The 5 Most Heartbreaking Books I Read in 2017

Last year I read about 130 books. At that pace, assuming a long, healthy lifespan with decent eyesight and health coverage, maybe I can get through 5000 more. That’s a pretty small number compared to all the books I’d like to read. So I have to be picky and stuff. Great books only! That’s why every book I review here is going to be pretty darn good. Heck, the ones I can’t say nice things about I don’t even bother reviewing. Highlight reel all the way.

Although I read good books regardless of when they were written, a large number of the books on the list were published in the last year or two, and almost all within the last 20.

There were many truly outstanding books in the batch. If I rate it a 10, it means you should stop what you’re doing right now, get a hold of this book and start reading it. Check the review first to see if it’s your dish. Then read it anyway, because a 10 rating means it’s epochally awesome. It will permanently drop your jaw to the floor so you’ll have to carry it around on a leash. Hey, why are you still reading this!? Go get one of those books. Jeebus.


Look, if you’re sitting there in front of a Mac with a blazing fast internet connection, you’ve got it pretty good — in fact, better than 99.99999% of the people who’ve ever lived on the face of the earth. Chances are you haven’t been evicted, exiled, enslaved, had your ancestral lands taken away, or gotten massacred yet. This means you’re probably getting a little soft. You need to read about some serious pain, pilgrim. And maybe stand while you read. It’s better for you, and will keep your socks from getting knocked off by these six gale-force hurricanes, all 10/10:

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) by Matthew Desmond (ebook & print) I am not the first person to call this a tour de force, and I won’t be the last. To write this book (which started out as his doctoral thesis), Desmond took it upon himself to live in the neighborhoods he studied: slums, ghettoes, and trailer parks in poor, honest-to-god dangerous parts of Milwaukee. What he found was explosive, eye-opening and heartbreaking. At the heart of urban America, a robust business model exists for landlords to systematically exploit poor tenants through loopholes in the law. The result is an underclass trapped in cycles of poverty, drugs, malnutrition, poor health and crime. After reading this, it’s impossible to see America’s inner cities, law enforcement, and politics the same way. A well-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 10/10

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild (ebook, print & audio). One day last year, while  I was traveling in Australia, I thought to myself: “Y’know, self, you’ve led a fairly charmed life. You should read about some pain.” Thus started my Heartbreak Project, in which I took on books about the awful things humans have done to one another. This is totally one of those books.

The plundering of the Congo and the subsequent massacre and enslavement of the Congolese happened on a scale that beggars the imagination, especially compared to how little Westerners know about it. 6-10 million Congolese perished. King Leopold had turned a country half the size of Europe into his own personal colony so he could fund his palaces and the whims of teenage whore-mistresses. If you go to Brussels today — Joseph Conrad’s “sepulchral city” from Heart of Darkness— pretty much every old building you see was built with Leopold’s Congo money.

There are legions of despicable characters in this story, amongst them Henry M. Stanley, the Welsh-American explorer famous for finding Victoria Falls and Dr Livingstone. Only the insane bravery of a few heroes ultimately exposed Leopold’s crimes. Englishman Edmund Dene Morel, black Americans George Washington Williams and Wiliam Sheppard survived multiple assassination attempts and fatal tropical disease to expose the atrocities of the Congo and turn international sentiment against it.

This is holocaust-level stuff that very few people have heard about. The story will break your heart dozens of times, and also redeem and enlarge it. 10/10

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2015) by Elizabeth Kolbert (ebook & print). Caves that recently contained millions of bats now have none — a fungus massacred them. All frogs are vanishing from the face of the earth. “A third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed to oblivion.” There have been five major extinctions on Earth, and we seem to be amidst the sixth one, largely created by humans. Kolbert of The New Yorker is the human reporting on this for the past decade with a sharp eye, steady voice, and muddy boot. Her unsentimental delivery makes the magnitude of the catastrophe hit you even harder when it finally dawns on you: we’re killing everything. This won the Pulitzer Prize, and may it win any and every award that will make kids better stewards of their only planet. I give it a 10 because not destroying all life forms on Earth is kinda important. May want to stop eating tuna and shark-fin soup, like, now. 10/10

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio). Can I tell you how great this book is? I mean, did you ever wonder how a mixed-race South African kid ended up hosting The Daily Show? This book chronicles that astonishingly unlikely journey from the slums of Soweto where Noah’s mere existence was a crime, since whites and blacks weren’t supposed to talk, let alone have kids together. Growing up “colored” in apartheid South Africa where racism was the law of the land meant Noah fully belonged to neither the world of whites nor blacks. But he knew how to hustle. His incredibly poignant relationship with his lioness of a mother had me crying more than once. Damn.

