2017 has been a turbulent year for me as well as for the world. Therefore, perhaps it’s not surprising that there’s been a real swing towards memoir and self-narrative in my top ten books of the year. Before 2017, I rarely read any memoirs, and I certainly don’t think they’ve ever featured much in my previous Top Tens. (You can find my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) But there it is. If anybody is put off by the dominance of memoir on this list, I wrote up my highly recommended books of 2017 yesterday, and they’re all novels and short stories.
In no particular order…
1. The Last Act of Love: Cathy Rentzenbrink. This memoir focuses on what happened to Cathy and her family after her brother, Matty, was injured in an accident when they were both still teenagers. After a long period of illness, Matty dies. Heartbreakingly, Cathy’s family have to make the decision to withdraw life support after Matty enters a persistent vegetative state; even more painfully, they have to take his case to court. Explaining their reasoning, Cathy’s mother writes: ‘It is our last act of love for him.’ Cathy’s grief is brutal and specific; this memoir speaks to anybody who is struggling to emerge from deep sadness. I reviewed it here.
2. Respectable: Lynsey Hanley. Lynsey Hanley was brought up in Chelmsey Wood, a council estate on the outskirts of Birmingham. This book reflects on her journey from being ‘working-class’ to ‘middle-class’, and the costs that entails. At the same time, Hanley thinks about class markers in Britain, and how we all learn to read them from a very early age. Anybody British who reads this will surely be unable to resist thinking about the class influences that have shaped them, and where their own family came from. Having taught class in modern Britain to undergraduates for years, this is definitely a book I’ll be recommending far and wide. Ultimately, what she shows is how much class still matters.
3. Swing Time: Zadie Smith. Having not got on with White Teeth and On Beauty, but liked NW, I was enraptured by Smith’s latest. It starts with two mixed-race girls growing up on a London housing estate in the 1980s, and moves outwards to think about questions of fame, charity and social mobility. It reminded me a lot of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but I think it’s even better. To me, it feels as if Smith has been practicing for this novel since writing White Teeth, with NW as an excellent intermediate step. I reviewed it here.
4. When Breath Becomes Air: Paul Kalanithi. This memoir is primarily about Paul’s diagnosis with advanced lung cancer in his mid-thirties, in the middle of a successful career as a brain surgeon. However, in its few pages it covers all sorts of things, including the choice between the sciences and the humanities, Paul’s return to writing after years of devoting himself to medicine, and the impossible task of weighing up what time you can spare to give to the things that matter to you in life. ‘The days are long, but the years are short.’ Paul was clearly a talented doctor; he was also a stunningly accomplished writer. I wrote briefly about it here.
5. The Wanderers: Meg Howrey. This novel, which really didn’t receive its fair share of attention when it was published in the UK earlier this year, focuses on three astronauts training for a mission for Mars in the Utah desert. Helen is ambitious, logical, and worries that she can’t handle human relationships; Sergei is contending with two difficult teenage sons; Yoshi is missing his wife. It’s genuinely hilarious, but also very good on what counts and what doesn’t when making connections with others. I reviewed it here.
6. I Am, I Am, I Am: Maggie O’Farrell. How can one author release two such fantastic books in such a short space of time? Having raved over This Must Be The Place, I have to admit that I Am, I Am, I Am is even better. Subtitled ‘Seventeen Brushes With Death’, this memoir details all the near-death experiences of her life – or at least, as she notes, those that she realised were near-death experiences. It’s beautifully-written; each section is incredible in its own right. Readers of her novels will also have the pleasure of spotting little connections.
7. The Hate Race: Maxine Beneba Clarke. Clarke’s memoir of growing up black in Australia is a catalogue of the harms that people can do to each other – and doesn’t flinch from emphasising that children, too, can inflict serious damage. Nevertheless, this is not a catalogue of woes, but a seriously intelligent and gripping read. I reviewed it here.
8. The Mare: Mary Gaitskill. The Mare alternates largely between the voices of two characters: Ginger, an ex-addict and almost-ex-artist in her late forties who lives in rural New York State, and Velvet, an eleven-year-old Dominican girl from Brooklyn who is sent to stay with Ginger and her husband Paul for a few weeks during the summer through the Fresh Air Fund. However, as the narrative expands beyond their mutual affections, struggles and misunderstandings, we also hear from Velvet’s mother Silvia and Ginger’s husband Paul. A triumph of imaginative empathy, this book reminded me what novels are for, and I’m now keen to read more by Gaitskill. I reviewed it here.
9. Hidden Nature: Alys Fowler. Restless and unhappy, but not sure why, Alys Fowler sets out to paddle down all the canals of Birmingham in a pack raft, discovering the natural worlds that flourish within the confines of the city. As she presses on with her explorations, the narrative begins to mirror her internal journey: her realisation that she is a lesbian, and the great difficulty of coming out to her husband, her friends, and ultimately, to herself. I reviewed it here.
10. Women Who Run With The Wolves: Clarissa Pinkola Estes. This feminist folklore classic was unfortunately selected for Emma Watson’s feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, in March 2017. However, don’t let that put you off. This is, quite simply, one of the most important books I’ve ever read, and one that is almost impossible to summarise. At the heart of the book (although it takes up only one of its chapters) is the story of The Handless Maiden. After her father makes a bargain with the devil and ends up sacrificing his daughter, she evades the devil, but ends up having her hands cut off. As she enters the forest, she finds temporary fulfilment with a bridegroom, but is soon forced to wander again before her final resolution. Anybody familiar with basic story structure will see its beats in The Handless Maiden, but Estes takes her retelling beyond that, emphasising how this basic process of change works itself out in women’s own everyday lives. Referring to the initial bargain made by the miller, who in Estes’s interpretation, represents an aspect of the psyche, Estes writes: ‘We can be smart in the ways of the world, and yet almost every mother’s daughter, if given half a chance, chooses the poor bargain at first.’ What is the ‘poor bargain’? In Estes’s words: ‘the poorest bargain of our lives is the one we make when we forfeit our deep knowing life for one that is far more frail… when we surrender our wilder natures for a promise of something that seems rich but turns out to be hollow instead.’ A poor bargain could be staying with someone who we do not love because we think it will keep us safe; devoting our life to others so we don’t have to undertake the terrifying job of pursuing our own dreams; trying to be a perfect mother to hide our grief over something else we don’t have. Like the maiden in the story, women remain asleep, blind to their own instinctive desires, until something happens to wake them up. A book that I’ll surely be writing about again.
I read 127 books in 2017. I’m as astounded by this as anyone. Not only did I smash my target of 100, I beat my all-time record of 119, set in 2008. I’ve not had any more time to read this year than usual, so how this has happened is a mystery. Sometimes I feel as if I picked up a book on the first day of 2017 when things seemed very dark, and haven’t looked up since… Target for 2018: I’m not sure I want to set one, but I’d be disappointed to drop below 100 again.
I read 38 books by men and 89 by women. I usually read two books by women for every one I read by a man, but this year the ratio has skewed even further; only 30% of the books I read were written by a man. Usually, men end up being over-represented in my Top Ten list, but this year, they’re under-represented; only one of my top ten is a male author. This doesn’t concern me much.
I read 31 books by writers of colour and 96 books by white writers. Frustratingly, although I read more than twice as many books by writers of colour then in 2016 (14), because I read so many more books overall, the percentages haven’t lifted much (it’s gone from 15% to 25%). Interestingly, writers of colour are over-represented in my Top Ten, having written four of the ten books, which indicates that I tend to default to mediocre novels by white women when I’m unsure what to read next. Target for 2018: let’s try and get that 25% to 50%.
Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year in Books: