2017 was a great reading year for me, and today I’m sharing the best-of-the-best: the handful of truly exceptional titles that earned a spot at the top of my list.
I track my titles in my reading journal, and put a simple little star by especially noteworthy titles. Despite my best efforts at record-keeping, I’m probably forgetting a favorite here, because I always do. I tried to keep my list short, or I could have included thirty titles.
Family stories are commonplace in fiction, but I love this one for its intricate plotting, nuanced characters, true-to-life feel, and ultimate hopefulness. This is the story of an unlikely but successful marriage between a floundering American professor and a British film star who hated the limelight so much she faked her own death and disappeared ... until an unexpected bit of news, twenty years old but newly discovered, threatens to unravel everything they've built together. The story is told in interlocking scenes from different viewpoints, occurring between 1944 and 2016. I loved this one so much, I picked it as our MMD Book Club core selection for February. More info →
I'd been meaning to read more of Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction this year; this slim volume of short stories was breathtaking. The first story, A Temporary Matter, is my favorite. Lahiri's characters tenuously navigate the divide between their old world and their new, and taken together, the collection highlights myriad aspects of the immigrant experience. Evocative, bittersweet, and lyrical. I listened to the audio version and loved it. More info →
This was a hard read because of the content but so, so good. Backman's latest novel is set in a backwater Swedish town whose glory days are gone—except when it comes to hockey. In Beartown, hockey is everything, and the players on the boys' A-team have god-like status. But this isn't just a hockey story. One night after a huge win, the teens throw a raucous party to celebrate—and what happens there splinters the community. Part coming-of-age story, part community-in-crisis, completely fabulous. (And I don't care a bit about hockey, so that's saying something.) Heads up, readers: triggers abound. If you've read and enjoyed Backman in the past, you'll recognize his skillful prose, but not the tone: this novel bears none of the whimsy of his previous work. The sequel is coming this June and I'm counting down the days. More info →
I just loved this and have been thrilled to see so many readers of all ages enjoy it. It’s a Newbery Honor Book, set during WWII, and the plot is set in motion when two children—one of whom is very much unwanted—are evacuated from London into the British countryside. (If you think this sounds like Everyone Brave Is Forgiven you’re exactly right.) The sequel, published in October, was good, but I liked this one best. More info →
I can't believe I didn't read this book years ago, because now that I've read it, it reminds me so much of my all-time faves Stegner, Berry, and Robinson. I found this up-close look at an unlikely relationship between two long-time acquaintances in small-town Colorado completely absorbing, and Haruf's hits just the right tone with his light touch. This is definitely one of those books where the flap copy doesn't do it justice. This was my first Haruf novel, and I'll be reading more in 2018. More info →
I loved this story about a family that, years ago, started keeping a little secret. And, as secrets tend to do, it became bigger over time, implicating all the family members in its keeping, until it feels like the secret is keeping them. I fell completely in love with Rosie and Penn, gained insight into a situation I thought had nothing to do with me, and had complicated feelings about the resolution. That title? It comes from the idea that parents frequently have to make terrifyingly important decisions about their kids with not enough information even though the stakes are enormous. More info →
Next up: nonfiction. Once again, I read far more fiction than nonfiction in 2017, but I still had a healthy number of nonfiction titles to choose from. These were the three books I couldn’t stop thinking about, that provided both fantastic reading experiences and whose ideas have stuck with me for months, the ones I keep thinking about and coming back to.
We've all had them—those memorable moments that have a disproportionate impact on our lives, the ones that make us feel proud, insightful, connected, even transcendent. The moments that we know are special, both as we experience them, and through the lens of memory, years later. In this pageturner of a business book (yep, that's a thing) the Heath brothers explain not only why those moments are so special, but how we can deliberately create more of them in our own and other people's lives. Practical and inspiring, and so much good food for thought. More info →
I found this book encouraging, practical, and thought-provoking—a great combination for this kind of nonfiction work. The idea here is that truly great work has perennial value—not just when it's first released, but for years, decades, or even centuries after. The concept applies to books and films and paintings and business ideas. The underlying premise that good work endures is encouraging, and the numerous examples featuring Jack Kerouac, Lady Gaga, Katz's Deli, Iron Maiden, Paulo Coehlo, Winston Churchill, Elon Musk, and more were both fascinating and illuminating. More info →
If I were to judge my books by how many passages require book darts, this one wins everything. Time, memory, marriage—things many of us relate to, or can at least imagine—but Shapiro writes about them with such freshness the concepts seem brand new. My favorite line of exploration: the nature of mistakes, near-misses, and time: "The stumbles and falls; the lapses in judgment; the near misses; the could-haves. I’ve become convinced that our lives are shaped less by the mistakes we make than when we make them." I wouldn't have "gotten" this at 22 but adored it in my 30s. More info →
I feel like I’ve done more than my usual amount of re-reading in 2017. These are the books that blew me away for the second, third, or sixth time.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this for the third time recently, finding it every bit as good as I remembered. It's always reminded me of Gatsby: Towles plunges you into the streets of Manhattan, circa 1938. Young secretary Katey Kontent and her roommate Evelyn meet handsome Tinker Gray by chance, on New Year's Eve (so this would be a great read for this time of year!). The girls vie for his affection—until one impulsive decision changes everything. I love the craft here: Towles sets his scenes so well, and the opening and closing scenes frame the story beautifully. More info →
I enjoyed this so much on my first read through that I was a little afraid to pick it up again: what if it wasn't as good as I remembered? I needn't have worried. I love stories that bring together seemingly unrelated plot lines in interesting ways, and Mandel delivers with her post-apocalyptic tale of a global pandemic, a traveling Shakespeare troupe, and a graphic novel. When I first picked this up, I was afraid it would be depressing, but I found it striking, sympathetic, and hopeful. More info →
This is one to read again and again, and I so enjoyed reading it this fall with the MMD Book Club. I adore this book, but if you’ve hung out on MMD for any amount of time, you probably already know that. This novel asks, "How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?" The answer: just like this. Stegner weaves a compelling story out of four ordinary lives and their extraordinary, life-changing friendship as it spans across forty years, tackling themes of love and marriage, calling and duty. This is one of the best explorations of friendship in literature. Bonus: after reading it six or so times, I think I finally, finally understand what the title means. More info →