It’s time again to think back on my favorites of the books I read last year. (Links: the 2015 and 2016 posts.) Looking back at my notes, it’s striking how many of 2017’s books were awful; usually I have better luck.
The “abyssmal” category for fiction includes Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne (an inept novel about a Qatari financial programmer, newly transplanted to New York), Demons of Chitrakut by Ashok K. Banker (a pulpy retelling of the Ramayana, whose author can’t help but write three sentences where one would do), The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (two interleaved stories, zero of which are interesting), A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (a dull, shallow, unrealistic, inane book about a middle-aged sad sack trying to sell an IT system in Saudi Arabia), and Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson, (a confusing thriller about conmen / adventurers in contemporary Africa). All of these were awful, but the prize for worst goes to Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo, a Finnish novel about a man who finds and takes in an injured troll cub, which despite its premise manages to be both boring and stupid. (In the book’s universe, trolls are real and are merely uncommon, not at all magical, primate-ish animals — in which case, why not just have your character find a bear cub or a raccoon? Or, if he does find a troll, why not call animal services for help? I could go on, but I should stop thinking about this…) Most of these were random picks from the University library’s popular reading shelf, which I’ve had much better luck with in the past.
There weren’t so many clunkers in non-fiction, but the top (bottom?) spot goes to one of the worst books I’ve ever read, Being a Beast by Charles Foster. I had intended to write a whole post about it, but I never got around to it. The book is about the author’s efforts to live like various animals, rolling around in mud and streams for days on end, in order to better understand their existence. I wanted to like this, and for a chapter or so I did. The author’s descriptions of the taste sensations upon eating worms (being a badger) were fun to read, and the overall aim of the book is unique and ambitious. Unfortunately, the author quickly ran out of insightful things to say, and went on to “be” creatures like birds whose experiences are much harder to mimic. I gained almost no insights into animals. More importantly, the book became extremely pretentious, and the author has an insufferable sense of superiority towards his fellow humans. A long rant about bankers led me to wonder if he’s ever attempted the same empathy towards people as towards animals, though I question also whether his feelings towards animals are really empathetic or just an act.
Thankfully, I did read some excellent books last year!
In fiction, the highlights were two by two of my favorite authors: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell and Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I was shocked to find that Black Swan Green didn’t have disjointed timelines, sentient robots, visions of the future, secret societies or any of the bells and whistles I expected from David Mitchell, but was rather a straightforward and poetic description of the miseries of growing up. (I also read The Bone Clocks by Mitchell this year, which was mediocre.) Kafka on the Shore is the surreal story of a 15 year old boy who runs away from home, and a charming elderly simpleton who can talk to cats. Other notable books were The Rider by Tim Krabbé, about a bicycle race, and Monday Begins on Saturday by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, about a Soviet research institute that deals with magic; the book combines Harry Potter-like fantasy with spot-on comedy about academic bureaucracy. [Edit: my description applies more to the second half of the book.]
My favorites were The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the first two-thirds of which is a gripping history of genetics, the very short and quirky Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, and Red Dust: A Path Through China by Ma Jian. Red Dust is a memoir and travelogue of wanderings all over China in the mid 1980s. Particularly notable are random visits to places like a home for lepers that are far from any tourist itinerary, and observations of the lingering consequences of the Cultural Revolution, and of the pervasive reach of the government.
I made it through all 700 pages of Steven Pinker’s remarkable The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a fascinating book on how, and why, the prevalence of war, murder, violent crime, cruelty to animals, and mistreatment of children has (overall) been steadily declining over the course of human history. Highly recommended.
Also worth noting are the memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow, on growing up in a very poor, isolated, chaotic, and violence-ridden African-American town in Louisiana, and the very funny The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A. J. Jacobs, in which the author tries various experiments with his lifestyle, including outsourcing to India the reading of bedtime stories to his kids.
I devoured volumes 1 and 2 of The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East by Riad Sattouf, a rivetting graphic memoir of the author’s early childhood in Libya and Syria, plagued by a bombastic idiot father and environments full of dispriting cruelty both organized and chaotic. It’s a great read, densely packed with all kinds of episodes – funny, sad, absurd, informative.
Perhaps the real literary highlight of the year was discovering the works of Stuart Gibbs (via my 12 year old, who has read them for a year or two). My first exposure was to the audiobook of Evil Spy School, third in the Spy School series, in which our teenage protagonist is kicked out of a CIA-run espionage school and is recruited by an evil spy organization’s school (located in a suburban housing development). It’s very funny.
Coincidentally, I read a different humorous mystery/adventure book, The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett, a hilarious homage to and parody of the Hardy Boys mysteries. The teenage protagonist is drawn into an absurd plot involving a secret order of librarian spies. Thankfully, he has the Detective Handbook of his fictional heroes The Bailey Brothers to consult whenever a crisis occurs, such as (repeatedly) falling out of a second story window, or getting kidnapped. It’s the first in a series.
Returning to Stuart Gibbs, his “Fun Jungle” series is also funny and fast-paced, and deals with mysteries that arise at a badly run zoo. In Poached, a koala is kidnapped, which isn’t immediately noticed since it’s replaced by a stuffed animal. In addition to absurd adventures, issues related to conservation are nicely and subtly woven in.
In non-silly kids books, I liked Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, a historical novel about a girl who must leave her well-off life on a ranch in Mexico and become a farm worker in California in the 1930s; my 9-year old liked it, too.
I usually also comment on movies, but this year I saw fewer than usual, and none were remarkable.
Despite the year’s many duds, I will keep in mind Steven Pinker’s lessons and conclude that 2017 was, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty good year. There are, of course, more books to choose from than at any time in the past, so the number of good ones can only increase! (The fraction is, however, a separate issue.)
I eventually finished the painting of chital (spotted deer) noted in the last post, based on a photo in the book Tiger by Stephen Mills. A few weeks ago, my family and I spotted spotted deer in the wild, in India. Here are two of them: