Best Books of 2017

There were so many wonderful books published in 2017, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that I especially loved. Here they are:

Memoir

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe – by Kapka Kassabova

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In this book, the author returns to Bulgaria (where she was born and spent her childhood) after a long absence. Her goal is to better understand the human and cultural impacts of the Iron Curtain border that intersected this area of the world, and this goal leads her into an exploration of the concept of borders themselves and how they impact the current immigration crisis in Europe. She crosses the borders between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece many times over the course of her journey — a powerful experience for her after growing up near a border that seemed truly uncrossable. Her interviews with the people she meets in these borderlands unlock astonishing stories, as well as a variety of perspectives on the impact of recent history in the Balkans.

Short Stories

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories – by Penelope Lively

Purple swamp hen

This was my first venture into the work of Penelope Lively, and I’m eager to read more. I found each of these stories to be sharp, engaging, and witty. At first glance, the stories seem to be about the mundane — a broken down van, an elderly lady doing her weekly shopping, an uncomfortable lunch meeting. But each story delves into the recesses of the human soul, and reveals something extraordinary and unexpected by its close.

Fantasy

Stone Sky – by N.K. Jemisin

stone sky

When the first two books of a trilogy have been as widely lauded and won as much critical acclaim as The Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate have, I always worry that the author won’t be able to stick the landing with the final book. I shouldn’t have worried in this case. The ending is masterful. This trilogy creates one single (several thousand page long) story arc, and this final book brought the story to a thundering, earth-shattering close. This is not light and fun fantasy — it delves into difficult themes such as abuse, trauma, power inequality, and rebellion. The world-building is captivating, the storytelling is masterful, and the ideas and struggles are deep and powerful.

Science Fiction

Binti: Home – by Nnedi Okorafor

home

This book (the second installment in the trilogy) is refreshingly different from classic science fiction. The author is Nigerian-American, and her works generally focus on African-based science fiction and fantasy. This book explores a kaleidoscope of different elements: a tribal girl struggling with the pull between her ambitions and the traditional expectations of her community, the tensions of a burgeoning friendship between this girl and a squid-like being who is the traditional enemy of her people, telepathy and unexplained mental powers, tribal magic and alien beings. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the third volume of this unique and beautiful trilogy.

Non-Fiction

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult – by Bruce Handy

wild things

This book will appeal to adults with a literary bent who still enjoy reading kids’ books — in other words, right up my alley. It’s a delightful romp through American children’s classics as varied as Goodnight Moon Charlotte’s Web, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8. The book isn’t intended for a scholarly audience, but it does explore children’s books as literature — digging into the lives of the authors, the thematic and structural elements (why do anthropomorphic animals feature so strongly in children’s lit?), and what children’s books from different eras say about the changing way we see our kids.

Young Adult

The Hate U Give – by Angie Thomas

hate u give

The main character in this book is 16-year-old Starr, a girl who regularly moves between two worlds — the world of the underprivileged black neighborhood where she lives and that of the mostly white suburban school she attends. The uneasy peace she’s carved out for herself between the two worlds begins to splinter when she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend at the hands of a white police officer. The story is raw and powerful, but it’s also told with nuance and compassion. This isn’t a political tirade disguised as fiction — it’s a deeply felt story exploring many facets of a terrible situation.

Middle Grades Fiction

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus – by Dusti Bowling

events in the life

This is the story of Aven, a delightfully spunky girl who was born without arms (but likes telling people that she lost them wrestling an alligator), as she moves to a new town in order for her parents to take over the management of a run-down wild west amusement park. It’s a fun book, full of adventure, humor, and pluck, and I found it refreshing to read a book about a character with physical differences that didn’t treat those differences as the most important aspect of the story or of her as a person.

Graphic Novel

The Best We Could Do – by Thi Bui

best we could do

This powerfully rendered graphic memoir follows a Vietnamese-American woman’s exploration of her family’s past. She delves into her parents’ backgrounds, their lives in Vietnam, and their eventual journey to America as refugees. The theme of motherhood weaves throughout the book, as the author (a new mother herself) seeks to understand her own mother’s past through the lens of motherhood. For a more in-depth look at this book, check out this post.

