Book Nerd Highlights in 2016

"Essay" #3 of the 52 Essays in 2017 Challenge. (Which, again, turned out to be more of a blog post, as opposed to an essay. Oh, well!)

Like all writers, I have always harbored a grand, sweeping love for books. I adored being read to as a child; as a tween, I read every Sweet Valley High and Baby-Sitter's Club book known to humankind; I discovered Stephen King in 6th grade and this changed everything; in high school, the only way that my mom and grandmother and sisters could convince me to come along on trips to Woodland Hills Mall in Tulsa was to promise a stopover at the nearby Barnes and Noble. (So many of my most memorable book-buying experiences took place at that particular B&N across the street from the mall. Right now, I'm remembering my rainbow-striped copy of Catcher in the Rye, when I was 15. How very Holden-like I felt, paging through my new book and brooding on a bench outside of Victoria's Secret.) 

In my adulthood, I read like a madwoman. It's hard for me to want to attend parties or go to bars when there are books to be read. 

I married a man who loves books, and we share our mutual love in an unabashed fashion: our small apartment could also very aptly be called a library; our nightstands tower with stacks of new material. We spend a lot of time silently reading in tandem, either in bed or on our couch or in separate rooms. 

Here were my favorite books of 2016. Not all these came out last year, but some of them did. Some of them made me want to be a better writer (and in the case of M Train, a better traveler); all of them made me want to be a better human.

1) The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson. The book that made me realize that, yes, the rumors are true, Maggie Nelson can do anything. 

2) A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara. When I read this, I holed up in my room, bawled into my sheets, and found myself caring so deeply for the characters that I dreamt about them most nights, could almost visualize them in front of me. Basically, the reading experience we all yearn for.

3) The Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits. I've been very into personal essay collections this past year; this book, though, made the personal essay genre something new to me. When I finished this, I wanted so badly to have written The Folded Clock that I unconsciously wrote like Julavits for a while. To be able to write so eloquently about The Bachelor, Maine, female friendships, yard sales...I was so inspired by this book.

4) The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli. I read this in fits and starts throughout Mexico City -- on a sun-dappled bench outside a cafe while drinking a tall glass of pulque, on rough patches of grass in Chapultepec park -- it was the perfect union of time, place, and art. (Luiselli is from Mexico City, and this is where most of the book takes place.) Apart from loving this insanely clever book, I realized how silly it is to travel anywhere without reading local literature.

5) Tenth of December, George Saunders. I can't really think about this short story collection without getting improbably emotional. Suffice it to say: When, as a writer, you can incite empathy in your readers for a character who chains her mentally unwell child to a tree in the yard, well...that's a feat in and of itself. 

6) The Pedestrians, Rachel Zucker. A combination of prose poem fragments and free-associative poems about motherhood, marriage, time, the burden of creating art while living with toddlers, mindfulness, sensory escape. I was so taken with Zucker's language.

I want to tell you that all the people who say

they love me are siphoning me feeding off me

not like they did when they were babies but

eating away at me

(I mean, it does not get any better than this.)

7) Night Film, Marisha Pessl. It's hard to overestimate the pure fun I had while reading this book. As an ardent fan of film noir, cheesy detective fiction, and Gothic horror, Night Film covered all my bases in the most delicious way possible. 

8) Commonwealth, Ann Patchett. I devoured this over Thanksgiving while camping in the Northwest Arkansas woods with my husband, and it was such a balm for my soul. If you, too, are an adult child of divorce and thus feel deep ambivalence mixed with dread at the thought of going home for the holidays, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. 

9) My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum. Ridiculously sharp, insightful, trenchant essays. Meghan Daum is awesome.

10) M Train, Patti Smith. Much like when I read Just Kids, while reading M Train, all I wanted to do was create -- something, anything. Often I would read it outside, with my journal in hand, and jot down thoughts while reading. M Train is also pure poetry, but most markedly, it made me want to travel better -- to investigate my own intentions for traveling; to figure out why I go places when I do.