I’m usually set to go with my year in review posts on January 1, but I have been BUSY lately. I’m trying my hardest to finish a king-sized quilt in time to enter it into my first ever quilt show (and of course I’m doing everything at the last minute…though in my defense, this thing has been a work in progress since June). My apologies for the late start!
I had a pretty good year in reading in 2017, though I must admit I was more partial to my nonfiction reading. Still, there were definitely some standouts. In an unlikely twist of events, two westerns won my heart in 2017. The first three books listed are my favorites of the year; everything else is listed in alphabetical order:
The Son by Philipp Meyer (2013)
Spanning three generations, The Son is a Texas-sized story about the rise of the McCullough family. The earliest generation battled Comanches and Mexicans to keep their ranch, while the last generation in the book battled environmentalists and fellow oil tycoons to hold on to their vast fortunes. I listened to it on audiobook, which gave me the added delight of listening to Will Patton and Kate Mulgrew narrate some of the story. It’s a gorgeous book.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (2015)
Civilization has long since collapsed, and the world is on the verge of ending again. Essun, a woman with secret abilities that are feared by all, is now just trying to pick up the pieces of her life. Her husband has murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter, so she’s on a quest to find them. It’s a really smart, mesmerizing book to lose yourself in.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2016)
Captain Kidd is hired to take a young orphan girl from Wichita Falls to her surviving relatives San Antonio; she was recently rescued from captivity with the Kiowa Indians and doesn’t understand her old life anymore. They’re an odd pair who form a unique bond along the way. It’s a quiet but entertaining book that was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Jesmyn Ward has been publishing regularly ever since winning the 2011 National Book Award — Men We Reaped in 2013 and an anthology of edited works, The Fire This Time, in 2016 — but Sing, Unburied, Sing is her first novel since Salvage the Bones. As with her previous works, Ward again returns to Mississippi to follow a black family that’s on the brink of major changes.
Told mostly in chronological order through the eyes of rotating narrators, the story follows Jojo, a boy on the cusp of leaving childhood. He lives with his grandparents, Mam and Pop, and is often his baby sister’s main caregiver and protector. Sometimes his mother, Leonie, shows up, but she struggles with meth addiction and lacks mothering instincts at best and is negligent at worst. Jojo loves his grandparents, and Pop is the steadiest father figure he has ever had. Mam, meanwhile, seems to be in her final days of battling cancer; she stays upstairs, consumed by pain.
I read a lot of really great nonfiction books in 2016! I actually think I had better luck with nonfiction than fiction. The first three listed are my top three favorites; everything is listed in alphabetical order.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
When Breath Becomes Air focuses on Kalinithi’s a career as a neurosurgeon, which was cut short by a rare and terminal form of lung cancer. The memoir — which he was still striving to complete at the time of his death — offers reflections on life and death. In doing so, he reflects on past interactions with patients who had been on the receiving end of bad news that came from him. It’s a gorgeous book.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (2016)
Mixing memoir, biography, and art history, Olivia Laing explores the different meanings of loneliness in New York City through the lives of different artists who lived there. The essays offer beautiful, elegant explorations of human interactions (or the lack thereof).
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder (2016)
Steeped in dark humor, So Sad Today is a collection of autobiographical essays by Melissa Broder. She writes about her struggles with extreme anxiety low, self-esteem, and addiction, but she also throws in some off-the-wall essays about sex and relationships. There’s one essay in there revolving around sexting that had me going, “This woman is completely nuts. I love her.”
In 1963, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, a book about race in America. More than half a century later, Jesmyn Ward soberly reflects in her introduction, “It is as if we have reentered the past and are living in a second Nadir: It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era. There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s been estimated that an African American is now killed by police every two to three days.”
In The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, contributors including Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older, Claudia Rankine, and Isabel Wilkerson pick up where Baldwin’s book left off. Most of the essays look to the past, several consider the present, and a couple look to the future. Considering we’re living in a period where it’s still considered radical to insist that black lives matter, the publication of this collection couldn’t be more timely.
Men We Reaped begins with this epigraph by Harriet Tubman:
“We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
It’s a chilling foreshadowing of what’s to come. From 2000-2004, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men who were dear to her. It started with the tragic death of her brother, then grew more and more overwhelming as death kept coming for friends she grew up with in rural Mississippi. And as she notes in her first chapter, it’s nothing new. A brief survey of her family history reveals that several of her male Southern ancestors’ lives were cut short in violent ways, leaving the women in the family reeling and scraping by.
As Ward struggles to make sense of it all, she juggles a few different histories. Every other chapter in the book is about her own family’s story. With them, she starts in the past and moves her way forward in time, talking about growing up poor in the rural South, her parents’ doomed marriage, and her mother’s struggle raise four children. She’s frank about her depression and her feelings of inadequacy; she was a gifted child but was poor and often the only black person in an all-white, wealthy school where she experienced blatant racism.