We like to read. We like to write about what we’ve read so you read it and then we can discuss it and then you could recommend books to us because we never want to stop reading. Our Best Books of 2017 roundup features some of the best books BYT staff and book store staff and librarians read. Unlike most best book lists, our criteria isn’t about books that were released in 2017, but rather books we read in 2017 that we think made us better people. Some of us read to escape and some to cope. Every book is worth reading.
We’ve organized our list in chronological order from oldest to newest. It’s easy to forget about old books.
For A Reminder That Things Are Better in the 2000s Than the 1700s
I read this brilliant epistolary novel at a point in my life when I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. To make a very long (about 2,000 pages) story short, it’s the story of an intelligent, virtuous young woman caught between a very big rock and a very hard place, largely because of the time in which she’s living. But I wasn’t living in 18th-century England. I had choices Clarissa Harlowe didn’t have, and Richardson rammed that point home to me. His novel gave me the courage to stop being miserable when I didn’t have to be, and to start living life on my own terms. -Rebecca Oppenheimer, Kramerbooks
For ’40s Satire Offering Surprising Optimism
I read for pleasure, not self-improvement, so a book has to work extra hard to get me pondering my behavior. It’s easier to make me think about my thinking, which is exactly what Dawn Powell’s 1948 novel The Locusts Have No King achieved when I picked it up it earlier this year. Shitty title notwithstanding, this Manhattan society satire — the kind of thing Fitzgerald might have put out if he’d lived another decade and also was less in love with himself — was written for writers. This comedy-of-miscommunication between a budding novelist and a married playwright who may be past her creative prime is full of keen observation and the wisdom that comes with it. Its first main lesson: Talk to each other, for god’s sake. The conflicts of Locusts could mostly be swept away if the two leads just sat down and spoke their hearts, as opposed to waiting for the Shakespearean reveal scene at the end. But even more than that, Powell’s impressive prose demonstrates that the smartest, most true-to-life stories, including sharp-tongued satire, can in fact end well. You don’t have to give up your optimism just because you know the selfish, petty ways the world works. It reminds you that happy endings can be clear-eyed and level-headed, not just gooily glass-half-full. That is worth keeping in mind. -Tristan Lejeune, BYT Theatre Critic
For A Trip to the City
In 1991, when I was a young, straight fourteen-year-old growing up in South Carolina, I discovered Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. I had barely ever left the south and had never met an out gay person — but through the pages of Tales, Maupin’s character Michael Tolliver became my first gay friend, and the book affirmatively changed who I was and how I thought. This year, Armistead Maupin published his long-awaited memoir, Logical Family. You don’t have to be a Tales of the City fan to appreciate Maupin’s story, which is told with the same wit and warmth as his iconic series and has much to teach all of us about growing up, becoming ourselves, and finding our people and our place. -Emilie Sommer, East City Bookshop Book Buyer
For The Children
My reaction to this year’s inauguration was to look for children’s books that spoke to a society of diversity and compassion. I have a three year old daughter and while she may not understand current events (lucky her), she does interact with children from all different backgrounds almost every day at her school. If I cannot control the way the tides of this country may shift and move, I can still start to prepare my own child to be a caring and appreciative citizen. While both books are from different eras they teach the ability to respect socioeconomic differences, get involved in helping the less fortune, and appreciating the smaller, simpler things in daily life. They’re beautifully illustrated books that get these large concepts across in a really elegant and accessible way for children. They help to make me feel like I’m starting a conversation with my child that can, in some tiny way, help to set her up to play her part in healing a divisive country. -Diana Metzger, BYT Writer
For unbridled compassion, even if it’s the twisted sort
I understand I am the last person on this earth to finally read Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, but it blew me away and set the bar high for the other books I read in 2017. Well known for it’s more scandalous subplots, Geek Love deals heavily with child death, mutilation, assault and cruelty, and that’s without going into the fine details of the freak show family at the center of the novel. It’s a dark book that covers a lot of off putting topics, but what stands out to me is the love and compassion at the core of the story. Olympia, the albino hunchbacked dwarf that serves as the narrator of this twisted story, has had the very definition of a hard life. Raised in strange circumstances (that’s definitely an understatement) and bossed around by her infinitely cruel older brother, you’d expect a guarded and calloused character, instead Oly is a being of love. She has an infinite amount of compassion and respect for her family, her daughter, and the other freaks that come in and out of her life. Despite the fact that the most of the love she receives comes with conditions, she continues to give it out unconditionally. It’s a heartbreaking tale of what people are willing to do for the ones they love and that stands out to me way more than the gore and terror. 2017 has been a year marked by callous cruelty and it was nice to spend sometime in a world that contains so much love, even in the midst of so much darkness. -Kaylee Dugan, BYT Assistant Editor
For The Twin Peaks Completist
Twin Peaks The Return was the best piece of art released in 2017. Revisiting this book before the season three premiere was more important than re-watching the first two seasons or Fire Walk With Me. Twin Peaks isn’t really about the lodge or the owls or BOB or identity. All of those things are in Twin Peaks but at the core, the story is about ignoring a young person’s trauma.
