Happy summer friends! It’s the best season of year (no arguments, plz) and potentially the only time you’ll pick up a few new books, no? Even if you’ve already started your summer/vacation reading, let me nerd out for a moment and share some titles you should absolutely put on your list.
As of this month, year one of my MFA program is complete, which means I read forty books (and wrote around 230 pages)...but who’s counting. After all that reading, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite books of the year. All are nonfiction, some are spiritual essays, and some are memoirs. I hope you pick up a few and love them as much as I did. Now go and get your vacation read on!
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
I had to read this collection of essays in the privacy of my own home because I kept laughing aloud. It’s both a pleasure and a chore to read, but the kind of chore you willingly undertake because of the result. Wallace’s sprawling mind rewards the reader for paying attention; his footnotes are about a mile long, and he’ll often circle back to a comment he made twenty pages prior.
The title essay about Wallace’s two-week luxury cruise to the Caribbean just killed me. It’s a darkly hilarious look at the quiet desperation that permeates extreme “pampering” (his word, not mine). The essay is full of unrestrained descriptions and snappy witticisms. He depicts a knowledgeable cruise captain, for example, as “a veritable blowhole of hard data.” And the description of his cruise cabin bathroom—which amounts to several pages of praise—is too good not to share here:
“I’ve seen more than my share of bathrooms, and this is one bitchingly nice bathroom. The shower itself overachieves in a big way. … There’s washcloths w/o nubble or nap, and of course towels you want to propose to. … But all this is still small potatoes compared to [Cabin] 1009’s fascinating and potentially malevolent toilet.”
Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle
Tattoos on the Heart is less a memoir than it is a series of loving reminders. The book covers two decades of Boyle’s work with LA gang members. His writing convinces readers of God’s boundless compassion for us, just as his life has been about convincing gang members of the same. He wants to introduce us to a God who delights in us exactly as we are: “The God, who is greater than God, has only one thing on her mind, and that is to drop, endlessly, rose petals on our heads. Behold the One who can’t take his eyes off you.”
One thing I most admired about Boyle’s approach to writing about his homies is how he humanizes them. Because he has built a life with the poor—not just observed or helped or worked with them—his stories ring with authenticity and love. By detailing what he has learned from them, he returns dignity and gratitude to every character in the book. Tattoos on the Heart instilled a more expansive view of God in me.
Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White
Remember E.B. White? Yep, he’s the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. His collection of essays—many of which were published in the The New Yorker—are equally as wonderful as his children’s stories. White’s writing is generous and big-minded, and he has a knack for taking ordinary subjects—a tree in his yard, the death of a pig, his dachshund Fred—and opening up a thoughtful new world for his readers.
White once wrote, “All that I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world,” and his love for the world is everywhere in this collection. His writing is attentive, varied, compassionate, and laced with wit. His diction is, well, perfect. Reading his work feels like sitting down with vintage copies of The New Yorker. (And bonus! An essay collection means you can read one or two at a time while lounging at your favorite pool/beach/tropical destination.)
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Jamison’s collection of smart and piercing essays explores “pain tours”—experiences of learning from and listening to others’ suffering—as well as the complicated reactions they evoke. “You want the tour to give you back another version of yourself, you and everyone: a more enlightened human,” she writes. But there is guilt, too, and embarrassment about your unearned privilege. “You feel uncomfortable,” she adds. “Your discomfort is the point.”
I disagreed with Jamison on a few points; most notably, I’d call certain responses compassion that she labels empathy. On a whole, though, The Empathy Exams articulates questions I grapple with from a stance of humility and sincere inquiry. I loved the bits of Latin American influence, Spanish language, and the way each essays is located squarely in a place. Jamison doesn’t resolve all of her questions, and I admired her for asking them thoughtfully and even self-consciously. Her approach felt true to the lived response of witnessing suffering from a place of privilege.
Lit by Mary Karr
Okay, Lit wrecked me (in the best possible way). Anyone who talked to me last fall is sick of hearing about it. But seriously guys, it’s that good! The best memoirs tell you something about yourself, and this magnificent book does that. Karr is a total outlaw who somehow finds her way to God. Her movement out of hell into surrender and eventually, recovery, pulled me in headfirst. Despite the wide gap between her experiences and my own, I identified with her as a narrator. I found threads of my story in hers, and recognized my internal fractures—however different they might look—in the way she details her own.
Karr is one of the most accomplished memoirists of our time (and a damn good poet), and this book is her masterpiece. Her voice is irreverent and hilarious and transparent. As the back cover says, Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober, but it’s also about a million other things and impossible to summarize, so just head over to Amazon and add it to your cart ASAP. You will thank me, and then we’ll get to chat about the book, so I will thank you.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Read this and then tell me you don’t want to move to Paris. A Moveable Feast is a long-time favorite—this was my third read, and the book just gets better each time. A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir of his time as a newlywed expat in France. The prose is rich despite Hemingway’s typically sparse writing (one meal consists of “cold white wine” and oysters “with their strong taste of the sea”). He is the master of the mot juste—the exact, appropriate word.
A Moveable Feast paints youth, marriage, and Paris in the dreamy light of nostalgia, but there’s a clear note of melancholy throughout the story. The entire book is tinged with loss and this melancholy stems most of all from his descriptions of beautiful things—the city in autumn or his wife sleeping next to him. “But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”
My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman
Oh man. My Bright Abyss is such an exquisite book. I read short pieces at a time because, like poetry, the writing calls for bursts of concentrated attention. Wiman’s style is fragmented, heady, and melodic. Certain lines lodged themselves in my mind and I still find myself rolling them around in my mouth: Listen to this description of his Texas hometown: “…Spanish rivering right next to rocklike English, the two fusing for a moment into a single dialect then splitting again; cowboys with creek-bed faces stepping determinedly out of the convenience store with sky in their eyes and twelve-packs in their arms.”
If you need another reason to read My Bright Abyss besides Wiman’s language wizardry, then his searching approach to faith is worth your time. After falling in love and being diagnosed with cancer in his late thirties, he “assented to the faith that was latent within [him].” Still, Wiman’s faith is a wrestling match. He questions his own experiences and scrapes for new language to locate God, which makes for a really beautiful and open-handed spiritual memoir.