2017 Book Recommendations

Although I didn’t entirely meet my reading challenge goal, I can safely say that I read some incredible books in 2017 - like, life-changing, perspective shifting, reorganize how you live your life, crying in the middle of the night with sorrow and wonder kind of books.

Basically, I’m going to try and tell you why they’re so great without getting into spoilers.

Non-Fiction

Creating Space - Ed Cyzewski

“I seek distractions in order to avoid the struggle of creating. Creating is hard. Distracting myself is really, really easy.”
“That pull you feel toward a creative endeavour is not a mistake. It's a holy discontent that has been placed in you.”
“If you don't love the process, you'll give up. We all love success, but it's something special to enjoy the creative process for what it is.”

This ebook is absolutely going to become a yearly read for me. And you can get it for free HERE! It’s about 40-50 pages, but there is lots in here if you are a creative person of faith.

The author talks about prioritizing creativity and giving yourself permission and safety to create whether or not the result is for everyone. It corrects the assumption that creative pursuits are selfish or worthless and emphasizes the need for beauty and expression in society. It implores creative people to value their gifts and lessen distractions in order to hear the call to create more often.

Basically, it’s a short, wonderful, reassuring read for those down moments in a creative life.


Early Retirement Extreme - Jacob Lund Fisker

"Nobody thinks of using improvements in technology and productivity to allow people to work less and require fewer assets to achieve the same standard of living. Instead, while everybody is richer, at least in terms of stuff, no one is any wealthier. Their wealth is "safely" out of reach. If it weren't, how many would still show up for work the next day?”

What will your legacy be--what you owned or who you were?”

I got this book from the library on a whim, and I now need to purchase a copy. It took me a very long time to read, and it’s so dense that I feel like I could read it all again and take away something new. As it is, I took literal pages of notes the first time through.

The author is a man who worked full-time for several years while saving extreme amounts of money. He then invested that money and lives off the interest, still at an objectively very frugal level. But while the title sounds like that cheesy, get-rich-quick genre of finance books, it’s actually much more of a philosophical approach to money. One person’s “how to live the good life”.

For instance, there’s not much on how to invest, but loads of models and systems for clustering goals and balancing multiple income streams. It shows how to calculate the utility of an item to determine if it’s worth purchasing. It tells you that if you rent, unused areas/sq ft are actually money out of your pocket.

The author explains why being a “renaissance person” is the ideal, that the true key to retiring well is to avoid the consumption heavy, debt/credit/employer dependent model. Find a sustainable standard of living and make your retirement plans with that in mind, not some mysterious future rich life that is and will be out of reach.

Because this comes from one person, there are points I don’t agree with. But the structure of the book is solid, and I can’t see anyone coming away without gaining some perspective or knowledge. Fair warning, though, this is not an easy read. It’s academic and has graphs. But it was basically life-changing for me. Really. Give it a go.

Graphic Novel

Fun Home - Alison Bechdel

“I began to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children and his children like furniture.”
“The more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew.”
“What would happen if we spoke the truth?”

Alison Bechdel, creator of the Bechdel test for film/television, wrote this graphic novel about her coming out and the loss of her also-secretly gay father. It’s also been made into a musical, which is awesome.

She details growing up with a father obsessed with aesthetic and house renovations, while making as much or more effort to hide everything about himself. He’s a difficult, distant man who views children as smaller adults who should be helping with his projects whenever possible.

During Alison's childhood, he runs a funeral home (the family business) and sometimes takes off with male “friends” for trips. She talks about their dysfunctional home, his death/suicide, and eventually finding out about his secrets.

The story is not super linear, and big details are given in an offhand sort of way, which resulted in more than a few, “wait, what?” *flips back a couple pages* moments for me. Alison also uses a lot of literary references, almost too many if I’m honest, but it is a compelling way to explain her father’s neuroses.

I don’t often read graphic novels, but I really, really enjoyed this. The visual style communicates her affinity for simplicity and specific expression, and because so much of the story is about the town, the house, and the geography of the region, it enhances the experience to actually see those things.

Fiction

When You Reach Me - Rebecca Stead

“Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean.
It's like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark a room had gotten.”

“Common sense is just a name for the way we’re used to thinking.”

The synopses I’ve seen for this book make it sound like a thrilling, mysterious ride from start to finish. It isn’t. But it’s so much better than that. At the core of the story, I suppose, there IS a mystery - Miranda receives notes from someone which hint at disaster, but also the possibility to subvert it if she catches on in time.

However, the story is in no way that linear. In fact, it’s more of a slice of life from childhood - what it’s like to grow up less well off than others, to have friends that are different than you, to have a part-time job, to not have all the answers, etc.

