2017 Reading list

This is a list of the books I read in 2017, most recent first, with brief reviews.

Past years’ reading lists: 2016 | 2015 | 2014

39. The Ultimates 2 by Mark Miller and Bryan Hitch

This thirteen-issue graphic novel is a follow up to The Ultimates, Marvel’s ultimate-universe reimagining of The Avengers (which I may also have read this year, and should probably add to this list, but I can’t remember for sure). While the first Ultimates is excellent, I found Ultimates 2 to be only so-so. It has some of the same elements that makes the first so enjoyable, but mostly it tries too hard.

38. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Jim Kay

See numbers 32 and 33 on this list. The Harry Potter you know and love, but with gorgeous full-page illustrations.

37. Finding My Virginity by Richard Branson (finished 12/1)

Branson’s new biography—a sequel to his first biography, Losing My Virginity—is a fun, insightful look into the last couple decades of his life. It’s worth reading just for the appendix, which lists 75 instances in which Branson has almost died. That said, the book is light on emotion, and the first printing is chock-full of typos.

36. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark (finished 11/26)

And important, long-term look at the impact of artificial intellengcee on the future of humanity and why it’s important we approach the issue with a deliberate mind. I recommend reading this paired with Nick Bostrom’s Superintellegence for a comprehensive deep dive on the subject.

35. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (finished 11/16)

This book is wonderful. Much of this can be attributed to Isaacson, who along with Ron Chernow is tied for the best biographer alive; but most of the credit has to go to the subject of the book, who is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci. There is so much to be learned about how to view the world from Leonardo. How to ask questions. How to observe. How to be infinitely curious. And there are many beautiful illustrations in this book, pulled directly from Leonardo’s paintings and notebooks. In fact, my only criticism is that, dimensionally, the book is too small to fully appreciate the images. Too often I wished I could pinch to zoom so I could soak in every detail.

34. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

This is a wonderful collection of short stories. The final story especially leaves a mark.

33. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Jim Kay

See below. The Harry Potter you know and love, but with gorgeous full-page illustrations.

32. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Jim Kay

I have, of course, read the Harry Potter series before, but it’s long past time to revisit, so what better medium to do so than with the gorgeous illustrated editions, which the publisher has been releasing at a rate of about one a year for the last three years, and the first two of which has been on my shelf since they came out (I purchased the third a couple weeks ago, when it was released).

31. Discipline Equals Freedome Field Manual by Jocko Willink (finished 10/19)

This book is a fantastic distillation of everything Jocko Willink advocates for in his podcasts: discipline, self-control, focus. The first section is a series of what are basically motivational poems. The second is more practical advice on exercise, nutrition, and martial arts. There are also a handful of valuable workouts in the appendix. This is the sort of book you don’t just read once, but rather pick up and revisit random sections of again and again and again.

30. The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman (finished 10/16)

I thoroughly enjoyed every single piece in this nonfiction collection, despite many of the essays being decades-old introductions to or profiles of books or authors I’ve never read and likely will never find the time to. Because even though I was at best only vaguely familiar with many of the subjects, nothing here felt irrelevant. Every piece was educational, ponderous, and beautifully written. And I’ll gladly revisit Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech every chance I get.

29. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (finished 9/30/17)

This book is a piece of beautiful literary genius. Taking place in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a chorus of eccentric characters, Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie from typhoid, and his subsequent passing to whatever lies beyond this life.

28. Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (finished 9/20/17)

This one took a while. It is, after all, a 1000-page behemoth. But it was well worth it. Like Infinite Jest (although I’m not saying this book is in any other way like Infinite Jest), reading Musashi is a lot of work, all of which propels you toward a stunning ending that makes the entire thing worth it.

27. Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

Vampire fiction isn’t usually my thing, and this novel didn’t necessarily do anything to change my mind about that. But it was still a fun, if anticlimactic, piece of historical fiction, with grounded fantasy elements. And it has much of of the gruesome and gritty elements you would expect from a George R. R. Martin novel.

26 (?). Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis

Continuing on with the light reading, I spent a few weeks pouring through the entire run of Ultimate Spider-Man. I say light reading, but really this series counts as something more akin to an epic novel or graphic novel. At something like 150 issues, all written by the same person, and most illustrated by the same artist, this is one of the most engaging and rewarding comic book series ever penned. Perhaps second best next to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I actually read all these years ago, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading them again. I’m sure this counts as far more than just one book (there are about 20 trade paperbacks involved in collecting the series), but I’m going to count it as just one.

24 & 25. Star Trek: Voyager: Acts of Contrition and Atonement by Kristen Beyer

Every once in a while, I try to catch up on these fun Star Trek: Voyager continuation novels. During the second half of June I was busy prepping for, and then carrying out, a big move, from Montana to Oregon, so it seemed like the perfect time to pour through some light reading like this.

23. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (finished 6/12)

This one took me a while. I started it a month ago, then I took a bit of a break to read a couple books that are a little less overbearing. I can’t say I enjoyed The Fountainhead, at least not thoroughly, but I do agree with much of Rand’s objectivist philosophy, and I’ll likely reread both this and Atlas Shrugged in the future. I think The Fountainhead is the more engaging of the two, but the less fully formed; however, it’s this less-formedness that makes it more engaging: its scope is smaller, more personal, despite its gratuitous length.

22. The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White (finished 5/21)

This is the for-a-long-time-unpublished fifth book of The Once and Future King, which I read last month. It’s a beautiful, often said, rumination on the nature of war and the merits of a live well lived. I think this, as well as books three and four of The Once and Future King, is a piece of literature I will reread many times in my life.

21. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (finished 5/16)

Michael Chabon is one of our greatest living novelists. If you haven’t read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, make it the next book on your list. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is his first novel, and while it reads like a first novel (naive, ambitious, hopeful), it’s good. There are beautiful sentences on nearly every page. And, incidentally, more than one reference to The Story of O.

20. The Story of O by Pauline Réage (finished 5/2)

If you’ve heard of this one, then you don’t need me to say much about it. One of the quintessential works of French erotica and a cornerstone of BDSM lore. Way better than Fifty Shades of Grey.

19. The Once and Future King by T.H. White (finished 4/27)

I’ve been busy the last few weeks, so this one took me longer to finish than if might have, but I enjoyed it. A classic retelling of the King Arthur myth. It’s divided into four books, and book one, “The Sword in the Stone”, reads like a fun, whimsical young adult novel. The book really began to take on meaning for me with book three, “The Ill-Made Knight,” about Lancelot, whose story of heroism, love, and tragedy is beautifully told.

18. South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

This is a great little book. It’s mostly a compilation of notes Didion took while traveling around the American South in the 70s, but Didion’s notes are as fully formed as most writers’ prose. And the most important takeaway from this book is that the South has changed little in 40 years.

17. Fight Club 2 by Chuck Palahniuk and Cameron Stewart (finished 4/6)

This was fun. Advertised as a sequel to the novel, it’s actually a super-meta commentary on the novel, the film, and the reactions to both, as well as a solid sequel with pogniant commentary on the modern world. Very postmodern. And it deftly employs storytelling techniques that are only possible with the graphic format.

16. James Bond: Vargr by Warren Ellis, Jason Maters, and Don Reardon (finished 4/5)

Since it was written by Warren Ellis, I expected more from this James Bond graphic novel. While it has its moments, and the art is beautiful and engaging, the story is extremely rushed, and the ending is lackluster at best. That said, this is only volume one of a multivolume series, so maybe the ending makes more sense when taken with the next volume.

15. The Zen of Steve Jobs by Caleb Melby (finished 4/5)

After finishing Blonde, I dove into a few graphic novels I found at the local library. The Zen of Steve Jobs is a decent little book (only about 60 pages) depicting the relationship betweeen Jobs and Kobun Chino Otogawa. Not really a biography, the book explores some of the Zen Buddhist concepts that Jobs brought to the design of the devices he launched at Apple.

14. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (finished 4/5)

I never thought I’d read an epic novel about Marylin Monroe, but that’s exactly what this is. A beautiful, sad tour de force full of Oates’ trademark stylistic prose. Oates has written something like a hundred novels, and I’ve only read five or six, but so far this one is my favorite

13. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (finished 3/19)

This is Foer’s first novel in eleven years, and it’s long—a little too long—and it’s very good. The story of a Jewish family in Washington D.C., dealing with their own personal problems against the backdrop of an earthquake that strikes Israel and plunges the Middle East into conflict. The second book in a row I’ve read with hilarious children main characters (a couple of whom are probably smarter than they should be). Certain sections are unnecessarily repetitive, and the last two-hundred pages are two-hundred too many, but I must admit to weeping during the last ten.

12. Heros of the Frontier by Dave Eggers (finished 3/9)

This isn’t Eggers’ best book, but it’s up there. The story of a middle-aged dentist who, after a series of upsetting life events, including a failed marriage, runs away to Alaska with her two kids. It took me a while to feel involved in this story, mostly because I was annoyed by almost every decision the main character made, but once I let myself become wrapped up in it, I couldn’t put it down. I finished the final 125 pages in one sitting. A little heartbreaking, beautiful prose, and filled with the hilarious antics of the protagonist’s 5-year-old daughter, Ana.

11. Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta (finished 3/1)

One of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. A beautiful, sometimes funny, sometimes dark story about two women, childhood friends, who grow up to be filmmakers. Also about a woman who cold calls creative Hollywood men and seduces them emotionally with her voice. I’d actually never heard of this book, but my wife bought it for me as a birthday present based on the reviews and blurbs. Only after I was several pages in did I realize I’d read an excerpt called “Jack and Jelly” in the New Yorker at the end of 2015. Highly recommended.

