Top Ten Books of 2017

‘Tis the season for reflecting on my annual reading. This year I’ve felt like I’m doing a couple of self-led courses of study (Midlife and empty nest! Story structure! Racial justice!) as well as simply reading for pleasure. I did a poorer job of tracking my reading this year: usually I keep a running list in the back of my journal but when I switched journals midway through the year, I also switched methods. So it is altogether possible that one of my better books of the year isn’t mentioned. I know I have the best book, though, so don’t worry about that.

As usual, there’s no exact order to the list of books except for the number one book, but here is my countdown.

10. The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel is the book that Hidden Figures wanted to be. It follows the lives of the women who worked in astronomy at the Harvard Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th century, transforming how we understand the universe itself. I began this book as part of a way of connecting with our middle child who is going to university in Boston: I deliberately went looking for Boston-related books. (A book that fit in this category that sadly didn’t fully live up to its fascinating premise was The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. It’s possibly worth reading but not worth a top 10 space.) Sobel, however, is a wonderful writer whose books I have read before. She tells a story well, and in this case made me care deeply about the women and men of the Observatory, and the massive contributions and sacrifices they made.

9. The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth about Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop
, edited by Karen Stabiner. I actually read this book last December after I posted my Top 10 list for 2016, and to say it revolutionized my life would not be an understatement. I loved that this book offered a wide variety and diversity of experiences about kids leaving home, rather than being either a memoir of one person’s experience or, worse, a how-to-let-go-for-dummies type of book. This multiplicity of perspectives allowed me to find myself in a few places, to find parents who felt as I did, as well as to say how many different ways this process can happen. A friend of mine says, you always cry when your kids leave home, but often for very different reasons. The revolutionary aspect of the book for me came with the idea from one contributor who learned from her father when she moved across the country that he refused to be peripheral to her life just because she was at a distance, that the family members continued to be part of a “shared enterprise.” Until I read this essay, I had unconsciously assumed that if I wanted to give my kids independence to grow and fly (and I did) that this relegated me to a passive, waiting role, hoping they would come home. That role felt sad; continuing in a shared enterprise felt life-giving. And so it transformed the leaving experience in our family, at least for me.

8. The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli – I should say that I know Kristen. A few years ago, I read a beautiful manuscript she had written, a manuscript that had been rejected too many times, and encouraged her to keep writing. I’m so glad she did. This book is a young adult fiction book that just dazzles. In a world where stories lure dragons, Asha is a dragon slayer and a good one. But she and her stories have also resulted in massive destruction, and she bears the scars on her body and in her psyche. In this book, the stakes are extraordinarily high and get racheted up regularly. It’s a fascinating world with compelling characters. It contains a love story that is both chaste and erotic. It has a strong strong female lead. This book will be enjoyed by lots of adults but if you’re looking for a good book for teens, look no farther.

7. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult was a book I saw recommended on a friend’s Facebook page, as issues of racial justice were discussed. Picoult writes issue-driven women’s fiction (which makes it sound much more horribly didactic than it is—she’s a bestselling author and she’s good, trust me!) I this book, a black obstetrical nurse is banned from caring for the child of a neo-Nazi—and then the child goes into respiratory arrest. While this sounds polarizing and dramatic, what’s most interesting about this book has to do with the third main character: a nice white lawyer who stands in for the nice white reader, and has to come to terms with her own blindness around race. The book also gives a glimpse of the many thousands of micro-aggressions faced by people of colour, and for that factor is also worth the read.

6 & 5. Dance of the Dissident Daughter/Women Who Run With Wolves – These two books were part of the middle of my year and followed after conversations about whether there was a heroine’s journey to accompany the hero’s journey, whether the idea of a hero’s journey is too masculine for women. Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd offers a feminine face to Christian spirituality and follows Monk Kidd’s dissatisfaction with patriarchal Christianity and its effects. In a #metoo year, this not-new book offered important insights for me as a woman. I went form there to Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ book Women Who Dance with the Wolves, which I had seen referenced many times before. This book surprised me significantly; it was not what I had expected at all. It was a wilder, freer book which drew on fairy tales and myths to consider women’s experiences. At the same time it was entirely practical and down-to-earth. Probably my one complaint with these two books was that they felt slightly dated, addressing more specifically the needs of women twenty years ago than today, but they still felt entirely relevant.

4. Glass Houses – Louise Penny’s mysteries have appeared on my top 10 lists before. She publishes a new Inspector Gamache novel every end of August. Occasionally the books are duds but the vast majority are fantastic. The mysteries are set in Quebec with one of the kindest, more compelling detectives in fiction. In this book, Gamache, the head of Quebec’s Sȗreté de Police, has to contend with rampant drug crime, and has to consider what to do when the drug lords have ultimately won. In a time of catastrophic climate change and deeply disturbing world politics, Gamache’s question and ultimately hopeful although daring resolution to this question offers insight into intractable and seemingly hopeless challenges we may face.

3. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. The first draft of the novel I finished early this year read much like one of my ancient diaries (I got up, had breakfast, got dressed, went to school..), although the events within it were more exciting. I knew the structure was the challenge and ended up in conversation with just the right person, a writer who saw the bones beneath the story itself: that it was a kind of mythic or fairy tale-like story. This conversation set me on a path of learning much more about story structure, and particularly to the ideas of the hero’s journey, as first articulated by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. The ideas resonated deeply with me and with my novel, and probably the best thing I read on the topic was Vogler’s book. He is a screenwriter, and this book is considered a classic, but it was new to me. I highly recommend it.

2. Locked Rooms by Laurie R King – My husband and I are big Sherlock Holmes buffs. We enjoy the television show Elementary as well as, of course, the Sherlock perfection that is Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve read every one of the stories (and delightfully, I always forget the twists in The Hound of the Baskervilles so that I get creeped out every time). If I remember correctly, I was at the Waterloo Public Library, looking for books by an author whose last name started with K when I saw the author Laurie R King, and that she had written a series of books about Sherlock Holmes…and his wife. I had similarly grabbed the most atrocious Jane Austen fan fiction once off a library shelf, so my expectations were low, but King surprised me with her credible characters: I’m not the only reviewer to say that she has absolutely captured the original Sherlock in her books, while providing him with a new sidekick (not to worry, Dr Watson makes frequent appearances, but like Sherlock, he is also retired). However, and this is a big however, the quality of this series varies widely. The author is clearly bright and knows her stuff but in some of the books, the setting and adventures take over too much and the story and the character development suffers. Not so Locked Rooms. This is one of my favourite of the books, a novel in which Mary Russell, Sherlock’s young wife has to confront the ghosts of her past in early 20th century San Francisco. Try this book (and others in the series), knowing to either skim through those that don’t work for you or skip them altogether. The books do not need to be written in order, and in fact, as the series has gone on (there are 14 books to date, I think), the author has gone back to fill in blanks on the timeline.

1. News of the World by Paulette Jiles– Some years I debate about my number one book. This year there was no debate. I read this book in May and I knew it would be the best book of the year. It has been described as a post-Civil War western. Set in 1870, an older man travels from town to town as an elocutionist reading the news of the world to audiences eager to widen their horizons. As the book begins, he agrees to return a young girl who had previously been kidnapped and orphaned by the Kiowa First Nations tribe back to her extended family. The book follows their often dangerous journey and their emotional journey of learning to trust one another. The news reader, Captain Kidd is one of the loveliest heroes in fiction. This book has an ending that feels like a well-executed quadruple axel in skating: it achieves a perfect landing without falling into saccharine or melancholy territory. I just loved it.