2017’s Runners-Up and Other Superlatives
The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any previously published reviews linked in (many of these books have already appeared on the blog in some way over the course of the year). You know the drill by now: to keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title. The first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. Across these three best-of posts (see also my Top Nonfiction and Best Fiction posts), I’ve spotlighted roughly the top 15% of my year’s reading.
- As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths: The themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas about encounters with God and the nature of evil. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.
- Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař: The story of Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who leaves his wife behind to undertake a noble research mission but soon realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. A terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space.
- English Animals by Laura Kaye: A young Slovakian becomes a housekeeper for a volatile English couple and discovers a talent for taxidermy. A fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging, this is one of the more striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years.
- Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. This is a delightfully quirky little book, but you may well read it with a lump in your throat, too.
- Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty: In MacLaverty’s quietly beautiful fifth novel, a retired couple faces up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. My overall response was one of admiration for what this couple has survived and sympathy for their current situation – with hope that they’ll make it through this, too. (Reviewed for BookBrowse.)
- Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: An Irish college student navigates friendships and an affair with a married man. This is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality; a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: The residents of Georgetown cemetery limbo don’t know they’re dead – or at least won’t accept it. An entertaining and truly original treatment of life’s transience; I know it’s on every other best-of-year list out there, but it really is a must-read.
- The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw: Shaw travels through space, time and literature as he asks why we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about the smells we encounter every day. If you’re interested in exploring connections between smell and memory, discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is a perfect introduction.
- A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: Tomalin is best known as a biographer of literary figures including Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens, but her memoir is especially revealing about the social and cultural history of the earlier decades her life covers. A dignified but slightly aloof book – well worth reading for anyone interested in spending time in London’s world of letters in the second half of the twentieth century.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The story of a mixed-race family haunted – both literally and figuratively – by the effects of racism, drug abuse and incarceration in Bois Sauvage, a fictional Mississippi town. Beautiful language; perfect for fans of Toni Morrison and Cynthia Bond.
I’ve really struggled with short stories this year, but here are four collections I can wholeheartedly recommend:
- What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)
- Unruly Creatures: Stories by Jennifer Caloyeras
- Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
- The Great Profundo and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (1987)
The Best 2017 Books You Probably Never Heard of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!):
- The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson: The coroner’s career is eventful no matter what, but Marin County, California has its fair share of special interest, what with Golden Gate Bridge suicides, misdeeds at San Quentin Prison, and various cases involving celebrities (e.g. Harvey Milk, Jerry Garcia and Tupac) in addition to your everyday sordid homicides. Ken Holmes was a death investigator and coroner in Marin County for 36 years; Bateson successfully recreates Holmes’ cases with plenty of (sometimes gory) details.
- Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Tasting notes: gleeful, ebullient, learned, self-deprecating; suggested pairings: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler; Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off. A delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
- A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light, edited by Eleanor Brown: A highly enjoyable set of 18 autobiographical essays that celebrate what’s wonderful about the place but also acknowledge disillusionment; highlights are from Maggie Shipstead, Paula McLain, Therese Anne Fowler, Jennifer Coburn, Julie Powell and Michelle Gable. If you have a special love for Paris, have always wanted to visit, or just enjoy armchair traveling, this collection won’t disappoint you.
- Ashland & Vine by John Burnside: Essentially, it’s about the American story, individual American stories, and how these are constructed out of the chaos and violence of the past – all filtered through a random friendship that forms between a film student and an older woman in the Midwest. This captivated me from the first page.
- Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel, Thomas H. Cook: In 28 non-chronological chapters, Cook documents journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. This is by no means your average travel book and it won’t suit those who seek high adventure and/or tropical escapism; instead, it’s a meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (Reviewed for Nudge.)
- The Valentine House by Emma Henderson: This is a highly enjoyable family saga set mostly between 1914 and 1976 at an English clan’s summer chalet in the French Alps near Geneva, with events seen from the perspective of a local servant girl. You can really imagine yourself into all the mountain scenes and the book moves quickly –a great one to take on vacation.
Various Superlatives, Good and Bad:
The 2017 Book Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. (See my Goodreads review for why.)
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, Between Them by Richard Ford and George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Books by Charlie Hill (ironic, that). My only one-star review of the year.
