My Favorite Books of 2016

These are my favorite books I read for the first time in 2016 (here’s last year’s list). Well, technically, my favorite books I read from December 2015-November 2016, since I always put this list together in time for people to grab Christmas gift ideas.

And, if you’re looking for other book recommendations from me, you can check out the list of books I managed to reference in my own book. Or, of course, there’s always my book, Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. If you have any Catholic or Christian friends who would like a geeky guide to prayer, or a non-Catholic friend who would prefer to learn a little about the faith from someone alternately charmed and flabbergasted by it, take a look!

Without further ado, in chronological order (mostly), here are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2016!

Notes on Directing by Frank Hauser

I liked this peek into theatre (I auditioned in college, but never made it to the rehearsal rooms—I worked costume crew), and I really enjoyed it. As much a tutorial in treating people kindly and eliciting their best work as a treatise specifically on directing. (I was reminded of Eve Tushnet’s writing on motivational interviewing). One representative piece of advice.

Assume that everyone is in a permanent state of catatonic terror.
This will help you approach the impossible state of infinite patience and benevolence that actors and others expect from you.

Catapult (Harry and I Build A Siege Weapon) by Jim Paul

One of two books I read this year that felt like it was written specifically for me. It’s exactly what the title implies: a play by play of how Jim Paul built a catapult with his friend. Here’s how his quest began:

I got off the phone, surprised by the force of this whim to build a catapult. Where was that coming from? I wondered. I had never wanted anything like it. I had never even owned a weapon. I held onto the rock and wandered around the apartment, agitated, fancying that I felt some insistence from the stone itself, from the Red Creek quartzite. Its heft was just out of my range, its bulk too much for my arm to manage, had I decided to throw it. So the thing could have been calling for some sort of machine to toss it harder than I could. It was an odd thought, that a stone could suggest anything, as if some rocks ask with their whole weight to be put to flight.

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

Corrie Ten Boom’s memoir tells the story of how she hid Jews from the Nazis, was caught an imprisoned, and continued her ministry after the war. It’s the hardest one on this list to write a capsule summary of, because her love and willingness to rely on God while she just does the next good thing in front of her just plain knocks you off your feet. I’m so glad I read this. Her heroism comes off as the habit of doing the next right thing.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino

Recommended both by my husband and by the college friend who had lent me her copy about four years ago. (I returned it this year when I finished!). This is a book about you, the reader, trying to read a book titled If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, but practically every chapter you find that you only have part of the manuscript and when you try to start over with a fresh copy, it’s changed genres on you. A loopy, delightful read.

I’d read Invisible Cities by Calvino before, and I suspect I’ll read The Baron in the Trees soon, because the bits that my husband has read aloud to me while he’s reading it are a scream.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

A many-hanky book. Particularly if, like me, you cry both at death and at epidemiologists being stymied by infighting or budget pinches. It’s a brilliantly told story, and, like Corrie Ten Boom’s memoir, features many moments of piercing kindness in the midst of what felt like the end of the world.

NB: One thread of the book has been disputed recently. Gaetan Dugas, a flight attendant identified as Patient Zero for the North American epidemic, probably was not the first carrier of infection to major American cities. He was the agent of infection (deliberately, by his own account) for many men.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

This I read over several months of the year, but it lends itself to being read a couple chapters at a time. And it is astounding the number of things Hamilton found to capably micromanage in his life (repeatedly, the precise design of military uniforms). My enjoyment was definitely heightened by having seen and listened to Hamilton, and seeing how that musical biography lined up with this one, but there’s a tremendous amount of fascinating material in here that never made it into the show.

Among the highlights I remember:

  • Benedict Arnold’s wife fooling Hamilton she’d gone mad with grief over her husband’s betrayal and winning his sympathies to the point where he wrote “I wished myself her brother to have a right to become her defender.”
  • That Hamilton and Eliza fostered children, in addition to raising eight of their own.
  • Hamilton challenging one man to a duel over the Jay Treaty, leaving that confrontation, wandering into a different fight over the Jay Treaty, challenging everyone present on the other side to a duel, and then, when one of them was inclined to take him up on it, having to explain he had a duel commitment to settle already.
  • Hamilton sneaking into a sick guest’s room to lay a blanket over him and say “Sleep warm, little judge.”

