books i read in 2017

86db281f-40e5-4eef-a4ee-e3dd5a8323e1I read this year for wisdom. I read less this year than I’ve read in years. I struggled to focus on the page for long periods of time. I started and abandoned at least a dozen books. I grew impatient with writers faster, and found myself avoiding male writers for the better half of the year. I bought books less frequently, and I quit carrying a book in my bag with me. I joked last night that I read so little this year, because I did so much living.

While that’s only about half-true, I do know that as I made changes to my life this year, I found myself less out of a need for escape, and more out of a need for awakening. Last January dawned black and lonely. I spent five months crawling towards the sun, and when I reached it, it was brilliant, blinding, and healing. Even though I read significantly less, I think I read better books, with more intention, and gained more from their pages than I have in previous years.

I’m leaving 2017 stronger, happier, and more at peace; these books helped shape me.

  • Elizabeth Berg’s The Art of Mending: After talking about how rich my book diet was, it’s a bummer to start my (alphabetized) list with this book, because it was not good. I remember thinking that this was one of the those books prolific writers crank out because they’ve got a deadline coming soon. The characters were weak and one-dimensional, and the plot half filled out.
  • Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins: I brought this (along with three Ferrante novels) to Italy this August, and read it in the first week of our trip. I loved it so much — for its sweeping romanticism, for its multiple-narrator, multiple-timeline structure, for its unabashed adoration of Italy. I spent the first few months of summer eschewing novels and male writers, but Walter’s novel convinced me to return to both.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me: Is there anything I could say about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ elegy that hasn’t already been said? It is required reading. It is a social history of the systems of race that built and sustain America, and a painful meditation of the personal experience of institutionalized violence. It is angry, and mournful, and unapologetic. This book is intensely personal, and as a white reader, it felt like a window with the shades pulled back. This book is two years old now. If you haven’t read it yet, read it in 2018.
  • Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run: I began this book the day it was released in September 2017, but despite my deep, deep love for Bruce Springsteen, I couldn’t get into it. I needed this book later. It took me two weeks to read the first 200 pages, and two days to read the next four hundred in two days. Born to Runwas extraordinary in ways I didn’t expect it to be. Though he’s not old and is still actively creating, Springsteen wrote like a man at the end of his life — with grace and wisdom and posterity and understanding. He covers the range — his difficult childhood, the hunger of a young artist, the persistent hold depression, creativity, marriage and divorce, fatherhood (and sonship), politics, death, money. I read this book, because I love Bruce Springsteen, but it’s a powerful, painful, and ultimately hopeful meditation on a full life.
  • Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment: Ferrante is brilliant. Last year, I read all the Neapolitan novels, and told everyone that would listen that they should read them too. I’d give the same command about Days of Abandonment except this book is dark and disturbing in ways that even the Neapolitan novels weren’t. It’s a story of a woman’s unraveling, in the hot summer after her husband leaves her and her children. Ferrante writes women with an unparalleled and horrific mastery. This is a novel of undoing, claustrophobic and disorienting and compelling. I read it on the beaches of Sardinia, and on a plane, over the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Phyllis A. Whitney’s The Fire and the Gold: A good friend lent me this book in May — her favorite book and one that she returns to repeatedly for comfort. Published in 1956 and set in 1906, this is a novel about a young woman, set on ending an engagement, but caught up in the chaos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It’s a short novel, but it’s sweeping and grand and romantic. Although I didn’t read much for escape this past year, this book was a perfect escape from a particularly high-stress week. (As a parenthetical, I love when people share with me the books they love. Maybe it’s because I love books so much, but it’s such an act of trust and intimacy.)
  • Felicia Sullivan’s Follow Me into the Dark: This was easily one of the best books I read this year. Sullivan is a brilliant writer (I came to her writing via her now inactive blog), whose fiction is dark, but powerful. Follow Me into the Dark is about mothers and daughters, and women in varying stages of undoing. When explaining this novel (to everyone who would listen, because, people, this book must be read), I struggled to explain the plot without giving too much away, but I landed on some version of: It’s a novel about inter-generational abuse, unchecked grief, and the trauma experienced by unloved children, told through the story of three siblings and the history of their family. Sullivan is a gorgeous writer whose words I would ink on my skin, but she’s also a unflinchingly brave storyteller who is willing to bring readers, with little promise of escape, into the dark.

