By Diane Parfitt
I often check the BEST BOOK lists from other book clubs, The New York Times and the Washington Post for ideas for my own book clubs and my book store. I also check the literary prize winners for the year. The titles that show up again and again are the ones I read and recommend to book clubs and friends. Now and then I find a book on one of these lists that I may not have picked out on my own. The Boys in the Boat is a good example. I never thought I would have liked a book about a bunch of guys rowing a boat on a college team in the early 1930s, but it turned out to be one of my all-time favorites and a favorite of my book club members.
So here are some of the books from last year that were the best of the best!
BEARTOWN by Fredrick Backman
Author of A Man Called Ove, Backman brings us another story that will pull at our heartstrings. Beartown is a tiny community close to extinction, deep in the woods, about to be swallowed up by all those trees. However, the presence of an ice rink and a winning high-school hockey team give the townspeople hope for a better tomorrow. With all their hopes and dreams on the shoulders of a group of teenage boys, the semi-final game prompts a violent act that traumatizes the entire town. Can the people rise above this and come together?
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
In Shaker Heights, an upscale suburb of Cleveland, we find the perfect community with everything planned from the layout of the streets to the colors of the houses. Or so it seems until Mia, a mysterious artist and single mother, moves in next door to the typical all-American Richardson family. All four Richardson children are enchanted with the mother-daughter pair and Mia’s seeming disregard for the status quo. When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, the community is thrown into turmoil and sides are taken.
SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward
This book is on every list of best books for 2017 and it has won numerous awards, including the National Book Award. JoJo and Kayla are mixed-race children in Mississippi who live with their grandparents and occasionally with their drug-addict mother Leonie. This is a story about their trip to pick up their white father, who is being released from prison. The beauty of the story is the empathy it engenders in the reader about issues our country is facing now. Isn’t that what great literature is about?
MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan
Described as a historical novel, the story is set on the Brooklyn docks prior to and during World War II. The Depression and the impending war are affecting everyone and the mobsters are in charge. The main character is a young woman who is trying to become the first female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The story deals with the lengths men will go to in order to provide for their families and how women suffer harassment while doing men’s jobs. These issues have contemporary ramifications even though the story is set in the past in one of the most important times in our country.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders
Although this book is described as hilariously funny, horribly sad and utterly surprising, I was initially hesitant to read it since it is a fantasy about a famous person and set against such well-known historical times. Bardo is a Tibetan word for the “in-between” or “transitional” state between lives. Taking place over one night in 1862, Abraham Lincoln is tormented by the Civil War, the deaths of thousands of young soldiers and the death of his own beloved 11-year-old son from typhoid. During the night, Lincoln has a conversation with his son’s ghost, who is unwilling to leave this world and his father for the afterlife.
BENEATH A SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan
Pino Lella is a normal Italian teenager when World War II touches his community. He can no longer ignore what is happening and he joins the underground to help Jews escape the Nazis. During this time, he meets and falls in love with Anna. However, his parents find out and, concerned for his safety, they force him to enlist as a German soldier. After becoming injured, he is assigned to be a personal driver for Hitler’s general in Italy. But Pino uses this opportunity to spy for the Allies, bolstered by his love for Anna and his dreams for their future.
TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green
John Green, popular author of The Fault in Our Stars, returns with a novel more personal in nature. Aza, a 16-year-old, suffers from all kinds of anxiety disorders. She works hard at being a good daughter, a good friend and a good student, but it’s not easy with her ever-threatening anxieties. When she learns about a $100,000 reward to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a fugitive billionaire, who happens to be the father of a boy she knows, Aza enlists the help of her best friend Daisy. This is a heartwarming story of love, resilience and the power of lifelong friendship.
GRANT by Ron Chernow
If your interest in books does not include fiction, this and the following biographies have been well-received. I must admit I did not know Grant was going to be 1104 pages long when I ordered it for my son-in-law for Christmas. However, when I felt its heft when it arrived, I knew this would be a long one. Long it may be, but the reviewers love this book! Ron Chernow is an award-winning biographer who wrote the popular book Alexander Hamilton, the inspiration for the blockbuster Broadway play. Grant is a scholarly and literary book that reminds us of his subject’s significant achievements during the Civil War and his accomplishments afterwards, which have long been overlooked or misunderstood by many. In his book, Chernow shows us how Grant struggled to maintain our “more perfect union” even when its very existence was being threatened.
LEONARDO DA VINCI by Walter Isaacson
Isaacson does incredible research for this book through his access to thousands of pages of da Vinci’s own notebooks. Da Vinci was a brilliant combination of artist and scientist with an imagination and passionate curiosity that resulted in astonishing works. In this book, we learn that da Vinci was a misfit – illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed and truly an unorthodox genius. How better to learn to accept diversity than to read about someone who thrived despite all his differences and produced so much for us to appreciate today!
BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah
Writing a funny story about growing up “colored” (being part white and part black in South Africa was a crime at the time) may seem a challenge to most, but not to comedian Trevor Noah. This heart-warming story helps us understand apartheid, poverty, bullying, a mother’s love and the importance of family and community. There are some amusing and some very sad scenes in the story but they are informative and insightful and always very powerful.
Whether you want to laugh and be entertained, cry over a love story, or learn something about history, there are some terrific books from 2017 for you to read. Enjoy!
Diane Parfitt owns City Center Gallery & Books on Hay Street in downtown Fayetteville