Dear 100 Hour Board,
What is the best book (or two) that you've read in the past year?
Well, the obvious answer is Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. My next choice would be either Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight or A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory is just so good. It's a romcom that's hilarious and well-written. I laughed; I cried; I laughed more. Also, she has another book coming out in September called The Proposal, which is about a side character in The Wedding Date, so we get more! (Through an insane connection, I have an advance copy of The Proposal waiting in my mailbox for me RIGHT NOW, and it's taking everything I have not to just ditch work to go home and read. It's that good.)
In a very different way, I also highly recommend Not That Bad. It's a collection of essays about today's rape culture. Each essay is written by a different author (Ally Sheedy and Gabrielle Union are some notable contributors); all are edited by Roxane Gay. It's a harrowing look at society through many lenses, and it can be tough to read. I'm about halfway through right now because I usually have to put it down after every essay or two, but I can't recommend it enough.
The best book I read in the past year was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. It is an absolutely brilliant book about confronting and coping with the loss of a loved one. It's fiction with fantasy elements but spoke truth to my soul. But I have to add a caveat: it's very sad, so be prepared for an emotional read.
Honorable Mentions (because I can't follow directions and keep it to two):
Scythe & Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman - In a world where you've solved every problem, including death, how do you control the population? By employing people called scythes that choose when it's time to end a life.
The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin - This is the conclusion to The Broken Earth trilogy, a creative sci-fi/fantasy masterpiece with both exceptional worldbuilding and deep characters.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng - What does it mean to be a mother, and what do you do when your world starts falling apart?
Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson - I liked this book, and I loved learning more about the characters and where the series is going, but I admit that I didn't like this book as much as the first two in the series. I dunno, it just felt... disjointed(?) with all the viewpoints, especially at the end. I've only read it once, and my opinion might change after I read it again.
Dear Moist Owlettes,
The clear winner for me is Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris. This book looks very, very closely at the five films nominated for Best Picture for the 1968 Academy Awards: Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The book tracks the history of each film including the writing, pitching, pre-production, production, and Oscar campaigns. It is a fascinating look at the shifting tastes, sensibilities, business practices, and movie-making decisions of time and includes interviews with virtually all the big names from each film. Loved it. Love that Mark Harris.
Books are great. So great.
Here are some good ones I read or listened to in the last year that I recommend:
- Steve Jobs
- Da Vinci
- Moby Dick
- Gulliver's Travels
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
- The Importance of Being Ernest
- The Book Thief
- Little Women
- Wyrd Sisters
- The Blackthorn Key
- Murder on the Orient Express
- The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
- A Wizard of Earthsea
- The Rook
Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. Simply amazing.
I'm currently reading When God was a Woman and it is AMAZING. 11/10 would recommend.
-guppy of doom
I've not read anywhere near as much as I would like to, but I really enjoyed reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and Thing Explainer by Randal Munroe.
This past year I read every book Fannie Flagg has ever written, and it was glorious. It started with needing to read The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion for book club, and then I went down the rabbit hole. Read them. Read them all.
Educated by Tara Westover is a must-read memoir. It's just beautifully written, and so gripping I couldn't put it down. (The author was actually in my first ward at BYU, which added a little bit of intrigue for me, trying to figure out if I knew any of the people whose names she'd changed for the book.)
The Heist Society series by Ally Carter was so much fun to read (think a teenage Ocean's 11). I'm sad there were only three books.
Similarly, Rachel Hawkins' Hex Hall series is my most recent read, and it's a fun one. She creates a magical world that she's integrated with the real world very believably. There's a lot of teenagers wanting to smooch each other, which I kind of enjoyed reading about because that was so not my teenage experience. Overall I just need more Rachel Hawkins in my life. If you follow her on Twitter she does something called Sexy History Tuesday and it's hilarious.
The Tiger's Wife. I can't even explain how rich and layered this book was. I can't even explain what it was about, really. In the back of your head you sometimes think, yeah, I could be a writer, and then you read this book by Téa Obreht and it's like, nope, no one should be allowed to write books but her.
C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces and David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. Each of these books is an absolute masterpiece.
There are a lot of books I read where I feel like I'm on an intellectual level comparable to the author and if put to it, might eventually produce a similar work. But C. S. Lewis writing mythological fiction about faith and doubt for an adult audience is transcendent. It's beyond me, and it's also the rare book that I first read a decade ago, read again now, and found to be even better the second time (and worthy of any number of future re-reads). Similarly, the McCullough book shifted my bar for what first-rate historical scholarship looks like: I can't imagine how anyone could conceivably write a better or more complete history of the creation of the Panama Canal, or why anyone would try when they could just read McCullough's work.
