The Best Stuff I Read in 2017

A few years ago I realized that I was buying more books than I was reading, and that I wasn’t reading as often as I wanted to.  If these trends had continued I would have kept falling further and further behind until I had a stack of to-read books from floor to ceiling but would still be wading through things I’d picked up in the grad school free pile.

A lot’s changed since then, but the pile’s still just as towering: as of today, 62 books remain in the stack, a slight increase that came with the holiday season since I hit up a few book sales and got a lot of Christmas gifts.  In any case, I keep finding things that look interesting and wanting read them, which in my mind is a good thing.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop buying books—the real trick lies in realistically deciding how many of them I can read.

 

2017 Reading Challenge Met!

Last January I promised myself that I’d read 50 books in 2017, or about one book a week, and to stay on track I’d post a 99-word review every Friday.  I started the year with a lot of short books that pulled me ahead of the game, but after falling WAY behind due to my new Day Job I just barely finished Everything Matters with 24 hours to spare—but I did it.  (My grand total actually came to 51 books, but since I began the year with another reading update I was still able to make the one post a week goal!)

I wouldn’t say that I engaged in any cheating, but I definitely chose a few shorter books like the Nebraska writing student’s pocket-sized chapbook that I picked up at a Goodwill or the book of Nietzsche aphorisms I got for free when I worked at the university press, or even the Neil Gaiman comic that a friend of mine bought me when we were out book browsing because it was one of the comics that had most influenced his own writing.  Not that all of my books were small—I made my way through a 600-page McSweeney’s collection, a really long John Updike biography, and Haruki Murakami’s epic 1Q84 (not his best novel, but definitely his longest).  So it all balanced out.

But enough stats: here are the Top 5 books I read last year, why they made the Top 5, and why you should totally read them too—with no 99 word limit.

 

 

#5. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1988)

In college I remember one of my teachers running a class on the unreliable narrator in fiction, and though I never took the class I recall this book being on the syllabus and the title sticking with me—or maybe it only stuck because there’s also a movie version with Anthony Hopkins.  In any case, I put off reading this book for a long time thinking it would be a stiff and formal British read when in reality it’s anything but.

The Remains of the Day is the story of an aging butler in changing post-WWII Britain who clings to the ways of the old aristocracy where the noble landowners make all the big decisions and the servants run the households.  The crazy thing about this world as Ishiguro portrays it is that these servants actually find real, honest fulfillment by supporting the people who make their country great.  This sounds pretty silly to us in the 21st century, but Ishiguro places us so entirely within the butler’s perspective that we see how a certain class of people actually used to think this way in an earlier time when they believed in keeping their place.

Though Ishiguro knows that stifling one’s opinions in support of the ruling classes is the greatest threat to democracy there is, his narrator doesn’t, and whether he’ll eventually realize what both the reader and the younger characters around him already know becomes the novel’s looming question—especially when supporting the ruling classes means helping Nazis (cue ominous music).

 

 

#4. Election, by Tom Perrotta (1998)

This is a book I have seen the movie version of and liked a lot, though the book surpasses it for a number of reasons.

Maybe it’s because Perrotta uses his revolving cast of first-person narrators so masterfully, skipping between perspectives in every chapter, often on every other page.  The structure creates the perfect setup for humor (one person is sure something’s true, but oh snap, then someone else says it’s not!), plus misunderstandings, secrets, and manipulation that the reader’s all privy to, so that we feel like we’re in the midst of this larger than life high-school drama.

To back up: Mr. M is in charge of the school presidential election and doesn’t want the arrogant perfectionist Tracy Flick to win, so he pulls a popular but adorably dimwitted jock to run against her.  What’s at stake is the glory, power, and bragging rights in what everyone seems to realize is a pretty insignificant office, but that the characters care about because of what the victory symbolizes.  Layered beneath the plot lies a thoughtful commentary on class struggles (Tracy Flick grew up poor but doesn’t want anyone to know) and upward mobility, so that the real stakes lie in what kind of person will find success in 1990s America and what kind of person won’t.

Finally, this book’s a page-turner, with the short sections making it incredibly easy to read, both for the high-school target audience and everyone else—no stigma attached.

 

 

#3. No One Belongs Here More Than You, by Miranda July (2007)

I wonder how performance artist, filmmaker, and writer Miranda July feels knowing that her biggest claim to fame is having written the line “Pooping back and forth forever” that you’ll find in the original Cards Against Humanity set—it’s from a moment in her 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know that’s about a series of lonely characters who come together, with only a few references to pooping.

July’s short stories have the same weirdness to them as her movie, but they’re weird in a way that’s approachable and comforting—they’re not weird for the sake of being weird, or weird in a way that leaves you confused on every page, but weird in the way that of course a pair of best friends would try to build a second floor in their apartment, or a father would teach his daughter the fingering technique for getting a woman off, or an embarrassing facial birthmark would just kind of disappear one day.

