Sunday, December 31, 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

I read a lot of books in 2017 (you can see the list in the right-hand column if you view in web version). I like to vary the genre, so I have developed a list and usually read books in the following order:

  • short stories
  • grammar/writing/books about books
  • novel
  • general nonfiction
  • play/theatre
  • classic (at least forty years old)
  • queer
  • journal
  • memoir
  • new release
  • poetry
  • random (I let the computer decide)

(Yes, I am a like that. It’s a constant battle between my Apollonian and Dionysian natures.)

The plays and the books of poetry usually take a day to read (for instance, poet Major Jackson’s excellent book Roll Deep), but there are some thick books which take a little longer, such as one of my favorite novels, Tim Murphy’s Christodora. I keep a record of every book I read, including the date on which I finish it and a few musings regarding my overall impressions. Here are ones that stood out for me over the year, in alphabetical order by title. (Note that not all of these books were published in 2017.)

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (essays)
She tells it real. Trenchant. Better to be a “bad” feminist, says she, than no feminist at all. Recommended reading for everyone.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (essays)
Musings that are abstract and philosophical, honest and personal, and corporeal and spiritual about the color blue. Each paragraph is numbered and, even if it’s one sentence, states its case. Lots of through lines held together deftly, as characters appear and reappear, challenging her, loving her, and bringing her closer to her understanding blue.

Boy Erased by Garrard Conley (memoir)
A young evangelical man grapples with his homosexuality, family, and the ex-gay movement insanity. Sensual writing. A loving memoir about self-loathing. Conley does not play the blame game; he made the decision to go into therapy and the decision to leave.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking (science)
I understood about 70 percent; a few equations, which he eschewed, could have helped. Nevertheless, it blew my mind. I finally understand time as a fourth dimension. The book is twenty-nine years old, so a lot has changed. I’ll have to do some research.

The Business of Fancydancing by Sherman Alexie (poetry and stories)
Alexie’s poetry is relatable, funny, and magical. He feels that the reservation is no longer his home, but he always returns. Lots of seeds planted here that sprout in his later work.

Christodora by Tim Murphy (novel)
Indelible characters, multigenerational and multi-socioeconomic, spanning thirty years in this story of New Yorkers. Drugs of all kinds and activism, both political and personal, tie all the story lines together. A page-turner.

Dubliners by James Joyce (short stories)
Mostly sad slices of life about people who feel trapped. Written over a hundred years ago, but feels very modern. I liked it much more than I thought: I remember having read some of them when I was much younger, but they did not affect me as much then. Joyce wrote this before writing his stream-of-consciousness fiction.

The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich (poetry)
The land, the heavens, the animals—all interwoven in gorgeous litanies.

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick (memoir)
One of the best memoirs I have read. A mother’s ruinous notion of romantic love versus her daughter’s struggle not to turn into her mother. Poetic but precise, loving and scolding, it is what it is (said with a Yiddish accent).

Fitting Ends and Other Stories by Dan Chaon (short stories)
Pre-Internet stories about young men who are lost in the world. I felt a certain kinship with many of them.

The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell (nature and science)
Learned so much about forest ecology and human beings’ relationship to nature. Thoughtful and insightful. A model book. Loved it all.

Founding Grammars by Rosemarie Ostler (history)
An in-depth look at the history of grammar books in America. Intriguing because their writers were often so bitchy to one another. Ostler’s research is impeccable and easy to follow.

God in Pink by Hasan Namir
The Islam-gay struggle is explored. This at times brutal short novel reads a little like a screenplay. But the story, characters, and otherworldliness elevate it. The reversal is done really well.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (short stories)
Masterful, sensual, haunting stories, with dollops of magical realism. Frightening, at times. “The Husband Stitch” ends with one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever read. A punch to the gut.

How They Were Found by Matt Bell (short stories)
These are disturbing tales—retellings of fables with otherworldly modern-day twists. Haunting.

