The Best Books I Read in 2017

The Best Books I Read in 2017

I read 57 books in 2017, beating my own goal by 5 and my own record by 2.  I'm certain this means I didn't spend enough time doing other things, and I will admit that a few of them were cookbooks, which are very borderline in the whole "competitive reading" thing. For the curious, you can see my full list on Good Reads and you can check out last year's reads in this post.  I only included cookbooks if I actually read them cover-to-cover like a "regular" book, but I love a cookbook and find some excellent writing therein, so I am not going to discount them all together.  Here I have compiled a list of the books I thought some of you might like, in alphabetical order.  The list is not comprehensive of everything I read, nor is it exhaustive of books I loved (like "A Room of One's Own" and "Dracula") but just things I thought might be useful to you if Read More Books appears on your list of 2018 resolutions.  That being said, I also recommend "A Room of One's Own" and "Dracula."

The Answers - Catherine Lacey

I picked up this short novel because it was appearing on a lot of "best new" lists and, as you'll see, I read a lot of feminist nonfiction this year (unintentional - something in the air?) and wanted to rotate in some meaty storytelling pure enjoyment.  This book follows Mary around New York City as she tries to treat a mysterious ailment with some "woo-woo" New Age treatments that are so expensive she is forced to take on a second job as an "emotional girlfriend" to a famous actor who is up to some strange psychological behavior.  The prose is liquid and the modern observations about human behavior and connectedness are insightful.  Recommended for anyone looking for a read you can sink into for a brief period of time.

Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults - Laurie Penny

I read a previous work by Ms. Penny a few years ago ("Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and the Revolution") so I was excited to sink my teeth into her set of essays from the most recent two years.  Penny is a sass-mouth socialist feminist anarchist (ist ist ist) who writes about politics for New Statesman and The Guardian in the UK and is a reliable firebrand about gender, feminisim, and politics on the global landscape.  Recommended for anyone fired up who would like to be more so, or needs any of their capitalist or CIS assumptions pushed a little further. I particularly connected to the set of essays on gender and relational identity as a newly married.

Bonfire - Krysten Ritter

This is a small town novel about mean girls and corporate corruption written by actress and star of "Jessica Jones," Krysten Ritter.  The fame of the author is not a good reason to read a novel, but Ms. Ritter is from a small town in rural Pennsylvania not far from where I grew up and is set in a similar environment, which I determined was reason enough to read a book.  Firmly in the Gillian Flynn/Ruth Ware genre of dark mysteries with an unreliable narrator, I felt this book rose above because the main character was more relateable than the typical female heroine in the genre.  If I'm reading a novel about nasty humans in nasty circumstances, I don't also need my first-person narrator to be a despicable human every single time, so I appreciate a heroine I could root for in a well-drawn rural environment that I very much recognized.  Recommended for fans of the genre and coal country ex-pats.

Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure and an Unlikely Bride - Alyssa Harad

I accidentally read this book while in the final throws of planning last year's wedding and since the book follows a mid-thirties academic as she struggles to identify with her "feminine" side and new role as a "bride," I certainly identified.  However, the real substance of the book is watching the author's sensory experiences and diversifying personal identity as she falls down the perfume rabbit hole into a subculture of scent she never knew existed.  This book helped inspire the hour we spent in a perfumery in Geneva walking through the backstory and base notes of two dozen European perfumes before selecting one and leaving with a dozen samples. Recommended for pleasure seekers and taste connoisseurs. 

In the Company of Women - Grace Bonney

I mentioned "A Room of One's Own" earlier and this lovely collection by the creator of the blog Design*Sponge is something of a coffee table love letter to the idea of a woman having her own space to make her own art.  I read this for twenty minutes each morning before work - it is structured with beautiful photos of women artists and writers in their work spaces coupled with brief essays on them and their work and routines - and it set me up for a great day.  It's a lovely book you can tackle in short sections, and one I'd like to keep around in my office for regular inspiration and sense of community.  Recommended for all makers, both amateur and professional.

