Since January 2011, I’ve been writing notes on every book I read in one Word document. It’s gotten so long that it takes minutes to load when I open the file and even longer to scroll down to the end. This year I’m going to start a new list. My review format will include, as usual, the new vocabulary words I’ve learned, any particular quotes that really struck me, and an overall opinion and verdict on the book. But this time I’m also going to try to do a little literary analysis, and put to use some of those English Lit skills before they fade away. As a farewell to my old list and all the books I’ve read since 2011, I’m going to share six of my favorites—the best book I read each year. Only time will tell whether my 2017 reads (my goal is 55 books, 10 more than last year) will top them or not.
Light Boxes by Shane Jones
Key Vocabulary Word: None
Review: This book has easily become a favorite. Filled with vivid imagery, both whimsical and macabre, the novel uses simple language to create stunning visuals that, despite their unbelievable nature, had me hooked and believing. Each little section could be its own prose poem, with enough substance to contemplate for hours, or days; each has a nugget of stark truth that can’t be denied: loss or love or protecting those we care about. I wish I could write like this.
Excerpt: “Note Found in February’s Pocket by the Girl Who Smells Like Honey and Smoke: I wanted to write you a story about magic. I wanted rabbits appearing from hats. I wanted balloons lifting you into the sky. It turned out to be nothing but sadness, war, heartbreak. You never saw it, but there’s a garden inside me.”
Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
Key Vocabulary Word: cahier (French: a notebook, journal, book; sheets of paper or leaves of a book placed together, as for binding)
Review: I’ve avoided Hemingway for as long as I can remember but finally gave him a chance with this book. I absolutely loved it. The writing really captivated me. The plain declarative sentences conveyed much more emotion and information than I’d imagined at first, each detail painstakingly selected to help build and shape the scene. Though minimalistic, the prose was hardly simple, but rather brimmed with feeling and meaning.
Excerpt: “There is nothing you can do except try to write it the way it was. So you must write each day better than you possibly can and use the sorrow that you have now to make you know how early the sorrow came. And you must always remember the things you believed because if you know them they will be there in the writing and you won’t betray them. The writing is the only progress you make.”
The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen
Key Vocabulary Word: None
Review: I enjoyed this book’s easy rhythm and colloquial writing, as well as the twists that drew me deeper into the story. All of the characters rang true, and I liked the inclusion of their histories. Most of all, I liked the magical, mystical element that the author wove into the story. It ended a little too happy for everyone for my usual taste, but I found unexpected comfort in that.
Excerpt: “If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.”
Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman
Key Vocabulary Word: suppurate (to produce or discharge pus, as a wound)
Review: I’d never have imagined a favorite book would be a nonfiction one, but here we are. Hoffman struck a perfect balance between giving us the history of New Guinea, delving into Michael Rockefeller’s harrowing story, and telling his own personal anecdote of discovery. His settings and descriptions came close to poetry, and the landscape really felt alive. Even when he settled into explanation, the writing remained intriguing, the reader alert.
Excerpt: “The peaks trap the heavy, moisture-laden tropical clouds, and every rivulet feeds another and another, and they grow larger and intertwine and curve as the land flattens, and it flattens quickly, suddenly, and for a hundred miles to the sea this land is without a hill, a rock, or even a pebble.”
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Key Vocabulary Word: eldritch (weird, eerie, uncanny)
Review: This literary fantasy skillfully weaves history, folklore, culture, and philosophy into a tapestry of magic and mystery. I loved the characters, the way disparate elements of the plot ended up connecting, and an ending that the reader could mull over long after putting down the novel.
Excerpt: “He’d lived so long in anticipation of his own death that to contemplate his future was like standing at the edge of a cliff, staring into a vertiginous rush of open sky.”
Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith
Key Vocabulary Word: allopathy (treatment of disease through conventional means)
Review: This novel blew me away: lyrical, tight passages of description; intelligent dialogue; and a great sense of restraint, knowing just how many clues to give the reader and, more importantly, when to hold back. The story took on a surreal quality, and yet felt completely believable, the reader lost in an illusion so complete that only truth remained.
Excerpt: “So much of our thinking is involved with things we’ve already done and things we have yet to do. It’s almost impossible not to be thinking about some future moment or some past mistake or tragedy.”