2017 was the “year of the book” for me.
In the Spring I wrote about the books I read the first quarter, but after that, mainly I just picked up the next book once I hit that last page – often because a long-awaited hold had come through from my library account and my full-time job of writing and editing consumed all my writing energy. I am left with a list of books that connect to memories of what was happening when I read them and how I was feeling. Looking back, these reflections often map a very particular response to a year addled by some serious back pain that only began to lift at the very end of the year.
History books (both non-fiction and well researched fiction) have always been a mainstay for me but I found that in this era of “America First” and nasty childish tweets from our leader, those books have taken on new meaning, especially those about World War II – particularly how our leaders acted during it and after it. What’s most striking in all of these is the level of deliberation – strategic, political, moral and ethical – that these portraits reveal about genuine leaders in troubled times.
I also found a few contemporary fiction books that stayed with me and some that really got me through (along with the Hamilton soundtrack). I single out a few from each genre below that may help those looking for their next read.
I wrote about it in the last essay, but Julia Baird’s portrait in Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Portait of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire has stayed with me all year. It was an epic – her whole life, but I also enjoyed smaller slices of history I read later in the year. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard was one such portrait. As she showed in River of Doubt about Theodore Roosevelt, Millard is a master storyteller. Churchill is an easy guy to hate and admire at the same time, and she really gets behind his ambition here and his complex motivations. The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A.J. Baime, was another favorite of the year (I believe it prompted my first Facebook post about a book). Those first four months of Truman’s presidency – the end of the war in Europe, which lay in rubble; the chilling of our Soviet relationship; the beginning of the UN; the decision to drop the bomb – it just felt so relevant to today.
In What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro, I got to dip in and out of women’s lives, spanning two centuries. It was delightful – little vignettes of six women told through the way they interacted with food. They were a diverse bunch – Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Dorothy Pym and Helen Gurley Brown – but they left “food” trails. She gives a fresh take on each of these women – even for a woman as written about as Eleanor Roosevelt. Taken together, not just a sampler, they are a smorgas-bord of lives in conflict with their cultures and struggling for the most basic definitions of life.
An honorable mention goes to The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, which was plodding at times, but a fascinating tale of how she survived, and helped others, in Poland in World War II.
On the memoir front, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah was better than I thought it would be – some of it almost seems like fiction. I read Al Franken’s book Giant of the Senate before the sexual harassment allegations came out – and I remember thinking how great it was that we had someone who had such a firm grasp of policy, and who read all of his policy briefings, in the Congress. He writes clearly and intelligently, with a dose of humor (the chapter about Ted Cruz especially).
Plus, a shout out to my favorite ornery British travel writer Bill Bryson, whom I mentioned in my last roundup, with Notes From a Small Island and the Road to Little Dribbling, which have me saving up for a trip to the U.K. countryside. My husband gave them to me as gifts last Christmas thinking I would like them, and he was right.
I read some particularly well-done historical fiction books last year. When good research and storytelling come together, this is my favorite genre. The Trick by Emanuel Bergmann was among the best. I was hesitant at first – it dips between the present story of a 10-year-old boy and the story of a young man during World War II and I thought it would be a little worn. But I couldn’t stop turning the pages of this haunting story that had me laughing at some parts. I didn’t totally see the end coming either. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah focused on two sisters in France during World War II and was heart pounding. It also veered between the past and the present – not unlike The Trick, I wanted to get back to the past, but I enjoyed the full circle. The novel is based on real life women in the French resistance and caused me to research women who helped rescue Allied soldiers. I really lost myself in this book. (What back pain? I am in Paris.) Last year I read The Paris Architect, also about occupied Paris, which I liked a lot, but I felt closer to Hannah’s characters.
Yet more World War II: Moonglow (at least part of it) by Michael Chabon. It is a quasi-memoir about his grandfather who fought in World War II – incredibly moving and well-written. And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer followed a piece of music by Bach for two hundred years, focusing on a contemporary heroine and an 18th century one (and yes, also with parts in World World II). I struggled again with the contemporary sections (at moments it veered toward what I used to call chick lit) but it laid together nicely and the 18th century part was well done.
Slavery was a main topic in two of my 2017 books – the Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I read the latter with my book club and many were touched by it. It is an epic tale that spans three centuries (reminded me a little of Barksins by Annie Proulx that I read at the end of 2016), beginning with the slave trade in Africa, and the natives’ complex role in it. It traces racism in all different contexts. And what can I say about Underground Railroad? Maybe nothing President Obama has not already said. Again, can we give this book to the current White House? (As a doorstop, maybe.)
