Favorite Books of 2017

This was the year of discovering a bunch of family-centric stories that quickly moved their way into my heart. There’s something about these quietly moving portraits of contemporary life that affect me most of all. In total there are seven stories I’d like to feature on my favorites of the year:

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1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

“It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”

I joined a bit late to this hyped up party, but once I started reading Little Fires Everywhere, it didn’t take too long till I couldn’t put the book down. Centering around a a memorable cast of characters whose lives intersect in complicated and sometimes surprising ways, while grappling with nuanced notions such as motherhood, interracial adoption, racism, and so much more.

Nothing in the book is ever done without intention; every detail has meaning. And it was a pure pleasure, watching the author click everything into place. I highly, highly recommend giving it a read just to experience it firsthand from the source. In the meantime, I went ahead and read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng because I cannot get enough of her exquisite character studies.

2. Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

This here is another family-driven read that kept me dazzled from start to finish. In all honesty, Zevin had already won over my adoration earlier this summer when I read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Naturally, I was beyond hopeful with expectations to see what this one would hold in store.

Why Young Jane Young shines: The dynamic mother-daughter duo that was captured perfectly on paper. Like, when asked how Ruby came to be so wise, her answer gives it all away:  “Books,” I said. “And I spend a lot of time with my mom.”

Plus, Gabrielle Zevin’s sly humor full of unflinching candor and brilliant wit shines as bright as ever.

3. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi

This sweeping multi-generational story explores mothers and daughters, stories told and untold, and the binds that tie four generations of women.

The fascinating thing about this book is that I was fully devoted to one particular generation, one particular love story:

“The extraordinary love story of Rochel Weinstein, the Ashkenazia from Mea Shearim, and Gabriel Ermosa, the Spaniol from Ohel Moshe, was the talk of the town.”

Something about the youthful years of Gabriel Ermosa had me head-over-heels unlike anything before. I was so utterly invested in his story with Rochel that I still, months after, feel it taking my breath away. I have yet to find a love story that can succeed at evoking such strong and real emotions out of me as that one did. It was a visceral reading experience. And I’m considering checking out the Hebrew version for my reread, so that I can revisit it in the original tone intended by the author, Sarit Yishai-Levi.

4. Letters to Talia by Dov Indig

Featuring another outstanding Israeli book on my list, Letters to Talia details the extensive correspondence Dov maintained with Talia, a girl from an irreligious kibbutz in northern Israel, in 1972 and 73, the last two years of his life. Dov Indig was killed on October 7, 1973, in a holding action on the Golan Heights in Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

The concept of a secular girl from a kibbutz writing letters to a soldier/ yeshiva boy about Judaism, and consequently learning more about faith sounded almost too good to be true. But it wasn’t, all thanks to the many shared insights from Indig’s brilliantly thought-out and put-together letters that made me want to SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS. For readers that love to expand their horizons, I’d recommend this read.

5. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

How am I supposed to pass up a title like that?

I’ve yet to find a more hysterical and comical read than Scaachi Koul’s essay collection. Her subjects range from shaving her knuckles in grade school, to a shopping trip gone horribly awry, to dealing with internet trolls, to feeling out of place at an Indian wedding (as an Indian woman), to parsing the trajectory of fears and anxieties that pressed upon her immigrant parents and bled down a generation.

The true stars of the show are, of course, her parents.

Why her mother shines:

“My dad first saw her at his cousin’s house—my mom was her friend—and was flustered by her beauty. Ask my dad and he’ll wax poetic about my mother’s cheekbones, her rich eyes, her long hair, how he needed to get to know her. My mom didn’t even know he was there.”

Why her father shines:

“Papa ends most of his calls with me the way you might close a conversation with someone you want to menace. “Anyway,” he’ll say, “I’ll be here. Staring into the abyss.” Or, when I have given him good news, “The talented will rule and the rest will perish in the sea of mediocrity.” Or, when I have given him bad news, “I am sorry for everything that happens to you, as everything is my fault.”

Scaachi Koul with her biting humor is definitely one to watch for the future.giphy-6

6. Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

This was my last read of 2017, and I couldn’t have chosen a better one.

Set around a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Toronto, Canada, I’ve never felt as heard and seen as when I read this book. Like I mentioned in my review, Natasha and Other Stories is home in literary form for me. Certain turns of phrases in this collection of interlinked short stories brought me right back to my childhood, and I haven’t gotten to experience that feeling with a book in a while.

