A Few Favorite Books of 2017 (So Far)

I have long been meaning to get back to this blog. Every book I read, I think, “This is a good one…so much to say!” And then I say nothing at all, just move on to the next book. I think part of my lack of drive has to do that I’ve almost dropped social media entirely. The only things I look at with any regularity are Goodreads and Instagram, and because I’m not very good at capturing moments in photos, I rarely post anything on the latter. Being away from social media also means being away from the book discussions, something I greatly miss. I keep telling myself that’s a good reason to get back to blogging, but then again, can one blog without participating heavily in social media? A discussion for another time, perhaps.

Because I’ve been out of the fray and therefore away from influence, I’ve been meandering from book to book. I’ve had a surprisingly good reading year so far, with no slumps to date and only one book I completely abandoned halfway through, The Story Hour by Thrity Urmigar. The characters were flat, and the plot was completely contrived, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that because I’m not here to talk about the bad stuff. I’m here to talk about just a few of my favorites (so far).

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrations by Isabel Wilkerson is an absolute must-read, especially during our current climate. I wish I could shove this book into the hands of so many people I know who continue to make assumptions about African Americans based on a lot of propaganda circulated in the early Twentieth century. Wilkerson follows the journey of three African Americans from the South to the North during three decades, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Interwoven with these stories Wilkerson uncovers the bigger picture of this migration of African Americans from the South to the North that took place over the course of six decades, from 1915 to 1970, debunking myths along the way that have continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes. It was fascinating and infuriating and difficult to put down.

The Sport of KingsThe Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan completely blew me away. Oh, how I hate to write plot synopses, and trying to write one for this epic novel feels nearly impossible, so I’m going to let the publisher’s blurb do the talking:

Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred with the blood of Triple Crown winners in her veins, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavor of raw obsession: to breed the next superhorse, the next Secretariat. But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice, and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and grace of Hellsmouth.

Morgan’s prose has an abundance, a lushness, that is rare in these days of pragmatic, minimalist prose or the nudge, nudge, wink wink of irony that’s become all too common. I’m not kidding when I say I felt like I was reading The Great American Novel. All at once it reminded me of Steinbeck and felt like something completely new. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws, but the overall effect is so powerful they simply don’t matter. I plan to read this one again soon, so maybe next time I’ll get around to writing a dedicated post.

Anything Is PossibleMy husband surprised me with a copy of Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. These connected stories cover the lives of people that Lucy Barton and her mother gossip about in Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. I was planning to read Lucy Barton first, but I was so excited I started this one immediately. Although I loved Olive Kitteridge, the last book I read by Strout was The Burgess Boys, and it left me feeling underwhelmed. Not so with Anything Is Possible. She brings the same detail and care to her small-town Illinois characters as she did in Olive Kitteridge. At her best, Strout reminds me of Kent Haruf in the way she writes about regular people going about their quiet lives. I loved it so much that I decided to read My Name Is Lucy Barton right away…and was disappointed.

The ThicketOne of my favorite books of all time is True Grit by Charles Portis. I also happen to love a good Western. Because of this, Joe R. Lansdale’s novels kept popping up in my recommendations on Amazon and Goodreads. I chose to start with The Thicket, and I was not disappointed. When Jack Parker loses his parents to smallpox, his grandfather comes to take him and his sister Lula to live with their uncle. Along the way, they meet with a rough group of bandits who kill Jack’s grandfather and kidnap his sister. Jack is alone until he hooks up with a pair of bounty hunters, a freed slave named Eustace and a dwarf named Shorty, who offer to help him track the gang and find his sister in exchange for the land he inherited from his parents. As tragic as it all sounds, this book is laugh-out-loud funny and sharply written, with well-developed characters and a perfectly paced plot.

Usually I could pull together ten titles for this list. Going back through the forty-two titles I’ve read this year, I have plenty more four- and five-star reads in the list, but all in all these are the only ones that really stand out for me. It’s strange to have a pretty good reading year but feel so meh.

That said, I re-read both Ann  Patchett’s Commonwealth and Patti Smith’s Just Kids this year, and they were both just as stunning as they were the first time around. It didn’t seem fair to include them in the favorites so far list, though. I also started two new series that I am very much enjoying: Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series. I read a couple of J. Courtney Sullivan’s books, Saints for All Occasions (her latest) and Maine and greatly enjoyed them both. I picked up the former on a whim because The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles gave it such a glowing review; I read her first novel Commencement when it was published and thought it was only so-so, but she’s developed quite a bit as a writer, so I’ll be looking forward to whatever she writes next. I was also pleasantly surprised by two very different books about the art world, Molly Prentiss’s self-assured, impressive debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 and Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos.

