Best Books of 2017
Thursday 21 December 2017
It calms me. It’s my meditation. And I come back to my work happier, healthier, and stronger because of it. With that in mind, I want to present the top ten books I read from July – December of 2017.
While a distinct narrative voice is not a feature of all the books in my top ten list, it is a defining factor in many of them. I found myself falling in love with novels and nonfiction that had it. I abandoned several where the voice was lacking.
If you find yourself on winter break, maybe there’s a title you’ve been wanting to read in here. If it’s summer time for you, perhaps there’s a beach read for you. Each one of them is also a great gift for a colleague, friend, or partner.
As the year comes to a close, we are so grateful for your continued support of InThinking. Your questions, comments, and professional interest in Language and Literature drive us in making the site better and we appreciate it. Wishing you a happy and healthy 2018!
Favorite Books from July - December 2017
This was my favorite novel of the second half of 2017. Hamid’s languorous sentences put me in a beautiful trance, a contrast to the actual content of the novel. Set in an unnamed city ravaged by war and chaos, the novel follows the story of Saeed and Nadia as they attempt to escape the crumbling city. What's most interesting about the novel is the larger exploration of migration, refugees, and public policy when it comes to immigrants in the West. But at the heart, it is a story of two young people coming together and finding each other when everything else around them is destroyed.
While Exit West was my favorite novel, Lincoln in the Bardo came a very, very close second. I’m not surprised that each was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and after finishing Lincoln in the Bardo, I was convinced why it won: it was the most inventive novel I have read in a long, long time. Most of the novel is dialogue, but it's a hybrid sort of dialogue talking about things that just happened to other characters. There’s also bits of historical documentation interspersed about the events surrounding Willie Lincoln’s death in 1862. Mainly, but not exclusively, the novel is told from three dead characters that see and interact with Willie Lincoln, Abe's son, who has just died. Willie's caught in this weird sort of underworld. It's a bit ghoulish and a bit tricky to understand the exact setting (and understanding “bardo” helps considerably), but I loved it. It is funny and light-hearted, but it is also a deeply moving portrayal of loss.
The Remains of the Day was a delightful surprise. I knew David is a huge fan of the novel, and when Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize, I thought it was time to finally pick it up. I’m glad I finally did! Ishiguro’s incisive depiction of class in England before, during, and after World War Two is not only compelling, but also laser-focused. More than the content – class, war, work, English values – I was attracted to the novelist’s narrator, Stevens. Told in the first person, I was capitvated by his ceaseless devotion to his boss, in his words and actions. Stevens's voice is why I loved the novel and why I think you would like it as well.
After reading The Vegetarian last year, I picked up another novel by Kang this October. It didn't disappoint. Human Acts is a superb, but also haunting and violent historical piece of fiction. The plot revolves around a student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in May of 1980. Read here for more about that history. Kang takes that moment in time and creates eight different narrators in eight different chapters all dealing with the actual events and aftermath of it. It's really quite disturbing and I want to caution you when you buy, read, or recommend it: the violent imagery is detailed and precise. The title comes from the idea of what we as humans are capable of doing to one another.
My first nonfiction title on the list is also an important read for all educators. I work in an intense international school with the highest of demands from all stakeholders. In that vein, I read Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Over-scheduled, Over-tested, and Underestimated Generation by Vicki Abeles - director of the documentary Race to Nowhere. It is a book that you might want to read with your department or even with your entire high school faculty, especially in connection to student well-being. It will start the conversation in a way that will take you back to a text as you consider the stress, anxiety, and overall mental health of your students. While the tone can grate at times (it's sanctimonious and righteous in parts), the claims she makes are completely valid. Student well-being must come first, and families need to re-claim their time from homework, activities, and other school related functions after 3pm. This is a great book to get us all talking about what matters most.
The second of three nonfiction titles is Trevor Noah's Born a Crime. I enjoy his work on The Daily Show and so I decided to read his memoir. It's not as funny as I was expecting it to be. Instead, he tackles his tough childhood, growing up in South Africa under apartheid and the aftermath of it. I really enjoyed the last two chapters. One is about poverty, what he calls "hood" economics, and how difficult it is for people to pull themselves out of their situation. He writes about this in a way that is easy to understand. He also crushes some myths about poverty and the people who live in poverty in really succinct ways. But more than that, it is the final chapter, an almost ode to his mother, that I found most touching. It's not sappy either. He just tells it like it is, and if you don't know her story - I didn't - the ending of the memoir will blow you away! There are also little gems about language and identity, and how learning different languages also helped him out of some tough situations (except his senior prom, which completely shocked me) while also teaching short history lessons about apartheid.
The last of my nonfiction titles was a book I never expected to read it. I found it in a hotel when I was travelling and unexpectedly found myself with nothing to read. The book was published ages ago - in October of 2001 – after several years of diligent research and investigation. It is as relevant today as it was back in 2001. Each chapter follows Jon as he talks to, interviews, and generally just tries to embed himself into the life of extremists of all sorts, from the KKK to Ian Paisley to a radical cleric to those involved in the Ruby Ridge scandal. I highly recommend it in our ever-polarized world today. It helps to understand those who see the world very differently and offers insight into their thinking. It also made me wonder if we are in fact more at odds with each other or if this has always been the case.
Readers of YA fiction will have picked up the most anticipated title of the year: John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. And I found it didn’t disappoint either. While I do like Looking for Alaska better, it is great teen fiction. He tackles teenage anxiety and in classic John Green style – funny dialogue that pops, full of teenage cliches, and honest in dealing with a tough topic. The plot centers on a main character – Aza – who struggles with severe and crippling anxiety. She's also on the hunt with her best friend Daisy to solve the case of a local billionaire who has gone missing. The novel is a bit of a mystery coupled with romance all served on top of a teen dealing with mental health concerns.
For those of you looking for something lighter, The Force by Don Winslow is a great crime novel. The story follows Denny Malone, a NYC police officer. He's in jail at the start and you find out why as the novel progresses. He's a good cop, but there are just too many forces pulling him into the underworld. The ending is also explosive, even if it is far-fetched. It's a fun, fast, entertaining read. At 500 pages, it isn’t a short book, but it does fly by and is a great holiday read.
Similar to Everything I Never Told You, this novel begins with the end. A fire has completely destroyed a seemingly perfect suburban home. Of course, all is not what it seems in this city in Ohio. While you get a sense of whodunit early on in the novel, what’s most interesting, and what you don’t find out until the end, is the motivation for the act. With multiple plot lines full of fun plot twists, I enjoyed it.