2017 Favorite Books

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

As has become my tradition, I’m starting 2018 by recounting my favorite reading experiences from 2017. (That doesn’t mean these books were released in 2017, by the way.)

Oh, and I have an announcement at the bottom of this page about some changes we’re making to the blog. So if you’re not inclined to read about my favorite books, feel free to scroll to the bottom.

Now, back to talking about books.

For me, I had two standouts.

H is for Hawk makes my 2017 Favorite Books List

H is for Hawk has a fine list of credentials

*One of the New York Times Book Review‘s 10 Best Books of the Year

*ON MORE THAN 25 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR LISTS: including TIME (#1 Nonfiction Book), NPR, O, The Oprah Magazine (10 Favorite Books), Vogue (Top 10), Vanity Fair, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle (Top 10), Miami Herald, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Minneapolis Star Tribune (Top 10), Library Journal (Top 10), Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Slate, Shelf Awareness, Book Riot, Amazon (Top 20)

* Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award
* Shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction
* Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Award in Nonfiction
* The Costa Book of the Year
* Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize

What the book is about

Brit Helen Macdonald writes this memoir and nature book as she reflects on how her father’s death sent her into a tailspin. Struggling to regain control of her life, she decides to raise one of the most challenging creatures to tame, a goshawk named Mabel. As Macdonald devotes herself to this daunting task, she finds Mabel pulls her into the outdoors and makes her observant about life–and death. For goshawk’s must hunt. Without hunting, they become despondent. So Macdonald enters into the quest for Mabel’s meals eventually with such zest that she actually assists Mabel in a twisted and disturbing manner to win the foraging battles. In an odd way the relationship with Mabel pulls the author back from depression and into life and able to process the loss of her father.

Why I am enthralled with it

As off-putting as that description might make the book seem, it’s masterfully written. Sentence after sentence took my breath away. Here are a few samples of writing clean, simple descriptions that clear the way for meaty imagery that moves from shocking to beautiful.

On the second page of the book, Macdonald writes that few people see a goshawk make a kill. “But maybe you have: maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you have ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.” Or again, on the next page: “Have you ever watched a deer walking out from cover? They step, stop, and stay, motionless, nose to the air, looking and smelling. A nervous twitch might run down their flanks. And then, reassured that all is safe, they ankle their way out of the brush to graze.”

And I cared about not only Macdonald and Mabel, with her fiercely wild heart, but also about T. H. White, an arthurian novelist and falconer who chronicled his falconry attempts in books that Macdonald had loved since a child. That the author is able to create such a clear link between her work with a goshawk and White’s with his is part of what makes the book exquisite. And heartbreaking. For White fails to train his goshawk and loses her to the wild when his patience is overtaken by personal demons.

Why others were enraptured by it

Critics wrote about H is for Hawk in this way:

“Breathtaking . . . Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence—and her own—with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering.” —Vicki Constantine Croke, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book, H Is for Hawk, reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative. . . . [An] instant classic.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times

“Captivating and beautifully written, it’s a meditation on the bond between beasts and humans and the pain and beauty of being alive.” —People (Book of the Week)

And finally, be prepared

I hope some of what I’ve written about H is for Hawk prepares you for one aspect of the book that set me back on my heels: It’s full of bloody honesty. About what it’s like to watch a goshawk go in for the kill. About what it’s like when Macdonald loses her sense of humanity and becomes too connected to Mabel. And about what it’s like to feel that death has its talons in you and won’t let go. The author writes about all this dispassionately, as from a great distance, which happens to be true. She wrote looking back on how she recovered her sense of self through the rough ministrations of Mabel.

Lab Girl makes my 2017 Favorite Books List

I wrote about Lab Girl recently so I won’t go into great detail about it here. But you can read more here.

Just as a quick reminder, this also is a memoir. I guess 2017 turned into a bit of a memoir fest for me.

