Posts from December 2017
December 22nd, 2017
And there you have it, folks! The best – and worst – books of 2017, neatly laid out and pontificated about as we’ve been doing for over a decade here at Stevereads! I read more books in 2017 than in any previous year of my life, and as always, it’s been tremendous fun to codify all that reading into these intergalactically-famous lists for your consideration. And although that process is by now old enough to be familiar, its 2017 iteration marks some big changes. As you can tell from the enormous banner slapped across the top of this site, Open Letters Monthly is shuttering operations as a review journal after ten years of publication. The site will continue as an archive for all the first-rate writing we’ve published here, and in the new year, the site will undergo a radical transformation into Open Letters Review. Many OLM editors will be helping out with the fun of that new journal, and they’ll be joined by some new editors and many of the regular contributors who’ve made Open Letters Monthly such good reading over the last decade.
As for Stevereads, the home of, among other things, these rabble-rousing, comprehensive year-end book-lists, it’ll be moving too: not back to its original Blogspot home but rather to a new website, SteveDonoghue.com, where I’ll be gathering not only Stevereads but, eventually, all of my online writing into one convenient (albeit longwinded!) location. These epic year-end lists will continue there, as will everything else as soon as the sawdust and moving crates are cleared away!
So: one old site – Open Letters Monthly, with its endless backlog of literary gems – and two new sites – Open Letters Review for all the book reviews and book news you need to get through your day, and SteveDonoghue.com, for the ongoing autobiography of my reading! I hope to see you all there!
December 22nd, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Nonfiction!
I’ve come to expect a certain amount of variety in the books that manage the near-impossible feat of making their way from galley-and-first-reading to finished-copy-and-second-reading to critical appraisal/mauling to cold reconsideration and then ultimately to this year-end list. But even so, the best works of what I think of as ‘general nonfiction’ in 2017 are more varied than usual, ranging from the whimsical to the terrifying to the tragic and back. I went into the year with clear expectations of where my favor would lie, and as usual, I was constantly being surprised right out of my certainties. Here are the best nonfiction works from a year of upset:
10 My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul (Henry Holt) – Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, leads off the list with this whimsical and sometimes very moving (and, needless to say, intensely bookish) account of her life-long relationship with her own book-journal. The plots, names, places, and revelations of every book she reads go into her Book of Books, and what emerges, amazingly, is an entire life. I finished it thinking: “Something very like that is my life too.” And also thinking: “The Times book coverage is in very, very good hands.”
9 Welcome to Your World by Sarah Williams Goldhagen (Harper) – Pretty much the last kind of thing I’d have expected to find on this year-end list is an urban-design study by an architecture critic, but the book Goldhagen has written is so much more than that: it’s an exuberant and ultimately luminous look at how humans live in cities, how cities live in humans, and, in a persistent note of hope sounded throughout the book, how both can do a better job. Every city-dweller should read it.
8 No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers (Hachette) – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (and author of the single best one-volume Mark Twain biography) Ron Powers here combines a pitiless look at the history of mental health care in America with a deeply personal story about the worsening mental health of his own son. Powers writes brutal, direct, lovely prose, and it’s never been more powerful than in this scathing, heartbreaking book.
7 A New Literary History of Modern China, edited by David Wei-Wang (Harvard University Press) – This massive tome is a vast universe of names and publication histories and author-names entirely unknown to the Western reading world. Editor David Wei-Wang pulls together an entire literary landscape of styles, schools, and scholars, and the book not only delves into each of these things in a very readable way but also generates a rather lengthy list of reading suggestions.
6 The Egyptians by Jack Shenker (The New Press) – The slightly haphazard and internationally-visible revolution in Egypt that toppled Mubarak had long and snaking roots and a wide array of complicated aftershocks. Journalist Jack Shenker tells that big story in immense detail and with immense, discerning sympathy.
5 The Death of Expertise by Sam Nichols (Oxford University Press) – This slim, powerful book about the slow, seemingly irreversible strangulation of knowledge in a 21st century saturated with social media and hot takes could easily have been the year’s most annoyingly bitter book, since the flip-side of all that mis-information is the down-grading of experts in public discourse. And Sam Nichols’ book is unavoidably a touch bitter! But it’s also fantastically insightful on the slippery subject of what does doesn’t warrant serious attention in a society where attention has become currency.
4 What Algorithms Want by Ed Finn (MIT Press) – They determine our health care; they set our insurance rates; they time our traffic lights; they shape our reading; they fly our planes; they allow you to read this list … they are algorithms, and in the last couple of years, as more people have become aware of the fact that digital, growing, self-instructing webs of code-work are running more and more aspects of daily life with little or not input from humans, books on algorithms (marketed, distributed, tracked, and often reviewed by algorithms) have become more numerous. This richly textured study by Ed Finn is by far the best of such books that I’ve read so far – so good, in fact, that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if “Ed Finn” were later revealed to be a … well, you know.
3 The Exile by Cathy Scott-Clark & Adrian Levy (Bloomsbury) – This big, satisfyingly dense book tells the story of the ten years Osama bin Laden spent in exile, from September 11, 2001 until he was killed by US forces in the dead of night in a Pakistan compound in 2011. The authors dug through every unclassified record and interviewed every living person connected with those long, furtive, often pathetic exile years, and in addition to everything else, they craft a deeply memorable portrait of the loneliness of being a hunted fugitive. In addition to being a veritable seminar in top-level journalism, the book is also an unexpectedly moving psychological study.
2 The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs (Simon & Schuster) – The depressingly regular appearance of cancer memoirs on nonfiction new release tables does nothing at all to diminish either the sweetness of this book by Nina Riggs or its wrenching sadness. Riggs was only in her thirties when she was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her, and the book she wrote before she died is amazing for its honesty and its touching, often goofy humor. Whole long segments of it have haunted me since I first read it last Spring.
