Farewell to 2017, a year that taxed me to the brink and showered me intermittently with deluges of pleasure.
One of the greatest delights of my year, which is also one of the greatest joys of my life, is my book list. I read a great variety this year, 42 books in all, and enjoyed many of them very much. A large portion of my life revolves around books – the consumption of them, the creation, the consideration, the research and the discussion. This year my book club picked some incredible novels and works of nonfiction, I discovered (thanks to my reading soul sister) a wonderful, sort of bizarre used bookstore fifteen minutes outside of town, I got to hear Amor Towles AND Colson Whitehead speak (I can’t even begin to express how this inspires me) and I started a “book-sta-gram.” You can follow along with me on Instagram, and my username is @ginnyreads because, well, I do. Frequently and with a large appetite.
Mid-year, I posted a review of the first 19, because it gets a little cumbersome here at the end of the year, on the tails of the holidays. I’m taking down the tree and cleaning out the closets, trying to make good on my resolutions before the time runs out, and then I have to write a whole bunch of book reviews. So here’s a link to the first 19, in case you missed. And here…. are the rest, 23, to come to 42 in all. You get a mini-review, no spoilers, a rating out of five (I rarely give a five), and the season in which this book would best be enjoyed. Please keep in mind: the ratings are based on MY personal preferences (of which I have many, specific, often strict). Just because I didn’t like a book doesn’t mean it isn’t good or may not suit you! If the story sounds interesting, give it a try. Libraries are still free, you know. Mine doesn’t even have late fees.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. People are raving about this Young Adult novel, which is extremely timely and relevant in America today in the midst of what has become an endless list of African Americans who have died unjustly at the hands of police violence, misunderstanding, irresponsibility and a failure to follow guidelines not only of police behavior, but human decency. It’s a fictional take on the same true story. I got on the bandwagon. It is compelling, and therefore quick to read. I am not, in general, a “YA” enthusiast, but for those who are, I recommend. 3.5 / 5. I’d read in the summer.
- Nine Stories by JD Salinger is old; think back to Holden Caulfield and your first foray into Catcher in the Rye. Salinger is an expert storyteller, isn’t he? And he writes the most realistic dialogue I’ve ever read, but he takes his characters in these short stories around the oddest, most unpredictable courses that sometimes I just despised it, felt like he was just choosing to be contrary. But I think that’s what made it good. I still don’t understand the one about the bus driver — anyone care to explain? 4 / 5. Read it in the spring, when the world is soggy.
- A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This was one of my favorite favorites of the year. 5 / 5. She got the Pulitzer for it! Every chapter narrated by a different person, all persons are loosely connected over many years and circumstances. This book is about life over time, and the connectivity of the choices we make and the people we meet, and the beauty and pain of the most basic things. I shake my head as I type because it’s very difficult to pin this kind of beauty down. Give it a try in autumn.
- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, who took home the Nobel Prize for Fiction this year, an award which lauds an author’s entire body of work rather than a single book. I started with another of his book’s first (I’ll get there), and then wanted more, so picked this one up because that dang cover is so beautiful with it’s sparkling, gnarled tree. This book falls into the genre of fantasy, so that might stop you in your tracks. It reads like allegory, a la Pilgrim’s Progress, or the like, but it’s set in post-Arthurian England when the Saxons and the Britons are locked in a race struggle. It feels pertinent to the world today, and is largely grown from the nuclear theme of memory, and the concept of how our memory, or conscious, defines our reality. It was a page-turner for me, but I don’t mind a *little* fantasy. 4 / 5. Cozy up by the fire and read in winter.
- Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss broke my heart. I wanted to love it, because The History of Love is my second favorite book I’ve ever read, and I waited seven years for her to write again. I bought the hard copy! I convinced my book club to read it, and there were things I enjoyed, characters I liked, and some beautiful language… but I was disappointed. It felt cold to me, lifeless, without a mast; the opposite of her earlier stories. I’m certain there’s a contingent of readers out there who love this book. I don’t know them. 2 / 5. Read in summer, I guess, because when the characters are in Israel they’re hot.
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng was a huge book this year. It is sitting at the top of so many best-of-the-year lists, and the cover is lovely with those small houses and the headlights of cars. It’s a very modern story about modern sort of people living in a wealthy midwestern suburb and the way they all deal with some very sensitive information when it comes out. There is a big house fire in the story, but there are also, as indicated by the clever title, little fires everywhere. I read this at the beach, and it felt just right for that. In many instances I wanted more, deeper, thicker, but it was just a good, fun story. I’d give it 3.5 / 5, and read it at the beach in summer.
