Mary Ann Gwinn’s favorite books of 2017

Fiction, history, biography — and a local gem.

Lit Life

This might be the most satisfying column I’ve written this year — my favorite books of 2017. Here’s a key distinction: “favorite,” not “best,” because reading a book involves a mysterious alchemy between the reader and the author. I grew up in a small town and I’m drawn to novels with a small but interconnected group of characters, so my three favorite novels reflect that. A Cold War baby, I am mesmerized by Russia, and I love a well-written work of history for its lessons that there is nothing really new under the sun.

I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but these are the ones that have stayed with me — fiction, nonfiction, biography, history.


Improvement” by Joan Silber (Counterpoint). This gorgeously written novel, funny and full of heart, follows several characters in the life of Reyna, a tattooed single mom with a rambunctious son, a boyfriend in Rikers and a wise aunt who has seen it all. Each chapter tells a story. I loved every one of them.

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York” by Francis Spufford (Scribner). In 1746 a young Englishman steps off the boat and into the bucolic village of Manhattan with a bill for 1,000 pounds sterling, payable to the bearer. He presents it to a shocked merchant, who needless to say doesn’t have the money, sparking gossip, conspiracy theories and suspicions of espionage in a town whose residents are just as ambitious and scheming as their modern counterparts. “Golden Hill” is part adventure, part romance and part mystery; it adds up to an immensely satisfying story, told with a moral authority that will have you thinking about the ending long after you’re done.

Most Read Stories

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Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Random House). The follow-up to Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton,” in these nine linked stories Strout, the author of “Olive Kitteridge” follows several characters whose lives are anchored in a small Illinois town. Old hurts are unearthed, new affections form and there’s a surprise (not necessarily a good one) embedded in every story. Strout is gifted with a graceful, austere prose style and an eerie talent for peering into the bruised recesses of the human heart.

Politics and History

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia” by Masha Gessen (Riverhead). Gessen, a…

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