I can’t sleep. I’ve been reading again, restless and thinking about books again, why they matter, why now, how. We’ve already passed into the new year, yet my best books of 2017 haven’t left my mind. But it’s January, and I need to release this and move on to 2018. This time, though, I don’t want to go through the list point by point like last year, as I’ve been somewhat preoccupied about larger trends in the books that mattered most to me here and now, a flashpoint in history, just 365-odd days on this planet. How books came back to me, how I found them in my blood, my past, my future. These are the books that stayed with me, not necessarily the “best” objectively, but more than that, ones housed on the shelves of my ribcage, floating into my mind while waiting vacantly in the checkout, stopped in traffic. These books are why I read.
That’s no small praise. After the high of achieving my goal to read 52 books in 2014, as well as other bookish beginnings like starting my library science graduate program, the years 2015 – 2016 were a bit of a reading low for me, kind of an extended reading slump. I read some great books, yet I felt disconnected from books, probably in part because my freelance writing and editing career started to focus heavily on books and publishing and that drained some of the joy out of reading. But also, I hadn’t read much that made an impact. Not many new favorites, a lot of 3 and 4 stars. Now, 2017 saw a return to my pages passion. I finished just 52 books like usual, right along with the last few years’ average, but I felt more a part of the conversation, more plugged into what’s hitting the shelves today, and well more than half of the books I finished this year were published in 2017, a sign of an especially strong publishing year.
Looking at my best books of the year, I am struck by a recurring theme of connection. These are dark times, and the world and my country of America in particular feel cold. We feel divided, not just among party lines. Echo chambers isolate us from those who believe other things, and we burrow into our thought bubbles. This feels immediate and contextual, but this is life in general. It’s a lonely existence. We find comfort where we can. In the last days of the year, I was struck with a feeling of peace. Perhaps it’s because that’s what the holidays, and Christmas in particular, mean to me. It’s about family, friends, pets, a warm body you fit into, or the person on the other end of the line, you can feel their love and support and respect in the [currently typing] chat box. Or maybe it’s total strangers, or semi-strangers. People you’ve become acquainted with online, the silent “like” from someone far back in your past. A friend recently told me of sharing their journey with overcoming alcoholism through social media has changed their life. The point, in more ways than one, is that I feel closer to people around me. Against the backdrop of a world in turmoil, I do believe we have found some light in the dark. Together.
So when I looked at my list of best books of the year, I realized that some of that peaceful feeling and feeling like you’re not totally alone out there came through, as did a strong recognition that life can be totally shitty at best with the one and only guarantee that you will die. This year, then, there were fewer fluffy books that made my list, and know that I love fluff (and write it!). But the books I admired the most juxtaposed a cruel world against the gems of love, connection, and community. It was an extraordinary difficult year for me, and yet rediscovering that love for reading has helped me push beyond my emotional isolation and double down on books and committing to my passion. And it’s helped me feel closer to the wider, global family of readers out there, book bloggers, librarians, reviewers, writers, and just all around book nerds. After reviewing other reader’s end of the year lists, I’ve sensed a similar feeling. Books are needed more than ever. And so, here are the books that helped me endure, books that I read late into the night—crucially, at that hour when I see the clock hit 11:59 pm and choose to live another day, to go past 11:59 pm and into the dawn of a new day. There were many of these nights that I did not want to live another day. But what pulled me through was—of course, inevitably—stories.
Speaking of which, here they are: my best books of 2017 (unranked). I wanted to incorporate different moments from the year where I discussed the books on social media or took a photo, so here are some mementos of hot takes and hallelujahs.
(1) Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges
Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home, a graphic novel by Nicole J. Georges that I reviewed here, looks at the heartbreak that you feel when you let a pet—a soul—into your life knowing full well your time together is comparatively brief. It’s a deceptively upbeat memoir at first, and still you get sucked in knowing you’ll confront loss and grief, but find community and a new beginning. A rescue, but whose? It is difficult to avoid the overly sentimental when paying tribute to your creature’s life and decline, yet you commit to it anyway, you find a spot in your aching heart and find it swell with hope and love, always love.
(2) The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
Also on the theme of familial connection, Thi Bui’s graphic novel memoir, The Best We Could Do, immerses you in the refugee experience. Bui’s parents sacrificed everything to evacuate their children to America from war-torn Vietnam. After arriving, the love they had for each other seemed to slip away as if lost in the ocean between the old home and the new home. Growing up in the shadow of this loss, Bui sets out to learn more about her parents and family back home in Vietnam. It turns out some of the fortresses and boundaries her mother and father begin to break down. Bui ties this search for the past to her pregnancy and birth of her son. Closing the covers of The Best We Could Do, which I reviewed here and situated against the Syrian refugee crisis and America’s xenophobia towards immigrants, I was struck by the primal effort we will endure to give our children a better shot at life, the weight of that action, that love, the ripples of trauma, and the cycle of death and birth to continue ever on, once more into the breach of a cruel world.