The audiobook benefits from Noah’s comic timing and dead-on rendition of myriad accents and languages. I laughed out loud many times; I don’t think I’ll every forget his story about DJing a bar mitzvah with Hitler (seriously). In the meantime, you and I have no idea how bad black South Africans had it — this shit is bananas. Hilarious, heartbreaking, uplifting and enlightening, this is one extraordinary book to nourish your soul. 10/10

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio). The United States of America is a nation founded on genocide. The continental US was the ancestral homeland of millions of natives inhabiting it continuously for 40,000 years. Somehow, this vast territory became the domain of white settlers. How? During the massive westward expansion of the US all the way to the Pacific coast in the years 1840-1890, this was the general procedure:

1) Invade Native American (aka Indian) territory by making trails, building railroads, staking land claims, stealing livestock, or just attacking them without warning.
2) Provoked Native American tribes fight back to reclaim their hunting grounds, get back their livestock or their captives, or take revenge for the murders white people committed.
3) Settlers complain to the US Government, which now sends overwhelming force to attack the tribe.
4) Even though massively outnumbered and only possessing primitive weapons, the tribes inflict huge casualties on the US Military or outright defeat them.
5) The US Government makes a treaty with the tribes, granting them rights to a diminished, marginally livable territory, supposedly in perpetuity, and forbidding trespassing upon Indian hunting grounds and pastures. In the meantime, they forcibly march the Indians on foot to their new territory hundreds of miles away. Many Natives perish in the marches.
6) The Native Americans do not read or write English, so with each treaty, the US routinely swindles Natives out of vast swathes of their territories. Many are confined to restrictive, barely habitable reservations. Their government-issued food rations are meager, or stolen, or of inedible quality provided by profiteers. Widespread disease and death ensues.
7) Within 1-5 years, the treaty is violated by white settlers who want to mine gold, raise cattle, build railroads or make trails through the supposedly sacrosanct Native American territory. The US Government fails to enforce its own treaties. The tribes have no choice but to undertake the defense of their lands.
8) Completely ignoring their own treaties, the US Army takes this as justification to exterminate the Native Americans. Their usual modus operandi is to attack unarmed villages without notice, moving down everyone, including women and children. They all fervently believed in Gen. Sheridan’s maxim, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
9) The few surviving Native Americans are confined to unlivable reservations far away from their homelands. Most die of disease, malnutrition, or broken hearts.
10) Repeat cycle for any remaining tribes until all are exterminated or confined to reservations.

The pattern of genocide is similar to how the Nazis exterminated Jews. First, Native Americans were declared subhuman, and therefore worthy of slaughter. This was completely accepted public opinion amongst white Americans.

Second, the Americans controlled all the means of creating and disseminating information, which they used to create outright lies and propaganda to further demonize Natives.

Third, once the tribes were overpowered and captured, they were confined to reservations, which functioned just like concentration camps.

Fourth, whites used manufactured, quasi-religious doctrine such as “Manifest Destiny” to justify breaking the treaties they themselves had written up, then invade more territory. America’s destiny was to go from sea to shining sea. The Natives just had bad luck to be in the way, and had to be removed.

Before reading the book, I knew that non-Indo-European place names in the US were of Native American origin. Twenty-six of US States have Indian names, as do hundreds of cities, counties, lakes, mountains and rivers. And you know what? 99.9% of the owners of those names were murdered by the US Government.

If everyone knew about the atrocities committed against the indigenous people, seeing these names – like Nantucket, Seminole, Tuskegee, Massachusetts, Algonquin, Alabama, Tennessee – would have the same emotional valence as signs saying “Auschwitz”, “Buchenwald” and “Treblinka.”

But most people don’t know, because history is written by the victors. And when I was a kid, we watched Westerns and played Cowboys and Indians, and everyone knew that the Indians were the bad guys.

Except that we were wrong. The Indians were the good guys. They were peaceful animists with venerable cultures who had figured out how to live in balance with their environment for 40,000 years. They had a real sense of honor and right and wrong. They were tremendously brave, in a way that astonished their white assailants. They were not afraid of death. And every white person who got to know them well became convinced of their nobility of spirit.

If it weren’t for the Indians teaching the Mayflower pilgrims how to hunt, build homes and farm, all those white people would have died in their first winter, and there would be no Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, the white people grew in number, overtook and massacred the peaceful Indians who just wanted to be left free to live like they had for the 40,000 years prior. The Native American culture was a humanistic, just and ecologically sound one, and the Western world is impoverished for having destroyed it.

Most Indian tribes did not have a written language. Dee Brown’s detective work to find these stories told from the Indian side, dig up government archives, and come up with a cohesive narrative, is nothing short of Herculean. The details of the battles, the marches and councils are alive — and heartbreaking. Americans may want to think about how reflexively proud they want to be of a military that has been a force for genocide and imperialism whose last just war was WWII. 10/10