But the narrative is very focused for being kind of low-key in tone. Every point is followed through, even if at the time it seems like an aside. For instance, at the beginning of the book, Miranda’s mother wants to be on a game show; every so often Miranda notes that Mom’s boyfriend is quizzing her again.

There is a strong magical realism/time travelly vibe in the actual plot, which I think works so well because it’s sort of hidden around the corners from this very grounded world.

I like how rich the characters are. Even side characters are nuanced and interesting, and as you can see by the quotes above, they’re able to communicate deep truths in casual conversation.

Overall, this is a difficult book to peg, but it’s so worth reading. It’s not long, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll have several “aw!” moments and be very happy with the conclusion.
 

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue - Mackenzi Lee

“It's beginning to feel like he's shuffling his way through the seven deadly sins, in ascending order of my favourites.”
“I have lived most of my life as a devotee of the philosophy that a man should not see two sevens in one day,”

"The stars dust gold leafing on his skin. And we are looking at each other, just looking, and I swear there are whole lifetimes lived in those small, shared moments.”

Oh. my. gosh. If possible, I wish everyone would have read this YESTERDAY. I heard about it on a Goodreads recommendation, and when it was finally released, I couldn’t wait to read it.

In general, it’s a historical adventure/romance. But gay. Very, very gay.

Our main character is Monty, and he’s all set to take his final “grand tour” of Europe before assuming control of his father’s estate. The trouble is, he’s lazy, promiscuous, and pretty much the antithesis of what a proper young man should be. His best friend, Percy, is coming along too, and by the way, Monty is definitely not head over heels in love with him.

I got all this from the synopsis, but this book is so much better than I’d even hoped. It’s very funny - the first quote above is from Monty’s internal monologue when his butler is detailing all the things he is not to do on the Tour.

While initially kind of terrible (he personally draws attention to his faults often), Monty turns out to be a very well written character with plenty of motivation but also lots to learn. In particular, his selfishness appears to become compassion for someone else, but even that impulse is ultimately from another self-preserving place. I don't want to give it away, but suffice it to say, none of the characters are easily boxed in here.

I very much like how the book comments on feminism, race/class in society, and LGBTQ+ issues. Monty’s sister is very practical and not at all interested in being a proper lady (though in her case, she rebels by educating herself). Percy is an illegitimate Black child adopted by wealthy grandparents, and this constantly impacts how he experiences the plot of the book compared to the other characters.

The plot itself keeps a steady pace, which is difficult to do for a 400-ish page book. The characters are always on the move, and they end up wrapped in a mad pirate/duke chase which also has magical/alchemical elements.

In the midst of all this, though, is what I liked best about this book: I felt like I was reading an incredible fanfiction. This is because not only did I deeply like and care about these characters, but their existence, relationships, romance, and struggles were treated so… respectfully. I never once questioned the validity of their love and experiences, and it never felt like the author was trying too hard to include characters they didn't understand or appreciate.

Bottom line, this book is AMAZING AND. AND. It has a sequel/companion novel coming from the sister’s point of view. :DD
 

A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness

“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”
“Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.
And your mind will punish you for believing both.”

Okay, so I saw the film version of this at a limited release screening with my younger brother. He’s 24. I’m 27. We were legit HOLDING EACH OTHER AND SOBBING by the end of it. I then read the book, staying up until 3am one night, crying and struggling to see the pages for the entire last quarter or so. Are you on board yet?

Connor’s mother has a disease. But she’s going to be fine. Lately though, his grandmother’s been coming around, talking about him living at her house, and his estranged dad keeps calling to ask how he’s doing. People at school have stopped requiring much of anything from him. He has been having a recurring bad dream, but he won’t talk about it.

Then one night, the large yew tree on the hill starts walking towards Connor’s window. The monster says it will tell him three stories, and that after that, Connor will tell his. And it will be his truth.

This book is just perfect. I’m sorry, but it is. The fantasy elements don't come across as silly, the language is spare but effective, and nothing is pat or simple. Each story is a fable of sorts, but really serves to demonstrate how life is changeable and hard, bad things happen sometimes for no reason, and people you think are beyond saving aren’t.

If you can get an illustrated copy, do. The style is incredible.

Also, the idea for this story originally came from Siobhan Dowd, who passed away before writing the novel. Her friend, Patrick Ness, wrote it in her place.

I can’t gush any further because I refuse to give any more away, so I’ll just say that this book is a study in life and death, and the way it ends took my breath away. Not because it was wrong or didn’t make sense, but because it DID. And I never thought a book would or could go so deeply into that realm of truth.

And that’s that! I’m going to (fingers crossed) do more ongoing reviews during this year’s reading challenge, and I’d love to hear any recommendations you have as well!

A Note from Last Year's Me

2017 Resolutions: Final Check-In