2017 in Books: Reviews and Reflection

This is the fourth post in For the Love of Books blog series.

In January, as part of my New Year reflections, I went through my monthly summary pages in my bullet journal and thoroughly cleaned out my digital bookshelf on the Overdrive app on my iPad and made sure that all the books I read in 2017 were recorded in Goodreads.

As I shelved the books in Goodreads I wrote mini-reviews for a few of the books I read last year. My book reviews on Goodreads are personal and brief. They are not the type of reviews I read when vetting books. These reviews are probably most helpful to people who know me or read my blog. My book reviews always seem to bring in the personal, how I experienced the book in the context of my life.

The process of updating Goodreads and thinking back on everything I read last year inspired me to write a book review post here on the blog. And when I started doing that, the whole thing grew into a beast, a whole series on books.

Now that I've written through my thoughts on fiction and my love for a good story, a summary of my reading system, multiple endorsements to my favorite book blog (big shout out to Anne Bogel, who is creating a livelihood out of reading, writing, and podcasting about books. I admire Anne's work), and when and how I read, I can finally publish what I set out to in the first place: my reviews & reflections from My Year 2017 in Books.

Only took me two months to get here!

My Year in Books

I've grown to love the My Year in Books feature at Goodreads. I haven't paid much attention to this feature before, especially since I haven't always been so diligent in dating when I've finished books. But if you use the date/reading progress feature at Goodreads you can look back on your year and have a visual of what you've read, kind of fun.

This is My Year 2017 in Books at Goodreads. And if you scan through you'll get a sense for the type of books I read. Everything I finished last year, or finished "enough" (some books I just won't finish reading and if they are worth mentioning as a good book I shelve them with my finished books) is on that page.

There's no way I could review them all here, nor do I want to. What I want is to review a handful of my favorites (I have more favorites, these are just some) from 2017 with accompanying life reflections.

(Although I keep track of these books at Goodreads the book title links will take you to Amazon, where I have an affiliate account.)

Best life changing memoir

What Falls from the Sky by Esther Emery

I thought I had a fairly good handle on my connect/disconnect from the Internet. I don't waste a lot of time on social media, etc. But our time on a boat in Berkeley last summer with no internet service and very poor cell service taught me things about my behavior and internet usage.

Serendipitously, as I was experiencing that period of disconnect and internet upheaval I was reading Emery's book about going one year disconnected from the internet.

Often those kind of stories (look what I gave up!) can make me feel insecure, if I was a better person I too could be so hard-core, etc. This book didn't do that to me. It's memoir and not preachy and it's about real struggle in living and marriage.

Raw is all the rage. And this memoir is raw and moving, but also respectful and not overly revealing. I especially appreciate the care Esther accords her marriage and husband in telling their story.

This memoir was a great story but something about the alchemy of reading it when and where I did made it instrumental in making changes in my own life around technology, internet use, and connectivity. Since that time last summer I've instituted a social media/email/text weekly Sabbath from Friday evening to Sunday morning (exceptions for my own children getting ahold of me). I still use digital tools during this time, for research and reading but not connectivity to anything with urgency, hype, or social media spin. I just need a break from all of that.

This change has affected quite a few things in my life including my anxiety. And here's a really small example of how that works. I manage the welcome team at my church. I'm a good planner with solid organization skills, and I work throughout the week to make sure a team is assembled and ready to serve each Sunday. But when Friday night arrives, I'm off the clock. With this job and others. I don't spend Saturday with any sense of connectivity-triggered urgency. Whatever isn't figured out by that point can wait another day. And whatever falls apart, in terms of the plan, it's not the end of the world.

This sabbath helps put the breaks on my tendency to micro-manage and the anxiety that accompanies that and it gives me a break from the connectivity-induced urgency that seems pervasive in our society. Most things are not a panic and I don't want to live like they are.

Best books for midlife

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

My review from Goodreads:

Certainly some aspects of Morrow Lindbergh's experience are not accessible or relatable to the life of modern women, who often work outside the home. Her experience is very WASP of a certain time and place. But her reflections on the overarching stages of a woman's life (granted, married and mother) are still relevant and transcend the generation to which she belonged.

I loved it.

Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

My review from Goodreads:

A guiding light, a wise teacher to help you make sense of a growing, expanding faith and the natural changes to faith and spirituality as you age (especially, if you've been steeped in a religious tradition for your whole adult life). A welcome companion for middle ages of life. Cannot recommend enough.

A classic read.

Favorite new-to-me author

Vanessa Diffenbaugh: The Language of Flowers and We Never Asked for Wings

I read both of these last year, and it's hard to say which I liked more. Both are about marginalized people in American society, the poor and undocumented migrants, and deal with the hardship of those realities but with redemption and hope. These books do feel like fiction in this regard, the endings are not fairy tale but they are more hopeful than the reality of many people in situations of poverty, homelessness, and illegal immigration.

Another common feature in these books is the importance of nature and how we "read" and connect with aspects of the natural world. In one book it's flowers, and in another it's bird feathers.

