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: Continue reading “The 5 Most Heartbreaking Books I Read in 2017”