I recommended this book earlier in the year because of the audiobook release. The print edition was first released between seasons one and two in 1990. At the time, author Jennifer Lynch was 22. Laura Palmer portrayer Sheryl Lee was 23. 27 years later, 50-year-old Sheryl Lee portrayed the teenage Palmer in the audiobook. It’s an incredibly effective performance and frames the entire series in a new, darker light. -Brandon Wetherbee, BYT Managing Editor
For the Historical Fiction Fan Looking for Hope
Ken Follett had an awesome year. The release of his new novel, A Column of Fire, means he’s once again on all the bestseller lists and bringing everyone into the world of Kingsbridge and its inhabitants (he’s the only author I’ve ever read who can make me care deeply about the buildings of a stone bridge). I loved A Column of Fire so much that I started a deep dive into Ken Follett’s other series and novels, and A Place Called Freedom is hands down the best. It’s an 18th century adventure that starts off in Scotland and ends up in America just before the Revolutionary War. The America in Follett’s novel had so many parallels to our world today I had to keep checking to make sure the book hadn’t been updated since it was originally published in 1995. The book is not a complete downer however, there’s romance and action enough to keep you extremely entertained. The novel’s overall message of hope that the USA is a place of freedom probably seemed contrite in ’95, but now I found it inspiring (if not a bit optimistic). -Marissa Rubenstein, BYT Staff
For The Person Who Stands In Awe of Everyday Loneliness
As we all know, all 27-year-old men living on the east coast are legally required to have Philip Roth phases and I had mine this spring. I went through a good portion of his catalogue and American Pastoral is the one that stuck with me the most (with Sabbath’s Theater a close second). The book tells of the story of Seymour “The Swede” Levov, the quintessential all-American man who’s tall and blonde and a legend in his town for his high school athletic career, all qualities I share with him (please do not Google me). I found the book to be endlessly compelling, it’s a masterpiece in terms of plotting and structure. Roth’s writing is eminently quotable. Here’s my favorite quote from the book, and the one I’ve thought about often in the months since I read it:
“You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
WOW. Roth! My man! Look, I’m prone to judgement just like the rest of us (please don’t judge me for that), and reading this knocked me on my feet (not literally, I’m too athletic for that). There’s a lot in the book that resonated with me, but that’s what I’ll never forget. -Tommy McNamara, BYT Writer
For Turning Bureaucracy Into Beauty
Welcome to yet another edition of Kaylee Reads Very Popular and Critically Acclaimed Books Years After Everyone Has Started Talking About Them! I’m so glad to be here. While the original appeal of The Devil In the White City was, for me, the in depth look at one of America’s most heinous and creative serial killers, H. H. Homes, I walked away entranced by the architects who against all odds managed to pull off the Chicago World’s Fair. Larson juxtaposes both the building of the fair and the construction of Holmes murder house to showcase both the depravity and the magic of the time. When you’ve got the invention of the Ferris Wheel and the murder of 27 people all crammed into one tale, you know you’re in for a treat, but it’s the struggle of the architects and designers who had to fight insane bureaucracy, politics and often times each other to execute their dream that really takes your breath away. It’s a story about all the things that happen behind the scenes, the in-fighting, the backstabbing and the collaboration that it takes to pull off something that’s never been seen before. It’s inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measure. -Kaylee Dugan, BYT Assistant Editor
For Finding Comedy in the Most Unexpected Places
This is one of the first books I read on my new Kindle, and I was so engrossed with it that I didn’t pay attention to the page count at the bottom of the screen, so I was floored and really upset when I found out I had hit the ending. Mary Roach has taken a funny, smart and touching approach to the most serious subject of all, death. She hangs out with decaying bodies, talks to med school students about their cadavers, travels to China to find out if a morgue has been selling human meat to butcher shops, and so many other deeply weird things. Despite the morbid nature of her book, Roach manages to keep things light and easy. She bounces from one topic to another effortlessly, distilling complex ideas and stories into effortlessly readable chapters. More than that, by highlighting the things they teach us (whether it be on the dissection table or as a crash test dummy), she brings a new sort of importance and dignity to the dead. It’s the kind of book that makes dying sound like joining the Peace Corps. -Kaylee Dugan, BYT Assistant Editor
For Sports To Explain Life
Sports have set rules. There are clear objectives. Politics is not sports. It’s sports-like, but it’s not sports. Baseball is the best sport for set rules. This conversation between two Hall of Famers is fascinating for baseball reasons, social justice reasons (both African-American men, Gibson pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1959 to 1975 and Jackson played for five different teams from 1967 to 1987) and film making reasons. Early in the discussion, the batter and pitcher discuss how to fool your opponent. By slowly moving in the batter’s box, a hitter could gain an advantage on the pitcher. If the pitcher thinks the batter is setting up in the same position, he may not realize the hitter has backed up in the box, buying him milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing. It sounds minute. It is. But it’s the difference between a hit and a whiff. It’s also the same type of framing technique Orson Welles used in Citizen Kane to make characters appear larger than life.
After last year, I wanted to find reason. It’s difficult to find reason in politics, especially in books about politics (I only got through one chapter of Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign and still haven’t started What Happened? though I currently have it checked out from the D.C. Public Library). Sports books, specifically books about baseball, help contextualize why people do certain things. -Brandon Wetherbee, BYT Managing Editor
For a Life Changer
Just Kids is a biography, love story, coming of age tale, and all around wonderful book for any artist or lover of the arts. Patti Smith paints a beautiful and raw picture of the NYC art and music scene that she helped shape. This book is the ruler I measure all of my favorite books against, it’s a book that has changed my life in more ways than I can count. Reading Just Kids for the first time was an experience I’ll never forget and the first time I felt like someone was writing a story that I was destined to read. -Olivia Jablonski, Kramerbooks
Surprisingly, given its size and historical significance, China often suffers being written about in English-language media mostly by non-Chinese writers and mostly in regards to politics or economics. Consider Yu Hua’s China In Ten Words, a cultural and literary history in the first-person voice of a celebrated and talented novelist, a refreshing departure from the tired takes of the think-tank class. Yu Hua’s ten essays are analysis and narrative, and the book is as much a kind autobiographical memoir as cultural critique, but works very well as both. Put Kissinger’s On China back on the shelf where it belongs, please, and pick up Yu Hua. -Daniel Weaver, East City Bookshop Bookseller
For A Different Graphic Novel
Here, a meditative, nearly wordless graphic novel by Richard McGuire, was spun off from a short story McGuire originally published nearly 30 years ago in Art Spiegelman’s Raw comic anthology, and is unlike any piece of fiction I’ve read before. The book depicts a single location, a living room in an average American home, with each page picturing the space at different points in time across millions of years, many pages showing frames-within-frames of different years, different conversations, actions, and events that happened across time. The cumulative effect of the 300 page work brings to mind Terrence Malick’s meditative film making style, taking a humanistic, empathetic approach to millennia of history. -Matt Byrne, BYT Writer
For the Art Critic
