This past weekend we experienced the most crazy, wonderful blessing – one of our good friends from college, whom we have not seen since our wedding eight years ago, showed up in Hong Kong with her husband and baby. They had already planned this trip before we announced our move, so when we realized we were going to be in the same place at the same time, we all kind of freaked out. I mean, mostly Mary Claire and I freaked out. But I think the boys were excited too. Just in a more tough, manly ways.
We had an absolute blast with Mary Claire, Benjamin, and Banning and are secretly hoping they just drop everything and move here so that we can hang out all the time. While we were together, Mary Claire mentioned that she’d read several of the books I’ve recommended over the years, and she kind of called me out for not posting any book recommendations in such a long time. So…long introduction to say…for all of you who have had absolutely nothing to read these long months where I haven’t written about books, the dry spell is over. You’re welcome. 😉 Here’s the best of what I’ve read so far this year.
Note: I realized that most of my favorite books so far this year have been recent releases that deal with sad or difficult circumstances. To be fair, they all have some measure of hope to offset the sadness, but if you don’t like books where people deal with hard things, you might not like these.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
This book, man. It is not for the faint of heart. This book tells the life story of Cyril Avery from birth to death. Cyril Avery is born to an unwed mother in rural Ireland and adopted by an eccentric writer and her husband who really know nothing about children. As Cyril grows, we meet a cast of richly drawn characters who impact Cyril’s life, for better or worse. This book is largely focused on the horrible treatment of gay men in Ireland (and elsewhere) in the late 20th century. Because of that, some parts are very hard to read and some of it is very sad. There is also a significant amount of sexual content in the first half of the book (just fair warning if you don’t like reading that). However, the characters are amazingly vivid, unique, and quirky, and in the end, I can’t describe this book in any way other than beautiful, deeply moving, and unforgettable. The book ends on a sweet note which might strike some readers as too convenient, but I felt set up for it from early on and found it satisfying the that it ended in a place of peace.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.
Hannah showed up on everyone’s radar after The Nightingale in 2015. Her newest book takes place in Alaska in the 1970’s where Vietnam veteran Ernt Allbright takes his wife and his 13-year-old daughter Leni to live off the grid. The family think this will be their salvation, but in the long, dark winters, Ernt is haunted by the ghosts of the past and becomes increasingly paranoid and irrational. Leni realizes that she must fight for survival for herself and for her mother in the great Alaskan wild, There is something mesmerizing about the wild, rugged beauty of a mostly unsettled land. The story itself is very reminiscent of The Glass Castle, although fictional, so there is definitely a trigger warning for domestic violence. The only thing I didn’t love about this book was the ending which felt a little abrupt and too neat compared to the rest of the book. However, if you are someone who needs it to end on a hopeful note, you will probably like this.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.
A short and sweet account of an adult child (Ruth) stepping in to care for her father as he slips into dementia. I read it in almost one sitting and I loved it. In spite of being quite short, I felt like it delved into the issues inherent in being an adult child taking care of a parent as the parent loses agency. It also dealt with the complexities of dementia without being overly sappy, sad, or sentimental.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover.
This memoir has exploded onto the scene and (deservingly) gained a lot of attention. Growing up in a fundamentalist, survivalist family (again somewhat a la The Glass Castle) , Tara Westover had no access to formal education. Taught that western medicine was evil, she learned to use herbs and natural remedies for everything from childbirth to severe burns. Violence and control were part of every day life, but they were all that Tara knew. At 17 she became determined to do things differently. Having never been to school, she taught herself enough to gain entrance to Brigham Young University where she learned for the first time not only math, science, and literature, but about the history of her own country and of world events (like the Holocaust) which she had never even heard of. Exposure to the world of learning sparked a hunger in her for all that she did not know and went on to study at Harvard and at Cambridge. As she gains knowledge and understanding about the world and her own upbringing, she is driven to try to forge a way back to her family, so many of whom are still living in a toxic environment.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.
Celestial and Roy are still newlyweds when the unthinkable happens. Roy is arrested and convicted of a crime he did not commit. He is sentenced to 12 years in prison. In the beginning, Celestial and Roy remain fiercely devoted to one another, but as the years go by, Celestial begins to move on with her life. When Roy’s conviction is overturned and he is released early, the (still married) couple must figure out what really makes a marriage and whether or not they can still have one.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler.
Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School who has devoted her professional career to studying the prosperity gospel. At 35, she has is just hitting her stride in her career and has finally become a mother after years of trying. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. As she navigates the grief and pain of illness and facing her own mortality, she finds herself drawn to the reassurances offered by the health and wealth doctrines of the prosperity gospel and comes to an understanding of why people cling to these beliefs even when they seem so obviously false. As someone who grew up in an environment I would call “prosperity gospel adjacent,” I was moved by this memoir of wrestling with the harsh reality of death within this specific context. Bowler’s writing is funny and witty and heart-wrenching all at once and this book will stay with me for a long time.
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl.
Ruth Reichl is a renowned food writer and was a long-time critic for the New York Times. This memoir recounts her time as a food critic and her various experiences eating her way through New York City. The most entertaining parts are how she created actual characters with backstories and disguises in order to visit these restaurants without being recognized as the New York Times food critic and receiving special treatment. Parts of this are laugh-out-loud funny, and Reichl’s skills as a master storyteller are on show here. Such a fun read.
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.
I don’t have the words. Part of what moved me so much about this book is that it was so emotionally resonant to my own family history, even though I grew up as a very conservative Christian rather than Muslim. I particularly enjoy/connect to stories that show how different family members experienced the same event in different ways. This book tells the story of an Indian-American Muslim family and their individual struggles with belonging. Parents, Leila and Rafiq have tried to instill their traditions and values in their children, but each of their three children has had to forge their own path. Leila and Rafiq have had to make difficult decisions about whether or not they can accept and embrace their children when their decisions don’t align with Leila and Rafiq’s hopes for them. The book opens at the wedding of Hadia, the family’s oldest child, who has chosen to marry for love rather than have an arranged marriage. The family are collectively holding their breath to see if the youngest sibling, Amar, will come to the wedding after being estranged from the family for three years. It’s a novel about the ways that families try (and often fail) to love each other well, and in that way, I think it is something we can all relate to. I think this book is a great choice for anyone who loved Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.
Honorable Mentions go to: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, Heartless by Marissa Meyer, Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan, I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jessmyn Ward
You can always follow me on Goodreads for updates on what I am currently reading. Let me know if you have read or end up reading any of these!