Vietnamese-American Stories: The Best We Could Do and The Refugees

Two of the best books I’ve read this year were by Vietnamese-American authors. It wasn’t particularly intentional on my part, but I love it when I find unexpected connections in books that I read. The books are The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui and The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. In one sense they’re very different from one another – the first is a memoir in graphic novel format, and the second is a collection of short stories. Yet the two books complemented each other in interesting ways.

best we could doThe Best We Could Do is a graphic memoir, in the tradition of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Nina Bunjevac’s Fatherland. The author herself arrived in the US as a toddler (after her family fled Vietnam), so the book centers more on her parents’ stories. In fact, the very process of her seeking to uncover her parents’ stories is woven into the narrative itself. We see the long, difficult conversations she had with her father, and the way her mother opened up more easily to the author’s Caucasian husband about her past than she could with her own daughter. We see her father’s childhood unfold, and then her mother’s. These two stories providing an interesting counterpoint to each other – the mother grew up in the social elite, attending French schools, and vowing never to give up her freedom and dreams by marrying or having children. The author’s father, on the other hand, grew up in poverty, abandoned by his father – a man who later tries to recruit him to the Communist cause. Seeing the history of Vietnam as a backdrop to these two very different childhoods provided an interesting glimpse into the varied experience of the Vietnamese people.

Another element of this book that stood out to me is how the author tells the story through the lens of motherhood. Pregnancy and birth is a sort of frame to the narrative. The book opens with a vivid scene of the author giving birth to her firstborn child, and we watch as she’s inundated with the questions and fears that often accompany motherhood. Her new understanding of both the significance and the difficulty of having a child leads her to investigate her own mother’s past with a particular focus on the experience of motherhood. As the story unfolds, she follows each of her mother’s pregnancies, set against a background of a changing country, often full of turmoil and unrest. The pregnancies are varied: there are stories of infant loss and stillbirth, stories of “replacement pregnancies” following the loss of children, stories of fleeing the country with an infant in arms and of giving birth in a refugee camp. There’s a poignancy to a woman realizing for the first time the intensity, meaning, and self-doubt of being a mother, and then seeking to interpret and understand her own mother’s past in light of this.

refugeesThe Refugees served as both a complement and a counterpoint to The Best We Could Do. It’s a slim collection of short stories, much more understated and reserved than the graphic memoir. All of the stories relate in some way to the Vietnamese-American experience, yet there was an incredible amount of variety among the stories. The fact that the characters’ lives had a connection to Vietnam wasn’t presented as a dramatic or flashy thing – there was no sense of exoticism or melodramatic pity in these stories. Instead, we see a nuanced and often understated look into a few moments in these characters lives. It shattered the illusion of a single, monolithic “Vietnamese-American experience.”

Not all of the stories were about literal refugees. To me, the title seemed to refer more to the unmoored feeling of being between cultures – not fully belonging to one or the other. This unmoored feeling presented itself in very different ways depending on the personality and experiences of the character. The characters themselves are well drawn and they come to life on the page. We see the adult daughter who lives with her ghost-believing mother who finds herself haunted by the memory of the brother who died saving her life as they escaped from Vietnam. Or the Vietnamese girl who idolizes her half-sister living in America, until the sister comes to visit and reveals the complicated truth of her life in the States. There’s the retired USAF pilot who fought in the Vietnam War, now visiting his daughter who has chosen the life of a language teacher in Vietnam, as they hash out their conflicting views about the country his daughter now calls home. And we see the elderly librarian who questions her husband’s past when he begins to call her by another woman’s name as his Alzheimer’s worsens. Each character inhabits his or her own space, and reveals another facet of the story that connects Vietnam and America.