The Downright Strangest Book I Read This Year: An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle.
My Best Discoveries of the Year: Beryl Bainbridge, Saul Bellow, Bernard MacLaverty and Haruki Murakami. I’ve read two books by each of these authors this year and look forward to trying more from them.
The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Laura Kaye, Carmen Marcus, Julianne Pachico and Sally Rooney.
The Best First Line of the Year: “History has failed us, but no matter.” (Pachinko, Min Jin Lee)
The Best Last Line of the Year: “If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.” (Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty)
Coming tomorrow: Some early recommendations for 2018.
Reviews Roundup, November–December
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Journeys by Bee Rowlatt: A BBC journalist and mother of four sets out, baby in tow, to trace the steps of Mary Wollstonecraft in Norway and France. A follow-up trip to California is a little off-topic, but allows Rowlatt to survey the development of feminism over the last few centuries. This isn’t as successful a bibliomemoir as many I’ve read in recent years, such as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch or Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine, but for readers interested in engaging in the ongoing debate about how women can balance work life with motherhood, and especially for any women who have attempted traveling with children, it’s a fun, sassy travelogue.
Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World by Christopher Kelly and Stuart Laycock: Proceeding alphabetically from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the authors give a comprehensive picture of Italians’ global reach through one- to five-page snapshots. There are many familiar names here, such as Caesar, Garibaldi and Marco Polo. Along with exploration, some major reasons for historical crossover were trade, war, colonialism and immigration. At times it feels as if the authors are grasping at straws; better to skip one-paragraph write-ups altogether and focus instead on the countries that have extensive links with Italy. Nonetheless, this is a lively, conversational book full of surprising facts.
Why You Won’t Go to Hell by Benjamin Vande Weerdhof Andrews: In a well-structured argument, Andrews prizes empirical thinking, rejects the supernatural, and affirms the possibility of godless morality. His central thesis is that religion doesn’t evolve to keep pace with society and so holds humanity back. The book’s tone is too often defensive, often in response to included website comments, and there are some failures of accuracy and fairness. Ultimately, though, this could be an inspirational book for atheists or believers, prompting both groups to question their assumptions and be willing to say “I don’t know.” Readers of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens will be particularly drawn to the book, but others should take a chance on it too.
Cultured Food for Health by Donna Schwenk: When Schwenk started eating cultured foods in 2002, she had diabetes, high blood pressure, and a premature newborn. Keen to see if good bacteria could help with her medical problems, she started introducing the “healing powerhouse” of kefir (a fermented milk product resembling thin yogurt), kombucha (bubbly tea), and cultured vegetables into her diet, and soon reaped the rewards. About a quarter of the book is background information about probiotic foods. Bullet-pointed lists of health benefits, along with an alphabetical inventory of the diseases that cultured foods can treat, should prove helpful. The rest of the book is devoted to recipes, most vegetarian.
Three Simple Questions: Being in the World, But Not of It by Charlie Horton: Horton, trained as a social worker, was diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration in 1988. It has gradually affected his speech and movement. Despite having lived with disability for nearly three decades, he declares, “the world I live in is rich, and my spirit is young.” Here he documents how he deals with depression and physical limitations through guided meditations that bring him closer to God. Although he comes from a Christian perspective, he writes about spirituality in such inclusive terms that his work should speak to people of any faith.
Middle Passage: The Artistic Life of Lawrence Baker by Louis B. Burroughs, Jr.: This ghostwritten autobiography of an African-American artist is not only an evocative, eventful life story that moves from the Jim Crow South to the North, but also a forceful artist’s manifesto. Burroughs writes in Baker’s voice, a decision that works surprisingly well. The title is a powerful reference to the slave trade. Indeed, Burroughs consciously crafts Baker’s autobiography as an “up from slavery” narrative reminiscent of Richard Wright and Maya Angelou – with ‘slavery’ in this case being poverty and racism.
