I have, for many years, been interested in critical reviews when deciding which books to add to my “to read” list. These examinations of theme, character, tone, plot, and the author’s mastery of the written language have been my guideposts, as have the nominees and winners of the various literary prizes and the ever-growing lists of “best books” by publications that feature reviews. One of my favorite magazines, Bookmarks, helps by publishing summaries of reviews from such authorities as The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, NPR, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post, and averaging their ratings.
There is another factor that comes into my personal selection which is equally important (to me) and compels me to change my end-of-the-year list from “Best Books” to “Personal Favorites”. Books on my Favorites list are chosen according to the qualities and characteristics of the books which have spoken to me – one reader – and my tastes and preferences.
I will always pay homage to those who read deeply and critically, and have often set my sights on emulating them. The challenge is that I often find myself so involved in the story that I forget that I am trying to read critically and get carried away. One of my own mantras as an aspiring writer is “It’s always about the story” and the very best stories make me forget anything else.
I have to consciously focus my thinking on the elements of good storytelling if I wish to read critically. This is probably because I haven’t practiced deep reading enough, something I wish to do to develop my writing skills.
I have decided to leave the critical reviews to the professionals and share my favorites with you. This is not to say that the titles on my list are not praise-worthy, but to provide a measuring device to help guide you to (away from) a book I have enjoyed.
I am a member of Goodreads and would encourage you to join and become my reading friend there. Members rate the books they read from one to five stars and often write reviews (short and long, sometimes critical and sometimes “I loved this book”). You can see how popular a book is by looking at the average rating and the number of readers who have rated it.
I limit my own ratings to four or five stars, with an occasional three-stars for books I feel compelled to finish. I don’t complete books that would please me less than that – there are other readers who will rate them with one or two stars and I choose to spend my time other ways.
For those who are interested in what books might end up on my favorites list, I offer this:
- I enjoy books about relationships, especially about families, friendships, and marriages.
- I enjoy books where the protagonist or main character is close to my own age (although I don’t limit myself to stories about older people).
- I enjoy books set in the south (especially the mid-south, where I grew up), in Oklahoma and the mid-west.
- I enjoy rural and small-town settings.
- I enjoy historical fiction and nonfiction about different eras and events.
- I like to read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs about people who inspire me.
- I enjoy books and stories that let me see myself and the world more completely.
- I read books about storytelling and writing to build own my understanding and skills.
- I read for entertainment and pleasure when I need a break, when I’m on vacation, or doing a task that doesn’t demand my full attention. (Audiobooks are a part of my reading diet.)
- Finally, I am always thrilled to be surprised by a new author, a great book that doesn’t fit into any of these categories, or a good book that I missed earlier.
The following are the books that I enjoyed most during 2017. I hope that you can find one or two (or several) that appeal to you. I will be interested in your own lists of favorites and recommendations as we move through 2018.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – This was one of the first novels I read during the year and has remained a favorite. It is a story about a “blended” family, which fits into one of the catgeories to which I am drawn. Storytelling is another nonfictional category I read – what makes stories compelling and how our brains are wired to use story to help us function in the world. Commonwealth is about the stories the members of one family tell themselves, each other, and the world about the events in their lives, specifically the breakup of their parents’ marriages and how it affects them personally. This book began a year of exploration for me – reading memoirs and books about writing memoirs – in preparation for writing my own personal and family stories.
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott – This is another story about family – those we are born to and those who nourish us and bring us to our best selves. It begins with a young father’s suicide in a New York tenement and leads us through the multiple generations that experience the love and sacrifice of the Catholic nuns who extend their caregiving to those left behind. A beautiful story, simple yet complex in its understanding of the human condition, The Ninth Hour won my heart and gratitude that there is such goodness in the world.
American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee – My choice of American Wolf as one of my two favorite nonfiction books was a matter of serendipity, since it would probably not been a typical title I would read. I chose to listen to the audiobook version after I heard it described as a staff favorite by a representative of Penguin Random House at a “Book Buzz” at one of my favorite libraries. I learned that the wolf is considered the closest species to man in terms of their behavior and was enthralled to hear the story of O’Six, the celebrated alpha female wolf of Yellowstone National Park. Her story, like our own, is one that encompasses generations and reflects the need for control and protection of the places we call home.
Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place by Rilla Askew – I have been an avid reader of the novels by this celebrated Oklahoma author. They all speak to our state’s history and the challenges that have faced its citizens since its inception as Indian Territory. Most American is a collection of essays that lends personal credence to the fiction she writes, in the form of her observation of and participation in the Oklahoma narrative. She writes with authority about the scars left by the Trail of Tears, the Osage Murders, the Tulsa Race Riots, the Oklahoma City Bombing and her own personal experiences as one who is an Oklahoman, a former resident of New York, and a citizen of the United States.
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Camino Island by John Grisham
Flight Patterns by Karen White
I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The Feathered Bone by Julie Cantrell
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
The Risen by Ron Rash
The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner
The Storied Life of A.J. Filkry by Gabrielle Zevin
The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life by Pat Conroy
American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee
Books for Living by Will Schwalbe
Dimestore: A Writer’s Life by Lee Smith
Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott
In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas by Daniel Schaeffer
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
KNOWN: The Handbook for Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age by Mark Schaefer
Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place by Rilla Askew
Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts by Ryan Holiday
Red Dirt Women: At Home on the Oklahoma Plains by Susan Kates
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future by Jonah Sachs
Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron