Favorite Books of 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

I've read more books this year than any of the previous years where I've tracked them, so this list is also longer than previous lists. There's a little of everything - comedy, romance, history, trauma, literary fiction - which is a pretty accurate portrait of the breadth and depth of books from this year.

Here they are, in no particular order: 


Book Cover of Pavilion of WomenPavilion of Women: A Novel of Life in the Women's Quarters by Pearl S. Buck


Andre had been telling her an ancient legend of the fall of man into evil. It came about, he said, by the hand of a woman, Eve, who gave man forbidden fruit.
"And how was this woman to know that the fruit was forbidden?" Madame Wu had inquired.
"An evil spirit, in the shape of a serpent, whispered it to her," Andre had said.
"Why to her instead of to the man?" she had inquired.
"Because he knew that her mind and her heart were fixed not upon the man, but upon the pursuance of life," he had replied. "The man's mind and heart were fixed upon himself. He was happy enough, dreaming that he possessed the woman and the garden. Why should he be tempted further? He had all.

This is the first of Buck's books I've read and I couldn't put it down. I loved the complex characters and the dance they had to do around each other in their everyday lives.


Book Cover: Coming CleanComing Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller

memoir · mental illness

Maybe if I endure all my pain now, I could be happy when I am older.

I struggled with whether to put this on the list, even though it's one of the better things I've read this year. The memoir illustrates the life of a child whose parents are hoarders and all of the complications that come along with it - shame, mental illness, loneliness, anger, frustration. It feels grossly voyeuristic (much like those shows about hoarders), but also helps you understand the psychology of hoarding while empathizing with everyone involved.


Book Cover: It's okay to laugh (crying is cool, too)It's Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool, Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort

memoir trigger warning: death/dying, illness, depression

I'm not stronger than anybody. I mean, physically, I can do three pull-ups, so I'm stronger than some people, but emotionally, I'm the same as anyone else. This strength isn't superhuman. It's the most human thing of all, a muscle we're all born with but need to exercise rarely at best. And lucky for us, it's a tenacious little thing that bounces back from atrophy as soon as you need to flex it.

As someone who is a huge fan of Nora's Terrible, Thanks for Asking ("You know how every day someone asks 'how are you?' and even if you’re totally dying inside, you just say 'fine,' so everyone can go about their day? This show is the opposite of that."), it was only a matter of time before I picked up her book. Because I love her narrative style, I opted for the audiobook read by the author, which I highly recommend. Even having known much of the story thanks to the podcast, I still found myself crying, cringing, and cheering for Nora and her family as if it were the first time. 


Book Cover: No One Can Pronounce My NameNo One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal


Nothing envisioned a future more inaccurately than naivete.

The story is told across a cast of characters, all Indian immigrants to the US or part of the Indian diaspora, that slowly make their way toward one another. I struggled a bit in the beginning because I loathe stories of crude teenage boys, but I'm so glad I stuck with it. This is another book I picked up as an audiobook and I feel it made the experience so much richer.


Book Cover: Sofia Khan is Not ObligedSofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

fiction · romance · comedy

What a luxury anything organic is: to take your time; to have the lived experience. To hear what a person has to say about love and say, ‘Yes! I know that feeling. It shattered my soul and it was beautiful . . .

I tend not to consume a lot of media self-defined as "rom-com", so this was a bit outside of my comfort zone. I quickly fell in love with Sofia, with her group of girlfriends and her quirky family. This book would make an excellent and enjoyable sitcom/drama. I was sad to finish it, but happy to pick up the second book in the series immediately. I preferred the plot of the first much more to the second, but if this one leaves you wanting more, I'd recommend picking it up, too! 


Book Cover: One ChildOne Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment by Mei Fong

non-fiction trigger warning: child abuse, infanticide, kidnapping

China’s one-child policy was crafted by military scientists, who believed any regrettable side effects could be swiftly mitigated and women’s fertility rates easily adjusted. China’s economists, sociologists, and demographers, who might have injected more wisdom and balance, were largely left out of the decision making, as the Cultural Revolution had starved social scientists of resources and prestige. Only the nation’s defense scientists were untouched by the purges, and they proved not the best judges of human behavior.

China's one-child policy is something I knew very little about before picking this up. I didn't know, for instance, why they instituted a one-child policy (to be able to focus more resources into a single child, allowing for a more educated, well-fed, prosperous adult population), how they enforced it (mostly through fines, forced sterilizations, etc), or what happened to children born as a second/third/etc child (they're legal non-entities unable to legally get jobs, go to school, or have children of their own). It also shed light on the American-Chinese foreign adoption policies, which saw some children effectively kidnapped and sold to adoption agencies serving American "consumers". The book goes into depth on the public crises caused by a one-child policy (which is no longer law) - an aging population without enough carers, falling fertility rates, unequal sex distribution between cities and rural areas, and how areas deal with the tragedy of losing effectively an entire generation during natural or man-made disasters.


Book Cover: FlightFlight by Sherman Alexie

fiction trigger warning: violence, genocide, abuse

I learned how to stop crying.
I learned how to hide inside of myself.
I learned how to be somebody else.
I learned how to be cold and numb.

