The Best Books I’ve Read in the Past Five Years.

OK, gauntlet thrown. A high-stakes prompt this morning: what are the best books you’ve read in the past five years?

I’ve written a lot about all of the books below on Magpie, but I thought I’d share them in digest form here in case you’re looking for something gorgeous, or provocative, or escapist — there are, after all, countless reasons to read. Any and all of these books would make excellent book club picks, and I consider them essential to my personal, modern canon.

best books of past five years

Circe by Madeline Miller. “A bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story,” this #1 New York Times bestseller is “both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right.” Of all of the books I’ve read over the past decade, this stands out as the most meaningful, the most powerfully-written to me. I have recommended it to countless people of all different ages and walks of life, and have received almost universal rave reviews. The first line alone sends shivers down my spine. The writing is spring-loaded, imagistic, moving nimbly but containing magnitudes. I love the re-centering of an age-old hero narrative around the woman’s perspective: a myth turned on its head. There are many inversions and disruptions to the traditional hero’s story here: Circe is banished and bound to an island, and therefore not beholden (or invited) to the conventional plot of hero-leaves-home-to-save-the-world or hero-returns-home-having-saved-the-world. Full review here.

Upstream by Mary Oliver. “A collection of essays in which revered poet Mary Oliver reflects on her willingness, as a young child and as an adult, to lose herself within the beauty and mysteries of both the natural world and the world of literature.” I continue to return to this quiet, observant book of naturalistic essays, whose ethos is, more or less, “to live care-ingly.” In these essays, Oliver presents her ethical will and legacy, and sets a high standard for all who tune in to it.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. “An autobiographical work written in Italian, [this book] investigates the process of learning to express oneself in another language, and describes the journey of a writer seeking a new voice. Presented in a dual-language format, this is a wholly original book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with an intensity and clarity not seen since Vladimir Nabokov: a startling act of self-reflection and a provocative exploration of belonging and reinvention.” This book is richly meta, operating simultaneously on multiple different planes that prompt deep thought about self-expression, the limits of language, representation in words, representation in culture, translation and loss, cultural identity, and more. The text itself is written in simple, approachable prose (interestingly, though she is fluent in English, she wrote this entirely in Italian and then had a translator translate it back) but there is a lot of meat on the bone. Still waters run very deep. You will want to unpack this with an intelligent girlfriend over a few cocktails.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. “Frances is a coolheaded and darkly observant young woman, vaguely pursuing a career in writing while studying in Dublin. Her best friend is the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi. At a local poetry performance one night, they meet a well-known photographer, and as the girls are then gradually drawn into her world, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and handsome husband, Nick. But however amusing Frances and Nick’s flirtation seems at first, it begins to give way to a strange—and then painful—intimacy.” My sister and I have an ongoing debate about whether or not this is “high lit” — an irrelevant volley for so many reasons, but meaningful solely within the context of our literary companionship with one another. She thinks Rooney is entertaining, fresh; I think she’s accomplished something profound in representing modern relationships and communication in a meaningful, truthful text. So many contemporary novels either pretend technology (e.g., texting, cell phones, emails) doesn’t exist or represent it in a cloying way. In Rooney, everything works. Her knack for the cinematic is exceptional, and partly explains why two of her books have been translated into TV series. Beyond that — wow! — the books are steamy without feeling gratuitous. She has a way of representing the dynamics between characters with the slenderest of physical details. Powerful, observant writing. Absolutely un-put-down-able.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. “Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.” My love affair with Ann Patchett’s writing is well-documented on Magpie, but it all boils down to this: no one does character portraiture like Patchett. Her characters are spectacularly round, and we develop keen affection and deep understanding for them. I love Patchett’s singular, distinctive voice: observant, smooth, and polished, like fine silver. This was one of the few books I’ve ever read in my life where I actively protested and drew out the finish — I did not want it to end. Full review here.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. “Unfurling the history of Melody’s family – reaching back to the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 — to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives.” I was gobsmacked by the poetry and sprawl of this book. I described it elsewhere as follows: “The prose runs both tactile and evocative, similar in a sense to Seamus Heaney’s poetry, which somehow communicates both earthiness, muck, physicality as well as the ineffable emotions that surge through us–often simultaneously. Both writers are in this sense worldly and other-worldly: they attend to the realities (sensorial and otherwise) of living in this world while also grappling with Big, Profound Things — in Woodson’s case, the meaning of family and motherhood in particular, the conditions of belonging to others while we are alive, even the nature of death.” A resonant, poetic piece of writing — gorgeous.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. “The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?” A beautifully-told story of sisterhood, family, identity, injustice, this book hinges on doubles in fascinating narrative ways. Fans of The Gothic as a mode of writing will find these motifs, and the use of space and geography more generally, fascinating. (This is not a Gothic novel, but there are elements of the narrative design that pulled on a lot of its conventions.) I think often about the scenes in this book, and can almost feel the arrangement of people within a given room or space while doing so. The imagery, the visuals last, indicating the precision of her prose. Full review here.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. “A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.” I wept while reading this. The portrait of grief presented in this novel continues to haunt me, so true to life and so moving it seemed. I love this book’s imagination. We meet Shakespeare, his wife, his children, and learn all about the Great Bard from the vantage of his devoted but wounded wife. So creative! More on this book here.

