As we wrap up the past year and move into the new one, I’m going to be back on the blog — taking a look at some of the top publishing stories, making some predictions for the future, and getting back to answering your questions about writing and publishing. But first, I’d like your input on one question:
What was the best book you read this year?
I do this at the end of every year, just so I can start to put together a reading list and see what others have found interesting. The title can be fiction or nonfiction. It could be a new book that released this year, or some great book from prior years that you’ve just discovered, but I’d like to know what your best read was in 2016.
Here’s my list of the top ten books I read this year, in no particular order:
The Return, by Hisham Matar. The true story of a boy from Libya, whose father, an outspoken critic of Qaddafi, simply “disappeared” one day. Twenty years later, the boy (now a writer) goes back to try and find traces of what happened. Beautiful writing and an insightful look at politics and violence. This is the sort of book that makes you see the world with new eyes.
One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson. I love history, and this year read a long list of great history titles — Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers and The Johnstown Flood, Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and several others. But Bryson’s book, which seems to have been overlooked amidst all of his cute travel tales, offered a wonderfully engaging exploration of another time in American history. Babe Ruth, Cool Cal, the strange pilot Charles Lindbergh, the self-important Hoover, and the rest of the cast of 1927 make this a fun history book to read.
The Time Mom met Hitler, Frost came to Dinner, and I heard the Greatest Story Ever Told, by Dikkon Eberhart. My guess is you haven’t even heard of this book — it was the editor who sent me a copy of this memoir and encouraged me to read it. My lord, what a story. The author’s father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and America’s Poet Laureate under Kennedy, and he grew up in a house filled with every famous writer of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. (Imagine being a kid and having Robert Frost drop by to talk poetry, or Dylan Thomas wander in at night to read you bedtime stories.) I found this book engaging and fascinating, and encourage all writers to pick up a copy. And my thanks to Carol Traver at Tyndale for sending it to me!
Ruined, by Ruth Everhart. Okay, I try to never list the books I represent on my list of year’s best… but in this case, I have to make an exception. The author of this memoir was a nice, Christian girl attending a private Christian college in Grand Rapids, when one Sunday she and her roommates had their house broken into and were raped at gunpoint. Her story explores the practical, emotional, and spiritual struggles she went through, how those around her responded, and how it shaped her life and her theology. It’s so honest and powerful you’ll find yourself changed by her story.
Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson. I fell in love with her blog and her first book, Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, which was perhaps the funniest title I’d read in ten years. So I picked up this one expecting to laugh… and discovered it’s the author’s memoir about living with mental illness (in both her family and herself). It’s poignant, disturbing, and sometimes very funny. Not what I expected, but a very good read.
The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, by Keith Houston. Um… okay, this may not be the most engaging title you ever buy, but as a guy who has worked in publishing all his life, I LOVED his re-telling of paper and woodcuts and Gutenberg. I always enjoy haranguing people at writers’ conferences on the history of books, because I fear people will forget what a wonderful story we have in publishing, so I’m including this one because it was simply a personal favorite, covering a topic I love. So there.
Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor, by Clinton Romesha. The fact is, I didn’t ever expect to include this story about a battle over a remote US Army base in Afghanistan on my list of best books… but this first-hand account, written by the Medal of Honor-winning author, transcends the genre. It’s far better than Lone Survivor or American Sniper or one of the run-of-the-mill military hero stories. The book digs into the details of what it’s like to be there, with hundreds of enemy gunmen shooting at you, explains what happened, and offers an insider’s view that is downright fascinating.
The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan. This is a collection of stories and essays by a young woman who died in a car accident before she was discovered, or even before she could start her grown-up life. The craft was so fabulous I found myself tearing up just at the beauty of her language. I love finding great talent, and I’m only sorry we’ll never see anything more from Ms Keegan. A lovely, moving book.
The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore. Two guys with the same name, born a couple blocks apart, but their worlds are completely different — one a Rhodes Scholar, the other in prison for murder. This narrative nonfiction isn’t perfect, but it’s a fascinating story of the different paths our lives and choices (and sometimes color and neighborhoods and education) help create. Worth reading in tandem with The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.
Good grief… I’ve listed nine books so far, and they’re all nonfiction. Sorry! Guess it shows my reading tendencies. I was going to add Annie Dillard’s The Abundance to my list, since it’s certainly one of the best collections I’ve read in ages, but… well, so I don’t give too little attention to the novels, let me mention that, of all the fiction I read this year, three titles stand out…
All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, Olivay, by Deborah Reed, and The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, were the best novels I read this year. (And yeah, none of them actually came out this year, and I should have read them a long time ago… so sue me. I read more nonfiction.) All three of these titles will move you and give you insight into what’s most important in our world. If you’re looking for great writing instead of run-of-the-mill storytelling, check these out. (And yes, I would undoubtedly have listed The Underground Railroad, but I haven’t finished it yet, so I didn’t think it was fair to list a title I’d not yet completed. That’ll make it to NEXT year’s list.)
Okay, so that was more than ten books. I was never the best in math class anyway. But these were my favorite reads of the year. Now it’s your turn… What were the best books you read in 2016?