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The 36 Books I Read In 2017

There's no lack of excellent literature out there.

01/02/2018 13:26 EST | Updated 01/03/2018 10:55 EST
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For the past several years, I've kept track of the books I've read, with the ultimate intention of reading 52 each year. (I've hit that intention exactly once.)

The list is something I pull out whenever anyone asks for a recommendation, which I try to give based on other works the person likes. But as a whole, it lets me take a look at my year in reading, which can so often reveal exactly what was going on in my life and the world around me. They weren't all published in 2017 by any means, but they did help define the year for me.

This year, some definite themes emerge: a few excellent post-apocalyptic tomes, a lot about family dynamics and plenty to be gleaned from the current political climate — which is really just to say, the times we live in.

The books that I highly recommend are marked with asterisks, though each one on the list is worthy of a perusal, since I straight up dropped anything that didn't grab me within the first 20 pages.

I'd love to hear about books other people recommend, so please leave them in the comments below!

  • *You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
    Goodreads
    This book was impossible to put down, in its dark and enthralling story of teen gymnasts, and their relationships to their bodies, parents and feelings. But it actually reminded me most of a darker Liane Moriarty story, looking at how a community's secrets get the best of them, the small ways grown-ups act like children and, above all, a plot that keeps you turning the pages until late into the night.
  • The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani
    Goodreads
    Taking place at a privileged boarding school on the cusp of the Depression, this is a quick read that nevertheless seems to aspire towards more. A coming-of-age story that encompasses sex, independence and a subtle feminism, it could have stood for more editing, but is a good option for a light book.
  • *The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver
    Goodreads
    What would happen (will happen?) if the U.S. dollar loses all its value? Set in 2029, this book shows an all-too-near future that speaks to the author's libertarian values and the fear that maybe everything we believe about money will turn out to be untrue. Shriver has a way of picking at exactly what is in the zeitgeist; indeed, while reading this book, it was much like the experience after learning a new word — I found references to the ideas contained within it absolutely everywhere. It didn't hurt, of course, to be reading it just before the U.S. Presidential Inauguration and all the fears that stirred up, but Shriver’s version of the future felt plausible enough to give me pause many, many times throughout its pages. It was a book I still haven’t stopped talking about, 12 months later.
  • Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens
    Goodreads
    Ever since I became a mom, I've found myself more and more interested in stories of pregnancy and giving birth. This isn't particularly surprising, but it is rare for a book to go into the nitty gritty of giving birth, and be both interesting as a novel and accurate (at least as far as my experience goes) in terms of the emotional and physical parts of that experience. The way it's written is true to that, too — no breaks or chapters or pauses, giving you the sense you're right in there. A good, short read, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for anyone who is currently pregnant — better you experience it for yourself, and read about it later.
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
    Goodreads
    An in-depth and fascinating look at the various extinctions the world has endured over the course of its history, most of which I had no idea about. The title refers to the extinction taking place right now, caused by humans, and that (end) chapter was by far the most interesting to me. Though non-fiction is not often my thing, Kolbert takes a ton of research and makes it relatively accessible, with a scientific and journalistic eye toward facts rather than judgement.
  • The Runaway Wife by Elizabeth Birkelund
    Goodreads
    A pretty light beach-read type of book that definitely feels like it's trying to be more than that. It was compared to the excellent Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, which was why I read it, and while there are similar themes (a missing wife, some cryptic mysteries), it really doesn't result in a particularly great read.
  • *Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
    Goodreads
    When we think of families keeping secrets from each other, we tend to think of things like affairs and financial problems. But this book about a family whose teenage daughter has died (not a spoiler, I promise) shows how secrets can be created through years of silence and repression. A quietly surprising and excellent read.
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
    Goodreads
    I'd put off reading this book, which had been described to me as "the guide to understanding the Trump voter," for a while, mostly because I was immersed in Trump news and didn't need it to find its way into another part of my life. But this memoir, by a 31-year-old Kentucky/Ohio native, was in no way full of the blame, judgment or even politics I anticipated. Instead, it explained a way of life (and thinking) of which I was almost entirely ignorant, and did so in an engaging and interesting way. It also wasn't written in a “hey East Coast elites, this is what hillbillies are really like” manner — instead, it pieces apart Vance's life and experiences, showed how easily they could be applied to millions across North America, and tells a solid, modern story.
  • *A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
    Goodreads
    A wonderfully meandering book (as the title suggests) about the Whitshank family, and their various members and foibles. It's a quiet book with brilliantly insightful comments on how family members interact, while also keeping the reader pulled along by a plot that drifts in and out of chronology and the characters' lives. Highly recommended.
  • The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
    Goodreads
    For a story that centres around a bomb, this book is surprisingly slow moving — but that's not necessarily a bad thing for every reader. It takes a look at how one explosion affects many lives, from those of the victims, to the bombers, to the accused, and delves into Indian/Kashmiri politics in a way that is more personal than any book I've read before.
  • *Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
