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January 7, 2018

Reading : 75 Books of 2017



Last year I set my Goodreads reading challenge to 75 books, mainly because it would remind me to always have books on hold and on hand, instead of waiting until I finished a book to look for another. I didn't actually think I'd be able to read 75. While I was able to do it, in 2018 I will definitely aim much lower so that I'm not rushing through books or evaluating them by their length.  With all that happened in 2017, I'm incredibly grateful for these steady pages of empathy, imagination, investigation and independence of thought.

My top five books are here, then a full list below. I thought awhile about how to categorize them, and at first was just going to list them in order of rating, but realized as I was going through them that there are some themes.  Which may be helpful if you're looking for a certain topic or feel (if you're drawn to the same topics/feels as I am).

** means I listened to the book on audio 
(#) the number is my goodreads rating (out of 5 stars)

FAVORITE FIVE 

The Mothers - Brit Bennett
This novel about a woman whose life is shaped by an abortion she had as a teenager is one of the most loving things I read this year. There's clear, open love for women and what they face, a kind of love that's accepting not because it's simple but because it's complex.  And it's just so beautifully written. 
(full review)

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara
About four friends but centered mainly around Jude, a man who suffers such severe abuse as a child that he spends his adult life constantly wondering if anything can be made of his fragments.  Obviously this is at times so painful to read, but it is so worth it.  It returns to me in some positive and full form every day, the reminder of how much each person carries. 
(full review)

**Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town - Jon Krakauer
Krakauer understands so well the steps to understanding an injustice you haven't personally experienced, and always keeps sight of what he/we can never really know. Deliberate removal of assumption, careful listening, and acceptance of how mind and experience aren't straightforward.
(full review)

**Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick
Written by a journalist living in South Korea based on her interviews with North Koreans who have escaped, this book gives such a nuanced narrative of individuals as well as a country most of us know little about (and should be terrified of).  The books I own are mostly fiction and it's rare that I'll buy a nonfiction book, but I had so much respect for the people in this book, and for Demick's research and writing. 

Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War - Viet Thanh Nguyen

This was the last book I read in 2017, and one of the best. So many important and (for me) new lessons, about how to consider our perceived enemies, how to re-consider ourselves and our capacity for good and bad, how our identities can be actively shaped, how to really forgive and how to make peace present instead of just making war absent.

***

And the rest, in categories:

People Who Have Been Displaced

What is the What  - Dave Eggers (5) 
I absolutely love the premise, and the execution, of this book. That is, giving voice to a suppressed one, not by overtaking it or assuming guilty responsibility for it, but by respecting it, listening to it.  Over years, Dave Eggers worked with Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who escaped their home country during violent civil war, to tell his story of fleeing on foot and what he continues to flee when he eventually arrives in America.

The Best We Could Do Thi Bui (5)
My first graphic novel, this book made the familiar story of a Vietnamese refugee family fresh and newly vivid for me.
(full review)

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead (4)
Southern slaves use a physical underground railroad to escape, facing different terrains and different kinds of inhumanity at each stop.

**Behold the Dreamers - Imbolo Mbue (4)
An undocumented immigrant from Cameroon builds a life for his family in New York City. I liked the straightfoward storytelling, leaving us to judge what it means to migrate and rebuild.

**Exit West - Mohsin Hamid (4) 
The story of a young couple living in an unnamed country where a civil war between the government and religious rebels forces people to flee their homes. I really recommend listening to this on audio, because Hamid's voice and language are so beautiful. 
(full review)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra (4) 
Among many other things, about a woman single-handedly manning a hospital in war-torn Chechnya, that made me re-consider the expanse of medicine and healing.
(full review)

Lucky Boy - Shanthi Sekaran (4)
A young woman from Mexico loses her son while she is held in detainment, and he's adopted by a young couple in Berkeley who can't have their own biological child.  Very driven by individual characters with a lot to say about bigger issues of immigration and America's relationship with it. It made me really angry and really sad--good fuel to question the impact of our needs and wants.

Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (3)
Adichie narrates very different lives happening at once during the Biafran War, a civil war between the political state of Nigeria and the seccessionist state Biafra. As always her characters and language are strong, but maybe not so much as in Americanah so I was a little disappointed.