It was hard to pick just two, but there you go...
All right, Owlet! Get ready for GRAPHIC NOVELS.
Top 5 graphic novels I've read in the past year:
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris. This book is absolutely stunning. It is written in the style of a preteen girl writing and drawing in her notebook and it is FULL of incredible illustrations. This is a MUST read if you love graphic novels.
Lighter Than My Shadow, by Katie Green. This book is a very intense memoir about the author's experiences with an eating disorder. It is beautifully drawn and written but you absolutely need to be in the right frame of mind to read it; it is very dark.
Mis(h)adra, by Iasmin Omar Ata. "Misadra" is the Arabic word for seizure; "mishadra" is the Arabic slang term for "I can't." This powerful, colorfully drawn graphic novel tells the story of the author's struggle to live with epilepsy. It is bold and unforgettable.
Louis Undercover, by Fanny Britt. This one's a junior graphic novel but don't let that fool you; it's just as beautifully illustrated and emotionally meaningful as any other I've included here. This novel tells the story of a young boy dealing with his parents' divorce, his father's debilitating alcoholism, and the awkwardness of adolescence.
Blankets, by Craig Thompson. This beautifully-illustrated graphic novel follows a young man as he grows up. It explores first love, finding your calling, losing your faith, and bullying, among other things.
Hope this inspired you to read some cool graphic novels, the greatest genre of all.
Until this last year, reading had unfortunately fallen a little by the wayside for me. It was just really hard to fit it in between work, hobbies, friends, and sleep. But then I finally decided to get an audible membership and I listen to sooo many books! It's literally changed my life. My favorites were:
- Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover: Truth to tell, I am not finished with this book yet, but I started it yesterday and I can barely stop listening to it. It is beyond excellent.
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: A great heist novel with great characters. This was a book that I simply enjoyed for the sake of the book and the story. There is little I feel I can pinpoint beyond that, but I really, really enjoyed it.
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed: I already wanted to go hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, but this book really did me in. A great true-story of one of the first women to hike the PCT solo.
A few favorites:
The Way of Kings, The Martian, and The Halloween Tree (which I'll probably read to you sometime).
I read a lot (like, a lot—last year I read more than a book a day) so I’m going to name more than one or two.
Top 10 Fiction
In no particular order:
The Sport of Kings, by CE Morgan. It’s about (horse) racing, but also about race. (Get it?) There was too much going on here—too many characters, plot lines, voices, and even prose styles—but this is one of those books that reminded me what it was like to read when I was 8 years old and could still be pulled entirely into an author’s world. I couldn’t put it down.
Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin. How had I never read James Baldwin before? That’s an embarrassing—and, I know now, unfortunate—gap in my reading education, and this was a fantastic introduction. I can’t wait to dig into more of Baldwin’s writing.
The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan. This was uneven—the first half was markedly better than the second half, I thought—but a lot is forgivable for tragicomedy and good prose. This felt like a contemporary call-and-response to Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, topical (terrorism! the origins of violence!) without being didactic.
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, by Eka Kurniawan. This being an Indonesian novel, I obviously have some personal bias, but Kurniawan’s bawdy magical realism is just so perfectly calibrated on the edges of hilarious, weird, and touching that it’s hard not to love his style, or, in this work, his anti-sexist stance, as translated through the pulpy violent world of comics.
All That Man Is, by David Szalay. Honestly, the fact that this was shortlisted for the Booker made me not want to read it, but I was glad I did. I didn’t love the conceit—stories of men across a variety of ages and locations, purporting to outline the male experience—but the writing was so lovely, and the individual characters and their emotional palettes so well-conceived, that I found myself able to overlook the pretension.
The City & the City, by China Mieville and The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Since I’m into pointless reading goals, my husband pressured me to start trying to read all the Hugo award winners this year. That’s ridiculous, since I don’t usually like science fiction…but man, the Hugos have been killing it for the past few years: NK Jemisin, Connie Willis, Jo Walton, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon? I can get behind that. And I can get behind these two novels, which tied for the 2010 Hugo for best novel, and which somehow have both ended up on my top-10 list. Both created incredibly imaginative worlds that they then explored without sacrificing character or plot, and both had me hooked until the very end.
