Oliver: Renewed pleasure reading results in literary year

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Read any good books lately? That’s one of those icebreakers we often fall back on in social situations. That and, of course, talk of the weather.

For a long time, I had to hem and haw on the book question, mainly because I felt I just didn’t have time to read books for pleasure. After all, I read a lot as a proofreader for a number of Shaw Media publications.

So I was very excited when I figured out how to use the app OverDrive, which provides access to e-books through the North Suburban Digital Consortium. Armed with my McHenry Public Library card, I was all set.

Then I found another app, Goodreads, which gave me a way to track what I was reading, offered suggestions about future books I might like, and allowed me to set a goal to meet.

When I first wrote about it, back in February, I already had exceeded my initial goal for the year of 10 books. That meant I would have to increase my goal, since I still had 10 months left.

As with most new things about which I am excited, I started off strong. However, reality eventually set in. That, and a few more responsibilities were added to my already crowded plate, and I had less time to devote to all of those wonderful books.

Still, I’m happy to report that I hit my final target of 40 books.

Here’s my favorite reads of the past year. Not all of them came out in 2017 because, well, I’m still trying to catch up.

Although I tried to read a mix, I found that what I gravitated toward fell into specific areas.

Aging and Alzheimer’s:

• “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast: This one was a graphic memoir about how Chast dealt with the decline of her elderly parents. It’s funny and poignant and done in a cartoon style that makes it an easy read.

• “Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s: A Groundbreaking Approach for Everyone Dealing with the Disease” by Joanne Koenig Coste: This one offered key ways to communicate with my mother, who deals with dementia. A must-read for anyone who struggles to understand their loved ones.

Nonfiction, with a heavy bent toward memoir:

• “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi: Although I did my best to stay away from anything sad, this memoir of a medical student studying to be a neurosurgeon who is dying of cancer is surprisingly uplifting. Beautifully written and life-affirming, it is unforgettable.

• “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed: This one is far more than a travelogue of an out-of-control woman who “finds” herself. It’s also a powerful reflection of what it means to deal with loss and the ways grief can wreak havoc on one’s life.

• “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain: Finally! A book that “gets” those of us who aren’t exactly outgoing.

• “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance: This one caused some controversy, but it also offered some clues about my own family that I’m eager to research further.

Fiction all over the map:

• “The Paris Architect” by Charles Belfoure: Rich, detailed writing in a tale of a transformation of an architect who helps Jews escape Nazi-occupied Paris. Sometimes brutal, but gripping and suspenseful.

• “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio: I read this one before I realized it was coming out as a movie. Delightful and thought-provoking. Enjoyable even for an adult without children.

• “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” and “Today Will be Different” by Maria Semple: Funny and cleverly original in the way they are constructed. But mostly funny.

Best of the Rest: Jenny Lawson, Laurie Notaro, Mindy Kaling, David Sedaris and Bill Bryson all had collections of essays that made me laugh. I certainly needed that.

There was some literature in there, too, but I found that most of what I was drawn to made me laugh.

2018 offers a chance to set another goal and to dive into even more great books. Who knows what will strike my fancy next year?

However, it’s a safe bet that I’ll keep those pages turning.

• Joan Oliver is a former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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