I find when I'm considering the last year, in this case 2017, I always gravitate towards saying it was the best one yet. This is not because it was necessarily the most magical year where everything seemed to fall into place. In fact, on a personal level, I would say it was a hard year, but one during which I gained a lot of insight into myself and who I want to be moving forwards.
I mention this because I find my holistic experience of 2017 parallels my reading one. Was 2017 the year I read 100 books and they were all fun to power through? Absolutely not. However, as I've mentioned before, I don't believe that the value of reading can be measured by numbers or the ease of consumption.
2017 was a year where I pushed myself to read a variety of works, both contemporary and classic, and expanded my knowledge of literature. Not all of the books I read were highly enjoyable, but each one contributed to my understanding of literary techniques and gave me a new perspective on the representation of reality. And so, just as I came out of 2017 a wiser person, I came out a wiser reader, as well.
Below are listed 7 noteworthy books I read in 2017 and would highly recommend for a variety of reasons. In no particular order:
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
A retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Steinbeck's epic spans two generations and examines the big questions in life regarding free will, forgiveness and the measures of success. Rather than tell it as the story of one family, Steinbeck incorporates his own maternal line, the Hamiltons, into the novel in order to provide a foil for the Trasks. The older and wiser Samuel Hamilton becomes a sort of godlike source of moral integrity for Adam Trask (as you might expect, our ‘first man’ character) to learn from.
Set against the backdrop of the harsh and unforgiving Salinalas Valley of Northern California where he himself grew up, Stenibeck's novel featuring whorehouses, the First World War and even illegitimate wealth makes it clear we're not in Eden any longer, but east of it. While he takes a bit of time to set the tone and provide character history, Steinbeck really hits his stride midway through when he begins chronicling the teenage years of twins Caleb and Aron.
For me, the novel steadily builds tension as it moves towards its stunning conclusion, all the while questioning how much of our fate is predestined and whether we have the capacity to change the course on which we're set. Is it the fastest read? No. But I found it an incredibly moving portrait of family, adolescence and the will to better yourself. It was well worth it.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This was my big surprise read of the year. His first full length novel, the idea of Lincoln visiting the tomb of his deceased son was a story Saunders began toying with years ago but felt he wasn't quite ready to tell. Well, he certainly is now, as the widespread critical acclaim and Booker Prize win for this novel clearly demonstrate.
The majority of the novel takes place in the cemetery where young Willie Lincoln, the son of sitting President Abraham Lincoln has been recently laid to rest. However, this is no ordinary cemetery: it is populated with a wide variety of spirits who remain in a purgatory existence. When Lincoln himself comes alone to visit the tomb of Willie one evening, we are given Lincoln in the 'bardo,' a state of existence between death and rebirth.
The content of this novel is certainly noteworthy, but what really captured me was the innovative form used to tell this story. Rather than use a first or third person narrator, Saunders employs a cacophony of voices (the majority are spirits in the bardo) to offer various perspectives on the events occurring. The voices often completely contradict one another and in doing so, allow Saunders to examine the nature of subjectivity itself, and the way we ultimately live as we die- alone.
I can’t say enough good things about this novel. Read it.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
I stumbled upon this novel in a used bookstore in Nicaragua. Ironic because it’s by a Canadian author (I’m Canadian) and because I likely would never have thought to buy it (I loved it).
At its heart, the novel is a coming of age story of a young immigrant, Jakob, who escapes persecution during the Second World War when he is rescued by Athos, a Greek intellectual. Together, they immigrate to Canada and attempt to come to terms with their own histories, exploring both the trauma of war and the possibility for redemption.
Michaels is a poet, and this is evident in every line of the novel. Similar to Saunders’ book above, this is a great work not simply because of the story told but because of how it is told. It oozes lyricism, rich metaphor and evocative language that plays to all five senses. It apparently took Michaels years to write and I can see why: it would take me years to write one sentence of this novel.