The Refugees - Viet Thanh Nguyen (2)
I appreciate the moving away from model minority stories to reflect a broader spectrum of identity among Vietnamese refugees (and others involved in the Vietnam War), but didn't love the writing.

**The Leavers - Lisa Ko (2)
The son of an undocumented Chinese immigrant, Deming is adopted by an American family when his mother disappears. I felt like this book treated the characters too much like people to play certain roles in order to tell a certain kind of story.

***

People Who Have Been Marginalized

Native Speaker - Chang Rae Lee (4)
A Korean-American spy is hired to gather information about a Korean-American politician, bringing to the forefront what it means to be Asian in America. Maybe it's something about spy stories (like how I couldn't finish The Sympathizer) that I initially found it hard to get into this character. But I loved the language and quiet power of the story.

This is How It Always Is - Laurie Frankel (3)
A couple has five boys, and the youngest, Claude, is transgender. I admired how Frankel delves into many of the subtle and obvious challenges of this, but I didn't like how this was countered by a too storylike ending.

**Citizen: An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine (3)
Technically really powerful reflection on microaggressions and their magnitude, I think I need to get back into poetry and unconventional prose to really appreciate this one.

Small Great Things - Jodi Picoult (1)
A white supremacist couple accuses a Black nurse of intentionally harming their child.  I hated this book so much that I'm hoping to write about it soon.


***

On How People Experience Trauma

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body - Roxane Gay (4)
After being gang raped as a young girl, Gay eats to cope and to protect herself. She speaks clearly and honestly about how little we know about invisible trauma (our experiences), as well as the uninformed ways we judge what seems visible (our appearances).

**The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas (4)
A Black teenager lives in a predominantly Black neighborhood and goes to a predominantly white school, a conflict that comes to the forefront when her friend is killed by the police. Another one that is exponentially better heard than read; the voices of the characters give so much texture.  

Exit, Pursued by a Bear - E.K. Johnston (4)

A young adult book about the captain of a high school cheerleading squad and how she changes after being raped at her cheerleading summer camp. 

**Beartown - Frederik Backman (3)
In a small town in Sweden whose identity is strongly tied to its high school hockey team, a girl is destroyed in multiple layers when she is raped by the star hockey player. I'm really glad how much we are talking about rape on a mainstream level, but I had real issue with the ending of this book. Backman's tendency to tie up endings reinforces our natural desire for closure, and doesn't allow us to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty, of the permanent consequences of trauma. It makes it too easy for us to passively sympathize and feel like it's enough to read this and feel bad. I would still recommend it for the insights into how rape happens (and its interest in this how, instead of questioning the occurrence).

***

On (The Suckiness of) Being a Young Girl/Woman

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith (5)
A classic coming of age story I never read as a kid, and felt lucky to stumble upon as an adult.

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki (4)
A novelist discovers the diary of a teenager who wants to document her great grandmother's life before ending her own life. 

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee (3)
This can also be under "people who have been displaced," or "people who have been marginalized," which speaks to the broad themes of the book.  But what sticks with me is the sacrifice of women through generations. People really loved this book, but sometimes I felt like it was trying too hard to make me sad.

The Bed Moved - Rebecca Schiff (3)
Darkly funny stories about young women dealing with all the roles women play--daughters, sexual beings, caretakers.

Marlena - Julie Buntin (2)
This story of two teenage girlfriends, one inexperienced and the other broken, feels a little of the same old and more attached to the idea of tragedy than to the actual people.

***

On the Struggle and Power of Being a Woman
While the above speak to gender-specific obstacles by telling fictional stories, the below tackle feminism directly.

**We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4)
Loved hearing Adichie read this aloud in her rich, powerful voice on the audio version. At first it seemed like I’d heard this before, then I realized I was just late to the party & it’s that so much that has been written about feminism in the past few years reflects what she’s voiced here. Bonus: this is what Beyonce plays in her "Flawless" video.  

**Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in 15 Suggestions  - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4)
Unfortunately this audiobook wasn't narrated by Adichie.  But I love the reminder that these are values we need to instill in boys and girls early in life.