I often crave the big beauty in my life (mountains, oceans) but these books helped me appreciate the beauty and mystery in simple and small elements of nature. I loved that part of these books.

Last year I visited California for a month. From that experience, I could identify with the setting of these books. I especially loved the setting in The Language of Flowers, San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma counties. A place can become real to us in both our physical experience and our imagination. I love it when the two converge.

Best novel about parenting

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

This is a story about raising a transgender child. And although the transgender "issue" is front and center, it's not really about raising a transgender child, it's about raising children, period. I don't have a transgender child and yet I relate so much to the experience of the parents in this novel, navigating the choices and options around making the best decisions for our families and for the individuals within our families. It's hard. It's complicated.

This is my favorite quote from the book, the truth about parenting. As I typed out this quote I noticed for the first time, this is where the book's title comes from. Go figure!

"Never," Penn agreed. "Not ever. Not once. You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what's good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don't get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child's entire future and happiness is at stake. It's impossible. It's heartbreaking. It's maddening. But there's no alternative."

This is a book about families, love, belonging, community, identity (personal & familial), relationship, all the good stuff.

It's about the challenges of parenting along with the deepest joys and connection we will ever feel with another human. Probably my favorite novel that I read in 2017.

Most riveting historical and geographical biography

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown.

When we traveled last summer through the western United States I wanted to read about the places we saw and stayed - fiction, non-fiction, essays, novels, historical fiction. I wanted to deepen my experience with books.

One of the most fascinating books I read that fit the bill was The Indifferent Stars Above.

Anyone who has studied the founding of the American west, particularly the migration west during the mid 1800's will know the story of the Donner party. I won't go into details here but it's one of America's most well known stories of migration-gone-wrong.

When I'm encountering difficulty or struggles in own life I often look back and try to find the source of my pain in a wrong decision I previously made. This is an attempt to discharge the discomfort of pain, "where can I lay blame?"

This is usually not a helpful exercise because most of us make the best decision we can at the time, with the information we have, in the context in which we live. "Hindsight is 20/20" is a true cliche. But we don't live with hindsight, we live with current sight. And current sight is limited. And so we set out in our lives with hope (you could say faith) and sometimes a bit of foolhardy optimism, and some things go well and some things don't.

This is a story of the things that didn't go well, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the compounding snowball effect of slight miscalculations and gross inaccuracies.

This is a compelling story. When you read it, you're grateful for our modern lives and that you're not stuck in a mountain pass in the dead of winter with no food. So there's that very visceral experience but there's also empathy.

You see the story unfolding in these hopeful intrepid migrants of the 19th century, and you ask yourself: who would I be in that crisis? How would I respond? Who am I in my present crisis? How am I responding?

The answers are not clear, they are as complicated as the human being is complicated but in stopping to recognize that complexity we gain compassion. Compassion for others, and ourselves.

The book I wished I finished

Hold On to Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate M.D.

I'm terrible at reading and sticking with non-fiction, "how-to" type books, especially in self-help, parenting, or marriage books.

I haven't been able to finish a parenting or marriage books in years. (I'm finally passing along away my hand-me-down paperback copy of "Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work". It's sat half-read for 4 years(?) in my bookshelf.) I don't think our family life has suffered. But as a matter of professional interest, as a career homeschooler deeply interested in psychology, I would have liked to finish this book to have more language, tools and understanding at my immediate grasp for connecting with my own children and helping other parents connect to their children.

I should do a podcast search for this author and see if I can find an interview summary of the book. That's one of my strategies for accessing the ideas in non-fiction "subject" books that I want to read but that I just can't commit the time to finish. Find a podcast and listen while I'm driving or cooking.

Most spiritually impactful book

The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

(A tie with Falling Upward)

This autobiography is a fascinating account of Day's life and ministry within the Catholic Worker movement. Day is a heavy hitter in the Christian social justice movement of the 20th century. The story was interesting to me but what was most impactful in my life was the chain of events set off by this book.

One Sunday afternoon, last winter, while reading this book I searched online for Catholic Worker farms or communities within an easy drive of Montreal and found St. Francis Farm in New York. It was that working retreat that triggered the Evolving Journey of Faith series that I published last year. The experience of my shifting faith has been the most significant thing in my life in the past couple years. Writing about that experience has been instrumental in processing and deepening that evolution.

And this book was part of that journey.

Most memories wrapped up in a story

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Last year on our road trip we passed through my aunt's house in Langeley, BC and stayed there a few nights. My aunt is only five years older than me. My dad was seventeen when she was born. This means my cousins, her children, are the ages of my own children. They're teenagers.

When we visited, I slept in my sixteen year old cousin Luc's bedroom. And in a stack of books on a shelf, I found this title.

I first read Jacob Have I Loved when I was a teenager. Maybe I was fourteen? It might have been this exact copy because it turns out Luc got this from our mutual grandparents when they were cleaning out their bookshelves. It's very possible I borrowed the book from them originally or I may have picked it up at the school library, I don't remember.