Love in a Dish...And Other Culinary Delights - M. F. K. Fisher

M. F. K. Fisher is considered one of - if not the - greatest American food writer, but she's also so much more than that: a top-notch memoirist, travel writer and (I would argue) prose poet.  Odds are good you've never read it, and I hope 2018 is the year we rectify that.  This is an excellent entry point into her short essay writing, musing on decadence, family and how to live a valuable life.  For a deeper dive into her poetic recipes, you might try "How To Cook A Wolf" and for travel you would like "Two Towns in Provence," but to get yourself started, begin here.  Recommended for the gastronome, Francophile, and anyone who finds chopping vegetables meditative.

The MaddAddam Trilogy - Margaret Atwood

I saw an Instagram meme in December that I can't seem to locate again that said "If Margaret Atwood didn't exist, 2017 would've had to invent her."  You've certainly heard of "The Handmaid's Tale" because the Hulu adaptation has been sweeping the awards circuit, but if you dove headfirst into "The Hunger Games" or "The Passage" trilogy, you got to run-not-walk to get your hands on Atwood's post-apocalyptic series set in a ravaged America after an ecological collapse of society orchestrated by a mad-genius anarchist working inside a corporate capitalist monopoly (phew!).  Book 1 ("Oryx and Crake") tracks the story of exactly how the world fell through the recollections of a half-mad survivor.  Book 2 ("The Year of the Flood") is all raging pre-fall action, as we live with a group of ragtag religious devotees preparing for the disaster they know is coming and seek out survivors after the collapse.  Book 3 ("MaddAddam") investigates what survival means at the end of the world as we know it.  Recommended for genre fans and capitalist skeptics.

Meaty - Samantha Irby

Samantha Irby started blogging at a day job and I started reading her blog at a day job and I firmly believe that essentially makes us power twins.  "Meaty" is her first collection of biographical and humorous essays; a second "We Are Never Meeting in Real Life" was published last year and I am on the world's longest wait list at our library to get a copy.  From the beginning, I found Irby's cultural and dating observations laugh-out-loud funny, but her more personal essays are so achingly vulnerable and honest that they've brought me to tears even though they are never far from her self-deprecating humor.  Subscribe to the blog, read the books, revel in the fragility and universality of the human experience.  A warning that I did press this book on my Mom when she was visiting in LA last year and she did not find it nearly as funny as I did - perhaps it's generational?  Unknown, but I hope FX gets their shit together and puts her show on air real soon.  Recommended for single ladies, desk jockeys, and anyone who doesn't have a savings account.

The Mother of All Questions - Rebecca Solnit

This book completes an essay series of sorts when paired with Solnit's "Hope in the Dark" (a must read for all humans, as far as I'm concerned) and "Men Explain Things to Me."  The question she's referencing in the title essay is "Why don't you have children," which she is asked repeatedly in interviews and panels and is used as a jumping off point to talk about the culture pressure of women to define their worth based on their motherly devotion.  Other essays touch on the gender binary, the persistence of masculine identity in modern literature, and there's even one long personal piece of the modern relevance of the movie "Giant" that had me move the movie higher up in the Netflix queue. Recommended for anyone curious about the author who has been crowned "The Voice of the Resistance." 

My Own Words - Ruth Bader Ginsburg

This is the last book I read in our old basement apartment before we moved into the house and the first book I read in 2017 so I felt all nostalgic when I went back over my list and found this one at the top of January.  None of which is here nor there with regards to a review, but I do have an irrational soft spot for it.  "My Own Words" is a collection of writings by Ginsburg herself, largely from briefs and decisions and speeches," and was a nice read after "Notorious RBG," which I polished off in 2016.  It's delightful enough to read about her accomplishments as written by a third party, but something else entirely to read the force and logic of her own writings directly from the source.  Her stances on the equality of genders before the law and her persuasive argument against the "broccoli argument" as pertains to the health insurance system are sure to help you solidify any unresolved thoughts you have on the issue, as well as pray for her everlasting life.  Recommended for #girlboss fans and lovers of a rational argument.

