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Chip MacGregor

December 23, 2016

What’s the BEST BOOK you read in 2016?

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As we wrap up the past year and move into the new one, I’m going to be back on the blog — taking a look at some of the top publishing stories, making some predictions for the future, and getting back to answering your questions about writing and publishing. But first, I’d like your input on one question:

What was the best book you read this year?

I do this at the end of every year, just so I can start to put together a reading list and see what others have found interesting. The title can be fiction or nonfiction. It could be a new book that released this year, or some great book from prior years that you’ve just discovered, but I’d like to know what your best read was in 2016.

Here’s my list of the top ten books I read this year, in no particular order:

The Return, by Hisham Matar. The true story of a boy from Libya, whose father, an outspoken critic of Qaddafi, simply “disappeared” one day. Twenty years later, the boy (now a writer) goes back to try and find traces of what happened. Beautiful writing and an insightful look at politics and violence. This is the sort of book that makes you see the world with new eyes.

One Summer: America 1927by Bill Bryson. I love history, and this year read a long list of great history titles — Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers and The Johnstown FloodShirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and several others. But Bryson’s book, which seems to have been overlooked amidst all of his cute travel tales, offered a wonderfully engaging exploration of another time in American history. Babe Ruth, Cool Cal, the strange pilot Charles Lindbergh, the self-important Hoover, and the rest of the cast of 1927 make this a fun history book to read.

The Time Mom met Hitler, Frost came to Dinner, and I heard the Greatest Story Ever Told, by Dikkon Eberhart. My guess is you haven’t even heard of this book — it was the editor who sent me a copy of this memoir and encouraged me to read it. My lord, what a story. The author’s father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and America’s Poet Laureate under Kennedy, and he grew up in a house filled with every famous writer of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. (Imagine being a kid and having Robert Frost drop by to talk poetry, or Dylan Thomas wander in at night to read you bedtime stories.) I found this book engaging and fascinating, and encourage all writers to pick up a copy. And my thanks to Carol Traver at Tyndale for sending it to me!

Ruinedby Ruth Everhart. Okay, I try to never list the books I represent on my list of year’s best… but in this case, I have to make an exception. The author of this memoir was a nice, Christian girl attending a private Christian college in Grand Rapids, when one Sunday she and her roommates had their house broken into and were raped at gunpoint. Her story explores the practical, emotional, and spiritual struggles she went through, how those around her responded, and how it shaped her life and her theology. It’s so honest and powerful you’ll find yourself changed by her story.

Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson. I fell in love with her blog and her first book, Let’s Pretend this Never Happenedwhich was perhaps the funniest title I’d read in ten years. So I picked up this one expecting to laugh… and discovered it’s the author’s memoir about living with mental illness (in both her family and herself). It’s poignant, disturbing, and sometimes very funny. Not what I expected, but a very good read.

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, by Keith Houston. Um… okay, this may not be the most engaging title you ever buy, but as a guy who has worked in publishing all his life, I LOVED his re-telling of paper and woodcuts and Gutenberg. I always enjoy haranguing people at writers’ conferences on the history of books, because I fear people will forget what a wonderful story we have in publishing, so I’m including this one because it was simply a personal favorite, covering a topic I love. So there.

Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor, by Clinton Romesha. The fact is, I didn’t ever expect to include this story about a battle over a remote US Army base in Afghanistan on my list of best books… but this first-hand account, written by the Medal of Honor-winning author, transcends the genre. It’s far better than Lone Survivor or American Sniper or one of the run-of-the-mill military hero stories. The book digs into the details of what it’s like to be there, with hundreds of enemy gunmen shooting at you, explains what happened, and offers an insider’s view that is downright fascinating.

The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan. This is a collection of stories and essays by a young woman who died in a car accident before she was discovered, or even before she could start her grown-up life. The craft was so fabulous I found myself tearing up just at the beauty of her language. I love finding great talent, and I’m only sorry we’ll never see anything more from Ms Keegan. A lovely, moving book.

The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore. Two guys with the same name, born a couple blocks apart, but their worlds are completely different — one a Rhodes Scholar, the other in prison for murder. This narrative nonfiction isn’t perfect, but it’s a fascinating story of the different paths our lives and choices (and sometimes color and neighborhoods and education) help create. Worth reading in tandem with The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

Good grief… I’ve listed nine books so far, and they’re all nonfiction. Sorry! Guess it shows my reading tendencies. I was going to add Annie Dillard’s The Abundance to my list, since it’s certainly one of the best collections I’ve read in ages, but… well, so I don’t give too little attention to the novels, let me mention that, of all the fiction I read this year, three titles stand out…

All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, Olivayby Deborah Reed, and The Book Thiefby Markus Zusak, were the best novels I read this year. (And yeah, none of them actually came out this year, and I should have read them a long time ago… so sue me. I read more nonfiction.) All three of these titles will move you and give you insight into what’s most important in our world. If you’re looking for great writing instead of run-of-the-mill storytelling, check these out. (And yes, I would undoubtedly have listed The Underground Railroadbut I haven’t finished it yet, so I didn’t think it was fair to list a title I’d not yet completed. That’ll make it to NEXT year’s list.)

