Best books I read in 2017

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2017. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

What makes Clifton’s work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. This story is followed by others that moved forward in time to the present and beyond. Part of the fun is detecting how the stories fit together. Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing!

3. Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

Social activist Dorothy Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24. What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality, one that is open to all of us.

4. Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages. By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the time he spent writing these works.

5. Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

In this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled, the main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation.

6. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In this memoir of training a hawk as she copes with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless.

7. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, this dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

8. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

In this new book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. We begin in the year is 1936 when Shostakovich is about to undergo the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect.

8. Collected Poems, by James Wright

Before reading this book I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life. How lovely, then, to find this collection by the beloved and influential poet.

9. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood. In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

10. Hélène, by Deborah Poe

In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape.

What were the best books you read last year?

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse


Another Middle Grade coming-of-age story told in verse—pure coincidence that this was next up on my TBR (to be read) pile when I stopped to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Hesse’s story is also a Newbery winner but is fiction rather than memoir. Thirteen-year-old Billie Jo loves playing the piano when she isn’t busy helping her father and pregnant mother try to keep body and soul together in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

She is good enough to be asked to play in shows, often with handsome Mad Dog. If she gets well enough known with her music, she can leave the failing farm and the ubiquitous dust behind and go to California. Then a terrible accident throws all her plans into disarray.

Spanning a two-year period from January 1934 to December 1935, these poems paint a vivid picture of what life was like during that terrible time. She describes having to turn the glasses and plates upside down on the table until the last second before serving the meal, and still the food is saturated with dust. There is the heartbreak of a field of wheat, already decimated by drought and wind, be flattened by hail or devoured by grasshoppers.

In some aspects, Billie Jo’s life is similar to many teens: wanting more independence than her mother is willing to give her, feeling as though she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. When her teacher is in a production of Madame Butterfly, and Mad Dog says that “most everyone’s” heard of that opera, Billie Jo is miffed.

How does that
singing plowboy know something I don’t?
And how much more is out there
most everyone else has heard of
except me?

And she has a best friend. But when Livie leaves for California with her family, Billie Jo says, “I couldn’t get the muscles in my throat relaxed enough / to tell her how much I’d miss her.”

Poetry works well as a form for this novel. The fractured narrative adds to the feeling that you are reading a diary. Also, the necessary compression distills each scene into its essence while retaining the emotional impact. Hesse makes effective use of symbols as well, such as the mother’s special cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Here is one complete poem, called “Broken Promise”:

It rained
a little
but here.

Other poems are longer and tell a more complete narrative, such as “Blankets of Black” about going to Texhoma for Grandma Lucas’s funeral. Billie Jo’s detailed description of the ordeal is riveting.

While written for ages 11-14, Billie Jo’s story will certainly appeal to adults as well. For younger readers, it’s a good introduction to the terrible tragedy of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression.

Have you read a Young Adult or Middle Grade novel that brought an historical period to life for you?

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson


Woodson’s memoir in verse invites the reader into her childhood. Reading these poems felt as though Woodson and I were leafing through a photograph album while she told me about these people and places.

Her family’s story, like so many of ours, is a fractured one, with lots of moving around and relationships that fall apart due to death and divorce. Being people of color during the 1960s and 1970s adds further complications. Still, there is a strong current of love and security holding the family and their story together.

In “home” she writes of being taken as a newborn to meet her grandparents in South Carolina. She describes the porch, the azaleas, the red dust on her mother’s shoes. Then:

Welcome home, my grandparents say
    Their warm brown
arms around us. A white handkerchief,
    embroidered with blue
to wipe away my mother’s tears.
    And me,
the new baby, set deep
inside this love.

This book has won several awards, including the Newbery Honor, and was chosen as the 2017 book for Vermont Reads. While it falls in the children’s book category, it appeals to adults as well.

The title tells you all you need to know about the book to entice you into reading it. While being a perfectly straight-forward description of what the book is about, the title also gives you an idea of how the story will be told. The reversed syntax is intriguing, and the startling use of “brown” let’s you know that we are going to sidestep stereotypes about race and speak plainly .

Here’s the opening of “rivers”:

The Hocking River moves like a flowing arm away
from the Ohio River
runs through towns as though
it’s chasing its own freedom, the same way
the Ohio runs north from Virginia until
it’s safely away
from the South.

