We all read for different reasons, and we all enjoy reading different genres, styles, formats. But I think a universally shared reason for reading is the ability to travel through time and space to other countries, other centuries, other planets, other lives that we may otherwise never know. Reading can offer an easy, cheap form of travel from within the comfort of our own home.
Non-fiction can teach us of worlds and science and history that we missed out on in school, but we can’t discredit fiction’s power to show us the world as well. No matter what you read, you expose yourself to stories and people and situations outside of your own experience, widening your world view and (hopefully) expanding your capacity for empathy. Reading the world, just like traveling, can make us better humans.
A key tenant of writing fiction is that your setting should be distinct, a character in and of itself. If you can lift your characters out of your setting, and tell the same story elsewhere, the setting isn’t working hard enough. Setting was always something I struggled to make come alive in my writing, so I particularly enjoy books that pay attention to world-building and create a setting I can easily fall into. (I imagine books to work the same way Bert’s chalk drawings do in Mary Poppins; as a portal to another dimension, powered by our imaginations.)
I usually try to read a 50/50 mix of fiction and non, though I think non-fiction may have taken a lead this year. Below are my favorite reads from 2017. These are all books in which setting plays a major role, stories that would not work in other places or times. These are the books that carried me away, taught me something new, introduced me to unknown places, and showed me the world.
Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia
Author: Lisa Dickey • Setting: Russia, 1990s – 2010s • Link
Loved this book! From the structure of how she tells the story, to her smart friendly writing, to all of the people you meet along the way. The author visits Russia three times, with at least a decade between each visit, and returns to the same people on each visit, her journey spanning the whole expanse of the country. It paints a contemporary portrait of Russia with enough history and personal anecdotes to really make it come alive; at times I felt like I was watching a documentary and not reading a book. I knew very little of Russia before reading this and hoped that it would open my mind a bit when it comes to a country that is usually painted as an enemy. But her stories painted a new portrait and demystified Russia for me.
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood
Author: Trevor Noah • Setting: South Africa, 1990s • Link
Quite possibly the best book I’ve read all year. Or in many years. It’s been more than six months since I’ve read it, and it’s still as vivid in my mind as if I were still reading it. Trevor Noah tells of his childhood in South Africa, walking the line as a mixed race boy in a country where the very act that created him was against the law. Now living as a black man in America, his insights into institutionalized racism make a hard pill to swallow, but his light touch and natural charm brings a dose of sugar to the medicine. And what important medicine. Every American should read this book. It will transport you to a country you probably know nothing or very little about (I mean, what I know about South Africa is based on the sci fi movie District 9 soooo….) and a time in very recent history — like during our childhoods! — that it was legal, and encouraged, to blatantly disrespect black people. Enlightening, amusing, tragic, and magical in his ability to show you this place without making you hate it (because he still has love for his homeland), and forcing you to reflect on your own home’s forms of racism. Read this book.
The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country
Author: Helen Russell • Setting: present day Denmark • Link
This was such a fun read; viewing an unknown place through a British author’s voice felt familiar yet still provided insights I might not have thought of. Denmark fascinates me, as it consistently ranks one of the happiest places to live in the world despite being plunged into a cold, dark hell winter for many months every year, so I’ve been learning as much as I can about their secrets. While this book answered many questions, and taught me much of Danish culture, history and weather patterns, I find that I have more questions that can only be answered by visiting. So I’m adding Denmark to my wanderlist!
This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare
Author: Gabourey Sidibe • Setting: Manhattan and Senegal, 90s through present day • Link
I assumed this would be another funny, frothy memoir by a female actress. While it definitely is funny, it is not frothy, and unexpectedly provides a window into two worlds unknown to me: growing up poor and black in New York, and Senegalese culture. She is so honest and vulnerable in the truths she shares. Unexpectedly, I learned about Senegalese culture and marriages, and what it’s like to be a phone sex operator. This is not a light read but her voice (both written and vocal performance) make it endlessly entertaining.
Hitching Rides with Buddha
Author: Will Ferguson • Setting: 1990s Japan • Link
A Canadian hitchhikes his way from the southernmost tip of Japan to the northernmost, in the 1990s, before smartphones and GPS and social media. The results are a rich, informative and hilarious memoir. Most of my knowledge of Japan stems from travel network shows, usually focused on Tokyo, and the few articles I’ve read about their birthing crisis. This story takes you through every inch of Japan, introducing you to a wide cast of characters and teaching you about Japanese culture, history, traditions and language. It’s long but very fun!
