A Year in Reading: Rereads and More Favorites

Editor’s note: Several of our regular blog writers have looked back at the books they read in 2017, and they’ve each written their own “Year in Review.” This is the last installment. Enjoy! 

2017 Year in Reading

A Little Life book cover2016 was tough; 2017 could have been better than 2016, but wasn’t. So, this year I re-read books for the comfort of knowing I’d spend hours reading well. I returned to Hanya Yanahihara’s “A Little Life” for the third time, and re-read, slowly, Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” “The Red Parts,” “Jane: A Murder,” “Bluets” and “The Art of Cruelty.” For their elegant sentences, challenging ideas, and strobe-like illumination, these books are treasures to me. The character of Jude, in “A Little Life,” reminded me that healing isn’t for all—that some people don’t change, that fate, in all its dogmatic baggage, binds, stills, abides, sustains. This novel again taught me also, among many other things, that happiness is plush, a privilege, not for everyone. I coupled this thought with Nelson’s insistence on queer world-making and queer family-makingThe Red Parts book cover in “The Argonauts.” Even if happiness dissembles and eludes, there is pleasure.

Before the exposés on Harvey Weinstein and other hideous men’s sexual abuse and harassment, I re-read Nelson’s account, in “The Red Parts,” of her aunt’s sexualized murder—and of the revelation that the man convicted of her murder and of six other young women was innocent, that the true killer was, for a time, free, or at least free from incarceration. And after the exposés, I remembered stack of booksNelson’s slow-thinking about how so many men think of women’s bodies as always already dead, or always already theirs.

This year, and last year, I spent countless hours reading the news. I scrolled in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening—all day, a quotidian exercise in the futility of being fully woke, aware, present. So often I felt and feel numb—albeit “in the know”—reading the news. I read novels and memoirs and book-length investigative journalism to ruminate rather than consume—which I feel more alive doing, anyway. The first book I read this year lingers still: Hisham Matar’s “The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between.” Combining reportage, memoir and art criticism, Matar meditates on the intractability of grief, the shame of exile, the manipulation of power by the powerful. His father was kidnapped by the Libyan Return book covergovernment under the Qaddafi regime, and for decades Matar and his family grieved within the chasm between absence and presence. Matar’s heart-aching line about brushing his teeth while thinking about his father’s likely tortured captivity will stay with me—but when I went looking for the line, or the paragraph or page, describing this, I couldn’t locate it, so I’m wondering now if my first book of 2018 will be, ironically, “The Return.”

Best Books of 2017

If you like to read and work at a library it can be difficult to keep up with the constant deluge of books that grab your attention. When I look back at my reading for 2017 it is with a sense of frustration. What about all those other books I wanted to read? Could one of them have been my favorite of the year? I’ll never know.

Village Prodigies book coverThis year the sole book of poetry I read turned out to be one of my favorite books of the year, “Village Prodigies” by Rodney Jones. It follows the lives of a group of friends from Alabama. The poems jump around in time — in one a character suffers from dementia, next he’s a young boy and later a 20-year-old hitchhiker. It’s a rich collection that merits revisiting.

I was pleasantly surprised when I came across “A Legacy of Spies,” John Le Carré’s first book in 25 years to include Spymaster George Smiley. Earlier novels are revisited when a disciple of Smiley is brought in from retirement to account for those events. Stories from the present and past are interwoven in a suspenseful and thoughtful way that is quintessential Le Carré.

Sing Unburied Sing book coverThe most affecting books I read this year were “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders and “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward. Both books are beautifully written, haunted by ghosts (literal and figurative) and palpably express the weight of history. I’m not making very original picks here, considering the accolades and awards both books have received, but the praise is deserved. “Lincoln in the Bardo” addresses Abraham Lincoln’s grief over the death of his son, the difficulty this causes his son’s ghost in moving on to the afterlife and the eccentric ghosts that try to help. In “Sing Unburied Sing” different narrators tell the story of a Mississippi family’s journey to pick up the father from prison and the ghosts from the past that are dredged up.

On the Camino book coverI could keep listing books, but I have a word limit. So just one more, the graphic novel “On the Camino” by Jason. For his 50th birthday, the author decided to walk the Camino de Santiago in Northwest Spain (a  32 day, 500 mile journey). Despite this being an autobiographical work (a first for Jason) all the people are depicted as anthropomorphized animals (not a first for Jason).

A Year of Reading In Review

For the last ten years I’ve kept a record of the books I read every month. When I first started keeping track I read more juvenile and teen novels than adult novels, which isn’t surprising since I’m a children’s librarian. But this year I read more adult novels—an average of 5 per month. It seems that one novel led to another.

Mrs. Lincoln's DressmakerFannie Flagg’s “All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion” included some history about women in WWII. I was fascinated by this and wanted to find out more about WASPs. This led me to “Amelia Earhart’s Daughters” by Leslie Haynsworth. I listened to “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini which led me to “Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule” by the same author. These were wonderful historical fiction about interesting women. Another good book about women of the past is “Bad Girls Throughout History” by Ann Shen. I don’t just read about women though; I enjoyed reading about the feud between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse in “The Last Days of Night” by Graham Moore.

Britt-Marie was here book coverI read some contemporary fiction including Frederick Backman’s “A Man Called Ove” then decided to read some of his other books: “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” and “Britt-Marie was Here.”

Mrs. Jeffries and the one who got away book coverI discovered some mystery authors that I wasn’t familiar with—Emily Brightwell who writes Mrs. Jeffries novels and Louise Penny who writes Inspector Gamache stories. The Mrs. Jeffries novels take place in England with servants quietly helping their boss solve mysteries but letting him think he did all the work. And I continued to read the latest additions to Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. These have a totally different pace than any other mysteries I’ve read. I love the slow, relaxed way the characters interact and enjoy life.

Those are just a few of the interesting books I read this year. I’m a fan of fantasy novels. What happened to them this year? I’m still reading juvenile and teen novels but combined totals are down to an average of 4 per month. I wonder where my reading will take me in 2018.