The best books I read in 2017
I’m awful at keeping up with new book releases. I read regularly, but the speed my “to-read” list grows consistently outpaces the speed I finish books. I’ve long since given up trying to read all the hot new releases year to year, and instead simply read whatever I discover I’m in the mood for.
That does leave me feeling a little left out at the end of each year, as best-of lists post and awards are doled out. I tried voting in the Good Reads Choice Awards this year, for example, only to discover that I was lucky to have read one or two books in each category, let alone enough to feel worthy of selecting any “bests.”
This list is my attempt to have my yearly moment of reading life self-reflection. These books appear in no particular order, and none of them released in 2017. They are, however, the best books I read in 2017.
Loving Day by Mat Johnson is a sharp, funny, tragic, memorable novel about what it means to be of mixed race in America in the 21st century.
While race relations in the United States has obviously been a hot topic in recent years (although, really, I suppose it’s been a hot topic for basically the entirety of human civilization), I’ll admit that previous to reading Loving Day, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the difficulties of being a mixed race individual. I must have always assumed that being mixed meant that you could get along just fine in both worlds, but, based on Johnson’s semi-autobiographical novel, it’s more likely that people of mixed race feel as though they are a minority of a minority and don’t fit into any world.
Loving Day is easy to recommend. For some, it might hit close to home and help them feel less alone. For others, it sheds light on what is a very touchy, uncomfortable, difficult to deal with topic.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Describing Cormac McCarthy as “Americas greatest living author” is so frequently repeated it flirts with cliche, but sometimes truth is cliche. His haunting style somehow manages to all at once be terse, Biblical, angry, direct, poetic, and observant.
The basic story of No Country for Old Men reads like a thriller, but the subtext about coping with failure, getting old, and discovering the cruel indifference of the universe stays with you far more than the plot. Like much of McCarthy’s writing, No Country is about humanity’s constant struggle to find beauty and worth in a world that appears to not particularly care about either of those things.
Of the three primary characters in the novel, the aging Sheriff Bell is the story’s heartbeat. His chapters of rambling exploratory monologues about his life’s success, transgressions, and driving philosophical views are nothing short of masterfully mesmerizing. I’m a big fan of McCarthy’s monologues, and these are some of his best, second maybe only maybe to The Judge’s more nihilistic fireside chats in Blood Meridian.
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
Ghachar Ghochar is a meditation on family, success, money, love, and corruption, all with memorable characters and all in less than 120 pages.
Shanbhag’s writing is economical, precise, and beautiful. Even with its minimal page count, Shanbhag manages to create a sense of slow building unease and dread. I can’t speak for the accuracy of the translation, but based on my experience with this novel I would say that the beauty and power of the prose has survived the jump into the English language.
If you’re looking for something with subtlety, nuance, and a lot to say, Shanbhag’s books is worth picking up. I finished reading it over three months ago, and I still think about it regularly.
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Annihilation is easily one of the best Lovecraftian books I’ve ever read. This divisive little story is about the exploration of a previously inhabited but now mysteriously abandoned plot of coastal land.
The epistolary format, the theme of forbidden knowledge, the cosmic horror, the complete inability for the characters to comprehend the weird reality surrounding them, the slow descent into insanity — this is a true Lovecraftian story. It’s unsettling and bizarre, and, because of the fact that you are reading the journal of a character who is herself likely going insane, you constantly second guess the events of the book, just as she does.
Annihilation is part one of a trilogy, but the first book works well on its own and does not need its sequels. This is especially true if, like me, you’re the kind of person who prefers questions to answers. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read the sequels (they’re strange and enjoyable in their own right), but they feel more like they orbit Annihilation and add context, as opposed to being what you would expect from a continuation of the book.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a fascinating, disturbing dive into the state of public discourse and modern-day social media driven mob justice. It made me think a lot about the purpose of punishment, the fragility of reputation, and the serious kind of damage anyone behind a keyboard can do to both themselves and others.
Ronson’s writing ended up a primary motivating factor in pushing me to rethink the way that I both participate in social media and form opinions of other people. Aside from it being insightful, the book is also highly engaging and a lot of fun to read.
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero
I read the majority of The Disaster Artist in an attempt to take my mind off of the destruction that Hurricane Harvey brought to my doorstep, and it proved the perfect book for that purpose.
I’m a big fan of “so bad it’s good” movies, and The Room is one of the classic examples of the genre, so I was curious to read Sestero’s account of what happened behind the scenes. I expected humor, but the book surprised me by also being insightful and oddly sweet (sometimes). It’s a hilarious story of focus, friendship, wild dreams, and brazen incompetence. Tommy Wiseau, the creative force behind the nightmare that is The Room, is even more bizarre, awkward, cruel, and goofily mysterious as you’d expect him to be based on his performance in his disastrous movie.
Sestero’s book has gotten a lot of recent attention due to the James Franco’s surprise hit film adaptation. Franco’s version of Sestero’s book is good and worth watching, but it’s an oversimplification of a story that has a lot more to offer than two hours can give you.
The Three-Body Problem (series) by Cixin Liu
Liu’s trilogy, which includes The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, were hands down the best books I read in 2017. The massive breadth and scope of these hard sci-fi novels makes them difficult to even introduce in a way that feels like it does the story justice, so I’ll just say that I have never read a series of books so mind-blowingly ambitious.
From the history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution at the beginning of The Three-Body Problem to the terrible violence in The Dark Forest to the 2001-esque climax of Death’s End, I was consistently clueless with what to expect next. I never knew what bizarre scientific ideas Liu Cixin would introduce, what terrifying pieces of philosophy he would make me reluctantly admit made at least some amount of sense, or what fascinating new characters he would throw at me.
If you are serious about science fiction, philosophy, the nature of man, or the future of the universe, these books are absolute must reads.