1 Golden Legacy by Leonard Marcus (Golden Books) – This utterly delightful history of the Golden Books that have meant so much to so many young readers over the decades might technically also fit under “Best Reprints,” since a version of it was published back in 2007 to mark the 65th anniversary of the phenomenon. But this lovely enhanced new edition, for the 75th anniversary, is “new” enough for me to get away with including it here, as the best nonfiction book of 2017! Here are the stories of all the visionary, hard-working men and women who created the Little Golden Books, all told with a perfect combination of archival research and smiling anecdote, perfect for book-lovers everywhere.
December 22nd, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Fiction!
2017 was another outstanding year for fiction. Even the mediocre novels were sounder and smarter than in most years, and the terrific novels were correspondingly even more terrific – so much so, in fact, that many of the year’s best novels achieved that status despite committing venial and mortal sins against their own genre: things like pandering topicality, chasing buzzwords, and avoiding plot, things that would ordinarily torpedo a novel, were in 2017 transformed by sheer talent into working parts of the performance. And those performances included some mighty fine works – these were the best of them:
10 A State of Freedom by Neal Mukherjee (WW Norton) – The first book on the list this year might have been the worst offender when it comes to pandering topicality, since through the experiences of five central characters it deals squarely with the migrant experience, the reality of today’s immigrant population so much in the news. But right from the start, Mukherjee’s book shines with such spare rhetorical cut and anger that I plum forgot to be anything but awestruck.
9 Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Little, Brown) – Arthur Less, the main character in this wonderful, hilarious book by Greer, is a hapless failing writer on the brink of the mother of all midlife crises and trying simply to avoid reality by hiding behind cheap profundities and a series of ill-advised junkets, and Greer tells this (admittedly familiar) story with such glee and sharp attention that I was grinning all the way through – the only other 2017 book I can say that about was Joe Hagan’s biography of Jann Wenner, but there the grins came from boiling hatred, whereas in Less they came from sheer readerly enjoyment.
8 A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco) – I’ve always been hit-or-miss with Oates’ fiction, and I very much tend to be extra-irritable about ‘issue’ novels, so by rights this big novel squarely about the raging abortion debate in America should have left me cold. The book is a dual story: the vicious Evangelical who kills an abortionist and painful aftermath for the abortionist’s family – but instead of irritating me, it moved me more than any other novel I read this year, and even given all its competition, I think it may be the best thing Oates has ever written.
7 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Random House) – This thrillingly ambitious debut novel by Saunders about a grieving President Lincoln and a graveyard full of spirits who don’t quite understand why they should be grieved isn’t just a virtuoso feat of sustained genre-bending; it’s also the most convincingly strange novel of the year in any genre.
6 The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (Penguin Random House) – Boyne’s panoramic narrative of one gay man’s life in the second half of the 20th century (here seen in its UK cover, which is fractionally less boring and insipid than the US version) manages the tricky feat of giving readers an Everyman focal character who’s also an individual – and then surrounds him with an endlessly fascinating supporting cast.
5 Motherland by Paul Theroux (HMH) – This big, hugely detailed novel from Theroux surprised me at almost every turn. Its plot – a wizened and virtually immortal Cape Cod matriarch tyrannizes her large brood of adult children – doesn’t seem like this author’s fare, and the biting comedy here is darker and more relentless than anything Theroux has ever written. And like so many of the books on this list, the novel is full of vividly memorable characters.
4 Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller (Liveright) – Miller’s book is the only short story collection on this list this time around, and its stories concentrate almost exclusively on squalid people poorly living useless lives – a trash-fest of exactly the type that usually infuriates me. But Miller crafts every page with such wonderful, evocative care that I was completely invested from start to finish.
3 This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (Flatiron Books) – This novel, about a “normal” family whose little boy secretly (and then not so secretly) wants to be a little girl, raised all kinds of warning-flags for me before I’d read a page; I instantly worried that it would be a strident exercise in woke virtue-signaling only slightly masquerading as a novel. But again I was pleasantly surprised: Frankel brings her characters to life with such convincing earnestness that I was completely caught up in the story.
2 Night of Fire by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins) – A house catches fire, and this stunning novel tells the stories of the six people who live there – and tells those stories with the surreal and steadily-mounting urgency of a housefire, where old certainties and comforts are hungrily consumed and sanctuary is impossible. Thubron hasn’t written a novel in a long time, and this brilliant book seems steeped in every minute of that time.
1 The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Knopf) – Once again, this time in the best novel of 2017, Roy takes a core group of characters (connected, as always in her fiction, by equal measures of hopeless love and despairingly angry nationalism) and somehow manages through them to tell a dozen sprawling stories about India and its connection to the larger world. The result is an almost opulently magnificent sprawl of a novel.
December 20th, 2017
Worst Books of 2017 – Nonfiction!
It’s always tricky, in any given year, to guess the trends of deplorable nonfiction. Back in January, for instance, I assumed that American publishers would kick into overdrive and flood the market with insta-Trump books, but there was only a trickle: that particular tsunami is obviously coming next year (something to look forward to for the 2018 Stevereads list! Yay!). In the meantime, 2017’s basket of nonfiction deplorables was a varied lot, ranging from incompetent history to navel-gazing faux-memoir to science-denying crackpot religionism. So, in no special categorical grouping, here are the worst nonfiction works of the year:
10 Ripper by Patricia Cornwell (Thomas & Mercer) – Our Worst Nonfiction list this year starts off with an author eagerly taking her second shot at appearing here. Patricia Cornwell, not content with earning the richly-deserved ridicule of historians around the world fifteen years ago when she first published her “definitive” solution to the identity of Jack the Ripper, here adds hundreds of equally-ridiculous pages to her original and tries it all again. With identical results.