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva. “A dystopian tale about genetically modified septuplets who are struck by a mysterious illness; a love story about a man bewitched by a mermaid; a stirring imagining of the lives of Nigerian schoolgirls in the aftermath of a Boko Haram kidnapping. The stories in All the Names They Used for God break down genre barriers—from science fiction to American Gothic to magical realism to horror—and are united by each character’s brutal struggle with fate. Like many of us, the characters in this collection are in pursuit of the sublime.” This is an eccentric, other-worldly set of short stories whose imagery lingers and whose rudder steers us toward the intersection between science, myth, and imagination. I read this nearly five years ago and still think regularly about one of the stories, in which a character gets lost underground and attempts to find his way out. (Full review here.)

Post-Scripts.

+Different ways to read the Iliad.

+Who is in your personal canon?

+Footholds.

Shopping Break.

+Currently obsessed with all the footwear from Fabrizio Viti — everything from sandals to clogs!

+Fun oversized flower earrings for under $30.

+If you are looking for a “statement sneaker” that won’t break the bank — I really love my court shoes from Madewell, and they have a great new fall-oriented colorway (I own a pastel pair, currently on sale). They are surprisingly comfortable and I like the way they look with vintage fit denim in particular.

+Love these $60 woven slides, which come in so many colors. I would get the blue or yellow – a fun contrast to your summer dress lineup! I also really like them in the hot pink, available here.

+Into this BR look from head-to-toe, including the embroidered blouse and the pleated shorts!

+Great way to display a beloved cookbook or coffee table book!

+The rattan pumpkins are back!

+My favorite tees. Ideal for tucking into jeans. f I want something with a bit more shape/length (i.e., want untucked), I like the ones from Alice Walk. They are insanely soft.

+I bought one of J. Crew’s plunge swimsuits in the Liberty floral this year and WOW. Wow. The best-fitting suit I’ve ever put on my body? Really flattering. They get the leghole / rear coverage right, and it sort of smooths/sucks you in everywhere. I also love the neckline.

+Scalloped perfection.

+Still the best (most comfortable, most flattering) underwire bra.

+Clever solution for traveling with your child’s Tonies box.

+Love this simple but style-conscious white bookcase. PB’s writing desk from the same line was really popular among Magpies during the peak of the pandemic, when we were all scrambling for at-home work spaces. It’s petite, functional, sleek, and would work with any range of different aesthetics.

+Just added these mathlink cubes to my cart for my children.

+These little basket bags with the gingham handle are adorable.

+Love this gingham club chair. I found it difficult to find any interesting patterns when I was shopping for this shape of chair a few years ago.

25 Comments

  1. I read alot, about 4 books a week.
    Fortunately, I am not gender conscious. I read BOTH male and female writers. Why is it when women do book reviews, they only report on female authors. Isn’t this gender bias?

