As 2018 draws to a close, I want to share my annual list for my favorite reads of the year. While many were released this year, others have been on my list for a while and finally crossed my desk. Trust me, the stacks (both literal and figurative) are high.
Monster, Walter Dean Myers
The story (a teenager wrongfully accused of burglary) is told in a captivating way, but more captivating is the style in which the story unfolds on the page. The accused, Steve Harmon, is also a budding filmmaker. His court proceedings and time spent behind bars are conveyed through a combination of prose and screenplay. The visual experience of reading the book, and being drawn into the story, are equally interesting. A film version of Monster was released earlier this year on a small scale, and I’m badly hoping for a wider release this coming year- I can’t wait to see how this style translates onscreen.
When They Call You a Terrorist, Patrisse Khan-Cullors & asha bandele
I know we’re still undecided as a society if audiobooks count as reading. I have nothing meaningful to contribute to the debate. Carry it on amongst yourselves. But what I will say, is that this book was particularly arresting to hear in Khan-Cullors’ actual voice. When They Call You a Terrorist is not only an origin story of sorts for the Black Lives Matter movement that Khan-Cullors built along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, but also a deeply moving story about Khan-Cullors’ personal connections to the issues she would later fight for at the forefront of the movement. Would it have been powerful to read on the page? Most assuredly. But hearing it in her voice was, for me, a much appreciated—and, for many readers, much needed—additional connection to the difficult but essential issues that Black Lives Matter stands for.
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
I had the good fortune to get to see Jones speak about the book on its release day, and she mentioned having tremendous hesitance to give her book, An American Marriage, such a “big” title. She thought to books that had been called “great American novels,” and simply couldn’t see her work fitting in alongside those stories. But Jones’ book is that big. You’ll see it on a lot of “best of” lists this year, and it’s a wholly merited honor. As an aside, she shared openly that near the end of writing the book, she was prepared to quit, unable to see the end. I’ve felt that feeling many times, and I can’t tell you how comforting to know that a real writer (am I one of those?) felt the same way. I also can’t tell you how rewarding it is to read the final chapters, knowing how hard she worked to bring them to life.
I won’t share what the book is about here (I’d rather you found that out from its pages), but I will say that it is, in a few ways, a uniquely American story. Just go read it.
In the Company of Women, Grace Bonney
Let me be frank for a moment. The “inspiration and advice from entrepreneurs” genre is crowded with a lot of white dudes letting you know what is and isn’t possible. I don’t believe them to be incorrect or disingenuous (well, not all of them, anyway), but I am cognizant that my experiences will be different for a number of reasons. In a year where I intentionally focused my literary gaze away from their words, and more toward women, people of color, and other marginalized communities, this book was a heartwarming find. I got to read women talking about how they worried about money. I got to learn that others doubt their ability to be at once prolific and authentic. I got to see that people like me make things, and it’s hard, but they’re finding ways to make it work for them. These words and images matter when you know your path to success will look different- they inform, affirm, and encourage in a wholly different way.
Eloquent Rage, Brittney Cooper
The subtitle of this book is “A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower,” and I found myself feeling considerably more powerful by the time I reached the back cover. Part memoir, part essay collection, Cooper dives deeply into the ways in which she cultivated her particular brand of Black Feminism and how it impacts a wide range of experiences: a life in academia, friendships and romantic relationships, and religion, among other things. I always hesitate or cringe to call reads “important,” reserving the term for the most deserving texts. Irrespective of your own brand of feminism, Cooper’s book is an important read.
Everything is Horrible and Wonderful, Stephanie Wittels Wachs
Mourning celebrity death in the public space of social media has become such an odd phenomenon. While there are people whose influence and presence I will miss in my favorite art forms, it’s rare that I feel knocked over or compelled to gush openly about how a loss of someone I haven’t met has affected me. The most notable exception: writer and comedian Harris Wittels. The sudden death of a writer and producer most notably known for some of your favorite jokes on Parks and Recreation (and one half of a hilarious but ineffective Animal Control team) shook me deeply, and continues to. So it was comforting to learn more about him from his sister Stephanie’s funny and emotional memoir. Framing the final years of her brother’s life against the first few of her daughter’s, the book paints a picture of an effortlessly funny and loving creator whose demons got the better of him. Wachs’ use of time in the book is incredibly effective, providing a timeline of her grief in a raw, open, and rare way.
