all of my 2015 and 2016 book recommendations

In 2015, I started making a weekly book recommendation when kicking off the weekend open thread. These aren’t work-related books; they’re just books I love and think everyone else should read. Sometimes they’re books that I’m in the middle of reading, and other times they’re just long-standing favorites.

This page has all my recommendations from 2015 and 2016. I’ve bolded my favorites of the favorites.

You can find my recommendations from 2017 here, and my recommendations from 2018 here.

2016

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, by Meghan Daum. Smart, funny, brutally honest essays about everything from her mother to Hollywood dinner parties to not having kids to an out-of-the-blue freak illness that almost killed her.

The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. My sister sent it to me and I was baffled because I didn’t think it was at all my reading taste or hers, but then I opened it up and I couldn’t stop reading.

Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters, by Mallory Ortberg, who is the awesomest, and you should also be reading her as the new Dear Prudence.

And Again, by Jessica Chiarella. Four terminally ill people are given genetically perfect, illness-free versions of their former bodies and have to figure out how to remake themselves.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell, who is smart and funny and mixes pop culture with history and you will want to invite her to dinner.

My Salinger Year — Joanna Rakoff’s memoir about working at a literary agency, where she gets put in charge of answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail.

The Martian, by Andy Weir. I loved the movie and wasn’t sure if the book would be too sci-fi for me, but it’s not. I’m mid-way through and it’s making me want to watch the movie nightly.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader — Anne Fadiman’s essays about the role that books, reading, and words have played in her life. I especially liked her essay about combining books with her husband when they moved in together.

Comfort Me with Apples, by former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl — a behind-the-scenes look at being a restaurant critic (disguises! fake names on credit cards!) and later the editor of Gourmet. If you like food and you like insidery details about the restaurant industry, you will find this fascinating.

A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon, a dryly hilarious account of a dysfunctional family, related by its stiff-upper-lip patriarch.

The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. Class snobbery, English countryside, and a scandal that a young woman is teaching Latin!

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. It’s 13 short stories all linked by one character, and it unfolds so quietly that it takes you off-guard when you realize how absorbing it is.

A Thousand Pardons, by Jonathan Dee. After her husband’s own public self-destruction, a woman discovers that she has a talent for getting others who need to repair their public images to apologize.

Small World, by David Lodge. I don’t know why I like send-ups of academia so much, but I do, I do. You will laugh out loud.

The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. A dysfunctional family, an endangered trust fund, and so much bad behavior. But somehow it injects its dark humor with heart, and you end up caring about all most of them.

Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr. You’ve probably figured out by now that I like dark and funny books about family dysfunction, and this memoir sits at the top of the heap of all of them.

The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende. A love story between a Polish girl sent to San Francisco to escape the Holocaust and the son of a Japanese gardener who’s sent to an internment camp after Pearl Harbor. Displacement, love, aging, gardening, mysterious letters… It’s gotten mixed reviews, but I’m loving it.

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler. Several generations of a Baltimore family, and you will care about them more than makes sense. The Washington Post called it “an act of literary enchantment,” which seems right.

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood. I actually don’t know if I’m recommending this exactly, because I loved the first half but then felt like it spun out of control in the second half — but it did keep me completely engrossed the entire time and made me stay up way too late several nights in a row, and really, that’s what I want from a book.

Tepper isn’t Going Out, by Calvin Trillin. You wouldn’t think a book about a man sitting in his car to protect his parking space would be very interesting, but it is, oh, it is. And it’s Calvin Trillin, so it is also charming and funny.

The Epicure’s Lament, by Kate Christensen. A darkly funny tale of a curmudgeon who lives alone in a crumbling mansion cooking himself gourmet meals and waiting for the end, and what happens when various family members arrive unbidden and disrupt his routine.

Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub. It’s about three former bandmates who used to be cool but now must deal with aging, teenage kids, marital strife, and New York real estate. Straub is funny and smart, and her writing locks into your brain in a way I find irresistible. I loved this.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. I’d been avoiding this because I figured it would just be all about hiking and that sounded dull, but once I realized it’s by the author of the Dear Sugar advice column, I got curious — and it’s great. It’s about family and heartbreak and grief and redemption, and even the hiking parts are pretty magnificent.