This is the only book I recall reading as a teenager, and I remember I read it twice (this is the only novel I've read twice in my entire reading life). I declared it my favorite book and that feeling stuck with me.

Luc gave me the book, it's not his kind of book anyway. And I read it once again. Re-reading one of my favorite books of all time. Perhaps even the same copy I read twenty seven years ago!

This book really impacted me as a teen. When I read it again this summer I experienced a taste of what I must have loved about it all those years ago. The struggle feels real. The growth feels real.

I probably felt frustrated for Sarah Louise, when I read this as a fourteen year old. (It's not fair!) Now I feel compassion and grace and a knowing acceptance that a lot of things aren't fair. And we do our best as parents and people to live fulfilling lives regardless.

When I was a teen I don't think I read many books with characters as real as this. Now as an adult, having read many, many books and finding out just how flawed I am and how the best books are also about flawed characters finding truth, love, beauty and redemption in their own lives, this book continues to ring true.

I don't know what possessed me to write a post like this! Book reviews are a lot of effort. This took me way more time that I anticipated, and once I started I felt bad about all the great books I wasn't mentioning. I liked or loved almost every book I read last year and I could share things I learned from every one. Ack!

If you want to discuss any of the books I read last year (maybe you read some of the same titles?) you can leave a comment here, in FB where I'll provide a link to this post, or in Goodreads. I'm also slowly resurrecting my Twitter account as a place to "talk" about books, podcasts, and other "idea generating" media.

Books are a big part of my life not just because I need them as a diversion from reality, a welcome escape. They are big part of my life because the ideas in books help me deal with reality. They change me, they help me appreciate, adapt and adjust to situations in my own life. Books help me see a different perspective, well written stories especially. They teach me things. They inspire, challenge, and encourage me.

How have you been changed lately by a story? How has your worldview expanded? Have you found grace, compassion, healing, and beauty in what you've read?

One more thing. Do you have a "book blog" or a book review series or some other bookish thing going on in social media that you'd like me to link to? I'm thinking I'd like to pull together one last post of reader recommended resources. You've already been leaving great ideas in comments and FB, I would love to include other resources in that list. No promises about publishing (so much to publish, so little time!) but I think it can pull it together easily as a conclusion to this series.

Renee Tougas participates in affiliate marketing, including the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. Whenever you buy something on Amazon from a link you clicked here, I get a (very) small percentage of that sale. See disclosure for further explanation.

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  • Sarah M

    Sarah M on March 13, 2018, 8:10 p.m.

    I really enjoyed reading this yearly review because it was so different (i.e. "The book I wished I finished") than a typical favorites list. I didn't realize Language of Flowers author had a new one out-- I really enjoyed that as well and I don't read fiction that much. I'm going to track that new one down at the library...bird feathers are more exciting to me than flowers, so I'm looking forward to it.

    Gift of the Sea, This is How It Always Is, and What Falls From the Sky have all been on my TBR list for at least a year. I'm going to have to shove them up to the top of the list....

    I do a short monthly review but have really gotten out of blogging regularly outside of that in this season of life. I do love to keep track of books on Pinterest though and use my Bookshelf as my TBR 'pile' and my board Books Read for just that. https://www.pinterest.com/ssmast/


  • gracemarieatx

    gracemarieatx on March 17, 2018, 7:48 p.m.

    The book that has been on my mind the most lately is one I read last month, The Comfort Food Diaries by Emily Nunn. I loved it. It's a memoir detailing her own alcoholism, her brother's suicide (I read this actually just two weeks before my own brother's suicide attempt and my family of origin is now supporting him through a stay in rehab), and the twists and turns of her family. She's from southern Virginia and because she's a food writer she wades through how her family relates to each other and to food. She also visits old and new friends and learns about their comfort foods. It's just so thorough and good and warm and sad and engaging. I haven't attempted any of the recipes but I really loved reading it. Highly recommend.


    • Renee

      Renee on March 19, 2018, 6:31 p.m.

      gracemarieatx, thanks for sharing this.

      I have also experienced books coming into my life at opportune moments to help me in periods of crisis.

      My problem with food books is that I tend to feel like a less-than homemaker because I don't relish preparing food myself. it's not my primary love language to my family. And in my insecurity it feels that people who love to cook give their families a great gift. And if I was a better mom I'd be able to give that gift also. And because of my family's quirky/diverse eating preferences, very rarely do I find recipes in stories (these seem to involve heritage/ethnic/comfort foods recipes in general) that I could gather my whole family around. I can't even gather my whole family around foods that I ate growing up or that Damien ate growing up. long story.... meant to just say, thanks for the comment. I appreciate it.


  • Holly

    Holly on April 12, 2018, 1:21 p.m.

    I always love seeing what others are reading and feeling inspired to add something new to my library list. I'm not a regular book blogger, but I'm a voracious reader, and I share monthly updates on my blog about what I've read lately as well as periodic book shout-outs. I read a hodgepodge of fantasy/sf, historical fiction, memoir (focused on outdoor activities/travel), and anything else that sounds like a compelling story.


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