Books I enjoyed the most in 2017
I set the same reading goal for 2017 as I did in 2016 — 52 books, or a book a week. Happily, I hit my goal — and exceeded it by 10 books. (You can see the whole list of books here.) It actually started off as a rough year for reading. I hit a dry spell between April to June (I pretty much didn't finish a single book for two months)! I got so behind on my reading challenge, I considered giving up. Then I picked up just the right book to kickstart my reading and I ended up completing 31 books in November and December!
Without further ado, here are the books I enjoyed most in 2017 (in no particular order).
Disclaimer: if you are one of my students and you happened to find this, please note my reviews are based on personal enjoyment and are not meant to be recommendations. I have included warnings; nonetheless, if you're interested in one of these books, please talk with me or a parent before reading.
My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
I actually didn't hear of The Neopolitan Series until The Story of the Lost Child came out last year (I remember reading several articles debating the ethics of attempts to uncover Ferrante's true identity), but somehow felt inspired to give the series a shot before Thanksgiving break this year. I couldn't put the books down — I finished the books in 5 days, the first three crammed around hectic work days. (I remember choosing to walk to school instead of biking so I could read for an extra five minutes before work!) I can't quite put my finger on why these books are so compelling — for sure, there are quirks to the storytelling I found unfamiliar or even odd — but there was something about following the two main characters over decades of growth and change that absolutely kept me invested. (Warning: dark themes and perhaps graphic scenes—I can’t remember!)
The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
I bought Anna the first of this series maybe two years ago and she was never interested in reading it. Luckily for both of us, I preloaded it onto her Kindle (a Christmas present!), and she read it because she didn't have other options. She LOVED the book and flew through the rest of the series — and I loved it, too. (In fact, I am currently in the middle of Book 3.) There is something wholesome, heartwarming, and somewhat old-fashioned about the four sisters' adventures. This would be a great series to read aloud.
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
I've loved Chabon since I found myself captivated by The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay more than a decade ago. This — a fictionalized account of Chabon's grandfather's life — was right up there in terms of reading enjoyment. Part of what I love about Chabon is his (hyper-intellectual) vocabulary and his obscure allusions; I'd say this is his most accessible book yet, but it doesn't suffer for it. I really enjoyed this.
Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
This is a very recent read — I purchased a copy during our first bookstore visit here in the Philippines last week. I knew I was in for a treat within the first few pages. The book is ostensibly a mystery centered on Crispin Salvador, a (fictional) Filipino writer who is found dead in New York City under mysterious circumstances. The protagonist, who shares the author's name, takes it upon himself to write about Salvador's life, and as such heads back to the Philippines to conduct interviews with acquaintances and relatives. I've read that the real-life Syjuco doesn't like this designation, but I'd consider this book post-modern (or post-post-modern?) in its style and structure — it's very meta. The book is comprised of the aforementioned narrative thread as well as chunks of writing from fictional Salvador's works, but also includes another layer adding to the main narrative, in which portions of the protagonist's first-person story is also told in an omniscient third-person point of view. Confusing? The book is a little confusing, too, but I found it plenty fun to just keep reading and enjoy the ride. I liked the book because of its familiarity (so many of the scenes and cultural references hit close to home) and because of its subject matter — the Philippines and its complicated identity, literature and its power (or lack of power) to incite change — but I wonder if a reader unfamiliar with the Philippines would find it less compelling.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
I find Green's brand of heart and braininess so attractive, I often wish I could jump into his books and become best friends with all the characters. I enjoyed this much more than The Fault in Our Stars (which is actually perhaps my least favorite Green book, although I liked it better upon a second reading). Aza, the protagonist, struggles with anxiety and OCD and, while my own challenges aren't exactly like hers, I found her story so relatable, so recognizable. I've loaned my copy out to several high school students and they've all loved it. (Warning: could be triggering.)
