At the beginning of the year, I set myself a challenge (with the help of Goodreads) of reading 75 books. I beat that number, I’m proud to say, although not all of the titles I read were exactly War and Peace. The list includes fiction, of course, but also non-fiction (my book club reads mostly books about politics and social issues), poetry, and writing books (ranging from books meant to inspire and books about the business of publishing).
I didn’t love everything I read this year, but that’s not necessarily a judgment of quality. I read some mysteries, thrillers, and YA books, just to sample those genres, and the ones I read were representative and, I thought, quite good, but just not my thing. So my favorite fiction reads were those that were more literary. (Writers hate having to explain to people what “literary fiction” is; it’s hard to articulate except in the negative, but we know it when we see it.) In the non-fiction realm, the books I enjoyed most were those that educated me on subjects about which I was interested but uninformed.
Without further ado, here are the best books I read this year (in no particular order).
1. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Obviously, this isn’t a recent book, but I’d put off reading it because of its length. This is definitely my favorite Irving book, and one of the best books ever.
2. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elisabeth Strout. A short novel, Lucy Barton is a fabulous character study. Plot is revealed, but that’s not the point.
3. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Although this novel isn’t my favorite Kingsolver book, I still thought it was excellent. As usual, Kingsolver writes about social themes that happen to appeal to me.
4. The Fall of Princes by Robert Goolrick. This one was very different from Goolrick’s earlier novels, and won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction. I liked the structure very much (each chapter reads like a short story with its own narrative arc.)
5. The Submission by Amy Waldman. I was also a little late to the party on this one, but found the story gripping and an important commentary on both over-reaction and bigotry.
6. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. Because of my current writing project, which is a blend of historical and contemporary narratives, this book was recommended to me. It certainly held my attention.
7. The Lower Quarter by Elise Blackwell. This was another gripping story about the art world, this one set in New Orleans.
8. Stony River by Tricia Dower. A triple coming of age story, this book is also a psychological thriller about three girls growing up in a small town in New Jersey.
9. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The backdrop here is the Biafran Civil War, but the story is about race and class in post-colonial Nigeria.
10. Calf by Andrea Kleine. Loosely based on the life of John Hinkley, would-be assassin of President Reagan, this is another dark tale about a young girl growing up.
1. Evicted by Matthew Desmond. This is a terrific (but depressing) book about a critical subject–the cycle of poverty that inadequate housing reinforces.
2. Everyone is African by Daniel J. Fairbanks. This was fascinating to me, although apparently not news to anyone else. And it led me to the following book.
3. The Power of Babel by John McWhorter. If the previous book was about our common ancestors in Africa, this one is an attempt to work backward to a common language. We can’t quite get there, but this takes us back as far as we can go at this point.
4. Faith Ed. by Linda K. Wertheimer. This is about the many controversies surrounding the teaching of religion in public schools, a frequent topic of debate in my conservative county.
5. Cooked by Michael Pollan. I really enjoyed Pollan’s exploration of food transformations and their origins. Like Pollan’s other work, the style here is casual and fun.
So that’s it. My favorites for the year. Most of these weren’t published this year, and some have been waiting patiently for their turns on my reading list for a very long time. That’s a pattern that’s likely to continue in 2017, although I’m currently reading a book that’s coming out in the Spring . . .
Thank you, Cliff, for your concise, specific and illuminating list. Good luck with your writing and reading quests in the coming year.
I’m trilled to see Stony River on your list. Thank you, Cliff!
Congrats on a great year in reading! Been meaning to get to Owen Meany for a while as well . . . And The Power of Babel reminds me of Umberto Eco’s book, The Search for the Perfect Language.
That Eco book looks really interesting. Thanks for the tip.