On Beauty - Zadie Smith

I'm late to the party as far as Zadie Smith is concerned - she is written about so reverentially in literary circles that I expected her writing to be more "difficult," so when I finally opened up this book I was unprepared for how rampantly pleasurable it was.  I tore through the book at the tail end of our honeymoon while holed up in a hotel room at the heart of the Marais in Paris, reading as many chapters as I could before croissant breakfast and chilly autumn walks around the Seine, and vowed thereafter to read everything she's ever written.  An ensemble narrative about a mixed-race family navigating academia in New England, the writing tackles sexual politics, race relations and class assumptions while also being moving, humorous and deeply textured.  Recommended for anyone who reads.

The Reporter's Kitchen: Essays - Jane Kramer

Kramer is not exclusively a food writer, but her opening essay about how she's written her best work, raised her children and traveled the world in part by losing herself in recipes in kitchen after kitchen had me hooked from the first.  Like Fisher, she manages to translate culture and humanity through the daily food arts.  Aspirational in terms of writing and in life, at least for me.  Recommended for those who like a New York long read or has served Thanksgiving dinner to a group of foreigners.

Sex and Rage - Eve Babitz

Eve Babitz - who I had never heard of prior to 2017 - was a 1960s It Girl about town in Los Angeles who is experiencing something of a literary resurgence lately.  If you ever wondered what the Fun Girls were doing at the same time Joan Didion was loitering about casting a dour eye on the City of Angels, Babitz is happy to tell you.   We may be seeing some of her work adapted for TV in the near future, but until then, you can get your fix reading this short novel about an LA surfer-turned-painter who ascends into the It Crowd and alcoholism just as the 1960s become the 1970s.  She does all the drugs and has all the affairs and keeps a wild sense of humor about her as she does it.  What it lacks in plot it makes up for in dreamy moods and rollicking chutzpah.  Recommended for Angelenos and rock babes.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem & The White Album - Joan Didion

And on to the maestra herself.  My Dad is fond of saying in a condescending tone that "women seem to love Joan Didion" before he goes on to tell me that he neither gets nor likes her (I'm outing him a bit here - hi, Dad!).  Last year must be the year I officially became a woman, because I suddenly understood Joan Didion on a visceral, day-to-day level.  I had read "Blue Nights" before - a book of grief and glooming with passages that left me shaking - but it was Didion-in-her-30s-in-LA that I connected with for obvious reasons.  I don't know if the current age really does have similar feelings as the late 60s ominous mood she describes sweeping over the Southland, or maybe it's that I've finally accepted California as my home, but it seems that now, as then, the center is indeed not holding.  Her prose is a knife that cuts through the bullshit we use to comfort ourselves, and I can only hope to look outward with such clarity.  Recommended for modern skeptics and literary minimalists.

Tender: Volume 1 - Nigel Slater

Lo and behold, the only dude who appears on this years recommendations list is a British food writer who wrote a massive vegetable-centric tome for your kitchen and, I would argue, for your nightstand.  I took my sweet time reading Tender (Volume II is fruit-centric and awaiting my attentions still) because the reading was so comforting.  There's no other book I could read a few passages of before bed and be assured calm sleep - the content and the writing is so welcoming, so soothing, that I'd fall asleep comfortable, dreaming of endive and escarole.  Organized alphabetically by ingredient, the writing covers gardening advice, flavor pairings, and a collection of recipes I've determined to be 100% no fail.  This book is never far from my fingertips.  Recommended for insomniacs and CSA members.

Wine. All the Time. A Casual Guide to Confidant Drinking - Marissa A. Ross

Alphabetically last, we conclude with a humorous guide to drinking wine by a blogger-turned-author in Silver Lake.  After five years of admittedly loose study, 2017 is the year I finally "got" wine - I can now order it in restaurants and wine stores knowing basically what I'm talking about, or at least be able to describe to the sommelier what I'm looking for and land on a win.  For a time, I read about wine the same way I read text books in college, in that I was just hoping any of it would sink in. Now I can read them with a broad enough knowledge base to pick up the tips and apply them directly.  For anyone who doesn't yet know that California cabernet is disgusting or that the best way to end up with a good wine is to tell the purveyor you want something "interesting" rather than "popular," Marissa's book is a hilarious, millennial extension of her blog that goes a long way to bringing the wine world down to us regular folks.  Recommended for anyone apt to describe wine as tasting of undertones of wine.