40 Sonnets by Don Patterson: All but one of the poems in this new book have the sonnet’s traditional 14 lines; “The Version” is a short prose story about writing an untranslatable poem. However, even in the more conventional verses, there is a wide variety of both subject matter and rhyme scheme. Topics range from love and death to a phishing phone call and a footpath blocked off by Dundee City Council. A few favorites were “A Powercut,” set in a stuck elevator; “Seven Questions about the Journey,” an eerie call-and-response; and “Mercies,” a sweet elegy to an old dog put to sleep. There weren’t quite enough stand-outs here for my liking, but I appreciated the book as a showcase for just how divergent in form sonnets can be.
Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim: This is a quietly gripping book even though not much of moment happens over Kim’s five months teaching young men at a missionary-run college in Pyongyang. She was in a unique position in that students saw her as ethnically one of their own but she brought an outsider’s perspective to bear on what she observed. Just before she flew back to the States in 2011, Kim Jong-Il died, an event she uses as a framing device. It could have represented a turning point for the country, but instead history has repeated itself with Kim Jong-un. Kim thus ends on a note of frustration: she wants better for these young men she became so fond of. A rare glimpse into a country that carefully safeguards its secrets and masks its truth.
Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things that Matter by Diana Athill: Diana Athill turns 98 on December 21st. Apart from “Dead Right,” however, this collection is not primarily concerned with imminent death. Instead Athill is still grateful to be alive: marveling at a lifetime of good luck and health and taking joy in gardening, clothing, books, memories and friendships. Six of the 10 essays originally appeared elsewhere. The collection highlight is the title piece, about a miscarriage she suffered in her forties. Another stand-out is “The Decision,” about moving into a retirement home in her nineties. This doesn’t live up to her best memoirs, but is an essential read for a devoted fan, and a consolation given she will likely not publish anything else (though you never know). [For first-time Athill readers, I’d recommend starting with Somewhere Towards the End, followed by Stet, about her work as a literary editor.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan: This debut novel blends postcolonial bureaucracy with steampunk zaniness. The setup is familiar enough: businessmen head overseas to take financial advantage of a former colony, puzzle over unfamiliar customs, and by the end are chastened but gain a clearer sense of values. Narrator Steven Strauss is the personal assistant to Raymond Ess, an entrepreneur with a history of mental illness. Their aviation company has gone bust; Strauss is to accompany Ess to India and keep him occupied by looking for an anti-gravity machine. Not anchored by either current events or convincing fantasy, the plot suffers in comparison to works by Geoff Dyer or Nick Harkaway. Despite entirely serviceable writing and a gravity-defying theme, it never really takes off.
My Confection: Odyssey of a Sugar Addict by Lisa Kotin: 1978. Twenty-one-year-old mime goes to macrobiotic rehab to recover from sugar addiction. Fails. Shows signs of being a sex addict as well. Pared down to headlines, that’s how this fairly rambling memoir about Kotin’s relationships with food, family, lovers, and career opens. I kept waiting for a turn, some moment of revelation, when Kotin’s binge eating would be solved. Still, her recreation of her obsessive younger self can be pretty funny and charming, and her family sounds a bit like the Sedaris clan. I found this a bit dated, but others may find the time period and Jewish family background more evocative.
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: I’m going to chalk this one up to blurb inflation. The writing is lively and the plot well crafted, with quirky postmodern touches, but the novel as a whole did not live up to my absurdly high expectations: it’s really nothing like A.S. Byatt’s Possession. It’s 1999 and Shira Greene is a failed translator from the Italian, now working as a temp in New York City and raising her daughter Andi with the help of her gay, Pakistani co-parent, Ahmad. One day she gets a call from Romei, a Nobel Prize-winning Italian poet who wants her to translate his new work, a version of Dante’s Vita Nuova that focuses on his relationship with his ill wife – and eventually starts to comment on Shira’s own life in surprising ways.
Water Sessions by James Lasdun: Wonderful poems from a severely underrated writer. The British Lasdun has relocated to small-town upstate New York, where he’s learned the spiritual worth of manual labor. There are such interesting rhyme schemes and half-rhymes throughout. One of the most striking poems, “Thing One and Thing Two,” compares human and animal sexuality in a rather disturbing way. The title sequence is a dialogue between a patient and a therapist, discussing what went wrong in a relationship and how arguments are never ‘about’ the thing that started it.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: A retelling of the life of King David from the perspective of the prophet Nathan. The naming takes some getting used to, but the stories – from gory massacres to moments of triumph – are recognizable from the Old Testament. What makes Brooks’s take unique is the different points of view it shows and the ways it subtly introduces doubt about David’s carefully cultivated image. It’s sensual historical fiction, full of rich descriptive language. Strangely unmemorable for me, perhaps because the storyline is just too familiar. Brooks doesn’t offer a radical reinterpretation but sows small seeds of doubt about the hero we think we know. (Full review in Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Third Way magazine.)
