My top 3 books of 2017
At the end of last year I reflected on the books I’d read in 2017, and chose the three that made the biggest impression on me.
These are the ones that spoke to my heart. The ones that most comforted me or challenged me. The ones that I couldn’t help speaking to other people about.
I’m a little surprised no fiction features in this list as I love beautifully written literary novels, but my top 3 of 2017 all feature compelling storytelling (two of them read almost as if fiction) so in hindsight that theme is still present.
Here they are below, in the order in which I read them:
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle (2016)
Raw, powerful, truth-telling.
I read Love Warrior at the very start of 2017. When it was released in September 2016, I’d never heard of Glennon Doyle, but I noticed multiple images and posts popping up on Instagram, quoting her words or recommending her new book.
My curiosity was piqued even more when I learned from google that Glennon was a New York Times best-selling author. In 2009, she had started a blog sharing her honest thoughts on parenting and life while raising her three young children. A couple of years later one of her posts went viral and prompted a publishers’ bidding war, resulting in her first book Carry On, Warrior, a collection of essays mostly drawn from her blog that debuted at number 3 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Love Warrior is Glennon’s second book, a memoir of her experience and healing following her husband Craig’s confession that he’d been unfaithful throughout their 10 year marriage.
On first glance it doesn’t sound like the kind of story that I’d usually be drawn to. Glennon is an American woman who became bulimic at 8 and survived drug and alcohol addiction. She married her boyfriend after unexpectedly falling pregnant for the second time at age 25 (she had aborted her first pregnancy a few months earlier). She has three children. And her writing reflects her religion; according to an interview/article in Elle magazine, she is “the world’s most famous Christian mommy blogger”.
So Glennon and I don’t seem to have much in common at all.
Love Warrior is not just about betrayal or the recovery of a broken marriage. It’s about the societal roles and expectations that we have of men and women that make it hard for us to be really honest with ourselves and each other. It’s about a woman hitting rock bottom and figuring out who she really is. It’s about truth, vulnerability, becoming, unbecoming, judgment, hope, and love.
As Glennon said,
“Some people assume LOVE WARRIOR is about regaining trust in a marriage. But, in truth, this book is about a woman learning to trust herself -- for the first time, and with the things that matter most: caring for her one, wild and precious life; fulfilling her sacred trust as parent, partner, friend; commanding the courage to do the next right thing; and marching through her pain to claim her power.”
I know that this book won’t be for everyone. It’s been criticised as too confessional, voyeuristic, dramatic, or attention seeking. (On the eve of its launch Glennon described it as “the most intimate story of my life” and said she cried after re-reading a chapter and thinking, “WHO LET ME PUBLISH THIS??”)
(Also, if you’re hesitating because of her religion, I found her views progressive and inclusive; more spiritual than judgemental.)
When I finished this book, I so wanted to share it with others, but I didn’t find it easy to think of many people in my life who I imagined would appreciate it. But maybe I was being too narrow minded, because Oprah chose it as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, and perhaps it will speak to you too.
The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee with David John (2015)
Fascinating, riveting, inspiring.
This book didn’t immediately come to mind when I was compiling my top 3 list, but given how much time I had spent telling friends and family about it I can’t deny that it left an impression on me. (I don’t usually seek out memoirs so it surprised me that two have ended up on my list!)
I don’t remember exactly how I first heard about The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. I probably read about it online after clicking one of those completely unrelated links at the bottom or side of another article I was reading.
I was intrigued to read that the author’s 2013 TED talk had apparently received the accolade of “the most riveting TED talk ever” from Oprah (as far as I can tell the high praise was bestowed by the team at oprah.com – still, impressively the talk has now been viewed over 10 million times). Also, my brother-in-law is from South Korea, so I thought this book would be a great opportunity to learn a bit more about the part of the world he came from.
