This is the time of year when year-end lists start appearing. Just the other day, for instance, I read through the list of New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2017. As interesting as it was to see which books made the cut, it was also informative to learn why those particular books were chosen.
As editor Pamela Paul explained in a Books Briefing email, the top ten are selected for overall quality, not necessarily for their relevance to current political or social issues. "These are books we think should and will endure, books that transcend the current moment and will be read for years to come," she wrote. "That said, it so happens that the themes considered in this year's 10 Best happen to touch on very urgent issues: migration, gender inequality, identity, civil rights, Brexit."
The list inspired me to think about the books I've read this year. But when it came to ranking them, I had to agree with author Neil Gaiman, who put it this way: "Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose."
Yet while I'm reluctant to choose favorites, certain books do stand out in my mind—some because the writing was exceptional, others because the topic was intriguing or the story was told in an unusual way.
So I compiled a list, but I'm not sure what to call it. My 10 Most Memorable Books of 2017? My 10 Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2017? Or simply Ten Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About? Maybe I should just go ahead and share the list and let you decide what to call it.
Incidentally, none of the books on my list was published in 2017. Their publication dates range from 1991 to 2016; I just got around to reading them all this year. And like the writers and editors who selected the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best list, I didn't set out to include particular themes, but as I think back on my stand-out books, I realize that issues of identity, gender, clashing cultures, coming of age, and complicated relationships run through most of them.
So now, may I present:
My List of 10 Something-or-Other Books I Read This Year
At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard. I read this memoir just before attending a masters writing workshop in Tucson, for which Maynard was the instructor. Though the story itself is engrossing—at age 19, the author entered into a destructive, year-long relationship with J.D. Salinger—I was equally intrigued with the way Maynard wove disparate strands of her life before, during and after the Salinger affair, into a compelling narrative.
The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard. This is another book I read before heading to Tucson, because Beauregard was also one of the workshop instructors. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have picked up the book, and I would have missed one of the best reads of the year (oops—did I just indicate a favorite?). I didn't think I cared for historical fiction, and I've never read Moby Dick, around which this story centers, yet this tale of Herman Melville's passionate relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne harpooned me and wouldn't let go. Through Beauregard's skillful writing, Melville, Hawthorne, and their cronies come to life as witty, brilliant, complex characters—not at all the stuffy literary figures I had pegged them as. Beauregard even manages to convincingly channel Melville's inner voice without sounding archaic or imitative—an impressive feat of literary ventriloquism (a term I learned from reading reviews of The Whale).
Fakebook: A True Story. Based on Actual Lies by Dave Cicirelli. I downloaded this memoir onto my Kindle for airplane reading, thinking it sounded like a light, enjoyable—perhaps even goofy—read. It was enjoyable all right, but also thought-provoking. The story: Feeling inadequate after reading friends' Facebook posts about their accomplishments and adventures, Cicirelli concocts a wildly uncharacteristic online life for himself, posting about such fictitious exploits as trashing an Amish buggy, running away with the Amish farmer's daughter, and falling in with a religious cult. Before long, the ongoing prank begins to complicate his real life and leads him to explore his true identity, as well as the ramifications of social media.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. After enjoying The Whale, I was emboldened to take on another historical novel. The blend of art, science, and South Seas setting (for at least part of the book) made this story particularly appealing. It's the tale of a sheltered woman who, yearning for freedom and intellectual stimulation, ventures into a world where assumptions are being overturned at a dizzying pace. Like Cicirelli in the book mentioned above, the character of Alma Whittaker discovers much about herself as well as the world she explores.
The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. The sheer economy of this book impressed me. In just six chapters, Franzen immerses readers in his growing-up years in the 1970s. From the torment of church camp to the exhilaration of an elaborate prank involving ropes, pulleys, and a stepladder to accessorize the school flagpole with steel-belted radials, Franzen depicts coming of age in all its excruciating and hilarious aspects.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. Well, for one thing, I just never knew there were so many ways to describe waves without being repetitious. For another, South Pacific settings (including my personal favorite, Samoa!) lured me in again. Plus, winning a Pulitzer Prize and being on President Obama's 2016 reading list were pretty high recommendations. In the words of the Sports Illustrated review, "Reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting; William Burroughs on controlled substances; Updike on adultery. . . A piscine, picaresque coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard."
Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo. Another master of economy, Harjo blends poetry and ancestral stories into her 176-page memoir of early years characterized by neglect, abuse, and confusion. She found solace in painting, music, language, nature and spirituality and grew up to be an award-winning poet and musician. Also, she's from Oklahoma, which wins bonus points from this Okie girl.
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt. In simplest terms, this is the coming-of-age story of a transgender girl, set against the backdrop of transgender rights in this country. Even more, it's the story of a loving family making its way through an exceptional situation. In particular, the evolution of Nicole's father Wayne—Air Force veteran, Republican, macho man—from denial to acceptance to activism—is deeply moving.
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas. Dumas paints an affectionate portrait of her family's life after moving from Iran to Southern California in 1972. From hot dogs to Bob Hope to infomercials for weight-loss products, Dumas and her family navigate the American experience with humor and insight.
Plain and Simple by Sue Bender. A display of Amish quilts in a New York men's clothing store so intrigues Bender, a ceramic artist, she becomes obsessed with learning more about the Amish way of life. After finding two Amish families who agree to let her visit for extended home stays, she leaves her mile-a-minute urban life and settles into a quieter existence where no one rushes through chores to get to the next thing on the list and community is valued more than individuality. Work merges with play, sacred with ordinary. Returning to her regular life, Bender searches for ways to piece together—like quilt patches—her striving, busy nature and the calmer way of life she enjoyed with the Amish.
One lesson she learned really struck home with me: Having a multitude of options often makes life more scattered, rather than richer. Something I'm trying to keep in mind as I head into a new year of possibilities.
Now it's your turn. Tell me about a book you read this year.
Other books I read this year (All good, even if I didn't list them above):
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.