Tom's twelve favorite reads from 2017 (not necessarily published in 2017) in alphabetical order by author.
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir
by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie's memoir—an unsparing, grief-torn, angry, and admiring portrait of his late mother that is equally unsparing toward himself—seems like one of the must-read books of the year, especially for fellow Seattleites who have been following his career for decades. And I highly recommend that if you do read it (you should!), you do so by listening: Alexie is one of our great raconteurs no matter what he's reading, but this book in particular feels like the full-throated cry of a survivor, circling around the cruelties, the poverty, and the love of his childhood in prose and poetry whose blunt anguish and repeated incantations find their true medium when spoken aloud.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
As impressive and conversation-changing as Coates's last book, Between the World and Me, was, it felt like part of a larger project, incomplete without his earlier memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, and his ongoing reporting in the Atlantic. His new book collects thoseAtlantic articles, many of which were publishing events of their own (especially the centerpiece, "The Case for Reparations," which builds the case for the "plunder" Coates alludes to in Between the World and Me), and he knits them together with autobiographical reflections that include some of the fiercest writing in the book. Coates traces the rise and fall of hope in Obama's eight years, and his pride and reluctance in his own rise as one of our country's most influential thinkers. It's a complicated, larger book, full of changes of mind and grim conclusions, and it might be his best yet.
Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning
by Claire Dederer
"And there she is. That horrible girl." In the middle of life, after decades of working, marrying, and mothering responsibly, Dederer suddenly felt the restless desires of a teenager welling up again, driving her to revisit her youth as a "disastrous pirate slut of a girl." Love and Trouble has all the charm and insight of her excellent first memoir,Poser, but it digs down to a further stratum of self-examination and candor. Amid the comfortably familiar trappings of her story (e.g. her Ave rat's map of the U District circa 1984), she is discomfitingly, fearlessly frank about what it was—and is—like to desire, and to be desired. As a memoir of an adventurous, intelligent woman looking back on her Seattle youth, it belongs right next to Mary McCarthy's classic Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters (Part One)
by Emil Ferris
I've been antsy to write about this breathtaking book, but we sold out of our small first batch and waited months for a reprint. Now we have it back in the store (for the time being), so let me declare: it's hard to imagine there will be a book with more drama, beauty, and power published this year than Ferris's debut graphic novel, about a girl obsessed with monster magazines and the monstrosity of life around her. The story may be drawn like a sketchbook on three-hole-punched notebook pages, but every page is composed with exquisite virtuosity, all in the service of a story that feels like it had to be told. As young Karen's brother tells her, "the best way to get through hard things is to draw your way through." One-of-a-kind and unforgettable.
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe
by Kapka Kassabova
"Once near a border, it is impossible not to be involved, not to want to exorcise or transgress something." The border Kassabova is drawn to is the territory where Turkey, Greece, and her native Bulgaria meet, but for all the wonderful specificity of her portraits of the people who live and travel through there—smugglers, refugees, cops, generous hosts, opportunists, and a whole history of Ottomans, Stalinists, and the forgotten pawns of empire—she also evokes the distorting, destructive, seductive effects those arbitrary national edges have on all of us. With the observant humor of Elif Batuman, the eerie historical gravity of W.G. Sebald, and an open-minded, world-weary curiosity all her own, her Border is a fantastic, fascinating book for our time or any time.
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
by Yiyun Li
Here's the best way to say how much I like this book: when I read, I turn down the corners of pages to remind me to write down a memorable quote later. In good books I might do this a few times, in great books a few dozen times. In my copy of Dear Friend, almost every other corner is turned down. It's a hard book to describe, beginning with its unwieldy title (a quote from Katherine Mansfield): it's a book of essays, but it reads like a single, desperate search for meaning. It's a memoir of changing cultures and languages, of surviving the desire for suicide, of choosing to be a writer, but it doesn't have the tidy shape of the usual memoir. Li lives by writing and reading, and it feels like no exaggeration to say her life is at stake every time she picks up her pen. It might be the best book I read this year; I'll be rereading it before the year's out to be sure.