9 Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi (OneWorld Press) – It’s never a good sign when somebody compares Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse with Weimar Germany, but that’s one of the many threads running through this infuriating book by the normally-not-infuriating Conradi: that the most important element of the development of today’s dangerous, tyrannical Russia is the venal megalomania of one man but rather the callous, clueless misunderstanding of poor wayward Russia by the West. Virtually every argument and even every digression in the book is equally addled.
8 George Washington: The Wonder of the Age by George Rhodehamel (Yale University Press)
George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin Hayes (Oxford University Press)
Washington’s Farewell by John Avlon (Simon & Schuster)
The Strategy of Victory: How George Washington Won the American Revolution by Thomas Fleming (Da Capo Press) – As the multiple listings hint, 2017 – like every other year, alas – saw a bumper-crop of George Washington hagiographies, and since hagiography is by its very nature a desperate literary form, it’s also necessarily an inventive one … new grounds for superlatives must be constantly scouted out, newer and even more hysterical claims must be made about the saint in question. Rhodehamel’s book is a simple soup-to-nuts saint’s life, but the other three worst offenders this time around try a little specializing. Avlon gives us a Washington so wise in the ways of the world that the prescience of a quick address he wrote in 25 minutes stretches for centuries; Fleming becomes the 356th author to claim for Washington the wide array of tactical and strategic genius he obviously, manifestly didn’t possess; and, most hilariously of all, Hayes tries to present Washington the bookworm, Washington the indefatigable reader, Washington always with his nose in a book, Washington browsing the Philadelphia book-stalls whenever he got a bit of spare time. In short, a Washington who, far from being a hoof-mouthed and nearly-illiterate Tidewater dolt, was a voracious man of literature. It would be nice to think even the Washington hagiography-industry couldn’t get any more absurd, but 2018 lies in wait for the unwary.
7 How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell (Simon & Schuster) – This memoir by former Lucky beauty editor Marnell starts off very nearly eliciting sympathy for the prep-school misfit and budding drug addict she describes herself as having been. But as the story advances into tales of drug-binging, forum-grandstanding, and doctor-manipulating, the sympathy fades. And then the author’s grating, passive-aggressive narrative blathering crushes that fading sympathy into the dirt.
6 Man’s Selection: Charles Darwin’s Theory of Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design by Marc Watson (Afflatus Press) – One of the most familiar lies of fundamentalist religion in the last century is the claim that Charles Darwin was himself a science-denying fundamentalist Christian, and Watson’s noxious collection of cherry-picked quasi-scientific Chicken McNuggets is the latest example, trotting out all the standard agenda items: that Darwin was propounding special-creation theology, that atheism is a religion, that science is a giant conspiracy, etc. – all of which is both predictable and infuriating.
5 In the Swarm by Byung-Chul Han (the MIT Press) – The only virtue of this preening, anile gaseous
anomaly about Internet-something-something and digital-something-something is its brevity: its Chicken-Little warnings and whinging complaints about the greatest technological innovation in human history already feel dated; its insights into the perils of Internet-driven group-think range from boot-in-the-face obvious to free-wheelingly unhinged, and the whole thing (again, mercifully, only just as long as the author’s poor widdle attention span could sustain itself) comes across as the Whatever-Shall-We-Do ramblings of a generously caffeinated college freshman. The year saw many fairly good books on roughly this same subject (minus, for the most part, the ridiculous straining for profundity), and the subject deserves many more such books. Little squibs like this it can do without.
4 Introduction to Islam by Tariq Ramadan (Oxford University Press) – The sheer number of books from major presses in 2017 whose sole intent was to paint a friendly picture of Islam to the Western world was almost high as the number of innocents who died in 2017 at the hands of Muslim terrorists. There were books trying to explain the Muslim world; there were books trying to explore the political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood; there was even a book celebrating the fashions of the various items of clothing Muslim women must wear on pain of disfigurement or death. But this slim volume by professional Islamic apologist Ramadan is both a representative example and the worst of the bunch, justly celebrating the glories and subtleties of Islam while the whole time down-playing or ignoring outright the serious problems large segments of the Islamic world have with, shall we say, adjusting themselves to the non-theocratic rest of the planet. The result is this mealy-mouthed introduction to roughly 45% of Islam.
3 Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self by Manoush Zomorodi (St. Martin’s) – Spoiler: it doesn’t.
2 Why Bob Dylan Matters by Richard Thomas (HarperCollins) – Spoiler: he doesn’t.
1. Surviving Death by Leslie Kean (Crown) – Spoiler: nobody does.
December 19th, 2017
Worst Books of 2017 – Fiction!
2017 was in fact an excellent year for so-called literary fiction – so excellent, in fact, that its rising tide floated all (well, most) boats: I noticed that even the year’s second- and third-rate stuff almost always had a certain level of technical soundness that you don’t always find in any given year’s fiction. This may be a good sign, a harbinger of some mid-century Golden Moment of contemporary fiction. Or it could signal that now just about every patronizing poltroon in the Western world now has access to an MFA program that’ll sand down some of their more egregious blunders in exchange for $35,000 a year. Time will tell, but meanwhile, here are the year’s worst offenders:
10 Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson (Ecco) – Wilson’s follow-up to his very likable The Family Fang had all of that book’s weaknesses and none of its strengths. It’s the story of a nebbishy child psychologist (and painfully obvious author stand-in) and a wacky caricature-girl who stumble into love in the midst of a bizarre experiment in communal child-rearing, and as will be the case over and over on the list this time around, it’s technically competent and dull as a bag of dirt.
9 Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press) – The opening question of the book – what would happen if the orderly, buttoned-up world of the Richardson family were disrupted by newcomers – raises all kinds of worrisome expectations about programmatic plotting and cardboard characters, and Ng meets and then exceeds all of those expectations. Again like many books on the list this time around, I finished it wondering why I’d bothered to read it at all – never a good sign.