- I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai is the wild, true story of Malala and her stand against the Taliban as she championed the rights of girls to go to school in Afghanastan. I listened to this on audio, and it was fascinating and beautiful to hear such conviction from an oppressed child in awful circumstances. It’s difficult to rate, because it’s true, and it’s her voice, but it wasn’t something I was dying to return to. It’d be good in summer.
- Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit was a book club pick, a collection of essays on issues of feminism (and more) in contemporary society. Solnit wrote the title essay and published it as a stand-alone, and it was widely acclaimed; the rest of the collection is a compilation in a similar tone. Solnit is famous for her direct, often scathing declaration of the-way-things-are (as she sees it.) Several of the pieces made me think about my femaleness very differently, gave me more confidence, and helped me to consider the way our society has been built, and why for so long all the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have been allowed to carry on without consequence. Some of the essays diverted into wider political realms, which felt isolating to me, and detracted from her primary purpose. I rarely read nonfiction, and this was a big shift I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but as some of the points made still stick in my mind, I can’t say it was wasted. 3 / 5. Read in spring?
- Rules of Civility by Amor Towles was my favorite book of 2017, even more than Goon Squad, and it might be up there with East of Eden and The History of Love for my favorites of all time. I loved the characters, young, spirited, wounded, honest adults; I loved the setting, New York City in the twenties and thirties; I loved the story, all of its twists, the sadnesses and the victories. I love when a book makes me cry. I love this book, and I’d read it every single year, over and over. Meeting Mr. Towles and hearing him speak this fall was a tremendous privilege. I could go on. 5 / 5. Read in any season. Maybe winter.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for fiction in 2017, and in my opinion, rightfully so. With this story we plunge into the deep south of Mississippi to peer into one modern family through the eyes of the boy, Jojo, his mother Leonie, a young black woman, and the spirit of one connected, long dead. The story takes place over a few days, but there are glimpses into the more distant past and the old and new manifestations of the same tension which is racial prejudice and brokenness in America. It’s a gripping, beautiful, awful story, which is how all the best, most perfect ones are. I’ll read this book again for book club in 2018, and I can’t wait. 5 / 5. Read in summer.
- Goodbye, Columbus by Phillip Roth is a collection of shorts, the longest one being the title piece. Phillip Roth is a writing legend, and I’d never read anything by him until this, per the recommendation of my good friend Ann Patchett. There is something similar between this and Salinger’s 9 shorts mentioned above, something in the rawness, the unwillingness to write the thing the reader wants in order to feel satisfied. It’s the story of a relationship between two young people, one rich, one not, and it’s really quite as simple as that. But the nuances, the dialogue, the feelings are superb. It is GOOD. It is famous. Phillip Roth is an icon. You should read it. I did not love it. 3 / 5. Read in fall.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize in 2017, which is remarkable because I read an article that said this book was Saunders’s first foray into novels; he is known for his short fiction. This book is about one night in Abraham Lincoln’s life, the night his youngest son, Willie, died of a fever while the Lincolns hosted a diplomatic dinner party. It is written vaguely in the style of a screenplay, with what felt like almost a hundred different voices of observers, and, as the reader gets into the meat of it, ghosts living in the graveyard where young Willie is taken and buried. Though difficult to explain, or give justice, this book is exquisitely written and George Saunders is a genius storyteller and creator of voice. 4 / 5 for me. Read in winter.
- Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. This novel, one of Stegner’s last, published in 1987, is simply explained as the story of a long friendship between two married couples. It’s about their lives, together and separate, their journeys and how they intersect, their co-dependencies, their hatreds and loves of one another — a fascinating exploration of something so ordinary, my favorite kind of book. It was not a page-turner, and the story was sort of a gentle pull. There were some characterizations I did not like, though after discussing with book club, as a whole, I was very glad to have read it. 3 / 5. Read in fall.
- A Million Junes by Emily Henry. It’s very hard for me to remember what this was about. I didn’t realize it was YA when I picked it, and if I had, I wouldn’t have taken the plunge. It feels very teen-y, a la Twilight meets the legend of Johnny Appleseed. There are fantastical elements at play, something I don’t typically love (forgiven for Ishiguro), and the language felt overly simple. Love story between teens. I read it at the beach over a day or two. 2 / 5. Read in summer.
