When someone--an individual or the culture en masse--insists I have to read a certain book, because you’re just gonna love it, I often avoid it. It takes me years to get around to reading popular novels, because I fear I’ll disappoint everyone who loved it by not loving it quite as much. Books are not one-size-fits-all; one has to encounter books at the right time and place.
Add to this another tic: refraining from extolling my favorite books to others, because when I say “favorite,” what I mean is this book cracked me open. It voiced thoughts and feelings I didn’t know I held, or were possible, or could put words to, which makes it feel deeply private and sacred. To tell you what books I loved is a certain breed of vulnerability.
As you can imagine, it’s a habit I’m learning to unlearn. Apparently, when you open a bookstore, you have to talk about the books you read! Which is a great problem to have! So it’s with a dash of irony (and exposure therapy) that I tell you about my favorite books published in 2017.
Elizabeth’s Top 3 Reads of 2017:
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
To echo Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work is “required reading.” A correspondent for The Atlantic, Coates won the National Book Award in 2015 for his nonfiction book Between the World and Me--a blend of journalism, history and memoir framed as a letter to his son. When our book club asked for works similar to Citizen by Claudia Rankine, we pointed them to the works of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I have a scrap of paper I use as a bookmark, upon which my mother scrawled a quote from Joseph Campbell: “The agony of breaking thru [sic] personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth.” The work of unlearning racism and bigotry and oppression is not meant to be comfortable, and it has to be done.
Released in October of this year, We Were Eight Years in Power reprints eight of the author’s Atlantic articles, one for each year of Barack Obama’s presidency, along with reflections on the time period, the way the piece was written, and how it has aged. Much like Between the World and Me, what results is a fascinating mixture of journalism, history and memoir. To read Coates is to interrogate our nation’s outdated narratives, our collective un/conscious, and to recognize our own complicity.
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
Nicole Krauss is my favorite author, and I was so eager to get my hands on Forest Dark that I read it twice, positively enchanted by the novel.
Self-invention is at the heart of Nicole Krauss’s fourth and latest novel, where two disparate characters question the identities they’ve created and attempt to construct new ones—sometimes consciously and sometimes not. Similar to her previous novel, Great House, Krauss balances multiple and nonlinear narratives to craft a thought-provoking and captivating book.
Read my full review of the book on Ploughshares - http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/review-forest-dark-by-nicole-krauss/
Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women by Renee Engeln, PhD
Eighteen months ago I stopped wearing makeup. It started as an experiment to see how long I could go without mascara and eyeliner. My mother never taught me how to apply eyeshadow, blush, concealer, or foundation, and so I never wore those; I stuck to what I knew: a thin black line along the top eyelid, and brushed black lashes. For years, I painted my lids without interrogating why. I groaned each time I saw the price tag of organic mascara, until finally, I thought, maybe I don’t need this.
Renee Engeln’s book voiced deeply-held thoughts and feelings I didn’t have the words for, or couldn’t pinpoint. And rather than alienating or blaming women for this epidemic of beauty sickness, the author dissects our cultural obsession with women’s appearances in a manner that exposes contradictions while offering solutions and ways forward.
If there are two books I wish everyone could read--man, woman, child--it’s Beauty Sick and We Were Eight Years in Power.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
After I finished Lincoln in the Bardo, I told my mother--a Tibetan Buddhist like Saunders--that she absolutely had to read it. She did, and she didn’t like it. Which goes to show you that books are not one-size-fits all--even novels that win the Man Booker prize may not be for everyone. But I particularly enjoyed the novel's meditations on life after death, combined with the author’s unique breed of writing.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
I first started reading Mohsin Hamid’s work when a professor recommended it as part of a world literature course, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Named one of the 10 best books of 2017 by The New York Times, Exit West is a timely glimpse into the worldwide immigration crisis, with an innovative twist. What happens when people can move from nation to nation through the use of portals? Read Exit West to find out.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
By my standards, a book that I want to finish in one sitting is a great book. I was not intimately familiar with the Greek myth of Antigone, so many of the literary illusions were lost on me, and I didn’t find that I needed to understand it to enjoy the novel. Like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Kamila Shamsie backdrops the intersection of two families against larger conversations about race, nationality, terrorism, and immigration, all of which feels timely in the wake of Brexit and deeply bigoted executive orders like the Muslim Ban.