8 Exit West by Moshin Hamid (Riverhead Books) – Quite possibly the most mysterious thing about the entire 2017 book-world was the torrent of praised heaped on this flyblown piece of incompetent headline-vamping. Star-crossed lovers – a bombed-out city – magical doorways that side-step travel-bans and lead away – how any reader with two brain cells to rub together couldn’t end up feeling both angry and soiled by such explicit pandering (and wretched prose) is beyond me, and yet book critics lined up to praise it.
7 The Weight of This World by David Joy (Putnam) – The year’s most egregious piece of hick-lit features a traumatized Afghanistan-vet, a trailer park full of rat-crazy white trash, and of course a seedy meth dealer, all hauled out in their bib overalls and pidgin-Appalachian in order to give the author holler-cred when he clomps his muddy boots onto the stage at the 92nd Street Y. The sooner this particular sub-strata of fiction peters out, the better.
6 The Power by Naomi Alderman (Little, Brown) – This highbrow rewrite of the ending of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” asks the hypothetical question: what would the world be like if women suddenly had a physical advantage over men? … and then proceeds to answer that question in ways so predictable and hum-drum that I finished the book wondering what we pay our novelists for, if the end results aren’t any better than what we could get by assigning novel-writing homework in high school.
5 4321 by Paul Auster (Henry Holt) – The gimmick of composing a novel of successive alternate rough drafts of a character’s life was old when Auster got around to it, but he brings to these thematic retellings of the stories of his cast two elements that are relatively new to the formula: bloated prolixity and a lifeless prose-line. The result is surely the bad bargain of the year: four boring books for the price of one.
4 Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins) – I’ve complained many times – since the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, in fact – about parvenus carpetbagging into science fiction because they think it’s an easy way to make flat-footed sociological observations but who never bother to attempt let alone master the hallmark of science fiction, which is world-building. That annoying condescension is on full display in this latest from Erdrich, in which evolution seems to be “reversing” itself (*sigh*). Since the book does no world-building, its entire intellectual framework is ridiculous, and its stagey plot and shopworn characters don’t exactly compensate.
3 Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw (MCD) – In the wake of a debut as epically, comically awful as Faw’s Young God, my instinct is always to be extra-indulgent of the next thing to appear, like being extra-solicitous to a cow-worker who drunkenly embarrassed herself at the company Christmas party the night before. But this second book burns through any such pity-consideration in the first few sentences and then just keeps grating along, haphazardly stabbing at the half-baked story of the main character’s return to a life of shopping, drugs, and pricey prostitution. After reading Young God, I assumed this author had no literary talent and thus at least could get no worse, but this new book combines that lack of talent with a coarse, slam-poetry arrogance that both makes for unbearable reading and guarantees a long and prosperous career.
2 Who Is Rich? By Matthew Klam (Random House) – It didn’t take me long when first reading Klam’s new novel about a schlubby illustrator teaching at a swanky arts retreat before I realized, with neck-chilling horror, that I was reading a campus novel, that rightfully-dreaded bagatelle-form best suited for capturing an author’s laziness while excising his craft. Wacky personalities, fumbling attempts at comedic dialogue, and a paint-by-numbers ending dutifully ensue.
1 The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) & Moonstone by Sjon (ditto) – The spot for Stevereads Worst Novel of the Year isn’t exactly coveted but it’s at least usually solitary. Not so for 2017, where the two worst books (both translations, a dark day for international amity) are not only equally bad but equally worse than anything else to appear this year. Both are thin, both are relentlessly lightweight, both are filled with pretentious self-loathing (lightly disguised in Sjon’s case, right out there in the open in Louis’s case), both are told from the perspective of edgy crybabies, and both are completely lacking in plot, character, or dramatic insight. Taken together, they set back even nominally gay literature by a good two or three decades. With friends like these …
December 16th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Biography!
I noticed three rough minor trends in American biographies in 2017, and all three were predictable in their own ways, and all three are represented on this year-end list. The first two trends were entirely understandable, since 2017 was the anniversary of both the Russian Revolutions and the kick-off of the Protestant Reformation. The third trend was perhaps more subtle and certainly more heartbreaking: a raft of biographies of US presidents, aimed at a reading public in large part thirsty for any President but the one they currently have. It was also of course a year for big biographies, but there’s nothing wrong with that! Long or short, trendy or not, here are the best of the whole bunch:
10 Rising Star by David Garrow (Morrow) – We start not only with a doorstop but with quite possibly the most painful doorstop the year had to offer: this enormous, tough-but-sympathetic book about the pre-White House life of Barack Obama. David Garrow makes those years enthralling reading in their own right, and they made me hope to see someday an equally-good (and equally long!) volume about the Obama White House years.
9 Grant by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press) & Richard Nixon by John Farrell (Doubleday) – There was also a place in the year’s publishing, of course, for bad US Presidents. Ron Chernow’s latest doorstop of a book is about one such bad President, Ulysses Grant, and Chernow searches through the man’s life and times with an infectious vigor that, for me, entirely compensated for the non-stop hagiographies of his Washington biography. And John Farrell’s densely-researched new life of the (current) title-holder for Worst President, Richard Nixon, is likewise both tough and involving, a high-water mark in the study of its loathsome subject.
8 President McKinley by Robert Merry (Simon & Schuster) – One of the biggest and most pleasing surprises of the biography year was this terrific, deeply intelligent re-assessment of the nation’s 25th president, a smart, forbidding, oddly shy politician whose tenure was cut short by an assassin. This book had an incredibly tough act to follow: Margaret Leech’s 1960 In the Days of McKinley is a masterpiece of presidential biography, and incredibly, Robert Merry’s book holds its own in the comparison. It restores McKinley to as much prominences as he’s ever going to have.
