My goal was to read 25 books this year, all by female authors.
I was close.
I read 24 books total. 21 were written by women, 1 was written by a man, and 2 were essay collections. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.
While I haven’t been blogging or sharing much of my writing lately, it was really important to me to put together this list to close out 2017 in reading and recommend some of the beautiful books I spent this past year discovering. The titles below are ones that will stick with me for years to come.
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” — Oscar Wilde
Just Kids by Patti Smith
I borrowed Just Kids from my roommate immediately upon moving to New York. It was perfect timing. In a lot of ways, the memoir is a love letter to the city (especially the East Village, where both Smith and myself were living), capturing New York at arguably its best moment, when it was a haven for artists and misfits of all kinds.
The story focuses on Smith’s complicated relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, but it also takes us through Smith’s evolution independently, as an artist and a person growing up in the world. The constant, for both Smith and Mapplethorpe, was unwavering commitment to their art. For me, the way this steadfast dedication manifested itself throughout their ups, downs, struggles, and triumphs was the most interesting aspect of the story.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker
This poetry collection gets a mention here not because it contained any particularly life-changing poems, but because it got me reading poetry again. I forgot how much I love poetry and how therapeutic it can be (more poetry in 2018!). Also, I’m convinced that reading poetry regularly improves my writing, not to mention my vocabulary.
If you’ve been away from poetry for awhile, don’t know where to begin with contemporary poetry, or are a bit afraid of poetry in general (which you shouldn’t feel bad about — it can be intimidating) this is a fun, fast-paced, yet thought-provoking collection to work through one poem at a time.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
It’s hard to know what to say about this book. It’s one I think I’ll read again and again, when I gather back the emotional strength. My Name Is Lucy Barton explores a difficult relationship between a mother and daughter, Lucy, while Lucy is sick, on bedrest, in a New York hospital. The real story, however, happens when Lucy’s mom tells her stories about people and places from the small Illinois town where Lucy grew up, and when something in her mother’s mannerisms or responses or silences causes Lucy to recall a vivid memory or anecdote of her own.
The way Strout writes in this book is just gut-wrenchingly beautiful, made even more elegant by short chapters and white space that gives the words room to settle. The words feel effortless, but their message will pull at your heart.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Swing Time was the first Zadie Smith novel I’ve ever read, despite having her other books on my list for years. It’s an expansive novel that closely follows a no-name narrator from different pockets of London to New York to Africa and back around again. I loved the way Smith writes about dance in this book. It felt enchanting, yet so relatable — similar to the way she writes about our narrator and her best friend Tracy, who go through ups and downs (but mostly downs) that feel in some way familiar, even though their circumstances are, of course, specific and unique to their time and place.
To me, Swing Time is literary fiction at it’s finest because of the way it reveals the many sides of each character — the good, the bad, and the ugly. After reading, one is left with the sense that the lines between right and wrong, good and bad, happy and sad are even more blurred than before. All we know for sure is that everyone is just trying to do their best.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
After finishing Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I wanted to read one of Joan Didion’s novels and all signs pointed to Play It As It Lays. It is a bleak, bleak novel, unapologetically so. But it is also a piercing novel, one to be read not for entertainment but for examination. If you’re up for it, it’s worth it.
The story is told in shifting perspective, which adds to the dream-like quality of the book. Maria, our narrator and protagonist, is a modern-day hot mess, and not a particularly likable character in the traditional sense, yet we feel for her. We are her. Didion’s prose brings you closer to Maria than maybe any other character in American literature. It’s an uncomfortable ride but an important one, nonetheless.
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
Confession: I saw that The Glass Castle was coming out as a movie this year and knew that I had to read the book before I could let myself see the movie. The memoir had been on my list for years, so when I saw a copy of the old paperback design (I have a thing against movie poster book jackets) at a local bookstore in Virginia, I bought it and read it while visiting my family over Thanksgiving.
The book is a gripping, heart-wrenching story about the author’s childhood growing up all over the Southwest and then in rural West Virginia. Eventually, she and her siblings escape their lives of squalor with their parents to go live in New York on their own, but unfortunately the parental drama doesn’t stop there. The book is incredibly well-written and the story is truly unbelievable, so much so that you often have to remind yourself it’s non-fiction and not a novel.
A few weeks later, I watched the movie. Spoiler alert: the book (as usual) is way, way better.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
My number one favorite book of 2017 was Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. It’s hard to believe this gem of a book was her debut novel because holy moly, this woman can write. The story follows a young woman, Ruth, who after a brutal breakup, decides to move back in with her parents for a year to help care for her father, who is entering the more treacherous stages of Alzheimer’s. But the book is so much more than that. I read most of it in a single afternoon and never wanted it to end. If you read it, you will laugh, cry, smile, scream, and be reminded of all the beautiful, subtle, sentimental details that make life wonderful. At best, it will help you notice them again. Read this book.
While the above were my favorites, I read some other really great stuff in 2017:
- This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
- Never Can Say Goodbye (Essay Collection)
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
- Marlena by Julie Buntin
- Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
- Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
- Bluets by Maggie Nelson
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
- My First New York (Essay Collection)
- Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown
- The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
- Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
And the only book on my list by a male author, which I finished on January 1, 2017:
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
What are you reading in 2018? I’m getting started with Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Let me know what’s on your list and what I should add to mine.
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