Best Books of 2017

It was a pretty good reading year, I guess? It’s hard to say, because I read some really outstanding books about some really fucked up things, and my reasons for reading them were upsettingly practical. The majority of my reading fell into two categories, nonfiction (including a few biography/memoir) and literary fiction by women. I’ve always read multiculturally, but I’ve begun focusing on books in translation, which has added such a significant element to my reading experiences.

I read 28 books that I gave five stars, and 49 that I gave four stars. There were a few disappointments, but Jane, Unlimited was the worst; it’s the first new book in years from an author I’ve previously adored, and I didn’t just not love it—I hated it.

I finally read some Tolstoy and Dickens; discovered a depressed fascination with books about North Korea; and picked up my first YA book in a long time (it was spectacular). I listened to a ridiculous number of audiobooks, thanks to my discovery that using Overdrive instead of CDs allows me to speed up the playback just the right amount.

My only plan this year was to stop creating so much pressure for myself (hence the modest goal of 52 books for my Goodreads challenge), and I did a decent job of it. I’m still working to find a balance between reading my TBR shelf and reading new things I come across; I choose books based on my gut, so I need to let myself be spontaneous but also Just Fucking Read It Already. I did better than I usually do—nineteen of the books I read had been on my TBR list for a while, a few of them since approximately junior high school. So I’m getting there. My plans for this year are essentially the same, and hopefully I’ll get that ratio closer to the balance I’m looking for.

Stats

Nonfiction/biography/memoir: 42
Fiction: 45
Graphic novels/comics/manga: 47
Poetry/plays: 4

In translation: 43
By women: 65
By authors of color: 54
Rereads: 8

Weird, random, and interesting (to me) piece of information: I read nineteen books whose titles begin with the letter W. I noticed that there were an inordinate number while typing up the nonfiction titles below, then decided to count others that didn’t make it onto the “best of” list. The fact that this is the same number as the one from earlier (nineteen books I finally got to mark off the TBR) is an extra coincidence.

Total: 135 books (34,068 pages according to Goodreads)

Best Fiction

Autofiction, by Hitomi Kanehara. The unreliablest narrator you’ve ever read (with maybe one exception).

The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley. The second book by this author, and the second of her books I’ve adored. I can’t get enough of the way Pulley writes intimacy between men.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. You know sci-fi/fantasy is good when it does everything it has to do, building an entire world and making you care about it, in under 100 pages. I can’t wait to read more of this series.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan. One of the ones that’s been on my literal TBR shelf since somewhere around 2009, and one that reminded me how much pure beauty and excellence lives in Amy Tan’s pen (or keyboard).

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. A quest through post-Arthurian England that left me with quietly epic, misty impressions of the color green. I have been trying for ten minutes and that’s honestly the best description I can give you.

Dietland, by Sarai Walker. Plot drama fell a bit flat, but the protagonist’s inner journey was pure ass-kicking feminist joy. Looking back makes me want to read it again.

The Fate of the Tearling, by Erica Johansen. The heartbreaking, bittersweet conclusion to possibly my favorite adult fantasy series.

The Fifth Season (and The Obelisk Gate), by N.K. Jemisin. This has been on my list since it came out and goddamn, did it pay off. I started book one on December 24 and finished book three a week and a half later. Review still in progress.

Human Acts, by Han Kang. The book that made me pretty positive I’ll read everything Han Kang ever writes. If you liked The Vegetarian, you’ll probably like this (and the reverse if you didn’t). Prepare yourself for disturbing, nauseating violence.

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. Probably the one of Murakami’s novels that I’d been waiting the longest to read. It was lovely and a little mystical, and it makes me realize that one of Murakami’s distinguishing traits is his consistency. So far, I’ve preferred his novels to his short stories, but I haven’t actually disliked any of it. If you like one, there’s a really good chance you’ll like them all.

Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds. Came across it while cataloging and was attracted by the really intriguing premise. It’s the first YA in a long time to break through my YA-apathy and get me to read it, and it was stunning.

The Man Without a Country, by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s as if his entire plan for writing this book (all of his books, really) was just to say a bunch of sassy, smart things I would love him for saying.

Manazuru, by Hiromi Kawakami. In the months since, I keep forgetting how much I liked this book, and have to remind myself why. I think that’s because it’s so quiet and dreamlike, but I’ve gone on to read two more of her books since, so obviously I’m a fan.

Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin. How agonizing, to find out only after someone is gone that you barely even knew them.

The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Was disappointed to find out these were short stories instead of a novel, but still, an excellent collection that covers a variety of immigrant experiences.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The second of his books that I’ve read, but the first in which I saw the masterful subtlety and thoughtful commentary in his work. This was a good year for me to make that discovery, just in time for him to win the Nobel.

Slade House, by David Mitchell. Set in the same universe as his other books, but this book leans toward the horror genre. Satisfyingly, but not too, creepy.

The Sound of Waves, by Yukio Mishima. The peaceful, beautiful title is fitting for this lovely, quiet book. What I remember most is how pleasantly surprised I was by the characters, most of whom are good and likable, and the ending, which is happier than I’m used to expecting.

Strange Weather in Tokyo (also called The Briefcase), by Hiromi Kawakami. The setup is a little like a Murakami novel, with a sort of listless 30-something protagonist who has a quiet and increasingly intimate friendship with her former teacher.

That Old Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx. By far one of the biggest hits, and biggest surprises, of my reading year.

Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake. Peake has a unique, enjoyable style; this book is very wordy and descriptive, with an eccentric cast of characters and plenty of drama. I remember some irritation with one of the main characters while I was reading it, but in looking back I feel only fondness and the desire to read book two sometime soon.

A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura. A Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights, pleasantly different from the original but equally compelling. I don’t think I even realized until right now that I also reread Wuthering Heights in 2017, which is a marvelous coincidence.

Best Nonfiction

Aerial Geology, by Mary Caperton Morton. Just a beautiful coffee table book full of fascinating information about the geology of North America.

The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby. A thorough examination of anti-intellectualism and religious fundamentalism in the United States.

An Autobiography, by Angela Davis. Probably the only biography I’ve read that’s as exciting as an action movie, but with more social analysis.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer. A deeply frustrating look at the Koch brothers and others like them, who’ve been secretly exercising a significant amount control over American politics for several decades now.

Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee—A Look Inside North Korea, by Jang Jin-sung. A personal account of his escape from North Korea, by turns terrifying, sickening, exhilarating, and heartwarming).

The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, by Mark Schatzker. An illuminating and infuriating explanation of why food sucks now, and why it’s virtually impossible to control our eating in the United States.

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. Baldwin, like Angela Davis, has the ability—so rare I’m beginning to think of it as a superpower—to see all the parts of things, not just some of them. Where her writing is straightforward, academic and utilitarian (so far as I’ve read, and I am not using these words with any negative connotation), his is artistic, uplifting in a way that seems impossible given the atrocities that are always his subject. He pulls no punches but sounds like he’s writing poetry.

Fluent Forever, by Gabriel Wyner. I have, of course, as usual, not actually carried out the language learning methods detailed in this book. But it’s the clearest, most interesting, and most logical-sounding method I’ve encountered, and I’m still hoping to try it out.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens. It’s right there in the subtitle, why this book is important. Religion is not, as we have been told, the source of morality, and it is, as we have not been told, incredibly destructive. I tend to think of it this way: we don’t need religion to be good, and if we’re bad, religion makes us worse. The benefits are individual, the damage systematic. Hitchens does an excellent job detailing how.

Hunger, by Roxane Gay. This book is painful and very intimate. My feelings were mixed about Bad Feminist, but not here. This was unadulterated perfection.

Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, by David Zweig. A fascinating look at the kinds of jobs that, by their very nature, are invisible to us until/unless something goes wrong.

Just Kids, by Patti Smith. I can’t remember what prompted me to pick this up, because I’d never known much about Patti Smith besides her name. I can’t find the right words to describe all I fell in love with, the music, the poetry, the androgyny, but she seems like someone I’d very much like to know.

Milk and Honey, by Rupi Kaur. These poems are remarkable to me for their aptness in describing feelings I’ve never seen articulated by anyone else.

The Mother of All Questions, by Rebecca Solnit. Absolutely solid, truly insightful commentary that seems effortless as always because Solnit is just brilliant.

#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women, edited by Lisa Charleyboy. An outstanding sort of mixed media collection, including prose, poetry, art, photos, interviews, and even social media posts.

The Origin of Others, by Toni Morrison. Review in progress.

Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde. Because I read Angela Davis at the same time and her name for some reason stuck bigger in my head, I keep forgetting that this was just as important to me. My “review” of it includes far too many quotes that are far too long, because I just need to go back and read them sometimes.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience, by Carl Sagan. “Some men just want to watch the world learn.”

We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. An absolutely essential analysis of the effects of Barack Obama’s presidency. Still working on the review.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil. I read so many Important Books this year, but even next to those, this one stands out to me as the most immediately urgent because it affects everything else.

Why I Am Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell. Until I learn otherwise, I’m considering Russell the official philosopher of me. I connected with this book.

Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve decided that this book is the one we should all be reading in school, instead of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s essentially the nonfiction version, half the length, and written by a black leader of the civil rights movement, where the other is fiction written by a white person. The fact that the latter is completely ubiquitous in the United States while this book is hardly known is the perfect summary of where and who we are.

Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim. Melancholy but touching “memoir” by a South Korean/American writer who taught English to the sons of North Korea’s elite class (not actually a memoir, but investigative journalism that was marketed as a memoir because apparently we still don’t trust women to write objective, factual narratives).

Women, Race and Class, by Angela Davis. Blew the doors off all my previous reading on feminism and social justice by being the first book I’d ever read to discuss the fact that all our activisms depend on each other, and the fact that we keep separating them prevents us from making permanent progress in any of them.

The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature, by Richard Fortey. A lovely walk through English woods, examining how intricately connected everything is on this planet, including us.

Best Graphic Novels

Bad Machinery, Vol. 1: The Case of the Team Spirit, by John Allison. Funny and silly and British (one of my favorite combinations of things).

Batwoman Vol. 2: To Drown the World, by J.H. Williams III. So far, my favorite DC title. Kate Kane is so much more interesting than most superheroes, nearly on par with Jessica Jones.

God Loves Hair, by Vivek Shraya. Beautiful, poignant illustrated short stories on race, gender, sexuality . . . Basically life.

March, Vol. 3, by John Lewis. Conclusion to the brilliant series that illustrates and personalizes the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Should be required reading in schools.

Monstress, Vol. 2, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda. Another excellent volume, although I think the brutality is starting to wear on me. This is a very violent comic, but also astonishingly beautiful and with a compelling fantasy story.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Vol. 1, by Fumi Yoshinaga. Dystopia, historical fiction, misogyny, and matriarchy all mixed together.

Saga, volumes 6 and 7, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Why do I forget in between each volume how incredible this series is? It happens every time.

Tonoharu, by Lars Martinson. Read for the first and second times already in 2017. A painfully accurate portrayal of loneliness and isolation that are inherent to certain circumstances, but amplified in certain people (like the protagonist).

Wandering Son, volumes 1-6, by Takako Shimura. Sensitively-written manga about a transgender boy and girl, with only a few really problematic elements. Adorable, lovable characters.

The Wicked + the Divine, Vol. 4: Rising Action, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. I like the story, but I read this comic for the artwork. Every character is irritatingly gorgeous and I have hair envy toward pretty much all of them, male or female.

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