Thursday, December 28, 2017

Best of 2017: The Best Books I've Read

For one of my favorite annual roundups (books, duh), look no further.

This #shelfie of goodies from my time interning at Graywolf Press is a regular fave. If you've never read any of their books, what are you waiting for?! 

Devoted Compendium readers may remember my post halfway through last year on the best books I read so far (you can find it here if you missed it). There were a bunch of gems listed there, and you should still check it out - but six months later I am wiser, stronger and have plowed through a whole lot more reading material.

With a full year of perspective behind me, what were the best things I read last year? Check out my top 11 below and let me know if you agree or I missed anything big. Please note my usual disclaimer, which is: this is a top list of books I read last year, not that were published last year - so several of these are not brand new books. Still, I really enjoyed them and I think anyone can find something to love on this list. Last year's picks were equally as good - click here if you'd like to see what they were. And if you want to follow my reading adventures in real time, make sure to follow my Goodreads page by clicking here.

Best Book of Wisdom: A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Around the time of the presidential inauguration this year I decided I didn't know enough about where we had come from in regards to civil rights, especially about how key victories of that movement were won. I decided to pick up this incredible compilation of work by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and read it as a devotional throughout the year. This is one of the best literary choices I have ever made in my life. Dr. King is often viewed, quite correctly, as a hero of American history, but he is far less monolithic than is often portrayed. King was a man who held many simultaneous contradictions, who welcomed complexity and constructive conflict within his ranks, and who was able to keep a focus on love and judgement at the same time. This rich, rich compilation of all of his writings - from speeches to articles to books to letters - is a fascinating treasure trove of resistance and philosophy, and something that I wish were mandatory to teach in high schools across the country. So many of the problems facing America today are directly tied to the movement King is best known for, and I have learned more from deeply contemplating his philosophy here than I did in any religion or civics class. If you want to know the real Dr. King; learn how to create and sustain a powerful, successful political movement; define the ills and best of American history and policy; or just read the most enriching text I've ever encountered, you must read this book. It's long, it can be heavy, and it's an investment of time and money, but it's one of the best I've ever made.

Best YA / Fiction Series: Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

One of my absolute favorite finds this year has been the work of Nnedi Okorafor. She strikes the perfect balance between sci-fi, fantasy, and YA work and I am obsessed with her books. Think of Akata Witch as the female-driven Nigerian version of Harry Potter. This has all the same elements: a classic, truly evil recurring villain; an unexpected magical talent; a fully hidden world of magic and spirits placed right alongside that of Lambs, or normal humans (Muggles for the Potter-initiated); a close-knit group of unlikely friends with complementary talents; a strict family; wise mentors; fantastical magical school teachings; and so much more.

We're long overdue for a more global understanding of what constitutes a true canon or mythology or great novels, and the Akata series is a wonderful entree into global fiction for readers more used to literature from Europe or the U.S. There is so much to love about Sunny, the protagonist, and the complex, delightful, macabre world she encounters. This is such a stunningly visual serial and I hope it's made into a movie; it would make a really special film series. I highly recommend this to anyone who loves magical stories, fantasy fiction, mythological tales, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or any of the similar books of this genre.

Best Cookbook / Self Published Local Author: Sweet Revenge by Heather Kim 

A good friend recently introduced me to this gem of a book and I am still astonished that it is fully self written, self published, self designed. Everything about this book - from the lush but accessible tactile feel, to the quirky and beautiful photos and illustrations, to the perfectly named recipes and easy to follow guides and glossaries - is total perfection. I'm not a baker but even I was intrigued by recipes like the "Bite Me Scum Muffin," "Suck It Up And Grow a Pear Cheesecake" and "Lube Up Guide to Cooking Oils." For anyone with a broken heart this will be a balm to the ego and for everyone else it will be a riotously fun romp through the world of desserts. I've never met Heather Kim, but I can safely say that if this is a taste of the kind of work she outputs she's a damn smart woman and deserves every penny (and then some) she's going to make off of this self-published masterpiece. She's a locally based chef and tattoo artist, so spend a few of your Christmas dollars on buying this and supporting someone who is literally sticking it to the man and revolutionizing the cooking world one stilletto-and-spike-clad step at a time.