7 Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper (Random House) – I read a dozen books on Luther and his theology in 2017, and a dozen further books on the Protestant Reformation, and Lyndal Roper’s big biography of the man stands out from all that, once again (as in the case of Merry’s McKinley) approaching level of its great predecessor, Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. Roper does an excellent job of following the complex evolution of Luther’s thinking, and she’s equally good at fleshing out the man behind the flame-throwing theological pronouncements.
6 Charlton Heston by Marc Eliot (Dey Street Books) – The year’s biggest curve-ball for me was this big, totally engrossing biography by Marc Eliot of the iconic Hollywood actor Charlton Heston. Eliot ferrets out every little-known anecdote, every friend and enemy still alive to tell tales, every tiny detail from Heston’s life and career, and he matches all of that invaluable research with an invariably insightful bigger-picture observations about the cinematic world Heston did so much to shape.
5 Becoming Leonardo by Mike Lankford (Melville House) – The year had a bounty of biographies on Leonardo Da Vinci – young Leonardo, political Leonardo, literary Leonardo, Leonardo-in-the-round, etc. And some of those books were good, but only one was brilliant, this beautifully-written book on the phenomenon of Leonardo by Mike Lankford. The unconventional tone and pacing Lankford chooses to use knock away almost all of the intense predictability of Leonardo biographies and leave a catalogue of very immediate-feeling wonders. This is the best Leonardo biography in decades.
4 William the Conqueror by David Bates (Yale University Press) – Here’s another example of something we’ve seen often on this list this year: an excellent new biography of somebody who’s not in any way lacked for biographies. Bates’ book, an entry in the Yale English Monarchs series, uses a clear, sweeping prose-line to bring together more wide-ranging research on William’s life and contentious times than anybody else has done, proving that even the most frequently-told life can still be fascinating in the right hands.
3 Rumi’s Secret by Brad Gooch (Harper Collins) – This wonderfully eloquent literary biography of the oft-quoted 13th century Sufi poet read like nothing else I encountered in 2017. Gooch is a practiced biographer and an excellent storyteller, and his book is clearly a bit impatient with the feel-good reductions and simplifications that have attended this figure for centuries. The result is an intensely intriguing combination of appreciation and record-straightening.
2 Lenin by Victor Sebestyen (Pantheon) – The 2017 anniversary of the Russian Revolutions brought forth a bookcase full of biographies, and this hefty study by Victor Sebestyan was the best of them all, using crystal-sharp prose and a vast amount of research to craft a portrait of Lenin that keeps its focus on what a monster he was while at the same time providing refreshing nuance into his life and beliefs. His Lenin ends up being grubbily charismatic at the same time that he’s repellant – no mean feat of writing.
1 Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison (Knopf) – This, the best biography of 2017, likewise tracks over very familiar ground and makes it all seem thrillingly new. Redfield maintains a strong concentration throughout on the ravages of Lowell’s chronic moods of crippling depression, and she connects it with stunning skill to his art in ways that made the whole book feel like one long revelation. Redfield’s sensitivity to human nature fills this biography with compelling portraits of the people in Lowell’s life – and of Lowell himself, here feeling thoroughly realized.
December 15th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – History!
The year 2017 was of course the anniversary of two enormous historical events: Martin Luther’s sparking of what would become the Protestant Revolution and the Russian revolutions of 1917 – and a bumper-crop of books dutifully appeared on both subjects, and quite a few of those books were excellent – certainly excellent enough to appear on this list, even though that inevitably leads to some clumping-up of subject matter. Considering how good these books are, I’m opting to consider it an embarrassment of riches:
10 Istanbul by Bettany Hughes (Da Capo) – The three ages of this remarkable place, Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul, provide an enormous amount of material for exploration and connection, and Bettany Hughes weaves it all into a story of exotic beauty and very human contradiction. The “ages of Istanbul” as a framework is centuries old, but there aren’t many living historians who can write like Hughes can.
9 The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis (Liveright) – Loyal reader that I am, I wouldn’t have thought it possible that George Stewart’s 1936 classic history of the Donner Party, Ordeal by Hunger, could ever be equalled, but in this fantastic book, Michael Wallis not only equals it but handily surpasses it, and he does so by placing the doomed Donners and their company in the much larger setting of their dreaming, grabby time.
8 Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock (Crown) & A Sovereign People by Carole Berkin (Basic Books) – 2017 produced quite a few first-rate Colonial-era histories, but these two stood out even from that crowded field. Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence tells the familiar story of the violent rift during the American Revolution between the minority who fervently wanted independence and the majority who didn’t, and Carole Berkin’s A Sovereign People tells the far less-known story of the 1790s, when the new country’s civilian leaders faced the weird task of forging a nation. Both books tell their stories with tremendous vigor without pandering to their obvious modern-day relevances.
7 Red Famine by Anne Appelbaum (Doubleday) – The great historian Anne Applebaum here chronicles the disastrous effects of Stalin’s farm ‘collectivization’ on Ukraine, where millions of people died of starvation as a result of one psychopath’s ideological monomania. The writing is magisterially precise but also thrillingly baffled and angry; the subject has never had a better account in English.
6 Protestants by Alec Ryrie (Viking) The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald (Simon & Schuster) Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall (Yale University Press) – The aforementioned anniversary of the fateful year 1517 coincided with the appearance of a great deal of new books on all aspects of religion, across the whole spectrum of history, as these three outstanding titles demonstrate: Peter Marshall’s thick tome gives readers the heart of the Protestant Reformation in England; Alec Ryrie gives an insightful and surprisingly boisterous overview of centuries of Protestantism; and most impressively of the three, Frances FitzGerald dissects with totally convincing dispassion the fissions, fusions, and frustrations of the Protestant faiths in American history – and all three do such a subtle and wonderful job that a subject that ought to be depressing ends up being engrossing.