Sirens: A Memoir
by Joshua Mohr
Josh Mohr drank immensely, consumed every drug he could, and did unspeakable things he now does his best to speak of. And then when he got clean he had a stroke. Sirens is his first memoir after five books of fiction set in the same Mission District demimonde he's worked his way out of: in it, he's unsparing about everything but artful too, and generous to everyone he writes about, even himself. It's hard to write about recovery without falling into cliches, but Mohr brings a sense of open-hearted adventure and romance to what has been—and remains—a life-or-death struggle. Death is never far away in this book, but life is everywhere too.
The Long Haul: A Trucker's Tales of Life on the Road
by Finn Murphy
Maybe you saw that recent map that showed that the most common job in 29 of the 50 states is truck driver, but when was the last time you read a book by one? Finn Murphy is an anomaly: the black sheep of a bookish family who, drawn by the quick money, hard work, and rough camaraderie, dropped out of college to drive trucks and kept at it for most of the next forty years. He developed a specialty—long-distance executive moves—that has given him a unique window into America from top to bottom, and his memoir is both thoroughly entertaining and as sharp an analysis of our class system as you'll find. It's hilarious, smart, insightful, brash, and sweet: pour yourself a "Dr. Cola" (Murphy's road beverage of choice) and enjoy. It's easily one of my favorite books of the year.
Arbitrary Stupid Goal
by Tamara Shopsin
First of all, Arbitrary Stupid Goal is not about football. (It's just a funny cover.) It is, ostensibly, about the general store Tamara Shopsin's parents ran in Greenwich Village, which they turned into a diner so they could keep making rent, and which became a small, secret legend. But it's really about the old, weird Village, where freaks, crooks, artists, and general misfits—the "fringe people" who were the true lifeblood of the city—made a community. Shopsin grew up there, crawling among the diners' legs, then bussing tables and cooking while building a career as a graphic designer (it's her funny cover), and her appealing, oddball memoir, crammed with people and anecdotes like Shopsin's messy menu, will make you think she got just about the best human education possible.
Queen of Spades
by Michael Shou-Yung Shum
Why is this novel so absurdly entertaining? Shum, who was a casino dealer in Lake Stevens before getting his English PhD, loosely bases his story on an old gambling tale by Pushkin, but it has a seemingly effortless liveliness all of its own (I say "seemingly" because that kind of effortlessness takes a lot of work to pull off). The book wears everything lightly: the fateful turns of cards, the odd presence of magic, the setting in Snoqualmie in the aerobicized '80s, and a cast of characters who each spring immediately from the page into life. It reminds me of another enjoyable and strangely compelling favorite, The Queen's Gambit (about a different royal game). What a surprising treat!
by Francis Spufford
What a delicious feast! Golden Hill is Spufford's first novel, after five idiosyncratic books of nonfiction, and it's clear he had a ball with it, delighting in the language and the details of his subject: the colonial outpost of New York City in 1743, and the entry of a charming, secretive, and apparently wealthy young man into its tiny, fractious society. Not everything goes well for Richard Smith, but things certainly do go, and Spufford packs a heap of action into his mid-sized novel, adding a few modern notes to the gleefully rogueish style of 18th-century masters like Fielding, Sterne, and Smollett. I had been looking forward to Golden Hill ever since it swept a handful of prizes in the UK last year, and I wasn't disappointed at all.
Henry David Thoreau: A Life
by Laura Dassow Walls
From the very start of his career, Thoreau has been one of the most divisive members of the American literary canon—visionary or crank? self-reliant or sponge?—in large part because he offered his own eccentric life as a model. Walls (who first discovered Walden on the shelves of Island Books on Mercer Island!) has made a beautiful and moving story of that life: wonderfully dense with the details of his world and his writing but still graceful and light on its feet. She makes clear his passionate engagement and his continued relevance to our lives, and most strikingly, reminds us of the constant importance of friendship and society to our country's best-known hermit.