I just finished reading The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish. It’s one of my favorite novels of the year: history, culture, great characters, interesting ideas, good writing–a page-turner set in the 17th century London Portuguese Jewish community and current cutthroat academia. I like books that take me places.
It didn’t make it to the NY Times 100 Notable Books for 2017. The Times reviewers seem to prefer edgier fiction and memoirs. “Disturbing” is their favorite descriptor. I was not in the mood this year for disturbing, especially dystopian novels that come too close to current reality. (For that reason I have so far refused to read Louise Erdrich’s latest, Future Home of the Living God, although she is one of my favorite writers.)
Instead, here are some of my other best reads of the year. Not all of them are recent. I subscribe to a free service called Bookbub, which sends a daily list of (usually time-limited) ebook bargains. They are often lesser-known works of good writers, several or many years old. It’s like sifting through a used-clothing shop for slightly vintage treasures.
In that category, I enjoyed Ann Patchett’s 1992 Patron Saint of Liars, the novel that brought her recognition, almost as much as I have her more recent, astonishingly good novels. And I discovered Donna Woolfolk Cross’s Pope Joan (1996). How did I miss that well-imagined account of a (probable) female pope in the Middle Ages? Bookbub was also the source of one of the most humane spy novels I have ever read, David Ignatius’s 1987 Agents of Innocence. Set in the Middle East, it gives a sense of the roots of radical Islamism.
The service also put me onto the 2009 memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, by Fuschia Dunlop, and Dan Fagin’s 2013 Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation. This very readable account of unconscionable contamination and the difficulty of “proving” harm from it was published just after I retired from work in the environmental movement so I missed it.
I also pounced on Hyeonseo Lee’s 2015 memoir, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Wow. Read this now to understand North Korea a little better (it’s still available for $1.99). It was a good complement to a 2017 book that appealed to me so much I paid full price for it: Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee (2017), about four generations of a Korean family in Japan. I spent time in Japan in the 1960s and know something about this. A very, very good novel that did make the NYT list.
Since we moved to the Pink Lady I am in walking distance of a public library with great hardcopy and ebook selections. This means that I can often read a review, put a copy on reserve, and pick it up or download it immediately. So I’ve been reading more recent books and paying less. I do believe in supporting authors, but hey. I’m a retiree.
Here are other recent books I’ve loved:
Janet Fitch, The Revolution of Marina M. (2017). A young bourgeoise is swept up in the Russian Revolution. There will be a sequel! The great writing put me onto other books by Fitch, including White Oleander (2006).
Donia Bijan, The Last Days of Café Leila (2017). In Tehran.
Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible (2017). Including, that I will love a short story collection, which I usually don’t. But these are interrelated and it’s Elizabeth Strout.
Kennedy Odede, Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss and Hope In an African Slum (2017). Memoir of a charismatic young leader who falls in love with an American do-gooder in Nairobi and they do some good.
Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers (2016). Do you want to know what immigrants are up against and how hard they work? Read this. Fall in love with them.
Peter Andreas, Rebel Mother (2017). Ah, his mother started out as a Mennonite and became a 60s radical, I mean real pinko leftie. I could not resist paying full price for this and it was worth it. (And I probably know people in the family.)
Tom Rosenstiel, Shining City (2017). An exception to my rule of not reading disturbing books too close to present reality. Set in DC, journalist murdered, conspiracy uncovered. I do like good thrillers.
Corban Addison, The Tears of Dark Water (2017). A hijacking by Somali pirates unfolds in unpredictable and intriguing ways.
What have you read and loved this year?