LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Untrodden Paths, Hard Choices | Memoir

Memoirs this month all center on the theme of making difficult choices. Amy Dickinson makes the decision to move to the last place she ever thought she’d end up, opting to stay and thrive there. Christine Hyung-Oak Lee chooses to reinvent herself after a stroke. Stephanie Saldaña writes about making a home in a city scarred by war and conflict. And Deborah Ziegler comes to terms with her daughter’s decision to seek death with dignity after a terminal cancer diagnosis. All of these authors make life-affirming choices, even when those choices are difficult and take them outside their comfort zones into uncharted territory.

dickinson-strangerstellmeDickinson, Amy. Strangers Tend To Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home. Hachette. Mar. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9780316352642. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780316352581. MEMOIR
Dickinson’s new memoir (after The Mighty Queens of Freeville) makes Freeville, NY, seem as warm, inviting, and quirky as the fictional Stars Hollow of TV’s Gilmore Girls. This book covers parts of her childhood in the community, touches on her first marriage and the early years of her daughter’s life, and then loops back again to Freeville, where the author settles down in middle age. You might think that would be the end of it. Well, Dickinson gets back in touch with an old friend, Bruno Schickel, sparks fly, and they get married and decide to merge their two households full of teenagers while also trying to care for aging parents. Drama ensues, but so does a lot of love, warmth, honesty, and personal growth. Dickinson is funny here, and while some readers might find certain “plot points” familiar from her first memoir, Strangers brings in context that is completely fresh, especially the struggles of two well-established families coming together in a second marriage. VERDICT If you don’t already love this author from her “Ask Amy” advice column and NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, this latest work will make you want to move to Freeville to become her new neighbor.

Hyung-Oak Lee, Christine. Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life. HarperCollins. Feb. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9780062422156. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062422170. MEMOIR
tellmeeverything-hyungoakleeNovelist Hyung-Oak Lee (Golem of Seoul, 2018) candidly discusses what it was like to suffer a stroke as an otherwise healthy 33-year-old. A blood clot traveled through a hole in her heart (that she didn’t know she had) and lodged in her brain, where it wreaked havoc and killed part of her brain tissue. She loses memory, the ability to read and write, and her independence. She spends the next year in recovery. Eventually, her writing and reading comprehension returns, and her ability to remember resurfaces, but there are difficult times before that happens. The author appears to be perfectly healthy, but she’s completely unwell. Friends compliment her on how good she looks but are flummoxed by her inability to do simple things such as drive a car, comprehend a restaurant menu, or remember a conversation they had minutes earlier. The people closest to her offer support through her long rehabilitation, but it is hard on them, too, and part of this account acknowledges the difficulty that others experienced during this time. The book comes full circle when, in the hospital ward where her stroke was diagnosed, she gives birth to her daughter—a reminder of Hyung-Oak Lee’s strength and resilience. VERDICT This absolutely fascinating memoir will give readers a fresh appreciation for the skills we use daily, as well as increased empathy for those going through any kind of recovery.

Saldaña, Stephanie. A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide. Sourcebooks. Feb. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781492639053. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492609759. MEMOIR
countrybetween-jpg121616In this memoir, Saldaña meets Frederic, who is a monk, in a monastery in Syria and they fall in love. This sounds like the story’s happy ending (for more on this, read the author’s Bread and Angels), but instead, this is where Saldaña’s narrative starts. She and Frederic, now a former monk, marry in France yet seek a place to live where they both feel at home. Both are deeply spiritual and profoundly religious, and they decide that the holy city of Jerusalem should be their first home together. They rent a rambling house on Nablus Road from Franciscan nuns, on the Palestinian side of the city. Nablus Road is a colorful and vibrant place, and it is here that they raise their young children. However, on the edge of East and West Jerusalem, Saldaña and her growing family watch as checkpoints spring up in front of their house and the neighborhood’s way of life changes. Though they ultimately move to a different house, they remain in Jerusalem, a testament to the couple’s full embrace of peace and a commitment to living the lives they chose together. VERDICT This book about hope in uncertain times reads especially poignantly for anyone looking darkly at the future. Though Saldaña writes about her Catholic faith, she does so in a way that is inclusive of other traditions as well.

Ziegler, Deborah. Wild and Precious Life. Atria. Oct. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781501128516. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501128530. MEMOIR
You might already know the name Brittany Maynard, who wildprecious-zieglerdied in 2014. Her advocacy for death with dignity after receiving a terminal brain tumor diagnosis caught the attention of millions on social media. In the initial days of the diagnosis, Ziegler, Brittany’s mother, was extremely opposed to her daughter pursuing physician aid in dying, but later changed her position to support Brittany’s choice. This book is Ziegler’s account of how she came to encourage her daughter through her horrific diagnosis to her ultimate decision. Ziegler shares details from Brittany’s childhood and teenage years; the two did not always have a smooth relationship. These episodes provide additional depth that readers may not have seen through Brittany’s introduction of herself on social media. A solid reminder to parents that they must let children make their own choices, whether or not they agree with their decisions. Ziegler comes by this lesson in a difficult way, and her pain is evident throughout. VERDICT This book is best read as Ziegler’s personal experience of losing a child, rather than Brittany’s decision to pursue death with dignity. (This memoir carries with it some controversy; on its release date, Brittany’s husband, Dan Diaz, issued a statement indicating that Ziegler wrote and published the book against Brittany’s wishes.) 

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Rachael Dreyer About Rachael Dreyer

Rachael is currently the Head of Research Services for the Eberly Family Special Collections Library at the Pennsylvania State University. If she's not at work or reading, she's probably binge-watching bad TV, trying out some recipe with ingredients she can't pronounce, or getting lost on a new hiking trail. She's a fan of farmer's markets, strong coffee, and unconventionally attractive dogs.

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