Last week we asked readers for topics, and Patty suggested “Best Book Ever Read.” A great idea, but way too hard! I mean, if I had to say the best book I ever read, I’d have to say A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, right? Or I could make an argument for Charlotte’s Web. Or maybe To Kill a Mockingbird. Little Women? Annie Dillard’s American Childhood or A Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. I could go on.
To make things a little easier, I thought we could narrow it down to our five favorite books of the last five years. To that end, I went through the notebook where I write down all of the books I’ve read. I can’t remember; do you keep a reading list? I started my first one years ago in a small, hardcover notebook that I’d thought I lost but recently stumbled across–hurrah! Anyway, it’s fascinating to go through the lists and see what books I remember, which ones I have no recollection of reading whatsoever, and which ones I’d be tempted to read again.
Now, even narrowing the list to five and changing the qualifier to “favorite” instead of “best” doesn’t make this an easy task. But when I look over my list, I’ve got five novels that definitely stand out as favorite books. I thought I would have a lot more nonfiction, since I’m so much pickier when it comes to fiction, but the fact is, when I love a novel, I LOVE a novel. I feel like it becomes part of my DNA.
So what follows is a list of five novels read in the last five years that stole my heart:
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. As a kid, I was a re-reader. If I loved a novel, I read it over and over. Nowadays, I don’t have that kind of time! For the most part, I’m one and done. The Great Believers is an exception to that rule. I read it twice in two years, and both times I fell hard for this story about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and two people whose lives are deeply affected by it.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at the age of 11, and not too long afterwards Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet.” In Hamnet, O’Farrell imagines Shakespeare’s first wife Anne (called Agnes in the book), her romance with the Bard and the family she raised as he rose in prominence as a playwright. I had no expectations going into this book and was gobsmacked by it in the best possible way.
Demon Copperfield by Barbara Kingsolver. When I heard that Demon Copperfield won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, I cheered. It took me three chapters to get into this re-imagining of David Copperfield (a novel I also loved), but once I was in, I was all in. As someone who has lived in Southern Appalachia and has many ties to that part of the country, this novel felt all too real to me. Demon is one of the great characters of our time–and maybe of all time.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. Here’s the publisher’s description: “Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland.” It is bleak and heartbreaking and absolutely stunning. Don’t read it if you’re looking for something uplifting; do read it if you want a book where you really want to care what happens to the people in it.
Winter Solstice by Rosamund Pilcher. Ultimate comfort read. I read it for the first time a few years ago, and now I try to re-read it (or at least part of it) every year. I love Pilcher’s down to earth, sensual characters. I love how much they love food and the comfort of everyday things (a warm fire after a walk in the cold, a cozy bed, a good dog). Winter’s Solstice is, of course, a story that takes place in December and takes us into the Christmas holiday. Bliss!
My quick list of favorite nonfiction from the last few years: Breaking Bread with the Dead by Alan Jacobs, The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, The Life We’re Looking For by Andy Crouch, Home Made: A Story of Grief, Groceries, Showing Up–and What We Make When We Make Dinner by Liz Hauckand, and Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr.
Okay, your turn!
Well, you picked a hard one this week! I too have a hard time picking a “favorite” of almost anything. But I can come up with lists of things I like a lot–just don’t as me to rank them!
I’m envious (but not surprised) that you keep a journal of the books you’ve read. What a great idea! Is it too late for me to start? I know some people (including Chloe) use Goodreads as an ongoing Read and TBR list, but it’s never stuck for me. Since I rarely read a hard copy book anymore, I ended up looking through my Libby history and my e-book purchases from Amazon. I came away realizing that I have a lot of books tucked deep into my Kindle that I still need to read!
First of all, I’m surprised that yours are all fiction! But I feel like I remember when you read each of these books and how much you loved each of them. When I started to think of books that have impacted my life, they tend to be non-fiction. I originally chalked that up to the fact that I read a lot of light-weight fiction (sorry/not sorry). But after looking through my lists from the last five years, it turns out I’ve read some quality fiction as well! I was able to cut myself some slack. I was glad to be reminded of a few favorite novels.
In no particular order here are my five:
The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung. Though I have yet to lose all the weight I want to lose, this book really opened my eyes to how the body really works, particularly blood sugar, insulin resistance, and the role of fasting in weight loss. I read this book three years ago and have been a dedicated intermittent faster ever since (as have you!). I experienced some initial weight loss, but maybe more importantly my blood sugar numbers have continued to drop each year. I’m so glad to finally understand how fat loss and fat storage work.
Atomic Habits by James Clear. I’m hardly the first one on this bandwagon–but James Clear has a way of taking the science of habit formation and breaking it down into its most accessible form. My main takeaway from this book is that small changes matter. I’m such an all-or-nothing personality. Sometimes this serves me well–like when I take on a new project and knock the whole thing out. But mostly it gets in the way of making small, consistent changes. And Atomic Habits is all about how small changes add up. And that’s a lesson that I need to keep hearing.
The Lazy Genius Way by Kendra Adachi. I listened to the Lazy Genius podcast for many years before Kendra wrote this book. First of all, I love her philosophy of “Be a genius about what matters and lazy about things that don’t”. She has many principles that I sort of already had in my own life, but she has given them names and really dives in on how they make your life easier. One favorite of mine is Decide Once. Make your life easier by deciding once on everything you can: your go-to gift for graduates or for weddings. Decide once on what you make when people come over for dinner. Even decide once on what you wear every Monday, just to take that day a little easier. Another favorite is to Decide What Matters. Most problems can be solved a million ways–you get to decide what matters. Is it cost, convenience, or quality–you decide–and it really narrows down your choices. It’s a book I re-read every once in a while and always take away something new.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I’m a little late to the party about Ann Patchett. She has been writing for a long time, but I only recently discovered her, and I’m still working my way through her books. I could have listed Bel Canto, The Dutch House, or Commonwealth just as easily as State of Wonder, but I have a reason for giving this book the edge. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic (another book I could have listed), she talks about how if you don’t respond when the Muse inspires you–the Muse will move on. She goes on to tell the story of how she had this idea to write a book that took place in the Amazon. I don’t remember all the specifics, but she never got around to writing it. Cut to her having dinner with Ann Patchett ten years later and asking Ann what she’s working on. Ann tells her that she is writing this book that takes place in the Amazon (State of Wonder). The book ideas were not identical, but very similar. The Muse had moved on. So, of course I had to read it. It’s about a doctor who travels to the Amazon to reconnect with her mentor on the progress she’s made on a new drug. What was supposed to be a short trip takes many unexpected turns. Patchett writes so beautifully that you just have to pause and appreciate the language sometimes.
Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. I never thought I could love a story about an octopus so much. This debut novel is such a touching story about an elderly woman coming to terms with what her life has dealt her and how she will live out her remaining years. As the night cleaning woman at a local aquarium, she forms an unlikely friendship with the Giant Pacific Octopus, Marcellus, when she realizes that he escapes his enclosure at night. This friendship leads to some life-changing consequences. An absolutely delightful read!
I’m immediately adding your list to my TBR list, except Winter Solstice of course, which I have read at least a dozen times. It’s my cozy comfort read every December–great choice.
Also, I’m looking forward to all the favorite books our readers tell us about!