5 Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport (St. Martin’s) – The eruption in Russian society that began in February of 1917 caught most of the sprawling country’s people by surprise, and Helen Rappaport captures this perfectly by focusing on a small cast of characters in sophisticated, jaded St. Petersburg and traveling with them through the tumultuous months that followed, and the combination of anecdote and research is stunningly effective.
4 Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat (Yale University Press) – The sheer confident wisdom with which Abbas Amanat navigates his enormous subject, centuries of Iranian history richly embedded in its broader world context, is incredibly impressive. He’s a steeply thoughtful historian with a fiercely complicated story to tell, and so it’s a book that won’t appeal to everybody, even to every history buff. But it’s a tremendous journey and a monument to English-language studies of its subject.
3 The House of Truth by Brad Snyder (Oxford University Press) – The informal gaggle of intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, charlatans, journalists, and jurists who began meeting regularly in a Washington row house in 1912 were mainly motivated by a desire to complain about President Taft, but as Brad Snyder’s enchanting account illustrates, the group and the discussions quickly broadened to become the capital’s first unofficial think-tank and amateur debating society. All the era’s larger-than-life personalities are here painted in joyfully lifelike detail.
2 The Allure of Battle by Cathal Nolan (Oxford University Press) – That biggest and baggiest of subjects for a grand historical overview – the history of warfare – has been tempting academics to excel each other in windbaggy pontifications for centuries, and the spirit of that temptation is treated with justly understated scorn in this brilliant study by Cathal Nolan, a study that looks at all the grotesque highlights of humanity’s warring upon itself, concludes quickly that all war is appalling waste and mud, and then proceeds to study the very allure it’s discounting. It’s an amazing work of scholarly compression.
1 The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine (Princeton University Press) – Even when I was half-way through this immense study of one sprawling apartment complex in the heart of Soviet Moscow, I had the strong suspicion it would end up on my list of the year’s best works of history, and as I finished it and re-read it, I became more and more impressed with the Tolstoy-like way Slezkine weaves together hundreds of personal narratives into a thrilling and incredibly heartbreaking portrait of an entire nation and era. Even in a strong year for history-writing, this was easily the year’s best.
December 14th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Nature & Science!
The sub-heading of science- and nature-writing positively filled my reading in 2017. I read a large amount of it across the whole of its spectrum, from data-heavy scientific monographs to emoji-heavy breathless popular guides, and now I encounter the same encouraging frustration I’ve encountered in making many of this year’s lists: difficulty narrowing down the list of excellent books to only ten (or in this case eleven) books. Here are the year’s winners, with the “nature” part admittedly outweighing the “science” part this time around:
10 Spineless by Juli Berwald (Riverhead) – Juli Berwald’s utterly winning combination of personal memoir and natural history of jellyfish balances both aspects perfectly, although the heaps of fascinating information about just exactly what jellyfish are and how they got that way can’t help but be more interesting on the whole. The book has been compared, a touch too often and a touch too readily, to Helen MacDonald’s splendid H is for Hawk, and it certainly shares with that book both enormous readability and a faculty for eliciting wonder.
9 The Outer Beach Robert Finch (WW Norton) – In this terrific book, Finch tours the whole of Cape Cod’s curving outer arm, walking the beaches and probing the towns and salt marshes that line the long curving Atlantic short of the Cape. It’s a strong, pure example of a venerable kind of highly specific nature-writing, the seasons-in-a-bottle loving tribute to a tiny slant of land only a small fraction of the people on Earth have ever heard of, much less visited, but it’s the best example in years.
8 The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum (Doubleday) – This fantastic book turns its full attention to the soft underbelly of evolution by natural selection: that in addition to living organisms choosing mates on the strength of advantageous physical adaptations to their environment – an idea nerdy lab-scientists have always embraced with enthusiasm – living organisms also tend to choose their mates based on how those mates look. Indeed, as many irritated fathers-in-law can attest, sometimes they only choose looks. Darwin knew this, and Richard Prum’s book exhaustively – and also playfully – hauls the whole squishy subject back into modern scientific consideration.
7 Wolf Nation by Brenda Peterson (Da Capo) & American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (Crown) – I found it impossible to separate these two superb books on the American wolf, and I also found it impossible to rank one above the other – hence this double-listing. Both books are great examples of popular natural history, recounting the evolution, biology, social structure, and conservation saga of wolves in America. Peterson’s book has a very inviting breadth, and Blakeslee’s book reads like gripping novel about the wolves of Yellowstone. They’re each great, and the complement each other perfectly.
6 American Eclipse by David Baron (Liveright) – The subject of eclipses came to the forefront of the American awareness in August of this year when a total solar eclipse crossed the country (scientists repeatedly warned people not to look directly at the event with their naked eyes; the President of the United States promptly looked directly at the even with his naked eyes). Baron’s energetically readable book chronicles another such incident of eclipse-mania, the one consuming America in 1878, and the book does such a detailed and fast-paced job of it that even readers who never try popular science will be eagerly turning the pages to find out what happens next.
5 Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt (Algonquin Books) – Bill Schutt seems well aware – as indeed, how could he of all people not be? – of the inherent ickiness of his chosen subject, and that makes the straightforward nerdy enthusiasm and thoroughly infectious humor of his approach all the more winning. He begins with the obvious point – gross, but obvious – that the defenseless, abundant newborn of almost any species present an unlimited buffet for older members of that species … and he goes from there. Cannibalism, it turns out, is very nearly as ubiquitous in the animal world as copulation – and it here has an incredibly engaging testament.
4 The Gulf by Jack Davis (Liveright) – This sprawling natural history of the Gulf of Mexico is slow to work its wonders and ends up being all the more impressive for its comprehensive sweep. Jack Davis relates for the reader the long history of human interaction with the Gulf, the complex interaction of cultures and their often very different views of the place, and the tangled state of Gulf environmentalism in the modern era, and he writes all of it with a clear, graceful prose line that encourages readers to share his love of this vast area they probably haven’t pondered much.
