I wasn't planning to write a favorite books blog this year. Too busy with other projects. But when my friend Sarah asked about it, wanting suggestions for winter reading, I decided to look back at the books I loved this past year. I'd love to hear what your favorites were.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, James McBride
McBride's latest novel is big and messy. Set in the 1920s and 1930s in Pottstown, Pa, his characters are mostly immigrants—eastern European Jews and southern Blacks—who live at the margins of the town. The narrative wanders a bit in the early chapters, but it offers up the kind of details that both illuminate character and establish the world of the novel. I'm in awe of McBride's ability to weave issues of racism, anti-Semitism, disability rights, and human connection into a plot with high stakes and an epic feel. This is a keeper.
Linney Steppe, Diane Gilliam
Sometimes a novel pulls you in immediately by the strength of the voice, immerses you in a place and time you didn't know, and compels you to live that life with the characters. That's what Linney Steppe did for me in this story set in early 20th century eastern Kentucky. Gilliam's prose is both lyrical and down-to-earth. I loved Linney's strength and determination and I loved the book.
Tom Lake, Ann Patchett
I have been disappointed in the last few Patchett novels, after loving her earlier fiction (Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft). But this book totally captivated me. I loved hanging out with this family on their cherry orchard. I loved how the pandemic opened their communication about the past. This book was comfort food, I gobbled it up and I loved it.
Let Us Descend, Jesmyn Ward
This is a complicated novel. Ward uses the scaffolding of Dante's inferno and the technique of magical realism to enrich her story of Annis, a young woman, the daughter of a white slaveowners and a black slave, on a journey to a Louisiana sugar plantation. Annis is accompanied by the spirit of her African grandmother; the young woman both rejects and is nurtured by the spirit. Ward's prose is lush and sensory; the story is brutal and important.
Red Hands, Colin W. Sargent
Fueled by extensive interviews and rich imagination, Colin Sargent inhabits Romania's Iordana Ceausescu to give us a window into both a brutal regime and a remarkable woman. This novel is so many things—page-turner, history lesson, love story, thriller, and intimate view of family ties, power, and greed.
From the Longing Orchard, Jessica Jopp
This novel about the struggles of a girl to become her own complicated and creative self is lyrical and tender and heartbreaking and hopeful. Whether she's writing about Sonya's phobia or yearnings, about fears or nature, Jopp's prose is poetic and mesmerizing. She drew me wholeheartedly into these characters and their stories.
The Covenant of Water, Abraham Verghese
I have not fallen so deeply in love with a novel in a very long time. I guess it shouldn't surprise me; I've admired and loved all of Verghese's previous books. At over 700 pages, across eight decades and three generations, The Covenant of Water weaves history and medicine into an enormously powerful story of human connection and frailty, of secrets and triumphs. Set in Kerala in South India, Big Ammachi and her extended family suffer from a peculiar malady involving an aversion to water, a medical mystery that ties together much of the narrative. Verghese adds to the mix an exploration of love, caste, and poverty, of farming and art, of faith and activism. This is a novel to read and reread, to think about and ponder, to keep close.
The Stark Beauty of Last Things, Céline Keating
With lush and sensory prose, this incandescent novel offers a glimpse into a wild place in turmoil. Residents of Keating's Montauk, both locals and outsiders, face seemingly impossible choices between financial survival and environmental stability of their fragile community. The natural world—its palate, its odors, the rhythms of sunset and daybreak, of storm destruction and delicate growth—is the scaffolding and the heart of this unforgettable story. (Yes, I know I included this last year, since I read an advance copy, but this book is totally worth another shout out.)
Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival, JoeAnn Hart
These stories are thoughtful, sometimes grim, occasionally hopeful, and always compelling. Brava, JoeAnn Hart for a collection that puts human faces on the climate catastrophe facing us all—right now and in the near future.
The Showgirl and the Writer: A Friendship Forged in the Aftermath of the Japanese American Incarceration, Marnie Mueller
I was fascinated by this seamless combination of memoir, biography, and examination of the effects of racial and ethnic prejudice on two women. The author looks at her own experiences as a white woman born at the Tule Lake No-No Japanese internment camp in the context of her friendship with a Japanese American "showgirl" who was sent to a camp. The interrogation of the similarities and differences of their experiences of anti-Asian racism and anti-Semitism are thought-provoking, both on a personal level and a political one. I mostly read fiction, but I found this book compelling; the ideas are still swirling around in my head.