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?

#68 The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff

9781101910856When I was in Brooklyn a few weekends ago we made a pilgrimage to Books Are Magic, because in my family indie bookstores are destination spots, and I knew I’d finish the two books I’d brought with me and needed a book for the plane ride home. I found The Bed Moved, short stories by Rebecca Schiff, and was drawn in by that great cover and the “stellar collection” blurb from The New York Times Book Review.

At 38 I’m not young anymore, but this collection made me feel old. I so wanted to love the acerbically witty exchanges, the sexually adventurous/naive characters, and the emotional remove of the stories. There’s a smart, craft-driven quality to Schiff’s writing, a gem of something funny and sad and lonely inherent in each piece; reading story after story I expectantly hoped maybe this is the one I will love, but I didn’t find the one and ultimately failed to connect with the collection as a whole.

#66 Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

32080126Anything is Possible is just charming.

Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton, has crafted a beautiful collection of overlapping stories, rich with distinctive characters, alive with strikingly elegant prose. My Name is Lucy Barton was written at the same time and Lucy and the Barton family make appearances in a few of these stories.

Set in Amgash, a small town in Illinois, and beyond, each story acts as a character portrait, each paragraph shapes the identities of the townspeople, and, as the book progresses, the stories simultaneously forge and peel back those identities. Characters are drawn from various perspectives as they struggle to find meaning in life and to connect. Relationships are exposed. Personality strengths and flaws are actualized.

Strout writes with a quiet, assured power. As a reader, you can trust that wherever she takes you within a story, you are in good hands.

#57 Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley

31449412If you’re an avid reader of The New Yorker, a number of the short stories in Tessa Hadley’s recently-released Bad Dreams and Other Stories will be familiar to you. Personally, I can’t keep up with the stacks of New Yorker magazines that mock me around our house, so most of the stories were new to me.

Hadley’s stories are skillfully composed around a particular narrative tension. As if living in a bad dream, many of her characters face potential or inferred danger, with possibly shady characters in uncomfortable situations. A teenage girl in “An Abduction” is picked up by a car of boisterous drunk boys who want to take her for a ride. It seems only natural to think girl, that is just not a good idea. In “Under the Sign of the Moon,” an older woman with cancer, on the train to see her daughter, meets an overly friendly, albeit slightly off young man who won’t stop trying to engage her in conversation. Ugh, is he the pervert we suspect he might be? In “One Saturday Morning” a young girl, left at home to practice piano while her family goes grocery shopping, lets in a family friend, a man. They occupy the house together, moving quietly in separate rooms but deeply aware of each other, waiting for her family to return. Maybe I’ve been listening to too much My Favorite Murder, but something in that scenario sets off where’s he going to stash the body alarm bells. Within each story, however, is a measure of surprise; the possibility of danger doesn’t always signal a real threat, and Hadley’s characters luckily manage to walk away unscathed.

#46 All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown

30901606Do you listen to The Moth? It’s one of my favorite weekly podcasts. The true stories amuse, delight, and move me to tears every single time I listen.

There were a number of pieces in the new collection from The Moth, All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown, which I’d heard and loved before. Reading these felt like visiting old friends, the voices of the storytellers ringing through clear and memorable.

What a treat to discover stories I’d somehow missed. Some new favorites included comedian Tig Notaro’s “R2, Where Are You” about finding understanding and acceptance with her step father, Kate Tellers’ brave look at her mother’s death in “But Also Bring Cheese,” Ishmael Beah’s “Unusual Normality” about his trajectory from child soldier in Sierra Leone to to playing paintball at a party in upstate New York, Carl Pillitteri’s harrowing end-times experience inside the Fukushima Nuclear generating station during the 2011 earthquake in Japan in “Fog of Disbelief,” and Cathy Olkin’s “On Approach to Pluto” about her decade of work on NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto, among others.

In addition to all the excellent stories and a foreword by Neil Gaiman, the book itself is beautiful, a hardback with a midnight blue matte cover and gold foil. This would be a perfect graduation gift.

