My Favorite Books of 2017

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

Just Kids by Patti Smith

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.

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 There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce

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.

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 My Name is Lucy Barton

My Name is Lucy Barton

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.

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 Swing Time

Swing Time

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.

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 Play It As It Lays

Play It As It Lays

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.

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 The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle

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.

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 Goodbye Vitamin

Goodbye Vitamin

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.

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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. 

Happy Reading!

Ally

The above are Amazon Affiliate links, which means if you purchase one of these books via Amazon, you support my business along the way. 

Late Summer Reading Lists

This summer I've read...-The Best of Youth by local author Michael Dahlie

 best of youth

best of youth

I got so wrapped up in Henry's, the main character's, trials and tribulations I began stealing away moments during the school day to read this novel. The reader empathizes with Henry right away and wants to help see him through to the very end.

- Triathlons for Women by Sally Edwards

 9781934030400_p0_v1_s260x420

9781934030400_p0_v1_s260x420

While there's no substitute for learning by doing, when you're approaching a new hobby or skill, reading about it certainly can't hurt. Making rookie mistakes is part of the process, but this book helped me avoid some potentially dangerous faults and explained some basics that made learning easier - especially when it came to that bike leg!

- Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

 owls

owls

David Sedaris is so easy to read. His writing inspires the reader to pay attention the the mundane, the subtleties of everyday life, and see the real story in that.

- The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

 flowers

flowers

A good summer book club novel. Not my favorite on this list, but still worth turning the pages. If you're a gardener (or planning your wedding, perhaps) you'll enjoy this deeper look at each flower's message.

I'm currently reading...

- The Last Policeman by local author Ben H. Winters

 last policeman

last policeman

I'm normally not a fan of mystery novels, so without sounding too cliche, I have to say that so far, The Last Policeman is an exception. It's suspenseful, but without withholding so much information you just get frustrated (ahem, Gone Girl, anyone?). The hero, Detective Palace, lays low early on (I'm only about halfway through) but its clear that he is intense and calculated. He will do whatever it takes to solve his case and ensure justice prevails - even in the circumstances of doom.

- Best American Short Stories 2012 edited by Tom Perrotta

 bass

bass

I always turn to the Best American collections when I want to read stories but don't want to spend any time looking for "good" ones (yes, life is so hard). They're all good, and all nearly perfect. In the introduction, Perrotta writes something like - there is no such thing as a perfect novel, but a perfect short story? That exists.

 tin house

tin house

- Tin House: Summer 2013: Summer Reading

I'm trying to read more literary journals. It's hard to find them at bookstores, but I picked this one up at Barnes & Noble and thought the cover art was beautiful. I also like the concept of "Summer Reading". I'd like to subscribe to a few journals to read consistently, does anyone have a recommendation?

On my list...

- East of Eden by John Steinbeck

 eastofeden

eastofeden

I've been told to read this book by several different people, several different times. Admittedly, I am poorly read in "those books you're supposed to read", so I thought this might be a good one to check off the list. It's great to read contemporary stuff, which is most often what I select, but there is something to be said about learning from the greats.

- How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggars

 hungry

hungry

I've never read Dave Eggers, and I'm trying to read as many short stories as I can get my hands on--two birds with one stone, yes?

- Tenth of Decemberby George Saunders

 tenth

tenth

Sort of the same situation here. I've heard a lot about George Saunders. In fact if I'm not mistaken, he made it to Butler a few years ago for the university's prestigious writers' series. I missed it, of course. But he's been on my to-do list for awhile and this collection has received lots of buzz that I want to get in on, too.

- Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

 swamp

swamp

This has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. It's Karen Russell's first novel, though apparently it doesn't read like it. She's a rock star. There's something very fascinating about her setting, in my opinion - the Ten Thousand Islands off the southwest coast of Florida. Humidity that strong just sets an interesting haze over everything. It slows everything down.

Happy reading, everyone. Enjoy these late summer days and nights, soak them up before their gone.

YA Fiction Round-Up: I Am The Messenger, Ready Player One, And More...

I've been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction lately. I guess that's what happens when you're an eighth grade English teacher. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. Some of the best books in recent years have been classified in the YA category--John Green's bestselling The Fault in Our Stars, for example, set right here in Indianapolis. The following is a list of books I selected for my eighth grade Literature Circles. (Shout out to Sam Moody, teacher extraordinaire, for his super helpful guidance on this!) So what's a Lit Circle? It's like a book club with less wine and more worksheets. But you feel free to read these however you like.

 life-of-pi-book-cover

life-of-pi-book-cover

Life of PiYann Martel

To my surprise, not enough of my students selected this book to form a complete Lit Circle, though many are reading it on their own and loving it as they do so. I selected Life of Pi because my own ninth grade English teacher chose it for us way back when. Plus, timing was right, as the film Life of Pi just picked up a number of academy awards and received positive acclamation all-around.

If you read this book, you'll be amazed at Martel's commitment to Pi's narration. It's so believable you wonder if Martel himself was never lost at sea with a hungry tiger named Richard Parker.

