This year, for the first time ever, I read just as much non-fiction as I did fiction. I usually much prefer disappearing into fictional worlds and letting them light up my imagination. But I was also drawn to a lot of non-fiction texts this year that I got a lot out of. I read a total of 12 books in 2017, which I’m really happy with. I’d love to read even more books this year so I’m setting myself a goal of 15 for 2018.
This list is organised into the two main categories of fiction and non-fiction and the books are listed in chronological order of my reading. If you’re looking for some new book recommendations, here’s a detailed look at what I read in 2017 as well as my personal thoughts on each book. I hope you find something you like in here. Happy reading!
What I read in 2017:
The Good People by Hannah Kent
The Good People is Australian novelist Hannah Kent’s eagerly anticipated second novel. Just like in award-winning Burial Rites, the novel is inspired by historical events and deals with the suffering of women in unforgiving environments. Centering around three female characters in bleak, southwest Ireland in the 1820s, this is a story of desperation and how women struggle to understand the world around them and the hand they have been dealt.
Middle-aged Nóra lives in a small and remote Irish town where belief in ‘The Good People’ (or fairies) and their influence has a firm grip on the community. Nóra has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year, and is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál. His intellectual and physical disabilities arouse suspicion of otherworldly interference in Nóra and she keeps him hidden away, out of sight. Bereft of her family and struggling to care for him on her own, Nóra hires a fourteen-year-old servant girl, Mary, to help. In desperation and fear, Nóra and Mary seek out the only person in the valley who might be able to help Micheál, local outcast, Nance. It is said that she can consort with them, the Good People, and has the knowledge to ‘put the fairy out of it’.
After devouring Burial Rights a few months before, I pounced on The Good People when I saw it in a bookstore during my birthday weekend in Paris. The story is engrossing and the language lyrical. While I knew that folkloric beliefs and superstitions existed in Ireland in the 1800s, I didn’t realise just how pervasive they were until I read this book. I was captivated by the interplay of grief, poverty and lack of education in the lives of the female characters and how this led to an unspeakable crime.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
If you haven’t heard of The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ve been under a rock. Margaret Atwood is known for her harrowing dystopias and, given the current political climate, the chilling reality of this particular story is a little too easy to imagine. Written over 30 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale received overwhelming critical acclaim and has now been adapted into a popular TV series.
A coup by a christian fundamentalist army has killed the President and overthrown the government. The United States of America has now been named the Republic of Gilead. Its brutal new order is patriarchal and oppressive, with women being the main target. Little by little, women’s rights are eroded, their personal freedoms constricted. The fertile amongst them are labelled ‘Handmaids’; their role solely to breed. If they deviate, they’ll be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness.
We see this repressive regime through the eyes of one of these handmaids, Offred, the novel’s protagonist. She recounts her life as the property of the Commander to an unseen audience. We only know as much about Gilead and her life as she chooses to reveal. And while she’s complicit in the way she obliges with her ‘duties’, she is also a dissenter and becomes a powerful symbol of rebellion.
Even though we gasp at the brutality of this imagined totalitarian regime, this is actually not the stuff of fiction. Awood challenged herself to only include events in the book that had happened somewhere in history. Every aspect of Gilead’s culture really happened at some point in history. Perhaps this is why this novel is so haunting. I was gripped and terrified by this story. It reminded me that we have to keep fighting for our rights and not be complacent. Even though we might have them now, it doesn’t mean they can’t be taken away in an instant.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
The novel opens with a tragedy. On Mother’s Day in the early 1960s, a nine-year-old boy is found hanging by the neck from the branch of a tree in his family’s garden. Was it an accident? A murder? More than a decade later, the family is no closer to uncovering the truth of what happened to him.
Inspired by Houdini and Robert Louis Stevenson, twelve-year-old Harriet (his sister who was just a baby when it happened) becomes fixated on finding and punishing her brother’s murderer. She pieces together parts of the puzzle from fragments of hearsay until she convinces herself who did it. But what starts out as a child’s game soon becomes a dangerous journey. Her prime suspect is Danny Ratliff, a white-trash, former classmate of her brother’s who has since sunk into a life of crime and drugs.
