Help! Too many books!
Said no one ever, of course, but when one is trying to narrow down a massive book list to just a handful to recommend to friends, it can be a bit overwhelming.
Before I dive in, a note of clarification: these are not always my favorite books in the sense that one should expect to feel warm and fuzzy and sigh contentedly at the end of them. Some of them, yes, but not all. These are books that are impactful in some way. Many books have little nuggets of insight that one can file away, but few change or substantially enlarge your worldview. And then sometimes we aren’t looking for our worldviews to be enlarged, we’d just like a little respite from the stress of the day and to be reminded that there is some good remaining in the world. I like those books, too.
I have devoted an inordinate amount of my thought life to the quandary of how to break these books up. I am settling on top 5 in three categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, and Spiritual Concerns. Now clearly these are very large enclosures and I would very much like tiny microcosms, but let’s start vague and if there’s a need for further division, we can address it in a later post.
I used to hesitate to recommend books, especially when one I loved fell flat in a friend’s eyes. But I’ve come to realize that book tastes are a bit like food preferences, and some of us like french fries while others prefer onion rings. A book recommendation that doesn’t create magical rhapsodies of praise does not mean that one has no taste in books, it simply means that you are a fries girl and me, I tend towards the onion rings end of the scale. It’s ok; we can still be friends. And part of being friends is talking about what we love, so tra la la and here’s my book list.
Please mentally compose a heraldic trumpet fanfare of sorts, and let’s begin. In no particular order, here’s my top five for…
1. News of the World by Paulette Giles
This book was like music to me. It is the story of an old Civil War veteran who is now an itinerant news reader, traveling around the Southwest and reading the newspaper to whatever audience would show in public halls. He is asked to deliver a young white girl who was kidnapped by Indians (and largely raised by them) back to her relatives in Texas. She is unfamiliar with the ways of white society and the two make an unlikely pair as they travel to her destination. When they arrive and he deposits her in San Antonio, the old veteran finds it hard to leave her with relatives who turn out to be rather grim and looking to use her for cheap labor. He is faced with leaving her there or spiriting her away from those who have a lawful claim on her.
The writing is dry, sparse and beautiful. Captain Kidd is thoughtful, funny, brusque and kind. I found the whole thing immensely enjoyable, but others who read it were unnerved by the lack of quotation marks (I never even noticed) and the poetic grammatical license in Giles’ writing. I too am usually undone by such things, but apparently got swept up enough in the story to not nitpick so much. Read it and see what you think.
2. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
OK, this one is not for the easily offended, for sure. There’s some weird vulgar imagery that might make people uncomfortable, but it is not the main point of the book. Overlook offensiveness as well as you are able, because it’s worth wading through for a few reasons:
- Originality in form and delivery – if you’re like me, you’ll spend the first few pages scratching your head. What is going on? Who is talking? What does it mean? Hang in there; it will all make sense soon enough.
- Oh the humanity! – Basically, this is a book on the meaning and purpose of life. Willy Lincoln has died and President Lincoln is overwrought with grief and sits in the Lincoln mausoleum in his sadness. We meet a host of other characters in the cemetery also, each with their own regrets and demands. It is odd to begin a story with death and spend the rest of it sorting death out, but this is not an ordinary novel.
- Great for discussion – The book ends with the author presenting his answer to the “Why are we here?” question. It’s a question we would all do well to contemplate. A book study could probably spend some time here engaging in discussion over how right we believe George Saunders to be.
To summarize: not especially warm and fuzzy, but nevertheless unconventional, thoughtful, and important. It won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for outstanding literary fiction. Also, if you don’t want to read it, the audio version has an award-winning cast and is supposed to be great. Wouldn’t recommend it with the little nuggets in the car, however, unless you’re up for some interesting post-read conversations.
3. The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg
This novel brings together three unlikely friends, all affected in some way by the loss of a loved one. I won’t delve into the plot at all because part of its charm is the unexpected turns in the story, but this was such a sweet book. And so many great thoughts on life in general woven into the narrative. I loved, big, squishy, Valentine-heart loved Arthur Moses (he becomes Arthur Truluv, but you’ll have to find out how). I still very much hope to find Arthur actually lives in my neighborhood and I can go over and eat one of Lucille’s delicious cookies. Read this one all cozied up by the fire, and maybe bring some tissues.
4. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I have found that the most satisfying fiction is a perfect balance of steady plot progression and endearing character development. Not everyone has to be endearing – that’s not even a book really – but it is important to feel some bit of emotional connection with one of the main characters. At the very least, it’s nice to root for someone. I’ve found that if I don’t really care what happens to the characters by the midway point of the book, it’s time to toss it and move on.
Eleanor was completely satisfying in plot and character. And really funny! I recommended it to my sister who got about halfway through and said menacingly, “If this doesn’t end well for Eleanor…” Well, when a dearly beloved sibling is making veiled threats about inflicting bodily harm over a fictional character’s future outlook, clearly there’s an emotional connection. Read it now or pack it away for the summer vacay. Though maybe don’t wait too long, because Reese Witherspoon’s bought the movie rights to this one. I hope the film adaptation is as charming as the book.
5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
First off, the author’s last name is pronounced -ing. Because if you didn’t know and you are like me, you would not be able to focus on the review for pondering how to pronounce a name with no vowels. You’re welcome. Second off (Do we say this? Why is “First” the only numerical standing that gets to be followed by “Off”? Signed, Confused.) this book is a slow burn (see what I did there? You’re welcome again.) There are lots of characters introduced and personal back stories and no one is especially witty and charming so who even cares? BUT it gets better. And Celeste Ng is very good at layering on the characters and the stories, weaving them all together into one intriguing plot. This one is more of a cautionary tale than a feel-good heart warmer, but the relationships and everyone’s desire at the end of the day to be loved and accepted and to belong…that is what you walk away with. It’s a great read. I liked it more than her first book Everything I Never Told You, but that one was pretty good as well.
Next up: my non-fiction standouts for 2017. Want to connect on goodreads? Find me here.
What were your standouts in 2017? Leave a comment below!