When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone by Philip Gould: Gould may be familiar to British readers as a key strategist of the New Labour movement and one of Tony Blair’s advisors. In 2008 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and chose to pay for private treatment at New York’s Sloan-Kettering hospital instead of going for a radical operation through the NHS – a fateful decision. Gould’s own account is fairly short, about 140 pages, but it’s supplemented by short reminiscences from his wife and two daughters. Daughter Georgia’s, especially, is a very good blow-by-blow of his final week. All royalties from the book went to the National Oesophago-Gastric Cancer Fund.
Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen: “Twain’s End” was a possible name for the Clemens house in Connecticut, but it’s also a tip of the hat to Howards End and an indication of the main character’s impending death. In January 1909, when the novel opens, Samuel Clemens, 74, is busy dictating his autobiography and waiting for Halley’s Comet, the heavenly body that accompanied his birth, to see him back out. His secretary, Isabel Lyon, is 45 and it’s no secret that the two of them are involved. I love how the novel shifts between the perspectives of several strong female characters yet still gives a distinct portrait of Clemens/Twain. Interestingly, I found that it helped to have visited the Twain house in Connecticut – I could truly picture all the scenes, especially those set in the billiard room and conservatory.
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel: Lewis-Stempel is a proper, third-generation Herefordshire farmer, but also a naturalist with a poet’s eye. His day job might involve shooting rabbits, cutting hay and delivering lambs, but he still finds the time to notice and appreciate wildlife. He knows his field’s flowers, insects and birds as well as he knows his cows; he gets quiet and close enough to the ground to watch a shrew devouring beetles. June and July are the stand-out chapters, with some truly magical moments. When his mower breaks on a stone, he has to cut the hay by hand, returning him to a centuries-gone model of hard labor. All delivered in the loveliest prose.
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: A strong debut novel about personal and community responses to tragedy. Clegg’s multivocal approach works quite well, though there are perhaps a few too many voices diluting the mixture. I like how the revelations of what really happened that night before the wedding to cause the fatal house fire come gradually, making you constantly rethink who was responsible and what it all means. The small-town Connecticut setting is a good one, but I’d question the decision to set so much of the book in Washington, where the bereaved June drives on a whim. For a tragic story, it’s admirably lacking in melodrama.
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg: Foodoir extraordinaire! I liked this even better than Delancey, which is a terrific book about opening a pizza restaurant in Seattle with her husband. Here we get the prequel: the death of her father Burg from cancer, time spent living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her now-famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband Brandon through it. Each brief autobiographical essay is perfectly formed and followed by a relevant recipe, capturing precisely how food is tied up with her memories. Wizenberg’s very fond of salad, but also of cake, and every recipe is full-on in terms of flavors and ingredients.
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons: This was a random library book sale purchase, chosen almost entirely for the title. I set aside my usual dislike of child narrators and found an enjoyable voice-driven novella about a feisty ten-year-old who loses both her parents (good riddance to her father, at least) and finds her own unconventional family after cycling through the homes of some truly horrid relatives. Just as an example, her maternal grandmother sends her out to work picking cotton. The book is set in the South, presumably in the 1970s or 80s, so it’s alarming to see how strong racial prejudice still was.
The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel: I read this over several years, a handful each holiday season. There are some very unusual choices, including some that really have hardly anything to do with Christmas (e.g. one by Bessie Head). Still, it’s a nice book to have to hand, even if just to skip through. Manguel strikes a good balance between well-known short story writers, authors you might never think to associate with Christmas, and fairly obscure works in translation. Four favorites: “A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote (overall favorite); “Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor,” John Cheever; “The Zoo at Christmas,” Jane Gardam; and “O’Brien’s First Christmas,” Jeanette Winterson.