Okay, so that was more than ten books. I was never the best in math class anyway. But these were my favorite reads of the year. Now it’s your turn… What were the best books you read in 2016? 

 

 

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35 Comments

  • I almost didn’t post because I am so late; sorry to be one of those readers who catches up in 2 month batches. 🙂
    The best books I read this year were all ones I worked on; with last year and this year governed by back surgeries and physical therapy, I haven’t carved time for anything else. But there were some great ones! A few aren’t out yet, but the ones that are:
    – Same Kind of Different as Me – Hall and Moore
    – The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent – Damiani
    – Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis – Bauman and Soerens
    – Between Pain and Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering – Schmutzer and Peterman

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Natalie. I’ve not yet read “Between Pain and Grace,” but you’re the second person who has mentioned it to me. I’ll have to read that one.

  • bryandrew says:

    Six historical, three tragedies

  • Mary Langer Thompson says:

    Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (Harper Collins, 2007) by Buechner, and I’m so happy to have found him. He speaks of faith issues not from “on high,” although he’s been an ordained minister for over fifty years, but as one of us who struggle with doubt and how we “…must learn to ignore the voice of the skeptic in all of us and go on praying in spite of it.” (XV) He wants us to really listen as the Bible is being read on Sunday morning because “there is no telling what you might hear.” The same is true of this book as the author talks about characters like Jacob, St. Paul, Doubting Thomas, and others. I underlined many of the parts of this book and had to set it down to think many times, often teary-eyed. He believes God speaks to us more often than we realize and that we have to be careful with our lives because they matter enormously.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Frederick Buechner is one of the most profound writers of our era, Mary, and it’s a shame more people don’t know of him. I’ve long thought Buechner, Brennan Manning, and Henry Nouwen were the best spiritual writers of my lifetime. Glad you said something.

  • David Rawlings - Author says:

    Merry Christmas to you and thanks for saving me research time on new titles to read Chip!

    I’ve read a lot this year, but the two that stood out were:

    The Five Times I Met Myself by Jim Rubart. Just a great story that I couldn’t put down.

    The Bones Beneath by Mark Billingham. This one had such a good twist that I had to re-read it immediately to see how he’d spun the story in such a way that I couldn’t see it coming.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Don’t you love it when you come to the end of a book, and immediately flip it back over and start again to see what you missed? I remember doing that with “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (perhaps the most intricately plotted novel I’ve ever read), then with “The Perfect Storm,” and with “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Great writing!

  • Tammera Ayers says:

    I’m know I’m joining the tail-end of this discussion, but I had to think about this. I’ve read several books the latter half of this year but couldn’t pin point one that stood out above the others, at first. Then I remembered a memoir I read while researching life in the Appalachian’s of Eastern KY. Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance came out earlier this year, and I probably shouldn’t admit to it, but the author’s experience resonated with me. He and his family moved from Eastern KY to West-Central Ohio and brought their cultural norms with them (as did many other families from this area in the early to late 80’s). I live in this same area of Ohio and while my family is not from poor Appalachia, our community certainly has been influenced by the culture–a society that accepts less than mediocrity as a norm. For many, there is little expectation, or even know-how, for a better life. Vance tells how he broke the norm and eventually went on to become a graduate of Duke Law. While I’ve not been that successful, I am the first college graduate in my family, and I certainly don’t settle for mediocrity. Just ask my kids.

  • Lois Keffer says:

    I am in the world of Outlander and will surface in two months or so. I’ve rarely found myself so enchanted by the sheer power of extraordinary writing. That is not to say that I wouldn’t jump at the chance to cut two or three hundred pages from her later books. These volumes mark the soul and the characters live on in the heart. One great highlight for me is the chilly but growing rapport between Papists and Prezzies. The scenes between a dearly dedicated preacher gone to teach predestination to the Indians led to a gallbladder attack.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Outlander… a series I hear great things about, but I”ve never read because it’s just not in my wheelhouse, Lois. Holly tells me it’s amazing.