Okay, so maybe it’s not all as meh as I thought.

I should also mention War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam, which includes nine first-person accounts from women who were some of the first to cover combat. This would be a great companion read if you’re planning to watch Ken Burns’s series on Vietnam (I am!).

Outside of books, the best (and most troubling) thing I experienced this year was the original Netflix series The Keepers, about how the unsolved mystery of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in November 1967 uncovered a horrifying web of abuse and conspiracy between the Catholic diocese of Baltimore and the Baltimore city government to cover up any number of allegations. The women at the heart of this story are absolute heroes. It’s very difficult to watch but absolutely gripping, and I’m so happy for these women that they’ve been given a platform to tell their story. Of course, a little justice would be nice. Or a lot.

How about you? How’s you’re reading year so far? If you read any of these, please share!



9 thoughts on “A Few Favorite Books of 2017 (So Far)

  1. It’s nice to see you pop up, Priscilla! I always enjoy reading your bookish thoughts. It doesn’t sound like such a “meh” reading year at all. I’m glad you found that you like J. Courtney Sullivan – I really liked The Engagements and Maine. I didn’t care for her newest one, though. I bought The Warmth of Other Suns and it was one of my goals for the year to read it but so far I haven’t tried. I might get to it this fall. I still very much want to read it. The Joe Lansdale sounds good. I just finished Paulette Jiles’s News of the World and I LOVED it, which makes me kind of want to read more Western novels.

    As for my reading year, it’s been good. I’ve realized, though, that setting a lot of reading goals is just not for me. Next year I’m setting NO GOALS, just to read what I want to read. My blogging has been hit or miss the past month or two… there just seems to be so much to do and SO LITTLE TIME to do it.

    Happy Reading!

  2. Hi Laila! I always love to hear from you! I think I saw on Goodreads that you were reading News of the World. I have it and plan to read it this fall, so it’s good to hear you thought so highly of it. I guess my year has just felt “meh” because usually by this time I’m already picking favorites for the end of the year, and when I looked at my current list I realized that although I’ve mostly enjoyed everything I read this year, very few books really stand out in my mind. And let me tell you, I am right there with you on not setting any goals. I find I enjoy reading (and read more) when I just follow my instinct, and I tend to read more diversely (which seems counter-intuitive, I know). And as for blogging…

  3. I haven’t read any of these! BUT I would love to read The Warmth of Other Suns and Anything is Possible (I just acquired a copy of Lucy Barton, which I haven’t read yet).
    Louise Penny’s books are very popular, but I’ve never tried one. I’m glad they have your seal of approval. 🙂

  4. Naomi, The Warmth of Other Suns is essential reading, for sure. I was surprised that I liked Lucy Barton so much less than Anything Is Possible…I wonder if reading Anything Is Possible first skewed my opinion? I’ll be so interested to hear your thoughts on both. And Louise Penny surprised me! She’s created such a wonderful world in Three Pines. I also didn’t expect her books to be funny, so that was a nice discovery, too.

  5. Hello, Loved this post because you mention a few books that I have read, too. I’m reading Anything is Possible (Via audio) right now! I loved loved LOVED Lucy so maybe it is a question of which to read first? I’m not liking AiP as much. But that might be the audio fault (though I can’t pinpoint what exactly) – I was SO LOST during the creepy house guest story that I might have to go try it again! I loved the first few and now I’m in the story of now-living-in-Italy Mary mother to Angelina.
    AND, I’m glad you liked The Sport of Kings! It was epic, yes? I think it is a book that increases in esteem the longer away but more you think about.
    I will put The Warmth of Other Suns on my must-read 2018 list.

  6. Ooops, more to comment: Have you read The Angle of Repose? something about this post reminded me of it – the American saga/epic, perhaps?

  7. Care, how funny that we had sort of opposite reactions to Lucy and Anything is Possible! I think you might be right about the reading order. I plan to read both of them again, so when I do I’ll read Lucy first.
    Oh, I am so happy you loved The Sport of Kings! That book did not get enough attention. I am still floored by what she accomplished with that novel. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s so beautifully ambitious and generous. Please let me know what you think if you get a chance to read The Warmth of Other Suns!

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