Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Year of Reading: My Favourite Books of 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of We Were Eight Years in Power. (Photo: Gabriella Demczuk)

With the exception of A God in Ruins, all of the books discussed below were published in 2017. I did not realize until I assembled this list that every entry consists of either at least two historical timelines or the bleeding of the past into the present either through investigative reportage or by way of past memories surfacing into the present consciousness of characters Bob Douglas

Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is the most outstanding book I read this year, original and beautifully written, spiced with a soupçon of Tolstoyan flavour. A Russian Count juxtaposes his early life in Czarist Russia with his current life; he was sentenced in 1922 to permanent house arrest at the Metropol Hotel. Through his impeccable manners and urbanity, he skillfully negotiates alliances that will result over thirty years later in a courageous attempt to dramatically alter the life of a young woman who has become his de facto daughter. A book to be savored and reread.

Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins is a most satisfying novel, punctuated with drama, poignancy and humour. Superior to its predecessor, Life After Life, which played too promiscuously with the concept of time, allowing its protagonist, Ursula Todd, to constantly relive her life, A God in Ruins focuses on a single life, that of Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, narrated in out-of-order chapters. Teddy never fulfills the promise that he briefly showed as a minor character in the earlier novel, apart from one major exception. He excels as a skipper for a crew of bomber pilots during World War Two, and these chapters, which have been impeccably researched, are among the most powerful in the novel. His civilian life afterwards never reaches that level of intensity in part because no one wants to hear him talk about the war and partly because of circumstances. His less-than-satisfying marriage is tragically cut short and he is left with a ghastly daughter, Viola, who turns out to be a ghastly mother. Late in the novel we are given a major clue to Teddy’s fraught relationship with Viola. By the time we finish reading, we realize that Atkinson has pieced together a beautifully rendered mosaic that is deeply moving.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of sterling essays that the author wrote for The Atlantic plus an introduction for each one that both puts the essay in context and allows Coates to critique himself. Apart from his magnificent essay on why African Americans pay little attention to the Civil War, they are set in the present yet they are all historically informed, a Coates trademark that makes him a pleasure to read.

Daniel Silva’s House of Spies, a continuation of Black Widow, is one of the most entertaining spy novels I read this year. Written with prophetic-like precision, it opens with a major terrorist assault in London that leaves hundreds dead. The British, French and, briefly, the new “action-orientated” American Intelligence agencies combine forces to hunt down Saladin, the ISIS commander who masterminded the devastating terrorist attack in Washington and eluded capture in Black Widow. He is now known to be planning an even more destructive attack. In charge of the operation to track down and eliminate Saladin is Gabriel Allon, the new head of Israel’s storied spy agency, Mossad, and the chief protagonist and superspy in the Silva oeuvre. One of the more interesting characters not present in the previous novel is Christopher Keller, a former IRA and Corsican assassin, who reluctantly teams up with Allon. Their search for Saladin leads them to France and to Morocco. What I like most about Silva’s thrillers, apart from their compelling readability, is the feeling of authenticity that he communicates. Silva knows his way around the world of spooks and is informed about geopolitical politics. He is also a gifted storyteller whose narratives offer chilling insight into the dangerous world we live in.

Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep explores the human and psychic damage of war in this fine novel by a writer equally at home writing in poetry and prose. Set largely in a forbidden zone in Cyprus as a result of the 1974 Greek-Turkish war, the novel features a Canadian war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, a motley crew of refugees fleeing the horrors of war and a Turkish colonel, the most complex character, who is willing to trade with this community, keep their existence secret and live a comfortable lifestyle as the commander of a regiment nearby. Wonderful writing and an engaging story render Nightingale one of the most memorable novels of the year.

April Smith’s ironically titled Home Sweet Home may be the least known on this list but for me it belongs because of its staying power and its relevance. Set in the 1950s and the 1980s, the novel, based on true events, tells the story of a liberal family, Cal and Betsy Kusek, their daughter Jo and son Lance, who decamp from New York City to South Dakota only to encounter fear-mongering and corrosive distrust a decade later when Cal, a successful attorney, runs for the U.S. Senate. His opponent, a far-right talk-show host who could be a stand-in for Joseph McCarthy, learns about Betsy’s brief flirtation with Communism many years before, and exploits it by embarking on a smear campaign that turns the rural community against the entire family. Although Cal successfully sues his tormentor, what happens years later when the now-adult Jo receives a phone call that her brother and his young son have been seriously wounded demonstrates how the dynamics of hatred can fester and corrode souls -- a virulent animosity that reminded me of the 2016 Presidential election campaign described by journalist Jared Yates Sexton in his impressionistic and unsettling The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage, in which he asserts after the election that “bigotry and ugliness had been granted a foothold in the culture at large.”

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone is a timely account about the plight of African refugees in Germany and the transformation of a detached retired academic into a committed citizen. Although the book is entirely set in the present, memories from recent German history and Richard’s personal past surface, awakening old fears and motivating his new-found activism. Throughout Erpenbeck’s writing style is understated, an approach that contributes to the novel’s power.  

Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country, part reportage, part history and part memoir, unfolds in a searing self-examination that causes her to interrogate everything she thought was true. A young, white, American woman, educated in an Ivy League university, decides to leave New York and take a writing fellowship in Turkey. As she spends most of her decade abroad in that country with extended visits to Greece, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan, her preconceptions of Turkish culture, of Islam, and of what it means to be a liberal American are constantly upended by what she encounters.  Her growing awareness of her profound historical and political ignorance about this part of the world challenges her to question her personal identity as a privileged white American and her country’s role in shaping the histories of these countries. At one point she says, “If I was going to live in Turkey, I had to learn to think like a Turk. These were not my rules to break.” For the first time, she questions the myth of American exceptionalism, one that she absorbed through osmosis growing up in America – that it was the apex of civilization and had nothing to learn from the world. She powerfully refutes this myth in a story she recounts near the end of her book about a black doctor from rural Mississippi who attempted to implement, in his state, a medical system based on an Iranian model. Notes on a Foreign Country is a mus- read.

John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies is likely, given his advanced age, his last Cold War novel. It is set in the present (in which government lawyers not sympathetic to the surviving spooks who undertook operations that sometimes cost lives) and also in the past (in which the Wall, the most visible symbol of the Iron Curtain, necessitated a war fought with espionage and compromises with political criminals, a bygone era that is vividly evoked through documents and memories). Le Carré’s sympathies are with those spies and not with the children whose parents were causalities of that war. One of the most rewarding features of Spies is that the author provides a fuller background into the lives of Alex Leamas and Liz Gold, the two central characters in his landmark novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Two novels with which I will conclude this list are Philip Kerr’s superb Prussian Blue and Elizabeth Kostova’s powerful The Shadow Land. Both have two timelines: the former is set in 1939 Germany at Hitler’s vacation home in Bavaria and in 1956 on the French Riviera, the latter in contemporary Bulgaria and in the post-war era during the brutal Communist rule. Prussian Blue is the latest foray into the saga of Bernie Gunter, the cynical, tough-talking detective who nonetheless struggles with his conscience as he tries to outwit dreadful Nazis, as well as outrun the East German Stasi. One of the characters provides the link between these two historical periods. Similarly, in The Shadow Land an astute reader can spot the link long before it is revealed but that revelation does not distract from the most heart-rending chapters in the novel, Kostova’s graphic rendering of the horrific camps that constituted Bulgaria’s Gulag.

Photo by Keith Penner.
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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