What’s the first thing you remember?

A couple days ago, our library director issued a call for contributions to our annual “staff picks/best books” column for the local paper. I skimmed my LibraryThing catalog to look over what I’d read this past year, disqualifying anything that was published before 2012…and I ended up with nineteen (19)* titles that belonged in my own personal “favorite” category.

*Compiling the “other favorites” list at the end of this post, I added a few more.

fangirlFor my contributions for the column, I excluded YA books because many of us on staff – including, of course – the YA librarian – read and love YA, and I figured the books I would write about (Every Day by David Levithan, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Just One Day by Gayle Forman) are the ones they would write about also.

I still couldn’t possibly narrow it down to fewer than five. Here’s what I wrote about my choices (below), and after those are the rest of the list.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
O’Farrell’s sixth novel is set in London during the legendary heatwave of 1976. Robert Riordan goes to get the paper one morning and disappears; his wife, Gretta, is frantic, and calls their three grown children home. Misunderstandings between siblings are resolved and buried secrets come to light, but the true genius of this book is how deeply the reader sees inside each character, while the characters lack that same insight into each other.

feverFever by Mary Beth Keane
I’m afraid this brilliantly imagined work of historical fiction did not receive the buzz it deserved. Keane brings Irish immigrant Mary Mallon, a.k.a. “Typhoid Mary,” to life in early 1900s New York, and creates a portrait of a woman whose calling was cooking, but whose cooking was lethal. For perhaps the first time, readers will have sympathy for Mary.

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley
Ripley follows three American exchange students through a year in Finland, Poland, and South Korea – all countries whose PISA scores have shot up over the past decade – to investigate how these countries have improved their education systems and whether the United States can adopt a new approach successfully. The writing is lively and clear, the research is solid, the results are not tremendously surprising – it comes down to teachers and rigor.


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Life After Life is like the movie Sliding Doors, but with more doors; protagonist Ursula Todd tries them all, dying and being reborn into her same life again and again. Born in England in 1910, Ursula lives through (or doesn’t) World War I, the Spanish flu, World War II and the Blitz. It’s historical fiction, time travel, and philosophical what-if all rolled into one masterful book.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
“The impossible happens once to each of us,” the story begins. Greta in 1985 is grieving: her twin brother is dead of AIDS and her lover has left her. But then Greta wakes up in 1918, and then in 1941. In each time, she is herself, in the same apartment, with the same friends and family, but their relationships are different. As Greta cycles through three selves – in 1918, 1941, and 1985 – she eventually realizes she must decide whether to return to her present, or stay in the past. Toward the end of this beautiful book, she concludes, “What is a perfect world except for one that needs you?”


Other nonfiction favorites:
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (essays)
I Don’t Know by Leah Hager Cohen
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield
Dear Friend: Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker by Eric Torgersen (1998)


Other fiction favorites:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
Astray by Emma Donoghue (short stories)


Go Giants by Nick Laird
Aimless Love by Billy Collins
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Here are last year’s favorites.

The title of this post is a line from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

5 thoughts on “What’s the first thing you remember?

    • It did take a while to get into. If I remember correctly, her lives are much shorter in the beginning (“Darkness, etc.”), but as she starts to live longer, you get more of the story at a time before it starts over, and the stories begin to overlap. If you could push past the first 50 pages or so you might like it. But some of her other stuff is great too – I love the first Jackson Brodie book, Case Histories, and Behind the Scenes at the Museum was pretty unique.

  1. I couldn’t get into Life After Life either, nor did I make it far in The Reason I Jump. I’m surprised at the rave reviews on that one – I think it would be invaluable if you have an autistic kid, but as a general reader I found it choppy and hard to get into. I’m really looking forward to Instructions for a Heatwave and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

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