Berger died in January of 2017, at 90. Like Geoff Dyer or John McPhee, Berger was prolific but perhaps at his best when he turns his critical eye towards painting. Portraits collects Berger’s writing on 74 artists spanning the breadth of the Western tradition, many of whose works can be found on the walls of the National Gallery. Berger’s fervently and stubbornly political voice feels at the moment very appropriate, and I recommend this book without reservation to anyone remotely curious about art. It is unpretentious, affordable, and portable enough to be carried to the galleries where you can read while you walk. Berger is an infinitely more interesting companion than the Galleries’ staid and drearily objective commentaries. -Daniel Weaver, East City Bookshop Bookseller
For the Person Who Holds Intellectual Debates In A Donut Shop
Satire is always supposed to be funny, but it often ends up being funny in the way where you twiddle your mustache and say, “how utterly droll” (I do this all the time). Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is relentlessly funny, it’s funny in the way where you laugh out loud on the train, and everyone looks at you like you’re bonkers. It’s also a profound and insightful look at race relations in America. It’s hard to describe the premise in one sentence but here it goes: The narrator, an African American man who was home schooled by his sociologist father on a farm in a recently unincorporated area (Dickens) near Los Angeles seeks out to re-incorporate his town, and along the way segregates a public bus and a school, attempts to win back his high school love, and is arrested for owning a slave (Hominy Jenkins, who was famous in childhood as an oft cut out member of The Little Rascals, a delightful character). It’s absurd and incisive and insightful and my description can’t begin to do it justice. It even won the Man Booker prize, and you know that’s a good award because it has book right there in the title! I find this book essential. It made me reflect on the racism in America’s history, the racism in America’s culture today, and my own internalized racism, all while being the funniest book I read this year. -Tommy McNamara, BYT Writer
For Art That Can Help
Because, if you have art and beauty in you (and you do) – you should let it fly. Don’t make apologies or excuses or anything. Just do it. Life is short and you need to feel you left a little bit of you out there for everyone to see and feel. -Svetlana Legetic, BYT Founder
For American Exceptionalism
Centered around an immigrant family from Cameroon trying to make a life for themselves in the city and inch closer to citizenship, Jende and his wife Neni find themselves working for a wealthy family during the financial crisis and becoming enmeshed in their golden plated problems. I think this was the year many American citizens began to question whether we really are the best country in the world and coming up pretty short, especially in terms of how we nurture (or fail miserably to nurture) immigrants. Through the eyes of hardworking and compassionate Neni and Jende you see what they appreciate about America but you also see them discover the gigantic void of emotion that exists in the wealthy that seem to have it all but have nothing of real value. This novel won’t necessarily make you feel amazing about being an American but it puts you in the head space of an immigrant in this country. It will make you want to do what you can turn this country into a more hospitable place for those who arrive on our shores with their own dreams. -Diana Metzger, BYT Writer
For Eating, Praying, Loving
Despite the immense amount of success of Eat, Pray, Love, I was skeptical. I’m not a huge fan of novels that follow the “romantic, finding yourself, women of a certain age” structure (or of self-help style books) and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Gilbert’s writing style is both personable and informative, while often making me laugh out loud (embarrassingly, on the Metro).
The book centers around the idea of creativity as moving entity, not something that those who call themselves “creatives” own or control, it comes and goes as it pleases, looking for those who are ready. I found this notion to be pretty fascinating and I whipped through each chapter, as she describes her own dealings with inspiration, creativity, and sometimes a lack thereof.
