The Best Books from the First Half of 2017

Believe it or not, but the year is almost half over already. A look back at the “Best of 2017” shelf I’ve started on Goodreads has revealed the eight releases that have stood out most clearly for me so far. All but one of these I have already featured on the blog in some way; links are provided. I’ve also included short excerpts from my reviews to show what makes each of these books so special.

 

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream. As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable.

 

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This isn’t a happy family story. It’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate. Yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right, and it’s pulsing with emotion. One theme is how there can be different interpretations of the same events even within a small family. The novel is particularly strong on atmosphere, reminding me of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Fuller also manages her complex structure very well.

 

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father. While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. This is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.

 

My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir. Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. Just the sort of book I wish I had written.

 

My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why. From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar. I was consistently impressed by how she draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.

 

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. A wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.

 

Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.

 

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: Though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. I appreciated how Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy. Plus I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two.

 


And here’s five more 4.5- or 5-star books that I read this year but were not published in 2017:

 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?

What 2017 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

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15 thoughts on “The Best Books from the First Half of 2017

  1. Pleased to see the Malmquist here and Swimming Lessons.I think you and I disagree on How to be Human but I like the sound of My Life with Bob. Hope the second part of your reading year is as enjoyable as the first.

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  2. I’ve had lots of recommendations for Swimming Lessons, but many of your picks were unknown to me. Do you read mostly new releases? Very enjoyable – thank you!

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    1. Hi Beth! Yes, I read lots of new releases and pre-releases, generally electronic downloads from NetGalley and Edelweiss or print ARCs sent by publishers. I also read fairly new stuff from the library. Amidst all that, I still try to keep up with some of the books I own, and read a few classics (I instituted a monthly feature to try to force myself to stick with that resolution).

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  3. Of these, I’ve only read ‘Swimming lessons’ and only a few weeks ago at that. I was horrified to realise I couldn’t remember, not even slightly, what it was about, and had to look it up. I’d enjoyed it, but this is scarcely a winning recommendation, is it?

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  4. I’ve never heard of “Of Every Moment We Are Still Alive”, but it sounds like it’s right up my alley. Homegoing has been on my “to read” list for a few months. I’ve only read about 10 2017 books so far this year. My favorites have been: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Lonely Hearts Hotel (it’s rather dark and not for everyone), and Sorry to Disturb the Peace.

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    1. Hi Emily! Lovely to see you on here 🙂 You’ve read a lot more recent books than most people!

      I enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo. I know of Lonely Hearts Hotel through the Bailey’s Prize longlist, but I don’t think I’ll read it. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace sounds great and I would really like to get hold of it.

      Homegoing is a very rewarding read. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t liked it.

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  5. This is the second time today Swimming Lessons has popped up on a list of favourite books of 2017. I was thinking of reading it but your comment that in atmosphere it is akin to The Sea The Sea which I loved, has nailed it.

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  6. I’d only heard of one of these books and they all sound great so thank you for this lovely post! The book by Pamela Paul in particular sounds great, and I love the NYRB, so that is going straight on my TBR.

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  7. I’m surprised to see I’ve read 3 of these – Swimming Lessons, My Life with Bob, and Homegoing – and loved all three (my favourite being Homegoing). I think I already have most of the others on my list, due to your reviews. 🙂
    If I had to recommend one recent book I’ve read, I’d go with Nobody Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont.

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  8. I was also someone who enjoyed “Homegoing” so you’re in good company. 🙂 You have some new titles with which I’m not that familiar yet… One of my best reads this year has been “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. Fab read, and I couldn’t really put it down until I finished it.

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    1. Shockingly, I have never actually read anything by Adichie, though I’ve seen her speak live and admire her. I have a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun on the shelf that I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, and I have We Should All Be Feminists on my Kindle.

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  9. What was your *old* favourite bibliomemoir? I quite liked this one, overall. Other faves of mine include Maureen Corrigan’s, Anne Fadiman’s and Wendy Lesser’s.

    One of my favourites for this year was Jon McGregor’s If Noone Speaks of Remarkable Things, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his now too.

    I remember when you were debating on the Murakami, so I was pleased to see it on this list. It’s nice when a longtime “list-sitter” or “shelf-sitter” ends up being really rewarding!

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    1. I’ve loved book-themed books by Nick Hornby, Rebecca Mead, Ramona Koval and Samantha Ellis (my full shelf: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/5875398-rebecca-foster?shelf=bibliomemoirs). I thought I couldn’t possibly steer anyone wrong by recommending Pamela Paul’s book, but I’ve seen some two- and one-star reviews and thought to myself, “were we reading the same book?!” Just goes to show that all readings are subjective.

      I’ve only read one from McGregor, So Many Ways to Begin, but look forward to getting to his back catalogue as well as his new book, Reservoir 13, about which I’ve heard so many good things. (It’s part of the endless library on my Kindle.)

      Soon I need to embark on my second Murakami — likely Kafka on the Shore; I just need to get hold of a copy.

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      1. All of those are ones which I’ve enjoyed a great deal, except for Ramona Koval’s, which is new to me: I’ll go on a hunt now. I’ve done a great job of collecting Murakami, less well at actually reading them (only 3 so far, including that lovely little bookish story, but then the other of the 3 was 1Q84 so I guess those balanced each other out).

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