Each year, I look back at the books I’ve read. Here are the five books I read for the first time this year that I most enjoyed (regardless of when they were originally published).
5. The Acts of King Arthur and His Knights (1976) by John Steinbeck – Steinbeck is one of my all-time five favorites authors, but I didn’t even know this book existed until I found an old copy in a used book store. It’s incredibly neat that one of my writing idols translated Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian tales from Middle English into modern English and then added a little bit to the stories where he felt gaps existed. The result is a series of tales that become accessible to current audiences. The best part for me, however, was the final 60 pages,containing Steinbeck’s personal letters in which he discussed his approach to the translation. Steinbeck goes into detail on his approach to editing and translating, the problems he is having in both regards, and how he plans to fix those issues. Those pages in particular are a must read for anyone who has ever tried to edit or translate someone’s work or likes insight into Steinbeck’s mind.
4. Hagseed: The Tempest Retold (2016) by Margaret Atwood – I started this book thinking it would be a 3-star. The premise didn’t sound particularly exciting and I hadn’t heard anything good or bad about it so I figured it would be lackluster.Immediately after starting it, however, I knew it would be at least a 4-star.As always, Atwood does a great job of using dialogue and dysfunction to keep you interested as the story unfolds. By the time I was half way through the book I knew I had deeply underestimated the story. I’m familiar with a bunch of modern Shakespearean re-envisions but this might be my favorite. The depth by which Atwood is able to retell The Tempest within her new setting while also having the actual Shakespearean play unfold as a plot point within that story is genius.
3. 2666 (2008) by Roberto Bolano – This is a large book (900 pages) but after only afew pages I already found myself invested in the story. Bolano’s intention was that the book be sold as five separate parts before being sold as one collected volume. Each part has a different but related story that converges into one brilliant storyline at the very end. The two parts dealing with fictional author Archimboldi (books 1 and 5) were my favorites but all were good. Bolano creates an epic tale that spans characters across the world. The result is well worth the long read. The only detraction is that the collected volume starts with an introduction that says it was Bolano’s dying wish that the books be released separately before being released as one volume but the publisher and Bolano’s family disagreed and published the collected version first. What is the goal of making a point to emphasize you went against a dying man’s last wish? Other than that, great book.
2. The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro – On its surface this book is a fable that recounts an old couple wandering the lands in a post Arthurian world, looking for a son that left them long ago. In that context, the story was worth 4 stars for me until I got to the ending, which I didn’t care for. However, I interpret the entire story as an allegory for an old couple looking back on their relationship together and all the struggles and decisions they had to make over decades together. Everything–the candles, the dragon, the fog, the warrior–are all devices to continue the metaphor of a relationship that went through tremendous challenges over the years. In that context, the story is superb and the ending is not only satisfying, it is perfect and incredibly touching.
1. Manuscript Found in Accra (2013) by Paulo Coelho – Another great book by Coelho, and maybe my favorite of his outside of ‘The Alchemist’. Coelho is at his very best here, using the story to convey wisdom of the world and lessons to help the reader feel like they can understand the nature of life. If you found Coelho because of ‘The Alchemist’, I would definitely recommend either this book or ‘The Zahir’ as the book of his that most provides a comparable experience.
Honorable mention. The Great Train Robbery (1979) by Michael Crichton – This isn’t included in the top 5 because it was my second time reading it. I originally read this in middle school and loved it. It was one of the reasons I spent a childhood summer reading everything I could find by Crichton and I think it might be my favorite of all of his books. It has a great blend of historical fiction, nonfiction, and the author’s natural ability to provide a sense of excitement and adventure. Highly recommended even if you typically only enjoy Crichton’s science fiction.