SELECTIONS BY CHRISTA LAWLER
The theme of this past year's book list was, seemingly, unconventional female characters in conventional situations. Relationships, travel, yoga poses. I found a lot of raw, real writing, a new favorite writer, and a beautiful and dark novel set in our neighborhood.
Here are the best books I read in 2017:
• Author: Elif Batuman
• Published: 2017
This is one of those novels that lacks highs, lows, the growing sense of chaos that must be reigned in. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, is a culture-questioning, no-nonsense freshman at Harvard in the early ages of the internet. She develops an email flirtation with Ivan, an older classmate, and falls into one of those awful relationships full of misunderstandings and miscues. Selin takes his advice and follows him abroad for the summer in this plot-free, day-to-day, slice of a few months of a life.
• Author: Brit Bennett
• Published: 2016
Nadia Turner's mother has just killed herself in a very public way at the start of this un-put-downable debut novel. Now Nadia is stuck with the women of the church where her father does odd jobs; their thoughts, opinions, tsks are like a Greek chorus. She's strong and smart and not afraid of going the distance with a super-stud football player who graduated from her high school and is now working at a local restaurant. The story follows her through the years and the mega-hiccups, intense friendships, new lives and betrayals along the way. Bennett's novel made me wish I was in a book club.
"History of Wolves"
• Author: Emily Fridlund
• Published: 2017
Linda, the uncommon teen-aged girl at the center of Fridlund's northern Minnesota-based novel, lives in a cabin in the woods with two people who are probably her parents — the last people standing at the site of a former commune. When a new family moves in across the lake, she develops a fascination with Patra, the mother of a sick young child she babysits. Linda becomes Paul's babysitter and Northwoods life tutor. Then she begins showing up unannounced, lingering longer, taking liberties as she is absorbed into the family. This is a dark, isolated, beautifully written story about our neighborhood.
"Conversations with Friends"
• Author: Sally Rooney
• Published: 2017
I am going to do this novel the great disservice of describing it as a story of millennial discontent — but set in Ireland rather than a borough du jour. Frances and Bobbi met and dated in high school, but now, as college students, they are just best friends who create poetry-based performance art together. They are discovered by Melissa, an it-photographer/writer who invites the women into her home and life. Bobbi develops a flirtation with her; Frances, almost as a default response, begins a super-now affair with Melissa's depressed actor-husband. There are secret liaisons and not-so-secret liaisons, major conversations that never happen, assumptions. The dynamics of the foursome shapeshift and tilt. This was my favorite book of the year.
“Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning”
- Author: Claire Dederer
- Published: 2017
Here’s a two-fer: Claire Dederer’s memoir is a mixed-format collection of essays born of sudden-onset restlessness. She has been reading old journals and connecting her sexual past to her present with the eye of a private investigator. She revisits an assault from when she was 13 years old, the emotional fling she had with another writer, and writes an open letter to Roman Polanski. This led me to her previous book, “Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses,” which is about her early years of motherhood and using her place on the mat to dig deeper. Dederer is confessional, funny, self-aware and has plenty of wise words.
“The Rules Do Not Apply”
- Author: Ariel Levy
- Published: 2017
If you’ve ever wanted to feel like your internal organs have been ripped through your body and pushed through a wringer, I suggest reading Ariel Levy’s account of the miscarriage she had in a Mongolian bathroom five months into her pregnancy. The physical pain, the birthing, the one photograph she took of the baby she had conceived with a male friend and planned to raise with her partner, who was in the grips of skillfully hiding her alcohol addiction. This book is so raw, so good.
SELECTIONS BY JOHN LUNDY
When Christa Lawler and I started this annual favorite books project a couple of years ago, we agreed they'd be the favorites each of us read that year, regardless of when they were published.
Good thing, because none of my top books from 2017 were published in 2017, although they were all of relatively recent vintage.
From this group, the first two stand at the top. The other three were chosen, with difficulty, from 9 or 10 that I liked a lot.
One that didn't quite make the cut is "American Heiress," Jeffrey Toobin's recounting of the kidnapping, crimes and trial of Patricia Hearst. It made Lawler's list last year, which was the main reason I read it this year. If you'd like to learn about one of the strangest episodes of the strange 1970s, it's a good place to turn.
You can turn to any of the following books for a delightful few hours of reading by the fireside:
"The Hot Zone"
• Author: Richard Preston
• Published: 1994
"The first chapter of 'The Hot Zone' is one of the most horrifying things I've ever read in my whole life — and then it gets worse."
That wasn't written by me; it was written by horror writer Stephen King. But here's the thing: "The Hot Zone" isn't a work of fiction. It's the nonfiction account of the original emergence of the Ebola virus. Preston brilliantly and terrifyingly describes the disease and what it does, but he also takes us into the lives of some of the key figures in his narrative. As the effort to cut off the disease's advance reaches the U.S., "The Hot Zone" starts to read like a cloak-and-dagger spy novel as well as a horror story. It's a captivating read from beginning to end.
"All The Light We Cannot See"
• Author: Anthony Doerr
• Published: 2014
This thrilling novel is about two children who grow up before and during World War II, a girl in France and a boy in Germany. The boy, Werner Pfennig, grows up in an orphanage. His emerging genius saves him from a life in the coal mines, but this doesn't necessarily turn out to be a good thing. The girl, Marie-Laure, has only her father for family, and she loses her eyesight early in life.
