As the year draws to a close, it is a good time to compare notes on the best books of the year.  Here are five titles that deeply impressed me of the hundred or so I’ve read this year.  I share my top five with you in the spirit of exchanging ideas, so please email me with your best books of 2017!  Each of these also helps illuminate some aspect of global affairs, often in ways that can make us uncomfortable – the best books challenge us, and these are all in that category.

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman.  This is a break-your-heart-beautiful novel about the ambiguous border between Turkey and Syria.  Elliot Ackerman, a Fletcher graduate, combat Marine, White House Fellow, and CIA special forces operative, writes beautifully in lean, spare prose reminiscent of Hemingway at his best.  The plot revolves around a Quixotic mission to the most challenged border in the world.  It doesn’t end well – but the story shows the reader both the hope of the human spirit and the way tragedy can, in the end, elevate our lives.  A National Book Award finalist in fiction, this is a book that will stay with you forever.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. While a meticulously researched work of non-fiction (and another National Book Award short list finalist), this terrific book describes the killing of the Osage Oklahoma Indians in the 1920s — whose only “crime” was to own land under which oil flowed.  They were systematically assassinated until a nascent FBI takes on the case.  A collision of race, money, power, and the American West in the early part of the last century, this is a gorgeous work of non-fiction that reads like a novel by a Fletcher School graduate whose previous book, The Lost City of Z, is another terrific tale.  It is also a gorgeously woven story of the harm realized on indigenous people by those who come to conquer – a story as old as mankind, and sadly a fundamental part of international relations today.

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.  A superb, readable biography by one of the best pure writers of our times is produced in a beautiful, dense edition full of gorgeous illustrations rendered from the works of Leonardo da Vinci.  Unpacking not only Leonardo but his times as well, Isaacson makes a compelling case that the truly unique element of Leonardo’s character was not his undisputed genius but rather his immense curiosity.  When you finish this book you will start to carry around a notebook like Leonardo did, to jot down ideas, discoveries, questions, ideas and little sketches (I recommend Moleskin).  In the end, the masterwork of da Vinci was not the Mona Lisa, but the 17,000 pages of his eclectic and brilliant notebooks.  They are full of sketches and ideas, and explain why Leonardo echoes in the lives of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steven Jobs and all the innovators who transform our lives.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré.  A novel about a lion in winter by a lion in winter, this short novella takes the devoted reader back to the very best of le Carré: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  Picking up the plot line decades later, the story reflects beautifully how what we do in the prime of our lives can suddenly appear oh-so-wrong much later on.  The legacy of the title includes legal action against the MI6 team – including the legendary George Smiley – brought by the children of those lost at the Berlin Wall undertaking, a complex mission for the United Kingdom that in retrospect looks hard to justify.  As a metaphor for how the future will judge the present, this is a masterpiece of both fiction and policy.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  Another novel that channels the ongoing Syrian disaster, this novel echoes the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers.  The protagonists find a way to literally “exist west” by moving through a series of magical doors that take them from an unnamed war-torn region (Syria) to a refugee camp (Greece) then on to a Western city (London).  The voyage of these modern day Argonauts is moving, deeply tragic, often blackly humorous, and brings the reader face-to-face with the seminal humanitarian crisis of this decade.

What are your best books of the year? Send your recommendations my way (james.stavridis@tufts.edu) –  I need some holiday reading!

Comments are closed.