Ummmm so the first three months of the year have come and gone without a book post. Horrors. Going to squeeze in all my picks from 2017 so far in a slightly longer-than-usual list. As I often do, I’ll go from lightest to heaviest reads. All links are Amazon affiliate links that provide a small commission for this site.
Schadenfreude: A Love Story by Rebecca Schuman grabbed me with its cheeky cover. I have no particular love of Germany or Kafka, which are the book’s true loves, but I still laughed and cringed my way through this memoir or the author’s adventures through Germany and the German language starting with her infatuation with a boy who was really into Kafka. As a lover of personal essays, the format really worked for me. Chapters are very episodic, and Schuman is a writer for Slate so the writing itself will remind you of online humor writing. I tend to prefer memoirs that aren’t built around a really awful upbringing or traumatic event, just ones where I can enjoy seeing someone’s experiences and get to know the writer’s personality and this definitely checks those boxes.
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey. I love space books and movies but I often find them either too genre-y to the detriment of character or insufficiently science-y and mostly built around action. The Wanderers cares about character above all else, but it also felt deeply researched and thoroughly imagined. Basically it passed my tests for literary fiction and science-fiction. It follows three astronauts and their families as they train for the first mission to Mars. It is mostly concerned with what makes an astronaut who they are and how it is to be a person in their orbit. (Yes, that was on purpose.) What happens when three astronauts must share very tight quarters for over a year? What makes a person want to be an astronaut in the first place? If that doesn’t sound quite interesting enough, just read the first chapter. You’ll get a taste of Howrey’s smart take on science, feminine conditioning, corporate-speak, and much more. I think you’ll find you can’t stop reading.
Ill Will by Dan Chaon. Dan Chaon always puts out crime novels to fawning reviews and while I usually like them I haven’t loved one in a deep way until now. Ill Will was a reading experience that left me exhilarated. I listened to the audio, usually on long stretches of several hours while on a road trip, and I was still sad to turn it off when I arrived at my destination. This is a crime novel that moves backwards and forwards in time centered on Dustin, a psychologist in a midwestern city whose new patient is obsessed with conspiracy theories a series of suspicious drownings of young men. Dustin is no stranger to horrible crimes, there is a big one in his past that I don’t want to spoil, but I will say the chapters set in the 80’s do involve the height of the Ritual Satanic Abuse hysteria that once swept the country. When Dustin’s wife dies, he slowly begins to spiral out of control. While this is a suspenseful novel that I couldn’t stop reading, it’s also about how men deal with (or don’t deal with) trauma in their lives and the effects that trauma can have.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I really loved Lee’s debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, and this is a great follow up. An epic family saga set in Korea and Japan from the 1930’s through the 1980’s, it does what all the good family sagas do and shows you how one person’s choices ricochet down through the generations. This is a big, fat book with plenty of character and plot. It doesn’t feel as long as it is, and while I’m usually not big on historical fiction I dived deep into this one. There is a lot here on the Korean immigrant experience in Japan, something you rarely hear about in the United States, but that will feel familiar to any country that is considering what value immigrants have and what role they play in society.
Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz. This is one of two books on this list about the upheaval in South Korea that began in the 1970’s with worker and student protests. This is a book about friendship, ideals, and family in times of upheaval. The three friends at the center of this book–Namin, Sunam, and Jisun–all come from different social classes to a top university. Namin comes from nothing and is her family’s last hope, Sunam is middle-class and longs for acceptance from the elite, and Jisun is from a wealthy family with a tyrannical father she longs to escape. They come into each other’s lives and have incredible power to befriend and betray one another. It is not a political novel, but a story about people in highly politically charged times.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Heavy subject matter but it’s in a Young Adult package so it’s a little higher on this list than it otherwise would be. This is perhaps the most hyped YA book of 2017 and I was very nervous about it. But I couldn’t put it down and it’s one of the best YA novels I’ve read in the last few years. Starr lives in a poor Black neighborhood in Chicago but her good grades got her into a fancy prep school in the suburbs. Starr’s life isn’t simple, but she has family and friends she loves and she’s okay until she’s in the car with a friend when he’s killed by police during a traffic stop. The story makes national news and Starr suddenly finds her two worlds colliding while she’s in the midst of her own deep pain. It sounds like an after school special, but in Thomas’s hands it feels real. Starr’s problems aren’t obstacles created to give the book a plot. There’s so much real life and nuance here that will feel real to any kind of reader.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. A collection of short stories from the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Sympathizer, a recent favorite of mine. If you didn’t love the style of The Sympathizer but appreciated what Nguyen was going for, you should definitely pick up this book. The stories don’t have that book’s plot devices and complex storytelling style, this is spare and simple and focused on presenting you with stories and characters that stay in your head like ghosts. I love a collection where I can’t really choose a favorite story, where you can read several of them in a row because there is something that happens when you put them together that builds a larger tapestry. These stories are generally about Vietnamese refugees in the US and while there is a lot that unites them, they provide a real depth of experience. It’s an impressively done collection.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru. Kunzru is the kind of author where you always want to know what his next thing will be. He’s ambitious and exciting and unexpected. White Tears starts off feeling like a contemporary novel set in Brooklyn with a hint of a ghost story but becomes something very different, veering into full blown phantasmagoric horror by the end. This is a book about music that cares about more than just how music makes you feel or how it came to be. It is at its heart about the appropriation and exploitation of Black blues artists in the US and how ghosts seek their revenge. The main character is an awkward guy named Seth in his early 20’s who is obsessed with music and is actually working in music, focusing on obscure samples, thanks to his rich friend Carter. But one day they choose the wrong record, one that may be haunted, that has a history of obsession and destruction. The kind of book that isn’t like any other you’ve read before.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. While it’s pretty far down on the “heavy stuff” list, this is the lightest book about war and being a refugee that you will ever read and I don’t mean that the book isn’t serious. There is just something so delicate about Hamid’s writing, his narration feels so generous and intimate, that it doesn’t seem so heavy. Saeed and Nadia are normal people who fall in love just as their country is torn apart by war. Their love story feels in many ways like any other, where there is one day after another, even though war changes the course of their courtship, speeding it up and making decisions for them. Eventually this book becomes something else as magical realism enters the story. It reminded me in that way of The Underground Railroad, where the magical realism is not really central to the story, something that is there but not the issue. A really beautiful book and an important one that I just really loved reading.
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay. I don’t know what to say to you if you don’t know Roxane Gay. You have Google, you can figure it out. She is one of my favorite writers and Difficult Women feels like something significant from a writer who has plenty of significant work already. This is a short story collection, the stories were written over a long period, but putting them together does something that makes it larger than the sum of its parts. Put together, it is about the complexity of being a woman in the world. Most of that complexity is about love and sex and wanting. These women and their stories don’t all feel the same, they are different races and classes and sexualities, but there is always some contradiction or complexity there. It is hard to read more than one of these stories at a time and several can be quite brutal, it took me a few weeks to finally finish but it was absolutely worthwhile.
Human Acts by Han Kang. Last year Kang caused a bit of a sensation with her novel The Vegetarian, which was not in any way a normal or simple novel. It’s still hard for me to explain. Human Acts is much more straightforward, which makes it easier to see just how good Kang is. It begins with the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in 1980, a horrible and violent conflict between protesters and government forces in one town. The novel moves forward decades into the future as Korea continues its conflict and even when peace has settled in but the effects of the brutality still linger. If you have trouble with books that include violence, this will not be an easy one. I started in audio but eventually had to switch to print because it made it a little easier for me to get through the hardest sections, though the audio was gorgeously narrated. While only a few parts of the book detail violent acts, the ones that are there are truly horrible. Kang is looking at some of the biggest questions of the human condition here: why do humans cause pain and how does pain stay with you.
What were your favorite books from 2017 so far?