TOP SHELF: 5 Favorite Books Read in 2017

Some were published this year, one has decades under its belt: All Amazing

Though we have a few more weeks left in 2017, and though I am attempting valiantly to read at least 5 more books before it ends, I am still awash with bookish guilt over not doing one of these lists last year. (Best book I read in 2016? After Disasters by Viet Dinh. Full of all the best, hard stuff: love, lust, loneliness and longing. A beauty of a book.)

If I had to find a common thread for what most captured my attention in 2017, I’d venture this: Ambitious Escapism. Big, over-the-top books in either character, plot, or format, where reality is bent just so. And with one pick, it’s a matter of state pride, however dark the subject matter.

Let’s get to it:

Lincoln in The Bardo by George Saunders

This is an amazing feat of a book made all the better by the exceptionally well-done audiobook, which is how I experienced it. In some ways, it works better as an audiobook because of all the distinct character voices that really sing when done by a full cast of actors. Nick Offerman and David Sedaris are outstanding voices for their characters, as are so many of the others (recognizable names and not), and though some of the footnotes take a minute to get used to, it works.

I’d never looked at the print version until after I finished the audiobook, so I had no idea how it worked. A brief glance reveals that it looks somewhat like a play, though I’m sure someone better versed in manuscript styles could tell you what the actual term is.

Without question, Lincoln in The Bardo is the best book I read this year.

Montana Noir edited by James Grady and Keir Graff

Even though there were a few stories that I didn’t love every bit of, and one I just didn’t like (Downtown Billings, looking at you, but maybe I’m missing something), I still loved this collection. It is such a relief to read a book that really makes an effort to get Montana right. Sure we have cowboys and all that, but we’re just as varied here as many other places. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but maybe Debra Magpie Earling’s Polson-set story, “Custer’s Last Stand,” is it. The pacing, the details, all of it: perfection.

Other highlights include David Abrams, Caroline Patterson, Eric Heidle (who also shot the cover photo), Keir Graff, Jamie Ford, and Janet Skeslien Charles’ stories. Also, if you get a chance to hear Yvonne Seng read aloud, do so, because that woman’s voice is magnificent.

Full disclosure: I do know some of the authors personally, but we’re a state of only a million people. It would be weird if I didn’t.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

This is a beautiful expanse of a memoir/novel that would have likely been my top read for the year, had I not read Lincoln in the Bardo.

Chabon works well with mythic stories placed in the real world, and that’s what he’s done with the tale of his grandparents here. I loved it full on, wholeheartedly, and once again became consumed by that odd feeling of when a book is so good, one is almost compelled to eat it. His first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, remains one of my all-time favorites, though Moonglow may very well be a close second. This book and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay can duke it out, though one cannot go wrong by reading all three.

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

I’m still working my way through Patricia Highsmith’s books (the Ripley books are among my most favorite ever, as is The Price of Salt), and this novel did not disappoint. I almost wanted to start over and immediately read it again.

With this being her first novel, there’s a paragraph that sets the stage for many of her forthcoming books’ themes:

He thought of his mother, and felt he could never let her embrace him again. He remembered her telling him that all men were equally good, because all men had souls and the soul was entirely good. Evil, she said, always came from externals. And so he had believed even months after Miriam, when he had wanted to murder her lover Steve. So he had believed even on the train, reading his Plato. In himself, the second horse of the charioteer had always been obedient as the first. But love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, one had merely to scratch the surface. All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive the negative. The splitting of the atom was the only true destruction, the breaking of the universal law of oneness. Nothing could be without its opposite that was bound up with it. Could space exist in a building without objects that stopped it? Could energy exist without matter, or matter without energy? Matter and energy, the inert and the active, once considered opposites, were now known to be one.

That’s it. That’s her wheelhouse.

Also, I gotta rewatch this movie. It’s been ages since I’ve seen it.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

If I had a different life and somehow ended up an MFA student, I’d be tempted to make my thesis studying David Mitchell’s work. Ghostwritten made me want to reread everything he’s ever written, closely, making notes.

One can see the beginnings of his Matryoshka-style plotting that would come into full effect in Cloud Atlas. One character’s life bleeds into another while never fully connecting, and the reader must be with it enough to catch all the loose threads. He’s all about this big complicated world we live in, and the unseen forces that guide us along the way.

I read this slowly, almost too slowly, because I loved the writing so much and didn’t want it to end. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite of his — partially because it’s so hard to even narrow down a top 3— and his style is certainly not for everybody, but oh man am I committed to anything he will ever want to write. A full reread of all this work is coming. Trust. I am ride or die for the David Mitchell Literary Universe.

To see all of the books I read this year, here’s a handy roundup over at Goodreads.