3 The Quarry Fox by Leslie Sharp (Overlook Press) – This, too, is a venerable sub-genre of nature-writing: pick a relatively confined area (unlike, say, the Gulf of Mexico) and creep over it lovingly in every inch and nook and dell. Like John Burroughs before her, Leslie Sharp takes the Catskills as her focus, writing with exquisite prose about the wildlife, the weather, the topography, and the history of the place, and the exercise is so successful that it does what the best of such books always do: it suggests its own universality.
2 Quakeland by Kathryn Miles (Dutton) – Earthquakes are like supervolcanos: once you start thinking about them, it’s hard to stop. And once you read this smart, eloquent popular science book by Kathryn Miles, you’ll find yourself thinking about earthquakes a lot. The good news is that your thinking will be much better-informed than it likely was before you read the book: Miles compresses a huge amount of scientific information about the nature and physics of earthquakes into smoothly accessible prose. And the bad news is: unless you’re reading this from an orbiting space station (surely the Stevereads remit extends even so far?), you’re not safe from a major earthquake and you never will be.
1 Photo Ark by Joel Sartore (National Geographic) – The best science/nature book of 2017 is also the simplest: through an amazing combination of patience, professional handling, and black backdrops, photographer Joel Sartore managed to get gorgeous, high-definition intimate photos of dozens of animals – guarded and unguarded, nervous and relaxed, and each one of them stunningly, disarmingly personal. Paging through this book brings the reader face-to-face with some of their most remarkable fellow Earthlings in ways that not even the most detailed documentary can do. It’s a flat-out astonishing performance.
December 13th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Historical Fiction!
Before my list departs from genre fiction for a few days, I had to call out the gems in my beloved world of historical fiction, where I found so much fantastic reading in 2017. My one disappointment in this regard just this year is the absence of self-published works on the final list – I read plenty of them, but unlike in previous years, none made the final cut. I can always hope for next year, and in the meantime, just listing these ten books has been wonderfully reminding me of their excellence – I look forward to encountering them all again in their paperback releases:
10 Days without End by Sebastian Barry (Viking) – Barry’s novel about two young men in Civil War-era America struck me first for how visceral it is, but time and re-reading have made me pay more attention to the raw poetry of the book’s prose. This is a generously violent story that still manages to be most memorably about love, and it’s stayed in my mind more stubbornly than all but a handful of novels I read this year.
9 Cave Dwellers by Richard Grant (Knopf) – Grant’s tense novel unfolds in the brief gray era during which the Nazis are in power but the Second World War hasn’t yet started, and its central plot focuses on a complex plot to divert Germany from the path of disaster. Grant assembles a small group of unlikely allies in this cause, and the story he writes fleshes them out adroitly.
8 The Midnight Cool by Lydia Peelle (Harper) – There are times when Lydia Peelle’s novel about an older Irish immigrant and a younger charismatic grifter in First World War-era Tennessee reminded me of Days without End; the plot follows these two men as they wheel and deal in the shady mule-trade then supplying the war – and as they encounter a magnificent horse named The Midnight Cool, but it’s the clipped, distinctive prose that lingered longest in my mind.
7 The Drowning King by Emily Holleman (Little, Brown) – Holleman continues her oddly beguiling fictional sequence about Cleopatra and her siblings as they navigate the dangerous intrigues between their kingdom of Egypt and the looming power of Rome, and once again it’s the sharply-wrought personal dynamic between Cleopatra, Ptolemy, and particularly Arsinoe that commands the narrative.
6 The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsukyer (HarperCollins) – Hartsukyer’s story, about a valorous young Viking warrior who’s betrayed, nearly killed, and who then attaches himself to a charismatic leader as a means to gain revenge, is full of perfectly-done action sequences and plenty of dialogue that pays homage to the worldly-wise talk running through the Icelandic sagas, and the fleshed-out personalities populate the book give it a wonderful immediacy. I’m really hoping all the subsequent books in this series are equally good.
5 The Principle by Jerome Ferrari, translated by Howard Curtis (Europa Editions) – In this quietly stunning novel, a young philosopher sinks deeper and deeper into an imagined conversation with Werner Heisenberg, the German scientist whose elegant theoretical work seems to stand at odds with his decision to stay in Germany and aid Hitler and the Nazis. In spare and often beautiful prose, the book hacks and chips at this dialectic – it’s a hypnotic performance.
4 The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory (Touchstone) – Gregory’s powerful, uncompromising novel (adding a sad second meaning to the book’s title, the author claims it’s the last time she’ll write about the Tudors) follows the three Grey sisters, Jane, Katherine, and Mary, to their drastically different fates in the whirlwind of power and treachery that was the world of the Tudor Court. Jane is the famous sister, of course, but the novel’s concluding segment, centering on tough, cynical, optimistic Mary, that really stands out.
3 Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen (Atria) – Starting with Darktown and continuing with Lightning Men, Mullen is writing an important and searing portrait of crime and race in postwar Atlanta, but he’s also very skillfully crafting what feels like the next generation of crime fiction. The plot of this latest novel pits embattled heroes against the outward evil and backstage maneuverings of the Klan and invests the whole world of its action with cinematic vividness and a moral complexity worthy of Chester Himes.
2 The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – The split focus of the narrative here – both 17th-century London and the present day – is a familiar, maybe overly-familiar, device of historical fiction, but Kadish performs it wonderfully as she tells the parallel stories of a young woman in the 1660s writing letters for a blind rabbi and an older historian in modern times, studying the letters and increasingly understanding their remarkable amanuensis. It’s a rich, detailed long novel, totally absorbing.
