The Best So Far

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I had no trouble at all last year coming up with a list of my ten favorite books. With 2017 coiming to an end, alas, all I can come up with are four titles that have engraved themselves upon my memory (no small feat, I assure you). Here are some capsule reviews of my choices (in no particular order).

Lincoln In the Bardo by George Saunders: Echoes of Thornton Wilder's Our Town and Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology resound through this beautifully written and emotionally powerful story about spirits in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln's son, Willie, was laid to rest. The restless inhabitants observe in awe as the bereaved President visits his child. Fiercely original and almost hypnotic in its ability to cast a spell over the reader that is both mournful and joyous.

The Locals by Jonathan Dee: The residents of a small town in the Berkshires manage to deal with life's little earthquakes until a wealthy hedge fund manager, who recently joined the selectboard, causes some seismic challenges. The struggle of middle-class Americans to stay afloat in a world increasingly driven by the relentless and oftentimes pitiless pursuit of money is at the heart of this powerful, unsettling, and involving novel. You will recognize people you know on its pages.

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash: Ella May has never had much of anything. She labors long hours in a textile mill in North Carolina trying to feed her four young children on $9 a week. Ella finds herself something of a local celebrity when she sings one of her songs at a meeting of workers hoping to form a union. Written in a beautifully evocative prose, this novel about bigotry and labor unrest in the 1930s exerts a powerful impact that pulls the reader into the vortex of the struggle for social justice. It deserves to assume a place of honor in the canon of great Southern literature. 

The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis: The first account by an historian of the tragic Donner Party saga. In April of 1846, encouraged by their belief in Manifest Destiny, a group of pioneers led by George Donner and James Reed left Springfield, Illinois bound for a better life in California. It was late in the year to begin the arduous trek, but the prospect of being hampered by blizzards in the Sierra Nevada mountains didn't deter them. The ensuing horror when the group found itself trapped by snow that reached a depth of 22 feet has entered into the realm of American legend. Mr. Wallis separates the facts from the sensational stories. His book is as much a tribute to human endurance as it is a cautionary tale about careless folly.

- Alden Graves

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