Happy New Year’s Eve!
I have some reflective posts in the works coming into the new year, but I thought it might be fun to finish up 2017 with a wrap-up of what I was doing in all the time I wasn’t writing – reading all the books.
In 2017 I read 124 books (though part of me is dying to spend the rest of today reading so that I can make it 125 which somehow seems more satisfying. We’ll see how it goes). Here’s a roundup of my favorite reads of the year. Favorite for me can mean a few different things – either that I really enjoyed it for it’s entertainment value, or that I thought it was an important book because of the subject matter, or that I thought the quality of the writing was exceptional, or in some cases, all three.
I did a decent amount of reading this year on audio. Not all books are good on audio, so recommending good audiobooks is somewhat separate from recommending good books in general. I can do a separate post on that at some point if any of you are interested. But for now…
by Yaa Gyasi. This was the second book I read in 2017, which meant I set the bar for the year pretty high. The book begins in Ghana in the 18th century with two women who are half-sisters, although they do not know each other. One is captured and becomes a slave, the other is married off to a wealthy English slave trader. The book follows the two sisters’ families for the next 8 generations. This is a heartbreaking but incredibly important and well-crafted book that shows the ways that slavery and dehumanization impact generations far into the future. It’s not a happy book, but it is unforgettable. Trigger Warnings for violence and sexual assault
The Nature of the Beast, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses
Louise Penny. These are the latest three in the (ongoing) Chief Inspector Gamache series. They just keep getting better and better. I love that these are set in Canada rather than New York or England. I love the richness of the characters and the world Penny has created. I love Armand Gamache and I want to be his best friend. That is all.
by Brit Bennett. In a close-knit black community in Southern California, seventeen-year-old Nadia Turner is left grieving and confused after her mother’s suicide. She finds comfort in the arms of the pastor’s twenty-one year old son, Luke. But her unplanned pregnancy, and the measures the community takes to cover it up, will haunt Nadia for the rest of her life. One of the unique and compelling features of this story is the voice of “the mothers” who are the collective community of older black women from the church who sometimes step in to tell the story from their perspective.
Behold the Dreamers
by Imbolo Mbue. You will probably be seeing a theme with my books by now – I tend to be most drawn in by books about how people deal with hardships, whether those are physical, emotional, economical, relational, or all of the above. This is an all of the above. Jende Jonga moves to New York City from Cameroon in search of a better life for his wife and son. He hits the jackpot when he is hired as a driver for an important Wall Street executive. Eventually, his wife Neni also finds employment with the Edwardses. But when the financial crisis hits and the Edwards family falls apart, Jende and Neni have to decide which dreams are worth fighting for.
This is How It Always Is
by Lisa Frankel. Every time I try to describe this book to people, especially more conservative people, they tend to wrinkle their noses in distaste. What is phenomenal about this book is the raw, honest way it delves into a family whose members are all trying to do the right thing, without there being any clear answer as to what the right thing is. The polarizing issue with this book is that it deals with a family whose youngest son, Claude, begins to proclaim at a very young age that when he grows up he wants to be a girl. While the central issue in this book is how Rosie and Penn (who are one of the most real and authentic couples I have seen on paper) and their three other sons, navigate how to make decisions for a child who is not old enough to make them for themselves and what happens when we keep secrets. It is a book I will think about for years to come.
Rich People Problems
by Kevin Kwan. The third book in the Crazy Rich Asians
series (soon to be a movie!), this is just pure voyeuristic, indulgent fun. This one happens a few years after China Rich Girlfriend
when the impending death of the matriarch brings the Youngs and all of their assorted family members back to the ancestral home.
My Lady Jane
by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. I do not even know how to describe this book because all descriptions sound ridiculous to the point of stupidity…and yet…it is delightful. Absurd. Hilarious. Wonderful. Exceptionally good on audio. Think Princess Bride.
