Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best of 2017

Who would have thought that I would read two zombie/vampire books in 2017 or that I would take up more science fiction than ever before or that I wouldn't read a single mystery I thought was worthy of the "Best of" designation? Still, there were some worthy books:

Best Novel(s)
Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout. With this book, Strout returns to the form she so successfully employed in Olive Kittredge--creating a set of interlinked narratives about individuals with a connection to a central character, in this case Lucy Barton, one of the few Amgash, Illinois, residents who has "escaped" and become successful (but not without scars). The stories are sad, funny, and ultimately redemptive.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Saunders' novel won the Mann Booker and made more "best books of 2017" lists (22!) than any other book this year. It's innovative in form and content--Willie Lincoln, son of President and Mrs. Lincoln dies and, after the funeral, the President visits the crypt where his body lies as an entire community of dead but not departed spirits observe, comment, and attempt to influence; interspersed with the story are accounts of historical events constructed from primary sources. It's odd and enthralling.

Honorable Mention: A House among the Trees, by Julia Glass; Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel; The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson (for a newcomer to science fiction, I feel it would be presumptuous for me to have a "Best of Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction" category, but the latter two books would be on it if I did have such a category!)

Best Short Stories
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I didn't read that many short story collections this year, but this one would be worthy of a "best of" designation even if I had read dozens. The stories depict the lives of refugees from Vietnam, including struggles unique to their experience as well as universal human challenges. Nguyen just received a MacArthur fellowship and I have no trouble granting that he deserves the genius designation often associated with that award.

Best Nonfiction
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie. This memoir combining prose and poetry and featuring a complex structure is filled with rage, pain, love, and humor. I thought it was fantastic.

Honorable Mention: Light the Dark, edited by Joe Fassler

Surprisingly (for me), I read a number of memoirs that I admired this year. They included: Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, by Danie Shapiro; Society's Child, by Janis Ian; Hunger, by Roxane Gay; The Bright Hour, by Nina Riggs; Brain on Fire, by Susan Cahalan; and Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken (yes, I am sad just typing this).

Favorite Passages
Last year, a lot of my favorite quotes were about truth. This year my theme seemed to be writing and story--maybe it's a sign I'll be writing a novel in 2018 (ha!).

I think it demonstrates why we need poetry, why we need songs--to say the things tha can only be expressed in this kind of elegant, inexplicable way. Things that, if you could explain them straightforwardly, you wouldn't have to have poetry, you wouldn't have to have songs.

Jeff Tweedy, quoted in Light the Dark

It is supposed that a writer writes what he knows about and knows well. It is not necessarily so. A writer's subject may just as well, if nor more likely, be what he writer longs for and dreams about, in an unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty.

Mary Oliver, Upstream

She thought how for years onstage she had used the image of walking up the dirt road holding her father's hand, the snow-covered fields spread around them, the woods in the distance, joy spilling through her--how she had used this scene to have tears immediately come to her eyes, for the happiness of it, and the loss of it. And now she wondered if it had even happened, if the road had ever been narrow and dirt, if her father had ever held her hand and said that his family was the most important thing to him.

Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible

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