This post is a run through of my favourite books from 2017 – the majority of which are written by women. This post follows on from my end-of-year reading round ups from 2014, 2015, and 2016. To see a full list of the books I read this year, see Goodreads.)
For me, this reading year was mostly one of trying to understand how we got to where we are today, and of imagining alternatives. As ever, speculative fiction helped me with the latter. Fictional stories that gave me new ways of thinking about things helped me with the former.
My top three
If I could recommend just one fiction novel, it would be Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. This is the book that I wish everyone would read.
In a review of the book in The Wire, Deepa D. writes a list of “people you should give this book to” and describes far better than I ever could, why the book is so important. From that review:
"Like climate change, domestic abuse is pervasive, inescapable and universal. Either you know what it's like to have a home become unsafe, or you know someone who does, or you're part of the problem with your ignorance that disinvites confidence sharing."
If there’s anything I’ve come to realise in the past year, it’s this: our collective societal inability to grant violence the complexity it deserves leaves us paralysed when confronted with it. We look for black and white, good and bad, and we barely have the words, let alone the processes and social and cultural nuance, to really grasp the combination of social skills + abusive behaviour.
Kandsamy addresses that head on. She tells of her abusive marriage, her words painting a vivid picture of the cruelty, the maze she finds herself dropped in, her disbelief at finding herself in this situation and her battle to remove herself. It’s spellbinding, and more than being beautifully written, it’s important.
My two other favourite books this year, I now realise, touch on similar themes - of violence, of humanity, and complexity. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a politically timely, engrossing and thoughtful novel. Without giving too much away, she tells of a Muslim family in the UK with a father convicted of terrorism, and the resulting effects for his three children. It’s a tense story, one you can lose yourself in.
The final one in my top three is Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Again, politically incredibly timely - telling interwoven stories of the ancestors of two half-sisters, starting from 18th-century Ghana all the way up until modern day California. Gyasi shows in detail how racism may have changed in the way it’s exhibited, but stays a deafening constant throughout the centuries.
Understanding the US
Speaking of the United States: somehow, my normal habit of reading about a country prior to going there fell out of the window when it came to planning for my time in the US this year. Around the time of the inauguration, I remembered this and realised that aside from what I know through pop culture, I actually know very little about US-ian culture, politics and society - and what better time to learn than when it felt like everyone was searching for answers.
I found three books in particular to help me out, all of which were incredibly enlightening, thoughtful and gave me more insights into what I was finding to be an incredibly confusing political and social landscape. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think I was the only one.) The first two were similar in that they took what could have been complex, abstract topics, and used stories of real people to paint an accessible picture of the problem. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Hochschild, was eye-opening in its analysis, combining sociological findings with her own, more personal take. The second, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, focused the problem of eviction in the US. He follows eight families and highlights the chain reaction of events that can lead to eviction, and describes how difficult it can be to recover from.
The third was The Making of Asian America: A History, by Erika Lee. It was particularly striking to me, for a number of reasons. It covered a complex history of which I was almost completely ignorant previously - of Asian Americans, of different waves of immigration and the battles between immigrants of different Asian countries, of the battle itself to unite under the umbrella ‘Asian America’, and so much more. Some events of the book took place near to where I was living for the year in NYC, which added a layer of personalised neighbourhood history for me.
Learning more about the state of the US (and many other countries) today made me look for alternative futures. A few books helped me: Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction, edited by Kathryn Allan, highlighted many areas of ignorance for me - like the fact that the large majority of speculative fiction that I’ve read imagines a future where disabled people are totally erased, their conditions “cured” or “corrected.” I can’t imagine how excluding that must feel for disabled people reading those stories, and I’m incredibly grateful to this book for imagining what some more accessible, alternative futures might look like.
Another was Naomi Alderman’s The Power – a book which was recommended to me so many times, I was almost nervous to start reading it. There was no need to worry - it was imaginative, dystopian and feminist but in fantastically unexpected ways, encouraging the reader to question power no matter where it lies.
Another much-hyped book for me was the final novel in N.K. Jemisin’s incredible Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky which somehow managed to live up to the sky-high standard of her two previous novels. It’s dystopian but full of strength. I’d suggest reading this as part of the trilogy to get the full effect.
I caught up on another trilogy this year, which starts with The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. I loved it at the time, and went straight into the following two novels. This first one is set during China’s Cultural Revolution, and has a fascinating premise - where a secret military project has sent signals into space, and an alien civilisation responds and prepares to come to earth. The first in the trilogy is almost imaginable, but the second and third take so many plot twists it spins way beyond imagination. Since then, I’ve seen some feminist critiques of the books, and I now wonder if I need to go back and re-read with a more critical eye.
I also read the second in Ada Palmer’s trilogy Seven Surrenders (Terra Ignota, #2) – ahead of reading it, I re-read her first, which I loved. While writing this, I realised the third one in the series just got released, on December 19th – I’m looking forward to catching up. For complex, feminist scifi (which require some concentration, but are totally worth it) – read these. On a similar note - I re-read one of my all-time favourite feminist speculative fiction novels, Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin. It’s become a bit like comfort food for me, and I learn a little bit more each time I read it.
I’m not sure whether this last recommendation is quite speculative fiction or simply just fiction, but The Unseen World by Liz Moore was just wonderful. It has a wonderful balance of human story + technology story, interweaving the story of a relationship between a girl and her father, together with the development of artificial intelligence and associated technologies from the 80s until today.
Travels: Sri Lanka
I travelled to Sri Lanka for the first time this year, and looked for books to help me gain some insights in preparation. The top two I found were Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy.
Seasons of Trouble is clearly well-researched and thoughtfully put together - in it, Mohan tells the real stories of three people (and their families) during and after the Civil War in Sri Lanka in a raw and honest way. I find that books of this style - where the author is telling someone else’s story - often run the risk of coming across patronising or with too much of the author’s perspective, but this book avoids those traps completely.
In a way, it reminded me a little of a book on a totally different topic - Antjie Krog’s fantastic book Country of My Skull, about the Truth Commission in South Africa (which, if you haven’t read, I can only recommend.)
Funny Boy offered a new angle to the tales of people’s lives during the war that I came across, incorporating a more personal angle around a young boy realising his sexuality while the war goes on.
I’ll admit: I don’t have data to hand to back this up, but it feels like I come across a higher percentage of non-fiction books written by men, than other types of books. Two non-fiction books by men stood out in particular this year: one, a beautifully appropriate gift I received called The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, with lots of lovely pearls of wisdom reminding me why I love to read. The second, the perhaps boring-sounding but fascinating The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber, which made me vow to get better at bureaucracy because as the book shows all too clearly, it’s totally worth it. It’s dense but fantastic for helping you really see structures you might take for granted, and understand their origins.
One book I read from the wonderful ‘microhistories’ genre was Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. It’s niche, but fascinating, full of anecdotes and interesting facts.
My colleagues will vouch for the fact that I couldn’t stop talking about this book for weeks (maybe months) after I finished reading it: Kim Malone Scott’s Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, which whet my appetite for reading and learning more about leadership and communication techniques this year. I suspected the book might be a little Silicon Valley for my tastes, but was pleasantly surprised - despite the packaging, there were a lot of good, multicultural examples and scenarios, as well as practical tips to take away. I’ll be re-reading this for sure, and am on the look out for other books to help me in this area (tips welcome!).
All in all…
Goodreads tells me that in 2017 I read 55 books (an all-time high!) though that included a lot of re-reads. 12 were by men (far more than in previous years – some of these were out of my control as they were for work!), 43 by women. At my best estimate, 33 of the 55 books were written by writers of colour.
In 2018, I’d like to read more non-fiction, and focus less on “just published” books and instead look to previous years for what I could read, and continue to read more writers of colour. As always, recommendations for books I should check out are very, very welcome!