2017 was a great year for reading. My goal was 52 books for the year (one for each week). I didn’t quite make it. But goals were meant to be broken, right? Or is that rules? Life (okay, so Netflix) got in the way. Anyway, much beautiful reading was still done, and I have no regrets. Here’s what I accomplished and, briefly, what I thought:
For my first category, I’m calling it “best books.” Because I read some really, really, really good books this year that defy any other categorization. Here they are:
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain- I don’t know if this book technically qualifies as a manifesto, but it certainly spoke to this introvert’s soul. Especially in my profession, being loud and boisterous and assertive often carries the day, even when you’re wrong. It’s off putting, and it’s not right, but that’s how it goes. More than anything, it was just nice to know, through this book, that it’s not just me, that I’m not weird or socially awkward or less than, I’m just different. In reading other reviews, this book was very polarizing. Many (especially including, but certainly not limited to extroverts) hated the book and thought it was just so much whining. But many, including introverts like me, found it refreshing and invigorating. I thought it was very informative, and a must-read for anyone who is or has an introvert in their life.
- Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders- Words can’t express how delighted I was when I found out George Saunders, a veritable short story master, was writing his first full-length novel. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed. But I was shocked. In some sense, the novel was not at all what I expected, but in a good way. Reading it was…an experience. At first you find yourself confused, like the main character in the book. But as you go along, it starts to make sense. Then you grow to appreciate it. And end up loving it. A strange, whimsical mix of historical fact and haunted dialogue and Saunders-esque strangeness that we Saunders fans have grown to love. I learned a lot about Abraham Lincoln and pondered what an insufferable loss would look and feel like through his eyes. Very, very good, and easily one of the best books I read last year.
- Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri- After reading her memoir, In Altre Parole, I was desperate for more from her, and this collection of short stories did not disappoint. Each one was powerful and moving and memorable. She’s an excellent writer, and continued to be a favorite.
- My Cousin, My Gastroenternologist, by Mark Leyner- Labeled “postmodernist/absurdist,” this riotous book was a laugh a minute. The funniest thing I can remember reading. A logophile’s dream come true, it was irreverent, silly, brilliant, all at once. Not one to recommend to anyone with delicate sensibilities, but I laughed out loud so many times I lost count. Too funny, too great.
- Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance- Reading this book last year felt very….appropriate. Timely. Informative. Enlightening. It explained a lot of things, and contained compelling insights on a particular class of Americans. Very, very interesting.
- Theft by Finding, by David Sedaris- As I believe I’ve mentioned here before, I try to read at least one Sedaris a year. It helps remind me not to take life too seriously. This book was a bit of a departure from his usual comedic observations in a short story format style, but it’s maybe my favorite. Essentially, Sedaris has been keeping a detailed journal for decades, and this contained some of the highlights from years gone by. Having read many of his other books, I could see where in his writing these events took place. I loved it, I laughed out loud, I feel like I know the author better. All good things, and a great book.
- Fresh Complaint, by Jeffrey Eugenides- Eugenides has written some exquisite novels over the years. This collection of short stories contained all of that brilliance in an easily consumable format. I am a sucker for short story collections, and this one was extremely good. Loved it!
Because what is life without poetry? Went a little bit heavier poetry-wise than I have in a few years, and my life was the better for it. These were amazing:
- Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts, by Lawrence Raab- These poems haunted me. I read many of them ten times in a row, only to put the book down, and come back to read them ten times more. So moving, so thought-provoking. So observant and seeing and philosophical and feeling. Beautiful, beautiful pieces. I will come back to this on again.
- It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful, by Lia Purpura- A fresh, powerful, moving collection, this book invigorated me and brought back everything about why I fell in love with poetry in the first place.
- It Becomes You, by Dobby Gibson- This collection wasn’t always comfortable, but it was always brilliant. And eerie. And triumphant. And disturbing. I’m not afraid to go dark, and neither is Gibson. I enjoyed it very much.
- Given Sugar, Given Salt, by Jane Hirshfield- This was a warm and beautiful collection. Full of everything that makes each day worth living. Taking the simple and making it splendid and profound. Another good collection.
And of course Mary Oliver gets her own subsection, because I read a lot of her this year:
- Why I Wake Early
- House of Light
Not that each of these collections was identical, but her writing is consistently similar, focusing on nature worship and corresponding thoughts. Her observations are invigorating and resonate with me. Nature is my happy place too.
I read a lot of other good novels this year.
- The Vegetarian, by Han Kang- This novel was straight up creepy. Found myself reading it late into the night, and then having a hard time falling asleep. Uniquely spooky, it was very fun. I recommend it.
