Some Favorites: Books I Read in 2017

Last year I wrote a post about some really good books I read in 2016. Looking back at everything I’d read over the year was a super enjoyable project, so I thought I’d do it again. This blog has been woefully under-kept of late, but there’s always time for a book recap, right?

This is the intro I wrote last year, which is still entirely true:

I read a lot. A few of the books I read are very literary. Some of the books I read turn out to be pretty terrible. Many of the books are non-fiction. Many involve trees, or science, or murderous people in the UK. I get suggestions from blogs and friends and family and my library and NPR and the New York Times and Buzzfeed and lists of award winners. I like exciting, gripping plots, but they can’t make up for bad or cheap writing. I like strong, complicated female characters; adventure; detectives; learning about people and communities previously unfamiliar to me; suspense; tasty descriptions of meals; and lots of other things (not all in the same book. Although that sounds great.)

Here are some books I read in the last year and really enjoyed for one reason or another. They’re classified as either nonfiction (NF) or fiction (F). This list is really in absolutely no sensible order at all and undoubtedly leaves out many great books I read in 2017. I put in a few random photos of book covers just to spice things up a little.

(You can find the 2016 list here.)

The Favorites

[books that made me think, made me want to talk about them with others, were exceptionally well-written, and were interesting/entertaining all the way through]
  • Lincoln.jpgLincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (F)
    • Won this year’s Man Booker Prize, so I’m clearly not the only one who loved it. I recommend reading it in big chunks of time, so you can settle into its unique structure and stop thinking about how the lines of text are separated. If you do it that way, it’s a super fast read. It’s both funny and wildly sad, and full of likable, well-developed characters, and made me think a lot about the wonders of being alive. And death. And racism. And Abraham Lincoln. And love for other humans.
  • The Mothers, by Brit Bennett (F)
    • Brit Bennett is only twenty-five and she is a genius. This book is about female friendship and love in a lot of forms and physical attraction and, well, motherhood. You’re gonna love it. It’s like someone took chick lit and then made it incredibly well-written and powerful. Every two seconds I came to a sentence where I was like, holy shit, that’s exactly it.
  • Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie (F)
    • I can already feel myself running out of positive adjectives. This is another one that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It’s told by multiple narrators, and follows two Pakistani families living in London. It’s about Islamophobia, and love, and families. I found it both riveting and intensely emotional, and would like all of you to read it so we can discuss it.
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (F) 
    • Station ElevenThis is a lovely little science fiction novel about a world after an apocalyptic flu outbreak. The theme can sort of be summarized by the Star Trek quote the book’s main characters adapt: “Survival is insufficient.” It’s about the importance of art, music, and human connection, and is also very exciting.
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (F)
    • Right, this one won a Pulitzer Prize, and you’ve probably heard of it – it’s the one that imagines the underground railroad as an actual, physical, underground railroad. It’s pretty intense and heartbreaking but I think you should read it all the same.   
  • Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman (NF)
    • I brought this book up in conversation probably one thousand times after I finished reading it. It’s a memoir about Gilman’s experience traveling to the People’s Republic of China in 1986 with her friend, both of them in their twenties and eager for adventure. And shit goes horribly awry. It’s about the hubris of young white women who want to see the world, and Communism, and adventure, and complexities of friendship.
  • Pym, by Mat Johnson (F)
    • This is a completely unique and fascinating book about race/racism in America, literature, and outdoor adventure; polar exploration; and Edgar Allen Poe. Also frequently very funny.
  • The IdiotThe Idiot, by Elif Batuman (F) 
    • I just completely love how Batuman writes. Her sentences are gorgeous, I loved the characters, and I got very invested in all of them. The ending was slightly unsatisfactory, and to be fair, I think a lot of people did not necessarily like this book/found it boring. But I loved this book, did not think it was boring at all, and it made me think about all of the simmering, unrequited crushes of early college days. (It’s about Selin, a Turkish-American student, and her freshman year at Harvard.)
  • The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (F, YA)
    • Ready for some YA??? This is a novel written from the point of view of a young black woman who was in the car when her friend, a young black man, was unjustly killed by a police officer. Highly recommended for all teens and grown-ups.
  • WolvesHistory of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund (F)
    • Another Man Booker Prize short-lister! This book is dark like Minnesota winters are dark. I love Fridlund’s writing and the whole thing was super gripping. I read it very quickly. I don’t even know how to explain what it’s about…northern Minnesota? Communes? Sick children? Abuse? Oddballs? Understanding nature? Strange friendships? Yeah. Yikes.
  • On Immunity, by Eula Biss (NF)
    • This book will give you empathy for anti-vaxxers, but also the facts and oomph to take. them. down. (Also it’s beautifully written and super interesting from start to finish.)
  • The Gutsy Girl, by Caroline Paul (NF, YA)
    • If you ever teach or work with young women or girls, check this one out. (It’s also a fun, entertaining read and inspiring for grown-ups, too!) The book is a collection of short stories about crazy adventures and survival stories the author has had, along with tips and activities for living a “gutsy” life. I use it when I’m teaching sometimes.

Honorable Mentions (definitely still worth a read)

 

  • The Wangs vs the World, by Jade Chang (F) 
  • Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub (F)
  • The Vegetarian, by Kang Han (F)
  • Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin (F)
  • Marlena, by Julie Buntin (F)
  • The Mountain Story, by Lori Lansens (F)
  • The Last One, by Alexandra Oliva (F)
  • This is How it Always Is, by Laurie Frankel (F)
  • Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen (F)
  • The Room, by Jonas Karlsson (F)
  • The Urban Bestiary, by Lyanda Haupt (NF)
  • Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance (NF)
  • Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey (F)
  • New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Poetry)

[Bonus: Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast (Peter Del Tredici) is my favorite field guide of the year! An awesome guide to the “weeds” you see all over the sidewalks and streets of the city and suburbs.]

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