I read for several reasons. Entertainment is the primary reason, not is more satisfying than a good book. I also read to expand my knowledge of the world, to learn about people and places that I haven’t or can’t visit. And, as a developing short story writer, I read to see how other writers “do it”. How they construct their stories, how they use language, how they deal with themes.
Over the past year, I’ve read a lot of short story collections, a bunch of novels, and a couple of non-fiction books. I’ve purposely searched out new-to-me authors. And I’ve returned to several of my favorite authors, reading both new publications or rereading some of their classics.
Here are my favorite reads of 2017. This is my list, very specific to me, my likes and prejudices, and my goals in reading. I would be interested in hearing which books you liked this year, both new and old, as I’m always looking for new authors to read.
- “The O. Henry Prize Stories, 2017” by Laura Furman. This is a really strong collection of 20 of the “best short stories” published in the US in the previous year from a mix of emerging and established authors. Most anthologies of “best” short stories seem to have a handful of really strong stories, and then some not so strong. But I didn’t find a weak one in this bunch. An added bonus is the short essays by each of the judges about their favorite stories in the collection.
- “Slaughterhouse-Five”, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. One of my “oldest and dearest friends” that I visited this past year. I’ve always been a big fan of Vonnegut’s simple, straightforward writing style. I’ve tried to keep my writing simple and concise as well. But when I found my writing was getting more complicated and dense that I would, I decided it was time to reread Vonnegut’s masterpiece. It’s been years since I last read Slaughterhouse-Five, but I was happy to find that it has stood up well. The simple, concise, straightforward writing still propels the story and allows Vonnegut’s message to slip into your subconscious, almost without notice. And the story about the horrors of war, so timely when the book was written in the late 1960’s, still resonates today.
- “The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty” by Eudora Welty. Eudora Welty was a new friend that I made this year. Although she is widely regarded as one of the great writers of the American South, I haven’t read anything by her except in school. This collection, containing 41 of her stories, is a must for anyone interested in writing short fiction and anyone who loves a well crafted short story.
- “4 3 2 1: A Novel” by Paul Auster. Another new friend. This was the first book that I’ve read by Auster. The novel is built as four parallel threads that explore how the life of Archibald Ferguson could change given slight different circumstances or happenings. Auster deals with the age-old question of Nature-or-Nurture, breeding-or-upbringing. Each thread starts with the same boy with the same parents. But then, life happens, a little differently in each thread and Ferguson’s life veers off into slightly different paths. Which leaves the question “is each Ferguson a different person, or the same person in different circumstances?”
- “Men Without Women: Stories” by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is another dear friend, one of my favorite contemporary authors. I first ran into Murakami when my son gifted me with “Kafka on the Shore” in 2005. And I have since read just about everything that Murakami has published in English. I was drawn to this new collection of stories, not only because it was more writing by Murakami, but for the theme of the book – grown men and and their relationships with women. Murakami, being Japanese and setting his stories in Japan, shows us that even if we speak different languages and have appear culturally different, the human condition is the same all around the world.
- “Why Poetry”, by Matthew Zapruder. I’ve become interested in poetry in the last couple of years. I’ve wanted to “like” poetry, but I’ve felt that I “just don’t understand” it, and modern poetry has left me especially baffled. Zapruder has written this book for people like me. It not only dispels many of the myths of poetry that we have picked up in school, but contains good insights into writing and the visual arts in general. After reading this book, I’ve become much more comfortable with poetry.
- “Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman. Another new friend. Being of Norwegian descent and interested in myths in general, this was a “must read” for me. And it didn’t disappoint. Gaiman has put together a fun to read collection of Norse myths that provides a good overview of the mythos that inspired the Vikings.
- “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” by Salman Rushdie. I’ve been interested in reading something by Rushdie since the days of “The Satanic Verses”. In this book, Rushdie builds on the story of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Arabian Nights. “Two Years . . . “ tells the tale of a war between the jinn and our earth and the conflict between rational thought and faith. The writing is a little dense, but so rich. I would have really liked to underline and bookmark multiple passages that just resonated with me. But, alas, I was reading the public library’s copy of the book. I guess I’ll just have to purchase my own copy and reread it.
- “Rabbit Redux” by John Updike (3rd read). A dear, old friend. Rabbit Angstrom is just a couple of years older than me. I’ve read all of the Rabbit books by Updike as they have been published, gaining insight into my life and struggles. My writing covers many of the same themes as Updike does in the Rabbit saga. I periodically return to the series to better understand my life and struggles, and to see how a real master handles the themes of men progressing through the various stages of adulthood.
- “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.)” by Francine Prose. It’s often said that if you want to write, you need to read more. But is just reading enough? Prose, author of 16 books of fiction, talks about how a writer can read with purpose. While you can learn something from well written books, almost by osmosis, you can learn some much more if you read to improve your writing. Prose talks about what types of things to look for in other’s writing. I learned a lot about writing just by looking at her examples and discussions of them.
Runners Up (in no particular order)
- “Huck Out West” by Robert Coover. I’ve read several previous novels by Coover, I loved his 1971 novel “The Universal Baseball Association”, and of course I’ve read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” several times. So, this was a natural to read. It’s an interesting spin on what became Mark Twain’s Huck and Tom Sawyer, with cameos by Becky Thatcher and even General Custer. It’s an interesting storyline and takes the characters places that Twain probably never envisioned, but seem quite appropriate in looking back.
- “The Accomplished Guest: Stories”, by Ann Beattie. A new collection of short stories from the respected American novelist and short story writer. I really enjoyed this collection and will have to read more of Beattie’s work in the coming year.
“Trajectory: Stories”, by Richard Russo. I’ve read pretty much everything Russo has published. His books “Empire Falls” and “Nobody’s Fool” are classics. In “Trajectory”, Russo strays from his usual theme of men in dying, blue-collar towns. It was nice to see Russo expand beyond his standard dying, industrial New England, and deal with themes that he has likely been encountering in his life after becoming a successful writer.