Best Books of 2017: John’s Picks
Every list of “Best Books” is purely subjective, hostage to one’s personal tastes and to the seldom-acknowledged detail that the evaluator is never able to read all the books available in a given year. My list, therefore, is subject to both those caveats and I am sad to have left out so many fine books.
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash was the best book of the year. “Pretty took the will to be so and the money to do it and the time to see to it and the sleep to maintain it, and Ella didn’t have any of those things.” Substitute “poverty” for “pretty” and one recognizes the dilemma that Ella May Wiggins faces. A single white female and the sole support for four children, she is immersed in a poverty which offers no respite. Yet, remarkably for someone in 1929 Gastonia, North Carolina, she realizes that the black citizens with whom she lives in Stumptown, a ramshackle ghetto for blacks, and with whom she works in American Mill #2, are no different from her. Poverty, she says. “We got that in common.” Cash adroitly shapes the life of one courageous woman to lay bare the conflict between rapacious business owners and their powerless workers. It is a story long untold but one that is relevant in mill towns across America. Cash reminds readers how little has changed over the past century, and the story provides lessons for today’s toxic political and cultural mores. The writing is superb. The sense of place and situation coincides to create a powerful and thought-provoking, yet entertaining story. The story is real, and Ella May is real. A full review can be read here.
Two strong-willed women are the protagonists in The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso. Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors, but they are definitely not neighborly. Each has a secret that separates them from one another as surely as a hedge separates their two homes. Each is a widow who has been highly successful in her professional life. Calamitous events bring them begrudgingly together. Omotoso begins to unfold the complete backstory of both woman in a gripping recitation of professional successes and personal failures that reveal how each woman came to this point in life. Their stories are compelling and Omotoso’s telling is elegantly written with fresh metaphors and immersive descriptions. They collide out of necessity, and their thaw is slow and not entirely sure to come. Omotoso creates a vivid picture of modern life in a South Africa that is still creeping out of Apartheid. Even today, and this is reflected in this brilliantly realized novel, housing estates still echo the separation of races. She captures the insidious efforts of those who still believe themselves to be the dominant elite to clutch their status and place in society. A full review can be read here.
Fallen Glory by James Crawford illustrates how neither Rome nor buildings were built in a day; however, they can disappear in a day or through the slow accretion of time. In this thoughtful, provocative book, Crawford explores “The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings.” These are stories of delight and the most obscene tragedy as he describes how these buildings came to be and how and why they failed to exist. He puts each story into a historical and modern context. Twenty-one buildings, spanning more than 7,000 years are detailed here. Each essay is brilliantly titled: Knossos is called “Modernism’s Labyrinth,” a telling play on the mythological Minotaur and the modern reconstruction of the palace. “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time” designates the section on the Twin Towers, a poignant essay “about two towers, and two architects.” A brief introduction notes there are as many stories “as there were floors in each building…people who worked there…tons of collapsed steel and concrete left behind….” Dip into this book and appreciate the skill with which Crawford tells the stories of these buildings, and be appalled at some of the things humans have done to and continue to do to their fellows. I wish I had read this book before I visited some of the places he features. I wanted to hear more stories. A full review can be read here.