Favorite Books of 2016

I know there are many people in the world who rarely read, which is probably one of the most depressing things to know about our society. I feel no shame in the time I spend daily reading or thinking about reading or discussing reading with my roommate.

In 2016, I read 92 books and plays, which is a personal record (I was determined to out-do my 2014 total of 91, so congratulations from me to myself). Unlike past years, I set a few goals at the beginning of the year other than reading a total of 52 books, which included reading works by specific people. By Thanksgiving, I’d accomplished all of those goals, so I’m upping the ante for 2017 (see my new reading list in a day or two if you’re curious about how nerdy/obsessive I can be).

Below, in the order I read them, is a list of my favorite books I read in 2016, followed by some honorable mentions. This list contains books both new and old, some of which have even achieved favorite status. You can consult my full 2016 reading list here.

What books did you love in 2016? Maybe I’ll add them to my shelf.

Brooklyn, Colm Toíbín

Both as a book and a film, Brooklyn has taken deep root in my soul. I adore this coming-of-age story (they tend to be my favorites anyway, but this one is especially great). The novel, which tells the story of a young Irish immigrant Eilis who moves to New York City to start a new life in the 1950s, is just as profound and beautiful as its Oscar-nominated film adaptation. This is a perfect book to enjoy on a cozy winter afternoon.

Collected Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay

I grabbed this book at a used bookstore to help fill out my reading list for my master’s comprehensive exams in the spring and was fortunate enough to love it as a piece of literature. I quickly became obsessed with Edna St. Vincent Millay herself (this girl was crazy progressive and hip in the 1920s) and her poetry doesn’t make me feel like an idiot as most poetry does. She’s witty, hilarious, and heartbreaking in equal parts.

‘Night, Mother, Marsha Norman

It’s strange that I only read ‘Night, Mother earlier this year because the story feels deeply engrained in me already. My mom has loved this play for a long time, and I finally understood why when I read it myself this spring. Norman’s play is sparse and simple but still incredibly profound. It’s impossible as a reader not to share the characters’ anxiety as the story progresses in real time toward a potential suicide. I can’t wait to share this play with my students this spring.

Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

This may come as a surprise to you, but I’m a fan of Hamilton (okay just kidding I haven’t listened to any other music in a year). Since annotating is one of my favorite pastimes, reading the annotated edition of the complete musical, accompanied by beautiful photographs and behind-the-scenes information, was a dream. Hamilton: The Revolution is a must-have for fans of the musical. Though it’s a little pricier than the Chernow biography upon which the show is based, it’s far less likely to sit untouched on your bookshelf.

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

My only prior encounters with Cheryl Strayed came from seeing the film adaptation of Wild  and reading a few nonfiction essays in a writing workshop, but after my roommate loved this one and gave it to me as a graduation gift, I too fell in love. I intended to bring this as my reading material on a long drive to Nebraska over the summer, but I got so into it I breezed through the entire book before our departure. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of Strayed’s Dear Sugar letters, a column she wrote for The Rumpus. Strayed clearly answers each person with deep thought and tenderness, but she isn’t afraid to answer with honesty. Each entry makes you feel understood and valued. I have a feeling this book will be one I continue to share with friends and family.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer

After solidifying my love for Amy Schumer in 2015, I of course had to read her memoir when it was released this summer. Schumer doesn’t disappoint in this book that is equally laugh-out-loud funny and sweetly sad. Though I read this book months ago, there are still stories here that I think of and laugh about often.

The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith

The Book of Other People is a collection of short stories written by several famous authors whose sole prompt was to create a character and write a story about them. As with many short story collections, the end result is a bit of a mixed bag, but the general feeling I had was a very pleasant one. When my roommate and I read this aloud together (now one of our favorite and cutest habits), we sometimes had difficulty stopping ourselves from reading indefinitely. Though many of the stories are great, see if you can get your hands on “Magda Mandela” by Hari Kunzru. It’s a quick read and you will not be disappointed.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

I haven’t even seen A Monster Calls yet but I’m already guessing this will be the #1 tearjerker of 2017. The book tells the story of a young English boy named Conor whose mother’s cancer is continually worsening. Conor is visited nightly by a tree monster, a clear manifestation of his frustration and grief as he watches his mother fade. This is a beautiful story about love and loss. Just maybe skip the eye makeup before reading.

Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

I’m very rarely a reader of mysteries, especially contemporary ones. However, once I saw the trailer for the upcoming HBO miniseries adaptation of this novel, I was too intrigued not to read it before the February air date. Who knew I’d be such a fan? The book rounds out at over 500 pages, but I couldn’t put it down in the 2 days I spent reading it. I think Moriarty does a great job of telling a dramatic story in a way that still feels authentic (something I’m a little worried about based on the footage from the miniseries). It was refreshing to see a story about women who come from various backgrounds, aren’t all about competition, and keep cattiness to a minimum. Though this was my first encounter with Moriarty, I’ve already purchased her latest book, Truly Madly Guilty, and look forward to enjoying it early next year.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

2016 was a year of Ann Patchett for me. I’d never read her previously, but my roommate and I read Bel Canto together in the fall and I became a fan. Though I generally try not to be too easily distracted by my book purchases, when I bought State of Wonder in October, I couldn’t resist starting it almost immediately. The story is clearly inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness, but differs in that it follows a woman sent to retrieve her female boss from the depths of the Amazon where she’s developing a fertility drug. Though I was—and still am—frustrated by the book’s conclusion, it features beautiful writing and some great twists that make for a worthwhile read.

