It’s that time of year, readers — when I sift back through the books I read and figure out what my top ten absolute favorite reads were. This year’s books were taut and suspenseful; sensitive, dreamy, and philosophical; freewheeling and experimental; and always riveting. They vary widely in their subject matter, their setting, and their central conflicts, but they all have tremendous writing and wildly fascinating characters at their heart. They weren’t all published in this year, but many are surprisingly contemporary. So if you’re looking for what to read next, don’t miss my complete list. In no particular order, here they are:
FOURTH OF JULY CREEK, Smith Henderson
In rural 1970’s Montana, a beleaguered social worker discovers a nearly feral boy living in the woods with his father. They’re right-wing political extremists living on the edge of civilization; the father, fearful and paranoid, obsessed with the gold standard, could be very dangerous. But his devotion to his son is absolute.
DEPT. OF SPECULATION, Jenny Offill
In a series of short, powerful statements separated on each page, Offill captures the difficulty of women artists’ lives in searing clarity. She depicts a woman novelist struggling to write her second book (not too far off from the reality), fighting to balance domestic life with the fierce freedom required of an artist. This book captures deep truths about the lives of modern women and the sacrifices artists must make.
THE FARM, Tom Rob Smith
You receive a call from your father, retired to rural Sweden, telling you that your mother has gone insane. Don’t listen to a thing she says, he tells you. She’s escaped from a hospital and she’s convinced that I’m a threat to her. Minutes later, you receive a call from your mother. Don’t listen to anything your father says, she tells you. He’s trying to kill me. He’s gone insane. Who do you trust? And how do you start to unravel the tangled knot of story about what went wrong in Sweden?
NIGHT, Elie Wiesel
A devastating masterpiece of Holocaust memoir, Wiesel’s first book captures the agony of being a prisoner of Auschwitz as a young man with his father. Every day is a life or death decision; every day is a terrible moral compromise; every day is another small miracle of survival. Wiesel is absolutely unflinching in his descriptions, and does not take any easy way out by offering some kind of redemptive ending. Suffering in its brutal clarity is all.
OUTLINE, Rachel Cusk
This one is truly unusual: a series of conversations with our narrator, a divorced woman taking a brief trip to a small Greek island. On the plane, in restaurants, with friends, she encounters strangers and students and listens to their stories almost entirely without comment. The stories are strange, sometimes horrifying, sometimes verging on madness, but always fascinating.
OPEN CITY, Teju Cole
In another novel about conversations, a young Nigerian immigrant wanders the streets of New York, encountering friends and strangers alike and debating the large and small questions of modern life. What does it mean to be an immigrant? To be black? To be Muslim? How do we shape our identities? What is important in the relations between men and women? And what secrets is our narrator hiding from us? The final revelations will change your whole view of the novel that came before.
THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Richard Flanagan
Another truly devastating portrait of suffering during World War II appears in Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s epic, named after the Japanese poetry epic by a medieval Zen monk. Flanagan, whose father was a POW of the Japanese during the war and was forced to build the railroad depicted in The Bridge on the River Kwai, doesn’t shy away from the absolutely horrifying conditions. His characters are slave laborers working ceaselessly on almost no food in a wet jungle environment that led to horrible infections, gangrene, and worse. Yet Flanagan is also bold enough to humanize the Japanese captors and show how they, too, are prisoners of a cycle of brutal adherence to an oppressive regime.
AMERICANAH, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
In this often funny, often cutting novel, Adichie depicts a Nigerian woman’s journey to America and all the strange aspects of American society that she is able to recognize as an outsider. Her character starts a blog that explores controversial ideas about American views of blackness and foreignness, as well as the tremendous discomfort and guilt that often well-meaning white people experience and dodge around. A breezy, swift read with a tender love story at its heart.
NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS, Kirstin Valdez Quade
My favorite short story collection of the year, Quade’s debut collection is sharp, vivid, and full of surprising revelations. The sharp, cutting story “Nemecia” depicts a Mexican-American family growing up with a niece who has witnessed a brutal murder. Other stories weave Latina/o culture in and out of American culture, showing outsiders and insiders struggling to climb into their version of the American Dream.
GOLD FAME CITRUS, Claire Vaye Watkins
In a semi-apocalyptic future, global warming has turned all of California into a massive desert. Our narrator, a young woman and former child model, is struggling to become a survivor in this world of brutal and exacting realities, but has a tendency to seek help under the protective — and sometimes oppressive — wing of the nearest man. At the same time, she’s picked up an abandoned baby and is trying to become a mother figure. This dystopian novel steps above other dystopia by being about transformation, devotion, and the limitations of our own identities.