I come from a family of bookworms. My father has so many books in his office that for a while it was impossible to walk — his version of “cleaning out” these books was to send some of them to me at school, where my bedroom’s book levels are also reaching dangerous proportions. My sister Maggie lives a minimalist lifestyle, yet books comprise her only decoration or extraneous matter. My mother used to make us listen to audiobooks on long drives, and her taste ranged from biographies of John Adams to “beach reads” about sister witches (though lately she’s been into memoirs about North Korean defectors). My sister Madeleine is literally always reading, because she reads e-books on her phone. You’d think she was just a typical Millennial with her eyes constantly glued to her phone, but surprise! Instead of Twitter, it’s a 600-page history about the Hapsburgs.
God forbid a bookstore ever be more than one floor. We lose each other for hours.
So, since holidays are all about listening to your family (right?), I decided to familysource my book recommendations by asking each member of my family about the best book they read in 2016. Prepare to be amazed that we have anything to talk about around the dinner table.
Without further ado, here’s the lineup:
Maggie: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson — She picked two books because she considers Isaacson’s biography to be the best book she read, but she enjoyed reading Cryptonomicon more. She wrote: “I might be biased because of my fascination with World War II codebreaking, but Cryptonomicon weaves together stories across generations and continents, each with fundamental themes of liberty, privacy, and the art of keeping secrets. I don’t normally go for science fiction, but Stephenson based much of his novel on fact.” Maggie likes fact.
Madeleine: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett — Madeleine told me to shorten her endorsement of this book, but I’m not going to. She wrote: “A lot of the Discworld books could take this title, because Pratchett is both one of the best fantasy writers I’ve ever read and one of the angriest, but funniest satirists. I’m giving this title to Small Gods though because it’s the only one that made me start bawling in my car while listening to the audiobook, driving down 64. At one point I had to pull over, I’m not kidding. Small Gods stars Brutha, a young monastic novice living in a theocratic state governed by the dictates of a religion that looks a lot like medieval (and also not that medieval) Catholicism. The plot begins when the supreme God of this religion, Om, gets turned into a powerless turtle and accompanies Brutha on adventures. Meanwhile Pratchett gently asks you to consider deep questions about religion, human nature, the human drive to make meaning out of a meaningless universe, mortality, etc. Seriously, I cried so hard and it’s too hard to explain how that happened without literally walking you through the whole book.” So, if you want to know what happens, but don’t have time to read Small Gods, call Madeleine (no guarantee it’ll take less time, though.)
Mom: An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve — My mom agonized over sending a book recommendation. She did not like thinking that other people were going to read her writing. She said it was “not her best work” and asked me if it was “so terrible I couldn’t work with it.” Then, when I actually got her email, this is what it said: “The story of woman raised by a mother so self-involved as to be incapable of loving and nurturing another human being, even her own daughter. This memoir describes the author’s childhood amid wealth and privilege, where her mother, a glamorous and talented poet and author entertained famous artists and literary figures in their New York penthouse, but alternatively neglected or smothered her own daughter.
This book was written beautifully, and is searing in its candor about the impact of an abusive mother on the author’s life and development. That the author survived and became a compassionate, whole person, and a talented writer herself is a testament to the power of human determination, and a “family” not limited to biology, but defined by caring, nurturing individuals.” If this is not her best work, what is?! Who else thinks my mom should be writing for Book Riot?!
Dad: The Upside of Inequality: How Good Intentions Undermine the Middle Class by Edward Conard – My parents could not have been more different in their approach to this task, but my dad’s recommendation was pretty ringing, given that he reads the most of anyone I know. He wrote to me that Conard’s book “makes the case that many of the most common arguments used in political debates are not accurate” and that it was “pretty compelling.” He added that it’s “not ever going to be a best seller.” Interpret that as you will.
There you have it: a literary holiday card from my family to yours! For the record, the best book I read in 2016 was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, but I’m not the only book writer ’round these parts anymore.