2017 Favorites

Top 10 Books of 2017 Brief Book Reviews(5)

I read so many really great books this year. Books that broke my heart, made me laugh and cry, books that terrified me, books that enchanted me and made me wonder, books that made me fear the future and books that carried me into the past, books that grounded me in the present and books that transported me to magical worlds.

Of the 104 books I read this year, these were my favorites:

Top 10 Books of 2017 Brief Book Reviews(1)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This book astonished me. Within the first few pages, I knew that it would be one of my favorites of the year. A favorite for always. It is just. that. GOOD. It’s hilarious and smart, touching and bizarre, and I fucking LOVED it. A truly remarkable read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
I had the great pleasure of hearing Jesmyn Ward read from Sing, Unburied, Sing with my friend Guinevere a few months back at East Bay Booksellers. As far as I am concerned, Jesmyn Ward can do no wrong. She does things with language and narrative that are magic. The characters in this book, their story, will amaze you and break your heart. Read it, it’s so worth the heartbreak.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
I loved this story of complicated father figure Samuel Hawley and his teenage daughter Loo navigating their way through the world. It’s a tale full of adventure, danger, suspense, and heart. Tinti keeps you hanging on every sentence, every word, up until the glorious end.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Idaho is a gorgeously written debut novel about family, memory, and loss. The narrative pivots around the murder of a child and is both haunting and lovely, with a line of suspense that keeps the reader turning page after page. I was so moved by Idaho, by the characters and the writing, and I can’t wait to see what Emily Ruskovich comes out with next.

Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
What amazes me, again and again, about Knausgaard’s writing is that there is a pedestrian everyday-ness about it. He catalogs and peels apart the world around him in seemingly ordinary prose. And then, in peeling back and exposing ugliness and the ritual of the mundane, he shows us such great beauty and insight. That beauty is, at times, simply breathtaking.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
This book stole my heart, broke it, and stitched it back together. It’s the story of an all-consuming tangled mess of love and violence, of growing up, of survival. It’s brutal and terrifying and beautiful and brave, and completely riveting. An absolutely stunning debut. Read it.  Trigger warning: rape, incest

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I can’t believe I waited so long to read Pachinko, my 104th book of the year. It’s a saga about multiple generations of a Korean family in Japan, about identity and duty and honor, about love and longing and loss, about the triumphs and hardships of life. It’s a great read, a page-turner, and Lee is a wonderful, seemingly effortless storyteller.

Hourglass by Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is a memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. It is intimate and insightful and achingly beautiful and I loved it.

Hunger by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is a powerhouse. Hunger traces the before and after in Gay’s life. Before she was raped, and after; before she used food as a salve and after, when food filled the void of hurt and pain left by the boys who raped her when she was 12, when hunger built her body into a massive impenetrable fortress. Gay is consistently smart and insightful, and her look inward in Hunger is fastidious and unflinching. Her look outward, towards the way women in society can never escape the weight of their bodies, their worth constantly measured by their ability to disappear into thinness or reviled for their audacity to take up space, is dead-on.

Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab
I sing the praises of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic fantasy trilogy to anyone who will listen. As I mentioned in my review of the third book, A Conjuring of Light, “these books are the perfect escape.” And they are! They are a pleasure to read because they’re FUN and full of magic, and they make me happy. Start with book one, A Darker Shade of Magic, and you won’t be able to stop. I’ve been trying to find a magical series that replicates the feelings I was imbued with while reading this trilogy but I haven’t found another fantasy series that I’ve loved as much. Let me know if you do…

More great reads of 2017:
Silk Poems by Jen Bervin
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Her Body and Other Parties stories by Carmen Maria Machado
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
Human Acts by Han Kang
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Look poems by Solmaz Sharif
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
News of the World by Paulette Jiles

What were your favorite books of 2017?

Give Books: A Holiday Gift Guide

Give Books Brief Book Reviews Instagram Post

There were books I loved this year, books that were amazing and/or difficult reads, that didn’t make it onto this gift guide list because either the subject matter isn’t for everyone or those titles are on so many gift guide lists already (looking at you, Lincoln in the Bardo and Sing, Unburied, Sing). So I’ll be compiling my top books of the year in another post.

Happy gifting!

FOR YOUR MOM

1.) FOR MOM: Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass, $22.95
Hourglass is a stunner, a deftly braided memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. In it Shapiro excavates the girl she was, examines the woman – mother and wife and writer – she is now, and speculates about the woman she is constantly becoming as her life inches closer, ever closer, towards death. Shapiro has packed so much into this slim book, the fast abandon of youth, the intense love and weight of years of marriage, the anxiety and joys of parenthood, and the sweet sting of memory, of aging.