 I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak

I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak

I Am The Messenger, Markus Zusak

Chances are you've read, or at least heard of, Markus Zusak's more popular novel, The Book Thief. If you haven't read it, don't worry, because neither have I. I'm sure it's awesome, and it's on my list, but I'm not sure any YA novel could be more of a page-turner than this one. It's best read in one full swoop so make sure you have a few hours to spare before you dig in.

 scorpion

scorpion

The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer

Futuristic dystopia sci-fi nightmare sort of novel. The kind that twelve-year-old boys read and actually enjoy! A miracle in and of itself. The novel is set in a place called Opium, a strip of land on the present-day U.S./Mexican border. There's all kinds of underlying messages about government and science and society that readers can pick up on in a way that's accessible for kids but not overly obvious for the adults.

 flowers-for-algernon-book

flowers-for-algernon-book

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

Another good one courtesy of my ninth grade English teacher. This is by far the most mature of the books selected for my classes Lit Circles, maybe because it's not technically a YA novel. I only have one small group of three students reading this book together, and when they finished it yesterday, I think they all shed a tear or two. It's a heart-wrenching story, but the best ones always are. Read it.

 Ready-Player-One-Paperback-Cover

Ready-Player-One-Paperback-Cover

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

Another favorite among the boys. Although I was impressed by the number of girls who signed up to read this one all about life inside the OASIS - a virtual reality video game from the future. Ready Player One is a cautionary tale, asking us to examine our sense of reality. Are you really who your online-self claims to be?

 Book_CuriousIncident

Book_CuriousIncident

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

Another book that's not specifically YA, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, chronicles the story of Christopher--a young boy intent on solving the mystery behind the sudden death of his neighbor's dog. Christopher is not your typical narrator, or your typical young boy for that matter. He describes himself as "a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties" if that gives you an idea of who you're dealing with. But just like with Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, you'll fall in love with Christopher and cheer him on page after page as he solves both the mystery of the dog, and the more stirring mysteries within his family.

Have you read any of these titles?

What book(s) are you currently reading? Any recommendations?

Happy reading y'all!

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It's everyone's, come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization.

 TPB

TPB

Like the last book I discussed here, I was late picking up Kingsolver’s epic tale. It’s a novel I’ve known about for many years. When I was a freshman in high school, my Modern World Studies teacher offered extra credit to anyone who could read the novel and complete a poster board project on the Congo, where the novel takes place. I toted the heavy book around in my backpack for two weeks, tattering its edges but never even opening its cover. It was an intimidating book, sure. The story, told by five different narrators, in seven different sections, spans three decades. But I’m not sure its vastness is what kept me from opening the book that year, or the years to follow, either.

Some background for you…Again, The Poisonwood Bible is set in Central Africa—the Belgian Congo, the tiny village of Kilanga, 1959. Nathan Price, a hot-tongued Southern Baptist preacher, has just uprooted his family of five women from their comfortable, Betty-Crocker home in Georgia to the middle of the African jungle for his evangelical mission. Each woman in the novel (wife—Orleanna, and daughters—Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May) tells their own story as it’s happening in voices that are strong, distinct and lovable. Each narrator offers a unique piece of the Price family puzzle with her own questions, answers and observations. I could go on for hours about Kingsolver’s masterful writing here. What she achieved with these characters and their voices is remarkable. It’s what keeps you turning the pages, 543 times.

At school, I always challenge my students to answer the question: What is this book really about? I try to teach them that there are many layers to a book, a story, an article, any piece of writing, really. On the outside we have structure, characters, setting—all the scaffolding it takes to hold up a good narrative. But to find that takeaway message and to decide what a story means to us, as readers, we have to look more closely. To me, The Poisonwood Bible boils down to the quote I highlighted above. It’s about looking at the foundations upon which we build our lives. It’s about our relationships with our siblings, our parents, our husbands, wives and children, however complex or artificial they might be. It’s about the difference between illusion and misunderstanding and truth, if there is one, and if in the long run, that difference really matters.

This book would not have been an easy read at fourteen and it was not exactly an easy read at twenty-three. But there's something about the hard books that make them the ones we're most proud of. They're the ones from which we truly learn something, whether or not we realize it right away. What I'm finding, with this book and with others, is that regardless of what we do, books always seem to have the perfect timing.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. This is the refrain in Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she leads readers through the year following her husband’s, John Gregory Dunne’s, unexpected death. What is stunning about this time capsule is the way Didion captures the dizziness of loss—how bereavement not only changes our present and future, but absolutely changes how we remember our past. Looking through the snapshots of her marriage, the reader begins to feel how grief has a way of seeping itself into it every memory. And how grief turns one’s sense of time and chronology mudgy, as Didion so perfectly describes.

What I love about this memoir is that it doesn’t pretend to have an answer. This is not a book tracing Didion’s methods of coping or coming to terms with the fact that her husband died suddenly at the dinner table. Instead, Didion assures her readers there is not a single solution or a single healing power that makes everything better. By attempting to understand the nature of grief, and the clutch it holds on everyone at some time or another, seems for Didion the best way of dealing.

Hopefully you can see that I really enjoyed this book. I can see, however, why some readers might be turned off by Didion’s bare-bones way of writing. Even though I enjoyed the book, it is hard to describe the book as a whole. It’s neither uplifting, nor sorrowful. It’s not hopeful, but it’s not bleak either. To describe Didion’s memoir in one word—real.

 Random House, 2005

Random House, 2005

Have you read this memoir? Or anything else by Joan Didion? What was your experience? Please comment below.