In The Girl with Seven Names Hyeonseo describes her childhood growing up in North Korea before she ‘accidentally’ became a defector in 1997, when she was 17, as well as her difficult journey over more than a decade afterwards: living in fear as an illegal immigrant in China, finding her way to South Korea to seek asylum, and eventually helping her mother and brother make the arduous, risky and dangerous escape from North Korea.
This book offered an eye-opening insight into life in North Korea. What I’d previously been exposed to from Western media had focused on the dictator and more recently the nuclear issue, but I hadn’t heard many of the more sobering details of everyday life of the 25 million North Korean citizens before.
It was incredible to read about the North Korean social hierarchy or caste system (3 classes with 51 sub-categories based on trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state); the brainwashing, propaganda, oppression and control (such as weekly self-criticism sessions at school where children have to stand up, publicly criticise a classmate and make a confession); public executions (Hyeonseo witnessed her first public execution when she was 7) and political prison camps or gulags.
The impact of the book was magnified by the knowledge that the author was only a few years older than me - we had grown up at the same time with starkly different experiences.
I was saddened to learn of the famine in the 1990s which caused so much suffering and death, as well as the challenges faced by North Koreans who do escape: the human trafficking of North Korean women as brides and sex slaves in China; the repatriation of defectors by the Chinese government, knowing they will be subjected to punishment and potential execution; the prejudice North Koreans face in South Korea; and the suicides of defectors who find it difficult to adapt to the stress of living in a capitalist society like South Korea.
If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few articles that provide further insight on Hyeonseo and North Korea:
- Freedom, Sanctions and North Korean Ice Cream: Q&A With Defector Hyeonseo Lee
- Freedom Isn't Free: An Interview with North Korean Defector Hyeonseo Lee
- What It’s Like to Escape From North Korea - perspectives from five North Korean defectors, including Hyeonseo’s brother Lee Seongmin
- The best books on North Korea recommended by Hyeonseo Lee - aside from nominating 5 books about North Korea, Hyeonseo also answers questions about her life and the political situation there
Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown (2017)
Reassuring, confronting, essential.
I’m a huge fan of Brené’s research and writing on living whole-heartedly, vulnerability, courage and shame.
(If you haven’t heard of Brené before, her TEDx talk “The power of vulnerability” is one of the top 5 most watched TED talks of all time, with over 30 million views, and is a great introduction to her work.)
Brené’s latest book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone had its genesis in words that Maya Angelou spoke in a 1973 interview: “You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
For over twenty years, these words had puzzled and angered Brené, who deeply disagreed with Maya on this point but had otherwise loved Maya’s work. Brené couldn’t accept the idea of “belonging nowhere” as freedom, especially as she had personally experienced the pain of feeling like she never truly belonged anywhere and the longing to fit in.
In Braving the Wilderness Brené explores what it means to truly belong in an age of increased polarisation and disconnection. Having finally understood Maya’s perspective, Brené elaborates,
“True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone when necessary. True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are.”
(More reflections on this to come in a separate post.)
While I felt resonance with Brené’s definition of belonging, Braving the Wilderness also challenged me with its invitation - Brené’s exhortation - to have the hard conversations with people who are different from myself. Brené highlights that in our modern society cynicism and distrust are rampant and we are becoming more divided, choosing to affiliate with ideologically like-minded groups in which we silence dissent and consume only facts that support our beliefs.
Brené observes that “most of us are either making the choice to protect ourselves from conflict, discomfort, or vulnerability by staying quiet, or picking sides and in the process slowly and paradoxically adopting the behaviour of the people we’re fighting.” She argues that we need to ensure we aren’t making assumptions, stereotyping or dehumanising others who have different beliefs.
Reflecting on the marriage equality survey that was happening in Australia while I read Braving the Wilderness, I realised that we seemed to lack empathetic dialogue of substance between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps. Braving the Wilderness reminded me that a difference of opinion is an invitation to be curious, deepen mutual understanding and strengthen connection rather than shut down or avoid conflict.
Have you read any of these books? What were your favourite books of 2017? I’d love to hear! Drop me an email, join the conversation on Instagram or leave a comment below.