Five Favorite Books I Read in 2017

I chose poorly in 2017, which is perhaps why I was unable to reach my 40-book goal this year. (I’m still reading No. 32 The Man Who Smiled and listening to No. 33 Artemis). I selected no less than a dozen books that ended up being ho-hum or outright bad, which made my resolve for reading a weak one. Some books I didn’t even review on the blog, if that tells you how uninspired I was (Believing the Lie, The Graveyard Book, and more). Plus, four of the books I read this year were for my literature and creative writing class, so while they counted toward the total, I didn’t review them here.

Yet, since I read so many unremarkable books this year, choosing my favorite five was easy! (Original reviews are linked.)

  1. Ready Player One
    Hands-down, this is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read, and credit goes to Susan (of “Susan and Lesli”) for recommending it to me. Granted, I listened to it on Audible instead of reading it on paper, but if there was ever a book to listen to instead of read, it’s this one. Narrated by Wil Wheaton, Ready Player One is a love letter to the 80s kid who longs for the good old days of Family Ties reruns,  and Atari.
  2. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
    There are two time periods that capture my heart in equal measure. One is the back-to-back Tudor and Elizabethan Eras in England, and the other is the Roaring 20s, specifically the Lost Generation writers who lived an expat life abroad. Zelda Fitzgerald surely would’ve had a different life with access to proper mental health care. Alas, her tragedies flowed straight from her mixed-up mind into real life. If you are equally interested in the Fitzgeralds (and Hemingways), you’ll love Z. 
  3. The Great Divorce
    I’m not sure why it’s taken me until my late 30s to enjoy C.S. Lewis, but better late than never. In a time that feels spiritually void, The Great Divorce reminds me that God is always present and always listening, offering perfect love for our imperfect selves, and the white noise of our collective bickering is small potatoes when it comes to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. From a literary standpoint, I am all over the imagery and symbolism of The Great Divorce. The writing and message are a perfect pair.
  4. Wonderstruck
    I selected Wonderstruck as one of four novels I taught this semester in my literature and creative writing class, so there isn’t a stand-alone review to link (yet). Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck begins with two stories – Rose in Hoboken, 1927 and Ben in Minnesota, 1977. Rose’s story is told via illustration, while Ben’s is a traditional narrative. The pair of children seem to have nothing in common, but as each side unfolds we see that Rose and Ben have much in common, from their hearing impairments to their search for family. Told in three parts, Wonderstruck is a fast-paced, emotional tale of endurance and an exploration of what one might do to find a home. (Wonderstruck has been made into a film!)
  5. A Column of Fire
    Aside from Hogwarts, Kingsbridge is my favorite fictional setting and I was thrilled to go back there one last time. Just in time for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, A Column of Fire brings together several families – some Protestant, some Catholic, and a few who long for religious tolerance. Not only did it quench my thirst for the Elizabethan era, it was the perfect book to read after a series of duds. Per usual, I didn’t want it to end.

An honorable mention goes to Faceless Killers by Henning Menkell, the author of the Wallander series. If you’re into crime/thriller novels, and especially if you’ve watched the BBC TV show Wallander, check it out! I’m currently reading a second Menkell book (The Man Who Smiled) and have a third waiting in the wings. He’s joined the company of Tana French and Mo Hayder on my crime/thriller bookshelf.

My goal for 2018 is to MAKE BETTER CHOICES. I’m not sure where my brain went this year, but I wasted a lot of time on books I didn’t enjoy. Not again! Cheers!

Book Review: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Reading this book was an act of magnetism because I’ve been drawn to the Lost Generation writers and their work since I went to Key West in tenth grade to study Ernest Hemingway. The tragedy and drama surrounding these American writers is as addictive to me as the Tudor Dynasty and Elizabethan Era, which I have also studied for years.

The crazier, the better.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is a work of fiction, but it’s rooted in the well-documented adult life of Zelda and her megalomaniac husband. The story begins with a brief reflection of her privileged childhood in Montgomery, Alabama, the daughter of a judge and member of a high-society family. She had a wild spirit, one that didn’t mesh well with the expectations her parents had for her, so when she met Scott at a party one night, their mutual attraction was too strong to resist.

They didn’t run off and marry immediately, however. Zelda, in either her wisdom or foolishness, I can’t decide, wouldn’t agree to marry Scott until his literary career was officially underway. Talk of writing was very different from actual publishing, so when This Side of Paradise was on its way to print, Zelda finally agreed to marry her beloved novelist in a brief, non-Catholic ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

What transpired after was a whirlwind of drunken, dramatic days and nights which fueled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories and future novels. Zelda was his ultimate muse, even drawing from her personal diary and using her own works of fiction to pad his stories and earn more money for the family. They had one daughter, Scottie, and lived a glamorous expatriate life in Europe alongside Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and others.

Zelda was an original flapper girl, dumping the corset, bobbing her hair, and daring to wear pants. But underneath her boldness was a longing to be treasured and recognized for her own creativity and flair. She may have acted like she didn’t care, but perhaps it was that she cared too deeply. Zelda died tragically in hospital fire, some eight years after Scott died of a heart attack. They lived apart in their last years of life.

The Zelda novel is a delight and is a perfect companion to The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which is a fictional account of the expat experience from Hadley’s point of view, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. These women endured a mess of trouble on account of their husbands, but neither were without their own personal challenges and problems. Though Zelda’s early diagnosis of schizophrenia was later reframed as bipolar, so little was known about depression in her lifetime, and I wonder how different life could’ve been for her had she received modern medical help.

I highly recommend this book. 

On our way home from Destin, Chuck indulged me and stopped in Montgomery so I could visit the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. It’s the only museum in the country dedicated to them, and it’s situated in a house where they lived briefly in the 1930s.

Jeremy tagged along with me while Chuck took Jackson on a driving tour of Alabama State University, which is in the adjacent neighborhood. Jeremy isn’t yet familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, but after I told him that he’ll be reading a couple of his stories next year, he opted to join me, in spite of his disdain for old houses. (He thinks they’re all haunted.)

The museum is primarily newspaper clippings, personal letters and photos, and a hefty collection of Zelda’s artwork. It would take hours to read everything, so I perused the letters from the time periods I was most interested in, especially whenever Gertrude Stein and Hemingway were mentioned.

Below are first editions of This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned, and Tender is the Night.

Before leaving I snapped a photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Underwood, which is supposedly what he used when not writing longhand.

I gotta say – that made me smile.