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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

Cursed Child

2016 Reading Lis #46: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Perhaps the quickest version of this post is to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child left me feeling… conflicted.

But I can’t really just leave it there.

In anticipation of Cursed Child, my feelings waffled between trying to limit my expectations and really, really wanting to like it. And I did like it. But I didn’t love it. At all.

Here’s my biggest problem: in the scope of all things Harry Potter, nothing can match the magic of the original series. Though I preordered my copy of the play months ago from Amazon, I paid a visit to the local Barnes & Noble midnight release party because I so enjoyed them years ago. None of this experience could be the same. The anticipation I felt was more anxiety than excitement this time around. I didn’t want to read something that would mess with a perfect series.

And Cursed Child doesn’t really mess with the original series, at least in my opinion. Because I see the original seven books as sacred, I refuse to allow something new (that wasn’t even really written by J.K. Rowling) to affect that world. Cursed Child is fine—likable, funny, sweet, somber—but it’s a mere shadow of the original works.

There are many reasons for this, I think, apart from Rowling’s limited input. First, jumping from a set of long and detailed novels to a two-part play is a big leap. The play is comprised of lots and lots of minuscule scenes, and by the end it felt like a Shondaland TV show to me—every scene break had a dramatic cliffhanger that kept the pace moving ever-forward. There’s no time to live in the show’s moments, especially when the expanse of the play crosses decades of time.

Though I might feel different seeing the stage production rather than just reading it, I also felt like the magic was heavy-handed. I’m curious to know how so many of these effects are done (the play contains Polyjuicing, dementors, Time Turning, underwater stunts, Transfiguration, etc.), but it reads like someone trying to cram in as many oohs-and-ahhs as possible before the curtain falls. At its core, Cursed Child is meant to be about the difficulties Harry faces with his son, so I’d have preferred a much simpler play to tell an intimate story.

In fact, the way this difficult relationship is pushed forward is through an odd and complicated overarching plot that I found really unnecessary. For one, when we came to know Voldemort as a villain over the course of seven novels, trying to introduce and conquer a new villain in one play seems doomed to fail. And without giving anything away, I personally predicted the villain and their connection to the characters from early on. The “big reveal” isn’t exactly on par with, say, the revelations of “The Prince’s Tale.”

And speaking of the Half-Blood Prince… I may have been most disappointed by the Snape and Dumbledore cameos (done in alternate reality and via portrait, so no one is resurrected or something equally strange). Though these are two characters I love dearly, they both had beautiful final scenes in the original series, and neither of them felt at all authentic to me in the play. Their individual dialogue was clearly an imitation of the real thing, and I wish they’d remained in the past where their stories belong.

Finally, on that same note, it’s very touchy to revisit such beloved characters and try to make them what readers know them to be already. Harry felt most true in the first scenes of the play, which are just lifted from the Deathly Hallows epilogue, but otherwise, he’s a big drag and kind of bad father. Ron is a caricature of himself—sure, Ron’s always been the most light-hearted of the trio, but he’s also got substance—and Hermione is a leader without having the characteristic bossiness that makes her so endearing.

Okay, I want to stop complaining to talk a bit about the good. The Albus/Scorpius dynamic is very sweet, and I’m glad no one tried to turn it into a second-generation version of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I was very happy to see several young people—people who would’ve been too young to be original Harry Potter readers—quickly walking to the shelves when I went to a bookstore yesterday. I’m glad to know a young generation might be getting excited about the theatre and seeing that very real magic happening live.

In the end, though, I’m much more excited about the prospect of the Fantastic Beasts film adaptations for two reasons. First, J.K. Rowling really wrote the screenplay and I’d trust her with anything, and second, though we’re staying in the Wizarding World, we’ll be meeting an entirely new crop of characters and can’t be disappointed by recreations of people we already know and love.

In 2011, when the final film in the series was released, J.K. Rowling said Hogwarts will always be there to welcome us home. She’s right. But for now, I think I’ll stick to those perfect books she gave us nearly a decade ago.

The Creation of the World and Other Business

2016 Reading List #45: The Creation of the World and Other Business, by Arthur Miller

As I said it my last post, I broke my pattern of reading Miller’s collected plays in threes to add this fourth selection because I was curious about it. The Creation of the World and Other Business is a modernized telling of the events in the Garden of Eden, and I couldn’t really ignore the chance to see how Miller would tell the story.

