What it’s about: The author’s refugee experience escaping the Rwandan genocide and the years she spent traveling from one camp to another before immigrating to the US.
What made me pick it up: It was really well reviewed.
My favorite parts: Wamariya escapes at such a young age she almost doesn’t understand death and war and why they are walking and not stopping. She yearns her whole life to go back to her family, as it was, even as she reconnects with them. It is heartbreaking, both reading of the little girl who does not comprehend and as the adult who cannot stop grieving all that is lost. I so admire her indomitable spirit and the unbreakable will of her older sister who helped her survive through multiple countries and camps. Wamariya examines the many ways to move past trauma, especially that caused by civil war and genocide, with no easy answers only her personal truth and what she sees others attempting as well. If you are American you will feel shame for the atrocities we ignored in 1994 and the ongoing ones we continue to ignore worldwide. You will also be immensely grateful for all you have lucked into based on the geography of your birth. Mostly, you will want to help refugees any way you can.
Who it’s great for: Readers who want to learn more about the unending trauma of war.
What it’s about: Memoirist Corrigan uses anecdotes to impart lessons about hard things she’s learning to say.
What made me pick it up: I had listened to her on Jen Hatmaker’s For The Love podcast, and she was irreverent and funny and I wanted to learn/hear more (since she reads the audio).
My favorite parts: This reminded me strongly of The Bright Hour, if it was instead written by a grieving friend. She tells stories about the most ordinary parts of her life – fights with her spouse, disappointing her parents, reckless youthful activities – and you feel like you are having coffee with your bestie. But that’s the gem that is her writing, these tiny parts of each day and each life make up the beautiful whole. It was a great reminder that we’re all trying and if we aren’t perfectly good that doesn’t make us bad and losing people is hard, full stop. Bonus points: It’s also short and has a great cover.
Who it’s great for: Anyone who likes stories with humor and heart.
What it’s about: How an awkward late bloomer overcomes her anxiety. Or at least tries to.
What made me pick it up: If there is one thing I love it’s other people’s late bloomer stories. As someone who feels like they got a late start on this blooming process I like to meet the other members of the club and see the ways in which they blossom.
My favorite parts: Her voice. She’s honest and funny at the same time, which is necessary given she’s talking about some big topics of mental and personal health. Also if you find yourself employing “defensive pessimism” to manage your anxiety you’ll find a kindred spirit in her tiny triumphs, big attempts, and catastrophic outcomes. Life is scary and hard. Let’s employ all our tools so our brains don’t hijack it and make it MUCHWORSE. To see a good example: pick up this book.
Who it’s great for: Anyone who wants to step outside their comfort zone, even vicariously. Anxious ones. Readers who feel like they aren’t yet at peak bloom when the world expects them to be.
What it’s about: A woman who started a business while still in college and how she learned to be a successful leader through a series of failures.
What made me pick it up: The title.
My favorite parts: I really enjoyed the candor of the author while recounting her less than perfect moments. She was highly relatable and made an entrepreneurial path seem attainable if you were willing to work hard and define your values. I especially was drawn to the concept of company culture and how important it was to know what it was and support it at all costs. More workplaces should follow suit. This is a quick read but enjoyable, almost like sitting down with a friend to hear what she’s up to. If you’re wondering how to be a better leader or work the kinks out of your org pick this up.
Who it’s great for: Anyone who wants to be a better leader or wants to work the kinks out of their business. Readers who want to start a business and need inspiration to get started. Erica’s rating:
What’s it about: A child’s account of surviving and escaping the ongoing war in Syria.
What made me pick it up: Bana Alabed’s pleas for peace and assistance reached the world through Twitter, but I knew her book would tell a more complete story.
My favorite things: Bana’s clear voice is heartwrenching, a reminder to care for refugees. Her mother, Fatemah, includes essays written for Bana, explaining her point of view and her experiences. Their words in concert with each other serve to humanize the numbers and news reports and give a personal story to the images of Syrian children that have circulated widely.
Who it’s great for: Adults and teens trying to understand the war in Syria. Readers who to understand what the day to day struggle is like in the Syrian Civil War, and those wanting to build empathy for refugees.
What it’s about: The author’s experience dying from stage 4, metastatic breast cancer.
What made me pick it up: I loved When Breath Becomes Air, and then I saw this story about how his widow and the widower of this author met and fell in love. It’s so bittersweet and unexpected I had to pick up this book.