    Goodreads
    After reading a lot of books about the Second World War a couple of years ago, I'd taken a break from the genre to ward off any potential feelings of emotional exhaustion. But I'm so glad I chose to dive back in with this, an innovative take on how the war affected Germans as well as Jews, as it jumps through time periods and forces the reader to consider perspectives that are usually cast aside. Focusing on a German history prof and her mother, who lived near Buchenwald through the war, the book is quietly compelling and completely worthwhile.
  • *Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson
    Goodreads
    What does “it takes a village” look like in the modern world? This fantastic novel takes on that question, and then some, with an experimental utopia that brings 10 babies and their parents together to create one big family. While its cast of characters is somewhat confusing at times, you grow to identify and care about them by the end, following their journey through issues of child rearing, relationships, and whether or not the concept of family can be redefined.
  • *Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
    Goodreads
    I came into this book predisposed to Saunders because of his short stories, but his novel did not disappoint. Ostensibly about Abraham Lincoln following his young son's death, it holds an incredibly innovative narrative unlike anything I've read before, while slyly commenting on everything from today's "fake news" epidemic, to race relations, to (of course) life after death. Great read.
  • Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
    Goodreads
    A girl with some kind of event in her past is on the cusp of getting married and having her happily ever after, but she's weighed down by so much, it seems unlikely she'll ever achieve that. This book had a few things working against it — namely, an unlikable protagonist, writing that's over the top and some confusing scenes that I never quite got. That said, I whipped through it so quickly and thoroughly there's no way I can't recommend it.
  • *Moonglow by Michael Chabon
    Goodreads
    A biography that reads like fiction. If you like Chabon, you'll love the story of his remarkable grandfather and the mysterious ways his life comes together through shifts in time, mental illness, military training and a romantic view of space that feels of a very specific era. A gorgeous, touching tribute to what sounds like an incredible man.
  • Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
    Goodreads
    By the author of Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, this book has a similar protagonist, although one slightly lesser. It's a quirky, kind of all-over-the-place book about a woman who has every intention of being a better person. It's definitely an easy read, but I have to admit that I wanted a bit more substance from it. Beach book, perhaps?
  • *Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
    Goodreads
    Heartbreaking and brilliant, I feel a little unworthy of even describing this tale of one black family and the many incarnations their descendants took as history unfolded around them. It personalized the history of those who came from Africa — scratch that, were forced from Africa — in a way that felt both factual and literary. I'm just so grateful for this book, for its vision and its clear writing. It honours the reader by not spelling things out, instead leaving its contents to their interpretation and understanding.
  • Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
    Goodreads
    I felt and saw grief in many different forms this year. I think that’s part of getting older, of having more life experiences and, frankly, just being aware in the world. This deeply personal self-help book by Sandberg and psychology professor Grant made a lot of sense to me in its tangible lessons and ideas. Of course, grief is so personal and individual that every person will take something different away from it.
  • *Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
    Goodreads
    I almost didn't read this book because I thought the cover looked boring, but I couldn't have been more wrong. (Insert "don't judge a book ..." comment here.) The story of a suburban mom and her relationship with her kids and husband sounds mundane, but under Quindlen's expert crafting, these people came to life completely, actually making me think about my kids' teenage years in ways I hadn't considered. But then there's also something dark hovering in the pages that propels you through, and when it comes, its intensity will keep you glued to the book until you're completely done.
  • Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice by Bill Browder
    Goodreads
    I was surprised by how much I liked this book, an autobiography about investments, Russia and, eventually, human rights. Surprised because the writing wasn't wonderful and the narrator had some serious flaws, but it still made for a compelling and, at times, horrifying story about how unjust the world can be. Not to mention that it felt all too timely given the constant news about Russia and its various tentacles all over the world.
  • The Unseen World by Liz Moore
    Goodreads
    Don't be tricked by this cover, which looks like some kind of movie poster. This is a touching, entrancing and mysterious story of a girl and her father, and the things we don't know about our parents until it's almost too late. There are some elements of computer-ness to it, but that really just runs in the background to counter a story about a very different kind of childhood and the adulthood that can follow.
  • Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus by Matt Taibbi
    Goodreads
    This should be required reading for anyone who has ever seethed at the term “fake news,” has bristled at Donald Trump's tweets or even anyone who believes James Comey was to blame for Hillary losing the election. The author does an excellent — if sometimes frustrating and Bernie-bro-ish — job of showing exactly what had to succeed and what had to fail in order to get Trump into the White House, and tells some hard truths about how our society deals with the political and journalistic process along the way.
  • Longbourn by Jo Baker
    Goodreads
    This is the second retelling of Pride and Prejudice that I've read, despite somehow still never having read the original. Even so, I got the distinct impression that this version, as told by the servants of the house, stayed incredibly true to the time and parlance of Austen's tale, while adding the very necessary secondary perspective to remind readers of the many elements that take place in the background of favourite stories, but are completely overlooked — often to the detriment of character development.