Most of all, the compression and music of these three words place you in the realm of poetry. It’s had to resist hearing the echo of the opening of Langston Hughes’s great poem “Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

As I’ve mentioned before poetry works well for memoir because of its fragmentary nature. Gathering poems together in a collection such as this doesn’t create the same sort of linear narrative as a prose memoir.

For me, finding that narrative was the hardest part of writing my memoir. Life does follow a neat narrative arc. When we’re in the midst of it, our life seems chaotic and subject to chance; it’s only later that we try to impose some sort of coherent story out of it. Thus, capturing the past in individual poems And it actually reflects how memory works: it throws up a scene seemingly at random, and we are left to make sense of it.

Then the challenge for the poet is to find a way to make these fragments of memory, these separate scenes hang together without the usual transition tools. Woodson accomplishes this with deceptive ease. Arranged chronologically, the poems sometimes also reach back to tell stories of her parents and siblings and other family members.

This is a book that all ages will enjoy. One of the great benefits of reading is the opportunity to step into another person’s life and see the world through their eyes. I’m grateful to Woodson for her gift of her story, much of which reminded me of my own childhood and even more that helped me understand another kind of experience.

Does your state choose a book each year for everyone to read and discuss? If so, which book was chosen this year?

The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall


There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. What seemed like a monolithic category when I was a child—probably because I read everything on the children’s side of the local library—is actually broken into picture books, middle grade (MG) or juvenile (ages 8-12), and young adult (YA) (ages 13-18). Of course, there are gradations within each of these categories; a story aimed at an eighteen-year-old may not appeal to a thirteen-year-old.

There are also differences other than age at play. YA books are longer and have fewer restrictions on content. More interesting to me is that while YA characters are able to see the world through the eyes of others and to face real-world problems, characters in MG novels are quite different. Like children of that age, they are still the center of their universe and likely to see every setback as the end of the world.

Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is classified as juvenile/MG. It is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood.

In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

Twelve-year-old Rosalind feels the responsibility of being oldest keenly. Skye, the next youngest, is pure tomboy, determined to go her own way. Then comes Jane who at 10 has her head in the clouds when she isn’t writing flamboyant novels about an adventurer named Sabrina Starr. The youngest is shy, four-year-old Batty who wears butterfly wings all the time and communes with Hound, the most beloved of dogs.

While tunneling though a hedge in the forbidden Arundel gardens, Skye runs into a boy—literally—who turns out to be Mrs. Tifton’s son. Jeffrey quickly becomes an honorary Penderwick and the girls rally to his cause when Mrs. T. and her boyfriend, the Dreadful Dexter, decide to send Jeffrey to a military boarding school.

Individually and collectively the children scamper through the story, having adventures and escapades. Although I’ve enjoyed the post-Potter deluge of magical childrens’ advetures, I especially liked that the only magic here is the ordinary magic of childhood, when so much of the adult world seems incomprehensible.

Most of all I loved the family rituals the girls have developed, such as calling a MOPS (meeting of Penderwick sisters) or understanding the responsibility of being the OAP (oldest available Penderwick). Having grown up in a large family, much of this rang true for me, as did the way the sisters sometimes had to transcend their different personalities to respond to various crises.

One of my adult sons reads across all the categories of children’s fiction. They are a good balance for his serious reading and his often stressful job. One aspect that he particularly appreciates in them is the focus on right and wrong, good and evil.

In this book, while we clearly start with Mrs. Tifton and Dexter as thoroughly evil, by the end they have acquired more subtle shadings. They seem more misguided than cruel. When it comes to Jeffrey and the Penderwick girls, their essential goodness doesn’t prevent them from behaving badly at times.

Also, there are shadows in this lovely world. Their mother’s death when Batty was born affects the girls just as Jeffrey’s missing father affects him, though these griefs do not weigh heavily on the story: a difficult trick that Birdsall pulls off beautifully. A missing parent is a common trope in children’s stories. Being left unprotected, or less protected, enables the child to be the protagonist, to be the one to solve the problem, instead of expecting an adult to take care of it.

This book and the others in this series are a delightful reminder of my own childhood, back in the days when children were tossed out of doors to entertain themselves without parental oversight. We got into trouble and found our way out of it. And even then I loved stories like this one about mischievous but good-hearted children.

Is there a children’s book that you enjoy reading as an adult?