These two books stand beautifully in conjunction with each other. On the one hand, they have quite different ways of approaching the subject – The Best We Could Do with its striking visuals and deeply personal autobiographical story, and The Refugees with its thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of a multiplicity of different experiences among Vietnamese-Americans. Yet they both delve deep into the same subject matter – the lives of people who have become Americans due in large part to the Vietnam War. The war is an ever present thread weaving throughout both books, but it’s not often the main focus of the narrative in either book. Instead, these books focus on the personal journeys of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American individuals – their joys and their struggles, and the way Vietnamese and American culture rub up against each other in their lives. Both books are beautifully written, and the experience of reading them side by side deepened my understanding and connection to these stories and experiences.

A Thousand Splendid Suns – by Khaled Hosseini

a thousand splendidI liked this book much more after I’d read it than while I was reading it. It’s a powerful story, following the lives of two Afghani women during the second half of the 20th century. The characters are intensely real, and we walk alongside them as they navigate life and marriage, birth and death, under the violence of changing regimes – the Soviets, warlord anarchy, the Taliban, the U.S. invasion. It is a very difficult story, but one that ends in redemption and resilience.

The thing that made this book more than usually difficult was the domestic violence it contained. In comparing it to other war-torn and difficult books that I’ve read (such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun), I realized the tremendous difference between human resilience in the face of suffering while still being in a context of human and family love, versus resilience to the turbulence of external circumstances while also living under abuse at home. This book contained some beautiful and powerful moments, but also some moments when I wasn’t sure whether to read faster so that it would be over sooner or to put the book down and escape the horror of it all.

The Suns of Independence – by Ahmadou Kourouma

the suns of independenceBased on the title of this book, I expected a triumphal story of an African country becoming independent of colonial rule. Instead I found the story of an impoverished prince, the last legitimate heir to a tribal royalty, navigating the uncertain and treacherous waters of his country’s independence. At one point he even comments that he hadn’t fully realized the implications of fighting against French colonial rule – that the sapling growing in the shade of a branching oak longs for more room to grow, but when the oak is cut down it suddenly realizes how much protection from the wind it had received from the larger tree.

It’s a strange tale. We see Fama, a man clinging to the past honor of his family line, but also seeing the present degeneration and insignificance of his tribe in a brave new world. Alongside him is his wife Salimata: a beautiful woman longing for a child, yet haunted by her past of botched female circumcision and rape. The book also deals with the layered nature of spirituality in the West African experience. On the surface, the characters live the lives of good Muslims, their days divided by calls to prayer and their speech and greetings peppered with references to Allah and his mercy. Yet when faced with desperate circumstances, the older pagan practices seep through, and we find the characters wondering whether the older paths of sorcery and fetishes might not hold more power over their daily lives.

I was surprised, however, to find an African author writing passages that used the colors “black” and “white” as metaphors for good and evil. In so many postcolonial and civil rights writings, authors speak of the damage done by associating the colors of skin with attributes of morality and value. So I found it surprising to find deceit described as people having souls blacker than their skin and words whiter than their teeth. (“Les Malinkés ont la duplicité parce qu’ils ont l’intérieur plus noir que leur peau et les dires plus blancs que leurs dents.”) It’s a powerful image, but I found it troubling all the same, though it fits in with the folklore tone of the book as a whole. Kourouma makes bold use of color and physical attributes in his descriptions, and uses numerous references from the animal kingdom to make the tale seem almost fable-like.

Ultimately, this book is about the end of an age. About how some things can’t survive the upheavals of colonialism and independence. About how people and traditions can come through such changes as mere ghosts of themselves, blinking in the sunlight of an unrecognizable world.

The Moonstone – by Wilkie Collins

the moonstoneWritten about twenty years before the first of the Sherlock Holmes novels, this book was called by T.S. Eliot, “The first and greatest of English detective novels.”

It’s an exciting story, full of both suspense and humor. While slower paced than modern mysteries (especially in the beginning), it kept me intrigued. Stolen jewels, mysterious bequests, and Indian jugglers add mystique to the tale.

The plot unfolds by means of several narrators, each with his or her own style and eccentricities. The spice and humor of these various narrators keeps the story moving forward, and the switch between narrators adds to the suspense of figuring out the perpetrator of the crime. Gabriel Betteredge, one of the main narrators, is the head steward of the wealthy family involved in the mystery. His style of story-telling is fresh and delightful – and many of his rabbit trails made me laugh out loud.

