Fiction, history, biography — and a local gem.
This might be the most satisfying column I’ve written this year — my favorite books of 2017. Here’s a key distinction: “favorite,” not “best,” because reading a book involves a mysterious alchemy between the reader and the author. I grew up in a small town and I’m drawn to novels with a small but interconnected group of characters, so my three favorite novels reflect that. A Cold War baby, I am mesmerized by Russia, and I love a well-written work of history for its lessons that there is nothing really new under the sun.
I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but these are the ones that have stayed with me — fiction, nonfiction, biography, history.
“Improvement” by Joan Silber (Counterpoint). This gorgeously written novel, funny and full of heart, follows several characters in the life of Reyna, a tattooed single mom with a rambunctious son, a boyfriend in Rikers and a wise aunt who has seen it all. Each chapter tells a story. I loved every one of them.
“Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York” by Francis Spufford (Scribner). In 1746 a young Englishman steps off the boat and into the bucolic village of Manhattan with a bill for 1,000 pounds sterling, payable to the bearer. He presents it to a shocked merchant, who needless to say doesn’t have the money, sparking gossip, conspiracy theories and suspicions of espionage in a town whose residents are just as ambitious and scheming as their modern counterparts. “Golden Hill” is part adventure, part romance and part mystery; it adds up to an immensely satisfying story, told with a moral authority that will have you thinking about the ending long after you’re done.
“Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout (Random House). The follow-up to Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton,” in these nine linked stories Strout, the author of “Olive Kitteridge” follows several characters whose lives are anchored in a small Illinois town. Old hurts are unearthed, new affections form and there’s a surprise (not necessarily a good one) embedded in every story. Strout is gifted with a graceful, austere prose style and an eerie talent for peering into the bruised recesses of the human heart.
Politics and History
“The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia” by Masha Gessen (Riverhead). Gessen, a Russian-born journalist now living in the U.S., tells the story of the brutal repression of democracy and the snuffing of human rights in Russia since perestroika. She interweaves her narrative with the experiences of four Russians who have lived much of their lives under Vladimir Putin. It’s an extraordinary work, told with authority, compassion and sorrowful anger and shot through with a mordant wit. It won this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction. If I could get you to read just one book on this list, this is it.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann (Doubleday). A powerful and disturbing story of pure evil. After oil was discovered on their reservation, the Osage Indians in Oklahoma became rich, and then they began to be killed off — their wealth stolen and their mineral rights transferred out of the tribe. This book will make you realize (if you needed reminding) that there really is such a thing as a black heart.
“The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896” by Richard White (Oxford University Press). I spent most of our sun-drenched summer reading this 968-page book. White, an adored University of Washington history professor who migrated to Stanford, brilliantly synthesizes hundreds of sources, from history to journalism to the novels of the day, to tell the story of a tortured era of American history with remarkable parallels to our own.
“Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser (Metropolitan). This compassionate biography chronicles the challenges, privations and private hurts of the author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books. It’s also a damning history of U.S. government policy, which enticed settlers to race to claim land no one had any business farming, pointlessly degrading the magnificent prairie memorialized in Wilder’s books.
“Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire” by Kay Redfield Jamison (Knopf). Jamison investigates the life of Robert Lowell, considered by many to be America’s finest poet, and his struggles with manic depression. Jamison, a clinical psychologist and best-selling author who was diagnosed with manic depression as a teenager, chronicles Lowell’s incredible highs and terrifying lows, and persuasively argues for a link between the disease and creativity. A moving, informative and heartbreaking story.
“Churchill and Orwell” by Thomas Ricks (Penguin Press). Ricks, an expert on the military (“The Generals”) charts the path of two famous Brits, one a prime minister, the other a journalist and novelist, showing how their different responses to the cataclysm of World War II were fired by a common principle: tell the truth when it matters, even when it hurts. Ricks told me in an interview that he had written a much longer book, and then his editor told him to pare it down to the essentials. The result is a pungent and pointed piece of history, a great gift for any history lover on your list.
“Chief Seattle and the Town that Took His Name” by David Buerge (Sasquatch). Buerge’s groundbreaking biography is a labor of love and a window into the early life of our town. But first and foremost it’s the story of Chief Seattle, a true leader and an exceedingly prescient man. Buerge worked for 20 years on this project, mining explorers’ journals, Catholic priests’ diaries, Indian agents’ records, pioneer reminiscences and the memories of Seattle’s Duwamish Tribe, bringing together scattered bits of information to create a vivid portrait. A feat of research and another great gift idea.