It’s that time of year when I stumble around feeling all the emotions related to having to answer the question “what’s the best book you read this year?”…confusion…fear…96 down to 1 ARE YOU CRAZY?!
Somehow, by some miracle, I’ve whittled it down to a top 10. The ultimate mistake may have been putting them in an order, because I’m already doubting it BUT I’M COMMITTING ANYWAY. Let the countdown commence…
#10 – When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This is not the type of book to read if you’re feeling a bit melancholy, but I do believe it’s a book that everyone should read. Kalanithi was a successful neurosurgeon who decided to write his memoir after receiving a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer. What he left us with is a thing of beauty; profound, philosophical, insightful beauty. In our “death-avoidant culture” (as his wife puts it), this book is as much about how to live as how to die; the sort of thing we should all be thinking about if we could just get over our entrenched fear of dying. It’s a book that leaves it’s mark on anyone who reads it, and sure enough I immediately palmed it off on my dad and my fiancé, who both found it equally moving.
#9 – The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (ed.)
This is the one I’d been waiting for ever since I started trying to read in a more diverse way. It is a collection of 21 essays from British Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers that almost never existed. When Shukla first began this journey, he was told that there was no market for this kind of book – a view that was firmly contradicted by its success on crowdfunding platform, Unbound, followed by glowing reviews and awards. These essays look at the idea of always being cast as the “immigrant” – whether it’s only being offered acting parts as “The Terrorist’s Wife” or how the lack of representation in publishing hinders young children of colour’s ability to write their own stories.
This book is essential reading for all of us – both for the people whose everyday lives are affected by this society-wide obsession with “the immigrant”, and just as importantly for the people whose lives are not. The history of anyone who isn’t a white European is rarely taught in the British education system, which is equally surprising and unsurprising given the vast, global impact of the British empire. We have to make up for that absence and proactively learn on our own. I remember Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ excellent metaphor of white privilege as our living in “The Dream”. I would urge all of us who have the privilege of that dream to make a conscious effort to wake up and see the damage that our dreaming is doing; the damage of inaction as much as (or even more than) the damage of active, overt racism. This book is the perfect way to wake up.
If you like this, why not check out The Good Journal, a new quarterly publication to continue championing British BAME writers.
Rating: 5/5 stars; Purchase: Amazon
#8 – Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This may seem an odd choice for my top ten as I didn’t give it 5 stars, but it was a book that has stayed with me long after reading. This novel revisits the Nigerian Civil War and the short-lived Biafran state through the eyes of a small group of characters. It’s a part of history I was totally unaware of until now, but one that is intrinsically linked to colonialism and Britain’s role in creating racial inequality across the world. The first half was a bit slow (hence the lower rating), but by the end I was completely hooked.
Trigger warning for physical and sexual violence in this book.
#7 – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Pulitzer-winning story of one woman’s desperate attempt to escape from the bondage of slavery in pre-Civil War America. In this innovative novel, the real Underground Railroad – a network of people and safe houses that enabled slaves to escape – is reimagined as an actual railroad. As Cora flees from state to state, she is pursued by Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher who is haunted by Mabel, “the one who got away”, who also happens to be Cora’s mother.
This novel is clever, gripping and unforgettable. It’s another slightly lower rating (which I’m rethinking in hindsight), but I haven’t been able to get Cora out of my head since I finished it. I would highly recommend it, particularly for those of us who might not have read that much about slavery before.
Trigger warning for physical and sexual violence in this book
#6 – Hunger by Roxane Gay
I still haven’t been able to write a proper review of this book because I can’t seem to organise my thoughts in a particularly meaningful way. You can find some thoughts on my Instagram, or you can settle for a sound: a long exhale of profound relief.
The subtitle of this book is perfect “A Memoir of (My) Body”. It is the memoir of a body violated and rebuilt, but in a way that is frustratingly not palatable to society. It is a story of fatness and sexual violence. It might as well have been a memoir of my own body.
I have written before about some of my experiences as a rape survivor (for example, here and here), but very little about my experiences of being fat in an image-obsessed world that evaluates thinness as synonymous with beauty. Not a lot of people do, and this was the first time I’d seen some of those feelings played back to me with total honesty.
The only reason this book isn’t higher up on my list is because it is not an “enjoyable” read per se. It is brutal, harrowing and it’ll be a while before I’d be able to read it again; but it remains one of the most personally impactful books I’ve ever read.
Trigger warning for physical and sexual violence
Rating: 5/5 stars; Purchase: Amazon
Tune in on NYE for the countdown to my favourite book of 2017!