Best Books of 2017

Rabbit, rabbit, as we say for luck in our house on the last day of the month!

It’s also the last day of the year, of course. I’m looking back on my year of reading and am reminded of some books that made my life richer. Here are some that stand out among my favorite reads of 2017, in the order in which I read them:

  • One Man’s Meat, by E.B. White — It’s no secret that I love E.B. White. His writing is spellbinding, transporting me to another, quieter, slower world, offering a place and moment for introspection. This wasn’t the only one of White’s books I re-read this year; but it’s definitely one of my favorites, and it almost certainly won’t be the last time I read it. We need more E.B. White in this busy world.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders — I was inspired to read this one by Kathleen Kirk’s three-part series at Escape Into Life detailing her experience listening to the audiobook. (Check that out here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.) I, too, chose the audio version of this one and found it mesmerizing. Haunting and emotional, mixing fiction with historical fact, the book is set in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie has been taken after his untimely death during Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln comes here in grief, and his grief — and the love between him and Willie — filled me up as a listener. I also was moved by the deep and rich cast of characters, all of them dead, who witness the president’s late-night visitation and transform the experience for both Lincoln and Willie. That’s all I’ll say; read (or listen to) the book.
  • Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller — This is a surprising and haunting novel, the story of a young girl whose survivalist father takes her into the wilderness, telling her that the rest of the world has been destroyed, along with her mother. It’s all a lie. I don’t want to give away the plot; you should read it for yourself.
  • Ten Years in the Tub, by Nick Hornby — Not by any stretch of the imagination a new book, but hands down one of my favorites this year. A compilation of Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns for The Believer, I challenge anyone to get through this book without adding at least a dozen books to their want-to-read list. It’s hilarious and self-effacing and full of great reading advice — and has probably the best parentheticals I have ever read.
  • Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje — Another book blending fact with fiction, this one is an autobiographical novel in which Ondaatje returns to Sri Lanka, where he grew up, to rediscover his family roots and, really, himself. I read this one on Nick Hornby’s recommendation; I was not disappointed.
  • Cast of Characters, by Thomas Vinciguerra — This is a fascinating and easily consumed history of the creation and early decades of The New Yorker magazine and the incomparable group of people who brought it to life. I laughed and read aloud throughout, and reviewed it more thoroughly at Escape Into Life.
  • The Natural Way of Things, by Charlotte Wood — This is another one that I wrote about here and also at Escape Into Life. Probably my favorite work of fiction that I read this year, I got to the end, then turned straight back to the beginning and reread it immediately.
  • Footsteps: Literary Pilgrimages Around the World — This one is a compilation of literary travel writing from The New York Times, with reports from Times reporters who have traveled on literary-inspired quests over the years — from Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco and Rachel Carson’s Maine, to Jorge Luis Borges’ Buenos Aires and W.B. Yeats’ Ireland. The essays vary in their approach, and so can feel a bit uneven. But if you’re a reader, there’s almost certainly a jewel in here for you. Pick this one up as a summer book, or open it in late winter or early spring when you start thinking about a vacation escape, and see if something inspires you.
  • Christmas Days, by Jeanette Winterson — You won’t often find me recommending short stories because they don’t usually compel me. These did, and they have the added bonus of coming intermingled with essays and recipes. Win-win-win. The book inspired a couple of blog posts here (one on Christmas Day and one in which I was inspired to share my recipe for pumpkin-banana muffins), and I wrote a review at Escape Into Life.
  • March, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell — This is U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ graphic memoir of the civil rights movement, published in three parts. Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and led it from 1963 to 1966. He knew Bobby Kennedy, met with President Lyndon Johnson when the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed, and was serving in Congress when he saw Barack Obama sworn in as president. He has a story to tell. And the graphic novel is a very accessible format for doing that. Lewis’ choice of format seems intended to bring this story to a new generation of youth, but it also makes it very easily consumable by adult readers. It’s accessible and a very quick read; yet I came out feeling enriched and better educated. The first book can stand on its own; the second and third really don’t, instead picking up Lewis’ story where he left off at the end of the previous book. That’s unfortunate, but it isn’t a reason not to pick up the series. You can read part 1 in a single sitting, so give it a try.

One of my guilty secrets is that I love mystery novels and read a ton of them. Most are not high art; many are written to a formula. But the plots suck me in, and there really are some good writers working in the genre. Here are a few that I especially enjoyed this year:

  • The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas
  • Crimes of Winter, by Philippe Georget
  • Marshall’s Law, by Ben Sanders

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