I’ve become obsessed with Donna Tartt ever since reading The Goldfinch a few years ago. You know when you come across a book you hold so dear to your heart and you wonder what other treasures the author has written, just waiting to be discovered? This is what led me to this book. While I definitely enjoyed The Goldfinch more, The Little Friend was also very good. I love her writing style – its fluid and precise. The novel is a portrait of the deep south in all of its complexities.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Wanting something big and juicy for the honeymoon and, slightly obsessed with Atwood after The Handmaid’s Tale, I took Alias Grace with me. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which was a completely fictional construction, Alias Grace is based on historical events. Intrigued by reports of a sensational murder trial in 1843 in Canada, Atwood has crafted an enthralling novel about the life of Grace Marks and the events leading up to murder.
The story begins with Grace in prison, already convicted. She is visited by psychologist, Dr. Simon Jordan, in his attempt to understand the criminally insane. Grace claims that she has partial memory loss and can’t remember the murders so Dr. Jordan tries various techniques to unblock her memory. Searching for the truth, he becomes fascinated by her, listening while she recounts her past and the moments leading to the infamous crimes.
I devoured this book by the pool while sipping fresh coconuts in Indonesia and couldn’t put it down. The question of the reliability of the narrator was forever circling in my head. The reader only knows as much as Grace wants to divulge and, of that, how much of it was true? Atwood toys with truth and perception, questions of power and class. She also really made me think about how, for centuries, women have been denied the chance to tell their own stories and how the power imbalance between the sexes is not only physical but one of credibility also. I loved the Netflix adaptation too!
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Spanning decades, A Little Life follows the lives of four college friends who move to New York to each make their own way. Revolving around these relationships, the novel focuses in on one of these four in particular: Jude. Chronically and horrifically abused throughout his childhood and adolescence, Jude is haunted by his unspeakable past. He guards his secrets closely and copes with them the only way he knows how: self-harm. Supported by his adoptive parents and his lover, Jude battles to shed his nightmares and escape the tyranny of memory.
Oh my. What can I say about this book? Simply, it is the darkest, most heartbreaking book I’ve ever read. It is by far the best book I read in 2017. I found it a little slow to get into, but once I was in, it was all-consuming. The characters are so devastatingly real and complex that they almost transform into real people in your mind and when you put the book down for the day, you’re still thinking about them. I often wished I had a friend reading it at the same time as me so I could call to debrief. Books don’t usually make me cry but in this novel I was sobbing. It’s beautifully written and is a book that all literature lovers must read.
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami
In this collection of seven short stories, Haruki Murakami observes the lives of seven different men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone. Women certainly feature in the stories but they are at the periphery and are motivated by their own curiosities and desires. The central theme of loneliness runs like a thread through the collection and the tales become darker as they progress.
I’m not usually one to read short stories, preferring meatier, longer works instead. But I’ve been curious about Murakami for a while and, having never read him before, thought this might be a good place to start. Its title and theme also captivated me. I really enjoyed his style – the authorial voice was subtle and suggestive – and I liked that the stories were short enough to read in a single sitting. I liked some stories more than others (which is to be expected) but I found all of them interesting, particularly in the way they examine the immeasurable gulf that can exist between the two genders.
In 2012, Laura Bates set up a website, the Everyday Sexism Project, to document the almost daily sexual harassment and abuse she was receiving. In a climate in which many believe that sexism no longer exists, she invited others to contribute their experiences to prove the scale of misogyny. After an astounding range of stories that came pouring in from all over the world, the project quickly became one of the biggest social media success stories of the internet.
The book collates these experiences and shines a light on how sexism has become normalised in our society. Her work shows just how pervasive the prejudice really is, how there is no sphere of a woman’s life that isn’t affected by it. Chapters cover everything from education, the workplace, public spaces, politics, the media and motherhood.
I read this book with bubbling rage at what women are forced to put up with day in, day out. Misogyny has become so ingrained in our patriarchal society and so many people accept that ‘it’s just the way it is’. But it’s time to make a stand. Bates’ book encourages us to speak out against any kind of sexist behaviour we experience or witness and to start a dialogue about it. It’s only by making a stand will we see attitudes start to shift.
Girl Up by Laura Bates
Fired up from reading Everyday Sexism, the next book I picked up was Laura Bates’ follow-up, Girl Up. The book is aimed at teenagers and basically encourages all young women everywhere to embrace feminism, love themselves and their bodies and think critically about the messages the media constantly bombards us with. Topics covered include consent, body image, role models, dating and sexuality. It’s funny and accessible and broken up with hilarious pictures (including dancing vaginas) and inspirational quotes.
This handbook should be required reading for every teenage girl out there and I truly wish that it was around when I was growing up. With its informal register, I feel like it would really connect with its young audience. It deals with all of the issues that girls are trying to navigate (often with only the media or the patriarchy as their guideline) in a straightforward and accessible way. It would make a great gift for any adolescent girls in your family!
