The 16 Best Books I Read in 2016

I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday! As many long-term readers know, I love to read. As I know many of you are also readers, I wanted to share my favorite books of 2016.

Reading this list you’ll notice a few trends. I read lots of non-fiction, i.e. biographies, memoirs, and social criticism books. I also enjoy beautifully written fiction – though the occasional beach read slips in from time to time. This year I’ve read many books on what it means to be black in America – a subject that came to the forefront of American politics many times in 2016.

So without further ado, my favorite books of 2016! And don’t worry, there are no book spoilers. Is there anything worse than a book roundup with spoilers? Gah.

My Brilliant Friend

1. The Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

“Ferrante’s freshness has nothing to do with fashion…it is imbued with the most haunting music of all, the echoes of literary history.” – The New York Times

Many critics have been calling The Neapolitan Novels a ‘modern classic’, and I completely see why – they’re fantastic. The four novels follow the story of Lenù and Lila, two bright girls growing up in Naples in the 1950’s. My Brilliant Friend is as much a bildungsroman as it is a study of female friendship; as a woman, I related to so many of the conflicts and sentiments in the book.

Perfect for: People who love gorgeous fiction.

2. The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Bliss is about a man who travels to the world’s happiest places to better understand happiness. In this pursuit, the author visits Iceland, Bhutan, Switzerland, and Thailand. He also travels to Moldova, one of the world’s unhappiest countries.

This book explores many interesting ideas, positing that a certain amount of boredom is essential to a happy life, and that every country has its “cocktail party question”. In the US it’s “What do you do?”, in the U.K. it’s “What school did you attend?” and in Switzerland its “Where are you from?”

Perfect for: Culture and travel lovers.

3. The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

The Year of Living Danishly is the hilarious account of an English couple who moves to rural Denmark. They soon find out why the Danes are so happy, from hygge traditions to a high-trust society.

“A year on and I feel as though I understand more about what it is to live Danishly. Danes are a discerning lot. Not for them the overt friendliness of Southern Europeans or Americans, nor the rictus-grin-politeness of the Brits. Danes are blunt and direct and trusting and secure in a way I’ve never encountered before. It’s very unlikely that someone will tell you to ‘have a nice day’ in Denmark.”

Personally, this book has helped me embrace winter more than ever before. I’ve been wearing cozy socks, lighting tons of candles, and having friends over more often. Winter doesn’t have to be miserable if you embrace hygge.

Perfect for: Anyone who has lived abroad.
32 Yolks

4. 32 Yolks by Eric Ripert

I’ve read a lot of chefs’ memoirs: Marco Pierre White’s, Jacques Pepin’s, Gabrielle’s Hamilton’s. But Eric Ripert’s is my favorite.

Eric Ripert, the famed chef behind Le Bernardin, grew up in the south of France, the lonely child of divorced parents. He rose to fame through the rigorous kitchens of Paris’ elite restaurants, eventually moving to the United States.

I loved reading about Ripert’s story; he seems like the most elegant, self-effacing person who truly deserves his success. Plus, he’s such a silver fox.

Perfect for: Those who love chef memoirs or books set in France.

5. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Have you guys seen Atonement? It’s an incredible movie starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. But the book is even better – Ian McEwan is truly a master storyteller.

Atonement follows the heartbreaking story of a young man and woman who fall in love in England during WWII, but are betrayed by someone they love. I won’t tell you much more, as I don’t want to spoil the plot. But seriously, if you want to discover an incredible writer, read McEwan.

Perfect for: People who love stories set in WWII. Also note – the first half of the book is kind of slow but half-way through it’s impossible to put down.

6. A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout

A House in the Sky is the story of a Canadian woman’s fifteen-month abduction in Somalia. Lindhout suffered many horrific traumas in Somalia, and whenever she thought she could no longer endure, she retreated to her ‘house in the sky’.

You guys, I seriously could not put this down. I would highly recommend this if you need a book to entertain you at length, like on a plane ride.

Perfect for: people who love suspenseful, can’t-put-it-down books.

7. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Out of every book on this list, Homegoing might be my favorite. Homegoing begins on the west coast of Africa in the late 18th century with two African half-sisters. One is shipped to the United States as a slave, and one marries a British slaver. The story follows six generations of their descendants, and brings to light how pervasive the effects of slavery are on both sides of the Atlantic.

In addition to having a fascinating plot, this book is so beautifully written. I absolutely loved it.

Perfect for: Everyone.

8. Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

Did you know that black men compose just six percent of the American population but are nearly 40 percent of those murdered? Ghettoside explores why black men are victims of homicide more than any other demographic.

While I’m no expert on the subject, I had several takeaways from this brilliant book:

  • The media needs to cover black murders with the same fervor they do white murders. Black murders often go unreported and uninvestigated, which is unacceptable.
  • Underprivileged black communities need more police, not less, to prevent homicide. As Leovy wrote, “Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”
  • In addition to homicide, lack of law enforcement also increases gang activity. “Gangs could seem pointlessly self-destructive, but the reason they existed was no mystery. Boys and men always tend to group together for protection. They seek advantage in numbers. Unchecked by a state monopoly on violence, such groupings fight, commit crimes, and ascend to factional dominance as conditions permit. Fundamentally gangs are a result of lawlessness, not a cause.”

Perfect for: Anyone who wants to understand the link between homicide and racism in America.

9. Mom and Me and Mom by Maya Angelou

Do you guys know about Emma Watson’s book club, Our Shared Shelf? Mom and Me and Mom, the last of Maya Angelou’s seven memoirs, is the November/December book.

In my opinion, Maya Angelou was one of the best memoirists of our time. Her last book focuses on her adult life, and primarily her relationship with her mother.

Perfect for: Anyone who loves memoirs. I would also highly recommend her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

10. Just Kids by Patti Smith

Patti Smith is truly a renaissance woman: a visual artist, a poet, a singer-songwriter. She’s also an incredible writer – I read many passages of her memoir aloud to appreciate how beautiful they were.

Just Kids is Patti Smith’s memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the esteemed photographer. Just Kids covers their tumultuous early years in New York, and also offers a fascinating glimpse into the culture and music scene of the 1970s.

Perfect for: People who are obsessed with the art, culture, and music of the ’70s.

11. 40 Ways to See Winston Churchill by Gretchen Rubin

Winston Churchill was a boss. He basically did whatever he wanted; he disdained other people’s opinions, wore out of fashion siren suits, was a crybaby, a painter, a statesman, a brilliant writer, and a daring soldier.

I loved learning more about Churchill in the short but fascinating memoir. His vision for Britain was grand; he wanted to restore the island to its glory days. Born in 1874, at the height of the British Empire, by his death in 1955 the British Empire was all but dissolved. While some would say he failed to do this, he led Britain in its darkest hours and was one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.

Perfect for: Anyone who loves a brief but thorough biography. Or anyone who loves Churchill.

12. 60 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoit and Julie Barlow

As you guys know, I love books about France, so I really enjoyed this deep-dive the economy, politics and history of France. While I’ve spent a lot of time in France, this book taught me a lot about France that I didn’t know. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who is planning on traveling to France, or anyone who is currently living there.

Perfect for: Francophiles.

13. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

I’m just going to come out and say it – I want to be best friends with Chimamanda Adiche.

In We Should All Be Feminists, Adiche draws upon her personal experiences to argue why should all be feminists.

Also, for all Beyoncé fans, did you know some of the lyrics in Beyoncé‘s song Flawless are from Chimamanda Adiche’s TED talk?

We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.

Perfect for: Feminists.

14. Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adiche

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moves to the United States and discovers what it means to be black on the other side of the Atlantic. Americanah is a lot of things – an analysis of race in America, a bildungsroman, a love story. I really enjoyed seeing the perspective of a Non-American Black (NAB) would be like.

Perfect for: anyone interested in race relations or coming-of-age stories.

15. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I discovered When Breath Becomes Air through Cup of Jo. Jo Goddard’s twin sister is Paul Kalanithi’s widow, and I found their story so heartbreaking and compelling. (Also, please read Jo’s makeover of her twin sister’s home – so sweet and moving.)

I rarely cry, but I sobbed reading this book. Throughout this book I found myself wondering, How can someone who is such a brilliant physician be such a brilliant writer? See the following paragraph:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

Overall, I thought this was one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Also, does this book not have the most poetic title?

Perfect for: people who like to ponder the meaning of life.

16. The Crossroads of Should and Must by Elle Luna

After I read Elle Luna’s incredible Medium article, I knew I had to read her book. This quick, colorful book is about how we all come to a crossroads between “should” and “must”. “Should” embodies the expectations of others; our parents’ expectations, society’s expectations, our own pressures we put on ourselves. “Must” is our true calling; what excites us, what wakes us up in the morning.

Like most twenty-somethings, I grapple with the question “What should I do with my life?” all the time. So I found this book very useful and interesting.

Perfect for: Anyone trying to figure out what to do with his or her life.

Books I want to read in 2017:

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (the third Neopolitan Novel)

Hillbilly Elegy

Sanford Meisner: On Acting (I’ve been taking acting class!)

 Half of a Yellow Sun (Yes, more Chimamanda Adiche)

Between the World and Me (every since I read this article)

Lonesome Dove

The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs

What were your favorite books of 2016? Share below in the comments; I would love reading recommendations for 2017!

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

21 thoughts on “The 16 Best Books I Read in 2016”

  1. Thank you for such a brilliant list of enticing books. I recently threw my TV in the dumpster so have lots of peaceful time to reconnect with reading.

  2. I loved My Brilliant Friend, Geography of Bliss, and When Breath Becomes Air as well! My other favorite from this year was Born to Run, which I have been enthusiastically recommending to everyone I know :) I’ve got the rest of the Ferrante books, The Year of Living Danishly, and Homegoing on my list for 2017 and cannot wait. Happy new year and happy reading to you! xxx

  3. Your book reviews of your favorite books of 2016 was superb. I am sure anyone reading them would be inspired as I am. Many you have
    given me which I have really enjoyed as you did. Books and reading
    are still one if my favorite things! Thank you for your taking the time
    to write and express so well your reasons for the love of the many fine
    books you like. I was really impressed with the “Everyone Should Be a Feminist”. I have ordered a copy, for it sounds as if I agree with what she has written, makes clear how a lot of women think ! Thank you. You are so brilliant in your explanations. Love, Gamma

  4. Great list! I *loved* Americanah (who didn’t, really?), and I’m finally putting The Year of Living Danishly on my to-read list now, after seeing it recommended so many times! Maya Angelou’s also sounds great, will definitely check it out too. :)

  5. Wow such a varied and interesting list – have just added a whole pile of these to my Goodreads! I have Homecoming and the first Elena Ferrante on my Kindle to read over the holidays too so now I’m even more excited to start. My favourite book of the year is a tie between Neverwhere and Cloud Atlas, although I also really liked Marching Powder for something quite different, and also the Hangman’s Daughter series for a lighter but still reallly good read.

  6. I read The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs earlier this year and loved it. Sciolino’s writing of her beloved Paris was just about parfait :)

    If you like Adichie’s writing, I highly recommend Purple Hibiscus. It’s her first book and I loved it (I first learned of her through a post-colonial English lit class I took in college).

    Another rec for a culinary non-fiction work is 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman. I love the Lower East Side Tenement Museum so this was a fun and interesting read.

    And for me, my favorite reads of 2016 were World War II related-one non-fiction (In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, love his stuff, his writing reads like fiction), and one fiction (Nightingale).

  7. Nice list! I’ve added a whole bunch to my wishlist. I remember watching Chimamanda’s TED Talk and I shared it all over Facebook I thought it was so good, never got around to reading any of her work though. Paul Kalanithi’s book was the last book I read last year and I also thought it was so well written. Really inspired me to write more. Have you read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr? I have a feeling you’ll like it.

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