I’m officially going to end my reading year with 134 books read. I’m currently in the middle of two books but there’s no way I’m finishing them today, so 134 it is! This is the most books I’ve read in a year, and I’m really curious to see if this is an anomaly or my new normal. (My best guess is that it’s an anomaly, a year when I had a lot of free time and devoted most of that free time to reading.)
Reading 134 books in a year means whittling that list down to my top 10 reads was a hard process! But, alas, I made it happen and I’m really satisfied with the list I have come up with. My number-one book of the year ended up being one of my last reads of 2018, so I’m really glad I snuck it in at the end!
10. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Faith and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
In this memoir, J.D. Vance tells us his life story of growing up poor in Appalachia and managing to escape the cycle of poverty to become a Yale-educated lawyer. As he tells his story, he explores ideas of upward mobility, poverty, and the forgotten lower class. I grew up poor myself and I could relate so much to the author’s words. It really helped me come to terms with my own upbringing and how the effects of it reverberate throughout my life even today. Hillbilly Elegy has gotten a lot of negative buzz – and rightly so, as he never fully addresses his privilege of being white and poor, which is a completely different experience to being black and poor – but I really loved this book. It’s heartfelt, well-written, and vulnerable. And it speaks to an experience that people talk about in broad terms, giving us more of an inside look of the day-to-day existence of living in poverty.
9. Home Front by Kristin Hannah
Home Front is a novel about military families and war and the sacrifices soldiers make for us. Joleen and Michael have been married for twelve years and have had two daughters together, but their marriage feels on borrowed time right now. And then, Joleen is unexpectedly deployed, throwing their whole family into a tailspin. Joleen has to cope with missing a full year of her daughters’ lives while also handling life in a war zone. Michael has to step up to play both the mother and father role for the family. It’s a book that could be frustrating at times because Michael was just so incredibly selfish and Joleen played the martyr a little too often, but it’s also a book that had me full-on sobbing while I was reading it and even when I finished it. I loved the perspective of a woman soldier and the perspective of a husband left back at the home front. There don’t seem to be a ton of books about this experience. This novel hit me right in the heartstrings and while I’ve always been thankful for the sacrifices soldiers make for us, there was something about seeing how it plays out in an ordinary (albeit fictional) family that made me really come to terms with what that sacrifice looks like on a daily basis.
8. Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
Dreamland Burning is a novel that weaves together a present-day story of Rowan, a seventeen-year-old girl who discovers a skeleton on her family’s property, and the story of Will who becomes entrenched in the Tulsa race riot of 1921. I had never even heard of the Tulsa riot before reading this story, and it was just completely horrific to realize, once again, how black people were othered again and again by white people. I was especially engaged with Will’s story because it was such a glimpse into what life was really like for black people in the 1920s and how they were discriminated against so much, just because of their skin color. This is a book that should be required reading, in my opinion, and I really encourage listening to the audiobook of this novel because it’s nearly movie-like in the way the story is told.
7. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
I finally read this much-beloved novel, written in 1943, for my yearly goal of reading four “classic” books. It’s a coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan, a sensitive and idealistic young woman who captured my heart from the get-go. It’s a pretty long book (my paperback version was almost 500 pages with tiny font), but that allows the reader to get truly seeped into Francie’s life. She lives in the slums of Williamsburg in New York, desperate for love, acceptance, and education, and we follow her life as she grows from a precocious little girl to a woman in her late teens. It’s a beautifully written book and one I’ve though often about this year, so it’s definitely a story that sticks with you.
6. One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid
In this novel, Taylor Jenkins Reid explores the idea of having one true love… or maybe we have multiple true loves throughout our lifetime. Emma is in her early twenties when she marries her high school sweetheart and they truly live life to the fullest together, traveling the world and never staying put for very long. But then, her husband goes missing after the helicopter he’s on disappears over the Pacific. It takes her years to come to terms with his probable death, and part of her coping strategy is to build a new life in her hometown. It’s there that she reunites with an old friend, Sam, and finds herself falling in love again – something she never thought was possible. She’s engaged to Sam when the news comes: her husband is alive. It’s an impossibly beautiful story and was so engrossing that I could barely put it down, finishing it in two days. It’s funny and lighthearted, but also intensely vulnerable and gut-wrenching. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a truly talented storyteller and I desperately need to read the rest of her backlist.