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#36 Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

28503870Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others was highly recommended by a local bookseller I know, and the blurbs sing Chiang’s praises. Junot Diaz calls the stories “shining, haunting, mind-blowing.”

The thing that stood out about this collection was Chiang himself. He clearly put so much work into researching and crafting each story. Whether writing about problematic mathematical theory, or building the linguistic foundation of an alien language, or imagining the Tower of Babel winding up to the sky and cracking the realm of heaven, Chiang’s expansive mind is on display.  And it’s impressive.

I liked these stories. The way that Chiang pairs humanity with far-reaching ideas lends the ideas an accessibility, however there is a remove, an almost clinical coldness to the storytelling which left me emotionally disengaged from the stories themselves.

My favorite of the lot was “Story of Your Life,” in which a woman recounts to her child, “you,” how learning an alien language changes her understanding of life and time. Sound familiar? It was made into, with many changes, the movie Arrival.

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#34 Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth

29939138Deb Olin Unferth’s stories read like the layers of an onion, with each sentence the narrative is built up and peeled back, meaning is revealed, the story is changed, keeps changing, until the reader gets to the funky, quirky core. A nugget of surprise lingers at the center, waiting to be discovered, embedded to shock.

Highlights of the collection: A struggling adjunct teacher longing to tell her sad breakup tale to students invites them to share the worst thing that’s happened to them with unexpected results in “Voltaire Night.” A perpetually wandering, confidentially clueless couple gets led into the jungle at gunpoint in “Stay Where You Are.” In “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” an unremarkable teacher with unremarkable students tries to find self worth and purpose.

Amid these standout stories were a number of shorter pieces. The back cover calls these “intoxicating,” but they didn’t resonate or have the same impact for me as the longer stories.

I love Graywolf Press. I discovered Wait Till You See Me Dance on their Instagram feed; and Graywolf just kills it, consistently publishing awesome books, including: Citizen, The Argonauts, LOOK, The Empathy Exams, and 300 Arguments and Ongoingness, to name a few.

#33 Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor

29875892-1The stories in Kanishk Thardoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars are steeped in history. Many read like fables, told by voices or by characters who carry the past, their people, their language, their lives, forward with strength and fortitude. Thadoor is a classic story-teller, his writing is lyrical, assured, tender.

In this collection the stories revolve around movement, of civilization, of refugees, of territories and borders, of affections, of language. In “The Mirrors of Iskandar” Alexander the Great moves across countries, conquering land, people, the sea, writing history. In “Swimmer Among the Stars” the narrator, the last speaker of a forgotten language, moves between ideas and words, the past and the present, giving voice to lost stories. In “Tale of the Teahouse” inhabitants of a city live, love, eat, and speculate as Gengis Kahn moves closer and closer to their walls, marching towards destruction.

My favorite story in the bunch was “Elephant at Sea” in which an elephant is shipped from India to Morocco, a gift to a princess. Tharoor perfectly captures the poignant relationship between the elephant and the mahout, the elephant’s joyful love of the sea, and the touching absurdity of their voyage.

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#19 This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

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This is How You Lose Her is a vivid, visceral collection of stories by the author of The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao.  Many of the stories in this collection feature Yunior, a character Diaz introduced in Drown and, I’ve read, closely resembles the author himself. With Yunior, Diaz treats the reader like a confidant, divulging secrets and indiscretions, making inside jokes, taking us on a ride through lust and betrayal, a journey of the heart. We experience Yunior’s experiences first-hand, his sexual awakening and misconduct, his attempts to know women and his struggles to let them go, we are the voyeurs as the desires of his heart battle with the desires of his body.

Here’s what Leah Hager Cohen over at the New York Times writes: “In the new book, as previously, Díaz is almost too good for his own good. His prose style is so irresistible, so sheerly entertaining, it risks blinding readers to its larger offerings. Yet he weds form so ideally to content that instead of blinding us, it becomes the very lens through which we can see the joy and suffering of the signature Díaz subject: what it means to belong to a diaspora, to live out the possibilities and ambiguities of perpetual ­insider/outsider status.”

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