Books of the Year 2017

Book Reviews

One of the things I repeatedly tell my pupils and tutees, and their parents, is that there’s nothing I can teach them that they can’t learn by reading books. Occasionally, this backfires and they tell me not to bother coming again, but mostly they nod in agreement… and then go straight back to their iPads the minute we finish our lesson.

Anyway, as part of the whole money-where-your-mouth-is thing, I tried to up my reading game this year, increasing and diversifying the books I read. To a certain degree, I succeeded, but there’s still a dozen at least, stacked up by my bed, which I didn’t get ‘round to. Of the 30-plus books I did finish, here are 12 of my favourites—six of which were published in 2017, six that were not. Check ‘em out.

Six of the Best Books I Read This Year

(published in 2017)

Hunger – A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay redefines the terms honest and unflinching in this account of living in a body that both she and society have, for years, scorned so severely. Gay describes this body – her body – as “unruly”, telling us that she is fat, having once been “super morbidly obese”. Straight off the bat, however, she states that this will not be a tale of triumph: it’s not one of those books that features a photo of herself, before and after, standing inside one leg of her old jeans. She makes no apologies or excuses for this, nor does she pretend that she’s perfectly okay with it. Instead, she tackles the issues head on. She tackles the language used to describe those who are overweight, she tackles modern culture’s obsession with weight, she tackles the pain of her memories – as well as the physical pain – of living in her body, and she tackles the origins of this pain, which led to her overeating. She does all of this in a language so lucid, familiar, and almost conversational in tone that you’d be forgiven for thinking Hunger was something she knocked out in a matter of hours. It was not, but it’s certainly worth the few it’ll take you to read.

Absolutely Golden, by D. Foy

Critically acclaimed author D. Foy follows up his harrowing but brilliantly-written novel, Patricide, with something – at first glance, at least – much lighter. Set on a nudist colony, in 1973, Absolutely Golden tells the story of a thirty-something widow named Rachel, who’s looking to rebuild her life after a series of mistakes and misguided decisions. Having being coaxed into joining her exceedingly well-endowed hippie roommate, Jack, on a trip to Camp Freedom Lake, in Northern California, Rachel undergoes a radical transformation brought about by her experiences on the colony, and her interactions with the other campers.

Foy’s lexicon once again dazzles and delights, oscillating between the salacious and the sublime with startling ease…

 

Absolutely Golden is another one of those books that’s so easy to read, with prose that flows like running water, and yet succeeds, simultaneously, as a thought-provoking and profound piece of literature. With a captivating cast of characters, which includes a couple of ageing Dutch swingers and a pot-bellied man named Merle, Rachel’s story takes one strange turn after another, and at times it reads like Alice in Wonderland for the Playboy generation. As with his two previous novels, Foy’s lexicon once again dazzles and delights, oscillating between the salacious and the sublime with startling ease, as the ’70s slang employed by his characters is offset by the deep introspection of the book’s narrator, along with some descriptive passages of pure poetry. And therein lies the key to this book’s appeal: in amongst all the fun and frivolity is a serious story, a tale of transformation and self-discovery, rendered richly on the page by one of the 21st Century’s most exciting and original voices.

No Is Not Enough, by Naomi Klein

“An ordinary person’s guide to hope” is how one reviewer describes this. And that it is, but before you get to the stuff that will bring you hope, there’s plenty to set your teeth a-chatter with terror. Speedily written in the months following Trump’s election, Klein first gives us an account of how she believes we reached this point, drawing on the insights she’s gained through the writing of her previous books, as well as her ongoing activism in the fight against shock politics and climate change deniers. She goes into detail about the implications of Trump’s presidency – for the planet and its people – and about the people working behind the scenes – people like Rex Tillerson, Steven Mnuchin, and Mike Pence. Names that aren’t exactly synonymous with the word hope.