The reader has no doubt from the start that these two paths eventually will somehow cross, but that doesn't do anything to spoil the skillful way that Doerr brings the crossing about.
Along the way, we meet other compelling characters, including a dying German officer driven to recover a rare and exceedingly valuable gem that also may be a jinx.
"All the Light" is nobly, beautifully written and original. It's the best piece of fiction I've read in a long time, and Marie-Laure stands in the upper echelon, for me, of fiction's memorable characters.
"A Gentleman in Moscow"
• Author: Amor Towles
• Published: 2016
The gentleman of the title lives in Moscow in 1922, which is a bad time to be a gentleman in Moscow. For the crime of being an aristocrat, he is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in the Hotel Metropol.
This is not so bad as punishments go, but it doesn't seem like a promising premise for a novel. Amor Towles makes it work, largely because his protagonist, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is such a well-drawn and intriguing character.
Rostov, we learn, has always chosen "the life of the purposefully unrushed." He would gladly miss an appointment with a banker or forego catching a train for the sake of cups of tea and friendly chats. That's my kind of aristocrat.
"A Gentleman in Moscow" reads a little like one of the great Russian novels of old, but in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.
“Five Days at Memorial”
- Author: Sheri Fink
- Published: 2013
“Five Days at Memorial” also fits in the genre of nonfiction medical horror stories.
Consider this sentence:
“Riopelle saw some patients die, and he dragged three bodies to the hospital’s entrance to deter looters.”
One might imagine that the setting was, oh, somewhere in Africa. But it was actually in New Orleans, in 2005, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The horrors were reported at the time, but I don’t think we northerners realized how bad it was. It was really bad.
The book is split about evenly between the account of what happened and the account of the legal battles that followed. In that portion, I couldn’t decide whose side to be on. There are few heroes here, but no out-and-out villains either.
“Called for Life”
- Authors: Dr. Kent and Amber Brantly
- Published: 2015
Another book related to Ebola, but this memoir stems from the more recent outbreak that caused so much death and destruction in western Africa and so much unreasoning panic in the United States.
Dr. Kent Brantly was involved on both continents, serving as a medical missionary in Liberia when he contracted the virus and being evacuated to Emory Hospital in Atlanta for treatment. Humble, grateful and apolitical, Brantly nonetheless has strong words about the contributions to the Ebola hysteria in the U.S. from people who should have known better.
“We saw public health policy guided by fear rather than by the best available science,” he writes. “These attitudes toward Ebola fighters and victims break my heart.”
SELECTIONS BY TERI CADEAU
Most of this year was dedicated to reading more classic books as I attempted to complete an ambitious challenge. I tried to read a book by every author mentioned in a web series called "Poe Party." But in between the hefty classics (I'm looking at you, Dostoyevsky), I had to have a bit of fun.
These are the best books that I read for fun in 2017:
"Once and For All"
• Author: Sarah Dessen
• Published: 2017
Sarah Dessen books are fairly formulaic. There's a female protagonist who is in the midst of some life change while simultaneously dealing with a new romantic interest. And "Once and For All" starts out the same, yet follows its own path. Louna, a recent high school graduate, is spending one last summer working for her mother's wedding event planning business. Enter Ambrose, an irresponsible yet charming brother of one of the brides who seems convinced that the two are meant to be together. Yet Louna has a past experience with love which makes her hesitant to jump into another relationship.
"Turtles All the Way Down"
• Author: John Green
• Published: 2017
Fans have been waiting for five years, since "The Fault in Our Stars" in 2012, for another book from author and vlogger John Green. The story follows Aza, a 16-year-old student searching for a disappeared millionaire with her best friend. Yet the real takeaway from the book is Aza's continual experiences with thought spirals, anxiety and mental health, which are inspired in part by Green's real-life experiences. Although there aren't many actual turtles in the book, I quickly read through my signed copy (yes, I'm bragging.)
• Author: Mary Shelley
• Published: 1818
You probably think you know the story of Frankenstein: crazy doctor, with aid from Igor, harnesses lightning to bring life back to green-skinned, stitched-together monster who then goes on a rampage. But a lot of these notions of Frankenstein were invented by Hollywood and rehashed in various sequels and homages. The actual novel follows Victor Frankenstein, a science student who figures out the secret of life and reanimating the dead. Which happens fairly early on in the book. The rest of the book deals with the after-effects which reach everybody in Frankenstein's life.
"An Unattractive Vampire"
- Author: Jim McDoniel
- Published: 2016
Tired of the new convention of attractive, yet emotionally scarred, pretty bad-boy vampires? This book puts a literal stake into the recent trends of attractive vampires. Millenium-old Yulric Bile is much more Nosferatu than Edward Cullen and when he awakens in modern times, he’s devastated to see the current state of vampiredom. He wants revenge and drags along an unlikely team of vampire-wannabe Amanda and her strange 8-year-old brother Simon on the journey to reclaim vampires.
- Authors: Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
- Published: 2017
Something sinister is swallowing up the friendly desert community of Night Vale. Two normally opposing individuals, scientist Nilanjana Sikdar and Darryl, a member of the Congregation of the Smiling God, must work together despite their different viewpoints. The book takes place in the strange world of Night Vale and is based on the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” also written by Fink and Cranor. However, one does not have to be familiar with the podcast to read the book.