This team of writers decided to take a classic piece of England’s history, the story of Lady Jane Gray who ruled for only 9 days during the Tudor period. Except also, half of the characters have the ability to turn into animals. Some at will, others not so much. I cannot even tell you how much fun this was and I am delighted that the authors intend to make this a series about different “Janes.” I believe the upcoming one is a retelling of Jane Eyre
by Fredrik Backman. Backman became a favorite author of mine this year. I had previously read A Man Called Ove
and this year I read his three other major works in translation, Beartown, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry
, and Britt-Marie Was Here.
I highly recommend all of these, but thought Beartown
was the standout for m this year. For being a book that revolves around the fate of a junior ice hockey team (a subject I could not care less about), I found this amazingly compelling. This was partly because the real story here is about a dying town with one thing to rally around – the hockey team – and what happens when the fate of the hockey team (and therefore the town) is put in peril by the accusations of a teenage girl of violence at the hands of the team’s star player. It is an exploration of community, of rape culture, of how we choose who and what we believe and what we are willing to ignore. It is gut-wrenching, but it is also a story of courage. Trigger Warning for sexual assault.
by Abbi Geni. I honestly don’t understand why nobody is talking about this book. I heard about it from my dear friend and partner in all things book-related, Lorien, but she is the only person I know who has even heard of it. This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read. The writing is lyrical and haunting, but the thing that struck me most was the sense of place. Every time I picked up this book I had the sense of being transported. Miranda is a nature photographer who has come to the Farallon Islands off of the coast of California to do landscape photography. The only natural inhabitants of these stark and forbidding islands are the animals. She joins a group of biologists each of whom has come to the islands for their own purposes. The inciting incident is an assault that Miranda experiences at the hands of one of her companions. The plot thickens when her assailant’s body is found a few days later, possibly of mysterious causes. In some ways this is a mystery, but much more than a whodunit, this is a story about trust and suspicion, loss and recovery, and the power of natural beauty.
Little Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng. Ng has quickly become one of my favorite up and coming authors. While not everyone would agree, my love of somewhat sad domestic dramas made her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You
a favorite of mine last year. I do think Little Fires Everywhere
is a little less sad, if that’s a thing for you, but hits all the same great notes of exploring the multi-dimensional relationship dynamics within a family. Mia and her teenaged daughter Pearl have moved around a lot. When they move into a rental property owned by the wealthy Richardson family, Pearl becomes friends (and maybe more than friends) with their four teenage children. Meanwhile Izzy, the youngest and most misunderstood Richardson child, apprentices herself to free-spirited artist Mia. An Asian baby is found abandoned in their affluent Cleveland suburb and a prominent white family who are friends of the Richardsons attempts to adopt her, but when the birth mother comes forward and wants to take her baby back, members of the Richardson family, and Mia and Pearl, take sides. For Pearl, the adoption brings up questions about her own origins that she has never dared to ask. For others, it is questions of heritage and culture – what part of her cultural identity will an Asian child lose by being raised by white parents? This book manages to be incredibly accessible, fast-paced and engaging while dealing with a slew of complicated issues.
Braving the Wilderness
by Brene’ Brown. Brene’ Brown has a profound way of hitting the nail right on the head. This book is very similar in tone to her last two books, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong. To be completely honest, the amount of brand new content in this book was not enough to really justify an entire stand-alone book, but everything in it is so good that I still count it as a favorite of the year. The part that hit me hardest (in a good way) was when she wrote about not dehumanizing people we don’t agree with and how this has to work both ways. “Here is what I believe: 1. If you are offended or hurt when you hear Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters calledbitch, whore, or the c-word, you should be equally offended and hurt when you hear those same words used to describe Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Theresa May. 2. If you felt belittled when Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “
‘a basket of deplorables’ then you should have felt equally concerned when Eric Trump said ‘Democrats aren’t even human.’…We must never tolerate dehumanizations–the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history.”
