I went up and down in my reading in 2017. Since I was working fairly regularly and traveling often, I just never got into a routine of settling down at the end of the day with a book. Plus, given that I was watching so many films, that is where most of my leisure time was spent.
Still, I managed to read twenty-eight books overall, including nine more Agatha Christies. I think setting my annual Goodreads goal to be only twenty-four books helped enormously in terms of not feeling guilty about this lower-than-usual number and actually may have inspired me to read more than I otherwise would have. Not to mention enjoying my selections more, instead of feeling pressure to get through something in order to “add to my count” and move on.
And I enjoyed quite a few of my reads very much. Here are my top ten:
And now the awards!
Most Recurring Theme: Slavery. In much of what I read this past year, there was a steady dose of murder, mystery, and mayhem, but by far the grimmest aspect of my reading was that many books revolved around slavery (Homegoing, The Underground Railroad) or the enduring legacy of its practice in the United States (Across That Bridge, Days Without End, Mudbound). Luckily, most of these books were excellent reads, or I might never have made it through them.
Most Inclined to Recommend: A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980). I don’t think I ever would have read this slim volume were it not the focus of the first episode of Backlisted, a podcast that seeks to promote older books that everyone should read. So I try to recommend it myself whenever I can. Published in 1980, A Month in the Country tells the story of a soldier freshly back from the horrors of World War I who spends a summer restoring a medieval fresco on a country church ceiling in northern England. Although the settings are very different, it reminded me of Willa Cather’s novels, which manage to create incredibly fleshed out characters and convey the spirit of the place and time in very few words. It’s subtle and quiet in all the best ways.
Most Beautifully Written: Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (2008). While this novel sometimes come across as a bit cliché, I found myself pausing a number of times to appreciate a sentence I had just read—not something I do often while reading. The novel suffers somewhat from its use of six different narrators and trying to cram a bit too much “story” into the story, but when Jordan is writing about Laura’s adjustment to farm life in the Mississippi Delta, the novel really shines. I liked the movie adaptation, and I think they made good adaptation choices, but these choices came at the expense of Laura’s voice, which is sort of a shame.
Beginnings are elusive things. Just when you think you have hold of one, you look back and see another, earlier beginning, and an earlier one before that. Even if you start with ‘Chapter One: I Am Born,’ you still have the problem of antecedents, of cause and effect.
—Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Best in Booker: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). Although there is lot that is difficult to read in this novel, it started very strong and was actually quite the page-turner; however, it fell flat for me towards the end. I’m not quite sure why, maybe because the railroad is less emphasized after North Carolina? Or too many new characters are introduced too late in the story? Regardless of being somewhat let down by the end, I definitely recommend this book, if only because the imagining of the different states of slavery provides interesting perspectives and insight into contemporary American issues.
Most Shocking: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016). Another excellent entry from the Booker longlist that I probably would have liked a lot more if the author didn’t dwell so much on descriptions of gory battles, especially Indian raids. Still, I loved the narrative perspective and appreciated the amount of emotion and detail that is conveyed by the extremely spare writing of this unusual Civil War story.
Favorite Quotation (runner-up):
A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands. Can’t do much about that. We have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards.
—Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Most Thought-Provoking: Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change by John Lewis (2012). If there was ever a book I needed at a certain time, it was this one. The subtitle says it all: Across That Bridge is a slim volume of six short essays, each on a particular theme (faith, patience, study, truth, peace, love) and presenting lessons from the civil rights movement that can be used to guide civic engagement today. Probably the most important lesson for me was the one on patience, and the idea that one should not despair in the short term but keep one’s “eyes on the prize” and the ultimate goal of a freer, more peaceful society.
Best Debut (tie): Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (2008) and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016). I’ve already talked about the excellent writing in Hillary Jordan’s debut, so I’ll just say that the fact I still wanted to put another book here is a testament to how great the debut fiction I read this year was. At times, Homegoing tackles similar material to Mudbound, but starts in eighteenth-century Ghana and follows through the generations via the descendants of two women, one who remains in Ghana and the other who is captured and brought to the United States as a slave. Despite being essentially a collection of connected short stories, the strong character development of each makes it all work and gives the reader lots to think about. This book made me feel and grieve for people in a way that few do. Unfortunately, the conceit falters somewhat at the end as I think the author tries to have it both ways in her resolution. But I look forward to more from both these authors.
Best Classic Discovery: Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler (1940). I have long wanted to read Eric Ambler, as I knew he was a major influence on John Le Carré (who I love). So, when I found myself in a favorite used book store in Burbank, with an upcoming book salon devoted to the theme of “spies,” I snatched up a couple of Ambler’s best-known works. Journey into Fear reads very much like some of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” and the story, which mostly takes place on a boat from Istanbul to Genoa, has a bit of an Agatha Christie vibe as well. The characters are well drawn and Ambler is fantastic at depicting the paranoia that our “everyman” hero experiences in trying to figure out which of them might be after him.
Top Five Agatha Christies:
Murder on the Orient Express (1934)
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934)
Murder at Hazelmoor (1931)
Peril at End House (1932)
The Tuesday Club Murders (1932)
Most Feminist: The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015). I’ve seen lots of comparisons of this book to The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, and, while I get that, it doesn’t quite capture what this novel achieves. At its heart, this is not a bleak vision of a dystopian society, but rather an all-too-believable look at the potential effects of misogyny, patriarchy, and rape culture. This spare but vivid novel is both a savage critique of contemporary society and a beautifully written survival tale.
Most Memorable Character: Mary Anne Clarke in Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier (1954). While this fictionalized account of one of du Maurier’s ancestors loses steam as it moves along, the opening page which first describes Mary Anne is probably the best I’ve ever read—so much so that I felt compelled to quote it almost in full in my “first lines” challenge this year. I wish the poor, scrappy heroine we meet at the beginning of this tale had remained with us throughout the novel.
Longest: The Lost Boy by Camilla Läckberg (2009) (493 pages). I made a concerted effort to avoid longer books this year so I guess it’s no surprise that the longest one still came in under five hundred pages.
Shortest: A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980) (135 pages). As stated above, it is amazing to me what a rich portrait Carr is able to depict in so few words. More books like this please.
Hardest to Finish: Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog (2004). This journal/dream diary from when Herzog was filming Fitzcarraldo with Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale (and originally Mick Jagger!) in the Amazonian jungle was just not my thing. Some of the stories are incredible and the language is quite poetic, but the lack of context and fragmented nature of the journal entries made it an incredible slog for me. I could only finish it by alternating with more exciting crime fiction. It did give me a new appreciation for film production as a collaborative effort, but that’s about it.
Total books read: 28
Books on my shelves as of January 1, 2017: 12 (43%)
Books acquired in 2017: 2 (7%)
Books borrowed from the library: 14 (50%)
Audiobooks: 2 (7%)
Classics (Prior to 1945): 10 (36%)
Recent Books (2013-2017): 6 (21%)
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: 24 (86%) vs. 4 (14%)
Female authors vs. Male authors: 20 (71%) vs. 8 (29%)
New to Me Authors: 16 (57%)
Books by Authors of Color: 2 (7%)
US vs. UK Authors: 7 (25%) vs. 17 (61%)
Non-US/UK Authors: 4 (14%)
Number of Author Nationalities: 6
Obviously, these numbers are somewhat skewed due to the fact I read so many Agatha Christies. But clearly I need more diversity in my reading. I should make a concerted effort to read more books from Africa and Asia next year.
Did you meet the reading goals you set for 2017? What was your favorite book of the year?