Ah yes, we’re in the thick of the year-end “best of” lists floating about the internet, but far be it from me to miss out on telling you what my favorites were this year. Are you in need of reading suggestions? Look no further.
I read oodles of great books this year, but when it came to writing this list, finding a Top 5 came quite easily. And guess what? All of these books are by women. In no particular order, let’s get to it.
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
I wanted to include this eBook-only novella, not only because it’s a great story, but because I like the idea of authors finding homes for their less-lengthy work.
Sleep Donation is set in the near future when an epidemic of fatal insomnia plagues America. A company called Slumber Corps collects “healthy sleep” from donors and uses it to cure the sleepless. For years, Trish Edgewater has worked for the company and telling the tale of her sister, Dori, who was one of the first people to die from the outbreak. During her work with the universal donor “Baby A,” she starts to question her work, and then a new strain of the insomnia throws everyone into crisis mode.
Russell has a lot going on here, and it’s extra surreal to read Sleep Donation before bed. The concept is science fiction, but the way in which it is written feels like this outbreak could be just around the corner. It’s like a dream you just can’t shake off — How much does your subconscious know? What is in our future?
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Though my list is in no particular order, Station Eleven is definitely the best book I read this year, and I’ve been suggesting it to everyone.
Also set in what feels like the not-too-distant future, we see actor Arthur Leander die onstage from a heart attack while performing in King Lear. By the end of the evening, civilization is about to be forever changed by a mutated version of avian flu that will eventually wipe out 90% of the world’s population.
Told through the point of view of several people somehow connected to Arthur, the story moves up to fifteen years in the future and and also to decades before his death. There are Shakespearean actors and musicians traveling through the new Great Lakes area settlements; there is a self-published comic book that brings comfort at just right time; there are no easy answers. Sifting through the tenuousness of memory, Mandel has written a beautiful, engrossing novel about art, humanity, and how our relationships with one another affect our whole lives. I loved it intensely and completely.
Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz
Earlier in the year, I reviewed Wendy C. Ortiz’s affecting memoir about her teenage relationship with an English teacher. Here’s an excerpt from that review:
What Wendy Ortiz’s writing does is startle me. It makes me want to at once confess and hide. Like fellow Future Tense author Chloe Caldwell, her writing makes me feel vulnerable within its truth. It’s difficult to say that I loved this memoir, for it’s like loving the most difficult parts of oneself. Yet, Excavation is indeed one of the best memoirs I’ve seen. I read along knowing that her relationship with Jeff was wrong, but I squirmed over knowing how similarly I would’ve acted in her situation. Everything I’ve read from Ortiz makes me want more, to keep poking at those wounds, to see how we both keep on living. If one must use that desire as a measure of a book’s success, then let it be so.
(By the way, if you’d like a chance to win an audiobook of Excavation, head on over to Glorified Love Letters and leave a comment.)
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Perhaps the runner-up for my favorite book of the year, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams gave me a lot to think about. She discusses pain — mental and physical — and how difficult it is for others to recognize what we might experience within that pain. The first and last essays are particularly affecting — the first being the title essay about her work as a medical actor, and the second, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Both deal with how women experience loss and mental anguish in such an honest way that I imagine this book has inspired new essays from other female writers.
Also at the back of the book is a “Works Consulted” list, which I always find interesting, particularly when those works listed include music. Jamison has a wide range of people, men and women, who informed this book, and the list on its own should jump-start anyone’s reading, especially for those who would like to further explore how emotions shape our relationships.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay has appeared in a shedload of year-end lists already, and with good reason. With two books out this year, her tenacity and skills are finally receiving their due. I could have just as easily put her essay collection, Bad Feminist, in this slot, except I have a confession: I don’t own it yet. True, I read many of the included essays as they originally appeared in various online outlets, but the book itself, I do not have.
An Untamed State is no poor substitute, let’s be clear. Gay’s novel about Mireille Duval Jameson, a woman kidnapped while visiting her family in Haiti, is an unflinching look at the effect violence (particularly sexual violence) has on a person. The difficult scenes between Mireille and her captors never feel exaggerated for dramatic effect, and her descent into numbness in order to survive is one of the best depictions I’ve ever read. This novel also deals in memory, pain, and interpersonal relationships, but it’s also about a Haitian-American’s feeling of disconnect with her native country. It’s an outstanding debut.
Readers, tell me: What are the best books you read this year?