2017 Book Round-up

My 2017 reading list was fucking fire. I averaged 3 books per month, which is totally manageable, but a lot more than I’ve read in recent years, and a big reason for that is that almost every book I picked up was un-put-down-able.

It was fun and inspiring and almost every day I was bursting at the seams to tell people about what I was reading and invite them to join me. Part of that is  because publishers were ON IT last year so I had a lot of great new books to choose from. But even more of what made this such a great year for reading, is that I had a pretty specific intention behind how I chose books for my to-read shelf.

At the end of 2016 I was down in the goddamn dumps. The collective trauma of the presidential election and what it said about our country’s racism and misogyny and xenophobia was heavy, and like a lot of my friends, I wanted to resist in any way I could.

The morning after the election, I went to an early yoga class because I had been up all night with nausea and anxiety and grief, and I had to do something physical to ease some of the psychic ache. The class was a small group of women who all looked as stunned and bewildered and fragile as I felt, and we shared a very gentle, very conscientious practice, focusing a lot of thought on the fact that we were sharing in this experience together, and it reinforced a little burgeoning sense we had that the work of resisting would involve a lot of attention and energy invested in others, in being aware of their existence and their humanity. Seeing all those women also going through it, crystalized my belief that, in order to get through this nightmare, we all need to bear witness for each other, we all need to be present and available and more open and generous and kind, and not just in theory, but in actual physical practice, be there for and with each other.

I spent the next several weeks thinking a lot about what I could do, what I had to give, that could be of help. And the conclusion I came to was that while I could march and protest and call my representatives, I didn’t have a whole lot of money to donate or invest in resistance. But I realized that my attention is a commodity and a currency, and I have to spend it wisely. Just as you vote with your dollar, in a lot of ways you also vote with your attention, and frankly, we all give straight, white christian heteronormative males too much attention – in the media, in public office, in commerce, in academia, in the arts. So I vowed to direct my attention to other voices, and not just voices that are other than straight white male, but also voices that are other from my own, because even as a marginalized minority woman in America who’s pretty aware of others, I still have privilege and blind spots in cultural awareness and identity politics, and there’s no reason I can’t actively do something to mitigate that.

Since reading takes up a huge portion of my cultural consumption, that seemed like a good place to start my consumption resistance. I put a bunch of effort, even more than usual, into looking out for books by authors who are either marginalized, traditionally excluded from canon, or whose experience is  notably different from my own. Which isn’t to say that I have banned straight white male authors from my reading list entirely, I just choose not to give them any special share of territory, and I limit their inclusion so as not to disproportionately weight their presence. For example, I allowed myself one for sure exception – the new George Saunders book, because he’s one of my favorite authors and I’ve been looking forward to his first novel for a long time, but his inclusion on my list shows how exceptional a white man has to be to make the cut, whereas everyone else can be exceptional or ordinary or even kind of shitty and I’ll still read their work. I’m basically giving them the same privilege we allow white men most of the time.

Anyway, I decided to put together a little summary, in no particular order, for anyone that might want to play along at home (please, please read some of these books so we can talk about them together!).

Difficult Women, Roxane Gay– This is a collection of exactly the kind of short stories I want to read all the time. Far too often, I think, we waste time with stories about characters who are cliches or tropes, not viable complicated people. They tend to be flat and one dimensional and exist only to advance a prescribed and played out plot. And I always find myself wondering why more stories aren’t about fun-ass, badass complicated-ass women like the ones I know in real life. Side note: most of the women I know are so complicated and beautiful and frustrating and prismatic that it’s hard to look straight at them, and even harder to look away. So why aren’t there more characters like that in fiction? And here’s the thing: THERE ARE! You just have to look a little harder to find them. But luckily for us, Roxane Gay brought a bunch of them to life, and packed their stories into a delicious collection. These women are not simple. These women are not ordinary. These women are messy and bad things happen to them and they do bad things and they live stories you wouldn’t necessarily feel like you have any business knowing about. This book lit me up, made me excited about fiction again.

All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers, Alana Massey -I loved this book so much I ended up taking a writing class taught by the author. It explores such a wild range of topics from celebrities and icons to mental health and sex work and divinity, and all of it is so razor sharp and charming and brilliant, and the exuberance throughout the book is contagious enough to melt even your coldest indifference to Courtney Love.

Born A Crime, Trevor Noah– Trevor Noah’s writing is as charming as anything he’s done on TV. You can actually hear his adorable accent in your head as you read along, and it helps add a certain buoyancy to what is otherwise a stressful fucking account of his youth in South Africa.

White Rage, Carol Anderson– Talk about a back story. As we’ve discussed, this has been a rough year of seeing some really ugly parts of our culture that maybe a lot of us weren’t aware of, or if we were, didn’t understand the extent of. I think it’s been harder and harder to pin the tail on one donkey, to blame one person or group or force for all the ugliness and racism we’re suddenly being governed by. But this intensely accessible outline of the arc of racism and its impact on legislation in America since the Civil War, kind of gives a name to that one force, and it’s filled with points that are both alarming to look at head on, and a relief to have a name for.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas– This should absolutely be required reading for 2017.