(3). Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong is a slow burning debut in which a young woman adrift comes home and stays with her academic father as he succumbs to dementia. Our narrator, Ruth, gifts him some final moments of clarity before the oxygen starts to drain out, the fog of delusion too much to overcome. Ruth seems to be playing along in good fun, but undeniably she feels the imminent loss of her father as he slips away. Over the course of a year, her dad’s condition helps her feel more comfortable thinking about having a future of her own. Goodbye, Vitamin finds the beauty in connection, the small moments we have left together, the memories we find and lose and create, the person we see in the mirror.
(4). All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
Man, for most of Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up I was not having it. Andrea Bern seemed entitled, brittle, and sloppy, as if turning 30 automatically excused her self-destructive and selfish behavior for some kind of invisible gravitas. As if not knowing or caring about anything or anyone was a ticket to enlightenment, not a totally predictable spiral. But then. Then something happened. At 197 pages, All Grown Up is not very long, and it’s stuffed in an awkward cover and some misleading jacket copy. Long about page 100, I started realize this wasn’t just some bad chick lit novel. This was heavy, and it knocked me backward. I know I have a tendency to be sentimentally attached to books that speak to me on a personal level, and since I am turning 30 in 2 days I started to, yes, see myself in Andrea’s trajectory to the bottom.
What got me was Andrea’s lingering trauma alienated her from everyone, including herself, until the coveted role of Auntie to her perfect brother and his perfect wife’s imperfect, incurably sickly, and broken daughter, Sigrid. Andrea’s niece, and her parents’ struggle to save her, helps anchor Andrea to a feeling of connection and perspective and awakens some love, peace, and hope in Andrea. This theme is not unlike Ruth’s relationship to her father, slowly fading away to dementia, in Goodbye, Vitamin. It’s an astonishing book telling the story we often silence: the woman who chooses a life without children and a husband. I am that woman, and many are. I can only expect Andrea’s journey to be bumpy and scarred—like mine—but on the road to healing. And let’s hear it for the Aunties.
(5). Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin
In December, Time Magazine announced the Silence Breakers as the Person of the Year for 2017. These women helped tear down the walls protecting prominent men in power from answering the consequences of systematic sexual harassment and sexual assault. The #MeToo campaign brought awareness of this plague in every intimate circle of social media. Gabrielle Zevin’s Young Jane Young was published in August, a little before this wave broke, yet it is painfully relevant. Engulfed in a scandal, recent college grad Aviva Grossman becomes involved with a promising Congressman. After their affair is made public, Aviva becomes the pariah of her conservative Florida Jewish community. She flees to Maine to start over as Jane Young, a wedding planner and mother to a bright, budding feminist young daughter who is just beginning to question the gaps in her mother’s story.
I loved that this novel is told from three different perspectives, three women central to this tale, Aviva, her mother, and the congressman’s wife, and how the sisterhood helps a painful situation find healing and resolution. This book is bold in ideas, provocative, yet still approachable and narratively addictive. It also avoids being overly sentimental or fluffy (two criticisms I had of Zevin’s last book, the phenomenally popular, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry). Bottom line? I read it in a day, often exclaiming “Wow!” or “This book!!!!!” out loud, and haven’t stopped thinking of it since.
(6). The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan
No other book I read this year, and all the years before, really, dismantled me like Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book. The fictionalized story of McClanahan’s devastating relationship, marriage, and divorce to his first wife, The Sarah Book is a striking testament to the brief flickers of connection, love, and support we are lucky to find in a dark world. For example, at one point, Scott and Sarah adopt an elderly, sick dog that is blind, deaf, mangy, and with limited time left on earth. Mr. King, as the dog is known, is living in agony, but his humans make sure he finds some comfort and affection in his final days.
As in Fetch, you know you’re watching loss in slow motion, yet Scott and Sarah brave it anyway. It’s a metaphor for Scott’s bond with Sarah. By the end of their marriage, Scott is willing to do anything to win her back, yet he knows deep down it is a losing battle. In the final pages, Scott is hurt by their breakup, but grateful to have found someone who touched the darkness inside him and kindled some light and warmth in there. Reading The Sarah Book, you are struck by the twin feelings of how cruel life can be and how incredibly lucky we are to find others who offer some kind of companionship and connection against the void.
(7). Ill Will by Dan Chaon
Ill Will, Dan Chaon’s chilling thriller, takes the unreliable narrator trope and pushes it up to 100 mph in a riveting mindfuck of a novel. Make sure your seat is fastened, or you might get thrown out of the vehicle.
I am usually impatient with “are they crazy or not?” narrators because they are almost exclusively high strung women who may or may not be certifiably bonkers, and it’s straight up exploitative. It’s a trope that’s been playing out since Victorian literature, the hysterical woman. But I was totally drawn into Chaon’s story, which centers around the slaughter of Dustin Tillman’s parents and his aunt and uncle when he was just a kid. At the time, Dustin’s cousins convince him to claim that his troubled older brother, Rusty, a foster kid, put them under a Satanic spell and unleashed the murders. Thirty years later, Rusty is out of jail and eager to reconnect with Dustin, now a psychologist, and with Dustin’s sons, one in college and one a recent high school graduate, both grieving from their mother’s death from cancer. At the same time, a peculiar and intense new patient draws Dustin into his world of conspiracy theories, where an outbreak of deaths might be the workings of a Satanic serial killer. This book, wow. I mean, good luck putting it down. Chaon’s masterpiece is layered so carefully with twists and turns that feel earned and genuine, rather that contrived to manipulate the reader, in a visceral experience. When you get to the end, you’ll admire how Chaon is able to subvert your faith in reality, your belief in concrete memories, and your trust in your own mind. (If you’re interested in the 1980s Satanic abuse hysteria, check out my friend Rich Beck’s history of that panic, We Believe the Children).
(8). Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee
Tash Hearts Tolstoy, by Kathryn Ormsbee, is a revelation. Tash, short for Natasha, is an aspiring filmmaker, who can tell that something feels different. While just about everyone she knows is romantically attached and feels a lust for the physical, Tash feels… not that. Through some research on the Internet, Tash discovers that she might identify as asexual, but events in her life challenge this notion. After her YouTube series becomes famous, Tash feels pulled to a fellow vlogger who makes her feel butterflies. Meanwhile, in real life, Tash can sense a chemistry, an energy, an attraction with her best friend’s older brother, who is also a friend. Tash’s journey of self discovery is so moving and authentic. It is so incredibly rare to find a book that includes asexuality, much less explicitly, and does it well. For eons, we in the ace community have felt invisible, and Tash isn’t the only one who feels an enormous relief to find there are other people who feel like you do, that it’s not wrong, that you. are. not. alone. Tash Hearts Tolstoy really reminded me of the first time I read Fangirl, and it felt like coming home.
(9). Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
There’s so much to say about Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, but like the best books, I’m still thinking about it long after I closed the covers in the early morning. I think it’s represented best in two Instagram posts I made while reading the book.
First, the ache of having to put the book down and go to bed, happy and worried that it might invade my dreams…
Second, in the moments after I finished the book, shaking from all the feels. What can we even say when we finish amazing reads like that? There’s nothing. They stole your word right out of you.
You ever have that experience where a book stalks you? Like you orbit around it, conscious of its presence. That’s how I felt when I got Turtles All the Way Down, radioactive, marked. He is like a god to me in the way his books have been so influential in my life, especially as a writer. I’m happy that even though I wasn’t initially drawn into the story, I persevered. Of course, it was amazing, and it felt more personal than any Green novel yet. For those of us who are totally broken forever, we know chronic illness kills you every day, vs. the ever-approaching end date of terminal illness. Aza’s story, though difficult to read at times, gives you hope that there are people around who will help mend you, who want to, that will push inside the cracks and fill you up with love.
(10). The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
I think I have been writing praise for The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, the explosive memoir / true crime blend by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, all year, and indeed I did write the blurb for Book Riot’s Best Books of 2017 and Best Books of 2017 (So Far). I also named it one of my five best reads of the past year for the July 2017 Annual Summer Reading Issue of my hometown paper, The Swarthmorean. So it’s gotten a lot of airtime since I finished it on June 3 and wrote an insta-review on Goodreads:
Astonishing. Digs in with an unsettling, addicting blend of raw emotion and pounding suspense that propels you until the final four words. This book, this story, has become a part of me, has activated my own uneasy past, and it will live in my body and soul for a long time to come. Just remember to breathe (I often forgot).