ed0b9a10-19f4-4b66-b4e2-6e0bf31693bf

  • Amy Schumer’s The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo: I listened to this memoir on audiobook during a work trip that kept me in the car for about ten hours. I expected very little from it — as a public figure, Schumerisproblematic and I’ve never connected with her brand of humor — but my library offers little by way of audiobook, so I gave it a shot. I was surprised by how thoughtful this book ended up being. Most compelling were Schumer’s reflections on the trauma she experienced in an abusive relationship, her father’s multiple-sclerosis, and her experiences of body and love.
  • Gilian Flynn’s Gone Girl: I realize I read this book about five years too late, but I was underwhelmed. Yes, I’d already seen the movie, and knew the twist, but usually, if a book is good enough, it doesn’t matter to me if I know the plot or not. I thought Flynn’s writing drew too much attention to itself, and the character development not as sophisticated as it was billed to be. I liked the movie better.
  • David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI: I was wary of this book when it first came out, because do we really need more white men telling other people’s stories, but this book ended up impressing me. Grann tells the rigorously researched story of the widespread murder of Osage people during the early twentieth century for their wealth and oil rights. This book lagged in the middle, but Grann managed to tell this story with grace, pain, and respect.
  • Kevin Fenton’s Leaving Rollingstone: I first read Fenton after attending a panel he was on in 2011. His novel, Merit Badges, is a melancholy ode to youth, friendship, and what we lose as we grow up. Maybe this is the central question of Fenton’s writing life, because Leaving Rollingstone was written from a similar vantage. He begins his life on the family farm in Southern Minnesota, and spends the rest of his adolescence and adulthood trying to find a way to return. Fenton writers like a man in process, not a man with results, and I found his memoir thoughtful, mournful, but ultimately hopeful.
  • Chris Bohjalian’s The Light in the Ruins: One of the last books I read this year, and one of the most meh. Bohjalian is a prolific writer, but I’ve never read any of his novels. This one fell flat. The plot was compelling enough (dual timelines, set ten years apart: A serial killer is targeting a wealthy Italian family; Nazis are occupying the same family’s villa during the late years of the war), but it was about nothing more than what was on the page. Especially this year, I was reading for so much more than entertainment, and this barely was that.
  • Tana French’s The Likeness: This book. I was wary about it, because I read French’s first detective novel, In the Woods, last year, and it’s plot was a disappointment. The Likeness begins with a less compelling mystery than In the Woods — a young woman, who shares a striking resemblance with a murder detective, is found dead in an Irish farmhouse; the detective goes undercover as the dead girl to try to find out who killed her — but read as a much better novel. Although French wraps up this mystery well, I think I would have still loved this novel, even if it has as disappointing ending as In the Woods. More so than this book is about murder or detectives or solutions, it’s a reflection on friendship, and connection, and the deeply human need to belong. Of all the things I gained and lost in this past year, I’ve struggled most with the sense that I’ve lost friends. My social circle has shrunk down to a very few, and I’ve felt intermittently hurt and lonely because of this. Maybe I loved this novel, because it asked what it means to belong at a very point in the year when I was asking myself the same question.
  • Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior: For a long time, I avoided anything that too closely resembled “self-help,” because I didn’t believe that a real person (me) could live a life so unlocked.Love Warrior is much more memoir than self-help, but because Melton rose to fame through her self-help-realm blog and first book, it still has elements of direction. I listened to Melton’s memoir on audiobook early in the year, and I feel like I was able to only half-hear it. Possibly one of the most woo-woo things I believe is that books come to us at the right points in time (if we want them to), and this book came to me a bit too early. I’ve since listened to Melton talk about some of the same themes she discusses in her book — rock bottom, vulnerability, trust and power, loneliness, and I want to read Love Warrior again. I wasn’t ready, at the time, to unlock.
  • Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower: If I’m being honest, I remember loving this book than I remember actually reading this book. It’s my now-boyfriend’s favorite book, and he recommended it to me in the first few weeks we’d been seeing each other. This book is slim, but I devoured it. (Handsome man borrows you his favorite book on the fourth date, that’s what you do). What I do remember about reading it was that this book seemed to hold every emotion a human being can feeling, and that, if there ever was one, is the perfect description of adolescence.
  • Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist: I think we expect more wisdom of people after they pass. I remember feeling this way about Fisher’s last memoir. This book was charming, and enjoyable, but in the weeks following her death, it was billed as some kind of deep dive into the heart and mind of a young woman on the brink of her life. It’s not that — it’s a teenager’s diary, paired with enjoyable, gossipy essays about that period of her life. I did enjoy this book, but I think I expected revelation, when really, it’s a lot of reflection.
  • Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply: Another audiobook for another brutally long solo-drive. I found that Levy’s memoir commanded my attention, but very little else. Levy writes well about being a female journalist, about her experience as the wife of a woman with severe addiction issues, and about the late-term loss of her baby, but it failed to do, for me, what good memoirs do: Make the personal seem universal.
  • Louis Erdrich’s Shadow Tag: Oh my god, this book was thunder. Erdrich is prolific and masterful, and this is not one of her more popular novels, but it is easily my favorite. Remember what I said about books finding us when we need them? This one came to when I needed it. It tore open the curtains, and shook my bones, and demanded I be awake. It tells the story of a woman gathering her own strength in the middle of her dysfunctional and abusive marriage, and the unraveling of a family along the seam of the parents’ wrecked marriage. It’s a violent, angry novel, and it demanded I pay attention. I finished it on a Sunday, and immediately began re-reading it.
  • Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own: I read this book slowly during my mid-summer literary dry spell, but each time I opened it, I felt like I was being spoon fed wit and wisdom. Spinster is equal parts memoir, literary criticism, and social commentary. Bolick writes about her five “awakeners” — female writers who composed and comprised Bolick’s development as a woman and artist. Although much was made about the marriage issue — both the title and Bolick’s meditation on her decision to never marry — I found marriage was a minor part of this book. Instead, Bolick writes holistically about what it means for a woman to build a life of her own choosing. I picked up this book now, a few years after its publication, because this is a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly this year. Bolick doesn’t provide answers, but she does provide solace — that these questions are hard to ask, and that answers are hard to come by, and that every woman has, if not the opportunity, at least the right to build for herself a good life.
  • Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea: I bought this book years ago, and I’m pretty sure I picked it off the clearance table, because I liked the contrast of a white cover, blue-scale cover art, and raised red lettering. When I finally pulled it from my shelf this spring, I barely knew what it was about. It’s one of those novels where a description of the plot makes the book sound tinny and shallow — prep school sailor is mourning the loss of his best friend and sailing partner while building new relationships, confronting fresh tragedy, and finding grace and answers for himself in the process — but Dermont’s novel is rich and graceful and generous. Her portrait of the interior life of Jason, her narrator, is complex and nuanced, while her language is beautiful and playful. I loved-loved this novel, and found so much mournful, hopeful beautiful within its pages.
  • Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers: I’ve never read much poetry, and while I think that the kind of Instagram poetry that Kaur writes is making poetry much more accessible for a wider audience, I’ve never sought it out. I enjoyed reading The Sun and Her Flowers, and burned through it in just a few days, but it didn’t heal me or change me or make me new. There was something too tidy about her poems. Maybe it was the way they were packaged, each section charting the life cycle of a plant, or the way she wrote with such seriousness, but there was a texture or a roughness that I wanted. Life is rarely this tidy, and healing never is. (I also wasn’t aware until after finishing this book that the authenticity of her poetry has been called into question a few times, as has her exploitation of the trauma experience).
  • Nafisa Haji’s The Sweetness of Tears: A forgettable book from the very beginning of the year. I believe I remember thinking that the plot spanned too much time, tried to cover too much ground, and relied too heavily on coincidence. I also remember the language being exhausting. I can’t find the book on my shelf, so I must have gotten rid of it immediately upon finishing.
  • Julia Glass’s Three Junes: The first book I read in 2017, and maybe my favorite. I read it immediately following my grandfather’s death, and like good novels do, this book helped me heal. It was full, and beautiful, and gorgeously written. Read more here.
  • Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar: Again, with the “books finding you.” I read this in 2016 as well, and last year, I was underwhelmed and sometimes annoyed with Strayed’s particular brand of big-hearted truth-telling. This year, when I read it, I was riveted. I said that I read this year looking for wisdom, and I sat underneath the Sugarfountain looking to be cleansed. One thing I know I learned this year: My cynicism is boring, my life is gift, and what’s wrong with fighting hard to make it all beautiful.

  • Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion: Another one of my book-drought books. I started reading this book in June, and finished it two days ago. This was the first of Daum’s collections that I’ve read, and while I found the collection, as a whole, a little patchy, I appreciated the overall work. I loved the essays “The Best Possible Experience,” “Not What It Used to Be,” and “The Joni Mitchell Problem.” Daum is funny, thoughtful, and “real.” I want to read more of her in 2018.
  • Mary Oliver’s Upstream: Selected Essays: I read this book in two rainy days, and it burrowed straight under my skin. Oliver is a beautiful essayist, and this collection is stunning. She writes with the authority of age, but this book is neither confessional or even terribly personal. Instead, it’s a meditation on wisdom, and the natural world, and beauty, and aging. This book is another gift Oliver has given us, and like her poetry, each word on the pages seems deliberate, smooth and beautiful — pebbles plucked from Blackbird pond.
  • Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys: I struggled to get through this behemoth of a book, but when I finally got to the end, it stripped me bare. This was the first Joyce Carol Oates’ I’ve read, and while I’m currently hesitant to pick up more of her books, this book stayed with me. More here.
  • Amy Poehler’sYes Please: One of the few re-reads. I picked up Yes Please again, because Amy Poehler is so funny, and so generous, and so smart, and she gives so many opportunities in her book to learn. I now own a copy of this book, and it sits on my shelf more like a reference text than a memoir. Creativity? Failure? Love? Friendship? Ambition? She could tell you something about all of it.

As always, friends, I need to know: What did I miss? What else do I need to read? Tell me your titles!

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Stone House FlowersOne of my grandmothers, Grandma Shirley, has been on my mind recently. Maybe because last week, when I was cleaning, I found her wedding ring in my jewelry collection. I used to wear it everyday until one of the turquoise stones, set flat into hand-molded silver, began to chip.

Grandma Shirley died in 2001, when I was nine years old. I remember it being a Monday night that she died (although I don’t know if that’s true or not). On Tuesday morning, my dad shook me gently awake to tell me the news before he left for work. My mom was gone; she’d been one of my grandma’s primary caretakers at the end of her life, and she was still at my grandparent’s townhouse.

Because I was 9 when she died, and too young to really understand in any meaningful way what death was, I kept her death close to me, rolling it over slowly until it started to take more shape. When I was a college freshman, struggling through the poetry unit of the Creative Writing 101-type class I was taking, I wrote her a poem. In general, I make a clumsy poet, but there was something dear enough to me about this poem that I am at least willing to say I wrote it. (Interestingly enough, though, my first writing ever published was actually a crummy poem, taken by a girl power young adult journal).

I wrote this in a fog of anxiety, and for a few months, it was a touchstone for me. A link between this and that, between someone who had loved me, and something I was still learning to understand.

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Before her garden became her graveyard,
frothy green carrot tops and poppies,
my grandmother husbanded, kneeling in the dirt,

rearing flowers against disease.
I joined her for a harvest,
Filling baskets with sugar peas and tiger lilies,

as sun melted her cancer eaten body.
She closed her eyes and I
fed her last harvest to the sugar snap roots.

She left a vase in the garden,
and filling it with her last calla lilies,
I drifted for a decade,

through rhubarb stalks and irises,
where I found her vase
tipped over in a windstorm.

Now I pick peas with her coaxing fingertips,
sweet as the ones she blessed herself.
Matching seeds taking root

in soil tilled by hand,
where we each scattered handfuls of her ashes
and now leave flowers in her broken vase.