The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris (novel)
Truly memorable characters help shape this story of musicians and club owners in Jazz Age Chicago. Sad lives of Jewish and Black habitués that find redemption in the end. The five senses get fully rolled out, which made me feel as if I were part of its fabric. The first and last paragraphs should be taught in writing class. The first ten pages are unforgettable, showing how peace can turn to tragedy in a heartbeat.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (short stories)
Johnson blends reality and drug reality seamlessly—a master of this. Redemption is hinted at, in the last story. I really like his style.

Kid Champion by Thomas Babe (play)
The fleeting fuckedupedness of fame. Babe was a great playwright. Meaty roles. An American tragedy.

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (poetry)
Relatable and topical: Bowie, father's death (he worked on Hubble), space, God, the future planet. All interwoven. I will return to some of these again.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (novel)
A truly original novel. Existential, touching, funny, heartbreaking.

Miss Lonleyhearts & The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
The character descriptions are beyond vivid. Actions are a little mysterious at times, but ultimately I was okay with that because West is capturing the human condition in all of its mercurial emotional zigs and zags. Extremely frank for its time (1930s).

My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul (memoir)
I felt like the author was writing about my life and thoughts, at times. Moving on many levels. I like reading about people who love books as much as I do. And she’s an atheist!

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal (novel)
I fell in love with all the characters. Great novel, mixing humor with pathos. I love how all the disparate stories come together—and (spoiler alert) the happy ending.

The One You Get by Jason Tougaw (memoir)
Lovingly written memoir interweaving a frank coming-of-age story amid hippie dysfunction, with neuroscience mixed in (for the layperson). I felt a rush and blush of so much recognition.

Party of One by Dave Holmes (memoir)
An extremely funny (wry), honest, and at times touching, sad-sack memoir by the gay Gen Xer MTV VJ. He slept through most of 9/11 (as I had done) and doesn’t suffer fools. The title did not become completely apparent until the very end after he realizes he only has to be himself and not feel like he needs to belong to a group that in all honesty doesn’t deserve him as a member.

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (novel)
The sheer breadth of the tale telling is a marvel. The plotting was operatic as were the characters. Rich in period details. The lack of emotion evinced by the main character is intentional: she has no real speaking voice for she is a woman trapped in a man’s society. She does not want to be defined that way. She is no crybaby.

Roll Deep by Major Jackson (poetry)
I was overwhelmed by the beauty and scope of the language. So many riches, like “Aubade,” a poem of love and companionship. “Reverse Voyage”—Wow.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (novel)
The plot is told out of time from multiple third-person points of view, spanning decades. A pandemic wipes out most of humanity. Probing questions about life and death, our responsibilities as human beings, how art can transform us. The first few chapters are thrilling.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (novel)
I read this in six days, which truly is a record. Such a page-turner!

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (memoir)
She has always been a great writer, and her memoir of her early years proves delectable. With recipes!

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (novel)
A short novel l that ends with a visceral punch. Achebe shows how a native man's life can be reduced to a mere paragraph in the mind of a colonialist. Powerful.

Transitory by Tobias Carroll (short stories)
The Shadows of ghosts darken these characters’ lives as they ruminate their places in the world: I’m a middle-aged misfit; how do I fit in, or does it really matter? Existential, musings, alcoholism.

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (novel)
Very deep. Explores the relationship between the self and the perception of the self; human v. simulation; what is real? I learned so much about myself (and about the science of space, too).

The Welcome Home Diner by Peggy Lampman (novel with recipes)
I loved copyediting this. Polish-American cousins, racial strife, gentrification, human trafficking—a lot, but Peggy pulls it off. Great recipes too!

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (novel)
The world-weary landscape of Bulgaria is seen through the eyes of an American teacher. I learned how to write a novel by reading this and did not realize that till I was finished. It broke my heart and should be required reading.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (short stories)
These stories blew me away. Fierce young women, mostly at sea, trying to find their identities in a patriarchal world. Magical, original, and, most important, entertaining.

Word by Word by Kory Stamper (nonfiction and grammar)
Stamper comes across as erudite, wry, obdurate, yet always fair and in a way moral. I would love to be in her shoes, at her job with Merriam-Webster.

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