- John Wood
Top 12 Books of 2017 & 2018
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
It's once again time for my annual Top Ten list of my favorite books this year. For the first time in a while, I did not publish a 2017 list, so I’ve actually combined the last two years. I could not narrow it down to ten, so you actually get two additional recommendations for the same low, low price! All in stacked rank order. 12. Before the Feast, Sasa Stanisic I don’t read enough German fiction, and made that one of my dreaded “eat your vegetables” goals. Surprisingly enough, both German novels (yes, I only read two) became instant favorites and made this year’s list. Before the Feast (Vor dem Fest) is set in the tiny eastern German village of Fürstenfelde (population: declining). It's the night before their big annual feast, and yet no one is asleep. The reasons why include the hunger of a cunning fox, a ferryman who may or may not be real, a woman obsessed with a local museum nobody else seems to care about, and the unique nighttime machinations of modern youth. As we learn the dark myths of the town’s history, and as the chickens cower in fear of the fox, we end up falling in love with this little village and its quirky inhabitants. 11. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin Lucia Berlin was overlooked for most of her life, meaning we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who finally discovered and published her seminal work. Berlin spent most of her life kicking around the American Southwest, Mexico and California, doing a series of odd jobs and short-term hacks to support four kids as a single mother. Her experiences of both poverty and the landscape are raw and real, and leap off the page. My wife, Amy and I, both found her short stories to be un-put-down-able. And I’m proud of my alma mater, the University of Colorado, to have had the good sense to bring her onto the English faculty. 10. The Notorious RBG, Irin Carmon After the Brett Cavanaugh debacle, can we ever again expect to be inspired by the Supreme Court (where he joins perpetual grumpus Clarence Thomas on the bench)? Yes, we can! And nobody can possibly do that better than the always-inspiring RBG – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The founding fathers could probably never have imagined a sober and learned black-robed Supreme Court justice becoming a pop culture icon, but somehow RBG has done it without ever having asked. In an era where NERDS are cool, and reading is once again HOT (Thank you, God!), the cultural zeitgeist was ready for a witty, kick-ass, well-read and super smart hero like RBG. Short of stature but giant of brain, low in weight but heavy in intellectual heft, Ginsberg leaps off the pages of this admitted-hagiography to remind us of her own fight for women’s equality, her resilience, and her belief that a cogent and well-reasoned argument can still win in at least one branch of the US government. Viva, RBG!
9. All That Is, James Salter James Salter, in his late 80s, has written the near perfect novel. All That Is opens amid a fierce kamikaze assault on a US naval ship during the dying days of World War II. Even before meeting our protagonist, Philip Bowman, I was completely sucked in to the novel due to the pace and urgency of Salter’s writing. Bowman manages to escape, but not totally – because nothing in his future is likely to match the significance of these moments. Bowman makes his way to a publishing career in New York, a seemingly doomed marriage to a snobby woman from Virginia horse country, and a series of doomed affairs. Lest this sound depressing, be assured that this is novel writing at its finest, with one of the best revenge scenes I’ve ever experienced in literature. Unlike many novelists (looking at you, Franzen!), Salter makes sure that this book is not a single page longer than it needs to be, and it’s all over way too quickly. 8. A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson Kate Atkinson has written a masterpiece. Just like Salter, this book captivated me from the opening pages – so much so that on Page 5 I looked up from my comfy perch on our sofa and said to Amy, “If I don’t talk to you all weekend, it’s your fault for recommending this book”. A God in Ruins is a companion piece to Atkinson’s Life after Life, a book that “managed to achieve publishing’s holy grail of both literary acclaim and popular appeal’ (The Guardian). We now return to the Todd family, living an idyllic life in the British town of Fox Corner. Young Teddy is a man of great promise who enlists in the RAF and is soon running bombing raids over Germany. He is shot down, missing and presumed dead, and yet Atkinson brings him back to life in a chronology that jumps around without ever being confusing or annoying. I did not want this novel to end. And speaking of endings – if you hate surprises at a book’s conclusion, avoid this one. If you’re all right with them…..then dive on in!