- The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman- I continue to enjoy these and the weird world and characters Grossman has created. It still has a Harry-Potter-for-adults vibe, and I maybe didn’t love this one with the same abandon as the earlier books in the series, but it was still fun and entertaining.
- The Girls, by Emma Cline- Loosely a fictional account of Charles Manson and the murders committed by some of his followers, I think I liked the premise of this book better than its execution. It was entertaining and fun to ponder, but largely just okay.
- The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick- Though this is out of character for me, I saw this movie before I read the book. The movie was good. The book, as usual, was much, much better. Very funny, but also causes you to ponder the question of depression and mental illness and how that impacts your relationships and obligations to a friend or family member with those conditions. And then the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year. This book was meant to be.
- History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund- This book alluded to a darkness that never came. Lots of build up, but ultimately pretty anticlimactic. One of those books where, in the end, nothing really happens. Entertaining enough, but largely much suspense about nothing.
- The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith- A solid detective mystery. I proceed to read and enjoy everything by her but Harry Potter. Maybe one day…
- Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich- This book, I thought, delivered where others, like History of Wolves, failed. Overlapping layers. Suspense. Intrigue. A mystery of sorts that plays out over the course of the book in multiple layers and from various perspectives. Descriptive imagery that makes you feel like you were there. I liked this one very much.
- Abandon Me, by Melissa Febos- A powerful and emotional novel. Driven more by feelings than plot, the relationships and human interactions felt real. I enjoyed it.
- The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje- This novel always reminds me of the Sienfeld episode about the movie:
- Still haven’t seen the movie, but I thought the book was better than that. Sure, it had some “watching paint dry moments,” akin to the opening parts of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, but I think that was for effect. Set in Italy around World War II, it was kind of a book after my own heart. I liked it!
- Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney- This book was sort of unapologetically scandalous, and I admired Rooney for that. The relationships to me felt fraught, and therefore realistic. Modern romance is complicated, and I liked this book very much.
- Sometimes I’m So Smart I Almost Feel Like a Real Person, by Graham Parke- Another promising novel by an up and coming young author. This was funny.
- Swamplandia, by Karen Russell- This book…kind of tore my heart out. It started so light and fun and touching, and it turned. And then kept turning. And then seemed like it was going somewhere very dark and uncomfortable. And then kept going. And…ugh. Left me feeling kind of sick to my stomach. Not what I expected going in. Feel kind of queasy looking back now. Admire Russell as an author, but not what my heart needed at the time.
- Asylum, by Patrick McGrath- Speaking of scandal, this was a delightfully scandalous affair. To borrow from my Goodreads review: “The perfect mix of intrigue and scandal. A highly entertaining, promiscuous frolic. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets The Scarlet Letter. Juicy!
- Reconstructing Amelia, by Kimerly McCreight- This one had literally been on my shelf for years. The premise seemed oh so promising: busy lawyer has daughter who gets involved in school scandal, and calamity ensues. The lawyer stuff ended up being very ancillary, and the bulk of the story was largely just mean girl shenanigans. If you’ve seen a couple episodes of Pretty Little Liars, you basically get the gist. Bullying is never good, and this book was entertaining enough, but I was left with kind of a bad taste in my mouth.
- The Sellout, by Paul Beatty- This strange satire was hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud, but then looking around to make sure no one was watching. Because it’s that kind of humor. You shouldn’t laugh, but you can’t help it, and I think that’s what the author intended. Think slavery is over? Think again! Haha.
- The Burning Girl, by Claire Messud- It wasn’t The Woman Upstairs or even The Emperor’s Children, but it was Messud, and I love her, so that was enough.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Did not read as many as I usually do this year, and already mentioned Lahiri and Eugenides, but the other ones I read were very good:
- Homesick for Another World, by Ottessa Moshfegh- These stories were as strange as they were beautiful, and that just made me love them more. So weird, so powerful, the freshest, best collection of short stories I can remember reading.
- The Dinner Party, by Joshua Ferris- Wow! This marks another transition from novel writing to short story endeavors, and this one was exceptional. I love Ferris’s writing and somber tone. These short stories were perfect! I want to read this one again soon.
- The Canterville Ghost and Other Short Stories, by Oscar Wilde- That’s right, Oscar Wilde. These were great and felt surprisingly contemporary. Perfect Halloween reading.
I always read some, because life is too short. Mentioned Sedaris already, but also included:
- Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, by Mindy Kaling- This book was equal parts informative and funny. I enjoyed learning about Kaling’s early life and rise to stardom. She’s smart and cool and I wish her much success, like she needs my wishes. But still. Work it, Mindy!