Between Shades of Grey
Author: Ruta Sepetys • Setting: 1941 Lithuania and Siberia • Link
This thoroughly researched historical fiction hits you hard in the feels. I read it in January and still think of it often. Not only were the characters real and flawed, and the plot expertly paced, but the historical setting was one I had previously known nothing about. I ended up on a few Wikipedia research dives and learned so much about the Soviet mass deportations of Lithuanians to remote areas of the Soviet Union (in the case of the book, Siberia). The chill of the Arctic and the pangs of hunger in their stomachs creeped out of the page into my own body; the setting of this book really captures you. You won’t be able to put this book down, but will be very glad to return to the comfort of your own home when you do.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood • Setting: post-apocalyptic Gilead (somewhere in northereastern US), could be today or tomorrow or yesterday • Link
Many people got to visit Gilead for the first time when the HBO series launched this year. It had been well over a decade since the last time I read the book, so I decided to revisit it after watching the series, and it did not disappoint. The TV show knocked it out of the park in terms of adaptation. I had totally forgotten the final epilog chapter that contextualizes the story as a historical document, which I just loved; it provides more hope for the open ended ending. And the setting in this book is almost an oppressive force; this tale can only take place in this setting, which invites you in and refuses to let you go. The scariest part was how familiar it felt, how prescient and possible and urgent the story was this time, compared to the last times I read it. Gilead is a place I don’t want to return to often, but one we should look to as we reflect upon our own future.
The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas • Setting: present day America (city unknown, possibly in Mississippi), bridging Garden Heights ghetto and the surrounding suburbs • Link
Riveting, from the first chapter to the last. I listened to the audio book, for which the voice performer should win an award. She nailed it. I did not take my earbuds out of my ears for a week because every time she started speaking, I was taken to the poor neighborhood where Starr lives, felt the inconsolable grief when she witnessed her best friend gunned down by a cop, and felt as if I walked the streets with her in the aftermath. The characters and setting felt so real and authentic, this read more like a story hot off the presses than fiction. It was hard but a heart and eye opening read. (Here’s a great interview with the author on NPR.)
The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern • Setting: 1880s – 1900s London, other European cities and the mysterious Cirque de Rêves • Link
I listened to the Jim Dale narrated audio book of this book and LOVED EVERY FREAKING SECOND OF IT. At first blush, this is not the kind of book I generally like to read. Despite my obsession with Harry Potter, I’m not into fantasy. I prefer lots of dialogue to description, and lots of plot and character development to scenery and overdoing the world building. But something about the magic and mystery and atmosphere of this book just sucked me in. It was gorgeously written; the descriptions so sumptuous I could feel and see and taste everything. I never wanted to leave this place, which felt so fantastically real. I will say, I found the time jumping and multiple POVs hard to deal with in audiobook form, and the plotting was a bit slow. But the setting and characters and overall mood of the story entranced me. Plus, listening to Jim Dale read a book with all of the voices is just about one of the most delicious things you can do with your time.
Dress Codes for Small Towns
Author: Courtney Stevens • Setting: Present day small-town Kentucky • Link
I didn’t know much about this book going in, except that it’s written by someone I know and admire, but damn. I couldn’t put it down. A beautiful, heartfelt exploration of friendship, sexuality, faith, and fixing the things we break. The characters were all multi dimensional and this felt so authentic and real. And the setting, Otters Holt, while fictional came alive as a real town in Kentucky. The specific details of the characters’ homes, church and streets spoke to universal truths about growing up in a small town.
Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey
Author: Ozge Samanci • Setting: 1980s – 1990s Turkey • Link
I recently discovered a whole subgenre of graphic novel memoirs! I’ve read a few, but this one is my favorite so far. The author uses a cool format of mixed media and drawings to share her insights into life in Turkey. You get quite a history lesson since this takes place in the 80s and 90s, in a part of the world we rarely study in American high schools. Yet no matter how strange and foreign the world of this book may seem, the struggles and dreams of the narrator resonate with anyone who ever tried to find themselves while living up to others’ expectations.
Where have YOU traveled this year?
Where have words taken you this year? What far away places and interesting people did you meet through your literary travels in 2017? Which books captivated you with their settings? Where should I go in 2018?