**Bad Feminist - Roxane Gay (3)
I loved Gay's anecdotes about Scrabble competitions and reading Sweet Valley High books, and the overall commentary about culture and consumption, but it didn't linger for me in the same way as the above.

***

Funny, Thoughtful Books about Older People

They May Not Mean To, But They Do - Cathleen Schine (5)
A really funny story of an elderly woman and the impact of her aging on her identity, her life, and the lives of her children. It's rare to have older characters take center narrative, and this book did such a good job of showing the layers we accumulate over the years. 

Autumn - Ali Smith (5)
A little abstract and really poetic, Autumn uses language and imagery to build a friendship between a young girl and an elderly man through the years. It's less plot, and more mood, driven--which is usually what lasts for me.
(full review)

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk - Kathleen Rooney (4)
Over one night of physically traversing the streets of Manhattan, 85 year old Lillian Boxfish also crosses all the phases in her life.  It flows naturally, so that you're surprised you've covered so many years in the short time it takes to read and walk.

A Man Called Ove - Frederik Backman (3)

A grumpy man commits multiple attempts at suicide after his wife dies, but a pregnant woman and a cat keep getting in his way. Similar to Beartown, I don't love Backman's unrealistic endings but at least in this case it's a little more harmless.

***

Books for Kids & Young Adults That are Good to Read as an Adult

The Fault in Our Stars - John Green (5)
A book done well for both adolescents and adults, about teenagers with cancer and how they live and love each other.

Wonder - R.J. Palacio (5)
I bought this book about a 10 year old boy with severe facial deformities to read to my 9 year old nephew. But he'd already read it, so I read it myself and did that "I laughed! I cried!" thing. More later on why I love well-done kids' books, but for now--this book has everything.

**Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis ( 5)
Loved these as a kid, and listening to these was comfortingly familiar and deliciously new.

Raymie Nightingale - Kate DiCamillo (4)
I loved this whimsical, sweet story meant for elementary school readers about three girls competing in a talent contest and becoming friends in their parallel desires to be seen.

***

Books that Directly Address Mental Illness

Dear Fang, With Love - Rufi Thorphe (5)
Vera, a 17 year old with divorced parents, has a psychotic episode that brands her bipolar disorder. As an escape and a way to delve into their family history, Vera's father takes her to Lithuania. They alternate telling the story, which is just one of many ways this book shows how difficult it can be to get at the "real" perspective.  It seems unfair to say it's one of the best books I've read about mental illness, because it so deeply shows how much "mental illness" is just about people.

I Know This Much is True - Wally Lamb (3)
The story of twin brothers, one burdened with schizophrenia and the other burdened with taking care of his brother. I appreciated the complexity given to the latter, kept wanting to know more about the former.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman (3)
Eleanor doesn't know how interact with the world and doesn't know that she doesn't know. She doesn't recognize her isolation or her inability to process her childhood trauma until she makes her first real friend.  I think these last two books are good at presenting certain issues but simplify their solutions.

***

The State of Our Country

**Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America - Bob Herbert (5)
Very concisely and movingly draws a picture of the major problems facing our country: unemployment, unequal distribution of wealth, the lack of investment in physical infrastructure.  Herbert makes these accessible through stories of individuals bearing burdens that aren't uncommon but aren't commonly considered.

**Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City - Matthew Desmond (4)
Desmond lives among the lowest-income residents of Milwaukee to learn how the housing system and poverty are an impenetrable cycle. He gives valuable insights into why these communities live, work, spend, move the way they do, reminding us these are questions to ask, not answers to assume.

**The Unwinding: An Inner History of New America - George Packer (3)
By exploring the trajectories of individuals working in different industries (factory work, politics, tech, business), Packer shows how our inequalities have developed and how our founding values have dissolved. He weaves in narratives about cultural figures, snippets from songs of the time, and news headlines, and I found it a little hard to follow.

***

The Dynamic Between Groups of People (Family, Friends)

The Nest - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (3)
Siblings from a dysfunctional family all need their family trust fund in their own ways. Having four siblings, I wanted to like it more than I did but couldn't get into the characters.