- We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby- I knew going in I probably wasn’t the target audience for this book. And that knowledge was confirmed many, many, many times as I proceeded to read it. And yet, I couldn’t stop reading. So funny, so wrong, so raunchy, so raw.
There wasn’t as much of this as there usually is either, but there were some good ones:
- The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace, by Adam S. Miller- This was…good. An interesting synopsis of themes from many of David Foster Wallace’s works. I’ve read so much Wallace, I’m almost to the point where there is nothing left to read but what other authors have to say about Wallace. Both the themes and underlying works discussed were compelling and thought-provoking. I’d be interested to discuss more with any of the 50 or so other people who have read the book.
- “H” is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald- This book was very, very good. Roughly one half about hawk training and half on grief, it was informative and interesting and well-written. And more than a little bit heartbreaking. If you’ve lost someone recently, it’s probably too raw, but good and moving and powerful.
- The Skin Above my Knee, by Marcia Butler- This book was also heartbreaking. Provided a very real-feeling look into the hard work and sacrifice that goes into being a professional, classical musician. A memoir of a tough life. Beautiful and sad and moving.
- Frantumaglia, by Elena Ferrante- Ferrante is sort of a force of nature. This book is really just a collection of her correspondence about her writing and process as a writer and experiences in getting published. A compelling look behind the curtain at that whole process and a glimpse at the life and identity that she, probably wisely, chooses to keep a secret. Only making her more intriguing, of course.
- Signifying Rappers, by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello- This is one of DFW’s lesser known/lesser read works. Almost unimaginably, an academic/intellectual look at the roots and history of rap and hip-hop in America. Like I said, I’m rapidly reaching a point where I’ve read almost everything that Wallace has written. This wasn’t his most entertaining, but it definitely had distinct elements of him, and for that alone, I loved it.
- You’re Saying it Wrong, by Ross Petra- This book was sort a word nerd indulgence. I learned a lot. Was relieved to learn I say many of the words correctly, while horrified to discover that I say many of them horribly wrong. Nothing shows your pseudo-intellect quite so clearly as a “big word” mispronounced or used incorrectly. Not one to just sit down and read straight through, but I should probably acquire a copy to consult regularly going forward.
As with Wallace, I’m rapidly reaching a point where I’ve read just about everything McCarthy has written. But I read two more this year, a novel and a screenplay, and both were delightfully McCarthian:
- The Orchard Keeper- McCarthy’s first novel, it was fun to explore his early roots as a writer. There are glimpses of his greatness to come, and I liked it very much.
- The Gardener’s Son- This was the screenplay, shared with me by a good friend and fellow die hard McCarthy fan. It was so short, and existing almost entirely in dialogue, it did not provide all of the description and other elements we McCarthy fans adore. But it was decidedly him, and therefore a must-read for any true devotee.
I feel kind of like a jerk even including this category, but a couple of my choices let me down:
- Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes- When I read Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, I was transported. My life as an avid reader changed forever. It was one of those books you finish and immediately want to start over from the beginning. Naturally, you chase that feeling immediately seeking out as many other works as you can find. Flaubert’s Parrot gave no such satisfaction. I wanted to love it, and went in with expectations high. I found it largely boring, and unsatisfying. But not nearly so unsatisfying as…
- Levels of Life– Very loosely, this explores the stages of a romantic relationship, in large part through the history of hot air balloon travel. First love to intense love to loss. I had to force myself to keep reading, and never found it very entertaining. Let down.
- The Graduate, by Charles Webb- I know they made a movie about it and I wanted to read it just because it gets mentioned occasionally and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I found it almost unreadable. At least 50% of the dialogue consists of the characters offering the increasingly grating single-word question of “what?” Ugh! My teeth grind just typing it here. The story was beyond far-fetched, the main characters are all deplorable and miserable. A total downer, literarily and emotionally.
All in all, not a bad year of reading. 46 out of 52. Many of them were very, very good, and I already look forward to reading them again. Didn’t technically achieve my Goodreads goal, but 52 was a tad ambitious given work and other obligations this year. Plus Netflix really does have some tantalizing series that are too binge-worthy to ignore. This year I’ve set the much less ambitious goal of 26 books. But fear not, fellow Dunces, I plan to use my reading time wisely, tackling some longer works I’ve had my eye on for years, and re-reading some old favorites, potentially including several of those above. 2018 is going to be a great year, Dunce Academy. Happy reading!