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.
What it’s about: A graphic memoir exploring love, art, loss, memory, and mortality.
What made me pick it up: I can’t seem to pass up a graphic memoir.
My favorite things: Radtke’s art is done in a simple grayscale that perfectly complements her story. I loved the way she tied together her own restlessness with an examination of mortality. The way she chronicles her own loss and grief through a growing fascination with deserted towns is honest and compelling.
Who it’s great for: Readers looking for an engaging exploration of mortality and meaning. Fan’s of artists’ memoirs.
Originally published in: original 2007, in translation 2017
What it’s about: A graphic memoir chronicling relationships and family dysfunction, love and heartache.
What made me pick it up: I gravitated toward it the moment it showed up on our cart of new books – the bleak cover art was immediately compelling to me.
My favorite things: The art, the art! Written over the course of twelve years, the art varies in style and medium and still somehow fits together to paint a portrait of a life through time. Complexities and heartaches of real life, honest about flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes. I love the use of handwriting rather than a font for an even more expressive read.
Who it’s great for: Readers looking for an emotionally engaging exploration of family and relationships.
What it’s about: A chronically drunk punk in his late twenties goes on a quest to eat every pizza in Manhattan and blog about it. His love for New York deepens and he finds meaning for himself and reasons to sober up along the way.
What made me pick it up: Erica left this on my desk for me because I talk about eating pizza a lot.
My favorite things: Okay look, I didn’t grow up in New York so I don’t think that they have the greatest pizza on Earth, but at some points he almost had me convinced. Hagendorf strikes a good balance between backstory, pizza reviews, and the Harvesting experience. He’s self-deprecating but fun.
Who it’s great for: Fans of food memoirs. People with strong opinions about pizza. Greaseballs, dirtbags, true weirdos, and the people that love them.
What it’s about: Librarian and blogger Jill Grunenwald recounts her unlikely runner’s journey from the couch to the starting line and then, long after most people, to the finish line.
What made me pick it up: I’m a fan of running memoirs and, as a fellow librarian and not-so-fast runner, I knew I’d enjoy this one.
My favorite things: Grunenwald weaves humor through her story as she describes race day excitement and heartbreak, the struggle of training, and an unabashed love for swag. I found her awe for elite runners instantly relatable and appreciated her recognition that slow runners are also working hard and for a much longer time.
Who it’s great for: Fans of memoirs with a fitness focus. Runners of all abilities, and especially those questioning their capacity to become runners.