Top 5 Books of 2017

I read and love books. That sums it up. These books below did not come out in 2017, nor are they all what I would consider the most critically worthy of what I read this past year, but they were the five that impressed me in one way or another so as to leave a lasting sensation. In a manner, this is meant to serve more as a recommendation list rather than my personal awards ceremony for literature. If you want to read masterpieces, you will have no trouble finding them, or being referred to them. Here are a handful of works that are somewhat less ubiquitous, but nonetheless worth cracking open in a cozy room.

 

  1. ‘S.’ written by Doug Dorst, conceived by J.J. Abrams

S.

When I found this unusual collaborative work in a Shanghai book store, I nearly jumped with glee. I very well might have, as the security guard at the door was giving me the eye. It is more of a package experience than simply a novel. What you get includes a hard-cover book titled ‘Ship of Theseus’ by the fictional V.M. Straka, the pages of which are filled with the notes and correspondences between two readers, as well as physical inserts that range from maps drawn on paper towels to cut-outs obituaries.

The sheer volume of information can prove somewhat hard to manage at first, with multiple approaches to reading the material. I elected to read a chapter in full, then return to read the messages scribbled in the margins and the inserts. The result was the feeling that I was privy to an investigation with the added bonus of a dark, dreamlike story in between.

There were times where I felt as though the mystery was a bit forced, with the physical book serving as supplementary material to the written-conversations of the two readers, but on the whole the project provides a worthwhile experience. And ‘Ship of Theseus’ text itself provides a satisfyingly haunting story with theme’s pertinent to the modern world. Oh, and there is love and mystery and action and brooding. I looked forward to settling down at the end of each day to resume the adventure. Spent more time than I should have looking for clues in the faded photographs and newspaper articles stuffed between the pages. And I am not alone in the feeling. Entire websites have emerged on the web centered around uncovering even more of the enigma of Straka and the secrets that surrounded him and his companions.

The price might drive some off, with the complete edition coming in at about $40, but the amount of time one can spend with it is worth the dollar bills. And, for those who are barking mad and enjoy such things, there is an Eötvös Wheel included that allows the reader to decipher a final hidden message in the text.

  1. ‘The Slow Regard of Silent Things’ by Patrick Rothfuss

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

At first I had Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind on my list. The first installment in a proposed trilogy was a serendipitous loan from a friend of mine, a story that prevented me from seeing the sun until I finished it, and then I scarfed down the sequel in an equally predatory manner. Only to find a wall between me and the next morsel, the realization that fans had been waiting for seven years for the conclusion to the trilogy, and no sign of that wait ending anytime soon.

Then I found The Slow Regard of Silent Things. An unassuming novella less than a hundred pages long centered around the mysterious Auri and her life in the Underthing. It is a gentle story that made me feel more for inanimate objects than I do for most fellow members of my species. Unassuming, much like the protagonist herself, the story nonetheless can shape how you see the world around you. A reminder of the destruction that our blunt and obtuse actions can cause, the disorder we can bring into the world by simply wanting it to be a certain way.

I would even dare to say that TSRoST is a unique take on enlightenment, a look at an individual who understands certain mysteries of the world, who nonetheless must continue to interact with it. It draws an unstable line between wisdom and madness and leaves you unsure of which is which.

I took my time with the book. Short as it was, I felt it was something not to be rushed through, though a bus ride across town could prove enough time to fly through it. I felt my reading of the story to reflect Auri’s attitude. I felt I owed it to her to read her story using the same kind attention with which she regards all things, silent or otherwise.

  1. ‘Steppenwolf’ by Hermann Hesse

steppenwolf

A book that uses despair and a dissociative identity to illustrate the possibility of finding oneself and achieving a form of…well, not quite enlightenment, but at least coming to terms with one’s humanity. I was on board for that. Somewhat autobiographical, the story follows a middle-aged man named Harry Haller who struggles to reconcile his sinister and belligerent feelings towards people with the sense that he does indeed feel a connection to and a desire to be part of humanity. He alternates between disgust for his peers and a tentative envy of them.

I found the story to reveal just how much of one’s isolation is because of barriers that one has erected of their own will between them and society. Prejudices and preordained patterns that constrict one’s life. Haller began as someone I was constantly annoyed with, and I wondered why I kept turning the pages. I thought he deserved a swift kick in the bum and some time in the corner to sort out his pouty pout complex. But as I continued, I began to see elements of myself in the fellow.

