It’s the end of the year, which means I’ll likely be catching up with a few posts on my neglected blog, this one about the best books I read in 2017. This was an exciting year of travel for me, with trips to Vancouver, Manitoba, Australia, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, plus many trips cities throughout the US. One habit I’ve gotten into when visiting somewhere new is to pick up novels at least partially set in that location, which affected my novel reading this year. I leaned more toward fiction overall, due in part to much of my non-fiction reading being devoted to research for a forthcoming project. Some highlights:
Havoc, Tom Kristensen — I had a hard time picking out which book to read for my first visit to Copenhagen, but since I was on aquavit business, this novel about an interwar literary editor drinking himself into oblivion seemed the most apt selection. It’s depressing and the characters irredeemable, but it’s a memorable portrait of the city’s “brown bars” of a long time ago. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be much else by Kristensen translated into English yet.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan — This Man Booker Prize winner shifts back and forth through time, from contemporary Australia to the travails of Australian war prisoners forced into labor on the Burma Railway during World War II. At the center of this is Dorrigo Evans, the prisoners’ doctor, torn between tales of his own heroism, the gruesome futility of his efforts, and a gradually unfolding mystery of a lost love. It’s a brutal read at times, but the disparate threads tie together remarkably well.
Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey — This Australian answer to To Kill a Mockingbird wears its influences on its sleeve with several explicit allusions to the novel. Aimed at young adults, but vivid and engrossing. There’s now a movie of it too, which I haven’t seen.
Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu — It’s been a long time since any book grabbed me the way this Chinese science fiction trilogy did, and I devoured the entire series over just a few weeks of intensive travel. The intrigue in the first book builds slowly; The Dark Forest is the most narratively satisfying; the concluding Death’s End becomes immense in scale, following the repercussions of Liu’s universe-building ideas to their conclusions at some expense to character development (or perhaps Liu is just less adept at writing a female lead). Tyler Cowen suggests reading a plot summary of the first book before beginning it. I’m more inclined to suggest going in knowing as little as possible, skipping even the promotional summaries.
Nicotine, Nell Zink — I picked this one up for its subject matter, curious to see how the kind of weirdo who does pro-tobacco activism in 2017 would be portrayed. It’s zany, funny, empathetic, and not really that much about tobacco. Here’s a glowing review from Vox, which is what inspired me to pick it up.
Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman — A thematic follow up to American Gods. If you like one, you’ll probably like the other.
The Show That Never Ends, David Weigel — Dave’s been a friend of mine for years and I’ve long followed his political reporting. His first book is a deep-dive into prog rock. What do I know about prog? Not a thing going in, but Dave’s affection for the genre is infectious and I enjoyed reading this one through. I’ve even been playing a little prog rock at home once in a while (fair warning to anyone who comes over for drinks).
The Beer Bible, Jeff Alworth — This one I haven’t read through completely, but I’ve found it to be an indispensable resource whenever I need information about beer. Jeff is deeply knowledgeable and engaging as a writer.
Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen — Initially released a bonus inducement for readers pre-ordering The Complacent Class, Tyler has made the link publicly available now. Cowen is one of the most interesting social commentators, and this serves as a foundational defense of the kind of libertarianism he’s committed to.Opt Book
The Future Eaters, Tim Flannery — I’ve only just begun reading this one, but given its strong recommendations, my previous enjoyment of Flannery’s writing, and the Australian books already on this list, I’m taking the risk of including it.