Winter break brings not only presents and relief from classes, but also often a bit of free time. How to spend all that wonderful free time?
Of course, you could spend it preparing for your spring classes, but that’s no fun. Instead, how about a good book? That question may stroke anxiety in choosing for some, but luckily the HAC faculty are here with some recommendations for their favorite books of 2017. So, if you happen to have an Amazon gift card burning a hole in your pocket–read on!
Dr. Jeanette Goddard
Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel
Hilarious book about three friends who have just graduated from college. The most promising of the three graduates loses her way and ends up working as an admissions counselor for a prestigious prep school in NYC. Her growth from hapless to a professional adult is funny with heart.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
This is a meandering novel in which the main character – an old Lillian – walks the streets of NYC on New Year’s Eve pondering her life which includes being an ad writer, a mother, and now a grandmother.
Himself by Jess Kidd
Part mystery, part thriller, and part supernatural comedy, a young man comes back to where he was born to find out what happened to his mother (murdered) and in the process uncovers several closely kept secrets in the small Irish town.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
There are moments of the novel that are overly didactic, but it is a compelling and powerful examination of sports culture and what it does to boys, a town, and a girl that, through no fault of her own, gets in way of the team winning.
Dr. Cassandra Bausman
Lincoln and the Bardo by George Saunders
The new (and first) George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is beautiful. A polyphonic masterwork of imagination and empathy, it takes place over a single night when President Lincoln visits the graveyard where his young son has been laid to rest. Despite the short time span and seemingly quiet premise, Saunders pens an epic tale. Lincoln’s grief plays into the worries of modern Americans in its epic, panoramic experience, the novel tackling a wide range of topics—death, grief, fatherhood, war, good vs. evil, to name a few—with the help of characters both living and dead. It won’t be for everyone–I can see people alienated by the form or the thorny racial politics involved in turning back to 1860s Washington, DC. But it’s powerful and important (and you don’t have to believe me! It’s currently cluttering many year’s best lists and has already collected the Man Booker Prize).
Here’s a taste of one of the most powerful passages in the book where two characters (one straight, one gay, in this case) basically inhabit one another, enter each other’s past and perspective in a visceral way. The experience is an overwhelming “astonishment.” “Why had we not done this before?” a character asks; “We would be infused with some trace of one another forevermore.” That level of perfect empathy–fully inhabiting the perspective of another human–and the promise of its ghostly “trace” staying with you forever is literature’s greatest accomplishment and its most profound illusion. Yet even in the face of what we know is failure–we can never fully understand or experience someone else’s life–we have to strive for that impossible empathy. We have to keep asking, “Why had we not done this before?” Lincoln asked those questions. Saunders’ book asks them, and insists that readers ask them, too. It’s a stunningly lovely text.
The audiobook is also wonderful, and does an amazing job of capturing the polyphonic tapestry of the novel: it’s read by a record-breaking cast of 166 actors (one for every character)! It’s an experience not to be missed.
The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff
And, since nobody really comes specifically to me for recommendations of high literary fiction, here’s the fantasy book that (unexpectedly) impressed me most this year.
I almost missed this one because of its premise—bad-ass teen with shadow powers, accompanied by pet (not) cat and (not) wolf, becomes an assassin to avenge her murdered family and topple an unjust roman-esque republic. It felt eye-rollingly familiar, an assemblage of and testament to the uninventiveness of contemporary YA tropes littering the fantasy landscape. But that, as it turns out, is part of its genius. Kristoff, in fact, has an abundance of fresh ideas and images. The books rollick along, full of action and intrigue and his world-building, for all the fun it has in playing with and off the dominant popular imaginary, remains pretty top-notch. But they really are also a fascinating digestion and reflection (through a glass, or a “nevernight” or “truedark,” darkly) of many trends dominating contemporary fantasy—There’s a touch of Rothfuss in the behind-the-curtain-of-a-legend narration; an awareness, unslavish, of grimdark; a heavy dose of Bardugo and Lynch’s fantastic fun with hero-characters from the underbelly, the con, the snap of dialogue and narrative pace. The books gleefully twist at major, established properties, the giants in a reader’s mental storyscape: the first book pivots on the Hogwarts experience, the school of magic now made one for assassins, the second, in its gladiatorial focus, bouncing, knowingly, off the residue of The Hunger Games. It could seem cheap and lazy; instead, it’s sharp and just buckets of fun. In almost every line, it’s clear that Kristoff is simply having a blast in his fantasy sandbox. He’ll make you have one, too. (He guides you through his story like a heel-clicking, demented, coked-out concierge. There’s a memorable meta-footnote about a ‘wretchworm’ where he’s just cackling with unbridled, totally self-indulgent glee, loving it, and knowing you, do, too.). It’s a glorious ride to be on. More people should be talking about this one. Book 3 hopefully arrives soon.
*Fair-warning, ‘gentle reader,’ as Kristoff would dub you: though the books do feel like YA fantasy in focus and structure (and teen protagonist Mia), there’s more sex, swearing, and bloody stabbing than full shelves of ‘adult’ fantasy combined.
Dr. Tim Hopp
The Totalitarians by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
I’m always looking for plays to produce, and although I could tell it isn’t something we could do here (adult content, language, and politics), I had to read it because of the first line in its description online: “We might be on the brink of revolution in Nebraska.” I don’t care what the content is anymore; I just had to read it. The script didn’t disappoint me. The story was about a speech writer for the dumbest candidate ever who was running to be governor for Nebraska and the speech writer’s husband who fell in with a group of people who believed that there was a governmental conspiracy that needed to be revolted against. What I really enjoyed most was Nachtrieb’s use of language.
Rebecca Mann (Writing Center Coordinator)
Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly
Trouble is a Friend of Mine is a quick young adult read with the perfect mix of humor and mystery. Zoe Webster is the new girl in town hoping to fit in when she meets and becomes Philip Digby’s new confidant and partner in crime. Working to solve the kidnapping of a local teen, Zoe learns to handle both school and Digby’s vaguely legal schemes. Schemes that will keep you laughing and wanting more by the end of the novel.
Professor Justin Young
Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
Upfront, I have to give full credit to HAC alum Denise Draper for recommending this book to me. There are probably a dozen or more books about Pixar, but her recommendation sent me to this particular one and I am glad it did. Catmull is one of the original founders of the company—long before it was the household name it is today. I guess it’s really a management book, but one geared toward managing without stifling creativity. If that sounds impossible, Catmull acknowledges the herculean task.
However, what I found was most gripping were the honest admissions of failures. It isn’t often that Hollywood insiders discuss failure because it often burns bridges, but Catmull’s management insight is that addressing failure head-on is not only beneficial, but necessitated in a creative environment. He probes some Pixar projects that fell apart and often lays equal blame at his own feet, especially from the position as “boss.” Candor is not what you expect from a management book, but then I guess Pixar has never done things the way they’re supposed to.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
I’ve loved Alexis ever since seeing the film Smoke Signals, adapted from his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, in college inspired me to read his work. This work, a memoir of his mother, is the rawest piece I’ve read by him. It’s pain, excitement and heartbreak in equal measure. While few of us can probably relate to the tortured relationship he had with his alcoholic mother, we can all relate to the coming to grips with who are parents were to us as children, and who they actually turned out to be. In that gulf Alexie proves again he’s one of America’s best writers.