I'm slowly working my way through all of Sherman Alexie's work and this is one of my favorites so far. The story follows a young man who seemingly time travels to important (but often violent) points in Native American history without much warning. Will he carry out history or change it? Is history what we've been told?


Book Cover: Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid

fiction trigger warning: war

The end of the world can be cozy at times.

This story has everything I love - loneliness, companionship, passion, tragedy, heartache, and humanity in the face of horrific human deeds. I went into this book after forgetting the premise completely, so every page turn was a surprise seemingly unspoiled by my expectations.


Book Cover: Weapons of Math DestructionWeapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O'Neil

non-fiction trigger warning: systemic injustice

Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that’s something only humans can provide. We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead. Sometimes that will mean putting fairness ahead of profit.

If you're interested in how algorithms and mathematical models replicate inequality, I highly recommend this book. O'Neil does a great job of illustrating the problems with the way we collect, understand, and use data - from recidivism rates to test scores.


Book Cover: KindredKindred by Octavia Butler

fiction trigger warning: racism, slavery, violence, rape, abuse

Better to stay alive," I said. "At least while there's a chance to get free." I thought of the sleeping pills in my bag and wondered just how great a hypocrite I was. It was so easy to advise other people to live with their pain.

The second time-travel-esque book (with an unintentional, unwilling time traveler) on my list. The story follows a woman thrust back into time and into chattel slavery, struggling to stay alive and sane in a horrific period of US history. It's heartwrenching, terrifying, and definitely gets your blood pumping.


Book Cover: Men We ReapedMen We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

memoir trigger warning: suicide, addiction, violence, racism

After I left New York, I found the adage about time healing all wounds to be false: grief doesn't fade. Grief scabs over like scars and pulls into new, painful configurations as it knits. It hurts in new ways. We are never free from grief. We are never free from the feeling that we have failed. We are never free from self-loathing. We are never free from the feeling that something is wrong with us, not with the world that made this mess.

I'd heard nothing but good things about Men We Reaped and have a number of Ward's book on my to-read list. This is an excellent introduction to her work - a fresh take on memoir where her story is told through the love and loss of men in her life - to violence, suicide, sickness, etc. It's a deeply personal illustration of the multi-generational, cultural tragedy that shapes too many people's lives.


Book Cover: If You Could Be MineIf You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

young adult · romance · LGBTQIA

The best person I know won’t be around anymore. And suddenly everything seemed like a huge mistake. You’re the one I should grow old with. And I can’t.

I want more Iranian lesbian YA. Give it all to me in its delicious, tear-jerking splendor.


Book Cover: Stamped from the beginningStamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

history trigger warning: racism, slavery, violence, rape

Criminals hardly ever acknowledge their crimes against humanity. And the shrewdest and most powerful anti-Black criminals have legalized their criminal activities, have managed to define their crimes of slave trading and enslaving and discriminating and killing outside of the criminal code. Likewise, the shrewdest and most powerful racist ideologues have managed to define their ideas outside of racism.

This is quite the tome, as you'd expect from a book claiming to be the definitive history of racist ideas in America. It took me 8 or 9 months to finish, but it was well worth it. I highlighted probably a good third of the book and learned so much about how racist ideas came into practice and what the motivation behind the various approaches was. I didn't know, for instance, that white Christian Europeans decided that there was no way white and Black people could be descended from the same two people, so they invented a whole other Adam & Eve to segregate Black people into their own family tree. The lengths to which white people have and do go to put themselves above Black people in every aspect of human life and history will likely astonish those that are intimately familiar with the racialization of Black people.


Book Cover: Interpreter of MaladiesInterpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

fiction trigger warning: war, violence, miscarriage/stillbirth

Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

Love is complicated and no less so the lengths to which we go to spare the feelings of those we love. A couple has become slowly estranged through a tragedy and scheduled electricity blackouts in their city have given them an excuse to share long-buried secrets with one another. 


Book Cover: WaveWave by Sonali Deraniyagala

non-fiction trigger warning: death, natural disaster, depression, suicide

I steer clear of telling. I can't come out with it; the outlandish truth of me. How can I reveal this to someone innocent and unsuspecting? With those who know my story I talk freely about us...but with others I keep it hidden, the truth. I keep it under wraps because I don't want to shock or make anyone distressed...I try to keep a distance from those who are innocent of my reality. At best I am vague. I feel deceitful at times, but I can't just drop it on someone, I feel. It's too horrifying, too huge.

I had this book for a long time before I started reading it and was expecting it to be fiction. This story, however, is the horrifically true story of a woman (the author) who loses her husband, children, and parents all at once in a tsunami. You follow her through all of the various states of grief and her sorrow infests the dark parts of your heart during times when she returns home to the mausoleum that has become her house with her kids dirty shoes still sitting by the front door, or the frustration of failed suicide attempts, to the torture she puts the new inhabitants of her parents home through.


Book Cover: Everything I Never Told YouEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

fiction trigger warning: death, drowning, racism

You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.

I accidentally clumped a bunch of tragedy books together, but I hope it doesn't scare you off from Ng's amazing novel. A family loses a daughter/sister to tragedy, then attempts to rebuild their lives around the loss.