Friday, December 15, 2017

2017 | Favorite Books

Ordinarily, picking my top 10 favorite books of the year is not a difficult process. Each month I keep a list of which book(s) was/were my favorite(s) from that month and whittle it down as the year goes on. This year, however, I read way more books than I have in previous years -- about 70 more, in fact, for a grand total of 150. So, narrowing down my list to just ten this year was particularly difficult, and many of these were so, so close to others that almost made the list as well. The ten listed below are not the only books I loved this year or the ones I loved far more than others, but rather the ones I would most recommend to friends and fellow readers.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
From the moment I finished this book in January, it's been my #1 book recommendation to anyone who asks. It's rare to find an "adult" novel so full of the joy of living, and the entirety of A Gentleman in Moscow is an enchanting read. It follows Count Alexander Rostov, who in 1922 is deemed by the Bolsheviks to be an unrepentant aristocrat who must spend the rest of his life in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Far from being depressed from his forced isolation, the Count delights in the small things in life, and similarly Towles' descriptions of all of his characters are crafted with lyrical magic.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing begins in the 1800s with two Ghanaian half-sisters being separated: one is sold into slavery and shipped off to the Americas, and the second is married off to a British slaver. Each chapter jumps a generation ahead, first from one sister's lineage and then the other. Even with such short numbers of pages dedicated to each character, Gyasi expertly creates personalities that are rich and dimensional. It's an unflinching and brilliantly crafted look at slavery and its complicated roots and consequences.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The New Jim Crow is not a new book -- it was published nearly eight years -- but I read it for the first time this year and it remains as relevant as ever. Jim Crow laws may technically be a thing of the past, but in actuality African Americans still live under its effects today. The criminal justice system in America routinely and systematically targets black communities, and mass incarceration is one way of keeping these communities from progressing. Alexander's book looks at the effects of mass incarceration and its usage as a system of racial oppression.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
As a non-academic approach to race, Citizen is a powerful read. Rankine's work recounts the growing racial tensions present in life and the media and tells of the small moments that can build up to affect the way a POC lives, speaks, grows. These moments change the way people view themselves as people and as citizens. Citizen is a highly acclaimed work of poetry that seems particularly timely in the current political climate.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
In the aftermath of last year's election, this book was heralded as an explanation as to why the white working class voted Republican, though after reading it I must say it's been falsely labeled as a be-all-end-all explanation. Hillbilly Elegy is the life story of Vance (the author) and tells of his own trials and triumphs growing up in Appalachia with an absent father and drug-addicted mother. Vance gives explanations for some social issues but solely for context in his own life. I found it to be an extremely informative, firsthand source of the white working class life and a good counterbalance to many of the one-dimensional portraits of this group.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
I was one of the few who did not enjoy Ng's first book, so I set a very low bar of expectations for Little Fires Everywhere, and yet was one of the few who much preferred this work to her first. Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, a quiet Cleveland suburb where everything is done by the rules. Personal troubles are kept hidden from sight until Mia, a wandering photographer, and her teenage daughter Pearl enter the town and disrupt the kept order. Little Fires Everywhere asks hard-hitting questions about adoption and birth culture and what it means to be family: is a family made by blood or by care?

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire was my top pick for the Man Booker Prize, though it lost to the also brilliant Lincoln in the Bardo. It's an intense, heartbreaking story about three Pakistani-British siblings and their family's entanglement with that of the Home Secretary's. It explores the lengths people will go for their family, wrapped up in the background of a wider discussion about the struggles immigrants face whilst living in their adopted country under the threat of terrorism. I can't say much about the plot without giving it away, but I highly recommend it.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
I put off reading The Mothers for months because of its mixed reviews, but was pleasantly surprised by how unconventional the plot is for the genre. It tells of two girls, Nadia, a high schooler who unexpectedly finds herself pregnant after a secret relationship with the town's pastor's son, and Aubrey, her religious best friend. While some of the characters' reactions to plot points seemed unrealistically strong given the number of years that had passed between them, I very much enjoyed this one.

Autumn by Ali Smith
Autumn, Smith's first work in her seasonal quartet, has found itself on almost every publication's Best of 2017 list, and its praise is well deserved. Autumn is an exploration of the cycle of time; its storyline jumps back and forth in the life of a woman named Elisabeth and each entry is set in the autumnal season. Specifically, Autumn tells of Elisabeth's friendship with her neighbor Mr. Gluck, an older man who loves art and reading and who influences Elisabeth's life tremendously as she grows up. It's a charming, cheeky-at-times tale that also serves as a commentary on women in modern art, and it's a delight of a novel to read.

Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin
Women of the Word is several years old, but I was so impacted by reading it earlier this year that I'm including it. I initially picked it up thinking it was a book about women in the Bible, but it's actually a guide to how to get more out of the reading the Bible. It encourages a deeper approach than just a quick read and reflection, but also one of context and word translation. I especially love how Wilkin doesn't dumb down the Bible as so many other "women's guides" do. I'm guilty of taking the quick approach more often than I should, so this was a great book to find to encourage me to take it more slowly.

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