Top books of 2017 – Since 2008, the first Book Banter column of the new year always meant taking one last look at the year before and see which books stood out for me over the previous 12 months. This past year, like ever other year, I read an average of 50 books, so that it can be reviewed in the pages of The Montreal Times every week. Choosing a book to review is always done through a personal process of elimination, and that same process is done as I decided which were my favourite books of 2017.
Somehow, but not intentionally, the overlying common thread of my choices had more of a local slant. Although I am a big booster for Montreal authors and Montreal publishers, a good deal of books that stood out for me in 2017 were either published locally, or written by an author who was born in Montreal or currently resides here. It’s a strong testimony to how Montreal still has a thriving, nurturing literary scene.
So, without further ado, here are my favourite books of 2017.
Game Change by Ken Dryden and Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza. These are my choices for book of the year. Dryden, who spent his entire Hall of Fame career minding the nets for the Montreal Canadiens throughout its six-Stanley Cup dynasty during the 70s, has distinguished himself as a best selling author of hockey books of a high quality. This time, he focuses on the career of NHL journeyman Steve Montador, who died at the age of 35 from complications of numerous concussions and blows to the head throughout his pro hockey career. Intelligently written and meticulously thought out, this book is a searing indictment against the NHL’s indifference to the issue of head injury and concussion prevention for its players, and how helmets should have a much higher safety standard. It’s one of the best hockey books that I have read in a very long time.
Pete Souza, who was the official White House photographer during the Obama administration, took over two million photos of the 44th President of the United States and his family throughout his two terms as POTUS. He had the unenviable task of selecting about 150 of his best images for this beautifully-produced coffee table volume, and he has succeeded with flying colours. From Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 to his Washington farewell eight years later, and every public and private function in between, Souza’s chosen photographs have painted a portrait of Barack Obama as – if nothing else – a very human President, and how someone who is subsequently elected to this high office should be like.
Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg by Todd Barry. Usually, many books that are written by stand-up comics are either a collection of their stand-up routines or autobiographical essays. Barry, a veteran stand-up comic in his own right, takes a much refreshing approach to this genre by offering a comedy travelogue, as we follow him on a year-long journey along the road, as he performs in a number of medium and small-sized venues in towns and cities across the U.S. Whether he shares with us some interesting anecdotes of the clubs he performed at, or his favorite tourist attractions or restaurants that he likes to frequent at each stop, this book gives comedy fans an inside look at probably one of the most soul sapping aspects of being a stand-up comedian, and why they really define the expression “road warriors”.
Montreal 1909 by Robert N. Wilkins. A longtime Montreal historian, Wilkins writes a month-by-month, day-by-day examination of a Montreal that is no more. Extensively researching through the archives of the Montreal Gazette and the much-lamented Montreal (Daily) Star, we get a portrait of Montreal in the year 1909 through the events and happenings of both an important and mundane nature. This includes the movement towards cleaner water, the size of telephone poles, a Montreal “homecoming” weekend, and a commission of inquiry into corruption at city hall (which was chaired by a gentleman named – oddly enough – Coderre).
50 Years of 60 Minutes by Jeff Fager. This season marks the 50th anniversary of CBS’ “magazine for television”, which put the genre of investigative journalism into a much higher level, and made CBS correspondents like Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Harry Reasoner, Leslie Stahl, Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer major TV stars. Fager, who currently serves as 60 Minutes’ executive producer, gives an absorbing behind-the-scenes look at the show’s half-century evolution as a TV news pioneer, from the greatest (and not so greatest) stories, to the origin of its trademark ticking stopwatch logo.
Rock ‘n’ Radio by Ian Howarth – The book is a perfect nostalgia trip for Montrealers who grew up listening to the likes of Dave Boxer, Buddy Gee, Ralph Lockwood, Doug Pringle and Too Tall during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Focusing on CFCF, CFOX, CKGM and CHOM, Howarth has written a lively, anecdotal history of the golden age of Montreal Top 40 and FM radio, when the DJs ruled the local airwaves with their own unique character traits and had a mission to expose their devoted listeners to the hit songs (and albums) of the rock era during those three decades (not to mention winning a whole bunch of great prizes, from concert tickets to free records).
In the Name of Humanity by Max Wallace. Wallace, a Montreal-born investigative journalist by trade, writes an excellent piece of “hidden history”, as he traces the efforts (successful and unsuccessful) of certain Jewish individuals and organizations throughout World War II that had the almost insurmountable goal of rescuing as many European Jews as possible from Hitler’s deadly network of concentration and extermination camps. One highlight in the book is his detailed account of the “deal with the devil” conducted in 1944 with SS chief Heinrich Himmler to rescue about a million Jews from the Holocaust, which almost reads like a Frederick Forsyth thriller novel.
Great Conversations by Peter Anthony Holder – Subtitled “My Interviews with Two Men on the Moon And a Galaxy of Stars”, this book is a collection of celebrity interviews that Holder conducted over the past 28 years for both his CJAD radio show and “Stuph File Program” podcast. From Buddy Ebsen, to Cloris Leachman, to Burt “Robin” Ward, to Carol Channing, to Thurl Ravenscroft (the longtime voice of Tony the Tiger), each featured interview (and their respective background stories) shows Holder’s passion for baby boomer era pop culture and the celebrities who inhabited that period. His skills as an interviewer is also quit evident in the book, as he manages to get a lot of entertaining responses and stories from his interview subjects, which is why this book so much fun to read.
And that takes care of 2017. Have a great page-turning 2018.