My favorite parts: This is like an evening with your best friend and a couple bottles of wine. You want to keep chatting, even though what you’re chatting about is her terminal diagnosis and how she deals with it. It’s hopeful and exquisitely painful. It will make you want to solve breast cancer once and for all and hug your loved ones close the next time you can, every time you can. And you will grieve for this newfound friend that is already lost to you. I am still crying over the sweet sadness of this memoir.
Who it’s great for: Lovers of excellent memoirs, especially fans of When Breath Becomes Air. Anyone who is losing or has lost someone from a terminal illness.
What’s it about: A personal memoir of surviving and recovering from an eating disorder and abuse.
What made me pick it up: I love graphic memoirs and find they are a great medium for exploring personal traumas
My favorite things: Green is achingly honest and relatable. Her art is both lovely and despondent. She sheds light on the reality that eating disorders are about more than food and that not all are textbook cases.
Who it’s great for: Readers struggling to understand mental illness in someone they love.
I read a lot of books this year and enjoyed many of them. It’s hard to choose favorites, so I narrowed it down to only those books that were released during 2017. These books all received five out of five shells in my reviews.
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia is an incredible author whose middle-grade fiction always handles difficult subjects with ease and gentleness. Her newest release is no different. I loved going on an adventure with Clayton as he discovered truths about himself and his family through the power of music.
Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley
I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me at the beginning of the year that a book about yoga would make my best-of list, but here we are! Beyond just making yoga more accessible, the biggest take away from this book is that no matter who you are and what your physical limitations may be, your body and mind deserve to be nourished and prioritized.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
This was one of my most anticipated reads for the year and it exceeded all of my expectations. I still feel it in my chest when I reflect on the experiences Roxane Gay shares in this heartbreaking memoir.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This book deserves every ounce of praise that it’s received this year. It’s a stunning YA debut about police violence and the movement for black lives. You definitely need to pick it up if you haven’t already read it. Do it!
What it’s about: Think Winter’s Bone meets a politician’s pre-campaign book release and that’s pretty much what you’ve got.
What made me pick it up: Let me start by saying that I’m not from Appalachia, but I grew up in a much more economically stable (read: college town) community nearby. Growing up I was acutely aware that there was a sharp economic and cultural divide between families associated with the university and those from working-class backgrounds that had been around for generations. That is to say that I am not from the community Vance is discussing, but I have lived most of my life in close proximity to another part of Appalachia and have been consistently disappointed with the way it is represented and talked down to by people who want to ‘save’ it. When I saw the rave reviews for Hillbilly Elegy I was excited to read a voice from within Appalachia speaking about it.
My favorite things: Okaaaay. I did not love this book. I probably should have read reviews a bit more closely, but I wasn’t prepared for this book to be quite so politically charged as it is. Maybe I read it this way because I am inclined to disagree with nearly all of his conclusions, but it seems to me that Vance has incredibly little compassion for the members of a community he professes to love. Vance spends the first chunk of the book singing the praises of his hillbilly Mamaw and Papaw and then subtly, and perhaps not intentionally, turns toward a much more critical discussion of the challenges faced by these communities. What I am struggling with the most is that this book is being read and celebrated as universally true for people from Appalachian communities when it is definitely not. Vance’s Appalachia is comprised of people who would rather talk about working hard than actually work hard, suffer addiction due to poor choices, and are – apparently – all white.
Abby recommends: Look, everybody seems to be reading this book right now and many are taking it as a universal truth for Appalachian life and poverty. So, definitely read this, but then read bell hooks’ poetry in Appalachian Elegy.
What it’s about: Roxane Gay reflects on her life in her body. She explores struggles with size, eating disorders, assault, and what it’s like to exist in a world that wasn’t designed to accommodate your body.
What made me pick it up: I love Roxane Gay’s work and I thought this book sounded important.
My favorite things: Take a deep breath before you dive into this because it is deep, raw, and painfully honest. She doesn’t shy away from details of her assault or the ways she thinks of her assailant to this day. She even takes the time to explain why she’s more comfortable identifying as a victim of sexual violence rather than as a survivor – without condemning or questioning those who do identify as survivors. The courage and openness throughout Hunger is consistently inspiring.
Who it’s great for: Fans of Roxane Gay’s other work. Memoir readers looking for something heavy to dig into.