The Nix, by Nathan Hill. This book was Dickensian in the best and worst senses—a sharp eye for satire and comic sketches; a running commentary on life, the past, and everything; and an overindulgence in everything from language to plot to side characters. Still: I read it while vacationing in Sicily, and at one point my husband stopped to take pictures of Mount Etna and I…looked up briefly, said, “Oh, how pretty,” and kept reading this book.
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This wasn’t as good as The Sympathizer (what an unfair standard!) but I still loved these short stories. “Fatherland,” the story about a Vietnamese refugees duplicated families, stuck with me particularly strongly.
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. This is the perfect opportunity to showcase some doggerel I wrote years ago, in response to a friend who asked why I didn’t love The Godfather movies:
"On Turning off The Godfather, Part I, Halfway Through and Refusing to Watch the Sequels"
Excessive machismo plus a complicated plot,
Minus women characters or anybody hot,
Plus too many gunfights and minus any jokes:
That’s the wrong formula for us feminine folk.
I’ve since finished The Godfather, Part 1, at least, and I’m glad I did since (spoilers!) that confirmation/murder scene is incredible. That said, I’ve never been a huge fan so I hadn’t planned on reading the book, but with a trip to Sicily on the docket and surprisingly other few Sicilian-themed books available in English, I gave this a shot. The movie is an enduring classic but I think fewer people read the book these days, and they’re missing out, because this is a perfect vacation read: engrossing, layered, and with enough meat in it that didn’t make the movie that it’s a pleasant surprise even for movie fans. OK, and I can’t resist one more poem:
"Breakfast in Bed"
Good ol’ Coppola one-upped Ichabod Crane
In a way equestrians declared inhumane.
We await headless riders as a matter of course,
But nobody expected that headless horse.
Top 10 Non-Fiction
On to the non-fiction! As has been the case for the past few years, I had more great books to choose from to create this top-10, since I’m still working my way through the true classics of non-fiction…quite literally, as alongside the Hugo goal I’ve been reading my way through the non-fiction Pulitzer Prize winners. (Side note: I track author diversity in my lists to ensure I’m reading from a wide pool, and this year only 46% of the books were by women, when I’m usually at or just above 50%. I blame the Pulitzers. On the other hand, 20% were by people of color, which is a small improvement from last year’s 18%.)
Again, in no particular order:
A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, by Neil Sheehan. More in the annals of “how had I never read this before”: when I mentioned to my dad and brother that I was reading it they both got the same dreamy look in their eyes as they started a soliloquy on the excellence of this book. Well, the joke’s on me, because now I’m sure I’ve got that same look as I reflect on it. This is both the best history of the Vietnam War I’ve read—and I’ve read a number of them—but also some of the best biographical journalism, or even journalism, period. I didn’t even resent that it’s nearly 800 pages long.
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Steve Coll. Like A Bright Shining Lie, this was a Pulitzer Prize winner (2005), one of the real gems from this year’s goal. The book is jam-packed with context and detailed history, but somehow still reads like a real-life spy thriller. Like all the best journalism, it made me marvel at how little I knew and resolve to learn even more. (Side note: if you’re only going to read one book about Afghanistan and the lead-up to 9/11, read The Looming Tower. This one’s great but Lawrence Wright is magic.)
We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I had read some (though not all) of these essays before, but reading them all at once, with Coates’s commentary and context on his development as a writer and thinker, made them much more powerful. I know everyone, myself included, loved Between the World and Me, but this one is better, much better, and I can’t wait to see what Coates will write next.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. This book neatly upends stereotypes of pre-Columbian American civilizations as lacking in technology, living in primitive Edenic conditions on the land, or essentially unchanged through thousands of years, and presents, instead, a portrait of vibrant, developed, and numerous populations eventually destroyed through European contact—and in some cases even before European contact, as Mann argues persuasively that smallpox had already ravaged North American populations through Indian trading networks before many tribes had ever seen a European. Native Americans, archaeology, disease, and a compelling and unexpected thesis: this book pushed all my buttons and I was mildly obsessed with it for a few months after reading it. (If you talked to me in February or so and had to hear all about Indian forestry techniques, you’re welcome.)
The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy. Levy’s New Yorker essay about her miscarriage at 5 months pregnant, alone, in Mongolia, stuck with me, so of course I had to read the book. There’s some weirdness here—Levy reads her personal tragedies through a lens of the universe punishing her for wanting too much, which…sure—but the context around that miscarriage scene only increases the impact of its raw grief, which I didn’t think possible, and the writing is beautiful.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay. More in the annals of raw honesty: Roxane Gay is a national treasure. It’s also really hard to recommend this book to someone without implying that they’re fat. (I tried, and failed. But honestly: it’s just that the book is really good.)