Little Princes: One Man’s Promis to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal
by Conor Grennan. Connor Grennan was a regular Joe hoping to see the world and have fun doing it. As a way to seem like less of a selfish jerk to the people back home he decided to start his trip around the world by volunteering for a few months in Nepal, because who can argue with that? In the end, the children of Nepal captured his heart and upset his entire life. You may have qualms about whether or not Grennan went about his work in the best way. You can argue that he should have worked with existing NGO’s instead of creating yet another. You could argue that there’s a bit of a “white man coming in to save the poor Nepali” to this story. I don’t care. It’s still a story about a young man who allowed himself to be moved by the needs of others to the extent that it changed his entire life. May we all be so bold in pursuing with passion the causes that are most dear to our hearts.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
by Matthew Desmond. This book was an absolutely eye-opening (and somewhat horrifying) look at the way the housing and social service system is designed so that landlords in impoverished communities directly and intentionally profit from the misfortunes of others without every giving them a fair chance to improve their situation. There are people living in my own neighborhood who I believe are in these kinds of situations and understanding everything they are up against was both enlightening and disheartening. This is such an important book, especially for people who believe that homelessness is always the product of an individual’s bad choices.
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy
by Sue Klebold. I am not sure what it was that sparked a sudden interest in Columbine, but I first read Dave Cullen’s more journalistic account of exactly what happened in the Columbine shootings (which was also very interesting, especially seeing the way the media handled the situation and the blatant misinformation that has remained attached to the incident to this day) which led to this account written by shooter Dylan Klebold’s mother. This is heart-wrenching in many ways, but more than anything, it reads like a cry to other parents to recognize signs of adolescent depression which can be much different than depression in adults. At the end of the day Sue Klebold was left in one of the hardest positions of all. She lost her baby to suicide never having known the depth of pain he was in, but she also had to live with the knowledge that he had killed other children too. While she does not excuse this in any way, I think this account is truly valuable because, unlike Eric Harris, the other shooter and arguably the mastermind behind the shootings, Dylan Klebold was not a psychopath. While it is scarier to accept that “regular” people can come to such a point of pain and confusion that they could do something so horrific, it is important to understand. It is also important to remember that the loss of a life is a tragedy, no matter what the person’s sins were.
The Sound of Gravel
by Ruth Wariner. This was my favorite nonfiction book of 2017. I admit that I have a fascination with polygamist cults. This book was riveting, not only because the situation is so bizarre and fascinating, but because the writing is exceptional. Ruth Wariner was born Ruth LeBaron, the 39th of her father’s 42 children from seven wives. This is the story of Ruth and her family trying to survive after the murder of her father, about Ruth’s growing into adulthood and awareness of all that is not right with her world and the values she has been taught to hold onto, and her eventual dramatic escape from the cult. It is mesmerizing, and heartbreaking, and hopeful. One of the most amazing things is how tenderly she writes about her mother and other adults in her life who were primarily responsible for her growing up in such an unhealthy environment. While she does not excuse their actions, she writes with an empathy that can only come from genuine forgiveness which is why I think her book is so powerful.
by J. D. Vance. This book has received a lot of hype after making the New York Times bestseller list, partly because of its timeliness in our current political landscape. Though this is not a book about politics. It is a book about the salt of the earth people of rural Kentucky and Ohio. Vance grew up as one of these people and later went on to join the Marines and graduate from Yale Law School. Returning to his childhood and the people and culture that raised him, he tenderly unpacks the beliefs and motivations of a people who believed themselves to be overlooked and unable to attain the American dream and how these feelings and ideas have played into some of the social and politcal opinions held by the vast majority of people in these communities. It is insightful and compassionate and worth the read.
You’ll Grow Out of It
by Jessi Klein. This book surprised me. With the exceptioin of the essay on porn (not my jam) I found this collection of essays, which I anticipated being mostly comic in nature, to be insightful and perceptive and to speak to the many facets of what it means to be a woman in the world today. It is fun and funny, but also full of moments that I could resonate with and it left me with a lot to think about.
Bianca Bosker. This was my most recent nonfiction read and while I will admit that it took me while to work through, I still found it fascinating. If you watched and enjoyed the Netflix documentary, Somm
then this is for you. Booker quit her job as a technology writer in order to delve into the world of sommeliers–the wine elitists who spend not only their careers, but nearly all of their waking hours studying, smelling, tasting, and breathing wine. She delves into their inner world until she actually joins in when she decides to dedicate herself to the task of passing the exam to become a certified sommelier.
So there you have it. Have you read any of these? What did you think? What were your favorite reads this year?