2.) FOR DAD: Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, $14.95
While Norwegian by Night is, at its core, a book of suspense, it also provides a fascinating look at Jewish identity, the frailty of memory, language and the ability to communicate without words, war and the effects of violence on the brain, parenting, aging, and death. It’s great.

3.) FOR YOUR BEST FRIEND: Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, $27
This is a fantastic read full of adventure, suspense, and heart. I just loved it, as did my book club, and most all my friends who’ve read it.

4.) FOR YOUR SPOUSE: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, $27
In Autumn, the first in The Seasons quartet, Knausgaard, already a father of three, writes to his unborn daughter about the mundanity of our world, about the place she’ll soon be entering into and some of what she’ll encounter. As only Knausgaard can do, he describes for his daughter: Apples, War, Infants, Autumn Leaves, Lice, Vomit, Pain, Flaubert, the Labia (holy shit, read it), Forgiveness, and more. In each description, there is knowledge to be imparted and a personal connection being made, to others and to the world. And at the core of it all, fleshed out and laid bare, a deep and gorgeous truth.

Gift Guide 5-8(1)

5.) FOR YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW: Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, $27
Little Fires Everywhere is a beautifully rendered novel about family, identity, art, friendship, and the fire-spark of love. Throughout, I was struck by Ng’s excellent ability to get inside her characters’ heads. All different, each character feels true and distinct, emotionally complex without being contrived. Ng’s characters grapple with issues of belonging and betrayal, with what makes a “good” or “bad” or “worthy” parent. We witness the desperate acts of parents attempting to hold onto their children, and family dynamics pulled taut by fear, expectations, and deep affection, and the evidence that sometimes family isn’t the one we’re born into but the one we choose.

6.) FOR YOUNG KIDS: Carson Ellis’ Du Iz Tak?, $16.99
A favorite picture book in my house, Du Iz Tak? is a beautifully illustrated story about the seasons, nature, and the cycle of life from the incredibly talented Carson Ellis, illustrator of the Wildwood Chronicles.

7.) FOR THE COOK: David Tanis’ Market Cooking, $40
Fresh, seasonal produce takes center stage in David Tanis’ gorgeous new cookbook. My sister-in-law, who knows I love to buy vegetables seasonally at our local farmers’ markets, gave me this cookbook for my birthday in November, and there are so many recipes I can’t wait to try, including: Yellow Beet Salad with Mustard Seeds, Celery Salad with Pistachios, Sake-Steamed Kabocha with Miso, Roasted Coconut Carrots, Tomato Chutney, and Fennel al Forno, to name just a few.

8.) FOR THE BOOK LOVER: Guinevere de la Mare’s I’d Rather Be Reading, $12.95
This little volume fits into a stocking and is perfect for lovers of book stacks, libraries and indie bookstores, reading nooks, and that amazing new book smell. Compiled by Silent Book Club founder (and personal friend) Guinevere de la Mare, I’d Rather be Reading is an ode to books and the reading life.

#85 Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

34362982When thumbing through the book review section of The New York Times a few weeks ago I wasn’t surprised to read in Celeste Ng’s By the Book Q&A that she’s not a fan of Karl Ove Knausgaard: “I have never been able to get into Knausgaard, though many, many people whose opinions I trust adore his work. It’s just not for me.”

Knausgaard is a polarizing author. Based on conversations I’ve had with friends and fellow book lovers, it seems you either love him or you just really don’t. I’m solidly in the LOVE category. My husband, however, having never read a lick of Knausgaard’s writing, derides him with passion any chance he gets (most recently over dinner with friends at Leo’s Oyster Bar) because of an instant dislike of Knausgaard’s seriously earnest author photo and a general mistrust of anyone who pens a six-volume, many-paged autobiography. I’ve read the first two volumes of My Struggle, by the way, and they’re fantastic. I particularly loved volume 2.  Most of the people who dislike Knausgaard refer to his navel-gazing, a meticulous dissection of everyday life, calling his writing boring, misogynistic, banal.

What amazes me, again and again, about Knausgaard’s writing is that there is a pedestrian everyday-ness about it. He catalogues and peels apart the world around him in seemingly ordinary prose. And then, in peeling back and exposing ugliness and the ritual of the mundane, he shows us such great beauty and insight. That beauty is, at times, simply breathtaking.