The Penguin Arthur Miller

In my 92 books read this year, this one feels like the biggest accomplishment. In fact, it’s one book that contains 18—this is the complete canon of Arthur Miller’s dramatic works. Miller and I go way back at this point, but before 2016, I’d only read 3 of his plays. This edition isn’t exactly an easy one to travel with—note its comparative size to my cat in the featured photo—but now it has a stately position on my bookshelf made all the more grand by the fact that I’ve read all the words in it. Miller is an undeniable master of American drama, and I loved spending so much time with him this year. If you remember, think of him on February 10—the date not only of his death, but also the anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Death of a Salesman.

Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling

My general relationship with Mindy Kaling over the past month has gone from casual fan to actively seeking friendship (so, Mindy, if you’re reading, let’s hang out!). When I bought this book in the airport a few weeks ago, I was just looking to be mildly entertained on my journey home, but many times I was made to laugh aloud. Then I watched the entirety of The Mindy Project in just a few days, and I became even more enamored. Though it would be wrong to call Why Not Me? a page-turner, it’s still the kind of book you have a hard time putting down.

Honorable Mentions: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Voyager by Diana Gabaldon, At Fault by Kate Chopin, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy


2016 Reading List #14: Collected Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay

My name is Brenna and I’m kind of in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Okay, now that my newfound love has been professed, let’s talk about how great this collection isAfter finding this book at a discount store last December, I decided to add my new gal pal to my master’s oral exam reading list, and what a great decision that was.

I randomly picked (from some of her most popular sonnets) five poems to focus on, and after reading those and doing some research on the sonnets and Millay herself, I wasn’t satisfied to put her away just yet, so I proposed to my roommate that we read the collection together.

We finished the collection in basically 24 hours over the course of three sittings. Needless to say, we couldn’t really put the book down.

I’m the first to admit that I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to poetry–I do a lot of, “oh, that’s nice” and then move promptly along–but Millay spoke to me in a new way. I actually enjoyed reading this collection immensely, which isn’t something I’ve ever really thought about poetry before, especially poets from the 20th century.

If you don’t know much about Millay herself, do yourself a favor and go learn. She’s super cool and we should all aspire to be here.

And if you still need some convincing, here are some bits that might inspire you:

  • “I drink–and live–what has destroyed some men.”
  • “I am most faithless when I am most true.”
  • “Making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark, / Till I become accustomed to the dark.”
  • “I confess / I cannot swear I love you not at all.”
  • “So she came back into his house again / And watched beside his ben until he died, / Loving him not at all.”
  • “Thinking of men, what helpless things they were”
  • “Heart in my breast / ‘Tis half a year now since you broke in two; / The world’s forgotten well, if the world knew.”
  • “I dread no more the first white in my hair, / Or even age itself, the easy shoe, / The cane, the wrinkled hands, the special chair: / Time, doing this to me, may alter too / My sorrow, into something I can bear.”
  • “And lust is there, and nights not spent alone.”
  • “Yet here was one who had no need to die / To be remembered.”
  • “We could keep this planet warm / By friction, if the sun should fail.”

Here’s a list of my favorite sonnets in the collection. These are too good to just include a line or two, so go read them! 🙂

  • “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied”
  • “If I should learn, in some casual way”
  • “I think I should have loved you presently”
  • “I shall forget you presently, my dear”
  • “When you, that at this moment are to me”
  • “Love is not blind. I see with single eye”
  • “Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!”
  • “I, being born a woman and distressed”
  • “What my lips have kissed, and where, and why”
  • “To Jesus on His Birthday”
  • “Women have loved before as I love now”
  • “When we are old and these rejoicing veins”
  • “Love is not all: it is not meat or drink”
  • “Time, that is pleased to lengthen out the day”
  • “Even in the moment of our earliest kiss”
  • “Now by the path I climbed, I journey back”
  • “Alcestis to her husband, just before, with his tearful approbation, she dies in order that he may live.”

Book #7: Brother to Dragons, by Robert Penn Warren

I certainly didn’t expect to be writing again so quickly, but that just means I’m making more progress on my reading. I started Robert Penn Warren’s Brother to Dragons yesterday afternoon an just finished reading it moments ago. To be fair, it’s only 132 pages and an epic poem (though it’s stylistically written like a play). This made it easy to finish quickly.

That being said, the content of this book is not easy to swallow; in fact, I’m sure it’s going to take a while (and some in-class discussion) before I can fully form my opinion on it. The story is essentially nonfiction, telling the gruesome tale of Thomas Jefferson’s family in western Kentucky in 1811. Jefferson’s nephews were arrested for brutally killing a young slave, and Warren offers an introspective look at the characters involved in the murder.

The inside perspectives Warren offers are probably fictionalized, but they leave readers with a whole lot to think about, especially because he continually puts their situation into a much bigger scope of looking at humankind in general.

Needless to say, this is a pretty bleak story and one that I’ll be ruminating on for a while to come.

Book #65: Dead to the World, by Charlaine Harris

Dead to the World was essentially my last fun reading rendezvous before starting grad school (though, to be fair, I didn’t finish it until yesterday, a week into my semester). I didn’t enjoy the overarching plot of this novel as much as the two preceding books in the series, but it was still short and fun enough to keep me interested.

In fact, I felt the same way about the “True Blood” plot that covered this same story line. I guess something about the were-panthers seems a little ridiculous and unnecessary to me. However, this was also the book when Eric has lost his memory, which is one of my favorite plots on the show, probably because I think Alexander Skarsgard is really funny playing confused Eric. 

Now that school is officially back in session, I’m probably not going to make much headway in my personal reading projects, but I’ve started Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander on this long holiday weekend in the hopes that I’ll be able to make some progress in it before dealing with my assigned readings. I’ve really enjoyed the Starz TV adaptation of Gabaldon’s series so far, so I’m hopeful that I like the books as well. 

Now, I’m off to start my first real reading assignment of the semester: Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Wish me luck!