Going back further, another book club selection, Americas First Daughter gave a fascinating account of Thomas Jefferson’s elder daughter. I had not considered the narrative this way, and though it is fiction, it was well researched, using many of her letters. She performed many of the public duties of his wife and persevered through quite a bit of emotional abuse. It was not flattering to TJ himself. Fast forward to the Civil War for Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini which was a little slow, and it seemed to me the protagonist was a little complacent about slavery. Unlike other historical fiction where you live with the characters and the historical lessons are seamless, with this one it felt as if history was narrated a bit. However, I did like this vantage point of the Civil War (quite unlike the Grant biography by Ron Chernow I am reading now).
I had to add some Tudors in the historical fiction mix for good measure – in 2017 I read Three Sisters, Three Queens (mainly about Henry VII’s daughter Margaret whose heirs took over the English and Scottish thrones after the Tudors) and The Last Tudor (from the view of the Greys which makes one shudder) both by Philippa Gregory. Delicious.
A book I picked on a whim from Kindle First was the Lioness of Morocco by Julia Drosten (pseudonym for two person team based in Germany), about a (headstrong) 19th century British woman who leaves London to live in Morocco with her husband – it was quite the adventure.
I read the Elena Ferrante book Story of a New Name (having read My Brilliant Friend last year) – Iiked it a little better than the first, but I just cannot get lost in it the way I can in other novels.
Closer to the present was Colson Whitehead’s fiction/memoir blend in Sag Harbor, based on his summers there in the 1980s. I adored it. His versatility is amazing – very unlike Underground Railroad.
Mystery and Fantasy
Veering into mystery territory, after re-reading two Agatha Christie novels this year (And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express – I found both very dated), I read a modern one in the same style, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, a novel within a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. I also re-read The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then a modern book that builds on Sherlock Holmes story in an interesting way, The Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss, which is about the daughters of a few of fiction’s great scientists, monsters and all. Sherlock shows up. I loved the originality of it, and even though the “girl power” message was not subtle, I didn’t mind.
One of the more unique books I read in 2017 was All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders – complete with witchcraft and wormhole generators in a world in the near future that is beset by storms and wars, a showdown between magic and science.
In a very different vein, I spent a little time with Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum in Turbo Twenty Three, and she is the same as ever, never really moving forward in her life, but loveable and still makes me laugh. Carl Hiassen’s Razor Girl was my book club pick early in the year, and though I like so much of his work, this one was not my favorite. I just found it clear on every page that it was written by a man – and not just because the title is about bikini shaving.
This genre is not always my first choice – maybe because reading about dysfunctional people in modern society is not my favorite escape, and these books often tend to veer that way, but Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible was wonderful – I met Strout a few times and she is sweet and modest. I wrote about The Nest before, and it continued to have staying power with me as the year went on. A Man Called Ove also stayed with me – it may have been one of my favorite books of the year. I loved that curmudgeon whose heart turned out to be made of gold. A read that moved quickly but also was profound.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff was one of those weighty and much-heralded novels that I often don’t like (Jonathan Franzen’s for example) but I did mostly enjoy it I did not realize I was going to get two sides of the same story when I read it (the downside of an e-book perhaps). It led a discussion with a friend who posted about it on facebook about whether we identified with the Fates or the Furies. I am not sure. On a lighter note, I read P.S. From Paris by Mark Levy, and that was fast and fun. Crimes Against a Book Club by Kathy Cooperman was another Kindle First pick, and it was also fun – two women begin selling expensive face cream that in reality has cheap ingredients, preying on wealthy women’s vanity and insecurity – a premise I totally bought.
A book club selection I probably would not have picked myself but am so glad I read was The Rent Collector by Cameron Wright. It seems dreary – about a woman living in a dump selling scraps for a living, but it was uplifting and beautiful.
Of course some of my reading veered into the practical and I guess I can thank back pain for my restricted activity that led to the dozens and dozens of books I consumed this year, of course banishing it was a priority. In addition to innumerable articles, I read (and re-read) three of Dr. John Sarno’s books, Healing Back Pain, The Mind Body Prescription and The Divided Mind in 2017. The writing is accessible but smart, and worth exploring for anyone with chronic back pain. Sarno died this summer at the age of 93 but other practitioners, including one I saw, Dr. Ira Rashbaum, have taken up his specific method. The jury is still out on this for me, but signs are positive, finally.
I also read End Back Pain Forever by Dr. Norman Marcus, which also deviates from conventional wisdom about back pain, but is more mainstream than Sarno. Earlier in the year, I saw Marcus a few times and found him to be a caring and dedicated doctor, but one cannot pursue both Sarno and Marcus’s methods at the same time.
As I wrote before, Melanie Thernstrom’s The Pain Chronicles had a big impact on me – I feel fortunate that she dedicated so much of her life to studying chronic pain as a journalist and patient, and that she is so good at conveying scientific terms to a layperson.
So, what’s next? More writing and a little less reading. I am partially through Grant by Ron Chernow, and A Week in December at this point. Onward.