  • *All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
    Goodreads
    Who doesn't love a book about time travel, loosely based in Toronto, very much questioning the effects technology has on our lives? (If your answer is “not me!”, well, this isn’t for you.) While this book runs a little long and got a little technical at times, I couldn't tear myself from it anyway, and raved about it for weeks.
  • *The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
    Goodreads
    This was the kind of book that, once I finished it, made me immediately start Googling everything I could about the author, along with discussion groups talking about the work. In short: it's fantastic, taking you into the inner lives of astronauts, as well as their families, while at the same time giving broad strokes about the future of space travel. It's surprisingly emotionally intelligent, given that premise, and completely enthralling.
  • *When The English Fall by David Williams
    Goodreads
    A quiet, piercing book written from the perspective of an Amish man watching as the world around him quite literally falls apart. It's a fascinating premise — what does the apocalypse look like when you're already separate from "normal" society? — and its precise, simple writing gets under your skin and leads you into the mindset before you realize it.
  • What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
    Goodreads
    What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said in a thousand reviews and podcast interviews? I was impressed to find tidbits in the book that hadn’t been talked about to death already, and that the minutiae of the political world seems equal parts gorgeously complex and stunningly boring. Clinton is a force, and she doesn’t seem to be done with public life yet.
  • A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith
    Goodreads
    It is, as the foreword in my version noted, a book in which nothing really happens, but it became a classic for a reason, and that's because it describes the time and place so viscerally, it's impossible to ignore. The observations and experiences from narrator Francie, along with the colourful characters of her family, transport readers right to the beginning of the 20th century in Brooklyn and doesn’t let them go.
  • *The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
    Goodreads
    The genuineness of this memoir took me by surprise. Levy is a writer for the New Yorker, so maybe it shouldn't have, but her descriptions of love, marriage, friendship, motherhood and child loss were so well-sculpted, it was impossible not to be brought along through her narrative. She's not entirely likable — but, of course, that makes her all the more human. And her readiness to publicly explore those sides of herself serve as an excellent reminder that just because these parts of our lives exist, doesn't mean they entirely define who we are.
  • *The Secret History by Donna Tartt
    Goodreads
    Sweeping, grand and tragic, this book, the Goldfinch author’s first, is captivating. It flits between superficial and serious, East coast campus life and 20-somethings’ emotional lives, but really, the best way to describe this book is an intellectual (and less shark jump-y) How To Get Away With Murder.
  • *American War by Omar El Akkad
    Goodreads
    This book, set 75 years in the future, is something to be celebrated, and feared, and taught in schools. Combining writing that flows superbly with an all-too-possible future where a new American civil war pits the north against the south because of energy sources, it reads most of all like it’s supposed to — a history book of what could so easily happen.
  • *Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
    Goodreads
    Considering how different and wonderful Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad was, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. And though this is far more “normal,” Egan’s writing is just as compelling, and this story of a young woman who wants to do her part during the Second World War (with a hint of the mob and familial duties thrown in to complete the picture) is just as satisfying. There are a lot of similarities between this and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, but perhaps the more recent publishing date on this novel makes it that much more appealing to modern readers.
  • *Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
    Goodreads
    I actually started this book earlier in the year, was turned off by the first couple of chapters and set it aside. But at the urging of a friend, I tried it again and am so glad I did. It’s a good lesson — sometimes you have to be in the right mindset for certain books. This sprawling novel is, somewhat separately, about a marriage falling apart and about Israel, and poses a lot of difficult questions about both. Like a lot of Safran Foer’s works, it’s not easy to describe, but it does do its best to find a new approach to the midlife crisis genre, and mostly succeeds.
  • *We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby
    Goodreads
    I’d never read blogger Irby before picking up this book, and it was fantastic getting to know her and her work without the noise of the internet cutting in. These personal essays are so funny, and personality-driven, and painfully honest that I found myself being one of those people on the streetcar while reading it — you know, the ones who wince, and laugh, and cover their mouths in surprise as though in an actual conversation instead of, well, reading a book? It runs a little long, but on the whole, an excellent read.
  • *The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
    Goodreads
    I read The Enchanted a couple of years ago and was swept away by Denfeld’s ability to creatively portray serial killers as something more human. It’s a similar feat with this story, which follows an investigator who finds missing children and also gives the perspectives of the missing children themselves. It’s not an easy read, per se, but it is one that I couldn’t put down for two days straight.
  • *The Best Kind Of People by Zoe Whittall
    Goodreads
    This book about a family man who is accused of sexual assault, much to the shock of his family and community, was an unwittingly apt way to end 2017. In a year that saw so many powerful men charged with similar crimes, this look at how these kinds of incidents personally affect all those involved parallels the conversations that have been taking place both in headlines and behind closed doors. It’s a page turner that has some minor faults — but, possibly most importantly, it offers insights that leave readers with plenty to think about.

Rebecca Zamon's previous book lists:


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