2017: Year in Books

After reading/listening to 36 books in 2016, I set my goals at 30 books for 2017. Sadly, I only read 18 books. I blame this on the fact that I spent most of the year listening to political podcasts instead of reading. The good news for you is that this should make the list easier to read! I’ll list them in order of most to least favorite:

5-stars:

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
I tend to enjoy novels where each chapter jumps around — either from different characters’ perspectives or through time. YHIAMTSOAF was one of those books. The story focuses on the day of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, which broke out into riots. Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, and I appreciated that the author makes an effort to make each voice human – from the protesters to the cops to the WTO delegate from Sri Lanka. The two main characters are Victor, an earnest 19-year old, who accidentally joins the protest, and his step-father Bishop, who happens to be the chief of police. There are so many layers of the story… I can’t really explain how great this book was. I haven’t been moved by a book like this in quite some time; I think the last one that affected me so much was A Little Life.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Best novel I’ve read in a while. Adichie manages to pull off the trifecta: compelling characters, engaging plot, and depth (including commentary on race, immigration, poverty, sexism).

4-stars:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing starts off as a story about 2 half sisters in Ghana in the 1700s who grew up not knowing about each other, and continues as an epic geneology of their descendants to present day. One sister is sent to America on a slave boat, while the other stays in Ghana, the wife of a British slaver. Through each chapter, a different voice is presented, describing an experience from that place and time. I felt like I learned a lot about the slave trade, Jim Crow, desegregation, and Ghanaian culture and history — all from the first-hand lens of these well-developed characters. Highly recommended.

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Fantastic as far as memoirs go. I laughed, I cried, I learned a lot about South Africa and how it was to grow up colored (mixed race) in the post apartheid era.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
This is one of T’s favorite books. I also really enjoyed it, even though it took me about 2 months to finish it because it’s really long. I wish I had written a fresh review right after I finished it, but thinking back about it, I thought it was a really lovely story about the lives that people led, whether people decided to open themselves up to others or stay closed off… of course there’s a lot of allegory (Eden, brothers – one good and one bad, the evil woman/Eve, etc.) I did eventually get invested in the characters but I didn’t love them the way T does. After I finished it, I could see how East of Eden is viewed as Steinbeck’s best and one of the best American novels ever written.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
I requested Dreams from My Father from the library after watching Southside with You – the movie based on Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. I realized that I only knew the vague outlines of Barack Obama’s life, and I wanted to find out more. The book documents Obama’s early life in Hawaii, Indonesia, back in Hawaii, Southern California, NYC, Chicago, ending with his trip to Kenya just before going to Harvard Law School. I found it really well written and an insightful look at what it was like to grow up biracial in so many different places. It’s also the story of a young man living in the shadow of a father that he never knew. Reading this memoir in the light of the fact that Obama went on to become the 44th President of the United States is extremely awe-inspiring. And of course, there’s the contrast between 44 and 45 that I won’t need to elaborate on here.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Short and sweet fantastical story. Gaiman successfully treads the line between wholesome childhood memory and monstrous horror (but nothing too scary, I promise).

3-stars:

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
3.5 stars. I picked up this book at a book swap because I remember liking the film adaptation. It took me a while to get into it – the author switches rapidly between different characters and timepoints, so it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. The prose is poetic and the characters well-developed, but I found myself having to re-read entire paragraphs. There were definitely some things I had to look up (Gilf Keber, sapper, Almasy) – otherwise I would’ve been completely lost. It’s lovely in its own way, but it wasn’t my favorite.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
A solid 3 stars. I wanted to love this book- I feel like the “woman scientist memoir” genre is severely lacking. My expectations were tempered by my friend MK’s lukewarm recommendation as she gifted me her copy. Jahren’s writing is quite good, but I had two major issues with the book: one, I could not relate to her personally at all. I feel like her story may give the impression to the public that all scientists are anti-social workaholic weirdos — which many are, but not all. Two, I’m not a plant person and I never will be. Her plant analogies and metaphors failed to stir any feelings within me. I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the first. Like MK mentioned, I wish that Jahren fleshed out some of the discrimination or unfair treatment she experienced as a female scientist rather than making quick references here and there. I recall only one incident where she discussed in detail how she was treated differently as a (pregnant) woman.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
I really wanted to like this book based on principle, but I found it to be too scattered. I wish the author had focused more on specific topics. Some chapters were full of paragraphs where she jumped from one anecdote or statistic to another. It was hard to keep track of all of the points that were being made.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
(Fiction) I enjoyed the writing and the first half of the book. The second half of the book got a bit melodramatic and out of control; I started wondering what was the point. The ending is disappointing. So I’d say it started off with 4 stars and ended at 2.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
*audiobook review*
This is an intense and bizarre novel about a woman who, after having a series of dreams, decides to become a vegetarian overnight – and then proceeds to engage in some very strange behavior. It’s written in 3 sections: one from her husband’s perspective (with interspersed sections from the perspective of the main character), one from her brother-in-law, and one from her sister. The story is engaging and it’s interesting that the reader never truly gets a clear explanation from the main character. I wouldn’t mind reading the book again (instead of listening) because I feel like I missed some crucial details and also some of the imagery.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This was a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees and immigrants. Even though I’m not a refugee, I expected to connect with some of the stories because I’m an immigrant and an Asian American. However, I never really felt anything while reading these stories, and I can’t recall a single character or plot line. I still would like to read Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran
2.5 stars. I went into this book with high expectations because Moran’s “How to be a Woman” was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I think if I had more time with Moranifesto, and read each essay over a longer period of time, I would’ve enjoyed it more. Alas, I borrowed it from the library, so I had a limited window of time to finish it. I forced myself to read several essays in a sitting. The essays are so short that, even though they are entertaining, don’t linger with you for long. There were many British references that went straight over my head. And while I generally agree with the author’s political stance, I found the arguments a bit irritating (not sure why).