I would bill this as a sort of poem written in prose (you’ll understand once you read it). It can be disorienting at times, as poetry often is, but if you ride it out you’ll be met with a sense of awe and beauty.
Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
Some people hate him, some people love him. I’m one of those who love Charles Bukowski and thoroughly enjoyed his semi-autobiographical memoir of childhood, Ham on Rye.
Set in Great Depression- era America between the two World Wars, Bukowski tells the coming of age story of his alter ego, Henry Chinaski from his rather bleak childhood to his tormented teen years and early descent into alcoholism.
If you’re looking for a pretty picture of reality, this is not it. Instead, Bukowski deals with everything dark and gritty about life ranging from child abuse, violent bullying, crude behaviour, and debilitating acne. This being said, he somehow does so with the blackest humour possible. Everyone can relate to those moments of detesting life, and Bukowski packs them in while simultaneously pointing at the absurdity of it all.
I think this is one of those novels that makes you pause and think, maybe it isn’t so bad, and, at least, I’m not alone in my struggles. If anyone get it, Bukowski gets it.
Underworld by Don DeLillo
Ah, Underworld. This is one of those novels that I bow down to because of its genius but also am overwhelmed by because, again, of its genius.
Spanning decades over the course of the Cold War, Underworld loosely tells two main stories: the relationship between Nick Shay and Klara Sax as it evolves over decades, and the journey of the lost baseball hit by Bobby Thompson in order to clinch the National League penant in 1953. I say loosely because this doesn’t do the novel justice at all: featuring an enormous cast of characters ranging from CIA Director Edgar J. Hoover to fictional inhabitants of the 1960s Bronx neighbourhood in New York, it moves seamlessly through different time periods, climates and family homes in order to deliver a wide ranging portrait of America.
DeLillo also employs an interesting method to tell his story. With the exception of the Prologue, the novel is told in reverse chronology. While we find about outcomes and events early on, the novel becomes much more about how things came to be rather than simply what happened.
I wont lie: I found this to be a struggle at times because of the lack of one consistent narrative arc. This being said, it is is an absolutely incredible novel that depicts the underworld of North America with a brutal and intricate honesty.
If anything can be called the Great American Novel, this is it.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill
While some novels can be a bit painful to get through, this one is all pleasure. The third novel from Canadian author Heather O’Neill, The Lonely Hearts Hotel tells the story of Pierrot and Rose, two orphans in possession of magical gifts: Pierrot is a talented musician and Rose a mesmerizing performer. After they get separated while adolescents, both undergo treacherous journeys through the seedy Montreal underworld of the Great Depression as they negotiate exploitation, drug addiction and prostitution in order to find their way back to one another.
I love O’Neill’s work and this is no exception. Filled to the brim with metaphor rich imagery, she always finds a way to illuminate the haunting beauty of the everyday, even when it happens to be during a time of immense poverty and tragedy. The novel dives head first into difficult subject matter like child abuse, young sexuality and heroin addiction without ever becoming sensational. Instead, it portrays these topics with a humanity that allows us to feel sympathy for the characters while never looking down on them.
This was such a treat to read from start to finish that somehow managed to be simultaneously heartbreaking and enchanting. How does she do it?
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Another novel and author I can do nothing but rave about. After taking a long hiatus from her writing career that had been met with little success, Jean Rhys returned in 1966 with this stunning retelling of Jane Eyre. Told from the perspective of both Mr. Rochester and his first wife, Antoinette, the novel is set in the tropical islands where the two first meet and marry.
I’ll warn you: after reading this, Jane Eyre will never be the same again. This is because Rhys does such a remarkable job of examining the marginalized position of the Other, here given form as Antoinette. Persecuted from childhood for being the daughter of a deceased former slave owner and all but abandoned by her mother after their estate is violently attacked by (rightly) angered locals, the character of Antoinette makes us rethink how ‘insane’ we, perhaps, might become given similar circumstances.
With its themes of colonialism, racism and female disenfranchisement, this is just one of those novels everyone should read. Period.