It wasn’t my favorite play ever, but it was fun to see Miller do something that veers closer to comedy than many of his other works. Seeing God, Adam, and Eve talk in very contemporary ways is jarring and enjoyable, though I’m not really sure I understand what Miller hoped to accomplish with this play.

Ah, well. Onto the next one, I suppose!

The Price

2016 Reading List #44: The Price, by Arthur Miller

Something I’m learning from having read nine of Arthur Miller’s plays this year: if you run into a play about two brothers with an unsettled familial past, you can pretty much bet who the author is.

The Price is another simple work by Miller, featuring only four characters and a single set. The action follows a middle-aged man who’s brought an appraiser to buy the remaining possessions of his parents, who lost their fortune during the Depression, before their home is demolished. When the protagonist’s long-absent older brother suddenly returns for the appraisal, unresolved conflicts quickly emerge.

The Price is likely a lesser-known of Miller’s works because it has many of his classic elements without being particularly groundbreaking. If you’re looking for this brother-to-brother dynamic, why go any further than the American classic that is Death of a Salesman? There’s nothing wrong with this play, it just lacks the emotional punch present in Miller’s most famous and beloved works.

Though I’ve been reading Miller’s plays in threes and this would mark the end of my latest trilogy, I’m going to knock one more out before moving on to something else because I’m curious about it. Stay tuned to see my reaction to The Creation of the World and Other Business.

A View from the Bridge

2016 Reading List #32: A View From the Bridge, by Arthur Miller

I guess I’m unofficially reading Miller’s plays in threes.

I’m now 6 plays into his collected total of 18, and most of the “greatest hits” are those I’ve read thus far. A View From the Bridge is a play I’ve only known because the title is familiar, so I was glad to delve in.

Though it wasn’t intentional, I finished the play in 2 sittings, largely because I found the story quite compelling (and unsettling). A View From the Bridge is notably different from many of Miller’s other works because it features a narrator talking for the perspective of someone who knows the course of events in the story, so he warns readers of the turmoil to follow.

The play centers on a working class family in Brooklyn who harbor their Italian relatives as illegal immigrants. Eddie Carbone, the leading man, is very protective of his 18-year-old niece, Catherine, who starts to fall for one of the men staying with them. Miller’s ability to portray generational family tension is on full display here, particularly as questions of love and loyalty arise. The play’s sordid story kept me engaged from start to tragic finish.

Another bit of intrigue with this play is that the most recent adaptation just won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play at last weekend’s ceremony, and I’m very interested in the production. Luckily, the National Theatre’s broadcast of the play will be available sometime later this year, so I’ll do my best to see it.

Now that I’ve knocked out another 3 plays, I’m turning to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles to conquer another thing on my goals for the year. Happy reading!

The Crucible

2016 Reading List #31: The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

This marked my third time reading Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible, but I was no less struck by its weight this time than during any of my previous reading experiences.

The Crucible is largely famous because Miller used its setting during the Salem witch trials to parallel his feelings about the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare. The thing I find most striking about the play is Miller’s ability to make the tension and frustration so palpable. Though I know what the expect of the plot, I am equally enraged by it on every reading, which I think speaks to Miller’s mastery as a playwright.

Since I’m slowly making my way through Arthur Miller’s collected plays this year, I was especially struck to see the thematic similarities between The Crucible and An Enemy of the People, Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s work that chronologically precedes The Crucible. Both plays take on the importance of truth in the face of an antagonistic community. Miller really knows how to tap into the power of a fearful community, particularly when they choose to point the finger at a common enemy.

My life lately

It feels like years since I’ve updated, but part of that comes from the timing of the semester. Three weeks ago today, I defended my master’s thesis project (and passed!), though it somehow feels like that was really decades ago. Apart from some final copy editing, my thesis is DONE! I’m both thrilled and a little sad to say goodbye to this project. I have a strong sense I’ll return to it in the future (dare I say dissertation?), but I’m quite content to both physically and metaphorically put it on the shelf for now.

Since preparing for my defense and rigorously studying for my oral exam are no longer activities that occupy my days and nights, my time has felt suspiciously free. As a present to myself for my defense, I ordered Voyager, the third book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series, which was really the perfect treat to come home to. Reading for fun without feeling any guilt is one of the most wonderful feelings.