2-stars:

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris, David Javerbaum, Antony Hare (Illustrator)
2.5 stars. Interesting concept to break up your typical play-by-play celebrity memoir. I got the e-book version from the library and the app wouldn’t let me jump from chapter to chapter (the links didn’t work). So I missed out on the “Choose Your Own Adventure” aspect. I like NPH, but he’s only a bit older than me and this book felt a bit self-indulgent. I had zero interest in the chapters about magic and, though his love for his children is clear, it was also a bit much. (I should note that some celebrities – e.g., Amy Poehler – manage to write lovingly *and* movingly about their children.) The nice thing about the format is that each chapter was at the most 5 pages, so I could move one quickly from one to the next.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
2.5 stars. I received this book as a birthday present. It’s my first novel by Alice Hoffman, and I was looking forward to it because I had heard great things about her other books. ‘Rules’ fell flat for me…maybe because it’s about the kind of whimsical/superstitious magic that’s never appealed to me. Or maybe because I didn’t fully related to or liked the characters. Even when horrible things happened to the main characters, I didn’t feel invested because I always felt like they’d be ok. For example, when they’re supposedly bankrupt/destitute, they still manage to find a cute house in the Village and somehow survive by selling little trinkets/charms?? Also, the prose caused me to roll my eyes a lot…like every other paragraph just about. There was a lot of telling, not showing.

In the Woods by Tana French
Meh. It’s an interesting enough premise: a detective is assigned to solve a murder of a 12-year old girl in the very same woods where his two childhood friends disappeared 20 years ago. Unfortunately, I felt like it was about 150 pages too long, and after a while, I just didn’t care who did it or what happened. I also started hating the main character. Yes, he’s flawed like so many in this genre, but in a very unlikable and annoying way (IMO).

It’s Not Okay: Turning Heartbreak Into Happily Never After by Andi Dorfman
I don’t know if I’m more embarrassed about wanting to read this book enough to request it from the library, or about finishing it in 2 days. As I expected, it’s not very well written, full of cliches that appeal to the 20-something “basic” female demographic to which this book is targeted. However, as a fan of the Bachelor/ette franchise, it’s quite satisfying in its tell-all format. Any satisfaction was followed immediately by remorse though, much like indulging in too much junk food.

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About

Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

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Posted in Book review, Books
4 comments on “2017: Year in Books
  1. bt says:

    Thanks! I like the looks of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist…

  2. Angela says:

    YHIAMTSOAF has been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while now, but I keep feeling too chicken to read it. (Same for A Little Life.)
    Born a Crime is on my audiobook list because I feel like listening to him read it will make it 10 times better.
    East of Eden….One of these days. :-/
    Bummer re: Today Will Be Different; I loved Where’d You Go Bernedette & was hoping it would be as good.
    Funny, I had the same reaction to In The Woods when I first read it like 10 years ago & didn’t pick up any of her other books for years as a result. But when I did I’ve loved the rest of them. Not sure what it is about that first one!

    • Jen says:

      YHIAMTSOAF is a *much* easier read than A Little Life – both in total level of anguish and also in length.
      I would also like to listen to Born a Crime. I love Trevor Noah. Have you watched his most recent comedy special on Netflix?
      Interesting re: Tana French. Maybe I’ll have to give her another try.

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