Why We Came to the City - Kristopher Jansma (3)
About a group of friends in NYC whose lives change when one gets sick. Also without super memorable characters for me.

***

Fluffy Fiction

My Lady Jane - Cynthia Hand (3)
Bookworm Jane marries a man who's a horse by day and man at night.  (Note the title of this category of books).  Silly but fun, and book-reading heroines are always secretly a soft spot.

Landline - Rainbow Rowell (2)
I thought Eleanor & Park was so creative and well done, but this story about a woman who is able to go back in time and talk to her husband during a time when they still dating, was just really cheesy.

***

Memoirs 
Listened to most of these on audio, which I always prefer for memoirs, especially if the author is reading it.

**Long Walk to Freedom - Nelson Mandela (5)
This audiobook was something like 27 hours long, which felt appropriate.

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America - Firoozeh Dumas (4)
These stories about being a first generation child in an immigrant family are so simple, funny and relateable. I couldn't find this on audio but bet it's even better aloud.

Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad - Firoozeh Dumas (3)
I read this immediately after Funny in Farsi because I enjoyed that one so much.  This one is enjoyable but without some the same punch.

**I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban  Malala Yousafzai (4)
The title summarizes it, and the book fills in so much more about how brave and forward Malala is.

**Naked - David Sedaris (4)
One of his more vulnerable memoirs.

**The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer (3)
Probably one of the comedian memoirs I liked best this year, because she really makes fun of herself so sincerely.

**Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living - Jason Gay (3)
I feel like so many books by comedians are just packaged slightly funny common sense advice.

**Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness - Susannah Cahalan (3)
A healthy young woman becomes psychotic and the doctors can't figure out why.

**Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls - Lauren Graham (2)
Disappointed by this one because I thought there'd be more insight into the experience of Gilmore Girls, but mostly Graham talks about how great everyone is and how great it was to work on all her sitcoms.

**Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy - Sheryl Sandberg (3)
Some valuable but not new lessons for coping with tragedy.

**Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE - Phil Knight (2)
This was less interesting than I thought it'd be, and about as misogynistic as expected.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim - David Sedaris (2)
Not as funny or vulnerable as Naked but probably Naked was funnier because I listened to it on audio.

***

A Couple Books about Guys
I wrote my college thesis on Hemingway and my favorite writer is Murakami who has only written one book with a female protagonist, so I'm not opposed to books about men. But of all the stories out there, it seems most worthwhile to seek the less spoken. That said, I did moderately enjoy these two.

Stephen Florida - Gabe Habash (3)
I kind of like stories about sports even though I don't like watching them or really doing them. It's interesting to see the intensity and mindset that goes into training and competition and self-identity. Stephen Florida is a wrestler who drives himself crazy physically and mentally while trying to win his division during the last possible year to do so, and it's pretty dark.

Black Swan Green - David Mitchell (3)
A funny glimpse into the life of a teenage boy through stories of 13 year old Jason Taylor and his speech impediment, the unraveling of his family, crushes on girls with boyfriends, and dares that turn dangerous.

***

Thrillers 
(with the disclaimer that I'm not really into thrillers)

**Dark Matter - Blake Crouch (3)
A man wakes up to a world where no one knows him as he knows himself; he's acquired an entirely different identity.  The twist is pretty interesting and spirals quickly, deeply and darkly.

Do Not Become Alarmed - Maile Meloy (3)
Two couples and their families go on vacation, and their four children are kidnapped in Central America.

***

Climbing

The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers - Arno Ilgner (4)
My friend gave this to me for my birthday, and in the immediate aftermath of reading it I became much braver about taking falls while climbing.  Then I forgot, so something to come back to.

How to Climb 5.12 - Eric Horst (3)
I read this not because I'm anywhere near climbing 5.12 outside (extremely far from it) but because I like the idea of pushing what we think is possible for us to climb.

***

 A Couple Strays

OriginalsHow Non-Conformists Move the World - Adam Grant (3)
Stories of unusual ways of pushing innovation and gaining success. I don't love these books that use one case study to make generalizations, but the stories were interesting.

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry (1)
I was so bored by this love story between a widow and a vicar, who have different opinions about a mythical serpent.

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