Best Essay Collection: We Were Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates's work is never easy or quick (if you haven't devoured Between the World and Me yet, get thee to a book store and clear your schedule for a day until you're done), but it's always so rich and thoughtful. I didn't fully realize that the bulk of this book was a re-print of his previously published essays for the Atlantic (most of which I had already read). Each essay is paired with a long introduction to place you exactly where he was at the time of writing and why he wrote the way he did, and to point out any structural inaccuracies. There is also a new, epic, biting epilogue to wrap the book up that chases "My President Was Black" with "The First White President."

Coates is indisputably, in my opinion, our generation's James Baldwin, and reading this was a great exercise in connecting those dots. The arc of his writing takes a meandering but pointed turn, and the last three essays of this book (particularly the razor sharp "The Case for Reparations") are ones that I have already returned to and revisited many times and I anticipate continuing to do so. Even if you're a huge fan of his work already, all of these essays are worth re-reading and anyone can find fresh vantages here, especially in our current political climate. If you do read this make sure to allow plenty of time to let it really seep in. There's so much to unpack in this book and no survey of our current place in American history is complete without it.

Best Business Book: Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu 

Drop the Ball reflects a lot of conversations my partner and I had when we first lived together, and I wish I had had a book at the time that so clearly laid out ways in which I was not only failing myself, but failing him. We need to have higher expectations of our partners - it is insulting to treat them like mindless creatures incapable of helping around the home. We need to have higher love for ourselves - we deserve time to rest and recuperate from our busy and stressful lives. We need to get off the perfection hamster wheel - it's unrealistic and completely unnecessary, and life is way too short to get caught up in keeping up with appearances. Here's a sample of the advice Dufu covers: don't be afraid to recruit a "village" to help you. Build and maintain a network to call upon. Release your facade of perfection and meet people honestly with where you are truly at, and accept help when it is offered to you. Build strong relationships with others (especially other women). Be straightforward about your expectations and clear about your needs when you make a request. Stand up for yourself. Practice self care.

Forget Lean In; this is the book that every professional woman needs to read. Drop the Ball is a magnificent testimony to all the ways that women convince ourselves that we fall short and torment ourselves with unnecessary and unrealistic expectations. It is perfect for anyone who is too busy in their day-to-day and struggles to to find time for their real priorities (so... everyone?) and for those with a fierce imposter syndrome. What kind of world could we make if women really freed ourselves from the chains of eternal domesticity, learned to accept a little mess here and there, and instead focused our time and energy on our real passions and drive to improve society? It's an attainable fantasy, and the only people in our way is ourselves. Drop the Ball is vital for women of any age, and their partners should read it too for insight into why their S.O. has the expectations they do/is societally conditioned the way they are.

Book with the Best Ideas: Happy City by Charles Montgomery 

I've recently been very interested in the politics and process of city planning and community layouts, and there was no better introduction to that subject than this beautifully written book. Charles Montgomery leaves no stone unturned in his new vision for how our urban centers could work. He truly inspired me to remember that every single thing in our lives is designed (and designed for a reason) - while this can feel defeating, it also means that it can always be changed. I really appreciated that Montgomery is not afraid to be blunt and straightforward about some of the most harmful aspects of traditional urban design, especially in the form of racism and classism. The good examples he uplifts of cities who are thoughtfully innovating for the future are truly well-rounded. For example, they always include provisions for the traditionally most reviled among us (say, drunk homeless people) in innovative, loving ways that provide spaces for all citizens - and isn't that what we say we want our societies to be in the first place?

Since I have returned to living without a car (for my day-to-day needs, at least) a few years ago, I have been so much happier and healthier. Restricting the design of our cities to be built primarily for cars is honestly tyrannical, and Happy City lays this reasoning out in compelling detail. I would urge everyone to give this wonderful book a shot and open their minds to the possibility of living differently from what conventional wisdom dictates. There are so many more ways to enjoy a rich, vivid life that have nothing to do with working thousands of hours of overtime and spending half your day commuting in a car. Definitely check this little gem of a book out!

Best Memoir / International Book: The Return by Hisham Matar

This book was one of my global book club choices (more here if you want to join too!) and it was so incredibly informational. I didn't realize how little I knew about Libyan history until I picked it up, and it's fascinating and humbling to see how ignorant I was. Matar's story of his search for his father is devastating, but through his grief he has managed to create a gorgeous testimony to the value of Libya, of the reason to fight for your freedom, and the ideal that sacrifice is worth it if the end goal benefits everyone.

