Best Books of 2017, Special Rereading Edition

This year, in advance of teaching a new class, I read a bunch of books I had already read in order to prepare to teach them.  Of course they made my “best of” list because that is the whole reason I am teaching them and therefore rereading, so this list is a little longer than normal because I’d like to also honor new books.

Favorite Books, Reread:

Beloved, Toni Morrison

I’ve always been a reader, but this was the first book I read as a freshman in college whose narrative structure so kicked my ass in a way that amazed and delighted me that it’s continued to be one of my all-time favorite books and the book I’ve most dreamed about teaching.  I’ve now read it five times, and knowing the deep sadness at the heart of the story didn’t diminish it in the least.  In some ways it made it even more powerful and heart-rending.  Morrison’s prose is luminous, vivid, and profound.  So many stories are packed in here, but it’s ultimately about the power of self-love and the utter destructiveness of slavery in its ability to undermine that self love.  If you have not yet read Beloved, it’s time!

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Also profound and heart-wrenching, Ellison’s novel is the story of an evolution of a consciousness.  It draws on stories from the South of Brer Rabbit, the trickster figure who subverts his oppressors while “yes”ing them to their destruction.  It’s brutal and brilliant.  It’s rooted in a particular historical moment and also so current.

Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer

    Alex is our hysterical Ukrainian narrator full of malapropisms and mistranslated idioms.  He is hired by American Jonathan to find Jonathan’s history in a tiny, potentially nonexistent Ukrainian town.  That history reaches back to the beginnings of World War II and the atrocities committed against the Jews there, and so the quest’s center is loss and sadness.  Foer also takes us back through the long, long history before World War II that brought us to Jonathan’s grandfather, a story full of magic, the absurd, and long dream-like passages.  Despite its grave subject matter, it’s often very funny and full of poetry.

Man Walks Into a  Room, Nicole Krauss

    Samson Greene is found wandering the Nevada desert near death and delirious.  A tumor is removed from his brain, saving his life but also destroying all memories after the age of twelve.  So, despite being a thirty-eight year old man with a life, a wife and a job as professor at a New York school, all he has access to is his boyhood.  Krauss uses this jumping off point to explore the power of memory and how we become who we become.  But then she goes further: A revolutionary scientist has a vision to test the limits of selfhood and empathy–is it possible to truly understand another person?  The novel dips into entirely plausible science fiction that provokes interesting questions.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

When I first read this as a high school senior, it made very little impression.  I reread it more out of a sense of duty (“This is often on the AP test; I should at least see if it’s interesting to teach…”), and I get the challenges of it–it’s not a perfect book by any stretch.  It opens with a long, boring-ish rumination on the shipping world, and, of course, Conrad has been criticized for his racism in his characterization of the Africans in the story, criticism that is warranted and interesting to pursue as a teacher.  Despite these shortcomings, I found myself engrossed in the nightmarish, evocative prose and the moral questions the book raises.  I reread it on the heels of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost about the terrors in the Belgian Congo, and Conrad’s novel is an interesting companion to this book.

Favorite Books, New Reads:

The Sympathizer, Viet Than Nguyen

    This novel deserves all the acclaim it earned.  It is funny, strange, and historical.  It’s narrated by a slightly unreliable narrator who is a double agent for the Vietnamese communists while living in Los Angeles.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

When this book initially came out, it got a lot of coverage: Here’s the story of a woman who dies but then is repeatedly reborn until she gets it right.  I had heard it was good, but I wasn’t sure how Atkinson would pull it off–wouldn’t it get boring reading the same story over and over?  Needless to say, since it’s on my list, she pulls it off.  Parts are repeated, but Atkinson knows how to pace appropriately, and it’s interesting to see the small changes that are made that this time save our protagonist so that she may live further on until her next death and rebirth.

Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrotta

I felt absorbed in this book: It raises genuinely interesting questions about sex and relationships in an age of porn, parenting, identity politics, and more. Even if it felt clunky at times, it was a highly engaging read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

I am so glad I read this book despite not loving her earlier novel, Salvage the Bones.  Moral of the story: it’s worth giving authors second chances.  We meet Jojo, one of three narrators of the novel, on his thirteenth birthday.  He’s trying hard to be a man, which means helping to slaughter the goat that will be his birthday feast, but, as he has vague mystical powers, including the ability to hear the thoughts of animals, this goat included, the slaughtering drives him away in terror.  Jojo’s gift is a family inheritance–his grandfather and grandmother also have access to magic, and his mother, one of the other narrators of the novel, enjoys getting high so that she can see her long-dead brother who visits her during these times.  Her addiction and terrible parenting make her a hard character to empathize with, and Ward doesn’t do much to endear her to us, which, to me, felt a small fault of the novel.  And yet there’s so much that’s beautiful and sad and moving here, that it’s easily one of the best books I read this year.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Atwood tells the story of real-life servant Grace Marks who was found guilty of the murder of her master and fellow servant.  Atwood attempts to make sense of her history: Did she actually do it, or was she set up by the other servant who was condemned along with her and hanged?  Along the way, we get Atwood’s particular sharp voice, feminism, and insight.  It’s a deeply engaging story despite how much we know up front.

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney

Conversations With Friends is, as the name would suggest, full of great talkers, talkers who can mesmerize with their insight and erudition. However, being a great talker doesn’t mean one is also an honest talker or even good at relationships. This is the crux of Sally Rooney’s novel then: witty, interesting conversation mostly between people who are trying to figure out how to be in relationship to one another and often failing at it.

Twenty-one year-old college student, Frances, our first-person narrator, is best friends and sometimes lovers with striking, irreverent, and intelligent Bobbi, who revels in the way she makes people feel uncomfortable around their accepting of middle-class social norms. Frances is used to being overshadowed by Bobbi despite the fact that Frances herself is a brilliant poet and intelligent in her own right.

When the two women are courted by a famous, older writer and photographer and brought into the folds of her life and social world, Frances naturally assumes that Bobbi is really the focus of this woman, Melissa’s, interest, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when Frances’s crush on Melissa’s semi-famous actor husband ends up being reciprocated. The two fall into a secret, illicit affair complicating Frances’s relationship to Bobbi.

While the storyline, on its surface, reads like a soap opera, Rooney’s writing elevates it above mere drama. All the characters are complicated and messy in interesting ways. They have blind spots and moments of utter clarity. What makes it a novel worth reading is that it’s not just this dramatic storyline but often a novel of ideas: Why monogamy? What is love? What is the line between friendship and romance? Is it possible to be authentically in relationship to someone, or will those relationships always be shaped by societal expectations and conventions?

And Rooney never tries too hard to answer these questions. Instead we’re offered this moment with these characters, and we’re left to wonder. As I neared the end of the novel, I felt a bit of a loss at the idea of no longer getting to be part of these lives. I would have kept reading.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene

Is it possible to be neutral in a warzone? Thomas Fowler, a journalist, is stationed in Vietnam in the early 1950s during the era in which the Vietnamese were trying to throw off their French colonial rule, thereby involving the United States more and more in the struggle for power. He’s not the titular quiet American; he’s British and is able to use this identity to claim neutrality despite the various warring factions. The quiet American is Alden Pyle; he’s young and naïve, and yet his political idealism leads him to be more of a dangerous figure than Fowler originally takes him for.

Pyle is not only dangerous politically; he’s also dangerous to Fowler as he’s fallen for his mistress, a Vietnamese woman Fowler fears he will never be able to make truly happy given that he’s older than her and already married.

This struggle for the beautiful Phuong comprises the heart of the novel’s plot, and yet the heart of the book really is Fowler’s evolution as he comes to realize that he cannot be neutral.

So many aspects of this book could have put me off: The context was mostly lost on me, and Greene does no dumbing down or explaining of the politics and history; he writes with an implicit belief that we understand who the various players were. Consequently, to keep up, I had to do independent research along the way.

Further, Fowler’s view of Phuong is troubling: It’s sexism borne of racism in that he sees her as simple and consequently less deserving of a real love that comes from a meeting of the minds. Greene does not seem to endorse this view. I read Fowler as ultimately a cynic, someone who’s blocked himself from truly caring about the people in the country where he lives as a way to shield himself, and this view slowly comes undone as the novel progress. Still, the ways Phuong is talked about is off-putting.

Regardless of what would be marks against the book, I found myself repeatedly moved by it. The prose is simple and yet beautiful, and Greene constantly surprised me with quiet little insights. It is often meditative and sometimes strange, but all this works for it. This is my first Greene, and I will likely read more.

We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

I was given this novel by a friend from my hometown, Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Bulawayo emigrated from Zimbabwe and where she sets the second half of this coming of age story that feels lightly autobiographical, at least in that it follows a girl’s life in Zimbabwe before coming to Michigan.

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