2017 Reading list

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

Past years’ reading lists: 2016 | 2015 | 2014

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.