Reviewing my Year in Reading: 2017

December started for me with a chilly reminder: with a month to go, my yearly book total stood at 72. My goal of 80 seemed out of reach.

Christmas break bailed me out, as did 20 total hours of driving/audiobooks to see family over the holidays.

So why 80 books this year, after reading 95 last year? I upped the rigor of my reading this year, for one, reading two German-language young adult novels, Die Welle and Tschick

I also lost key reading time in May and June with a crazy travel schedule. Don't get me wrong, traveling with teens--as I did taking my sons and nephews on a great American road trip to California--is incredibly rewarding, but it yields zero "me time" for reading. I won't complain. Caring for kids > reading.

Books of the Year

The single-best book I read in 2017 was a nonfiction one, Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How They Communicate--Discoveries from a Secret World. Wohlleben unveils incredible natural secrets about the networks of communication and nurture that wend their ways through the ground just beneath our feet.

As it turned out, the highlights of my year included trees, and as I gaped in awe at Giant Sequoia and backpacked with my family to the Tall Trees Grove of Redwoods National Park, Wohlleben's book was in my brain, informing, illustrating so much hidden wonder. And I would add The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring (about the romance between two redwood scientists/ tree climbers) and Eric Rutkow's American Canopy, which retold the history of my country through its use of trees as a resource.

I listened to Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses as I was driving from Abilene to El Paso Texas, but it was the second novel in his border trilogy, The Crossing that was my #1 novel of the year. The Crossing follows an American boy on three trips into Mexico. Traveling with motives that would seem honorable and just--returning a captured wolf to its home range, tracking horses stolen from his family--but they yield results that are gruesome and tragic. The novel serves as an allegory for American efforts to "do good" south of the border and in the world, which turn out to be just as tragic.

I'm torn, because I want to make Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Headed Woman #1, too. I loved this book, an allegory of Turkey's slide from secular, western wealth to Islamism and totalitarianism. To this western reader, TRHW equals Pamuk's masterpiece, Snow.


I finally read Uncle Tom's Cabin this year, crossing that "classic" off my to-read list. Its reading was inspired by Martha Conway's The Underground River and Berly Lowry's Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life. I would also read The Other Slavery (Andres Resendez) about the enslavement of Native Americans from 1493-1870. I expect that slavery will be a topic I will write more about in 2018.

The Syrian Conflict was on my mind a lot this year. My first book of the year, given by Karin Oster​, was The Silence and the Roar, about a free-minded man trying to endure an oppressive Syrian regime. Mohsin Hamid's Exit West was one of the top books of the year, and it cleverly told of two refugees transported from an unnamed conflict zone to London, and it showed the effect of nationlessness on their love for one another. Fleeing ISIS, Finding Jesus was an inspirational look at the way fearless Christians are seeing Jesus working among families and communities devastated by Islamic extremism. In Dark at the Crossing, Elliot Ackerman connects the dots between Syria and the Iraq War in this Casablanca-esque war romance that had the saddest, most tragic scene my brain beheld all year (English Patient-esque) might be another way to describe it.

Looking ahead to 2018

I get to spend three weeks in Germany in late Spring, and I plan to fill my brain with German works. In particular, I want to read the tales of King Dietrich (the German King Arthur) and his brave knights.

For the World Cup next summer, I hope to read some novels from nations in the tournament, as I did in 2014. Sadly, there won't be an American team there.

Final Book Recommendations I didn't have time to write about

Young Adult

  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
  • Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
  • The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein​
  • Ghost World, Daniel Clowes

Novels I Really Enjoyed

  • Eleanor Olyphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  • The Book of Unknown Americans, Christina Henriquez
  • The Power, Naomi Alderman
  • Five-Carat Soul, James McBride

Nonfiction that Taught Me A Lot

  • The Devil's Highway, Luis Urrea
  • Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire, by Lars Brownworth
  • The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, by Elaine Showalter
  • The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853, by Edward Dolnick
  • Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler
  • Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau, by Kevin Dann
  • I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong