What I Read This Year

The vast majority of books I read this year were not published this year, but I did read several 2017 releases.  You'll notice that hardly any of the books I absolutely loved received major awards attention or adulation this year.  The hype surrounding most of the books at the tops of the critics lists were largely lost on me.  I tried reading a few of them--and I won't say which ones, as it would be bad manners to publicly put down other novelists (now if we were in private conversation that'd be another thing altogether...)--but I found them mostly unreadable, pretentious, dull, overhyped, or, most often, a combination of all four factors. So, I am only mentioning here the books I read in 2017 that I loved.   My reading list this year was largely shaped by the fact that I taught in Edinburgh for two weeks this summer, so I immersed myself in Scottish literature as much as I was able.  And it is an incredibly rich literature. The other twenty-two books I read this year came out over the last 100 years or so. Some I loved, others I really liked. Below I'll write short reflections on each of the 2017 releases and talk about just a few of the other ones.

My Favorite Books Published in 2017 (no particular order):

This book nearly killed me it's so beautiful.  The unconventional love story of two soldiers who are fighting in the "Indian Wars" and the Civil War is deeply moving and its prose is as lyrical as it is challenging. This book should have been on the shortlist of every major award this year.  Not a novel for everyone, but for me, it was truly great.  I also highly recommend you listen to this interview with the author that was broadcast on NPR's "Fresh Air" for deeper insights into the book. I've loved other books by Barry but this one is by far his masterpiece.

A sensation in England when it was first published, The Essex Serpent hasn't hit American shores with the same fervor but it is just about as perfect as a novel gets.  Every sentence is lovely.  The descriptive writing, especially of London's gritty, poverty-stricken streets, or the damp, grey eastern coast of England, is phenomenal.  And then there are the characters who all become real flesh-and-blood people to the reader.  While wholly original, there are also notes of Mary Shelley, Thomas Hardy, and John Fowles in this novel about the way a group of people are impacted by rumors of a terrorizing sea creature in 1800s England.  I loved every word of it.

I could not put down this massive tome.  It's the history of Ireland from the 1940s until now through the eyes of one man, an orphan who finds love over and over again, only to have it snatched away each time. Beautifully written and realized, with a plot that twists and turns every whichaway, Boyne expects his readers to suspend their disbelief and believe in the inevitability of coincidence, but he is so masterful at it that you do believe in all of it, every single word.  This is a terrific, hilarious, sad, and wonderful novel. Grand storytelling at its finest.

Irish-born and Scottish-resident Bernard MacLaverty is one of my all-time favorite novelists, having written favorites of mine like Grace Notes, Cal, and Lamb.  So I was chomping at the bit to read this one and pretty much devoured it in a couple days.  As always, it's the smallest observations that MacLaverty manages to capture that makes the worlds he creates so vivid and beautiful.  In this novel about an elderly couple who are still together more out of habit than love, MacLaverty explores aging, the need for purpose, and the way we depend on each other.  He also evokes Amsterdam so vividly that I feel as if I've been there.  I was mesmerized by this novel.

The Animators is a debut novel by Kayla Rae Whitaker that is very timely in that it's about two women artists.  It's a hugely American novel but on a more intimate level, it's also the best Appalachian novel of the year by a long-shot.  In fact, I think it's one of the best examinations of what it means to be from the region ever, even though it's not technically an Appalachian novel.  But there is definitely the element of how people are shaped by the rural, and Appalachian, experience.  Whitaker gets that absolutely right, and just about everything else.  This is another one that should have had more awards attention.  The movie rights were recently sold so I'm hoping it will get an even bigger readership in the near future.  It's gritty, hilarious, touching...and you will never forget the two lead characters as you live with them in Brooklyn and Louisville, travel with them to Florida and Eastern Kentucky, and leave the whole thing feeling as if they're old friends you miss after you close the book. Here's a good interview with Whitaker.

The Jonestown Massacre is something that loomed large in my childhood.  I'm not sure why, but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was raised in a very religious place where, even as a child, I could understand how people could fall under the spell of a charismatic preacher like Jim Jones.  This book gives every detail about Jones and the massacre itself.  It's chilling, expertly researched, and very well written.  Another lyrical page-turner in my collection of the year's best books.

Here are the other great or really good books I read this year, but none were published this year:

The Wild Places and The Old Ways, both by Robert MacFarlane.  I'm obsessed with MacFarlane.  He is, bar none, one of our best writers and minds.  Read his books and then follow him on Twitter where he shares a Word of the Day each day and offers other lovely insights.  Reading his books make me feel better about literature and the world in general.  One of my all-time favorite writers and these are two of my favorite books ever.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men-James Agee and Walker Evans.  I read this book because I was asked to do the keynote at the Agee Conference.  It's frustrating, demanding, unconventional, and absolute genius.

Tender-Belinda McKeon.  A terrific novel about the thin line between platonic love and sexual obsession.  Also a great look at being in college and the way things end up far different than we ever expected.  This is a real psychological thriller in the guise of a beautifully written literary novel.  Page turner, but a very, very well-written one.

River of Earth-James Still.  I re-read this classic every two years and it never, ever gets old.  One of the best narrators of all time and one of the most beautiful, simple, and complex stories.  If you've never read it, do yourself a favor and read it immediately.

Books I read to prep for teaching in Scotland:

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is widely considered as Scotland's favorite novel and now that I've read it, I can see why.  It's not the easiest of reads as it is full of Scottish dialect but once you get into the rhythm of that, the colloquialisms aren't interruptions so much as they are enriching the experience.  The novel is the story of a beautiful and strong Scots woman who faces every obstacle in her desire to find happiness and goodness.  It contains two of my favorite lines in all of literature:  "You can do without day if you have a lamp quiet-lighted and kind in your heart."  That became a mantra for me as I survived the dark days of 2017.  The other line is this: "There are lovely things in this world, lovely that do not endure and the lovelier for that."  See?  That's the kind of swoon-inducing writing contained in this masterpiece. It's also a love-it-or-hate-it film that I happened to love.  Here's my favorite scene from the movie.

Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty is one of my favorite novels, set in Scotland and Ireland, about the power of music and the desire to please one's family even when we tell ourselves we do not care about that.  It is an incredible read.  I reread this to teach it in my writing workshop in Scotland.

The Silver Darlings and Highland River, both by Neil Gunn, are among the most beloved novels in Scotland.  Dense, lyrical, still very relevant.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks was the common read for our writing class in Scotland and it was a particular relevant novel since at heart it's about how easily people can fall prey to fascism.  With that in mind, perhaps everyone should read it RIGHT NOW.  It's not a book one leaves with particular love for any of the characters but it is one you'll never forget.

Knots and Crosses-Ian Rankin.  Required reading for anyone who is going to Edinburgh.  Great mystery.

Commonwealth-Ann Patchett I came late to the party on this novel, having not read it when it was a big sensation.  I read it at the lake during our family vacation and could hardly put it down.  A truly great novel.

Our Endless Numbered Days-Claire Fuller

The Secret Scripture-Sebastian Barry

The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  John Fowles wrote this novel as a tribute to one of my top two favorite writers, Thomas Hardy, so I've always wanted to read it, and tackled it this year.  I loved everything about it.  A massive, overwhelming, rich novel.

His Bloody Project-Graeme Macrae Burnet.  One of the best books I've read in a long time.  Frightening, beautifully written, and haunting.  I'll never forget it.  This book was punished by a very small indie press in Scotland and became a word-of-mouth hit that eventually found its way to becoming a finalist for the prestigious Man-Booker Prize.  This book deserved it.

The River-Helen Humphries.  I have loved every single thing I've ever read by Humphries, and this hybrid of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and reportage is one of her best, although my favorite is The Evening Chorus, one of my all-time favorite novels.  I also love Coventry by her, too.

Behind the Scenes, Or 30 Years a Slave, Four Years in The White House, by Elizabeth Beckley and
House of Abraham:  Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War, by Stephen Berry.  Read as part of my research on a play I'm doing about Mary Todd Lincoln.

In the Heart of America and Other Plays, by Naomi Wallace.  One of my favorite playwrights, especially One Flea Spare, which has been a major influence on the way I think about writing plays.

The Welsh Girl-Peter Ho Davies


Popular posts from this blog

You Hate Poor People (And Other Things I Want to Tell the Academy)

The Matter Is You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About

The Flood, Then and Now