  2. Thank you for sharing this list!! I could not agree more about each of the books I’ve read — and I’ve added the others to my Storygraph queue.

    I was especially in agreement with your analysis of Sally Rooney. It reminded me of the book I’m currently reading (Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej) — the style of writing about relationships/sex is similar, though Little Rabbit is WAY more overtly carnal.

    Anyway, I always love love love to read your thoughts on books, so please don’t ever stop writing about them! 🙂

    xx

    1. I also somehow missed the prompt to share my best books that I’ve read in the past 5 years (ha!) Mine would be:

      The Girls — Emma Cline
      Arbitrary Stupid Goal — Tamara Shopsin
      The Idiot — Elif Batuman
      My Year of Rest and Relaxation — Ottessa Moshfegh
      Trick Mirror — Jia Tolentino
      A Place for Us — Fatima Farheen Mirza
      The Collected Schizophrenias — Esmé Weijun Wang
      The Great Believers — Rebecca Makkai
      Tuesday Nights in 1980 — Molly Prentiss
      The Margot Affair — Sanaë Lemoine
      Severance — Ling Ma
      What We Owe — Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde
      Gillian Laub: Family Matters
      Crying in H Mart — Michelle Zauner
      The Undocumented Americans — Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
      No One Is Talking About This — Patricia Lockwood
      Girl, Woman, Other — Bernardine Evaristo
      The Choice — Edith Eva Eger
      Bad Blood — John Carreyrou
      Pachinko — Min Jin Lee

      This is a very diverse list in terms of genre and theme/topic, but all of these books blew my mind in one way or another!

      xx

    2. Thank you so much for sharing! I read a number of these and I had forgotten how much I was moved by “A Place for Us,” too. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Fun prompt! Adding Red at the Bone to my bookshop cart — missed your earlier review.
    Crossroads. (I think this is the most easy reading fiction Franzen has done; there’s real empathy for the wayward son, and the sprawling, high-drama set piece is an (at times skin-crawling), fervid delight).
    The Line of Beauty. Gorgeous, melancholy coming of age in thatcher’s London. Narrator is a James-worshipping aesthete, and the book’s final third wears me down—but it’s a wonderful society novel; the dialogue and the emotions underlying it are voyeuristic gold.
    The Idiot. Another outsider coming of age within — but still apart —from the society to which she now ostensibly belongs. Harvard, mid-1990s, predawn internet and a strange, absurdist romance that skitters from it. Takes a picaresque turn towards the end (to Hungry!), that i mostly enjoyed.
    Very cold people. Blunt, fractured scenes of a growing up in dysfunctional family, set in a town I’ve spent far too many hours trying to identify —some of the descriptions jolted me right back to my own frosty treks to school, to my mappings and hierarchies of the houses and melodramas (half invented) of their inhabitants.
    I think I’ve plugged A Secret History a few times already. Mischief at elite schools at its apex.
    Last — I’ve re-read Caitlin Macy’s Mrs. 3 times, and will no doubt dip into it again. Another social novel, with dark mystery, financial crimes, and UES preschool draaaaama. So riveting.

    1. WOW – I want to read all of these! The Idiot has received a number of upvotes by Magpies so I might start there. Thank you!!!

      xx

  4. I’ve read a few of these (Conversations with Friends, The Dutch House, Red at the Bone) at your suggestion so now I need to add the rest to my life. I usually love books you’ve suggested to your readers here.

    One of mine would be A Little Life. I could not put it down, and also did not want it to end. Another one is A Place for Us (which I think I also read on your rec). I don’t know that I can think of five!

    1. I had somehow omitted A Place for Us from this roundup – agree that it was excellent. So moving, artful. I remember how I felt and where I was reading that book – good signs that it has staying power.

      xx

  5. All The Light We Cannot See – honestly this is the only one that comes to mind; it was SO good. A book I truly kept thinking about long after I finished and one of those books where I was sad when I finished it because it meant I couldn’t read any more of the amazing story. I think you would love it!!

