This year there were a number of books that simply came into my life at exactly the right moment. I love the magic that occurs when a book is able to find you at a point where its words speak in identifiably profound ways to your current situation. So I’m happy to share these recommendations with you and hope that some of them are the right fit for the moments that you’re living right now too. As usual, these are not necessarily books that were published in 2016, but ones that I read during the year and would like to pass on to you. This year, however, I did try to keep my list to relatively new books that have been published within the last year or two. Although I did read some classics this year for the first time like The Alchemist and Devil and The White City, I wanted to keep my list to newer books that maybe my readers haven’t had the chance to read yet or maybe haven’t even heard of yet.
1. Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
In addition to being my favorite book of the year, I also think that it is one of the most underrated books that has come out recently. It imagines a world, specifically a USA, where water has become so scarce that life hangs in the balance and people use the possession and trade of water to acquire and maintain power and control the population. The book follows a spy and a journalist whose paths collide through a roller coaster journey of murder, corruption, and the pursuit of the truth and justice. It paints a harrowing dystopian picture of the future that seems all too plausible considering what’s going on between droughts, wildfires, water sources threatened by pipeline leaks, and entire cities poisoned by shoddy infrastructure and corrupt politicians. I think that’s what made me really love this book, the fact that it seemed so far-fetched and at the same time, so frighteningly real. Once the writing hits its pace, the action tears through the narrative dragging the reader along with it on a thrilling ride to fit all of the pieces together to uncover who’s to blame. The byline for the book is, “someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink” and as a reader in the end you’re not sure whether you’ve been implicated or exploited but you know that you’ve been entertained and left to look at our most precious resource in a whole new way.
2. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
I downloaded this as an audiobook to listen to during my ride to Indianapolis where I spent a couple of months this fall. When I decided to download it, although I had read the summaries and was interested in the story, I had no idea that it was actually set in Indianapolis. The book asks one very big question, what if the Civil War never occurred? It’s set in modern day Indy, often referring to places around the city that I came to know well while I was there. The main character, Victor, is a former slave who made a deal with the government for his freedom in exchange for working as a secret agent to hunt down escaped slaves to return them to their owners in the southern states where slavery still exists. While following a runaway through the city, Victor uncovers many layers of government secrets that he, himself, has been unknowingly involved in. While following Victor on this journey the reader also is confronted with questions about our modern society, how we interact with one another, and how we each are complicit in the inequalities and injustices that undeniably exist. The story itself touches upon the sacrifices that we each make to become who we want to be and the consequences of those decisions. Normalization is also a theme as characters adjust to the reality that they live in.
3. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
This was the year that I officially fell in love with Roxane Gay as a writer, speaker, and consistently calm, but critical voice of current issues. I was exposed to her genius through some of the podcasts that I listen to, but once I found out that she’s actually of Haitian decent, I became an even bigger fan and looked into some of her previous writing. Although she’s more known for her writing on feminism, when she draws upon her own identity as Haitian and her immigrant family’s experience, she’s able to weave narratives that are incredibly engaging. In An Untamed State, she tells a fictional story about a Haitian American woman from an elite wealthy family who gets kidnapped and held for ransom while visiting Port-au-Prince. At first I was skeptical of the basis for this novel because I hate supporting anything that perpetuates the stereotype of Haiti as the kidnapping capitol of the world. But Gay handles the story with such a skilled voice and builds such intriguing characters, that the setting becomes less of a social commentary and more of a tool to approach issues of trauma, family, class and wealth, the limits and powers of love, and the feminine spirit. There’s a constant ebb and flow of the reader’s sympathies and frustrations towards the characters, forcing us to question our own assumptions of what we would do if we ourselves or one of our loved ones were ever in such a situation. It’s a book that’s devastating and difficult, but so good.
4. The Tusk that Did the Damage by Tania James
This book is told from multiple points of view, including an elephant named Gravedigger and the different humans that he comes in contact with for different reasons. And of all of the characters featured in the story, the elephant becomes the most relatable in many ways. As he fights for survival and revenge in the countryside of southern India we follow his journey on a tale of greed, resilience, and loyalty. Through all of this it manages to also be a gentle love story set against remarkable circumstances. While enjoying the story, I also learned an incredible amount about the ivory trade and it’s effects both on the animals who are it’s victims but the communities that are involved in it. But the true beauty in its craft is that it doesn’t come off as an informative documentation but rather a splendid story from a unique perspective that leaves you in reverence of the formidable creatures that teach you through their wisdom.
5. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
This book was written with one of the most unique voices of any book I’ve ever read. The protagonist and narrator of the novel looks at the world in a different way to say the least and leaves the reader scratching their head throughout but keeps you invested in his story nonetheless because you can’t wait to see what he says or does next. A black man, living in the ghetto of Los Angeles, he embarks on a mission leading to the Supreme Court, with the objective of reinstating slavery and segregation for a myriad of unbelievable and often hilarious circumstances dating back to his childhood and upbringing by a cooky sociologist father and his racially charged experiences that followed. The language in this book certainly isn’t for everybody and the writing style takes a little time to accept and ride along with. But once you adjust to those, the narrative itself proves to be so intriguing because through it’s humor and one-of-a-kind style, you almost forget all of the really heavy social and racial issues that you’re confronting with each page.
6.Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Another book told from multiple perspectives and following multiple characters until their stories converge, Homegoing is a deep, layered story of two half sisters tracing their histories from the source of the slave trade in West Africa through subsequent generations of their families to show how different each individual’s destiny may be despite where they come from. It pulls you along from character to character through the years tracing the branches out from the roots through slavery and exploitation on one side to wealth and a very different kind of exploitation on the other side. Rather than being just a story about slavery and racism, the ripples reach out to draw you into very human emotions through the personal and genuine treatment of each character you encounter. It’s an absolute study in storytelling while taking a very dark and complicated part of history and putting it in a new light through the skilled fiction craftmanship.
7. The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg
I read this book right after the election, and it proved to be just what I needed to escape all of the drama. A light-hearted, comical account of a group of elderly friends who become disenchanted with their lives at the retirement home and decide to bring some excitement into their lives by going on a crime spree of theft and fraud. The inspiration for their decision to enter the world of crime is based on the fact that they figure they’d be treated better in prison then they were treated in the old folks home. The characters are so well defined and so relatable that you find yourself visualizing them as people you know in real life based on their personalities and their individual quirks. It’s not earth-shattering, it’s not mind changing, it’s just fun. It’s Golden Girls meets Oceans Eleven and it’s a pure delight the whole way through.
8. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I questioned whether or not to include this on my list simply because it’s on all of the best books lists and has almost become a cliche symbol for white allyship to racial justice. It’s become a trophy for white people to prove how woke they are by whether or not they’ve read it. But the reason that it has reached that status is because it truly is a brilliant piece of writing taking a unique approach to racial issues. Its creativity in writing is what makes it so accessible to so many people and yet it attacks very important racial issues with gravity and sensitivity. Written as one extended letter from a father to his son this work tackles the tough questions of race in America in an intimate and provocative manner. It’s a survival guide to a young black man in a country and a world that make survival difficult for such youth. As a white man reading it, there are implications that are impossible to escape yet it’s written in a way to leave any reader room to agree with and understand the warnings that are so powerfully translated.
9. The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
I had purchased this book before I ever decided to foster parent an orphan child earlier this year, but didn’t start reading it until shortly after the child was in my custody. So although it follows a very different story of orphans in very different times and places, much of its underlying commentary was especially meaningful to me at the time. Through the unlikely friendship of a moody teenager in the foster system and a wealthy elderly woman, Vivian, we are exposed to the story of Vivian’s past when she was an Irish immigrant orphan who boarded a train on a dramatic journey towards finding a family and a home. Through the intersectional stories we’re taken on a journey where each person is searching for a place to belong and a loving place to land where they can be accepted as their true selves.
10. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
In recommending this book, I would also like to recommend that you treat yourself to the audiobook version of this one. Narrated by the author herself, her voice becomes such a peaceful, almost meditative presence that it lends a whole new layer of poignance to the book. The author’s own process of grief after her father’s death is married together with the science of training falcons in a breathtaking narrative that, on the outside, seems like what would be a discordant premise. But it is so fully integrated into the author’s personal story with such a magnificent written voice, that you as a ready become completely immersed in her world and will come out of wanting to go out and get a hawk of your own. It never for a moment reads like a science book nor does it depress you with the grief. It finds it strength in the discovery of victorious flight in traumatic times.
To Read in 2017
1. They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesly Lorey
2. Gentrifier by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill
3. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
4. The Nix by Nathan Hill
5. Pond by Claire Louise Bennet
Let me know what your favorite books were this year and which ones you think I should add to my bookshelf to read in 2017. If you’ve read any of these let me know what you thought. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. I wish all the best for my readers in the new year! May it be one filled with new discoveries, opportunities for laughing and learning, and more books that inspire us each to become more of who we were created to be. Peace, Love, and Light.