Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Books of '17: Recommendations

I read some good books in 2017.  You should read them in 2018.  And true story: a good friend pinged me for a book recommendation while I was drafting this post.

Best of the Year: Fiction

The Sellout, Paul Beatty, 2015

Marc Maron had Paul Beatty on his podcast and raved about The Sellout without managing to describe it.  Having read it, I now understand why.  This novel is a work of towering satirical genius and social commentary on race whose pages are as crammed with details, ideas, and references as James Joyce's Ulysses.  Early in my reading of the book, I found it took a lot of energy to focus and read it, especially at bedtime.  I noticed a woman reading it in the park near my office and chanced to interrupt her reading and ask her whether it was worth continuing. She immediately said yes, and I used this stranger's reassurance to soldier on.  I'm glad I did.  The Sellout is set in a fictional all-black submunicipality of Los Angeles where the eccentric protagonist was raised by an arguably-more-eccentric single father.  From a whole vein devoted to a character from the Little Rascals to a sly reference to David Sedaris, the book ranges far to depict, confront, and - perhaps most surprisingly - have fun with racial identity.  I loved it, and I'm happy I had the guts to ask a stranger in the park a book question. 

Honorable Mention:
Rare Objects, Kathleen Tessaro, 2016 

Best of the Year: Family Reading

The War that Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, 2015

We read this book for family reading (which we still do with our busy teenage and pre-teen son), and I sometimes had to pass it on to someone else in the family to read because I got too choked up.  The novel tells the story of Ada and her brother Jamie, who get evacuated from war-threatened London to a small town in the English countryside.  Their mother is an abusive moron barmaid.  Ada has a club foot and is not allowed to leave their apartment.  Though the welcome is not always warm in the countryside, their evacuation achieves the goal of saving them from the violence of war.  There are worse fates than war, though, and the evacuation plays a role there, too.  The children are taken in by a gruff woman named Susan, whose stiff-upper-lip practical care reminded me so frequently of my mother-in-law.  It's a touching story that the whole family enjoyed. 
Best of the Year: Non-Fiction

Crucial Conversations; Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson; Joseph Grenny; Ron McMillan; Al Switzler, 2002

If I honestly record that it took me a calendar year to finish this book, you might think I didn't like it very much.  Far from the truth.  I pulled this book off the shelf of my friend Karen Dreyer, for whose maternity leave I was filling in at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.  She'd read it with her staff in the Southwestern Pennylvania Food Security Partnership.  During my brief tenure there, I read about 30 pages of the book during downtime.  By then, I was hooked on this practical guide to avoiding the kinds of traps that too easily happen in high-stakes conversations at work and at home.  The big theme is that all participants in a conversation should add to a pool of shared meaning.  If anyone is doing things other than that - for instance, silence of violence - the conversation isn't succeeding.  The authors describe well the many ways that conversations break down.  They also prescribe ways to spot our own failings and move conversations back to productivity.  I finished it in bits and pieces over the busy first nine months of my job at Truefit and found it valuable in my professional and personal life.

Honorable Mention:
Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz, 2014


Anne H. said...

Yo, which mother-in-law? Your book reviews are quite well done. You have a new career for retirement!

Christy said...

Great books! Are you going to hear Paul Beatty speak on 1/29 at Carnegie Music Hall?