What awards Lab Girl won

*Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography

*A New York Times Notable Book

*Winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Science Books & Film Prize for Excellence in Science Books

*Finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

*One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post, TIME.com, NPR, Slate, Entertainment Weekly, NewsdayMinneapolis Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews

What the book is about

Amazon’s review of the book did a fine job of summarizing it, so I’m going to offer a portion of the reviewer’s words to you rather than my own.

“I was doubtful that I would like this book. While I appreciate a beautiful flower as much as the next city-girl, the thought of reading a whole book about a geobiologist– a scientist who spends her life studying plants, trees, soils as well as flowers–made me want to run to the nearest dysfunctional family memoir about crazy parents and their wounded children. But Hope Jahren won me over very quickly. Somehow she knows me: “the average person [who] cannot imagine himself staring at dirt for longer than the twenty seconds needed to pick up whatever object he just dropped.” And she doesn’t judge. Instead, she just tells her story, which, it turns out has a lot to do with plants and science, of course…but also has a lot to do with other things. Like life, for instance, and friendship and passion and love, for ideas, for work and for all living beings, including–shocker!–people…. And if Jahren can surprise you about all that messy human stuff, just think how she can change your feelings about dirt.” –Sara Nelson

Why I’m enthralled with it

It’s smart, funny, caring, and captivating.  Jahren’s self-deprecating depiction of herself is winsome and honest, and her intense enjoyment of plants really did make me care about them and dirt as I never dreamed I would.

What others say about it

Lab Girl surprised, delighted, and moved me. I was drawn in from the start by the clarity and beauty of Jahren’s prose. . . . With Lab Girl, Jahren joins those talented scientists who are able to reveal to us the miracle of this world in which we live.” —Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

“Warm, witty . . . Fascinating. . . . Jahren’s singular gift is her ability to convey the everyday wonder of her work: exploring the strange, beautiful universe of living things that endure and evolve and bloom all around us, if we bother to look.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Deeply affecting. . . . A totally original work, both fierce and uplifting. . . . A belletrist in the mold of Oliver Sacks, she is terrific at showing just how science is done. . . . She’s an acute observer, prickly, and funny as hell.” —Elle

“Mesmerizing. . . . Deft and flecked with humor . . . a scientist’s memoir of a quirky, gritty, fascinating life. . . . Like Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir or Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, it delivers the zing of a beautiful mind in nature.”  —Seattle Times

And now, what about you?

Thank you for enduring my going on and on about these two books. Now it’s your turn. What book(s) made your 2017 the better for having read it (or them)?

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My announcement

And now, for my bit of news concerning our blog. After long discussions among the Books & Such agents, we’ve decided to spend less time writing posts and more time working on behalf of our clients. We love helping writers succeed in creating their very best manuscripts and venturing into the complex world of publishing. That hasn’t changed. We’re not abandoning the blog nor our desire to continue helping everyone who aspires to write a book; we’re just reducing our time commitment. The plan is for new posts to appear twice per week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We’ll follow our same order of appearance, with me leading off and then followed by Wendy, Rachelle, Cynthia, and Rachel. So look for Wendy’s post this Thursday; we’ll see you then.

19 Responses

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  1. Robin Gunn says:

    I just finished “This Life I’ve Loved” by Isobel Field. She was the step-daughter of Robert Louis Stevenson. The book was written nearly 100 years ago and has been on my list of Vintage Hawaiiana books for many years. My daughter found an original copy on eBay and surprised me for Christmas.
    Isobel lived in Hawaii during a fascinating time of change. Her first hand descriptions of people and places and events were luscious.

  2. I loved “Theft of Swords” that my husband recommended. Once in awhile it is so refreshing to read a story written for the other gender. A reminder of why men read, too. Such a fun high fantasy which is hilarious and epic and touches on the question of: if the young orphan was not rescued before he could be hardened by the hurts of the world, but became the criminal that he was heading to be, is there redemption, could he still become a hero in the end?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kristen Joy Wilks, I agree that it’s always good to read books that we aren’t naturally drawn to. Often someone in the book club I belong to will say, “I never would have read this book except for the club, but I’m glad I did.” It’s a great way to keep us thinking outside of time-worn boxes.

