The Year of Polemical Reading: Best Books of 2017

The Year of Polemical Reading: Best Books of 2017

2017 was not the best reading year I’ve ever had – as was to be expected due to the work situation – but also not the worst. Maybe because the times are so fucked up, I was drawn to books that examined issues like race, democracy and gender/female condition. And while I read all over the place, as I always do, these tended to be the books that stayed with me the most.

1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. If I had to pick the book of the year, this would be it. An epic family saga that starts with two sisters in Africa, it’s a great book in the sense that it’s very well written and emotionally powerful. It is, however, also something not all great books have to be – extremely illuminating. Nothing else has educated me as much about slavery, race and the long-term, fundamental impact of such things. I recommend it to everyone. Not an easy read, but incredibly rewarding.

2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Another book about slavery and in some ways a mirror image of Homegoing – a more American, more aloof, more male? version. I wasn’t sure whether I should include it, as I think Homegoing is better. Then again, The Underground Railroad shouldn’t be disqualified simply because it happens to explore similar themes to the best book of the year and because it isn’t quite as amazing. It’s still a very good book, impressively written and researched.

3. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwn. Baldwin writes like an angel and was one of my favourite discoveries of the year: I could have easily included his Giovanni’s Room in this list as well. The Fire Next Time contains two essays on slavery, race, racism and religion. The first is written as a letter to Baldwin’s 14-year-old nephew, which immediately made me think of Ta-Nehisi Coates. I thought his Between the World and Me was very good, but Baldwin is even better – gentler and wiser and ultimately more heartbreaking. He wrote these things in 1963 and they are still true.

4. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. If you are interested in race but want to read something without falling into severe depression, I very much encourage you to pick up Noah’s book about his South African childhood. Born when it was literally illegal for black and white people to have children, he highlights the absurdity of classifying people based on skin colour. Also, his mum is amazing.

5. On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.
Talking about absurd political systems, Snyder specialises in them. I have a full review on this slim book, so I will not repeat everything here. Just read it (the book, not the review).

6. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. I read lots of (semi)autobiographical non-fiction by very intelligent women this year – Maggie Nelson, Ariel Levy, Lauren Elkin, Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Roxane Gay… It’s not easy to choose, but I think Laing’s examination of loneliness and art was my favourite of all of them. I went in with some trepidation (probably expecting pretentiousness and entitlement and self-absorption that some books in this category can display), but her writing and insightfulness completely won me over.

7. The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin. Remember when I said it was difficult to choose among my intelligent ladies? Well, I cheated and picked two. When Laing travels from Europe to the US and wrestles with her loneliness, Crispin goes the other way to overcome a nervous breakdown and to search for… something. She travels from city to city and talks about others who have lived there, from Jean Rhys in London to Joyce in Trieste. I did not love her Why I’m Not a Feminist, but this one is intelligent, witty, honest and underrated.

8. Women & Power by Mary Beard. Beard’s book is not quite in the same category as the previous two, although she is unquestionably intelligent and one could also say her book is partly inspired by her own experience. Still, it is a more classic text and in a way has more in common with Snyder – a slight volume on a weighty topic. I have a very short write-up here.

9. Come Close by Sappho. I’m not a big poetry reader, but it’s still surprising I hadn’t read Sappho until now. Well, I loved it. There isn’t much left of her work and what I read is of course only an approximation of what she must have sounded like in her own time and language. That said, there is no doubt in my mind that she was a great poet (and yes, sexy).

10. Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda.
While nothing is going to beat Saga any time soon, Monstress was my favourite new comic of the year. With its mix of art deco and orient, it’s absolutely gorgeous. It is also epic, magical, monstrous, complex and as close to horror as I can get. Taking place in an alternate, matriarchal Asia, most of the characters are women. It’s really interesting to see what it does to the dynamics between characters and the motives of women (nothing bad).

11. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. I thought that this sci-fi entry would be the only one that doesn’t fit my polemical theme. Then I realised that the author is trans, the book tackles gender in a very thoughtful way and tyranny is certainly a major theme. However, even if you couldn’t care less about the above and were just looking for some mind-blowing hard science fiction, I would highly recommend you read this. I go through a fair share of the genre and trust me, this is some awesome, high-concept shit. Especially recommended if you like Banks, Leckie and/or Rajaniemi. (The second book in the series, Raven Stratagem, is also amazing.)

These were the highlights of my reading year. What were yours?

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