The Best American Essays 2016, Jonathan Franzen ed. – I’m not one to stan for the Best American series. Like, not at all. But I do read them most years, for, I dunno, the sake of curiosity? This one though. Ho-ly hot damn. Nearly every essay was gorgeous and rich like fiction, original, fresh, bracingly specific. Honestly, there were multiple times where I had to check the cover to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up the short story anthology instead. The quality of the writing was that good, and lively and lush. There were several essays that I hunted down online to share with people because they got so deep under my skin like a song you can’t stop listening to. And I have mixed feelings on Franzen as a writer, but I gotta say, the man can edit like nobody’s business. Seriously, highly recommend this one.

All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg– This book fucked me up. It’s probably not for everybody, but I felt seen as hell reading it. It’s about a woman who has given up on her pursuit of an artistic life for a lot of reasons, her family is complicated and unconventional and she’s got a lot to deal with, and she ends up living a life that requires some interesting strategies to hold it together. There’s so much real shit about grown woman sexuality and promiscuity, and I mean real, grown ass autonomous woman stuff, and it’s great. And so much about coping with trying not to be an artist, how that manifests and fucks you up. There are deep dives into all those wounds and their consequences. It’s just gorgeous.

Hunger, Roxane Gay– So much of this felt utterly essential on so many levels.  It’s not just that Gay cut down to the core on so many things we tend to only look at sideways, it’s the way she has laid it out, in an ebbing and flowing arc, she takes us along on the journey, themes emerge and recede and come back again, so that reading the book is a process of circular revelation. The chapter on Christopher was one of the most vital and excruciatingly accurate portraits assault survival I’ve ever read.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Samantha Irby– I’ve loved Samantha Irby for a long time. Some aspects of our lives are shockingly similar, and I’ve found myself looking to her, often, for a good old fashioned sanity check. Her first book, Meaty, felt like someone was telling my life story, only better and funnier and more brilliantly written. But WANMIRL, is different. The humor is still there, but it goes so much deeper into a lot of the themes presented in Meaty. Illness and dating and being a minority woman in America. I don’t know. I really can’t do this one justice in a blurb. It’s just so good, and I found myself, weeks after reading it, still really wanting to know how Sam and Mavis are doing. Just kind of thinking about them like friends of mine I need to catch up with. And I feel like that says so much about how thoroughly Sam builds character in her writing. I’ll probably read this one again.

The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan -I avoided reading this for so long. Mainly because of growing up in the 80s. All you heard about was how much middle aged women loooooved the Joy Luck Club, and being a yoot, I didn’t want to read the same books as middle aged ladies. The marketing of the movie was also pretty vulgarly simpering and aimed so exclusively at a certain kind of…ok the commercials were just boring and waaaay too serious and overwrought. Seriously check this out:

 And it’s a damn shame because the book is nothing like that! It’s populated with such badass women! Omg I love them! They’re all so complex and modern and fun and interesting and why did they market it the way they did? Anyway it’s great. And anyway I am a middle aged lady who loves this book now so maybe I was right about that part?

Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Eagan -If you liked watching Peggy Olson walk down that hallway at the end of Mad Men, or if you like Brooklyn or historical fiction or gangsters, you’ll get a kick out of this. Jennifer Eagan is a blast, as always.

Made for Love, Alissa Nutting -you know what we could use more of? Romps. I want romps as far as the eye can see. This shit was so fun and ridiculous and a little bit gross and dark and also a sick burn about our relationship with technology and our elevation of tech gods. But also a total blast. And also pretty gross. If you like things like Skinny Legs and All, Geek Love, or, like, those Christopher Moore books, you’ll probably enjoy this.

Other books I read, and loved:
Tranny, Laura Jane Grace
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
The Mothers, Brit Bennett
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul
Our Short History, Laura Grodstein
Kindred, Octavia Butler
Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
First Bite, Bee Wilson

So, what happened to the George Saunders book? I didn’t finish it. I’ll pick it up again at some point, because it seemed good, but it didn’t hook me initially, and I decided not to give it more effort than that.

This last year it’s felt like the whole country was a giant room full of angry white men screaming about the same bullshit. It has been terrifying and draining. And through reading these books, I was able to shut the door on that room, just a little, just enough to find myself in a quieter, saner, more constructive room where I could actually hear what other people were saying. I wasn’t able to escape completely, nor would I want to. But I was able to tamper the noise just enough to break the feedback loop of angry white men yelling, and remind myself over and over that no matter how much psychic space they try to commandeer, they aren’t the only ones here. It’s the antidote to the helplessness and exhaustion and feeling like there’s nothing we can do about anything, because there is so much. We can be an audience for each other. We can be witnesses to each other’s experiences and imaginations. And that’s one of the ways we can fortify each other through the hard times.

As for 2018, I’m off to a good start with Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. It’s good shit, guys. After that, I’ll probably look to Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge because it’s full of thoughtful, expansive reading prompts, and they just get it. But if you’re reading this and you have recommendations, send them my way!


Author: Ileana Shevlin

Ileana Shevlin is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Remembering the Days that Breathed Pink (Quaci Press), Muni Diaries, spiral-bound notebooks, and Google Docs. She probably owes L.A. Unified School District an invoice and an apology for all the great stories she left in the margins of their textbooks along the way.

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