I’m Just a Person, by Tig Notaro. Tig is my favorite comedian (if you don’t know her, you need to watch everything she’s done immediately), but this book isn’t your standard comedian’s memoir — it’s about a very bad year and her return from it.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Haunting in a way that will stay with you.

Belgravia, by Julian Fellowes. This is by the guy who created Downton Abbey, and it is as Downton Abbey-esque a novel as you will find — haughty countesses, gossiping servants, questions of heir legitimacy, and more. It’s quite enjoyable.

A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster. This is one of my favorite books of all time. It has a priggish fiancé, an unsuitable second suitor, an annoying chaperone, a romp through Italy, and so many more delightful things.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson, the master of travel writing, writing about coming home — what it’s like to return to America after 20 years away. You will repeatedly cackle.

The Girls, by Emma Cline. I ended up equally haunted by the almost painfully beautiful writing and the story itself, which is about a teenage girl who drifts into what’s clearly a reimagining of the Manson cult.

You’ll Grow Out of It. It’s essays by comedy writer Jessi Klein on everything from dating to aging to her issues with baths. It’s hilarious and you will want to go to brunch with her.

Harmony, by Carolyn Parkhurst, about a family who — increasingly worried about their older daughter’s behavioral issues — seek help at a cultish camp. I loved this and stayed up way too late reading it several nights in a row. It’s so good that I want to start all over from the beginning, and might.

How to Party with an Infant, by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Food, gossip, snark — a delight.

Siracusa, by Delia Ephron, about the unraveling marriages of two couples during an Italian vacation that very much does not go according to plan.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett. I’m a sucker for family dysfunction, and you will feel like you’re one of the many step-siblings the book is about. Also, her writing is so beautiful that it just takes up residence in your head and doesn’t leave.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers. I read it after someone here recommended it a few months ago, and it’s perfect for anyone who enjoys mocking modern workplaces, especially of the west coast tech variety. It’s darkly funny, thought-provoking, and very, very engrossing.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng. Family dramas, how I love you.

Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner. Edith Hind, a young woman from a well-connected family, is missing … but the story is about all the people left behind as much as it’s about the investigation into her disappearance. This is the first police procedural I’ve ever read, and as a Law & Order addict, I have no idea why it took me so long.

The Wangs vs. the World, by Jade Chang. A wealthy family find themselves broke and embark on a cross-country car trip that is far more interesting and poignant than you think it will be.

The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue. An 11-year-old girl in a small Irish village claims to have survived without eating for months, and this is the story of the nurse charged with figuring out whether it’s a hoax or not. I didn’t think I’d like this, but I loved it.

Cruel Beautiful World, by Caroline Leavitt. A teenager runs away with her older teacher, and things don’t go well. The title is apt.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I recommended this last year too, but I’m re-reading it and rediscovering how much I loved it the first time. Basically, picture Jane Austen but in a magical universe.

Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman. Hilarious family dysfunction and workplace snark — what more could you want? It’s seriously very, very funny.

How to Talk to a Widower, by Jonathan Topper. A commenter here recommended it after I mentioned how much I like another novel by the author, and it manages to be both sad and funny, which is a feat that I love. It’s about a 29-year-old widower, his dysfunctional family, and his climb back to life.

I also recommended some movies: People Places Things, starring Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords. Just quiet, funny, and wonderful. Also, the very funny mockumentary Popstar, and the very funny but in a totally different way Love & Friendship, based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. I am still laughing at both.

2015

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss. It’s beautiful and engrossing and charming and wonderful.

About Alice, by Calvin Trillin. It’s a warm, funny, and moving portrait of his wife, written five years after she died. If you’ve ever read any of his food writing (and you should!), you may remember Alice as a frequent character there. This is a really beautiful — and entertaining — tribute to her.

If you enjoy reading other people’s painfully embarrassing teenager love letters and diary entries, you need to read Mortified: Real Words, Real People, Real Pathetic. Stemming from the live stage show of the same name, it features hilarious real-life artifacts from adolescence and will make you cringe about your own. I think I cried from laughing at one point.

The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough. Yes, this is the book that led to the mini-series of the 80s, and that might turn you off. But come on, it’s a love story between a priest and the woman he’s adored her whole life. It’s tortured and epic and full of people and families being torn apart. It is magnificent.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Basically, picture Jane Austen but in a magical universe. I love this book more than I can convey.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, by BJ Novak, who is also known to you as Ryan from The Office. It turns out he’s a fantastic writer. His short story about a woman on a date with a warlord is my favorite, but the whole collection is worthwhile: funny, quirky, and insightful.

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne. This is the imagined inner life of a pre-teen idol with loads of tween fans, a stage mom, and an absent father. He’s far more compelling than you’d expect an 11-year-old to be.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. I adore this book. It’s magical and engrossing, and you’ll feel like you’re living in a completely different world.

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. I love books that are told solely through letters, and this one is the author’s 20-year correspondence with a London bookseller. It’s about books, food, the war, and more. You should read it under a quilt with a cup of tea.

E: A Novel, by Matt Beaumont. It’s a highly amusing novel about the work life at a dysfunctional ad agency, told entirely through emails. It’s dark, funny, and vicious.

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Journalist Ted Conover worked undercover as a prison guard at Sing Sing for a year and wrote about daily life for both guards and prisoners. Totally fascinating, and disturbing. If your favorite psychological experiment is the Stanford Prison Experiment (as it is mine), you will like this book.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. This is a perfect book. I will tell you nothing else about it. Just read it.

Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, by Ben Mezrich, about a group of M.I.T. students who spent two years gaming Vegas and making millions of dollars. It’s weirdly engrossing and will make you want to learn to count cards and become filthy rich.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters. I’m not going to spoil the story for you, but the descriptions of daily life in 1922 London are so vivid that I now feel like I have first-hand experience living in that time period. It’s won all kinds of awards, it’s fantastic, just read it.

How to Be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman. This is fascinating. You will learn all about how to keep clean without water, how Victorian bathrooms worked (and didn’t work), what it’s like to brush your teeth with soot, and so much more. The author didn’t just research this stuff; she actually lived that way herself and then wrote about what it was like. Soooo interesting.

Mistress Masham’s Repose, by T.H. White, in which an orphan living with odious people discovers a whole community of Lilliputians (as in, those very small people from Gulliver’s Travels) living on an island near her house. I first read this when I was 9 or 10 but it’s a fully formed novel, not just a short kids’ story, and I’ve read it repeatedly as an adult because it is quite awesome.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie. If you always wondered what Salman Rushdie’s life was like during those years he was living in hiding because of the fatwah on his head (I constantly speculated about how it worked), this book will explain everything to you. It will also tell you what it’s like to be married to Padma from Top Chef.

The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. I’m reading this right now and, eeek, it’s so good, how did I not read this earlier? It’s hilarious and beautifully written and perfect for reading under a bunch of blankets with a cup of tea.

The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer. If you’re into perfectly paced, messy family dramas (and you should be), this is for you.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never- Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems, by the magnificent, hilarious, gone-too-soon David Rakoff.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away. Brilliant and funny Bill Bryson tries to get reacquainted with America after living in England for 20 years.

Emma, by Jane Austen. Because it is the perfect book, and Mr. Knightley is a better love interest than Mr. Darcy.

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s about a girl who grows into a man, but it’s also an epic and engrossing story of Greek-American immigration, the 60s, a family, and love.

The Fiddler in the Subway: The Story of the World-Class Violinist Who Played for Handouts. . . And Other Virtuoso Performances by America’s Foremost Feature Writer, by Gene Weingarten. This is a collection of essays by one of my favorite Washington Post writers, including one about the time he had virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell play in the D.C. subway for spare change, to see if anyone would notice his music. (Spoiler: Few people did.) Pretty much every essay in here leaves me with a lump in my throat; he has an incredible talent for finding beauty and profundity everywhere.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It’s not a book; it’s a short and hilarious musical from Joss Whedon (of Buffy fame), starring Neil Patrick Harris as the evil yet lovesick villain and the fantastic Nathan Fillion (of Firefly) as the self-absorbed hero Captain Hammer. It is awesome.