  3. Happy 2018, Janet!
    * Everything I’m reading now is keyed to nurturing the hope that there may yet BE hope, that my life may still contain one more bright and promising dawn.
    * To that end (and to an apt title), I’m currently re-reading…does that count?..Geoffrey Wellum’s “First Light”, one of the best books on flying ever written. I had my first realization of transcendence in an aeroplane, and flight has always been the medium in and by which my soul rejoices.
    * Interesting coincidence, I may also be reducing my blogging; not by choice, because it’s my only real connexion with the world. But when you have to take a break after writing one or two sentences to let pain fade…well. But on the other hand, that very limitation IS an inducement to write those sentences well.

  4. So my writing education will go forward at a slower pace–meaning, It will give me time to savor the lessons. I thank all of you for sharing your knowledge so generously. New year blessings to all!

  5. Carol Ashby says:

    One of the nice things about working way past midnight most evenings was seeing the new B&S blog that everyone would be responding to the next day. I am SO going to miss that. I am going to miss hearing from each of you every week. I understand the why of the decision, but we will all miss the daily community here. I looked forward to each agent’s unique take, anticipating what would await us on the day of the week that each of you always appeared.
    I’m so glad you aren’t disappearing completely, but I hope you do know that you will be missed much more than you think.

    • I so agree with Carol’s sentiments, and more. ‘Between The Lines’ has been a literal lifeline for me, a reason to get up and stay involved. In the face of a future that’s become more frightening that I could have imagined…and a longer fall than I or my doctor thought possible…this is an oasis not only of knowledge, but of love.
      * I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Thank you, Carol and Andrew, for expressing love of the community that has formed around our blog. It is an unforeseen blessing. I know it’s not the same rhythm, but each of us agents remains engaged. We love interacting with you all; so it’s a sweet sorrow to not be engaged as frequently.

  6. It isn’t a novel, but Not by Chance by Layton Talbert was a favorite read of this past year. It’s in-depth spiritual content that provides a great foundation for trying to navigate life as a Christian. I read it because my Christian Fiction book club selected it as the one non-fiction book we read each year. We’ve been together ten years now, and I’ve “met” some wonderful authors I might have missed thanks to these reading women.

  7. David Todd says:

    Almost finished with “Day of Battle” (50 pages left of 590) by Rick Atkinson. One of the best WW2 books I’ve read. It’s about the campaign in Sicily and Italy; my dad was in the latter, so I was interested in it.
    .
    No other books I read in 2017 came close to this. Didn’t get to read much fiction.

    • David, do go on to read Atkinson’s final book in the trilogy, “The Guns At Last Light”. It’s superb.
      * Also highly recommended is John McManus’ “The Dead And Those About To Die”, a narrative of Omaha Beach.

  8. Angela says:

    The Glass Castle was the read that stayed with me the most this year. It’s also a memoir. It’s a hard read, emotionally speaking, but so powerful. I loved it.

    It’s always good to read your posts, however often!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Angela, I so agree with you about The Glass Castle. It’s one of my all-time top memoirs. Whenever I recommend a memoir for a writer to read, The Glass Castle is #1 for me. I still vividly recall the book’s first chapter and how beautifully the author set up the book’s conflicts.

  9. I’ll miss the camaraderie of the daily posts here, but I certainly understand about the time being spent more wisely. And maybe that will inspire me to spend less time reading messages and comments and more time actually writing.

  10. Anne Riess says:

    I always enjoy reading this blog whenever I can. Thank you for all you put into it! i look forward to reading it Tuesdays and Thursdays.

  11. In thinking on this, maybe my favourite book from 2017 is the one I lived but didn’t write, called “Winning Ugly”.
    * ‘Cause it’s ugly beyond any desire for me to recount or even revisit (especially the last two weeks), but I’m still here.

  12. Lynn Horton says:

    Reducing the blogging to focus on the art of agenting makes perfect sense to me, Janet. I think it’s a smart move.