1 The Revolution of the Moon by Andrea Camilleri (Europa Editions) – The author of the delightful Inspector Montalbano murder mysteries changes tone and register completely in this, the year’s best work of historical fiction. The story revolves around Doña Eleonora, who effectively ruled Sicily for about a month in 1677 and during that time tried to set in motion a whole slate of humanistic improvements in the workings of Palermo and the lives of its citizens. Camillieri whittles his obviously extensive research down to its bare muscles and tendons, and he draws his characters sometimes with no more than a single brush-stroke, and yet the novel is more effective than similar works four times its length. An intensely re-readable gem of a book.
December 12th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Romance!
I freely admit it: I lean on the Romance genre more than I do other types of books. I use them as reading mood-changers and table-clearers; I retreat into them when I want to spend an hour with an author who’s a consummate professional intent only on telling me a fun story with a happy ending … and I do that retreating proportionally more when I’ve got more real-world stuff to retreat from – which was so often the case in 2017 that I almost started to take it for granted. As a result, I think I read even more romance novels than usual, and these were the best of them:
10 Accidentally on Purpose by Jill Shalvis (Avon) – In Jill Shalvis’ latest “Heartbreaker Bay” novel, he-man security-guy Archer Hunt feigns indifference to his long-time flame Elle Wheaton as she dates her way through half the semi-eligible semi-losers in the Bay area, but he’s secretly sabotaging her attempts to forget him – and the sheer absurdity of every detail of such a plot should torpedo the whole enterprise. But Shalvis is the queen of champagne-light contemporary romance, and Accidentally on Purpose is a veritable vacation into absurdity.
9 Last Night with the Duke by Amelia Grey (St. Martin’s) – The latest in Amelia Grey’s wonderful “Rakes of St. James” series slightly skews the standard pattern of the series: in this outing, the Duke of Griffin isn’t reveling in his scandalous position in London society but rather trying to live it down so that his reputation doesn’t attach to his innocent twin sisters. But then he encounters Esmeralda Swift, the women he hires to be the chaperone of his sisters, and Grey gets to indulge in her talent for flying sparks.
8 Rescue Me by Susan May Warren (Revell) – In this second book in Susan May Warren’s “Montana Rescue” series, the stalwart Deputy Sam Brooks is stubbornly certain that he’s in love with Sierra Rose, and most certainly not her dreamy, impulsive sister Willow. Warren’s readers know otherwise from virtually the first page, and the pure fun of the book comes from Warren playing with their good-natured frustration like a yo-yo until the book’s fantastic climax-scene.
7 It’s Hard Out Here for a Duke by Maya Rodale (Avon) – The basic premise of Maya Rodale’s latest book – a fish-out-of-water newly-anointed duke (in this case raised in, hold onto your pearls, America!) finding love when he assumes his ancestral estates – cropped up half a dozen times in 2017, but as usual, Rodale writes it to sparkling perfection, generating a plot from a smooth combination of random chance and slotted fortune. And also as usual in a Rodale romance, a much older supporting character steals every scene she’s in.
6 Face the Flames by Jo Davis (Berkley) – You know for certain that you’re in a romance novel when the hero is named Clay Montana, but the Clay Montana doing the he-man duties in Jo Davis’ “Sugarland Blue” novel is more textured than he needs to be (a Jo Davis speciality): he’s recovering from an auto industry when he witnesses a robbery, and the connection he makes with police detective Melissa Ryan has all the fireworks required in a romance novel but also plenty of human connections.
5 The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Guhrke (Avon) – The latest revelations in “Dear Lady Truelove,” the truth-telling scandal-column at the heart of Laure Lee Guhrke’s novel, has finally pushed the Duke of Torquil over the edge – he’s determined to uncover the mystery author’s identity, and all card-carrying romance readers will be able to guess what happens next. But Guhrke orchestrates it with such skill that the book, like so many other titles on this list, forms a perfectly blissful escape from the cares of the world.
4 The Final Score by Jaci Burton (Berkley) – In Burton’s 13th “Play-by-Play” sports romance, everything is set up for a standard romance: the city’s football star and the operator of a sports management firm come together after years of separation, and you might just expect the rest to follow suit. But no: Nathan Riley and Mia Cassidy are far more concerned with not ruining their friendship than they are with hopping into bed – indeed, they’re worried that hopping into bed will be the thing that does the damage. Their interplay is so wonderfully done that – horrors! – you almost don’t care whether the bed-hopping eventually happens or not.
3 Some Kind of Hero by Suzanne Brockmann (Random House) – Again, the premise here – a tough-as-nails Navy SEAL instructor becomes the awkward guardian of fifteen-year-old girl and is suddenly feeling vulnerable when she disappears – could practically write itself in the hands of a less talented romance author. But Suzanne Brockmann takes the narrative in unexpected directions, starting with making a romance author the Navy SEAL’s concerned neighbor. The meta-element is likewise somewhat predictable, but again, here it’s handled with a complete conviction that carries the day.
2 Wrecked by Cynthia Eden (Avon) – It’s surprising to me, looking back at my Romance reading in 2017, how many of my favorites were contemporary romances; given the national and international news at my fingertips every day of 2017, I’d have expected that I’d want to retreat entirely into my beloved Regency romances (even the sexually supercharged modern variation on the theme). But no: plenty of contemporary romances pulled me in this year, and this one, the sixth in Cynthia Eden’s “LOST” series, was a prime example. Sexy LOST agent Ana Young and sexy FBI agent Cash Knox (again, only in a romance novel…) verbally spar with each other while increasingly desiring each other, and as programmatic as all that sounds, I loved the result.
1 Lady Be Bad by Megan Frampton (Avon) – Lady Eleanor, the main character in this, the best Romance of the year, is determined on a top-shelf loveless marriage in order to restore her family’s good name, but when she meets her intended husband’s happy-go-lucky brother, the careful plan goes awry, and the whole of the plot, with all if its twists and turns, is handled beautifully and with enormous energy by Megan Frampton, particularly in the parrying of personalities that shines throughout the book.