A Man Called Ove: A Novel, by Fredrik Backman. You wouldn’t think a novel about a grumpy curmudgeon’s reign over a neighborhood would be so charming and uplifting, but oh it is.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel, by J. Ryan Stradal. The culinary tastes of the midwest are practically a character in this funny and moving novel, which tells the story of food prodigy Eva Thorvald, born with a “once-in-a-generation palate.” I liked this description from Book Forum: “Fundamentally, it’s about what happens when opposing personalities coexist: those who bake with real butter versus those who don’t, those who obsess over heirloom tomatoes alongside those who don’t even know what they are.”

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, by Natasha Solomons. A German immigrant tries to become a proper English gentleman after World War II (including writing his own list of manners and customs to follow), which eventually turns into a quest to build a golf course (since English gentlemen must play golf). This book will make you feel cozy and in need of tea.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. 20 years after a virus wiped out much of civilization, a small troupe of actors and musicians travels around what remains, with the motto “because survival is insufficient.” It’s full of flashbacks and characters who will haunt you, and there’s a comic book and a space station and it’s beautifully written.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This is from the author of Interpreter of Maldies, which won a Pulitzer, but I will boldly assert that this one is better. (Also, that was short stories and this is a novel, and in a literary street fight, the novel will always win.)

Apothecary Cocktails: Restorative Drinks from Yesterday and Today, which will teach you to drink and indulge in home remedies at the same time. Divided into chapters like Digestives and Other Curatives, Winter Warmers, Painkilling Libations, and Mood Enhancers, its drinks include delicious things like a rhubarb slushy, peppery fennel fizz, “corpse reviver,” and herbal sleep punch.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. An old bookstore, a mysterious book-related secret society, a puzzle, and so much intrigue! I’m two-thirds of the way through and loving it.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach. This will answer questions about life in space that you never knew you had, like how astronauts handle personal hygiene, sex, life in incredibly close quarters, and zero-gravity Coke dispensers.

The City & The City, by China Miéville. It’s ostensibly a detective story, but it’s really about two cities that exist in the same space. It’s a little noir and a little fantasy, neither of which is my usual reading, but I really loved it.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. At a birthday party for a Japanese businessman with a world famous opera singer in attendance, a band of revolutionaries storm in and take hostages. Bonds develop, opera is sung, and things happen that you do not expect.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. The author spent a year working a series of low-wage jobs (waitress, hotel maid, and household cleaning woman, among others) and wrote an insider’s account of each. It’s fascinating.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. A woman made of clay and a man made of fire are marooned in 19th century New York. Surprising things happen.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh. If you don’t already know Allie’s awesome blog, you should. The book is filled with more of the same — brilliant narratives about her childhood, her depression, her dogs, and more, all illustrated with the funniest drawings you’ve ever seen.

The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton. If you only know Edith Wharton from being forced to read Ethan Frome in high school, this will change your opinion. Five wealthy American heiresses in the 1870s head to England to find British aristocrats to marry, because their money is too new for New York; it’s like Downton Abbey in book form.

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali. It’s the story of two Bangladeshi sisters, one in an arranged marriage in London and one in a “love marriage” in their Bangladeshi village, and I loved it.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend. This is the diary of angst-filled and unintentionally hilarious teen Adrian Mole, who is dealing with troubled parents, acne, and an enticing classmate. If you’ve never read this, you need to. Also, if if you like it, there are a bunch of sequels to read too.

The Family Fang: A Novel, by Kevin Wilson. If you like the dysfunctional family genre as much as I do and you want to read a book that feels inspired by a Wes Anderson movie, this is the book for you.

Straight Man, by Richard Russo. I’m currently halfway through this darkly hilarious tale of academic politics and quite amused.

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