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).
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book was mesmerizing– poetic, fierce, informed. It read like a modern James Baldwin and was written as a letter to the author’s son about growing up as a black man. His words challenged and convicted me yet inspired me at the same time. He showed a passion and a maturity that I admire– his willingness to wrestle with what he’s learned, both from others and from his own mistakes/life, is something we need more of. This book should be required reading for everyone, alongside James Baldwin and The New Jim Crow.
“I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being ‘politically conscious’—as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”
“But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.”
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirschfield
Nine essays about various aspects of poetry, they intelligently and eloquently capture an elusive topic. While an intriguing challenge to keep up with mentally, Hirshfield’s writing also made it easy for me to get lost in her selections of poems and poetic explanations. I wrote down so many excerpts to revisit and reconsider. This was such an entrancing book.
“… there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: ‘For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river–/ Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.’
Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and life.”
19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye
Nye is such a beautiful writer (her book You and Yours made it into my last list). She writes from the U.S. and from Palestine, Israel, Iran; she writes about her father and her grandmother and her uncles and the people who never left their countries and the people who were killed. She wants the nonsensical violence and warring to stop, and she focuses on the people– their day-to-day lives and their kindness– to reveal over and over how crazy our world is. Her poems are sad and honest and lovely.
“Like clothes on a line saying
You will live long enough to wear me,
a motion of faith. There is this,
and there is more.”
[from Arabic Coffee]
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
As something who knew virtually nothing of North Korea before reading this book, I felt I was learning something from each page. This book was as readable as an intense drama and as informative as a textbook. I was drawn in and couldn’t put it down. It is a shame that North Koreans are living like they are in our modern times. I don’t know what the answer is, but it is so sad that starvation and death at the hands of a regime are going on. This book exposes that amazingly.
“Guilt and shame are the common denominators among North Korean defectors; many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive.”
“While the persistence of North Korea is a curiosity for the rest of the world, it is a tragedy for North Koreans, even those who have managed to escape.”
Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio
This is a collection of essays, loosely organized around three themes: our west, ‘strategies against extinction,’ and reading. D’Ambrosio is a gifted writer– his vocabulary is extensive, his outlook is self-deprecating and humorously gloomy, and his thought process is both equanimous and stream-of-consciousness. The fact that he came from a big family and shared both the positives of siblings and the hardships of dysfunctional parents made the essays that much more intriguing. His writing was fun for me to read and easy to get lost in.
“The difference between the truth and a cliché is the difference between what we really know and what we’ve all heard about.”
“What’s the point of being right if it’s only safety in numbers? The history of being right and how wrong it’s turned out to be is a long one.”
The Moth edited by Catherine Burns
The Moth is a podcast that shares stories told by people around the world. Before they are performed, they are carefully cultivated and worked out with the Moth editors so that they have maximum punch when delivered. This book is a collection of fifty of those stories in written form (obviously). Each story was so incredibly compelling– they made me laugh and cry and think about life. I would recommend this book to anyone. Stories are the thread that connects us to each other, and a well-told story can be exactly what we need.
“I realized that’s what life is. There are these moments of beauty, like moons and oceans, and then there are moments of horror. And then it’s good again. And then it’s horrible and kicks you in the face. And then it’s good again. And then it’s horrible and a pigsty, because that’s what life is. But then for a moment it’s good. And for me that was enough.”
[from Perfect Moments by Brian Finkelstein]
Selected Poems by James Wright
These poems took me immediately into the places they were about, wrapping me in a different time and environment. There was an outright disdain for the poet’s native Ohio (and America in general), yet he wrote so much about it, either because he loved it despite himself or because he wrote what he knew, what was in his bones. His love for Europe, Italy in particular, was apparent and made for lovely writing, too, but he wrote just as well about the grimier parts of life.
“Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
[from A Blessing]
It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort
A week after miscarrying what would have been her second child, the author’s father died of cancer, and six weeks after that, her husband died of cancer, leaving her a widow with a toddler to raise alone. Despite the utter sadness of that, this book is full of hilarity and joy and love. She has three siblings with whom she is close, and not only were she and her husband partners in the true sense of that word, but you can see how much he taught her by being so kind and generous. This book was almost impossible to put down. I cried a lot and laughed a lot and am really happy a book like this was written.
“Then, we just had to decide how many kids we wanted, which seemed a great topic to have over entrées. I said four, because that is how many my parents had and it really seems like the right balance. One is unacceptable. Two is just too lonely, especially if your only other sibling is a jackass. Three is all right, I guess. But four? Four is perfect. Four teaches you your place in the order of things. You learn to be gracious when you’re on top is the hog pile (is that just a thing my family did?) and patient when you’re squished at the bottom. You learn to live with being farted on. You learn to be a part of a team.
He loved his family the way I love mine: like they are the world’s best-kept secret.”
The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin
This is a wonderful collection of essays and talks on ‘the writer, the reader, and the imagination.’ Le Guin is such a sharp thinker, able to bring in elements of such disparate veins of thought as feminism and Taoism and anthropology into her writing and criticisms fluidly. She is opinionated yet seems so grounded, as if I could have a conversation with her if I happened to run into her. I want to keep this book for everything I learned from it and can learn from it still.
“However, at some point, around forty or so, I began to wonder if he really knew what he was talking about any better than anybody else, or if what he knew better than anybody else was how to talk about it. The two things are easily confused.”
“The question has been asked before but I haven’t yet got an answer that satisfies me: why do women cripple their feet while men don’t?”
“Her work, I really think her work
isn’t fighting, isn’t winning,
isn’t being the Earth, isn’t being the Moon.
Her work, I really think her work
is finding what her real work is
and doing it,
her work, her own work,
her being human,
her being in the world.”