  • More books to add to the reading list, thank you! I loved The Book Thief, interesting POV for sure. And The Time Mom Met Hitler…sounds fascinating. My favorites this year have been Morrell’s Inspector of the Dead (great setting-Crimean War-and odd characters) and Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. I’m reading the latter slowly, almost digestively (ew).

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think “Walking on Water” is one of those profound books that every writer should read, Amanda. Appreciate you mentioning it.

  • Sandy Conrad says:

    Thank you so much for the list Chip! I am a watcher of lists…book club you know, and appreciate the enthusiastic endorsements. The best book of my reading year was The Break by Katherena Vermette. Katherena is a Metis writer and she tells the story of a rape on a bleak piece of property in Winnipeg. There is so much connection and relationship in this book that the sadness of the story is overwhelmed by hope– the characters carry the day, without sacrificing intense plotting perfection.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Then by all means take a look at Ruth Eberhart’s RUINED, Sandy. You’ll be incredibly moved.

  • lynn says:

    I read gobs of books this year (did the Tim Challies Reading Challenge; check out this year’s if you’re interested http://www.challies.com/resources/the-2017-christian-reading-challenge). But if I had to pick one absolute favorite, the one at the top of the list would be The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It by Lawrence S. Ritter. This is an older book (came out in the ?60s, maybe) but it came highly recommended by a couple of baseball nuts who have read a lot of sports books. The author went back and interviewed many professional players from the early 1900s up to maybe the 1940s and recorded their experiences playing in the big leagues in their own words. Fascinating how that world has changed over the years. For baseball fans, this one is a must read.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I love “The Glory of Their Times,” and have read it three times, I think. A great oral history of baseball. Really glad you mentioned it, Lynn. And yes, a must read for baseball fans.

  • Betty Cowart says:

    Thanks, Chip! I’ll have to check out your titles on Amazon; I’m always looking for new authors. Here’s my list of ten, in no particular order:

    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    First the Dead by Tim Downs
    True Grit by Charles Portis
    When the Heart Cries by Cindy Woodsmall
    Welcome to the Monkey House (short story collection) by Kurt Vonnegut
    A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
    Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
    The Willows (short story collection) by Algernon Blackwood

    and my only non-fiction entry:
    Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences by Matthew Christopher

    As a writer, I enjoy reading across genres and generations….

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for the list, Betty. I think I’ve read all of the fiction on that list except for the Arthur C Clarke novel, but that nonfiction book sounds fascinating. I’ll check it out. Merry Christmas!

  • Joe Lewis says:

    Merry Christmas Chip – I would have said “Red Platoon.” I read it once, then went back through to take notes on the military equipment and capabilities for use in future novels and found myself re-reading it again instead.
    Joe Lewis

  • I’d add Anthony Doerr’s “Four Seasons in Rome” to your list. It’s about his experience living in Rome for a year on a fellowship with his wife and two baby twins. He was in Rome working on the book you mention, “All the Light we Cannot See.” A great description of trying to fit into this ancient city and culture, while struggling with raising two boys who turn one during their year there. Anthony is actually going to be a keynote speaker at the “Search for Meaning Festival” at Seattle University on Saturday, February 25. Can’t wait to hear him.
    “All the Light we Cannot See” was great, but he made some mistakes in military terminology that could have been easily caught by an editor with a military background. Still an excellent story.
    Merry Christmas to you and your team!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve heard a few people rave about “Four Seasons in Rome,” Dennis. Thanks for the tip. It sounds like a good book for writers and those in publishing to check out.

  • Lucy Thompson says:

    Rarely have time to read these days. Life…so busy. The best book I read out of the handful that I DID manage to squeeze in: “Lady and the Lionheart” by Joanne Bischof. Beautiful story. Oh and “Marrying Miss Kringle: Ginger” by Lucy MacConnell. GREAT story about Santa’s daughter having to marry by Christmas. I loved it and I don’t even like Christmas stories. 😉 Sue me. Turns out I’m not good at maths either.

    Loved “The Book Thief”. I read it as it was recommended as a great example of omniscient pov done well–and they were right. Markus is an Aussie so that makes him ok in my books too. 🙂

    Merry Christmas, Chip and everyone else reading this. <(:)

  • Paula Bicknell says:

    The book Ruined deeply touched me. It was so honest and brave and gripping. I couldn’t put it down. One truth in Ruined deeply embedded in my heart, “the human skin is the most washable thing there is…” After being sexually assaulted in high school, I never felt clean again until I became a Christian years later. I sat and wept while reading Ruined. Please thank the writer, Ruth for me. I just wanted to hug her and thank her for being so brave and sharing her healing wisdom after I finished her powerful book.

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