5. Beartown by Fredrick Backman
Beartown is a tiny town nestled deep in the forest, a struggling town that has pinned all its hopes and dreams on the junior ice hockey team. As the book begins, the team is readying themselves to compete in the national semi-final game, and it’s after this match that things reach a cataclysmic peak. Accusations are spit out, lines are drawn, and a town now has to grapple with the aftermath. It’s the kind of story that sneaks up on you, as the beginning half of the novel is slow and meandering. I wasn’t quite sure where the plot was going or why I needed to keep reading. But then the event happens and suddenly, I couldn’t read the book fast enough. It was heartbreaking and frustrating and way too real. Backman has written an incredible story in Beartown, and it’s one everyone should read.
4. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant might be my favorite character of 2018. Eleanor is a socially awkward woman who says exactly on her mind because she doesn’t know any other way to be. But it doesn’t make her very many friends, which is why she usually spends her entire weekends alone. And then she meets Raymond. Raymond works in IT at her company, but she’s not too keen on him and is pretty obvious to him that she doesn’t think they’re destined for friendship. But then, one night, Raymond and Eleanor end up saving an older gentleman named Sammy and this sets everything into motion. Eleanor begins to understand the meaning of friendship, of opening up, of letting people see you. It’s an utterly charming novel and now one of my go-to recommendations. (Just be warned: the novel doesn’t really pick up until at least 100 pages, but it’s so, so worth it to keep reading through the slower beginning. I promise!)
3. Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski
When I picked up this book, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be for me. For me, sex is a fraught subject starting with growing up as an evangelical Christian who was told over and over again that sex is only okay inside of heterosexual marriage. It made me look at sex as something taboo. This book, though, was life-changing. In this book, Dr. Nagoski takes readers through all of the research that has been done about women’s sexuality and what that means for women today. She talks about how pleasure differs for every woman (way more than it differs for men), how context is the most fundamental factor to every woman’s sexual wellbeing, and how every woman either has sensitive brakes or a sensitive accelerator when it comes to how they approach sex. She relates all of the research to a series of couples, based on real people she’s counseled, which really helps to put all of the research into context for how it works in the real world. For the first time ever, I feel empowered to understand my body better and what it needs to receive pleasure. I encourage any woman to read this book because it’s just important to understand how women’s sexuality works, no matter if you’re happy with your sex life or not.
2. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Oh, how I loved this romance. It was so sweet and it’s one I can see myself reading over and over again. The Kiss Quotient is about Stella, a thirty-year-old woman with Asperger’s who has just about zero experience in the romance department so she decides to hire a male escort to teach her the ways of kissing and sex. Michael is a tailor by day and a male escort by night, and he cannot afford to turn down Stella’s offer. Together, they work through all of the different “lessons” that Stella has outlined in the lesson plan she put together and… well, you know where it goes from there. It’s a romance, after all. I found myself rooting for Stella and Michael from the get-go, both of their characters were so well-developed, and the kindness Michael exuded for Stella melted my heart. It’s a very steamy romance, however, so it’s not for the faint of heart, but I truly enjoyed every single second I spent with this novel.
1. Becoming by Michelle Obama
In this memoir, former (but forever in my heart) First Lady Michelle Obama shares her story, starting with growing up in the south side of Chicago with a hardworking father, homemaker mother, and older brother and following through the eight years she spent as First Lady. Her life was never easy, but she persevered throughout it all to become the woman she is today. I teared up multiple times throughout the book, sometimes due to happiness (Barack’s proposal!) and sometimes due to sadness (like when she starts naming all of the black men killed by police in one year). Michelle offered us a unique glimpse into what it’s like to live in the White House, to have the expectations of FLOTUS, and to be married to a man like Barack. I listened to her memoir on audiobook, which she reads herself, and it was completely wonderful to spend 16 hours with Michelle in my ears. It’s easily my favorite book of the year and my favorite memoir of all-time, hands down.
See any favorites on this list? What was the best book you read this year?