To give you a little taste, here’s just some of the memorable lines:Natasha and Other Stories 2-- bookspoils

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7. Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian

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Last but not least, I’ll end my list on the book that started off my reading year on a bang. I was in a state of pure bliss with Motherest. I recently went back to reread the review I posted in February, and I can’t stop thinking about how relatable this tiny piece of writing I included of the main character seeing the guy she likes:

“Hey.”
“Hey.”
I keep walking. He slows down a little as if to chat, and I move faster. I want to turn around so badly that walking feels like pushing through the heaviest revolving door in the world, but I keep going.”

Motherest deserves so much more recognition than it has received. The blurb describes the book best as an inventive and moving coming-of-age novel that captures the pain of fractured family life, the heat of new love, and the particular magic of the female friendship — all through the lens of a fraying daughter-mother bond.

This moving passage on adolescence and growing up captures it all:

“I want a friend. I miss everyone I’ve ever known. I miss Tea Rose and Surprise and Joan. I miss that part of my life that happened not so long ago but that already feels ancient, older than my childhood, and I do miss my childhood also, or at least the childhood co-created by my memory. I want someone who will always stay and never die and never leave and never turn into a ghost.”


That concludes all my favorite books of the year, thank you for reading! Be sure to let me know your highlights of 2017. And check-out my 2016 edition of my favorite books of the year.

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Review: Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

Wow! What a way to end my 2017 reading challenge on a complete high.

“What was the point of talking about it? You lived as you lived while you lived. Today he was drinking tea and watching checkers, why ruin a nice afternoon worrying about tomorrow?”

I was on the search to find a collection full of interlinked short stories to read, when I came across this recommendation video talking about Natasha. Suffice to say, I’m beyond thankful.

Told through Mark’s eyes, and spanning the last twenty-three years, Natasha brings the Bermans and the Russian-Jewish enclaves of Toronto to life in stories full of big, desperate, utterly believable consequence.

Natasha and Other Stories Everything is at once new and familiar, from the Russian-Jewish references to the nuances put on certain sayings and jokes. For example, Sergei being nicknamed ‘Seryozha’ is such a tiny detail but captures exactly the kind of things that have slipped my mind with time. I mean, if I ever feel the need to revisit my childhood, I can just open up this book to any story and feel the nostalgia surging in.

These two quotes get what I’m trying to convey: “He was energized by the proximity to his former life.” “…I watched a scene I recognized as familiar only once I saw it.”

It’s such an exhilarating experience to read the first page of a book and come to realize right off the bat that this one is something made especially for you. It’s a rare occurrence nowadays for me, so I’ve learned to cherish the reading experience as I go.

Frankly, I was really in my element with this read, and it was emphasized by combining my favorite aspects from coming-of-age tales to capturing the complexity of Jewish families to including subtle humor. I’ve never felt as heard and seen as when I read Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis.

My favorite stories include:

  • The Second Strongest Man which follows Mark’s childhood adoration for Sergei Federenko.

“There wasn’t much I remembered from Riga—isolated episode, little more than vignettes, mental artifacts—but many of these recollections involved Sergei.”

“When Sergei visited I was spastic with a compulsion to please him. I shadowed him around the apartment, I swung from his biceps like a monkey, I did somersaults on the carpet. The only way I could be convinced to go to sleep was if Sergei followed my mother into my bedroom. We developed a routine. Once I was under the covers Sergei said good night by lifting me and my little bed off the floor. He lifted the bed as if it weighed no more than a newspaper or a sandwich. He raised me to his chest and wouldn’t put me back down until I named the world’s strongest man.
          —Seryozha, Seryozha Federenko!”

  • An Animal to the Memory set around Mark’s Hebrew school with the focus being on his misbehaving on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It leads to a particularly fascinating scene between him and his Rabbi that I can’t stop spinning around in my head.

“Now, Berman, he said, now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew.”

  • The collection hit a bit of a rough patch for me with the titular story and the following one but thankfully redeemed itself with this final story “Minyan,” set around Mark’s grandfather and the familiar old Jewish folks surrounding him in his subsidized apartment complex.

“The change of locale hadn’t done much to improve his social situation. For every reason to leave his apartment he could always find ten to stay where he was.”

I came to cherish more so the tales that delved into backstories and family lineage, rather than the stories that focused on whatever Natasha & Choynski tried to be.

But I think it goes without saying that I’m interested to go look into any and every book the author has to offer.

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Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

 Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

I’m pleased with my decision to put a few weeks of distance between me starting this book and having finished Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The latter left such a lasting and unwavering impression on me, as I mentioned in my raving review, that I was unsure whether I’d get to experience such emotions again in the near future. Thankfully, though, after two weeks of longing, I was more than ready to dive back into the author’s wonderful world of stories within stories. And upon having completed the second chapter of Everything I Never Told You, where we get a better sense of the ongoing character dynamics, I knew I was in for a treat.

