The Best Books I Read In 2017

The best books I read in 2017 (in no particular order):

1: Hunger by Roxane Gay for being brutally honest.

2: Ill Will by Dan Chaon for its perfect atmosphere, utter creepiness, and for digging into the Satanic Panic of the 80’s.

3: The Nix by Nathan Hill for its exploration of mother / son relationships and for being hilarious in a way that emulates the great John Irving.

4: Colorless Tskuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami for speaking candidly about depression.

5: Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis for utilizing dogs to explore the best and worst of humanity.

6: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich for its quiet beauty, poetic prose, and utter heartbreak.

7: White Noise by Don Delillo for taking the words right out of my mouth, more than once. A satire that centers around an obsession with death.

8: Stoner by John Williams – easily the most beautiful book I read last year. The simple story of one man’s life as he leaves his family farm to start life as an academic.
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9: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood for ripping me out of my comfort zone.

10: The Break by Katherena Vermette for talking about some of the ugly parts of Canada. And the beautiful parts too.

11: Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin for making me love SJ even more. THE ultimate biography of her life.

12: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – the most unique book I read this year. Abraham Lincoln mourns for his dead son, and the ghosts in the graveyard narrate what they witness. Haunting and sad, but so so beautiful.

I’m not sure how I missed this book in my best of 2017 collage , but Christodora by Tim Murphy is the best book I read this year. It deserves it’s own spot on the page.

From my review: Christodora is a bold story centered around AIDS activism and gentrification in New York in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s so much more to it than that, though. There is love, death, and heartbreak. There is loneliness, addiction, and depression. There is beauty, art, and hope.

I still think about this book nearly one year later. If you haven’t read this, and if you loved A Little Life, be sure to check Christodora out.

Here’s to 2018!

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BOOK REVIEW | Zero K by Don DeLillo

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body.

“We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?”

These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book’s narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth.”

Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.”

My thoughts:
After reading White Noise I knew I had to read more DeLillo as soon as possible. Zero K delivered with its profound philosophy on our inevitable mortality.

Isn’t death a blessing? Doesn’t it define the value of our lives, minute to minute, year to year?

In Zero K, death is avoidable. Through technological advances, human bodies can be cryogenically preserved post-mortem for an infinite amount of time, to one day be reborn into a new and better life. Jeffrey Lockhart is upset when he learns that his father, Ross, is looking to undergo the process voluntarily, rather than after his natural death. Ross, however, would like to go with Artis, his younger second wife who is terminally ill and beginning the preservation process. This inevitably brings heavy questions to the table, which DeLillo works through assertively.

DeLillo returns to a theme that resonated with me from White Noise: the significance that death has on living life purposefully. I’ve heard criticism that DeLillo brings nothing new to the table with this book, that he is re-hashing old ideas. For me, death is a constant that all living beings must face, so it makes sense to continue to explore what gives value to life.

We are born without choosing to be. Should we die in the same manner?

 

BOOK REVIEW | White Noise by Don DeLillo

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Jack Gladney teaches Hitler Studies at a liberal arts college in Middle America where his colleagues include New York expatriates who want to immerse themselves in “American magic and dread.” Jack and his fourth wife, Babette, bound by their love, fear of death, and four ultramodern offspring, navigate the usual rocky passage of family life to the background babble of brand-name consumerism.

Then a lethal black chemical cloud floats over their lives, an “airborne toxic event” unleashed by an industrial accident. The menacing cloud is a more urgent and visible version of the “white noise” engulfing the Gladney family—radio transmissions, sirens, microwaves, ultrasonic appliances, and TV murmurings—pulsing with life, yet suggesting something ominous.

My thoughts:
I can’t recall the last time that I was deeply affected by a book; shaken to the core, forced to analyze my beliefs, and profoundly changed on the other end of reading it. I just put White Noise down, and am wondering how I’ll be able to read anything else going forward. I haven’t had time to process all of my thoughts coherently, and am not sure I ever will, but I know that I didn’t want this book to end. There are so many layers to this book that I could talk about, but its most overt commentary – an incapacitating fear of death – hit me at the right time.

Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.

There is nothing dated about this work from 1985; the underlying themes feel relevant in our modern world, overrun by technology. This story is told from the perspective of Jack Gladney, patriarch to a blended family and teacher of Hitler Studies, but is very much about all of the members of his family. His kids are unique and represent many viewpoints, and his wife, Babette, provides powerful insight into the feeling of nothingness experienced by so many. These characters busy themselves with the white noise of life and are so consumed with the fear of death, that they ultimately fail to live meaningfully while they have the chance.

How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a little while?

Yes, this book is nihilistic. It’s over the top and fantastical, yet somehow completely realistic. While I don’t fear death in such an extreme way as these characters, I do fear it for my loved ones. I can barely handle the thought that my kids are mortal beings, and at times it overwhelms me. Yet, I manage to function, because that’s what people do.

Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry a final line, a border or limit.