I’m also entering the final weeks of my first semester of teaching, though that seems ridiculous. Somehow I feel like the semester has just started, when in fact we’re three weeks from its conclusion. I will certainly be sad to see my first crop of students go (though I can’t say every moment of teaching and prepping are all that joyous).

So, to atone for being M.I.A. for a month, here’s my update of the pop culture I’m consuming these days. No one ever said being a teacher meant you couldn’t still enjoy copious amounts of television (and I think I’ve proven that).

Books — As mentioned above, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Voyager–though, at 870 pages, it isn’t what you’d call a quick read. I’m only now closing in on the halfway point in the book, but knowing that there are still several other books in the series to dive into means I’m hungry to keep going.

Before starting Voyager, I’d been reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, though starting a new book meant I sort of abandoned this one until finishing it last weekend. This was the third Steinbeck I’ve read (after Of Mice and Men in 2014 and The Grapes of Wrath in 2015) and very tonally different from the others–Cannery Row is a very place-oriented, descriptive novel, not a plotty one. It wasn’t my favorite, but it’s a book I see myself returning to later in life.

I’ve generally felt like I’ve been slacking on my 2016 reading list, though I’ve still read 22 books thus far this year. Depending on my pace with Voyager, I may work through another Arthur Miller play or something of that sort to speed up a bit and feel like I’m making better progress. I’ve also got Hamilton: The Revolution (also known as the Hamiltome) waiting on me at home. Though I’m regretting the decision to have it shipped there since I won’t see it until next weekend, the distance means I’m not diving straight into another book, so that’s probably a good thing.

Movies — My movie-watching pace has also slowed considerably (though I’ve currently seen 41 new-to-me movies this year, so I really shouldn’t be complaining). I’ve not seen anything very noteworthy either, though I did watch The Danish Girl last weekend. I liked it, but it makes sense to me that it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. I’ll likely be spending a quiet weekend in, so this might be a good time to knock a few things off my Netflix and Amazon viewing lists.

Television — It would be fair to say that my movie-watching has been hindered by my TV-watching, because I’ve been doing more than my fair share. As far as current programming goes, I’ve been keeping up with Bob’s Burgers, The Last Man on Earth, Call the Midwife, Girls, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bates Motel, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Broad City, and Outlander (and, because I’m kind of an old woman, even Dancing with the Stars and Survivor). Since Girls, Broad City, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend all come to an end this week, my schedule will be a bit freer (though they’ll be replaced next week by Game of Thrones and Veep, so I guess things aren’t changing that much).

As for all these shows… I think The People vs. O.J. Simpson was a really terrific season of TV all around. I smell a well-deserved Emmy in Sarah Paulson’s future (though my ideal situation would feature a tie between Paulson and Kirsten Dunst) and hopefully the same treatment for the stellar Sterling K. Brown. I think Bates Motel is the best it’s been since season 1, and I kind of love the romance between Norma and Alex. I don’t think this is Broad City‘s best season, but there have been a couple standout episodes, including last week’s wonderful Mrs. Doubtfire homage. And OUTLANDER! There’s only been one episode so far in season 2, but I’m enthralled. I’ve rewatched bits of season 1 and can’t seem to get enough of this show lately, so I’m quite happy for its return.

Apart from what’s currently airing, I’ve also done a significant amount of side watching, including lots of Game of Thrones prep. This week I watched the Starz ballet miniseries Flesh and Bone, which was only okay. Lots of pretty dancing, melodramatic storylines, and mediocre acting. And just today (because I’m kind of terrible) I watched all of season 2 of Amazon’s Catastrophe, which I find very charming. Having met these characters last summer in a quick-moving first season, I was glad to see that season 2 developed them further into funny and likeable people (not to say they weren’t that way already). I’ve also watched the pilot episode of the new Starz series The Girlfriend Experience, which I think I’ll stick to since it’s getting good reviews. I didn’t have any particularly strong reactions to the pilot, but I’ll stick it out. And tomorrow’s release of season 2 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix means my weekend will be just a little brighter (in a fairly literal way, considering Kimmy’s costuming).

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In summary, I’ve been watching a lot of TV–though I swear I do other things too. What things are you reading and watching? I’m always up for additions to my ever-growing lists! 🙂