In 2017, I added a category to my book-rating system.
A collection of short stories forced the change — a 300-page paperback I picked up from the Books To Go table at one of our many (and wonderful) branch libraries.
If you are a previous reader of My Year in Books columns, you know I use old-fashioned library due-date cards to rate my reading — and to help me remember the many stories that have graced my coffee table and filled my travel bag in the preceding 12 months.
Books that earn an A or a B or the occasional C or the rare DNF (did not finish). And now for the first time, a new acronym in the due-date column. OOML: Out of my league.
“Nightstand reading for MENSA members,” I’d scribbled below the grade for sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s collection, “Stories of Your Life.”
Chiang's fans may feel free to enlighten me, and the rest of you may take my intellectual deficiencies into account as you peruse the rest of this year’s list, which for the first time — at the urging of readers — includes audio books.
Let’s start with those.
Here are the best of the many stories that played out in my Hyundai last year:
The final two volumes of the Harry Potter series. (I’d listened to the first five and J.K. Rowling’s adult novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” in 2016.) My grade: A's all around.
If you’ve read Rowling’s works, but haven’t listened to Jim Dale read them, you must. (Note: Apparently, there is a huge dust-up over which of the Rowling narrators is the ultimate Potter channeler, but since I haven’t heard Stephen Fry’s versions, I shall remain neutral.)
“American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst,” by Jeffrey Toobin. I was fascinated by the detailed account of Hearst’s captivity, but the pomposity of the narrator — a cross between “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and the “Forensic Files” — was grating, Dahling. Grade: B
On the other hand, “Shutter Island,” by Dennis Lehane, was excellent from start to mind-blowing finish. (A+)
I can also recommend “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead and “Just Mercy,” read by its author, Bryan Stevenson. (Keep Kleenex handy and may your outrage move you to action.) (A)
A few others worth a drive-time listen: “Wilde Lake,” by Laura Lippman and “When Will There Be Good News?” by Kate Atkinson.
Finally, my favorites. A pair of Kent Haruf novels I’d read years ago. “Benediction,” the story of a dying man looking back at his life, and “Eventide,” the tale of two bachelor brothers and their small-town neighbors. Each was read by a different narrator, each of them embodied that prose. (This line stopped me cold: “She became part of the history of the town, like the wallpaper in the old houses.”)
Haruf died in 2014. His novel “Plainsong” was the first One Book-One Lincoln and it was my great pleasure to meet the author, a man as earthy and spare as his fictionalized subjects.
In the books on paper category, I managed to finish 40 titles, a slight dip from my previous years’ totals. (Sad! Too much time spent on Twitter, a transgression I resolve to not repeat in 2018.)
A sampling of the A List:
“The Soul of an Octopus,” by Sy Montgomery. This fascinating look at the many-tentacled sea creature was recommended to me by Pat Leach, director of Lincoln City Libraries. And it did not disappoint. I promise, you will never look at octopi the same way again. Although you might not want to shake hands with one.
“A Warrior of the People,” by Joe Starita, my former city editor and a helluva writer and reporter. The meticulously researched book introduced me to Susan La Flesche, America’s first Indian doctor, who cared for the Omaha people in every sense of the word. My book note: “I want more.” Enuf said.
“Katharina and Martin Luther,” by Lincoln's own Michelle DeRusha. My Lutheran upbringing, my feminist sensibilities and my fascination with the period made this work an illuminating page-turner.
“The Barrens,” by Joyce Carol Oates. “Was Oates a serial killer in another life? Discuss.”
“Homegoing,” by Yaa Gyasi. “Human spirit and the weaving of families told beautifully through the horrors of slavery and racism.”
“Leaving the Pink House,” by Ladette Randolph. “What a beautiful memoir and home renovation tick-tock. Loved the delicate web of stories.” (Note: the book is set in Nebraska, and the pink house is in the heart of Lincoln.)
“A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles. I was prepared not to like a novel set in a fancy Moscow hotel, but my book note shows I flipped like Michael Flynn: “Savored every page — a rare book that I did not want to see end.”
“Hellhound on His Trail,” by Hampton Sides. I read the gripping account of the FBI hunt for James Earl Ray after a visit to Memphis and the rooming house where Ray carried out the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed; I was not.)
“The Water’s Lovely,” by Ruth Rendell. I hate to let a year go by without reading a book by the British mystery master.
“Julieta,” by Alice Munro. And they can write in Canada, too. “Love how these stories dovetail and make up an unexpected whole.”
“Little Jewel,” by Patrick Modiano. “Poignant story of loss and longing, full of holes and light.” (Don’t ask me what this means, I read the book last January.)
“Killers of the Flower Moon,” by David Grann. Nonfiction account of the Osage tribe of Oklahoma and its oil rights. A chilling tale of greed and murder that reads like a novel.
“Small Great Things,” by Jodi Picoult. “Does it take a white woman writing about race to make white readers SEE racism? Perhaps.” (Think about that.)
On to the B List:
After reading 750 pages of “Confessions of a Young Nero,” by Margaret George, I’ve come to the conclusion Nero was maligned by historians. (I was also disappointed to learn the ancient ruler grew old and thus George is working on a second novel about the guy who did not fiddle while Rome burned.)
“The Quiet Child,” by John Burley. “Moments of suspense and periods of plodding. Needed a few more threads.”
“Unsub,” by Meg Gardiner. “Too graphic and too commercial. Plus cheap sequel ploy!” (The year’s only exclamation mark!)
I read a number of books that landed on my desk this year written by local authors. Kudos to Amy Knox Brown, author of “What is Gone,” Pete Allman’s “Shrink-proof Your Life,” and “The Legend of Silent Horse” by Donald Author Clark. (I was especially touched by Jim Sizemore’s account of his late wife’s cancer journey, “Dianne’s Blessing.” The book was a blessing to me.)
I’m ending 2017 in the middle of “A Thin Bright Light,” by Lucy Jane Bledsoe — love, love, love this book.
And on my nightstand: “Rise to Greatness,” by David Von Drehle; “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,” by Dai Sijie; and “This Blessed Earth,” by Ted Genoways. (Yes, I read a Mary Higgins Clark novel this year, "All By Myself, Alone" and I’ll probably read another in 2018.)
Here’s wishing you all 365 days of words and the worlds they bring to life.