I have to admit, I am a bit addicted to "best books" list. I have read no less than 20 "Best of" list already and my to-be-read pile for next year has since grown immensely. I compile my own yearly best books list not only to add my own thoughts, but also as a way to reflect on the great literature I have had a pleasure to read over the past year. I relish the chance to reflect on novels that made me smile and laugh, regurgitate the books that challenged me to see a new perspective, and revisit an idea that was constructed in such a fresh way that it inspired me. So maybe this Best Books of 2017 is more for me than you, but then again, maybe you enjoy seeing these list as much as I do. Here is my Best Books of 2017.
Best Religious Book: Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore. This was the first book I read in 2017 and one of the books I thought often about throughout the year. I Found Dr. Moore's thoughts on the current evangelical culture spot on. This can be a weighty topic, but Moore addressed it graciously, while still speaking boldly. Looking to challenge your thoughts on some topics? This might be the book for you.
Best Non-Fiction Book: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Evicted follows several families and landlords in Milwaukee, WI through the seemingly endless cycle of evictions for the families and the search for good tenets for the landlords. But the book is about much more than a processes. Its about people and a way of life. What I enjoyed about the book was not if I agreed or disagreed with things, but because it introduced me to something I did not have much experience with. Looking to put yourself in someone else's shoes? This might be the book for you.
Best Fiction Book: Beartown by Fredrik Backman: This novel seemed to have a wide appeal to readers. The story is based around a small towns hockey team, but addresses issues of sexual assault and societal priorities. If you are looking for a novel that will keep you turning the pages as well as keep you up late discussing it over coffee, this is the book for you.
Best Fantasy Book: The Beyond Experience by Michael Reid Jr. Don't let the fantasy category scare you off. This novel is ultimately about love, friendship, and appreciating what you have each day. Two scientist discover a unique side affect of their drug treatment for anxiety and depression....the ability to reconnect with deceased loved ones. Sounds great right? But what if you push the limits too far? Part Romeo and Juliet, Part Grays Anatomy equals one enjoyable read for anyone who wants something out of their comfort zone.
Best Historical Book: Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White Jr. I am a sucker for Lincoln books, but this book exceeded all my expectations. When we think of great Lincoln's speeches we always gravitate towards The Gettysburg Address, and rightly so. However, After reading this book I have to agree that Lincolns greatest speech was the Second Inaugural Address. Mr. White does a fabulous job of pulling in Lincoln's personally letters from several years prior to his address to show how the idea of reconciliation for the nation was not a new idea for Lincoln, nor a political strategy. It was something he actually believed. If you love history in any sense, this is the book for you.
Best Biography or Memoir: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. I loved the introduction of this book when Vance confesses that writing a memoir at 31 years of age is quite odd. But Vance has a very unique story. One that I found fascinating. Vance comes from a lower income blue collar factory working area in Ohio and Kentucky, is a self proclaimed "hillbilly" with an alcoholic mother, and eventually graduates from Yale Law. That is quite the story worthy of a memoir at 31. Hillbilly elegy gives you insight into the struggles and triumph of an individual and a culture. If you want to be educated and inspired, this is the book for you.
Best Book of 2017: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amar Towles. To be honest, this was an easy decision for me. I loved everything about this novel. The writing was superb, the character development was extraordinary, and the plot never seemed to lag. Towles crafts a masterpiece about a Russian aristocrat who is under house arrest at the famous Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The novel, like a fine wine, aged gently and has an after taste that will leave you reaching for the novel again soon. The novel just requires of you to give it time. You need to let it swirl around the glass and sit on your tongue for a moment. You need to let it breath. You have to be Ok with nuance and subtlety. If you can do that this will quickly become one of your all time favorites. Looking for a modern American Classic? This book is for you.
What are some of your favorite books of 2017? I would love to hear what you enjoyed reading this past year. Leave a comment below!
"Ignatov: Alexander Ilyich Rostov, talking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where Is it Now? has succumbed irrevocably to the corruption of his class-and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall. But there are those within the senior ranks of the Party who count you among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause. Thus, it is the opinion of the committee that you should be returned to that hotel of which you are so fond. But make no mistake: should you every set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot."
With those words Count Rostov was a prisoner. The Count’s prison, however, would not be cold, dark, and lonely, but warm, bright, and a constant shuffling of people. That’s because the Count is on house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in the heart of Moscow. Beginning in 1922 and continuing on for the next several decades, the Count experiences life along side the hotel staff as well the various guest that come and go. Life for the Count revolves around dinning at the hotels lavish restaurants, leisurely paging through classic literature, and engaging in small talk at the hotel bar; nightcap in hand. By all reasonable standards, the Count is making the most of his house arrest. But as life has a way of doing, the Count begins to encounter interruptions to those daily routines. First a forced change in living accommodations. Then a young, attractive, up and coming actress checks into the hotel. An inquisitive little girl looking for a friend joins him for lunch. Slowly this aristocratic Count's life starts to take on a new shape. With the Count as the conduit, The Gentlemen in Moscow teach us above love, friendship, fatherhood, loyalty, patriotism, sacrifice, and servanthood during some of the most important decades of Russian history.
I have always loved the Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. I loved the length, depth, imagery, and complexity of those novels. Some describe these type of novels as slow, meticulous, and too extensive, but that is why I love them. They have the flavor of something that taken dedication and effort. The Gentlemen in Moscow is a modern day novel that fills the shoes of its Russian predecessors. So, I think it’s obvious I absolutely loved this novel. Towles is a master of language and his descriptions naturally draw you into each scene. Towels writing creates living breathing scenes, inviting you in, while allowing you to remain anonymous. I could pull on numerous different threads Towels creates during this novel, but the one that I love the most was the motif of servanthood. Throughout the novel, the Count transitions from the one being served to the one doing the serving. This is typically described as a "fall from grace", but the Count embodies how to "gracefully fall". In the Count, we see that dignity and worth are not found in whom is being served, but that dignity and worth are initiated by the individual and the intentional positive outlook on life, despite which side of service line you are on.
