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BETWEEN THE LINES

My favorite reads of 2017

Every year at this time I like to think back on the books I’ve read in the past 12 months that affected me the most. These are the books I’m most grateful for in 2017.

Hala Alyan: Salt Houses. This debut novel gives us the multigenerational story of a Palestinian family – moving from a young girl’s fortune seen in coffee dregs to the dispersal of the family in the 1967 Six-Day War and the many subsequent moves and changes. It’s a story of political conflict, mourning home and trying to set down new roots, and the emotional realities of being foreign. Lovely writing and wonderfully drawn characters.

Cecil Bødker: The Water Farm. This translation from the Danish by Michael Goldman makes it clear why Cecil Bødker is one of Denmark’s most beloved writers. This short novel, the second in a trilogy, is about a small “family” of social outcasts on an abandoned farm in the 1800’s. It is mesmerizing and tender, deceptively simple. It’s amazing how relevant this book is now, as it explores the making of art and the forging of human connections outside of society norms.

Wiley Cash: The Last Ballad. This novel touched on so much I care about. Ella May is a young Appalachian mill worker in 1929 who must balance supporting her children with her yearning for justice and a more full life. The red-baiting by the mill owners, racism and fear within the union, Ella May’s courage and the legacy she leaves her children and grandchildren make this a deeply satisfying historical novel.

Joan Dempsey: This is How It Begins. This debut novel begins when a group of gay teachers are fired for not allowing their students to express their Christian values igniting a fierce political battle about religious bias in schools. The grandmother of one of the teachers is an elderly art professor who has been hiding a value painting stolen by the Nazi’s. Dempsey skillfully weaves these two storylines together, while asking the reader to consider the passions of characters with widely different views about the world.

Rene Denfield: The Child Finder. This is both a suspenseful page-turner and a poignant tale of abuse and loss. Eight-year-old Madison disappeared three years ago, and private investigator Naomi is searching for her. Madison’s ordeal, and the story of Naomi’s own childhood story, are both heartbreaking and hopeful. Not an easy book to read, but I’m very glad I did. As she did in her last novel, The Enchanted, Denfield finds redemption in the most difficult situations and the lyricism of her prose carries you along on the journey.

Laleh Khadivi: A Good Country. I bought this book after hearing the author interviewed on NPR. The premise – a teenage boy of Pakistani descent growing up in Orange County and trying to figure out who he is – compelled me less than the nuance and thoughtfulness with which the author described his journey. The book did not disappoint me; it was thought-provoking and I still think about it, months after reading the last page.

Jan Maher: Earth as It Is. Set in the 1930’s, the story is about a heterosexual cross-dresser. I was quickly drawn into Charlie’s early struggles to understand his desire to dress in women’s clothes – hardly acceptable in small-town Texas society – and his transformation into Charlene, owner and operator of the beauty parlor in Heaven, Indiana. The pleasure of this novel comes both from the author’s strong, understated prose and the main character’s innate goodness in the face of an impossible situation.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie. Shamsie is one of my very favorite authors (her Burnt Shadows is one of my very favorite novels), and I think Home Fire is probably the book I loved most this year. It is a retelling of Antigone (but don’t let that deter you; I didn’t realize it until I was almost finished with my first reading!) that takes us from Northampton, MA to London to Pakistan. Isma and her twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz must negotiate their needs for love, work, and coming of age in a world that does not welcome their complicated family legacy. Gorgeous writing and so much to think about.

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