In Autumn, the first in The Seasons quartet, Knausgaard, already a father of three, writes to his unborn daughter about the mundanity of our world, about the place she’ll soon be entering into and some of what she’ll encounter. As only Knausgaard can do, he describes for his daughter: Apples, War, Infants, Autumn Leaves, Lice, Vomit, Pain, Flaubert, the Labia (holy shit, read it), Forgiveness, and more. In each description, there is knowledge to be imparted and a personal connection being made, to others and to the world. And at the core of it all, fleshed out and laid bare, a deep and gorgeous truth.

One of my favorite books of the year.

With beautiful illustrations by Vanessa Baird and translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey

#79 I’d Rather Be Reading by Guinevere de la Mare

33606660If book stacks, libraries and indie bookstores, reading nooks, and that amazing new book smell thrill you to the core, this lovely little volume is for you. Compiled by Silent Book Club founder (and personal friend) Guinevere de la Mare, I’d Rather be Reading is an ode to books and the reading life. The book, an elegant package with muted colors and a beautifully curated selection of words and images, includes an essay by Guinevere on becoming a reader, plus additional essays by Ann Patchett, Gretchen Rubin, and Maura Kelly, as well as contemporary illustrations and artworks by Jane Mount of Ideal Bookshelf, Lisa Congdon, Sophie Blackall, and many more.

If you happen to be in San Francisco this evening, August 24th, go to the book launch party for I’d Rather Be Reading at Green Apple Books!

Thanks to Chronicle Books (my old employer) for my copy of I’d Rather be Reading.

#58 We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

35272259Samantha Irby is funny and acerbic, and her candid personal essays cut the bullshit and get right to the meat of life.

In We are Never Meeting in Real Life, Irby, author of the blog bitches gotta eat, writes about growing up poor and black outside of Chicago, about her sick mom and her loser dad, about being a smart but underachieving student and going to a middling college. She also tackles sex and dildos, shit, stomach issues and body aches, eating and fatness, mental illness, and her love of television and staying indoors. She writes about how the world, in so many ways, asks her to apologize for her size and for her appetite; over and over her essays give the world the bird: No way, fuck you. That doesn’t mean she’s immune to self-doubt, complex body issues, and the constant struggle to be. She just doesn’t owe anyone an apology.

Irby’s humor, while honest, witty, and raw, isn’t for the faint of heart. She is sarcastic and cutting, as hard on those around her as she is on herself.

#35 South and West by Joan Didion

32842454Some books just don’t need to be published.

Joan Didion’s newest, South and West, is one of those books. I like Joan Didion, but this small book reads like an afterthought, an unnecessary side note to her other wonderful works.

Comprised of fragments from previously unpublished notebooks, “South” is a laundry list of observations, anecdotes, and conversations formed on a road trip Didion took through the South (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) in 1970. Didion’s notes do evoke the South, the heaviness of the air, deep porches, water moccasins, and the echoes of slavery are everywhere, but the section feels incohesive and incomplete.

The book weighs heavily on the South; “West” is just a few pages tacked on before the end of the book. These notes are even more fractured, jumping from memory to observation without much reason or deeper meaning.

#24 Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso

22244927Like my copy of Manguso’s 300 Arguments, nearly every page in this slim book is dog-eared; Ongoingness is full of passages I want to return to and sentences that bring on all the feels. In it, Manguso, an avid diarist, writes about the act of keeping a diary. For her, the diary is not only a record of life, but the proof of every day. In an attempt to live with complete awareness, to ward off death, she actively archives experience, builds a document that leaves a trace and pins down memory. This is not the diary itself, but a series of meditations on the act of writing daily, on the formation of identity and how it changes, on parenthood and aging, love and loss, and ultimately the ongoingness of time.

Manguso’s passages about being a new mother, nursing, and the body as vessel struck me at the core:

“In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.

I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.

My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.”

It’s so good.

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#20 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso

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So many dog-eared pages in this little book, so many bite-sized gems.

“The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.”

And.

“I don’t love writing; I love having a problem I believe I might someday write my way out of.”

And.

“I used to avoid people when I was afraid I loved them too much. Ten years, in one case. Then, after I had been married long enough that I was married even in my dreams, I became able to go to those people, to feel that desire, and to know that it would stay a feeling.”

And.

“Like a vase, a heart breaks once. After that, it just yields to its flaws.”

I loved this book so much I went out and bought Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of A Diary.

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#12 Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

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“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.” -Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.

A necessary read for engagement, action, perseverance, and, yes, hope in the current political state.