I would highly recommend this novel for anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort. If you want a microwaveable dinner, this is not for you. If you have the patience to allow this novel to marinate and stew, you will be rewarded with a meal that would rival the Boyarsky.
(The soup in the picture above was a traditional Russian cabbage (shchi) and was very delicious!)
J.D. Vance is a hillbilly. At least that's how he would refer to himself. It's an odd description of oneself since hillbillies usually do not conjure up admiring images in most American minds. Typically, some combination of the Beverly Hillbillies and the banjo playing child from Deliverance flashes in our mind. While some truths maybe be lined in those hillbilly characterizations, they are certainly not an exhaustive representation.
Hillbilly Elegy is the memoir of J.D. Vance. J.D. is a product of the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and the Ohio Rust Belt. J.D.'s Grandparents (Mamaw and Papa) left the mountains of Kentucky for Southern Ohio, after World War II, in search for a better life. In a lot of ways they found it, in many ways they didn't.
J.D. grew up with his mom and a revolving door or male companions she cycled through. After his biological father left the family when he was young, J.D. was constantly saddled with the feeling of if not when the next male figure would make his exit. Between the constant emotional wrestling from living with his abusive and drug addicted mother, and the shuffling of men in his life, stability is not something J.D. was well aquatinted with. If that was not enough of an obstacle to overcome, J.D. found himself caught in a downward spiral of two worlds. He was influenced by the hillbilly culture that was formed in the "holler", and now was trying to survive in a postindustrial Midwestern town. His hillbilly culture taught him that screaming, fighting, and running away was an acceptable avenue for conflict resolution. You upheld your families honor with brutal violence. You spoke of hard work, God, and patriotism even if you didn't always display those virtues or see that lived out around you. He learned firsthand that addiction and failed marriages are a common occurrence. In his postindustrial Ohio town he learned that chasing your dreams is meant for other people, other towns. He learned that the outlook for kids like him is bleak, and nothing around him indicates otherwise. Pessimism is not just and outlook, but a way of life. Yet from those life lessons and circumstances, J.D. Vance graduated from Ohio State University and Yale Law School. From a place where dreams were not just crushed, but dreams were never even had, J.D. Vance dream was realized. To get knocked down and still get up is commendable, but to pull yourself up and out of, when every statistic and circumstance is pulling you back down, that's a miracle. That’s the story of J.D. Vance.
Memoirs are quite possibly my favorite genre of book, so I am kind of a memoir snob. In addition to that, I have heard nothing but praise for this book. I was ready to be disappointed. I couldn't have been more pointed (that's the opposite of disappointed right?). Hillbilly Elegy is a wonderfully written and insightful book. While this is the story of a particular person, Vance does a wonderful job of using his and his family’s experience, to paint a picture of Southern Appalachian sub-culture. Of course, this won’t represent everyone, but provided a perspective into a culture I had little experience with. Vance's ability to provide insight came of particular interest to me in the light of our last Presidential election. Again, that is not to say his experience and perception represents all and can explain a broad and complex issue, but it was insightful to say the least. I was also impressed with Vance's ability to walk the cliffs edge of describing his experiences, but also periodically interjecting his thoughts and assessments on particular issues, especially now that he is on the other side of the experience. While I can appreciate letting the details speak for themselves and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions, I am also always curious on the author’s analysis of the situation. They have lived an experience that I haven't, and I am reading not only for the story, but for their thoughts as well. Hillbilly Elegy is a prime example of how one can tell a story and give an opinion simultaneously.
One of the conclusions Vance presented, that I appriciated, is the way we (society) typically take an either or approach to problems. Let’s take poverty as an example. Historically, liberals will conclude that this particular problem is due to oppressive societal factors (i.e. it’s out of the persons control), while conservatives will conclude that the issue is due to personal choices and lack of personal responsibility (i.e. it’s all due to the personal choices). Yet, it’s absurd to think a problem like poverty is singularly an "either" society "or" personal choice issue. The possibility that it could be both gets lost in the desire to be right. Of course it can, and probably most often is, due to both factors! The percentage of each factor will likely fluctuate from situation to situation, but the quicker we can realize that both issues needs to be addressed, the faster we can actually effect change. It's possible to promote social equality and personal responsibility in the same breath.
One critique I did have of the book was his seemingly inconsistent assessment of Christianity. It was not his conclusions on if Christianity was true or not, but his seemingly inconsistent critiquing of how people expressed their faith. Vance was very critical of his father’s legalistic expression on his faith (personally I agreed with Vance). However, he didn't seem to apply the same critique to his Mamaw for her verbal expression of faith in God, but showing no daily discernible signs of how that faith impacted her life. If we are going to be critical of those who profess faith and live it out with an oppressive legalistic expression, we need to apply those same standards to those who profess a faith and yet don't show any signs of it in their daily lives. Both approaches can be hypocritical, but he seemed to take issue with just one.
Hillbilly Elegy lived up to the hype for me. It gave me a lot to think about and provided a perspective into a culture I knew little about. I think this is an excellent read for anyone today. Not because everyone will agree with it, but because it does a wonderful job of providing a perspective, and sometimes perspective does wonders
"American Culture is shifting, it seems, into a different era, An era in which religion is not necessarily seen as a social good. Christianity in its historic, apostolic form is increasingly seen as socially awkward at best, as subversive at worst."
I love everything about books. The feel of the page between your fingers, the sound of a book spine cracking, even the smell of an old dust jacket. Looking to share that passion with others.