Life caught up with me a bit in 2017, and I didn’t get to read as much as I have in years past. I was fine, though, because what I did manage to read was enjoyable.
I recently read this article that put a point on something I’ve been thinking about for years. The article suggests that the idea of “reading widely,” as in reading different genres and spreading your book choices out, can be hindering to your enjoyment of all books.
“To read widely—to flit from book to book, writer to writer—is to flaunt an open mind while never stopping long enough to fill it up,” said writer Jason Gurial. “The call to ‘read widely’ is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books.”
Yeah, I like that. Instead of reading as widely as I can in as many genres as possible, I plan to make 2018 about reading quality writing. I will trust my own judgment, and, if a book doesn’t speak to me, I will allow myself to put it down, opting for something else that might gain my interest.
Here are my favorite books of 2017. What are yours?
Michael Wallis, “The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny”
You know the story of the fated Donners, and that story most likely includes cannibalism. What I had imagined in my head happening was not the reality, as I learned in Michael Wallis’ stunning 2017 release “The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny.” The book is as close to a historical record as exists in terms of the narrative of what happened as the Donner/Reed parties moved west to start new lives with their families. The stubborn Donners would eventually become stranded near Lake Tahoe for the winter, and, well, what happened is history. If you have any interest at all in American frontier history, I recommend this book. I couldn’t put it down.
George Saunders, “Lincoln in the Bardo”
I knew the new George Saunders book (his first novel) would make me laugh, but I had no idea it would move me as much as it did. “Lincoln in the Bardo” is a strange ghost story, of sorts, involving President Abraham Lincoln and the death of his son Willie Lincoln. The “bardo” is a weird middle purgatory between life and death, and then rebirth. Many souls are there, including Willie’s for a while. Following his death, Lincoln would visit his son’s grave and hold the body. That’s the basis for the novel, but the story is so much stranger and sadder. There’s a reason it won so many awards, including the Man Booker Prize, and spent weeks on The New York Times’ best-seller list.
Claire Louise Bennett, “Pond”
This short book of ruminations on solitude is one of those books that sticks with you for days. Essentially, the story follows a young woman living in a small cottage. She experiences loss, love and heartache, but she also just exists and struggles with life. I laughed at her vulgarity and stubbornness, cried with her loneliness. “Pond” is really a short story collection, though each of the stories is connected. The book is also an example of how good writing can be about anything and nothing. This is, as The New York Times reviewer said, a book that “tries to reach insight by defamiliarization.” It explores the ordinary—like how good bananas are with coffee in the morning—and makes the reader take a closer look at everything around them.
Gabriel Tallent, “My Absolute Darling”
If you read one novel from this list, I hope it’s this one. The story follows a fascinating character, Turtle Alverson, and although graphic and difficult to read at times, it is my favorite novel of 2017. Turtle, a 14-year-old, lives with her emotionally and sexually abusive father, Martin, in a now-dilapidated family homestead. We watch Turtle rebel against her father like any teenager does. Martin, whose character is as vile, manipulative and disturbing as the judge in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” reacts to her rebellion in disturbing ways. This novel shook me to the core. I can’t remember ever reading a book like this—one that lingers so long after the final page.
Giorgia De Maria, “The Twenty Days of Turin”
I love this book, written in the 1970s and only recently translated to English. A horror novel, “The Twenty Days of Turin” focuses on a 20-day period of time when many of the people of the city experience a “collective psychosis.” The mysterious statues that inhabit the city may play a large role in people’s disappearances. There is also a forbidden place called “The Library” where people can leave anonymous journal entries for others to read. The creep factor is large with this one, and the ending is worth the quick read. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft and 19th-century horror will dig this.
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