Expecting Better by Emily Oster and Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler

(before anyone gets suspicious, I read Oster’s book the month before I got married specifically so that I wouldn’t wind up fielding questions if I read it when it could be relevant).

These were both excellent, nerdy books on topics that I had never seen covered with comparable detail and clarity. I wrote up Weschler’s book for First Things and explained why I’d recommend it to every woman:

I was intending to read the book as an instruction manual, but I kept recognizing myself in the stories of the women who she worked with. At least twice, I dog-eared a page not because it would be relevant to charting for my married life, but because Weschler was explaining that something about my body was normal—maybe not the median experience, but well within the range of normal. I’d gotten used to the idea that there were always a couple things wrong with my body, in this domain and others, because all the discussion I’d heard was about either ideals or averages. Learning NFP has meant reacquainting myself with my body and its own, particular dignity.

Meanwhile, Oster’s book is the work of a nerdy woman after my own heart, who delights in going into the weeds of all the studies that seem to have concluded “Everything is a bad idea while you’re pregnant! Especially being afraid! That is the worst for your baby!” She does a great job explained what we know (and how confident we are about what we think we know) and how you can think about risk sanely. Really informative and leaves you wanting to be friends with the author.

A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh

This is the other book (besides Catapult) that felt like it was written specifically for me. I waited forever for my library hold to come in, and then, while I was reading it, I wound up placing an order for a copy I could own. It’s full of anecdotes that I read aloud to my husband (including a very complicated plan to smuggle out the body of someone who died during a late night burglary) and just plain fascinating theory.

In one part of the book, Magnaugh explains that the legal definition of burglary (as opposed to purse snatching or other forms of robbery) requires “breaking the close” or somehow breaching a boundary into private space. The trouble is, that’s difficult to define—is a car with a broken, unpatched window open or closed?

As law blogger Nate Nieman, from the Northern Illinois University College of Law, explained, the Illinois Supreme Court’s answer to this dilemma was almost magical in its simplicty. The court, Nieman wrote, “answers this question by creating an imaginary plane which stretches across the open space of a ‘specific enclosure’ like a spider web.” The resulting imaginary plane would thus reseal the broken window, creating a legally recognized threshhold that could serve as evidence in a court of law. Think of it as an invisible geometric shape perceptible only to lawyers—a conceptual pane of glass
Nieman seems almost instantly wary of the narrative possibilities opened up by its creation—unconvinced by and deeply skeptical of the elaborate, invisible geometries that hopeful lawyers are now able to cast on each others clients, like crystalline spells of hot air, in a ruthless attempt to win the case.

Playborhood by Mike Lanza

I picked this up after reading the feature on Lanza in the NYT Magazine.

In a neighborhood in which front yards are for admiration only, Mike installed a picnic table, close to the sidewalk, where he and his family often sat, so that people walking by would have to talk to them. Mike put a white board on the fence and started projecting videos and slide shows onto it, in hope of luring neighborhood children. And it worked: Dogs stop to drink at a fountain made from a large, flat millstone in the shape of a hockey puck, children wander over to the play river and people pause to read the quotes on the mosaics he had an artist design. One is from the children’s book “The Big Orange Splot”: “Our street is us and we are it. Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams.”

Mike has influenced our family as well. My kids and I made friends on our block by playing a game from Camp Yale in which we asked neighbors to contribute one ingredient to what turned out to be an apple-pear-blueberry-strawberry cobbler; when it was baked, we brought each​ ​​of them a piece. My daughter liked the game so much, she recently asked to make her birthday cake that way. Then, when our next-door neighbors generously passed along their trampoline, I spread the word that other children were welcome to play in our yard anytime. Sometimes visitors will be surprised when my children aren’t home and they hear shrieks of laughter coming from our yard, as neighborhood kids bounce and squirt water guns they filled in our fountain, and I feel grateful to Mike for his vision.

The article puts a much greater emphasis on slightly dangerous play than Lanza does in his own book. And the book profiles several other Playborhoods that Lanza admires and has a lot of nitty gritty tips for how to change your own block.