Published in the 1860s, this book can occasionally come across as dated in its style and tone, but in many respects it fits better with modern sensibilities than other Victorian books. The female characters are strong and independent. The ethnically diverse characters are treated with a surprising amount of dignity and respect for the time period. The Modern Library Classics edition has helpful notes to explain the elements of the story that are confusing for modern readers.

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family – by Thomas Mann

buddenbrooksI haven’t delved much into German literature in the past, so reading this 19th century German family saga was a new experience for me. I found Thomas Mann’s style to be quite engaging (or perhaps the combination of Mann and the translator, John Woods, since I was reading it in translation). The prose is crisp, clean, and forward-moving. The chapters are short, and Mann doesn’t indulge in long-winded descriptions and detours like those found in novels by Dickens or Hugo. He strikes right at the heart of people and situations by focusing in on one of two telling details: the curve of an upper lip, the persistence of an appetite, the shadows around a pair of eyes. The details were striking and often told more in a sentence than could have been said in a page full of milder description.

I found Mann’s descriptions of music in this book particularly captivating. I am always on the lookout for authors who have the ability to translate the ethereal transcendence of music into the confines of the written word. Thomas Mann’s descriptions rank right up there with E.M. Forster’s in A Room With a View, though Hanno’s Wagnerian leitmotifs and improvisations express something darker and more troubling than Lucy’s stirring renditions of Beethoven sonatas.

As for the plot, the reader receives early warning: the book’s subtitle is “the Decline of a Family.” It ended up being an even steeper and rockier descent than I had expected. The story occurs during the period between the 1830s and the 1870s, and explores the lives of a wealthy bourgeois family interacting with the changing times around them. Oddly enough, the social and political events of the historical context were kept very much in the background. The narrative focused much more on the individual characters and their efforts to be successful or achieve happiness.

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The story spans four generations within the Buddenbrooks family, and we see all sorts: the jolly but skeptical Enlightenment man, the piously devout but disconnected father, the woman who responds to her difficult life with refreshing flows of tears and an unending stream of words, the fun loving hypochondriac, the image-conscious businessman who hides his severe depression, the sensitive musician who is misunderstood by the world. It’s a memorable cast.

A theme that I found to be particularly poignant in this novel was that of the tension between faith and reason. Throughout the novel we see the juxtaposition of the impotence of faith with the meaninglessness of reason alone. From the first moments of the book when we see a young girl being drilled on her catechism and her grandfather mocking the validity of such an exercise, religion is presented as the easy path –- the choice of sticking one’s head in the sand and holding blindly to irrelevant beliefs. The religious characters come across as somewhat ludicrous, but at the same time those who reject religion come across as tortured and adrift. It’s as if the younger generation can’t in intellectual conscience accept their predecessors’ beliefs, yet they still long for the certainty and comfort of faith; as if they’ve thrown off the tether of belief, but found themselves unable to find grounding in anything else –- floating adrift in the sea of modernity.

The Last Brother – by Nathacha Appanah

the last brotherThis book had incredible depths of sadness. And yet, I loved it. I’m in the habit of avoiding sad books, because they generally also fall within the category of depressing books. This book, however, beautifully presented layer upon layer of sadness while still finding hope and healing. The result is profoundly powerful and moving.

The narrator is a nine-year-old boy living on the African island of Mauritius during the 1940s. His life is overpowered by an abusive father and the senseless death of his two brothers. He has no idea that a world war is going on.

Yet when his life intersects with that of a young Jewish refugee from eastern Europe (being held in a British prison on Mauritius), these two boys – both of whom have known deep tragedy in the course of their young lives – find solace and healing in each other’s company.

The language is spare and delicate.The story has a richness and depth of human understanding that’s hard to describe. It’s a book that doesn’t shy away from the depths of brokenness in human existence, and yet it manages to find hope and beauty along the way.

sea rocks