December 12: Top Ten Favorite Books of 2017
I’m doing the best I’ve read in 2017 rather than the best that were published this year. I had no intention of just doing books by female writers but that’s how it worked out this year!
1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery– It took me a while to start loving this book. The main characters initially aren’t all that likable. Renee is a concierge at a wealthy apartment building in Paris. She’s a fifty four year old widow with no formal education but a lifetime of reading under her belt. She conceals her intelligence from the tenants in her building to avoid curiosity. Paloma is a twelve year old girl who lives in the building. She’s highly intelligent but she considers her parents snobs and is convinced that life is meaningless. She plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday unless she can find a good reason not to. In each other, it seems that Renee and Paloma have found an unlikely kindred spirit. As I said it was slow moving, but I came to care about these characters and invest in their future. I looked forward to the random, quirky events in which they both found a strange beauty.
“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant. ”
2. Play it As It Lays by Joan Didion– I “discovered” Joan Didion last year, but this was the first time I’ve read her fiction. This narrative switches back and forth between the main character’s first person narration and a strangely detached third person narration. Set in Hollywood in the 1970’s, Maria Wyeth is a minor screen actress. Through her eyes, we see a culture of exploitation, built on open secrets. Just as the narration goes back and forth between Maria’s first person narration and that of others around her, the story itself is alternately shaped by Maria’s choices and the choices of others. The word that comes to mind when describing this book is “lonely”. It’s a lonely book but there’s beauty in that loneliness.
“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.”
3. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye– My expectations of this book weren’t high (I’ve read some pretty disappointing Jane Eyre fan fiction!) so maybe it was the fact that it was a pleasant surprise that makes this book stand out. Maybe I just loved the gleeful, dark, slightly messed up humor of a homicidal Jane Eyre figure. In most gothic romance (Jane Eyre included) we see what is essentially a Bluebeard narrative. A young girl goes to live with/work for a wealthy man, who may or may now be a murderer. She usually falls in love with him regardless. Rebecca, Dragonwyck, and Mistress of Mellyn, are other notable examples. Here Lyndsay Faye turns that narrative on it’s head. Yes, our hero, Mr. Thornfield, has secrets, but in this novel, Jane’s past is just as colorful.
“Reader, I murdered him…”
4. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara– I always feel the need to put a warning before recommending this book, because I feel like it’s such a hard read. It’s long (about 700 pages) and emotionally draining. When we learn about the main character’s background, the abuse and trauma that he endures may be triggering for some readers. Even though I wasn’t triggered, I found it almost too horrible to be believed. I certainly didn’t want to believe that such abuse could be real. But I can’t deny that it most likely isn’t as fictional as I’d like to believe. I could see the wrong person, picking up this book at the wrong point in their life might see it as an author saying that there are things too horrible to ever truly recover from. Maybe that is partially what she’s saying, but I feel like she’s doing something more. She’s depicting love in all its forms. She shows how people who love someone don’t give up on them just because it seems hopeless. She shows the beauty that’s a part of the struggle through life. And ultimately the lesson that she leaves us with is one of compassion.
“But then again, he would think, what about his life- and about Jude’s life, too- wasn’t it a miracle? He should have stayed in Wyoming, he should have been a ranch hand himself. Jude should have wound up – where? In prison, or in a hospital, or dead, or worse. But they hadn’t. Wasn’t it a miracle that someone who was basically unexceptional could life a life in which he made millions pretending to be other people, that in that life that person would fly from city to city, would spend his days having his every need fulfilled, working in which he was treated like the potentate of a small, corrupt country? Wasn’t it a miracle to be adopted at thirty, to find people who loved you so much that they wanted to call you their own? Wasn’t it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable?Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely? Wasn’t this house, this beauty, this comfort, this life a miracle?”
5. Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader by Anne Fadiman- Anne Fadiman is a creature that most bibliophiles will recognize. She’s the woman who will relish a really long word (or Sesquipedalian, which, as I’ve recently learned, means really long word) rolling it over her tongue and savoring the taste. She’ll look forward to the opportunity to read aloud. She’ll challenge you to see who can find the most typos on the restaurant menu. These essays describe her lifelong love affair with language and books, from her childhood, building with books rather than blocks, or “marrying libraries” with her husband of five years. She takes us inside her “odd shelf” (“small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection reveals a good deal about its owner”) which is sort of a metaphor for her brain, I suppose.
“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves.”
6. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff– This was actually the second Lauren Groff book I read this year (the first was Arcadia) but it stands out as a departure from her usual style. While Fates and Furies and Arcadia feature beautiful, poetic prose; this is more plot-based than either of those. It’s part contemporary novel, part ghost story, part historical fiction, and part magical realism. These different elements come together in ways that are occasionally messy, but that’s part of their charm. It’s somewhat less polished than Groff’s other work, and I love it for that reason too.
“Then, when we had done so, we put our hands upon the freezing cold monster, our monster. And this is what we felt: vertigo, an icicle through our strong hearts, our long-lost childhoods. Sunshine in a field and crickets and the sweet tealeaf stink of a new ball mitt and a rock glinting with mica and a chaw of bubblegum wrapping in sweet sweet tendrils down our throats and the warm breeze up our shorts and the low vibrato of lake loons and the sun and the sun and the warm sun and this is what we felt; the sun.”
7. Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing And Life by Anne Lamott– This memoir/writing advice guide has been recommended to me over and over again over the past several years, but something irrational in me was turned off by something about it. I finally pushed past whatever it was, and I’m really glad that it did. Lamott shows how difficult writing can sometimes be, from the discipline of actually doing it, to the fact that writing and anxiety go hand in had, to the understanding that by writing a book you’re essentially sharing yourself with strangers. There’s no way to separate the personal from the professional. But she gives her readers advice with humor and honesty.
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
8. The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks-These short stories defy genre and description. They’re strange, inventive, weird, and uncanny. Though they draw on mythical sources and themes, there’s also something very modern about these stories. It’s hard to discuss some of these stories without spoiling them, but let’s just say that there’s a retelling of “The Wild Swans” a story about a space janitor, and a story about a time traveler desperately trying to stop an artist from creating a painting.
“It just goes to show, people said later. It just goes to show how fairy tales always stop too soon in the telling. Others said it was never a fairy tale at all. Anyone could see that. They were all too lovely, too obviously doomed. But the wisest said, that’s exactly what a fairy tale is. The happily-ever-after is just a false front. It hides the hungry darkness inside.
9. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly– This is a unique look at Austen’s work that many Jane-ites would do well to read. It argues that in the twenty first century we frequently misread Jane Austen. Her work was more socially and politically aware than we realize. A 19th century readership would have been aware of many of the small references she makes to events that were then current, and they would have understood her work very differently from how we understand it now. Helena Kelly analyses Austen’s work, looking at several of the issues that Austen tackles explicitly and and subtextually. For example, Mansfield Park doesn’t just touch on the slave trade. References to cases and literature that a 19th century readership would know, are pervasive and they make the book far more political than a 21st century audience realizes. I think that at times the author gets so caught up in her ideas that she reaches a little too far, but I also think that she makes some excellent points about reading Austen through the lens of her own time rather than ours.
And once we read like this, we start to see her novels in an entirely new light. Not an undifferentiated procession of witty, ironical stories about romance and drawing rooms, but books in which an authoress reflects back to her readers their world as it really is—complicated, messy, filled with error and injustice. This is a world in which parents and guardians can be stupid and selfish; in which the Church ignores the needs of the faithful; in which landowners and magistrates—the people with local power—are eager to enrich themselves even when that means driving the poorest into criminality. Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote. But by and large, they’re so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places—reading them in the right way—they simply won’t understand.
10. Night Film by Marisha Pessl– This is a weird book to describe. On one hand you can say that it’s about a reporter investigating the apparent suicide of a celebrated filmmaker’s daughter. On the other hand, you could describe it as an eerie, hypnotic adventure that gets better as the plot grows more convoluted. Throughout the pages we see props: newspaper clippings, website screenshots, a coffee stained transcript, and stolen police reports that are intended to blur the line between fiction and reality a bit more. It also blurs the line between film and literature a bit. The structure and the atmosphere of the book are very film noir. We learn about the victim’s father’s films in vivid detail. As we get into some possible theories regarding the girl’s fate, it starts to feel like the more outlandish possibilities are more likely than the realistic ones.
“The Shadow is what people are hunting throughout the tale. Or else it can dog the hero, refusing to leave him alone. It’s a potent force that bewitches as much as it torments. It can lead to hell or heaven. It’s the hollow forever inside you, never filled. It’s everything in life you can’t touch, hold on to, so ephemeral and painful it makes you gasp. You might even glimpse it for a few seconds before it’s gone. Yet the image will live with you. You’ll never forget it as long as you live. It’s what you’re terrified of and paradoxically what you’re looking for. We are nothing without our shadows. They give our otherwise pale, blinding world definition. They allow us to see what’s right in front of us. Yet they’ll haunt us until we’re dead.”