It’s been another good year for books. New ones, old ones. Obscure ones, best-selling ones. Highbrow ones, lowbrow ones. For (almost) every kind of book, there is a season.
It’s been a particularly good year for this book-lover, in part because of one fortuitous midsummer Craigslist acquisition – an oversized leather reading chair we got at a bargain price from an elderly couple who lovingly referred to it as The Mitt. Ever since, The Mitt has been where I most often read books, usually with my buddy St. Gus by my side.
Another reason it’s been a good year for books is because of all of you. I launched my books newsletter on a whim back in February, and it’s been gratifying to hear from many of you that The Bookshelf has been a pleasant addition to your life. I’ve treasured hearing about your reading adventures along the way, and I’m looking forward to another year of bibliophile camaraderie in 2018.
With 2017 drawing to a close, I want to highlight some of the books I most appreciated this year. This isn’t a clearly defined Top 10 list, but for the sake of the Myers-Briggs Js among you, I’ve at least put them in categories (last year’s free-flowing recap is here.)
We might as well start with baseball, right? On the matter of the sabermetric revolution, I read The Only Rule Is It Has to Work and Smart Baseball. Personally, I’m less interested in the science of baseball than I am in the poetics and storylines of the game. But as we saw in this year’s postseason, analytical, metric-driven strategy yields some freaking great entertainment on the field. So, whatever you Ivy League front office people are doing, more of it please!
Three religious books in particular stand out to me. The first is Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. I never reviewed the book, which in retrospect kind of surprises me, because I feel like I’ve been talking about it with everyone all year. That book’s cousin, one might say, is Practices of Love by Kyle David Bennett, which I did review. Finally, as expected, I was challenged and encouraged (and yeah, a little bit confused) by Awaiting the King by James K.A. Smith – the third installment in his much-discussed Cultural Liturgies project. A proper review is forthcoming, but a preliminary review is here.
I consistently read a lot of books about Latin America, so it’s hard to narrow this category down, but I’ll mention just two. The Fish That Ate the Whale was published five years ago, but somehow nobody told me about it. The story of “banana king” Samuel Zemurray, it’s “a rollicking but brilliantly researched book,” as one reviewer put it. The other especially noteworthy book I’ll mention is The Far Away Brothers, about twin brothers from El Salvador who make their way north. I’m reading it now and will review it soon for the Englewood Review of Books.
I write for a living and have intuitively grasped for a while that to be a good writer, one must read a lot and write a lot. Turns out, that’s a core axiom in Stephen King’s entertaining and marvelous “memoir of the craft,” On Writing. It’s good to be validated like that by someone as talented and terrifying as Mr. King. I also thoroughly enjoyed Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. She’s funny, smart, and she writes with passion (Buechner would approve).
Speaking of memoir, I hit a gold mine this year. Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run was perfect. Patti Smith’s Just Kids was truly evocative, both heartbreaking and beautiful. And because one can never read too many baseball books, I’ll also include the wonderful Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has won prestigious awards, but more importantly, was prominent in that Ken Burns film I grew up watching. And lastly, while it transcends genres, I must include the quasi-biographical The Life You Save May be Your Own, which got a nod in installment #8 of The Bookshelf.
Finally, fiction. It’s rare that I read novels as soon as they hit bestseller lists, but I made a couple of exceptions this year for Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. Both authors are gifted storytellers and their characters feel real – sometimes too real, given our current social and political climate. I also got lost in The Brothers K (the Duncan one, not the Dostoyevsky one). It’s a book that’s been highly recommended to me for years, and I’m glad I finally committed to undertaking its 645 pages. It’s a complicated, multilayered story that I suspect will continue to haunt me for some time.
Header photo by Kent Kanouse/Flickr, under the Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.