If you're wondering why Qaddafi had to be removed from power and where Libya can go from here, Matar has several thoughts to share. I learned so much about North Africa and life under a dictatorship in this lyrical, lovely little book and I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants a primer on what is happening there. There are shockingly few great books about Libya and North Africa in general (tends to be the case when an entire generation's worth of writers and artists are imprisoned by a ruthless dictator... but I digress), so it behooves you to really savor the lyrical prose and rich history Matar presents here.

Best Comic Book: Ms. Marvel Volume 7: Damage Per Second by G. Willow Wilson

I've been reading the Ms. Marvel series (three cheers for a female Muslim superhero - woohoo!) for a while now but this is easily my favorite one yet. Each "issue" is a compilation of several comics, and all of the stories in this edition were so relevant, fresh and tied directly into what is happening politically right now. This is such a great way for kids to learn about issues like cyberbullying, voter fraud, gerrymandering and more (and when is the last time you heard about any of that in a comic book?!?), and I absolutely loved every inch of this top to bottom. If you need a break from your text-heavy tomes, the Ms. Marvel series is an easily digestible, quick entree into a whole new world that will really refresh your literary palate.

Best Celebrity Memoir: We're Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union 

I've learned about myself recently that I really like celebrity books, at least when they have something to say beyond wealth + fame = kewl. They always offer a nice break from the crazier, heavier fare I gravitate towards and can be a nice literary palate cleanser. I loved this new book from Gabrielle Union, which is much more raw and real than you usually see with celebrity memoirs. Union's no-bullshit persona has always made her one of my favorites in Hollywood and she shares so many insights here into her past, the culture of fame, the pitfalls of celebrity, and more. There are a lot of items here that can connect to a higher cultural conversation and I don't think she could have released this book at a better time, particularly in relation to the #metoo movement and omission of stories of women of color within that movement. I've heard of some issues with distribution for this book and it's such a shame, because this deserves to be read as widely as possible. This was one of my favorite recent reads - if you need a break and something relatable, saucy and thoughtful, pick this up!

Best Book for Our Times: Hunger by Roxane Gay 

Roxane Gay is such an important writer that I'm not sure how to even review her bibliography - it's really in a category all its own. I adored Bad Feminist, but Hunger is so different, such a unique piece of work, that it's hard to categorize. It's far and away the best thing I've read either about obesity or sexual assault (and related PTSD), but also includes so many important details about life as a woman, as a woman of color, as a woman of size (not just heft but height), as a daughter of immigrants that I could go on and on.

There is so much incredible detail wrapped into this book, truly encapsulating an intersectional perspective and indirectly demonstrating why it is so hard to talk about intersectional issues. Which part of yourself and your identity does each of your experiences belong to? Which parts of your identity are more important? Are resources equally available to help you depending on race or gender or socioeconomic status? How do you move through pain? How does pain tangentially affect other areas of your life? How do you forgive yourself? Once you've started to heal from your pain, how do you leave it behind after you've carried it for so long?

There are so many rich, rich things to glean from this book, and I think every citizen should read it to have a more compassionate and comprehensive understanding of life as a woman who is obese, survivors of sexual assault, and an enormous range of related issues. Gay is so incredibly brave for writing and sharing this honest, raw book. I can't recommend it highly enough or thank her enough for writing it. We needed it and didn't even know it.

Best Comedy Book: You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson 

I discovered Phoebe Robinson through the podcast 2 Dope Queens, and I'm so glad I did. Not only have I now been introduced to Phoebe's solo podcast Sooo Many White Guys (best. intro. song. ever.), but she is absolutely hilarious, so thoughtful and well rounded, and is truly helping to create an innovative new space for women and comics of color. I was really excited to read this book and it didn't disappoint, beginning with her vernacular. This casual feel allows her to really dig in to meaty issues but with humor and finesse, and she has a lot to add to many conversations (particularly around intersectionality and feminism) that are vital to our progress today. I think for women of color this book will feel familiar - none of the issues Robinson discusses will be new ones - but they still might be a hilarious new spin on old woes. As a white woman, I found a lot of what she said to be important information to me and in learning to listen to other voices and to respect/understand/honor the differences between us. For any ladies who went to the women's march and want to learn more about intersectionality and some of the specific difficulties WOC face today, this is a great primer - I'd encourage you to pick it up.

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