It’s a book for the “liberal cucktards” of the world – people like me – who wake up each morning in the hope that this was all just a terrible, terrifying nightmare.

 

It’s not until we get to the final third that Klein gives us something to feel positive about. Sort of. She talks about the inspiration she found at Standing Rock, where the indigenous people, supported by a contingent of veterans, managed to uphold the building of a pipeline under the lake that provides the sole source of drinking water for those people. The decision was immediately overturned by Trump, but the lessons Klein took from this were in the lengths people will go in working together toward a greater good. At the end of the book she talks about the importance of presenting an alternative social vision that will have people saying “yes” rather than just “no” and she includes a copy of the Leap Manifesto, a powerful statement of this vision, which she co-wrote with sixty-odd other activists in 2015.

While No Is Not Enough is lacking in some respects – notably, on the practical measures people can take on a daily basis – it is, ultimately, a Good Book. It makes you want to do Good Things. It reassures you and reminds you that other people are doing Good Things, on a large scale, every day, in an attempt to combat the callousness of Trump and his cronies. It’s a book for the “liberal cucktards” of the world – people like me – who wake up each morning in the hope that this was all just a terrible, terrifying nightmare.

Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann

This is one of those wonderful little books you can pick up at any time, open to any page, and find something that reminds you why – as a writer – you should keep writing. Yes, it’s another “guidebook” to writing, filled with advice for “young” writers, much of which most of those writers will have seen before, in some form or another. But McCann offers his counsel generously, honestly and intelligently, in the form of a series of short letters, each of which is written with a lightness of touch that makes them a total joy to read. He acknowledges that there is no advice he can give better than that of Rilke, who said that “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody” and that “There is only one way. Go into yourself.” However, by looking outward, too, McCann argues – by being an insatiable reader, by watching the world, and – most importantly – by filling your lungs with language – writers of all ages can bring life and light to their work, and to their readers.

The Readymade Thief, by Augustus Rose

Augustus Rose’s debut novel tells the story of an introverted seventeen-year-old girl named Lee, who goes on the run after being betrayed by her best friend, only to find herself drawn into a conspiracy involving a shadowy organisation of men known as the Société Anonyme. Their focus seems to be the work of the avant-garde artist, Marcel Duchamp, whose “readymade” pieces give the book its title. Aiding Lee in her quest to understand what the hell’s going on is Tomi, a hacker from Czechoslovakia, with whom Lee might just be a little bit in love.

This is a strange one. For a start, and on a superficial level at least, there are similarities with another book about clues left in the work of a famous artist. Needless to say, Rose’s novel is far superior in every way. Secondly, after reading it, I found myself recommending it to several of my students who normally read Young Adult fiction, even though it’s not really a Young Adult novel. The other strange thing about this book is that, for the first two-hundred pages, I loved it. I loved the writing, and I loved how the story was shaping up. Thereafter, however, I struggled to maintain the same level of enthusiasm, as the intricacies of the plot increasingly dominated the narrative. Nevertheless, Rose’s depiction of the book’s Philadelphia setting – especially in the scenes when Lee and Tomi go “creeping” – as well as his skill in weaving a plausible theory about the truth behind Duchamp’s work, make The Readymade Thief an impressive and highly accomplished first novel.

The Sarah Book, by Scott McClanahan

I hate Scott McClanahan. I hate Scott McClanahan because he makes this writing thing look so damn easy. I hate him, because he writes in the way I strive to write: with honesty, humour and compassion, melding memoir with fiction, and tearing down the walls of what’s expected in an author-as-narrator-as-protagonist. The Sarah Book is his third book, and it’s the only book I read on a Kindle this year because it was free. However, after finishing it, I went and bought it in physical form, because it’s just so damn good. Do yourself a favour and get a copy of your own, because I won’t be giving mine away any time soon.

Six Other Great Books I Read This Year

(not published in 2017)

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (2015)

Korean author Han Kang’s first novel to be translated into English won her the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, and it’s not too hard to see why. The Vegetarian is a remarkable little book about an “unremarkable” housewife named Yeong-Hye, whose abrupt decision to stop eating meat causes a shocking and bizarre chain-reaction of events. It’s a quick, concise read, but one that manages nonetheless to explore a whole host of themes, including – most notably – the perils of defying cultural norms. Sad, startling, and wonderfully unsettling.

Far From The Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy (1874)

You’ve all seen the film, and you all know that Katniss Everdene from The Hunger Games is named after Bathsheba Everdene – the protagonist in this novel – but how many of you have actually read this? I have, which makes me awesome. An epic 19th Century love story that’s stood the test of time, thanks largely to the rich, detailed evocation of its semi-fictional setting of Wessex, as well as its distinct characterisation, tightly-woven plot, and – quite frankly – marvellous writing. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Dukla, by Andrzej Stasiuk (2011)

Andrzej Stasiuk is a Polish writer – apparently the most well-known and highly acclaimed of all Polish writers, although none of the Poles I know have heard of him. Still, Dukla is a real place, in Poland, and this book is a superb example of the local made universal. There is no plot to speak of, but the author’s attention to detail and poetic style carry the reader through long passages of description, in which a single moment can last for several pages, with language that dazzles for its specificity and grace. Highly recommended.

Cry Father, by Benjamin Whitmer (2014)

After reading Pike, Whitmer’s debut novel, I wasted little time in getting stuck into Cry Father. As superb as Pike is, I think I loved this one even more – this violent, haunting, powerfully emotive tale of a broken man trying to find peace with his past, whilst dealing with a present that refuses to let him do that. It tells the story of Patterson Wells, who works for months on end, clearing disaster zones – a job he does in an attempt to quash the pain of a great personal tragedy. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, but for those readers who like their fiction truly gritty, and don’t mind their characters being less than likeable (read: realistic) then Cry Father will absolutely slay you.

Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe (1929)

Earlier this year, I watched Genius – the film about Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe, starring Colin Firth and Jude Law. For what it’s worth, I thought it was great, but I have to admit that prior to seeing this film, I had never heard of Thomas Wolfe. I started reading this, the ill-fated young writer’s debut novel, some time back in June. I eventually finished it in November, a little tired, but undoubtedly richer for the experience. Filled with the minutiae of a claustrophobic family life, and imbued with its protagonist’s yearning to escape, this sprawling, semi-autobiographical saga – generally considered a classic of American literature – wasn’t always an entirely accessible read, but the poetry of its language, not to mention the ambition and intellect of its author, was never less than utterly inspiring. I loved it.

Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm, by Nicole Daedone

Easily the story I’ve found myself telling most often this year – not to mention the one that’s caused the greatest amount of confusion and delight among my mates – is the one about my experience with the two women who invited me into their home to practise Orgasmic Meditation.

Now, for those that don’t know, which, as far as I’ve discovered, is just about everybody, Orgasmic Meditation – more commonly referred to as “OM” – is based on the idea that sex can be, and I quote, “an entry point for a deep, nourishing joy” in all areas of life. And not just for women, either, as men are encouraged to make a deeper emotional connection with their partner through this practice, which involves, at its core, a fifteen-minute session of clitoral stimulation. That these sessions usually take place between complete strangers seems to be beside the point…

Anyway, prior to my first session of OM, I was instructed to read this book, which was written by the woman who invented it, and the founder of One Taste – the national organisation dedicated to the art and craft of the female orgasm. In the event, I only had time to skim-read a few chapters, but I did come back to it later and found that it explained the philosophy behind the practice in clear, and fairly convincing terms. However, after that first session, the whole thing started to feel a bit like a recruitment exercise, which kind of put me off, and – for one reason or another – a second session never happened. But as one of my female friends put it: “Well, having more men out there who know where the clitoris is can only be a good thing, so fill your boots.”