What I read in 2017
I have reviewed the books I enjoyed most in 2017 in the hope my recommendations might inspire readers looking for fresh titles to try in the year ahead. (Plus, it’s been fun to reflect on the books I learnt most from in the past 12 months.)
‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens
Themes: emotion vs reason, industrialisation, education, money, divorce
Review: ‘Hard Times’ is a sharply funny critique of a society that mistakenly prizes fact over feeling. It’s set in a bleak industrial town where logic triumphs over emotion, where money tramples over principle and where rich and poor suffer alike. From the blustering braggadocio Bounderby, to the stoic, saintly Stephen Blackpool, the book’s plot is woven around a rich and entertaining bunch of characters.
At a time when the government is offering UK schools cash bonuses to entice their students to study A-level maths, the book’s message remains as pertinent as ever. It savages the wrongheaded belief that logic matters more than the imagination, mocking the ‘Bitzers’ of this world who view life as a series of economic calculations.
‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank
Themes: war, adolescence, incarceration, intimacy, antisemitism, guilt
Review: The world’s most famous diary is primarily known for its portrayal of the suffering caused by the Nazis during the Second World War. However, it also offers a fascinating insight into the mind of a teenage girl.
Her account of life in the secret annex is far more raw, far less prim and proper, than I imagined it would be. She ridicules her mother, mocks the other residents of the hideaway and rages against the world. But even in the face of enormous suffering, there’s always joy and colour in her musings. Her descriptions of first love are delicious and her deliberations on human nature are astoundingly clear-sighted. This is a heartbreaking account of the horrors of war, but it’s a whole lot more besides.
‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’ by Stephen King
Themes: writing, addiction, craftsmanship, pop culture, luck
Review: Stephen King’s guide to writing is like his fiction: sometimes dark, sometimes funny, but always gripping.
The author maps out the writing process from start to finish. He begins with the importance of words themselves, comparing a writer’s vocabulary to the contents of a craftsman’s toolbox. Next, he offers pointers on plot development and editing. To finish off, there’s a whole section dedicated to the commercial side of publishing.
Stephen King intersperses tableaus from his own life throughout the guide. These passages serve as proof (as if any were needed) of the author’s mastery of the written word.
‘On Writing’ isn’t just a how-to guide. It’s also an exploration of what drives people to tell stories in the first place.
King offers this explanation of what compelled him to become an author: “I have written because it fulfilled me […] I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
‘We Need to Talk About… Kevin Bridges’ by Kevin Bridges
Themes: class, comedy, family
Review: Unsurprisingly, Kevin Bridges’ autobiography is utterly hilarious. But what is surprising is just how sensitive the comedian was as a young child. He describes his early struggles making friends and how, in one hilarious incident, he ran out of playgroup encased in a wendy house in a mad panic to find his mum. The following chapters chart his rise from shy schoolboy to arena-filling comedy superstar. Kevin Bridges blends the personal and the political in the book just as he does in his stand-up sets. The result is funny, touching and very enjoyable.
‘The Godfather’ by Mario Puzo
Themes: omertà, morality, family, justice, revenge, friendship
Review: The film adaptation of ‘The Godfather’ is far better known than the book that inspired it. More’s the pity as Mario Puzo’s novel about the US mafia in the ’40s and ’50s is a captivating read. The writing is intensely evocative, especially the passages describing the Sicilian countryside. The characters are sketched out in beautiful detail, while the author steers the plot with the agility and skill of getaway car driver. But for all its entertainment value, the book isn’t just glitz and show. It challenges modern American notions of morality, painting criminality as a reaction against the failings of a corrupt society. The film is recognised as one of the all-time greats and the book, in my opinion at least, deserves to be held in the same esteem.
‘James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes’ by James Acaster
Themes: failure, redemption and laughter
Review: Most people prefer to bury their most embarrassing moments in some dark, rarely visited backwater of their consciousnesses. Not so James Acaster. The comedian, who’s a regular on ‘Mock the Week’, has chosen to immortalise his most catastrophic moments in print. His ‘scrapes’ are so epically shambolic, farcical and entertaining they’re virtually guaranteed to make you feel better about your own mishaps.
‘Affluenza’ by John De Graaf, David Wann & Thomas H. Naylor
Themes: consumerism, community, work-life balance, health, the environment, inequality
Review: Materialism is a disease that corrodes relationships, negatively impacts health and blights western society. That’s the verdict offered in this analysis of consumption-driven economies. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The authors suggest consumerism is a malady that can be remedied.
Affluenza’s main flaw, in my view, is its tendency to idealise the past. It paints the post-war period as a time of laudable harmony and social cohesion. In doing so, it’s perhaps guilty of glossing over the discrimination faced by many groups during the ’50s and ’60s.
That aside, ‘Affluenza’ is an entertaining and potentially life-changing read. It’ll cost you about £5 to buy this book but it’s all but guaranteed to save you thousands of pounds in the long run.
‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport
Themes: focus, concentration, achievement
Review: do you ever feel as if you spend a lot of time at work but relatively little time actually working? If so, this is the book for you. It may be a little long-winded at times, but Cal Newport’s text does contain some genuinely useful tips for improving your concentration in the smartphone era.
‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier
Themes: class, marriage, deception, gender
Review: ‘Rebecca’ is a book about the deceptiveness of appearances and its plot cleverly mirrors its subject matter. It begins as a typical damsel-in-distress novel. The hapless and unhappy protagonist is rescued from a life of drudgery by a rich, aloof bachelor. But this marriage is no panacea. Instead, it exposes the rotten underbelly of an aristocratic English country set through a series of astonishing plot twists.
‘The Little Book of Lykke’ by Meik Wiking
Themes: happiness, community, commuting, money, work-life balance, career, freedom
Review: Why do some countries score higher than others in happiness rankings? That’s the major question Meik Wiking seeks to answer in ‘The Little Book of Lykke’, the follow-up to his bestselling debut ‘The Little Book of Hygge’.The author presents case studies, stories and research on the key determinants of wellbeing.
A criticism of the book is that it’s a little twee. It’s a treatise on happiness aimed at readers who are probably already fairly happy to begin with. Consequently, the text contains few groundbreaking ideas. It praises all the traditional pillars of contentment such as good health, strong family ties and fulfilling work. But part of the book’s charm is that it reacquaints the reader with the basic building blocks of happiness that are all too easy to overlook.
‘The Descent of Man’ by Grayson Perry
Themes: gender, vulnerability, power, domestic violence
Review: Men have to let go of the stranglehold they have over society for the benefit of both genders. That’s how a friend summarised the book’s message to me. The description does a good job of capturing the essay’s central argument; but it’s important to caveat that by making clear the book isn’t a diatribe against men. Instead, it argues western concepts of masculinity hurt both men and women alike.
The book is part intellectual treatise, part autobiography. Grayson Perry weaves his own experiences as a transvestite artist, husband and father into the narrative. He calls on men to embrace vulnerability, openness and colour. It’s a stimulating read; though you get the impression the men most likely to benefit from the book are those least likely to read it.