Gilbert’s concept of creative living is more about living a life in pursuit of what excites you, rather than playing it safe. This is what makes the book accessible to more than just artists, writers and photographers. Without being preachy and feeling too much like a self-help book, Gilbert was able to give advice on pursuing this kind of life in a way I hadn’t experienced before. After reading it, I found myself able to think about the creative process through a different lens. Big Magic is a book I’ll go back to from time to time, when I need a bit of inspiration, or as pick me up after a rough day. -Mary Godier, BYT Staff
For The Book Club
This is a book for readers of Kelly Link, Jennifer Egan, Nell Zink, and any other lady writers who don’t give AF about convention or expectation. Machado has gifted us with a collection that is both explicitly niche and completely universal. I’ve been waiting for a voice like hers for a long, long time. Young, queer, brilliant, Philly-centric, and a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. She did not come to play, she came to change the way we read and challenge what we expect from short stories. Every radical book club in the world should be reading this RIGHT. NOW. -Katie Presley, Upshur Street Books
For A Reminder That Wallowing in My Dissatisfaction is Lazy
Was 2017 a good year for women, or a bad one? The Women’s March was an amazing show of solidarity – but it was in response to the previous day’s inauguration of a misogynistic garbage human. The #MeToo movement has forced institutions across the country to deal decisively with toxicity in work environments – but the backlash is real, and there are still a lot of really gross dudes out there. Season three of Playing House was amazing – but then Playing House got cancelled.
So, I don’t know if 2017 was a good year for women, but I know it wasn’t a good year for me. It was the toughest year I’ve had in at least the last decade, and a lot of that was related to my day job. (In a not so shocking turn of events, it turns out this isn’t the best time to work in public service in D.C.) Since books usually have all the answers, when seeking a solution to my career crisis, I turned to Double Bind, a collection of essays by women talking about what ambition means for them in their lives and careers.
It was one of my best decisions of the year. I got a lot out of different essays in that book, and one of the most important overall reminders was that everybody struggles. Not just for a day or a week, either – sometimes pursuing the work you love is hard for a long time. Being passionate about something doesn’t mean it can’t be full of disappointments and setbacks, and Double Bind is a book written by women who have faced those things and then made decisions about whether to stay the course or change direction. Reading it reminded me that even if the reasons for hitting a rough patch are out of my control, I’m still responsible for my own life. In other words, Double Bind taught me that when the going gets tough, whining isn’t nearly as satisfying as kicking ass. -Trisha Brown, BYT Writer
For the Person Wishing They Were Still in the Bathroom with Ryan Adams
I’ve always been a little music freak. I decided at around age 13 (the first time I heard “All Apologies” by Nirvana and decided to play guitar—-oh my God I am insufferable) that music was going to be most of my personality. The first time I heard “Last Nite” by The Strokes it blew my fucking mind. I ended up seeing them twice in high school; one of the times it was the best rock show I’d ever been to, the other time they were so messed up they were straight up falling down and only played for like 30 minutes, both times I was completely enamored. I was so excited when I first heard about Lizzie Goodman’s oral history of the 2000s New York rock scene Meet Me In The Bathroom. The book covers a bunch of bands I love, with the primary focus being on The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s full of enlightening and hysterical anecdotes (Darren Aronovsky sitting alone at the bar while all the musicians were partying was my favorite). If you liked music in the 2000s please read it immediately.