Throughout these stories July accomplishes the defying feat of leading the reader through this weirdness so that we never feel lost, but instead resonate with the characters and their many, many emotions as we see their souls bared raw.  Some of the pain is loud and involves loneliness and crying, but some of it’s subtle—one passage involves two characters stacking chairs in an auditorium but not really planning out the stacking so that they make a lot of medium-height stacks and just kind of leave them there before walking out to their cars, and that’s where the story ends.

I’ve always found the best writers to be the ones who can subtly convey emotion through a passage that’s seemingly unrelated to the emotion being conveyed, and in that respect this collection pulls this off wonderfully.

 

 

#2. Changing Places, by David Lodge (1975)

One of my favorite novels is Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, about a working-class joe who gets a job as a university lecturer and has to fake his way through the boredom of upper-class British society while trying to steal his rival’s girlfriend.  As a send-up of academia’s stuffiness and lack of self-awareness the novel performs beautifully, though in David Lodge’s work I’ve finally found a close second.

Phillip Swallow is a below-average academic at a cold and rainy British university who’s never really stood out at anything—at least until he joins an American exchange program and swaps places with Morris Zapp, a loudmouthed, distinguished, cigar-smoking professor who’s a superstar in every respect but needs to escape his marital troubles.  As Zapp becomes more mellow in the gloomy British world, Phillip becomes involved with a lot of pot-smoking west-coast hippies and expands his horizons, and there may or may not be wife swapping.  On this level Lodge has written a novel about finding the kind of life you want as an academic, a stand-in for finding the kind of life you want in general, and all the difficulties, crossroads, and circumstances that go with it.

As an added bonus, Lodge takes a page from the modernist camp and writes each chapter in a different style: one with an omniscient narrator, one as a series of letters, one made up of newspaper articles, etc.  The constant changes of form never feel forced and instead keep the reader guessing at what will come next as the story unfolds naturally through these different layers.  The most satisfying benefit of these switches comes at the ending, where (no spoilers) the narrative distance of the final form allows for just enough ambiguity and a fitting commentary on the form itself.

 

 

#1. The Flowers of Evil by Shuzo Oshimi (2012-2014)

My top reading pick from last year is actually 11 picks: Shuzo Oshimi’s 11-volume Flowers of Evil manga (for the uninitiated, manga is Japanese for comic, ), which, after reading through the first volume at a friend’s place, I bought the entirety of and read over the course of one gut-wrenching, desperate week where I couldn’t concentrate on anything because I absolutely had to know what the fuck was going to happen next, since this manga starts off crazy and keeps getting crazier.

Kasuga is an average middle-school kid with a not-so-average love of Baudelaire poems but with a very average unrequited crush on Saeki, a long-haired manga dream girl.  One day he finds himself alone with her gym clothes and, in a moment of panic, stuffs them into his bag.  Unfortunately in doing this he’s spotted by Nakamura, the class outcast who openly calls their teacher a shitbug in the opening pages.  In exchange for keeping his theft a secret, Nakamura vows to tear away the skin Kasuga uses to hide from the world and show him how much of a pervert he really is.

At its core The Flowers of Evil is about being young, knowing that you’re different, and feeling guilty about it.  Is it better to stay in the town you grew up in and live the same life your parents led, or to be your own person and chase desires that are bizarre and impure?  For a series that tosses the word “pervert” around quite a bit, most of it involves remarkably little sex—instead, for Kasuga and Nakamura being a pervert means being different in a world where being different is seen as strange, weird, or dysfunctional.

This is a story about what happens to characters who follow those urges to be different, what happens when they go too far, and how they find the balance between the lives that are laid out for them and the lives they really want.  It echoes a lot of what I put into my own novel about Japan (except Oshimi does it way better), and in many ways The Flowers of Evil is a distinctly Japanese story because the guilt felt by its characters for being different is so heightened amidst a culture that values sameness as highly as the Japanese do.  While that guilt and confusion exists in American culture, experiencing it through the Japanese lens increases our awareness of the pressures we feel in growing up, allowing every stage of the story to crank the emotional turmoil up to 11.

Go find The Flowers of Evil and read it—or better yet, read all of the books on this list if you can, or even just go read the books that you’ve got next to own bed, or the books you’ve been meaning to buy, borrow, or download but haven’t gotten to yet.  Go read more just like I do—like I should be doing, literally, right now, instead of writing this.

 

What’s Next For the Stack of Books in 2018?

After much reflection, I’ve realized that it’s probably not a good use of my time to be writing, revising, and posting reviews of everything I read since I’ve already got a Day Job blog to post in and a novel to finish, plus I realize the irony that by posting so much about the books I read, I have less time to read the books I want to.

That’s why, with the 2017 Book Challenge met, I’ll be placing this project on the backburner and instead using the space to share books that, for whatever reason, could use sharing—books that really, really sent me through a spiral like these five did, or maybe just books written by friends of mine that could use some hyping.  That’s a better use of my time as a writer, and a better use of yours as a reader.

If you’re just finding this book blog now, rest assured that there’s plenty to check out—start with my other top reading picks, or choose a tag category on the right and dive in.  I started this thing so that people could find new stuff to read, and I hope it still serves that purpose—because there really is something out there for everyone.


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