Monday, January 2, 2017

2016 Reading Highlights

Once again, I'm sharing the highlights of my reading year.  Some of my favorite books of the year were published in 2016; some were not.  As always, I'm reading in all kinds of ways:  book books, ebooks, audiobooks.  I continue to be a two-book-a-month subscriber, a heavy user at the wonderful Elmhurst Public Library, and an easy mark for ebook deals.  I still buy more book books than is advisable, thanks to Prime shipping, the Book of the Month Club, and the library book sale room.  Oh well.

Let's get something out of the way at the get go:  I haven't read The Nightingale yet, people.  I'm sure it's as good as you all say, and I promise I'll read it, but not just yet.

Here's the best of what I read, paired with commentary cribbed from previous blog posts and my own Goodreads reviews.  I'm booksandcarbs on Goodreads if you want to find me (spoiler alert:  I'm an easy grader.)

My very favorite books this year were memoirs.

When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood (2012) -- I loved everything about Wood's story about her family before and after her father's death:  the writing, her family, the Catholicism, the depiction of sisterhood.  All of it. 

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016) -- I had never seen Trevor Noah on television before listening to this memoir (which he narrates perfectly). Noah is funny, thoughtful, and honest.  I learned a lot about South African life during and after Apartheid.  This memoir is full of insights into race, family, and language.  Noah's mom is unforgettable, and her portrayal as a woman of faith is my favorite part of this memoir.

Forever, Erma by Erma Bombeck (2000) -- My childhood best friend and I used to read  Erma Bombeck books (from her mom's shelf) during out teen and tween years.  This collection of her best pieces was an ebook deal.  What a gift Bombeck's humor, honesty, and wit must have been in the days before technology (email, blog posts, social media) made it easy for moms to share their daily observations, challenges, and laughs.  Not every essay in this collection is a gem, but the good ones are really good and so full of heart.  What a treat to revisit Bombeck as a mom. 

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016) -- J.D. Vance grew up in a Middleton, Ohio (very close to where I grew up), a town in Southwestern Ohio where many Kentucky Appalachians migrated, including Vance's grandparents.  This book is more personal than political.  Vance's observations about hillbilly culture are interesting, but I was more taken with the story of his family (his Mamaw!!!!!), his journey from Middletown to Yale and beyond, and the way he succeeds both in spite of and because of his family/hillbilly ties. 

This was a solid, but not stellar, year of fiction reading for me.  
I stayed in my comfort zone a bit too much.  I plan to stretch more in 2017.

One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood (2016) -- Family, friendship, grief, regret, love, home hope ... it's all in here.  Loved the boy and all who loved him.  Note that two Monica Wood books made my list!

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016) -- I continue to worship at the altar of Ann Patchett.  She just gets the details so right and pulls you in so you can know and root for and understand these oh-so-believable, oh-so-human characters.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (2009) -- Brooklyn might be one of those love it or hate it books.  Some may be bored.  Others frustrated as hell with its protagonist.  I was along for the ride from Ireland to Brooklyn and back to Ireland, and then the ending just blew me away and broke my heart.  I then read Nora Webster (2014) in which a few Brooklyn characters cameo and which I also really liked, though others might hate.

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998) -- Poisonwood Bible was on my "I'll Thank Me Later" Reading List for years.  I finally got around to it this summer and WOW.  I already wrote all about how I loved it and found it more than worth the eighteen-year wait. 

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty (2016) -- I dragged my feet opening Truly Madly Guilty because some of the buzz was bummerish.  But frankly, I'm annoyed at the ho-hum reactions.  The more I think about it, the more I liked it.  Sort of a slow starter, yes, but the mystery/suspense kept me turning pages, and I thought the insights into marriage, parent-child relationships, and female friendship were really worthwhile.  All Moriarty's books would be excellent as book club picks.

Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo (2016) -- This novel is the long-awaited follow-up to Russo's Nobody's Fool, which is one of the only books I've read three times in my adult life.  I already wrote all about my "FOOLishness" in this post.

The Nix by Nathan Hill (2016) --There's a lot going on in The Nix, but in a good way.  Hill's story moves from 80s to 60s to present-day, from Iowa to Chicago to Norway to New York and manages to be smart, funny, and timely as it shifts.  I listened to the audiobook (which, by the way, won Audible's Book of the Year Award) and thought the narration was outstanding.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2012) -- A married couple moves to the wilds of Alaska for a fresh start that's starting to look bleak.  And then ... a snow child enters their life.  Ivey's novel feels real but also like the fairy tale that inspired it.  One of the best novels I can think of about childlessness in marriage.  Lovely, lovely book.  Perfect for a snowy day.

Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh (2016) -- My initial thought here was "Why in the hell would I want to read a fracking novel about fracking?"  Sounds depressing.  But, I trust Jennifer Haigh because I've adored her other books, particularly Baker Towers and News from Heaven, two books set in the same Pennsylvania town that she revisits in Heat and Light.  This novel about fracking (and family and marriage and community and $$$) explores every aspect of the phenomenon:  the activist fighting it, the bar staff waiting on the gas crews, the academic in the gas company's pocket, the family with contaminated water, the dairy farmer surrounded by fracking sites, the big cheese at the gas company, and many more.  You don't need to read Baker Towers and News from Heaven first, but read something by Jennifer Haigh, and I doubt you'll be disappointed.

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close (2016) -- Read this novel if you'd like a glimpse of the social and political scenes in both D.C. and Texas and an insider look at a campaign.  This novel is Close's best yet.  My favorite thing about it is her portrayal of the fragility of marriage and the sometimes fleeting (but not necessarily less real for being such) nature of female friendship.

 All books fall under the "life stuff" umbrella, but these inspired me. 

Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist (2016) -- This book is one for all you women who are do-do-do-ing until you drop.  It spoke to me, big time, and I've already said a lot about it.  

On Writing by Stephen King (2002) -- If you only associated Stephen King with Pet Sematary and the like and thus dismissed him out of fear or repulsion, you're missing out.  Read his novel 11/22/63 and he'll win you over.  In this book, I enjoyed the writing tips and King's accounts of his childhood and early adulthood.  Plus, King always advocates reading for pleasure, which I love.

If you are obsessed with P&P, you should check these out.  
I'm no purist -- it's fun to see all the ways this story keeps spinning. 

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (2016) -- Not exactly how I imagined the Bennet sisters in the 21st century, but this was a fun and fast read.  I loved the Cincinnati setting, especially since Elizabeth was running the same routes I power-walked almost 20 years ago (possibly while listening to the P&P audiobook).

The Season by Jonah Lisa Dyer (2016) -- Dallas debutante version of P&P featuring a college soccer star.  Just wished for more glimpses of Gage/Darcy throughout.

Bridget Jones's Baby by Helen Fielding (2016) -- Am I wrong to assume that P&P superfans are also Bridget Jones superfans?  I already wrote all about my love for this movie and this book.

YA = Young Adult.  No one will check your ID.
Disclaimer: most of these YA books include adult content.  Do with that information what you will.
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon (2016) -- Girl in the bubble with a twist.  LOTS to discuss after reading this one.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum (2016) -- My Goodreads review just said "adorable."  So there.

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay (2012) -- I resisted this book because I hate the title and the cover, but I found the characters really interesting and liked the way the backstory was revealed.

Great American Whatever by Tim Federle (2016) -- Honest take on grief, sexuality, and friendship.  Good balance of wit and heft.  


Q:  I'm going on vacation soon.  I want to read something I can get into easily and that is satisfying without being overly taxing.  What do you suggest?

A:  Anything by Elin Hilderbrand (Nantucket Queen), Taylor Jenkins Reid (read two of her books this year), Liane Moriarty (see above), Emily Giffin, or Jennifer Weiner.


Q:  You probably don't read books written by celebrities, do you?

A:  I sure do.  I enjoyed Lauren Graham's Talking As Fast as I Can (Gilmore Girls superfans should definitely read), Anna Kendrick's Scrappy Little Nobody (won't rock your world, but she's funny); Carly Simon's Boys in Trees (quite a journey, but she owns it all); Steve Martin's Born Standing Up (he used to work at Disneyland and rode his bike there); Jewel's Never Broken (that gal is a FIGHTER, lots of respect to her); Drew Barrymore's Wildflower (not awesome, but a quick read if you're a fan); Amy Schumer's Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo (different than I expected, in a positive way); Shonda Rhimes' Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person (yes! yes! yes!).  


Q:  Did you read any books about Kennedys this year?

A:  I'm glad you asked.  Christina Haag's Come to the Edge was a surprisingly lovely memoir about her longtime relationship with JFK, Jr.   Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson is an especially good read for taking the shine off the Kennedy legacy.  Those parents!?  Wow.

Q:  I know you don't like to be negative, but what was the most overhyped book of the year?

A:  Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.  Thought I would love it, but alas...

Q:  Have you made one of these lists before?

A:  Yes, see reading highlights from 2015 and 2014 and 2013.

I'd love to hear your 2016 reading highlights.  Please share in the comments.
Wishing you a great year of reading in 2017.  Read what you enjoy, but don't forget to stretch sometimes. 


  1. MEP....Erma Bombeck! Love it! Playhouse is showing a play with her as the subject matter this year! I'm thinking we must attend.

  2. love this list! "commonwealth" (ann patchett, i love you.) and "brooklyn" were on the top of my list as well! along with "the underground railroad" and "the storied life of a.j. fikrey"--very different books, but i couldn't put wither of them down, nor did i want them to end. and did i tell you about my former student? she got her start in the political world on obama's campaign. and she and her friends were interviewed by the author of "the hopefuls" and the story is (loosely) based on them! betsy said it is very true to life! crazy! and a fun read!

    1. I knew it was you, of course! You didn't tell me about your student's connection to The Hopefuls! The author, Jennifer Close, is friends with a Badin grad as well. I'll tell you who when I see you! I will put Underground Railroad closer to top of my list. I know I'll be glad I read it, but it never seems like a book I'm in the mood to read.