Just the Funny Parts, Nell Scovell
I gaze from afar at the world of television writing, loving the idea of dipping my toe into the world, but never really knowing how. This year, my interest in the idea peaked, and Scovell’s book came along at just the right time. The creator of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, and writer on dozens of other shows that made a mark on my comedic sensibilities (yes, including Newhart!) tells her story beautifully, smartly, and realistically- yes, she loves the work and the industry, but it is a hard place to operate as a woman. In recent years, Scovell has taken her comedic chops and funneled them into lobbying on behalf of women’s equity and freedom from harassment at work, proving that the jokes don’t always have to be at the expense of women to “land.” I don’t know how close to the world of TV writing I’ll eventually get- it may just end up being front row attendance at writer panels, as I’ve gotten to do a few times this year- but I do know I’ve never felt closer to being capable than while I read this book.
American Like Me, edited by America Ferrara
When I posted the cover of this book on Instagram, I mentioned how much I needed this book when I was younger, and how happy I am to have it now. As I write this, I’m sitting on a couch near my family’s home in Ghana, fully feeling as though it’s an odd fit. That feeling of being “between cultures,” never quite African enough among family who have spent a lifetime here, but never quite American either given our current political and social climate, is an awkward and at times isolating one. This anthology, comprised of 53 stories from people like me who have managed to reach the heights of their career aspirations despite that “odd fit” feeling, made my heart happy and a little more at ease. And trust me, I’m rarely at ease anywhere. My heart leapt to see contributions from people whose stories I know well (Roxane Gay, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Randall Park), as well as ones who I looked into further after seeing them here (Liza Koshy, Carmen Carrera). This is the perfect book for our time- for adults who may be reading this, yes, but also for the younger folks in your lives living in the “in between.” Share these stories with them early, so that they may know and understand that the in between can be a wonderful, rich, fulfilling place.
Maeve in America, Maeve Higgins
Maeve is riotously funny. I know this from her understated yet hilarious standup. I also knew she was a prolific writer. But it wasn’t until this book, my last read in the US of 2018, that I was able to see the two roles work in concert in this collection of essays. Higgins is an adept joke writer, but seeing those skills put to use to describe both the prospective sitcom she wants about parenting her nieces, and the worries she had about teaching comedy workshops in a war zone, demonstrated a side of her that I hadn’t yet seen. There are some particular passages from this book that will stick with me for quite a while: a YouTube clip she watches about Dustin Hoffman coming to an understanding of how he treats women by talking about his role in Tootsie, how having a funny family has helped her grow to understand that you can be funny without being a comedian, and a particularly evocative personification of depression. I’ve got a back catalog of Maeve’s to catch up on now, and there’s a good chance you’ll see at least one of those books on next year’s list.
I fell in love this year, and I got my heart broken this year. I can tell you as a book person, an introverted person, and as a Newly Emotional Person (oh, the things I cry at now that I wouldn’t have cried at before) that there are SO MANY BOOKS about the first thing, and NOT ENOUGH BOOKS about the second thing. Abbi’s book, chronicling a road trip she took in large part to heal the wounds of a recent and significant breakup, came along at just the right time. I got the book at a release event with Jacobson, learned in more detail what it was about, and said “not yet.” But over the past few days, the final days of this significant year, I finally came around to reading her story that in so many ways felt like mine. I love female comedic memoirs, and this will be near the top of the list for quite some time. Along with excellent essays on heartbreak, lists of things to worry about (extremely me), and time-stamped logs of racing thoughts while trying and failing to sleep (oh, EXTREMELY me), she shares illustrations of podcasts and albums that joined her along the way, artifacts from her travels, and much more. Part travel scrapbook, part self-exploration, this is a book I plan to come back to periodically. It came at the right time, but is likely to resurface many more times.