In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi. A difficult father-daughter relationship, the WWII experiences of a Hungarian Jew, and a sex-change operation at 76: if this were a novel you wouldn’t believe it, but Faludi’s intelligent reflections and sometimes-uncomfortable honesty sell it.
Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood. Speaking of a difficult father-daughter relationship: Patricia Lockwood’s father, aside from being a wacky eccentric, is a married Catholic priest. (Apparently the Pope can give dispensations to married clergy who convert from other religions.) I loved this memoir partly because Lockwood’s family is so unusual, but mostly because Lockwood is straight-up hilarious. I laughed out loud multiple times while reading it, and then again multiple times while trying to look up a funny quote to share with you all.
Janesville: An American Story, by Amy Goldstein. “Explaining real America” is a whole genre these days, but this is one of the genre I enjoyed the most. (Strangers In Their Own Land was also very good, but a different approach.) Goldstein’s reporting provides context and analysis, but smartly sidesteps pontificating on big questions, focusing instead on the stories, both hopeful and tragic, of individuals in Janesville, Wisconsin, who were affected by the closing of the GM plant there.
We Crossed a Bridge And It Trembled: Voices From Syria, by Wendy Pearlman. Demonstrating even further that I love individual stories, this collection of oral histories from Syrians is heartbreaking and brilliant. It reminded me of the work of Svetlana Alexievich, which I adore. (Secondhand Time: the Last of the Soviets was one of my favorites from last year, and The Unwomanly Face of War, which I read this year, didn’t quite make top-10 but was close.) There isn’t enough published about Syria (yet), but I’m sure once there’s a canon this will be a strong entry in it.
Go forth and read,
The best book I read this year was Mother's Milk by Rachel Hunt Steenblik. It's a beautiful and inspiring collection of poetry about Heavenly Mother and I highly recommend it.
Keep it real,
Ditto for Oathbringer. I camped out in the cold for a numbered copy, and it was so worth it.
Dear PJ Mask,
Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson has been done to death but it's amazing. If you've liked the other two books in The Stormlight Archive, you will definitely like this one. It starts a little slow, but I literally couldn't put down the last 2/3 until I had finished the book. It's meatier than even Words of Radiance, which I like. I actually appear in the Acknowledgements, which is pretty cool.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover is probably the most gripping non-fiction I've ever read. She tells the story of growing up in an extreme survivalist household in Idaho with monumentally controlling parents, and how she eventually escaped and went on to get a PhD from Cambridge.
I've been getting into novella series and it's great. I recommend the Sin du Jour series by Matt Wallace and Genrenauts by Michael R. Underwood. Sin du Jour is about a catering company that does events for magical beings and the shady government agency that liaises with them. Genrenauts follows the adventures of a group of agents who have to fix broken stories in the various genre worlds adjacent to ours. I love these because the ebooks are inexpensive and it's nice to read bite-size installments of a larger story.
- Inverse Insomniac
I read Anna Karenina for a class last semester and it was so, so good. I had never read Tolstoy before, so I wasn't sure what to expect; I was totally blown away. It probably helped that my professor walked us through a sociological analysis, but it still held well on its own. I cried when Kitty and Levin's son was born, and felt like I understood motherhood in a way that I never had before, and I connected with a lot more in the book than I thought I would.
Oh, and it was cool to read a classic, because sometimes I feel left out in these kinds of conversations with Board people cause y'all have read everything and have strong, smart opinions, and I haven't been that into reading since I was much younger. So it was nice to be be a part of that, and to be reminded of the power of a great novel.
Sure are a lot of indecisive cheaters here listing off more than one or two books! I've read seven five-star books in the past year and I think my favorite was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. I knew it was a classic but I didn't realize what a crazy and beautiful ride down a thought experiment it would be. It was exactly right for an Xtreme nerd girl who loves science fiction and literary fiction and poetry and wants to read them all at the same time.
I'm gonna be lame and list books from my history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade class: Bond of Alliance by Rushforth and Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World by Sweet. Both books completely changed my perspective on what I thought I knew about slavery in two very different areas of the world. Domingos Alvares, in particular, was compelling because it reads as a narrative biography of one man's life.