- The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob. This one was a surprise recommendation from a few trusted reading companions about an Indian family which has relocated to New Mexico and, because of painful events, has diminished in many ways. I don’t like to give any details away (because I don’t like to have them given to me!), but suffice it to say it’s a family story about love, failure, brokenness and restoration. There is a good modern Seattle-ish edge, which feels current, and a sort of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel feeling as well. 3.5 / 5 because it was a little long. Read in summer.
- Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson is a WW2 story about a Polish family and the horrors of the Holocaust in their lives. Balson is an attorney, and structured the book from the vantage of one family member, now elderly, filing a lawsuit against a family friend whom he accuses of having been a Nazi. This is a great concept for a book, a great take on a very familiar and thoroughly written-about subject, but the writing fell very flat. Think: legal briefs. The perspective shifts, the shallow sub-plots, and some elements of sensationalism lost me entirely. 2 / 5. Read in fall.
- Moonglow by Michael Chabon bowled me over, and I couldn’t stop reading. Here is a WW2 story I just loved. Chabon is most famous for Kavalier and Clay, and he is a master story teller, a great weaver of tales, has an enormous imagination, a great willingness to delve deep, and the most stunning way with words. Beware: this is a big, fat book. Here is the story of a young man who interviews his mysterious grandfather on his deathbed, and Moonglow is the disjointed story he receives. This is a work of fiction, though Chabon did interview his own grandfather in similar circumstances many years ago. The story is WW2, it’s the sixties business world, it’s modern, it’s surprising, it’s so poignant. 4 / 5. Read in fall.
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Quirky Eleanor, a friendless British office secretary who seems to fall somewhere on the Autism spectrum, has a generally affable disposition and contentment with her quiet, somewhat tragically lonely life, which covers over the true darkness of her past. I loved the dichotomy of the levity and the darkness, and the way despite her almost emotionless expression of herself, you got to know and love her as a character. There was something similar between this and The Rosie Project. 4 / 5. Read in fall.
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’m sitting here, fingers on the keys, and coming up short. This book blew me away. This book is what has propelled me to read Ishiguro’s entire body of Nobel Prize-worthy work. It’s dystopian, but barely, just the hint of a dystopia, the subtlest indications of the great treachery and horrors afoot. There are children at a boarding school in the English countryside, and they seem happy, content, pleasant, smart! But there are all these irregularities and as a reader, you keep wondering what, precisely, has tilted the earth ever-so-slightly. To write a story with such deep rivers of sadness, of humanity, in the most delicate and understated ways, I marveled at it. Read this book. It is so very incredible. It is so very sad. 4 / 5. Read in spring.
- The Dry by Jane Harper. A thriller! A murder mystery! Australian! So different from anything I usually read, but it came on the recc. of Anne Bogle, and it was great! There were some very Cormac McCarthy odors coming out of this, the landscape felt similar to that of No Country for Old Men (a horrifying novel, and personal favorite – must read), and the darkness of a murder in a ghost town. The violence is grizzly, so take heed. 4 / 5! Who’d have thought? Read in summer.
- Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman is the only parenting book I’ve ever read, and it was incredible. The French have such a different take on raising children! While there are some aspects which did not resonate with me, many did. Principles of patience, peace, rhythms and simplicity that I find we, as a culture, tend to lack. I wished I’d have read this before my kids were born, but have brought several principles into practice in our home with happy results. Note: Druckerman’s tone in this book makes it very readable — no judgement, a great deal of healthy self-deprecation. 4 / 5 (because nonfiction will never be my favorite). Read in spring.
- This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. I did not read every short in this collection yet, but the reason I went to this was because in a postcard from Ann (we are penpals*) she told me to read “The Getaway Car,” which is her 80-page treatise on writing. I cried reading it many times, of course. 5 / 5. Read any time.
- Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice – Alzheimers, brings us another story written around/to the idea of a disease, and this time it’s Huntington’s. Genova is a doctor by trade, and it shows. In this book, the disease is a central character. It’s not spoiling anything to say that the patriarch of the O’Brien family, a Boston police officer, falls ill with what turns out to be Huntington’s Disease, a dehumanizing degenerative disease without much treatment or any cure. The story is about the way he, his wife, and his four children shoulder the burden of the devastating change. 3 / 5. Read in winter.
There you have it. 42 books. I’m also halfway through Little Women, and as soon as I finish, I’ll start A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. As ever, I welcome your feedback, happy new year, and happy reading!
*I’ve written her three times. She, out of her great generosity and kindness to the little people, replied twice, and for the rest of my days I’ll keep those postcards, and re-read them in times of writerly despair.