From my perspective, there’s no better gift to find under the tree than a new book! With crisp pages, an unblemished spine, and that wonderful new-page smell, what could be better? I love gifting books to other people, whether it’s passing along a read I loved (or think someone else will love) or picking out a book at the store to pass along.
While it’s too late to send these out for the holidays this year, there’s never a bad time to give someone a book — or to select one for yourself. Of the 110 books I read this year I had a very hard time narrowing it down to these 14 (7 fiction, 8 nonfiction), but I hope these will bring you joy. Some will be familiar and some not, but I tried to condense the list to books that might be more widely popular (you can check out some niche books I like on my GoodReads 2018 Summary Page).
Sometimes you need to escape the world, even if just for an hour. These fiction picks will make you laugh or cry or make your heart beat a little faster — or perhaps just think a little bit differently as you absorb another perspective.
Go, Went, Gone (Jenny Erpenbeck): I’ve been on a foreign fiction kick as of late, and Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone was probably my favorite fiction book of the year. Translated into English from the German, Erpenbeck’s novel follows protagonist Richard, widowed and navigating the world after his wife’s untimely death. Now that he’s retired, he takes an interest in African migrants that he first encounters in a public protest. What starts as an idle curiosity turns into a deep relationship with the people and the places they have come from.
This novel is not only timely but the prose is exquisite, sharply yet lovingly describing everyday moments in Berlin. It reminded me of the writing of Ian McEwan, one of my favorite authors, or likewise Julian Barnes.
Erpenbeck writes: “Richard thinks: the things you have experienced become baggage that you can’t get rid of, while others — people with the freedom to choose — get to decide which stories to hold on to.” This is a story worth holding on to.
The Word is Murder (Anthony Horowitz): I’m an on-again, off-again mystery reader, but this is the third — and best — book I’ve read written by Horowitz. I particularly love books that play with the genre, and this book does just that (if you are looking for a great book that will appeal to word nerds, check out my favorite in this category — If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino).
But back to Horowitz.
In this book he encounters a former police detective who is investigating the murder of a woman on the same day that she visited a funeral home to plan her death. Asked to follow the investigation and write a true crime book about the case, we follow Horowitz, now both author and part of the story, through an engaging mystery. It has just enough twists and turns to keep it interesting without being too clever — the perfect sort of mystery for me.
The Book of Essie (Meghan Maclean Weir): Every year I have to including a guilty-pleasure read, and this year it’s The Book of Essie. I find fundamentalist Christian or small Christian sects to be fascinating, and this is a fictionalized version of a reality tv-famous big Christian family and a ready-made scandal — 17-year old Esther Anne is pregnant (but we get no sense of who the father might be). Her mother begins to scheme about how to “handle” the situation, as a pregnant teen certainly wrecks the family’s brand. What ensues is a fantastic romp through a set of surprising events and characters back from the past. The author perfectly skewers fundamentalists with her sharp, witty prose. Perfect book to read in the shade this summer or with a hot drink by the fire this winter.
Hotel Silence (Auour Ava Olafsdottir): I have fallen in love with Scandinavian fiction in the past year or two, but if this is any indication of Icelandic fiction I might have a new favorite! Hotel Silence is much richer and more understated than the Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish fiction I’ve read — but in the darkness of the story we get to know Jonas, the main character, who has gone to a war-ruined country to kill himself. Through the short, vignette-like chapters we get to know Jonas and why he is desperate to leave both his home and this earth.
Warning: This book is perfectly unsatisfying but also it was wonderful.
An American Marriage (Tayari Jones): I can’t quite put my finger on why I loved this book so much, but I did. It follows newlyweds Celestial and Roy as their marriage is tested by Roy’s false imprisonment. Perhaps it was the setting (in the South, both Louisiana and Georgia) that drew me in. Perhaps it was the relationships that the characters had with their own parents and their partner’s parents. I liked how the book’s format changed from chapters written from both perspectives to letters and back again. Whatever it was, Jones drew me in and I couldn’t stop reading the book until I could find out if they made it or not — whatever “making it” actually means.
Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng): The highest-rated fiction book of my picks on GoodReads, you might have been under a rock this year if you haven’t heard about Ng’s second novel. Ng writes about two families, mother and daughter Mia and Pearl, who move into a rental house owned by Mr. and Mrs. Richardson, a picture-perfect couple with a huge house and four high-school children. The book begins wth the Richardson’s standing on the lawn of their house, looking at it’s burned out shell, and then Ng turns back the clock to cover how these two families got to this place.
The writing was beautifully-detailed, incredibly honest, and relatable. I could picture the characters in my mind with ease and I couldn’t put the book down because the story was so well-woven and I didn’t want to stop reading it!