10. 8 Things I Wish I Knew About Polyamory Before I Fracked It Up by Cunning Minx (finished 3/1)

I primary focus for me this year is expanding my relationships, deepening existing ones and embracing the potential for new. It’s actually something I began working on last year, but only very recently have I worked up the courage to take big steps, to go deep. This book is short: I read it in an hour. Originally published as an ebook, the print version is full of typos and what are obviously supposed to be hyperlinks. While far from comprehensive, it’s a worthwhile read about relationships.

9. Zero K By Don DeLillo (finished 2/22)

This is DeLillo’s best work since Underworld. Relatively short, Zero K is an exploration of death, death after life, and life after death, all viewed through the lens of cryonic preservation (i.e. having your body “frozen” when you die in the hopes science will be able to revive you in the future). Initial reviews I’d read of this book weren’t themselves scientifically accurate (for example, they tended to use the term cryogenics rather than the correct cryonics) so I was worried the book might be the same, but I was pleasantly surprised to find DeLillo did his research. He gets every detail, both technical and philosophical, spot on.

8. Swing Time by Zadie Smith (finished 2/17)

This is the second novel I’ve read by Smith (the other is her debut, White Teeth), and it’s fantastic. Widely considered one of the best books of 2016, it’s the story of a two black British girls, told in the first person by one of them (who goes unnamed), following them from childhood to adulthood, exploring their separate paths. Lots of great commentary on race, identity, and celebrity culture. Beautiful prose from Smith, as always. Swing Time‘s narrative does slog slightly near the middle, but it picks up pace again quickly.

7. Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr (finished 2/13)

A fascinating book in which Zehr, a kinesiologist and neuroscientist, breaks down the various physical abilities of Batman—including strength, speed, and martial arts ability—and demonstrates whether it would be possible for someone like Batman to exist in the real world, and to fight crime the same way Batman does. Short answer: yes, but not for very long.

6. Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (finished 2/4)

The third book in the Cormoran Strike series, this may well be the best. While more of a character drama than the first two novels (by virtue of the fact that the reader is now more familiar with the characters, cares about about them more), Career of Evil is still a spectacular mystery. Like the second book, I felt chastized by the end of the book for not having solved the mystery myself—so detailed and geniusly placed are the clues Rowling peppers throughout the book. I’m amazed by Rowling’s ability, a decade after The Deathly Hallows, to once again have created a series for which I can’t wait for the next installment.

5. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (finished 1/30)

This is an important book. Hirsi Ali is a Somalia-born former Muslim who underwent female genital mutilation, escaped an arranged marriage, gained Dutch citizenship, and became a member of Dutch parliament. And, oddly, despite the fact that she is a feminist icon her life is often in danger by virtue of the very things she bravely speaks up about, organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center have put her on facist-style lists, further increasing the threat to her life; they label her an anti-Muslim extremist, when in reality she’s dedicated her life to reforming Islam for the benefit of both Muslims and non-Muslims. Infidel is essentially the autobiography of the first several decades of her life. Beautifully written, and full of insights into a culture we in the West often refuse to understand.

3 & 4. The Cuckoo’s Calling & The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

It’s no secret by now that Robert Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling, and it’s also no secret that she knows how to write detective fiction. Crime fiction isn’t a genre I usually read, but both these books are delightfully entertaining: the prose is crisp, sometimes beautiful; the characters, especially the lead, Cormoran Strike, are deep and fascinating; and the mysteries are complex yet logical, especially the second one, after which I was kicking myself for not having solved. The third book Career of Evil is currently in the hands of a friend, but I’ll be diving into it as soon as I get it back.

2. The Underground RailRoad by Colson Whitehead (finished 1/10)

When I was in elementary school in Ohio, we toured an historic house that was once a part of the Underground Railroad. When the tour guide first told us about the Railroad, I remember feeling awe at the idea that people had actually managed to build a railroad underground, to dig tunnels and build tracks and somehow get engines under there. Then the tour guide explained the metaphor, and I admit to being disappointed. I imagine I wasn’t the only kid who when they first heard of it took the concept of the Railroad literally, for in The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, that’s exactly what it is: a literal railroad, underground, built by slaves, replete with stations and station masters and conductors. This book, for all its necessary darkness and brutality, is a certain kind of magical. It’s almost as if, by taking the metaphor out of the metaphor, the metaphor becomes even stronger. No wonder it won last year’s National Book Award for fiction. Required reading.

1. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (finished 1/5)

Michael Chabon is a wonderful author, capable of writing anything from gay mob stories, to original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, to epic novels about the creation of a fictional comic book character. His newest novel, Moonglow, is the story of his grandfather. Largely fictional, the novel is presented as a memoir, and it often becomes impossible to guess which details are real and which are made up. A wonderful story about V2 rockets, Jewish heritage, mental illness, and the hunt for an errant cat-swallowing boa constrictor.