7. American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, Jeffrey Toobin The young heiress Patty Hearst is enjoying her sophomore year at Berkeley (said enjoyment includes sleeping with one of her professors). The halcyon scene is interrupted when machine gun-wielding masked intruders burst through her front door, drag her outside and hurl her into the trunk of their getaway vehicle. Within a few hours, the previously-unheard-of Symbionese Liberation Army occupies headlines on thousands of mastheads around the world. They, and this little-known heiress, captivate the world’s attention. It turns out the SLA are to “armies” what the Yugo was to automotive design. This ragtag band of pseudo-revolutionaries can barely figure out how to make breakfast, let alone overthrow capitalism and the American class system. But they somehow survive on dumb luck, cash from bank robberies, and some classic incompetence on the part of law enforcement to keep the kidnapping saga alive (or at least comatose). It always seems to be close to crashing down, but much to the delight of the reader it somehow keeps going. Patty eventually begins to sympathize (Stockholm Syndrome Alert) with her captors to such an extent that she is soon wearing a balaclava, hosting an AK-47, and screaming at bank tellers to hand over the loot. This masterful work of non-fiction is entertainingly told by Jeffrey Toobin (IMHO one of The New Yorker’s best writers). The world of reading is better when history reads like jaunty fiction. Toobin not only pulls this off, but also reminds us of how bizarre America was at certain points of the 1970’s. 6. Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson I - along with half the audience - cried when I first heard Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson speak at an Aspen Institute conference. Stevenson is one of those people so idealistic and committed to social justice that upon graduation from Harvard Law School he turned down many lucrative offers from corporations and law firms to devote this life to the underdogs. These include those wrongfully convicted on shaky evidence or outright lies, incarcerated people being caged like animals in badly-run prisons, and too many others who are treated as though the Constitution does not apply to them. Reading the touching memoir of Stevenson’s fight for the victims of America’s so-called justice system kept the tears flowing, and then a trip to Fidelity.com to send a contribution to help his Equal Justice Initiative continue to fight the good fight. While sections of this book can be depressing, it’s ultimately uplifting to know that there are still people in this world willing to look out for those who have the least, even though, as our author so skilfully reveals, the fight can be a real bitch most days. 5. Bad Blood, John Carreyrou Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou was the well-deserved winner of the Financial Times Business Book of the Year award for 2018. He is a most amiable guide to the roller-coaster ride of the blood-testing startup Theranos and its kind-of-creepy and Steve Jobs wannabee founder Elizabeth Holmes. She and her company were once a unicorn gracing the covers of magazines offering breathless and adulatory profiles. Today, they are disgraced roadkill. Read this, and weep. And laugh. You’ll share stories with your spouse. And shake your head in wonder at how the supposedly-smartest minds in Silicon Valley’s Echo Chamber can be so gullible. 4. Born a Crime, Trevor Noah Trevor Noah has written one of the best memoirs of the last decade. Noah’s birth was to a white Swiss father and black Xhosa mother. Under the laws of apartheid-era South Africa, his birth was technically illegal (“We can’t have these races mixing now, can we?”). Children like Noah were both denied and ignored by the system. In the bizarre logic of the government, if the procreation that produced the child was illegal, then wasn’t the child himself technically a “crime”?
It would be difficult if not impossible to think of more challenging conditions under which to be born, but inevitably it gets worse as the father disappears and a young Trevor finds various scrappy side hustles to help the family survive. His unlikely rise from such humble beginnings to the desk of The Daily Show is told at a fast and friendly clip. Noah is as talented with the printed word as he is with the spoken, and the reader is blessed to be immersed in a memoir rich with incisive wit and unflinching honesty. As a bonus, the scenes in which a gangly and under-confident Noah attempts to begin dating are worth the price of the book just by themselves. 3. The Seventh Day, Yu Hua From the first scene, I could not put down Yu Hua’s 2015 novel in which recently-deceased Chinese citizens -- too poor to afford either cremation or a burial plot -- are fated to have their souls roam the afterlife. Our protagonist, Yang Fei, was born on a speeding train, lost by his mother, and raised by a bachelor railroad switchman with love, caring, and never quite enough money to provide a comfortable life. As Yang grows up, he never quite fits in anywhere in modern and ever-changing China. His attempts to find his place in the hustle of modern urban China never quite work. But his lonely quest is one day brightened when he meets Mouse Girl. We know from Page One that the romance does not end well, and yet that does not stop us from “falling in love with their love” and having our heart uplifted by pure romance. I love novels that are never a page longer than they need to be and Hua pulls this off beautifully. Our journey through the afterlife reveals lurid accounts of corruption, police violence, political repression and the mistreatment suffered by ordinary Chinese at the hands of the powerful and the wealthy. Through it all, and even after death, the human spirit and resilience of the characters remains strong and inspires us to keep turning the pages. Each of the seven days is one chapter, and it’s all over way too soon. 2. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders Never in my life have I so strongly agreed with the Booker Prize committee as I did in 2017. Amy and I have always loved the short stories of George Saunders (Tenth of December and Civilwarland in Bad Decline have both made previous Top Ten lists), but this was Saunders’ first novel. Could he pull it off? Hell, yeah! This book is a frigging masterpiece. Though the unique narrative device makes the first 50 pages difficult (until you adapt to its cadence and characters, which I promise you will), once it picks up steam it’s a perpetual motion machine. So much so that I tried to find ways to avoid messy human interaction in order to keep reading (and yes, that was during a family Christmas). And then, once I picked it back up, within a few pages I would rest it on my lap, close my eyes, shake my head and mutter to Amy: It’s impossible to believe any human being could write this beautifully. The closing paragraphs are amongst the most beautiful I’ve experienced in decades of reading. And drum roll please….#1 is -- One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, Roland Schimmelpfennig George Saunders was not the only one writing his first novel. The delightfully-named German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig made an equally-impressive debut with this mesmerizing modern German tale. Despite the long title, this is a taut novel – all muscle, no fat, and in perpetual motion. The book begins when a wolf crosses the border between Poland and Germany. It would probably not have been noticed except that it was near a massive traffic jam caused by a jack-knifed oil tanker. A Polish gastarbeiter (guest worker) headed back to his girlfriend in Berlin leaves his car for a snowy stroll and a cigarette break, only to be confronted by the unlikely sight of the massive wolf peering down from a snowbank. His cellphone photo juxtaposes our lupine friend against a sign reading “Berlin: 80 kilometers”. Posted to social media, the photo quickly goes viral. Tens of thousands of people speculate on the wolf’s intentions, planned path, and significance. As the wolf continues to move west towards the city, its path becomes the plot line as it intersects with abused runaway teenagers who only have each other, two drunk brothers who hold on to each other just as strongly, a former urban beauty who blames her boring suburban life on her daughter, and a convenience store owner who becomes obsessed with killing the wolf. This is a journey, and a cast of characters, you do not want to miss.
I hope you enjoy, and if you have comments on any of the books, I’d love to hear them, along with recommendations of your own.