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
I lucked into reading this because my colleague (and much-appreciated reader-friend) happened to be reading this with students he is tutoring and loaned me a copy. I ended up reading the entire thing in one very, very emotional evening. I have trouble putting my finger on where exactly the power of this narrative comes from — is it the complicated relationship between the speaker and his father that makes it so real, or is it the depiction of Jews as mice (and the Nazis as cats) that lends it both enough distance and enough proximity to make familiar horrors new? Each page is painful but infinitely worth reading. (Warning: this is obviously a dark and disturbing book. Please read it anyway.)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I read this multiple times this year because it's part of the curriculum for a new class I'm teaching (AP English). I initially read it quite grudgingly, not sure I wanted to teach it at all. I'm glad I didn't skip it, but I happily admit it was the discussions with my students that really made me enjoy this book. (I'd argue one of the best parts of being an English teacher is having a ready-made book club, with members that sure as heck better read the book and be prepared to discuss. :) My students helped me see interpretations I hadn't seen on my own. My favorite takes are a questioning of the monster's reliability (and thus the ending of the story) and an interpretation of Frankenstein's creation as a Faustian bargain. There's much to unpack in this book and it's so enjoyably dark and "emo."
Green Island by Shauna Yang Ryan
I'm not aware of too many English-language books about Taiwan, so I was pretty excited to stumble upon this at our local bookstore. Paul picked it up right before he took a group of students to Green Island and he found it absolutely gripping. When I read it shortly afterward, I shared his sentiments. This book made me feel ashamed about how little I know about Taiwan's politics and how unaware I've been about the brutality of its history. The story follows a young girl whose father is accused of being a political dissident and is subsequently arrested during the now infamous 228 Incident. He reappears more than a decade later, but his return is painful and complicated for the whole family. It's an ambitious book, as the narrative follows the daughter's own growing political awareness after she moves to the US as an adult. It's also beautifully written. (Warning: some graphic scenes but they’re fairly isolated.)
The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen
This is an unusual pick for me — I prefer fiction, and I have complicated feelings about books centered on spirituality. I read this for work and, happily, I'm so glad I read it. Nouwen explores the faith practices of the "desert fathers and mothers" (a group of people I admittedly am not too familiar with). What I loved about this book is its message of simplicity — anyone who knows me knows I overthink everything, and overthink nothing more than my spiritual beliefs — and it was so refreshing and relieving to hear someone say (so gently) that maybe all we need to pray sometimes is "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
I reread this after I randomly took a quiz purporting to tell me which literary character I am most like (Franny, apparently). I'd read this before but remembered very little about it and am so glad I read it again. Yes, I absolutely relate to Franny — her emotionality, her instability, her simultaneous shallowness and depth, her desperation to find peace and truth. If you've read this, you'll know she is fixated on the Jesus prayer, the very prayer mentioned in the Nouwen book above. At any rate, the Franny story hit very close to home and, while I find Zooey quite insufferable, reading this made me want to take another deep dive into Salinger's body of work.
Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han
If we were to play "Which of these is not like the others?", this book would take the cake. It's the third and final installment in Han's To All the Boys I Loved Before series. I would perhaps be embarrassed to love a book that is so obviously a fluffy teenage love story, but I really enjoyed this series. I love that the main character, Lara Jean, is half-Asian. I love that she is dorky and innocent. I love that she loves her family. I love the relationship between the sisters. This is a series I will no doubt reread again because it is just so fun.
The War that Saved My Life — Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Read this upon (4th grader) Anna's recommendation. It's about Ada, a girl with a club foot, who evacuates London with her brother during the second World War and finds herself in the care of a distant (but ultimately kind) woman. It's a lovely story that anyone would enjoy.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — Gail Honeyman
This is a quick read that is both funny and dark. I found the twist in the end unnecessary, but I still liked this book a lot. (Warning: could be triggering.)
Little Fires Everywhere — Celeste Ng
Wow. I can basically copy and paste the lines I wrote for Eleanor Oliphant above. Funny but dark, easy to read but with surprising depth. Also felt like some of the drama was unnecessary, but it was still good.