My personal highlights from the book include:

✓ The smaller the details, the more swept up I am in the story.

“But Nath’s seen Lydia at school, how in the cafeteria she sits silent while the others chatter; how, when they’ve finished copying her homework, she quietly slides her notebook back into her bookbag. After school, she walks to the bus alone and settles into the seat beside him in silence. Once, he had stayed on the phone line after Lydia picked up and heard not gossip, but his sister’s voice duly rattling off assignments—read Act I of Othello, do the odd-numbered problems in Section 5—then quiet after the hang-up click. The next day, while Lydia was curled on the window seat, phone pressed to her ear, he’d picked up the extension in the kitchen and heard only the low drone of the dial tone. Lydia has never really had friends, but their parents have never known. If their father says, “Lydia, how’s Pam doing?” Lydia says, “Oh, she’s great, she just made the pep squad,” and Nath doesn’t contradict her. He’s amazed at the stillness in her face, the way she can lie without even a raised eyebrow to give her away.”

Sings like Jean-Ralphio SPECIFIC. tumblr_mza8vgbpad1rzbiguo5_r1_500

✓ The familiar atmosphere and making every family member more well-rounded by going back to their adolescence is something I always enjoy from the author.

“He spent twelve years at Lloyd and never felt at home. At Lloyd, everyone seemed to be descended from a Pilgrim or a senator or a Rockefeller, but when they did family tree projects in class, he pretended to forget the assignment rather than draw his own complicated diagram. Don’t ask any questions, he prayed silently as the teacher marked a small red zero beside his name. He set himself a curriculum of studying American culture—listening to the radio, reading comics, saving his pocket money for double features, learning the rules of the new board games—in case anyone ever said, Hey, didya hear Red Skelton yesterday? or Wanna play Monopoly? though no one ever did.”

The above passage really nails down his feeling out of place in a predominately white school.

“And James? What had he thought of her? He would never tell her this, would never admit it to himself: he had not noticed her at all, that first lecture. He had looked right at her, over and over, as he held forth on Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and John Wayne, but when she came to his office he had not even recognized her. Hers had been just one of the pale, pretty faces, indistinguishable from the next, and though he would never fully realize it, this was the first reason he came to love her: because she had blended in so perfectly, because she had seemed so completely and utterly at home.”

He got together with Marilyn to blend in, while she chose him to stand out, like the author pointed out before: “Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in.” And now bringing home the point by showing and not just telling… The Shadow of the Wind is shook.

While reading Everything I Never Told You I had only one repeating thought that cemented the fact that Celeste Ng’s knows how create stories within stories. There is such a somber mood that is perfectly captured throughout the book. The story slowly develops but is never boring. Like trying to piece together the missing pieces of a puzzle.

Inevitably, if I compare this read with Little Fires Everywhere, I’d say it was a bit subsided in its complexity because it didn’t feature as many perspectives. Our main focus throughout the book is the Lee family and the aftermath of their stricken tragedy. So I was missing that sprawling look at different characters and point of views that we had in LFE. Where that one was so loud and tumultuous in my head with trying to pierce together ever thread of detail, this one offered something more quiet and introspective.

But that’s not to say that Everything I Never Told You wasn’t a sharp, refreshing look at family-driven dramas. Celeste Ng excels once again at make everything fall into place, from the tiniest detail to the bigger plot twists. And not twists, really, because her books all start with the mystery uncovered in the first sentence: “Lydia is dead.” “…Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.” We instead follow the unfolding of their lives that brought the end results, which grew tremendously important to me.

“How had this all gone so wrong?”

The author also highlights the daring notion for these parents that their child might desire “something she wanted, not something they wanted for her.” Too many times did it feel like they weren’t seeing their daughter, “the reluctant center of their universe,” rather just a younger version of themselves; trying to fix all their past mistakes by having her avoid making her own set of choices. I was stunned watching this very pivotal moment unfold.

“The door creaks open, and Marilyn slowly raises her head, as if Lydia might somehow, impossibly, appear. For a second the impossible happens: a small blurred ghost of little-girl Lydia, dark-haired, big-eyed. Hesitating in the doorway, clinging to the jamb. Please, Marilyn thinks. In this word is all she cannot phrase, even to herself. Please come back, please let me start over, please stay. Please.”

The desperate “please” haunted me for hours.

All this and more shines so brightly with Ng’s rigorous writing style. And I personally cannot wait for all her future works.

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Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Everything I Never Told You, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!