Top Five Books of 2017

This year’s favorites give insight in a variety of experiences: from an elderly woman in England to a railroad worker in Kenya to a suffering, yet hopeful child in Colombia. These books remind us of the universality of the human experience, and wake us up to the great and varied world around us.  

Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani

Here is the story of two men, Ian McDonald from England and Babu Salim from Punjab, who travel to the British East African Protectorate (today’s Kenya) in the 1890s to construct the nation’s first railway. More than a reimagining of the creation of “the lunatic express,” “Dance of the Jakaranda” is also an examination of how history is constructed “in a land where myth and history often intersect.” The result: a masterpiece.

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Questions Asked by Jostein Gaarder; illustrations by Akin Duzakin

The first children’s book to ever make my top five, “Questions Asked” is the story of a young boy learning to live with his brother’s death. Told entirely through spare questions and incredible illustrations, this ethereal book addresses a child’s grief directly and honestly, giving plenty of space for imagination and processing. A work of art.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Although well into her 70s, Fran Drubber is not ready to retire and give up traveling her native England to review property codes –despite her own encroaching health issues. Into this narrative come conflicting tales of aging from her ex-husband; her academic-minded friend; and her eccentric son, Chris. A thoughtful, surprisingly funny work that considers how illness, age, and death change our relationships – and our sense of self.

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The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes

Emma Reyes was a Colombian painter and intellectual who counted Frida Kahlo and Jean-Paul Sartre among her closest friends. But this memoir is not about her glamorous adult life but her harrowing childhood spent on the streets of Bogota. Abandoned by her mother, Emma and her sister are taken in by nuns, who treat them and their 150 other charges little better than animals. An unsentimental, unflinchingly honest reflection peppered with moments of wonder and awe.  

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Maukmbi

Maukmbi’s debut is the story of the cursed Kintu clan, from present day all the way back to 1750 – long before Uganda was colonized by the British. Each chapter details the life of one cursed relative after another while also exploring the changing landscape in Uganda through flashbacks and vivid conversation. A novel that succeeds on such stratospheric level it’s nearly impossible to imagine – or wait for – what she’ll write next.