    1. I read that and did enjoy it! It was such an engrossing book, so easy and absorbing!

  6. Love your list! Off the top of my head, my list would include the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Raising A Rare Girl by Heather Lanier – which radically shifted my parenting mindset. (Highly recommend!)

    I must say about Conversations with Friends — I think this is the best Rooney book by far. I think my problem was I read this last, after Normal People and Beautiful World, Where Are You? And I almost felt like: Oh, this was what she was trying to do with the other two. But of course, Conversations with Friends actually came first! Ha! I also think her Marxism (or, rather, her character’s Marxism) gets in the way for me a bit. (And I lean left.) But it can feel a little half baked? Toothless? Thrown in for flair? Like the Timothee Chalamet character in Lady Bird leaning on his dad’s BMW and saying he doesn’t want to participate in capitalism? Maybe that’s her point? But I realize that’s only a small part of her books — I find her books captivating, the relationships realistic, and, honestly, I appreciate how much conversation I have had with friends about her books! 🙂

    1. 100% agree re your Rooney points, Joyce! Beautiful world was the thinnest version of her formula. And I’m rolling my eyes at this point at the constant physical frailty of her Frances/Marian/Alice character

    2. Ohh, great point about the frailty, Claire! I didn’t realize this before you pointed it out, but it does give her characters a bit of a damsel-in-distress edge which might be in part why I felt I wasn’t able to fully connect to them.

    3. Hi! Was waiting for you to chime in with Gilbert! I agree with your criticisms of Rooney. I had a long conversation with a friend along these lines, and we especially interrogated all of the “intellectualisms” of “Beautiful World,” which felt self-involved — thrown in purely to seem esoteric? They seemed accidental and immaterial to the text. I can’t figure out how else to read those.

      Agree that CWF is her best, though I also enjoyed NP and the last third of BWWAY!

      xx

  7. Love this prompt! Challenge accepted 😉 A selection of the best books I’ve read in the last five years:
    Unbroken
    84 Charing Cross Road
    I Capture the Castle
    The Boys in the Boat
    The War that Saved My Life
    Last Christmas in Paris

    I had to cheat and add an extra! This list omits favorites that I’ve already mentioned here ad nauseam (The Thursday Murder Club and sequel The Man Who Died Twice, and Apples Never Fall). I already knew I love British fiction, but this list reveals that I also enjoy an epistolary book! And I don’t read much nonfiction, but the ones I do read stick with me enough to be included here.

    I’m going to add Red at the Bone and The Vanishing half to my tbr. Don’t think I can do Hamnet at this stage of life! And I’ve heard mixed reviews on Sally Rooney, but maybe I’ll give her a shot, too.

    1. Ooo thank you for all of these! I think Rooney is the easiest read of the ones recommended – I read it in a flash!

      xx

  8. Have been in a bit of a reading rut — indulging in lots of Elin Hildebrand this summer and just rolling with it — but finally ordered The Dutch House based on your consistent recs! Look forward to reading <3

    1. YAY! I AM SO EXCITED FOR YOU! Like, my heart just swelled thinking about reading that book again!

  9. I’ve read 5 of your picks: Circe, The Dutch House, The Vanishing Half, Conversations with Friends, and Red at the Bone. I concur wholeheartedly on all of them except for Conversations with Friends – I just can’t get into Sally Rooney for some reason!

    Other books I’d add to my list include: The Book of Longings, Homegoing, The Warmth of Other Suns, A Gentleman in Moscow, Know My Name, and Bel Canto (my favorite Patchett – even over The Dutch House). This is such a fun prompt; I’ll be sure to ask my book club the same question!

    1. We must have similar taste – I was about to add The Book of Longings, Bel Canto, & A Gentleman in Moscow, too!

    2. So interesting! I didn’t realize Rooney was so polarizing! Thanks for adding these books to the list — so many of them have been on my list for awhile.

      xx

    3. PS – I LOVE Patchett but I couldn’t get through Bel Canto! I don’t know why!? I’ve heard that’s Patchett’s most polarizing text — even diehard Patchett fans disagree!

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