This may come as a surprise to my faithful blog readers (both of you), but last year was a down year on the book-reading front. I usually get in about 30 to 40 books a year, providing me with a good sample from which to choose my top ten. In 2017, I was only able to get through 22 books, or 1 every 17 days. Ugh. Ask me for my 50 favorite TV episodes of the year, and we’re solid.
(An acquaintance of mine gave me a list of four books I should read. He said, “These were my favorite books from last year.” I asked him why he didn’t round up to a top ten, or at least a top five; he said, “These were also the only four books I read last year.”)
Here are my suggestions for you:
1. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel. I first came across this unbelievable true story in an article Finkel had written for GQ magazine in 2014. (Read it here.) In 2013 in Maine, a 47-year-old man named Chris Knight was captured after having repeatedly broken into and stolen food and other items from a summer camp. Knight’s capture ended one of the more bizarre episodes in rural Maine history, since he was the “North Pond hermit,” a local legend who frustrated cabin owners by taking things from their unoccupied buildings for 27 years. Yes, 27 years. The book is a gripping account of the how’s and why’s that led Knight to abandon his life at age 20 and survive in the woods without being caught. Any preconceived notions you’d have about someone capable of this are probably wrong.
2. Today Will Be Different, Maria Semple. It’s hard for a comic novel to pack emotional depth, but Semple manages it with the story of one day in the life of Eleanor Flood, a Seattle mom struggling to deal with a sports-doctor husband who told his staff (but not his wife) that he would be out of town for the week, a quirky 10-year-old son and the private school he attends, and a past that includes creating a cult animated show about four pony-riding girls. There are too many good surprises in the story that I don’t want to ruin. Eleanor starts her day by saying to herself, “Today will be different. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.”
3. Where the Past Begins, Amy Tan. This is one of the more unusual memoirs I’ve read. Tan, whose work I’ve loved since reading The Joy Luck Club when it came out in 1989, lays bare her family history and explains in detail how her real life and those of her parents influenced the novels she plumbed from it. She also weaves fiction into the memoir, showing how she was influenced. I don’t know if I’ve read a more honest assessment of family; her mom’s struggles as a Chinese immigrant and a mentally ill person, and her father’s attempts to soothe her, hover over Tan’s writing and life.
4. Smile, Roddy Doyle. This slim novel is haunting. Victor Forde, a Irish man in his 50s, moves back to his old neighborhood in Dublin, seeking a pub where no one knows him. His marriage, to the most successful businesswoman in Ireland, fell apart, and he is trying to land on his feet. After establishing a friendship with the regulars at a pub, he bumps into a childhood classmate, Fitzgerald, there. There is something menacing about his interactions with Fitzgerald that sends his life into a tailspin. This is one of those books that you finish reading and think, “Wait a minute, did I just miss something?” and you have to reread certain sections to figure out what just happened. In a good way.
5. The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life, Rick Ankiel. On October 3, 2000, Game 1 of the baseball playoff series between the Cardinals and the Braves, the Cardinals were cruising in the third inning, when their pitcher, Rick Ankiel, threw a wild pitch. Then another one. Then another. It was embarrassing to watch; he couldn’t find the plate and had to be pulled after throwing 5 wild pitches (no pitcher had ever thrown that many wild pitches in a postseason, let alone the same inning). His career got derailed as he tried to solve “the yips,” the mysterious condition that can wreck the career of an athlete (usually a baseball player or a golfer). Ankiel spent the next 5 years seeking treatments, everything from meditation to psychotherapy to alcohol. Eventually, remarkably, he saved his career by converting to an outfielder. In this autobiography, Ankiel recounts his playing career and also his difficult relationship with his father, which may have played a role in his problems.
6. I Think I Love You, Allison Pearson. This chick-lit novel took a deeper turn a few months after I read it when the subject of the book, one-time teen heartthrob David Cassidy, passed away. In this story, Petra, a 13-year-old Welsh girl, and her best friend crush on Cassidy in the 1970s in the way that anyone who lived through that era would get immediately (picture Teen Beat magazine and listening to LPs on a record player). Flash forward 20 years, and Petra, now dealing with raising a 13-year-old girl herself and in a failing marriage, gets the chance to meet her fangirl crush.
7. George Lucas: A Life, Brian Jay Jones. This huge tome is an unauthorized biography of the creator of the Star Wars universe, as well as the early force behind Pixar and too many filmmaking technical advances for me to mention here. Not just for Star Wars fans. (But here’s a fun Star Wars fact: Lucas had a high school classmate whose last name was Vader.)
8. No Middle Name, Lee Child. There’s always a Lee Child book on my list. Another in the series of books about Jack Reacher, a former Army MP and man with no home who roams the country looking for trouble to solve, this is a collection of short stories exploring Reacher’s early days. A quick read, if you’re looking for crime stories that you can read on an airplane.
9. Meb for Mortals, Meb Keflezighi with Scott Douglas. Keflezighi, or Meb as everyone calls him, is the most decorated American marathon runner of all time (winner of the 2009 New York City Marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon and silver medalist in the 2004 Olympic Marathon). In this book, Meb lays out all his training methods so that anyone who wants to learn from him can. He covers not just his running schedule but diet, strength training, mental preparation, family life, sleep patterns, travel schedule, and any other lifestyle issues that affect his performance; he then translates his plans to a manageable level for the rest of us. A great resource for someone who wants to see what it takes to be an elite athlete.
10. Birding for the Curious, Nate Swick. It’s hard to believe that I’d put a birding book here, but this one was a fun read. Swick, the editor for the American Birding Association blog, provides a framework for how to learn about birding. Not so much a guidebook with photos and drawings (but he recommends many of those), this book shows you where to get started, how to find birders in your community, what questions to ask, and many other aspects of birdwatching.
Other books I recommend that just missed the cutoff: Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrota; The Animators, Kayla Rae Whitaker; The Cyclist Who Went Out In the Cold, Tim Moore; The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, W. Kamau Bell.