At its core, the book seems a warning about thinking too much. Little good it does you. Self-awareness is cherry on a cake, but if you put too many cherries on a cake you’ll choke to death on all the damn stems. There is a strength in being willing to face your duality, to understand there will always be schisms in how you see yourself and others, in how you want to behave and how you actually do. And though the book can seem outwardly dreary, there is indeed a message of hope to be found in it.

  1. ‘The Vorrh’ by B. Catling

The Vorrh

The haunting rendering of Muybridge’s Phases of the Eclipse of the Sun which serves as the book’s cover sucked in my eyes. I have a weakness for astral-related imagery. And the blurb on the reverse side told me something about a dark forest. I love dark forests. So long as I am not in them and being hunted by anthropophagic horrors. But that’s why I read about them. To wander through a dense underbrush without adrenaline glands giving me too much of a spanking.

I will admit, the first hundred pages were…testing. The style of writing is borderline experimental and requires an approach to the book quite different from how one might go about mulling over something as drab as Dickens. Dickens is awful. The Vorrh tests the boundaries of language in novel ways, with words dancing about in unconventional usage as esoteric as the eponymous forest of the story. At times successfully, and at times not. Perhaps this is to be expected by an artist-turned-part-time-writer.

The Vorrh is a very sensual book, in the sense that it caused me to experience the imagery and events in almost tangible ways. While I did find the language self-indulgent at times, it did provide a vivid stimulation at others. But, one must be in a receptive mood or the thing will just bounce off you, leaving one with a vague impression of double-vision and Cyclops genitals.

I found the book in the fantasy section, and indeed it does have these elements in the work, but it seemed to use the genre more as a cloak than a categorization, truly being a novel that dangles its legs off the edges of historical fiction, horror, psychological, spiritual, steam-punk, and then fantasy. More a humid, mind-warping breath of air than a fresh one, the story nonetheless invoked pleasure and a thirst for more.

  1. ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others

This collection of eight stories are technically in the genre of science-fiction, and yes, there are aliens at times. Angels at others. But, not in the way you are imagining. No, not that way either. His themes range from the illusions of duality in the universe to xenolinguistics to how our primal instincts influence us. And he handles each with a level-mindedness antithetical to the fantastic events of the stories.

Each story reverberated in one way or another with my own understanding of the universe and our place in it. The language is magnetic, never bogged down by overly technical jargon, but crisp and concise. Like a perfectly ripened Asian pear. Each bite a pleasure. The abstract concepts and interpretations of reality are presented in relatable stories that can serve as entertainment and tuition in one package. They encourage an active reading, an evaluation step by step of the implications of the stories’ events, an involvement with each that will leave you philosophizing whether you want to or not.

Fresh and intelligent, this collection is one I strongly recommend to anyone with a penchant for thinking too much about things and a child-like fascination with the murky mysteries of existence and the possibilities it might hold. Or just to anyone in general. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

 

 

Honorable Mentions That I Also Heartily Recommend

‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose

A historical murder-mystery novel set in the middle-ages with plenty of obscure religious references that only I understand because I had a Bible within arm’s reach for most of my childhood. There is a sort of Sherlock Holmes monk with an awkward teenage protégé. Allusions to the end of time and an ending that made me grimace at humankind’s hubris. Pairs well with a dry red.

‘God Emperor of Dune’ by Frank Herbert

God Emperor of Dune

Before Game of Thrones decided that having main character’s die off amidst political intrigue and nude scenes, there was Herbert’s sci-fi Dune series. Though there are less exposed breasts in these books than in the aforementioned fantasy series, there is philosophy, political theory, psychology, and even some action. Each book follows new ideas and characters in a timeline stretching across millennia. God Emperor of Dune was particularly thrilling as it told the tale of someone referred to as a tyrant by his people from his own standpoint, his motives made clear to the reader. The contrast between his ideals and his reception by the citizens under his authority is stark. No White Walkers to come ruin things either. No Starks either. Grumbling about winter.

‘Descender’ Vol. 1-3 by Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen

descender

A graphic novel series done in a water-color style about robots, the future, uprisings, and so on. At first glimpse it looks like just another robo-revolt tale, but soon turns into something more. With interplanetary romps and a cryptic origin to the problem looming just out of sight. The series follows TIM-21, a young (in appearance) android who is suddenly a target of interest of multiple groups for reasons unknown to him (and not entirely known to those searching for him either). Lovely visuals pull you in and the story keeps you in.