen an angel

fly through this valley ever.

Gabriel? Never heard of him. Know a guy named Gabe though—

he came through here one powwow and stayed, typical

Indian. Sure he had wings,

jailbird that he was. He flies around in stolen cars. Wherever he stops,

kids grow like gourds from women’s bellies.

Like I said, no Indian I’ve ever heard of has ever been or seen an angel.”


Mr. West by Sarah Blake


I borrowed this from the library, but I want to keep it as my own. These poems about and for Kanye West that coincide with the author’s pregnancy are amazing– they touch on privilege and racism and Internet trolling and motherhood, and some had me in tears on the train. They make me want to root for Kanye (as the poet does), to miss his mother and long for her presence again in the world. This book is beautiful.

“Recently, Kanye compared himself to Emmett Till again.

On one website, they explain: ‘discussing the VMA incident… he compared the backlash he faced to the murder of Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who was killed for whistling as a white woman in Money, Mississippi.’

People have been outraged, but Kanye must

feel a connection to this boy. And because of Kanye,

Emmett’s story is on the internet again and again, 65 years later.

Kanye knows what appropriation is.”

[from In Song]


When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris


This collection of essays from Sedaris’ life was just as hilarious as the others I’ve read. (Naked belongs on this list, as well.) From sneezing a throat lozenge onto the crotch of his airplane seatmate (with whom he had gotten into a fight before she went to sleep) to quitting smoking while learning Japanese in Japan, his stories are so perfect in their self-deprecating, how-could-this-happen way. He is by far one of my favorite authors.

“Like most seasoned phonies, I roundly suspect that everyone is as disingenuous as I am.”


Rising Strong by Brené Brown


I had been putting off reading this because I read an Amazon review that described it as basically the same as Daring Greatly, only in a different order and less organized. But that is so far from the truth it makes me mad. This book is wonderful– it is about the process of failing, uncovering the stories we make up, getting curious about our emotions, and then integrating what we learn into our lives. It felt so much like what I do while also unearthing some hurt and shame I’ve been carrying. I cried. I journaled. I think everyone should read this. We would all be so much better– our relationships would improve so much if we put in the effort.

“I believe that what we regret most are our failures of courage, whether it’s the courage to be kinder, to show up, to say how we feel, to set boundaries, to be good to ourselves. For that reason, regret can be the birthplace of empathy. … Regret is what taught me that living outside my values is not tenable for me. Regrets about not taking chances have made me braver. Regrets about shaming or blaming people I care about have made me more thoughtful. Sometimes the most uncomfortable learning is the most powerful.”


You and Yours by Naomi Shihab Nye


A beautiful collection of poems that ranges from gardens and airports to the injustice of war. I love how Nye always brings the focus back to humanity, to pointing out what governments and media have chosen to overlook. So sad, so hopeful, so wonderful.

“Suicide bombers, those tragic people driven insane by oppression, do not come out of vacuums. … Why is this almost never considered in the news? Sometimes where everything comes from is just as critical as where everything is going.”



One thought on “The best books that I read in 2016, pt. 1

  1. […] It has been a record-breaking year for me: I’ve read 104 books so far in 2016, including a psychology textbook on love and a 500+ page autobiography of Agatha Christie (neither of which made it onto this list). I don’t know that I will ever reach that high of a number again, but I did it this year somehow, for some reason. The upside to that is that I have a lot to share. So, as promised, here are the best books I read between September and December this year (because my favorite books from the other months already have their own list). […]

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