As 2017 ends and the next year begins, I feel quite unenthusiastic about writing retrospectively of the books I read in the preceding year, as I have felt called to do at past changings-of-the-calendar. Perhaps the main reason is that I have so many fewer books on my list than in past years.
It’s not that I haven’t been reading – if anything, I spent more of 2017 reading than in any previous year – but that I haven’t been reading books. Thanks to the apparently synchronous political calamities unfolding in and about Washington and London (along with Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, Paris, Helsinki, Bratislava…), never mind the calamities of other varieties erupting all over the globe (or in my own affairs, for that matter), it has been periodicals that have been commanding the bulk of my reading attention this year. Somehow, an end-of-year summary of my consumption of news and opinion articles about the sudden acceleration of the decline of western civilisation doesn’t celebrate joie de lire with quite the same literary cheer.
As a result of some of the same factors, I’ve also lost track of some of the books I did read. In past years, I’ve remembered them because I’d tweeted about each one on completion, as part of the #95books project. I was never a keen Twitter enthusiast, but the horrors of that platform became clearer to me following the election of Trump, and my tweeting of books soon fell by the wayside, leaving me with just my questionable memory on which to rely.
I’m certain that there were at least a couple more, but here are the ten books I do remember having read in 2017 – considerably fewer than in previous years:
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit wrote this book in 2004 as an attempt to change the despair narrative so prevalent following the re-election of George W. Bush. In early 2017, those days seemed rather halcyon in comparison, which perhaps motivated Solnit to release an updated edition. Worthwhile reading for those who feel incapacitated by political despair. It may not provide easy solutions, but it might keep you going enough to create some answers, and resistances, of your own.
Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings by Subcommandante Marcos
I read this on a chaise lounge in Costa Rica last winter. I can’t say I was especially captivated, but that may have had more to do with sun, sand, and Speedos. I knew little more about the Zapatista movement than I’d passively gleaned from media headlines, so it was an interesting introduction that way. This was only my second e-book (read on an iPad), so perhaps that affected my reading. (Despite my history of technological early-adoption, they’ll probably have to wrench paper books from my arthritic fingers, when it comes to that.)
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Lydia, the favoured child in a Chinese-American family, disappears and her body is subsequently found in a nearby lake. Both a tense and a pleasant read, as I recall.
South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion
This slim book is the product of the Didion’s notebooks, notes that had been destined to become essays. In the first section, she travels (with her husband) in the American south in the 1970s; the second section covers California at the time of the Patty Hearst trial.
Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear
Toronto writer Maclear spent a year in the company of a musician with a passion for birds, and produced this philosophically introspective journal of the experience. Complements my unobsessive interests in birds and art, even if I’m a little wishy-washy on life.
Communal Nude: Essays by Robert Glück
As I was reading this non-fiction collection by New Narrative cofounder Glück I stuck small Post-Its on essays that contained especially meaningful ideas, and by the time I was done a rainbow of Post-Its protruded from the top.
Sad Old Faggot by Sky Gilbert
As I’ve said on previous occasions, I’m a little iffy on the variety of autobiographical fiction seemingly exemplified by this book. If, as I suspect, causing the reader to feel dislike for the writer is a key objective of such work, then they are often successful. I’m not opposed to this as an experimental genre, but I’m uncertain that, having been conducted, the experiment needs to be repeated. My favourite part of this one was the author’s bio in the back, which convinced me to buy it in the first place.
Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr
Clearly set in a fictionalised version of the University of Calgary generally, the Social Sciences building specifically, the Toronto Star description of “Like an unholy collision of Stoner, The Haunting of Hill House, Charlie Brown, and Alice in Wonderland” seems pretty accurate. A biting satire about academia, the story will no doubt resonate most strongly with jaded members of arts faculties whatever their institutions, but entertaining for the non-academic reader as well.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
A series of essays of an autobiographical nature centred on the idea of “lost.” Solnit has become a writer I admire, and this book feels like one of those that writers haven’t the liberty to write often, vaguely Thoreauvian in its thought-provoking philosophical meandering. I enjoyed reading it slowly, in pieces.
The Fraser by Bruce Hutchison
Hutchison wrote this in 1950 or so (re-issued 2009), a commission for a series about the great rivers of North America. Local history with a distinctly colonial focus, the indigenous are but a footnote in most of the stories. I tend to categorise this genre as “settler porn” to some degree, but it’s nevertheless quite interesting. My uncle had a copy of it on the table at the farm when I was visiting and I read a good chunk of it one evening after dinner. Upon my return to the city, I picked up a copy at the library so I could finish it. An indigenous version of the same subject-period would be interesting too, though it would perhaps of necessity be fiction. But then, isn’t there a bit of fiction to all history?