Seven months later, I’m still forgetting to breathe whenever I think about this powerful book. My feelings are probably best represented, then, by my blurb from Book Riot’s Best Books of 2017, which hopefully has perfected describing this indescribably unique and brave book.
When I think of this recurring theme of connection, I realize how Alexandria (just using the shorter first name here!) subtly worked it into this memoir. Part of the disturbing feeling she gets when she sees the footage of Death Row inmate Ricky Langley is an almost uncanny doubling. Ricky’s case challenges Alexandria because it makes her realize that she is in the company of survivors of child abuse. This man, this pedophile and likely murderer, is cyclicly prone to child abuse. Alexandria, in turn, is confronted with her own past as a victim of child sexual abuse by her grandfather. This launches Alexandria into a journey of personal and familial discovery as the glass of repression begins to shatter around her lingering pain and trauma, the echo in her body. Alexandria is thrown into uncomfortable truths with herself, with Ricky, and with her family. I’d like to say if there is one bright take from finishing this book, it is that Alexandria seemed strengthened by overcoming a mental alienation from the trauma, that she began to see herself differently and absorb what had happened to her, and who it connected her to with fellow victims.
(11). The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
I don’t particularly enjoy historical fiction because whenever I’m transported out of stories set in the contemporary moment or recent past, I have to think about what would have happened to me back then. With a mental illness, I don’t enjoy speculative or historical fiction because I think in most cases I would be screwed. Things are bad enough with treating the mentally ill now, and it’s nothing short of barbaric how the mad were treated even a few decades back. But Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue gave me hope. Henry Montague or “Monty,” a nobleman with a taste for alcohol, a sexuality that is criminal, and a capacity for self destruction that is bottomless, narrates this historical adventure epic. Monty is helplessly in love with his best friend, Percy, who grew up with him on his family’s estate and whose feelings are less easy to discern. In that time, the 1700s, noblemen and sometimes noblewomen were sent off on Great Tours of the Continent (aka Europe). Monty, with his younger sister, Felicity, and Percy, embark on a grand tour that goes horribly awry, launching them on a quest for survival among pirates, highwaymen, and thieves, as Monty stares down the end of his fun and return to his abusive and hateful father’s supervision as he will learn to manage the estate.
Apart from the fact that Monty is an equisite narrator—at turns witty, self deprecating, and soberingly dark—who I would listen to narrate a reading of the phone book, this book hits you in the feels. It’s entertaining and will break you, but it leaves you with an uplifting hope for the future. Reading Gentleman’s Guide, I felt, oh, there were other people in history who felt like me, different, “the black sheep,” wrong, like a freak. It gave me that perspective, that finally I was hearing from people like me, and it was thrilling and terrifying, but I’m going to spoil this for you: there’s a happy ending, one that will make you believe you have a place in history, too, and there will be allies and family and love interests and friends. Most of all, friends. Who will draw a sword and help you fight your battles—corporeal or not—side by side.
(12). The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage by Jared Yates Sexton
And finally, the last book on my list (12 this year!), Jared Yates Sexton’s The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage, a memoir of the author’s time covering the Democratic and Republican primaries following different campaigns and conventions from the road. I included this on my listicle post in the fall about “20 Books to Understand ‘What Happened’ to America.” Sexton brings an interesting perspective having grown up in Trump country but liberal (or at least leftist) in his own views, so he straddles that divide. He tries to answer the question of how this could happen, and it’s a disturbing read at times to see how closely the hatred and the racism and intolerance came to him once he became more widely known as a reporter. If you want to understand this country, read this book, the most underrated and important 2016 election book we aren’t talking about, continually relevant in our bleeding nation. The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore was published right at the time of Charlottesville, one of our lowest lows in America, a nauseating, tragic experience that brought us to our knees and showed us: this is who we are.
And so this is an unlikely pick for “connection,” I’m sure you’re thinking. I’ll give you that. However, I’ve felt more united in this country than I have in a long time. I’m not going to give Trump or his election credit for that, but I will say that I find people being kinder to each other, dialogues opening up with people expressing their fear and their hope, politics becoming a dominant topic of conversation, something we can think through and discuss, a rise in activism, the strength of the resistance, challenging each other and challenging our politicians and media to do better, to be more transparent, to care. And I am hopeful. In the chaos of 2017, I felt more compassion and support among people in my orbit, a sense of knowing what’s at stake—everything—what we could lose, and giving it all we’ve got to shelter each other. To unite. The generosity, the passion, the love… I’m seeing it. I have hope. I believe we are not alone. If there is anything these 12 books have taught me this year, it is that. We can—and will—heal.