Tribes by Seth Godin
I don’t read a lot of business books as I generally find them a bit dry. Seth Godin’s books are short and poignant though, which makes them super accessible. I love watching his TED talks and hearing his insights on podcasts and I find him fascinating. Everything he says makes total, perfect sense.
Godin argues that no matter what kind of work you do, everyone has the opportunity to start a movement, to bring together a tribe of like-minded people and do amazing things. People are hungry for connection, meaning and change but a lot of people are afraid of questioning the status quo and of doing things differently. In short, most people are ‘sheep’ and look to others to lead them. But in actual fact, everyone has the capacity to lead others and inspire meaningful change – it’s just about finding your tribe. This book shows you how to do that.
Since blogging is all about connecting with others and building influence, it was a pretty relevant read. The book is full of great takeaways that can help bloggers lead their audience where they want to go.
The Gene Machine by Bonnie Rochman
After Ben and I decided we’d start trying for a baby soon after our wedding, I decided to get carrier testing done to see whether I carried the gene of a disease we had in our family history. Going through the process opened my mind up to the Pandora’s Box that is genetic screening. How do you decide to test? What do you test for? How far do you go? And what does it mean for you and your baby’s future? I became really interested in these questions and wanted to learn more about these issues.
In Gene Machine, award-winning journalist, Bonnie Rochman, explores the frontiers of gene technology and the implications surrounding it. From pre-pregnancy carrier screening and IVF pre-implantation genetic testing, the various tests available during pregnancy, as well as newborn screening, the book explores the promise and perils of obtaining all of this information. Rochman interviews doctors, scientists, legal experts and families and guides us through what tests are available, what effect they have had on real people and how they really are changing the way we have kids.
This book really opened my eyes up to just how much information is available as well as the pros and cons of not knowing enough vs knowing too much. While every parent wants a healthy baby and knowledge is power, genetic screening is a slippery slope.
Baby Lost by Hannah Robert
Immediately after my miscarriage, I felt like I needed to connect with other women who had also experienced pregnancy loss. Baby Lost was written by Melbourne-based law lecturer, Hannah Robert. I knew that this book was going to be heartbreaking but it was the kind of book I felt like I needed to read at the time.
Two days after Christmas in 2009, a four-wheel drive veered onto the opposite side of the road and crushed the car Robert and her family were travelling in. While they all survived, the impact caused her placenta to abrupt and her baby died. Her memoir explores the aftermath of the tragedy and her long recovery. As a law lecturer, she also grapples with the very complex legal question of whether personhood of a foetus should be recognised separately from the mother.
This memoir brought be to tears many times, especially as I was grieving my own pregnancy loss. I couldn’t imagine the trauma of having a baby snatched away like that who, if born prematurely at that point would have had an excellent chance of survival. She is unflinchingly honest in describing the various stages of her grief, the healing process and, eventually, her decision to start trying for another baby (and the subsequent IVF journey). Given her career in the legal sphere, I found her take on the ensuing legal case fascinating too.
Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
Directly after reading Baby Lost I started Option B. Both books deal with grief and recovery, which is the world I was in at that point. Option B was widely acclaimed and I’d heard interviews with Sheryl Sandberg on various podcasts I’d listened to that year. I was very interested in her story and thought it was the perfect time to delve into it.
Sandberg, who is Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, discovered her husband, Dave, dead on the gym floor while on vacation in Mexico. Her life shattered in that moment and she had to fly home to tell her kids the news that they’d never see their father again. The book chronicles the acute grief and isolation she experienced in the wake of Dave’s death and her belief that she and her children would never feel pure joy again. Her psychologist friend, Adam Grant (who co-wrote the book) explained, however, that there are actually concrete steps she could take to recover from an experience even as horrific as this. We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience; it is a muscle everyone can build.
The book goes on to combine Sandberg’s personal insights with Grant’s research. It’s packed full of really helpful advice on dealing with grief and any kind of adversity and the lessons we can learn from these experiences. It gave me a lot of hope for the future, despite the difficult period I was going through. It also The really struck a chord with me in its discussion around how others respond to someone else’s grief and I felt inspired to write this post.
And that’s everything I read in 2017! If you have any book recommendations for me for 2018, please let me know!
Looking for more of my personal reflections? Browse the Journal category or read these next:
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What were your favourite reads of 2017? Tell me in the comments!