The book is expertly crafted by Goodman, culminating in The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem selling out Madison Square Garden on back to back nights, the kind of ending that would make you roll your eyes if it was in fiction. What I really loved about reading it though was how much it humanized the musicians for me. Most of the characters in this story are people I fawned over in my high school years, and it was honestly a relief to hear that they were just people. They worked as bartenders and waitresses and had to practice and got too drunk and talked shit about people more successful. They played bad shows at places in New York where I’ve had bad shows (I’m the most successful comedian in America, if you didn’t read the byline). It’s such a fun read I would tell you more but now I have to go listen to “All My Friends” for an hour and think about the year. -Tommy McNamara, Most Successful Comedian in America
Fiction teaches empathy — this is what it feels like to be another person, this is what it means to live another sort of life — and nothing seems more important and urgent right now. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, one of the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of the Year, is a timely and essential refugee story set in a somber near-future that seems more possible by the day. Pair with Valeria Luiselli’s non-fiction Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions for a gut-punch of realism about how we treat the thousands of undocumented children who cross our southern border. Both books provide new insights and perspectives into our current conversation surrounding immigration. -Emilie Sommer, East City Bookshop Book Buyer
For A Reminder History Repeats
October is an account of the Russian revolution, which had its 100th anniversary this year. Miéville writes like a novel, with minimal footnotes and historical texts, and instead dives headlong in the dense, heady political maneuvering that led to the Sovets in power. Unless you’re a Russia expert, it turns out that period was way, way more complex than you could have possibly conceived. This book did not make me a better person in the Chicken Soup sense of the word – I don’t feel like it would me to feel empathy or everyday wisdom about my life. Instead, it showed in exhaustive detail just how we are stuck making the same exact mistakes over and over and over again. It’s a grim kind of solace, but I’d expect nothing less from 2017. -Alan Zilberman, BYT Film Editor
For Trying To Understand Women That You Love But Drive Your Crazy The Most (aka – our Mothers)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017) (and The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008), and The Middlesteins by Jamie Attenberg (2012), and Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (2014), and Lady Bird which I understand is NOT A BOOK but may as well be)
2017 as a year was about women sticking together. This is a noble but particularly tricky concept because from the outset, we are sort of conditioned to be at odds with each other. That conditioning comes from our relationships to our Mothers, which, much like most of the most profound loves, tend to be complicated, annoying, adversarial, and sometimes all-out insane. How many times have you heard a woman say: “I LOVE my Mom, but she is/drives me crazy”? So many times. Like, the amount of times that if, on the outset, you started collecting pennies for every time you hears someone say that and maybe even be able to buy a coffee as a result.
I am in my 30s, I am considering becoming a one of those Mother characters myself, and still very much feel that every time I am in a room with my (beautiful, strong, super smart, hustling Mother who made me into the woman I am today, bar none). So, whether consciously or not, I spent a lot of 2017 reading books (and seeing movies) about mother-daughter relationships and well, feeling less crazy for them. Celeste Ng leads the pack because she always leads the pack. Little Fires Everywhere, which is about mothers and daughters through and through teaches us that there is nothing you can teach here. Mrs. Robinson did her best, Bebe did her best, Mia Wright did her best, Mrs McCullough did her best – and yet, somehow they all both succeeded and failed, with streets of Shaker Heights lined with daughters who felt misunderstood, unseen but yes, also loved. Ng writes with a natural elegance that makes it all seem as epic as a Greek tragedy and as intimate as a hug. Read it (and all the other books on this list, because you should read more), and go hug your mother or daughter. -Svetlana Legetic, BYT Founder
For Right Now
While issues surrounding female bodies and the expectations placed on them by society feel downright timeless, Roxane Gay’s memoir hits at a moment where woman are truly feeling empowered to not only speak up but to be heard. Gay has her finger on the pulse of culture and this book, released this past June, almost feels prescient for the #MeToo movement of today. Gay talks vulnerably and candidly writes about an assault she experienced in her teen years that pushed her into a place of wanting to diminish her presence in the world by hiding within a larger body. She explores how she emotionally and psychically navigates a society that seeks to judge her based on her appearance. Many women will have moments of recognition reading this book and male readers would be smart to read this book in order to understand a bit about how it feels to be a woman in this complicated, scary, and pressure-filled world. -Diana Metzger, BYT Writer
As we close out the tough year of 2017, we all need entertainment and escape. Priestdaddy by poet Patricia Lockwood will charm fans of David Sedaris, and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby will make readers laugh out loud — much-needed and much-appreciated as we usher in the new year. -Emilie Sommer, East City Bookshop Book Buyer