The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin): And rounding out this year’s Top 7 is The Immortalists, which earlier this year I said had some of the best prose I had read in several years, which still turns out to be the case.
Four kids visit a fortune teller in the late 1960s to learn about the dates of their deaths. And from that point onward, we explore the ways in which these dates impact their lives, and the lives of each other. I am a sucker for a good family drama, but this one was one of my favorites due to the depth of character development, the dialogue, and the snappy prose.
Stay woke, friends, Non-fiction can connect you to the experiences that others are having right now or they might help you explore places far or near. Here are eight books that I think are worth reading:
Becoming (Michelle Obama): By far the highest rated book on my list (4.69/5.00 at last check), this was one of my favorite books of the year. My husband says it’s because the current administration is so awful that I’m holding on to anything from 44, and that’s half-true. But I found her voice so incredibly strong in this book, and it made me love her all the more because she is a strong, smart, multifaceted woman. If you read one book on this list, let this be it!
Travel as a Political Act (Rick Steves): Rick Steves is a staple on our television and in all of our travels to Europe, so I particularly loved this book because I love Rick. As I wrote in my Goodreads review, if you want to remain an ignorant traveler, do not read this book because it will expand your perspective and force you to confront your biases. He travels beyond Europe and writes about his travels in the Middle East and Latin America as well.
If you want a video version of part of this book, let me recommend Rick Steves’s Iran, a fantastic 50-odd minute special about his travels through this fascinating country.
Dopesick (Beth May): We read so much about the opioid crisis in the news, but this book helped me deepen not only my understanding about the victims but about the families, friends, and towns that are impacted. Poignant and heartbreaking, this book also shares the perspectives of doctors, nurses, and other advocates trying to stop spread of prescription pain meds (namely Oxy) and, subsequently, heroin. These are just normal Americans who make a few bad decisions only to have it wreck the rest of their lives. So if you want to better understand our nation’s most pressing health crisis I suggest that you read this book.
On Edge (Andrea Petersen): I read many books about anxiety disorders, but this was my favorite of 2018 because I connected with Petersen’s experiences and stories. Some books focus on the history of mental illness and others focus entirely on personal stories — Petersen blends the two very well, focusing on common themes about mental illness (genetics, environment, treatment, relationships, etc.). Because it hit so close to home I had to set it down from time to time so I could just breathe. If you struggle with your mental health or you know someone who does, I strongly recommend this book.
The Newcomers (Helen Thorpe): Another issue that is part of our country’s fabric right now are immigrants and refugees, and it’s a book like this that brings the issues to life — and wow! What a phenomenal book this is!
Thorpe shadows a Denver high school classroom (Room 142) for more than a year, getting to know the 18 or so kids who learn there. Drawn from all over the world and most of them speaking little to no English, Thorpe helps us understand what it is really like to adjust to living in this country. This is the perspective people need to read if they are afraid of or against refugees because it gives you a deeper, more nuanced understanding of these folks. I can’t recommend this book enough.
White Fragility (Robin Diangelo): And for most uncomfortable but necessary book I’ve read this year, let me introduce you to this year’s #staywoke pick, White Fragility. I wish I had read this book when I was much younger because every white person who thinks they are progressive needs to read this book. Was it enjoyable or pleasurable? No. It was very uncomfortable. But it is opening my eyes to how I am colluding with our racism as a country and how I need to be more tuned in to stop myself. It helped me to see how the fabric of this country is woven to support me and to prevent others from succeeding.
A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet (Beverly Cleary): Maybe you, like me, grew up reading books about Ramona Quimby or Henry Huggins and loved them. And maybe you, like me, were a little curious to learn more about the author of those books. If so, you might pick up her two delightful memoirs and learn more yourself.
A Girl From Yamhill is a charming look at Yamhill and Portland of the 1920s and 1930s, giving you echos of what you have read in Cleary’s books as she wrote about normal kids, just like herself. My Own Two Feet details her time in college and finding her footing as an adult, as a librarian, author, and wife. What was so amazing about her writing is that her story feels relatable and universal in that even though she was coming of age in the 1930s and 40s, her story feels just as relevant today — finding your passion, navigating family relationships, and finding love while not giving up too much of yourself. What a fantastic book!
So there you have it, friends — my top reads from 2018, hopefully coming to a bookshelf to you soon. Happy reading!
P.S. I can’t wait to share my new multi-year Reading Challenge with you next week, assuming I’m all better and ready to blog about it! It’s something that feels uniquely Sarah and oh, so exciting! Stay tuned!