Proving to us that we can indeed have nice things in 2018, Barack Obama recently released his list of favorite books (and songs) of the past year. A semi-annual tradition from his time in office (and here at Off the Shelf), the bestselling author and former leader of the free world created the collection to “reflect on the works that resonated with me and lift up authors and artists from around the world.” This year’s picks range from transportive historical tales and contemporary fiction to big biographies and blistering social commentary—so get reading!
An Off the Shelf favorite, Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel has hit just about every year-end list, so it’s not surprising that former POTUS, who is known for his attention to contemporary fiction, picked it for his list as well. Set in the heart of Mississippi, this family saga turns a road trip into an intimate portrait of hope, struggle, and legacy.
Okay, so maybe he doesn’t have a musical about his life—yet!—but Ulysses S. Grant is perhaps one of America’s most compelling, influential, and misunderstood figures (plus, he actually made it to the White House). President Obama presented Ron Chernow with a National Humanities Medal in 2015, so we’re excited to see that he selected the biographer’s latest book for recognition this year. It’s a dazzling, multi-dimensional portrait that showcases the man’s strengths and weakness, successes and failures, and lasting legacy as an unsung hero.
If you loved OLIVE KITTERIDGE, you’ll love Elizabeth Strout’s latest, which also explores the intertwining and intimate lives of people struggling to understand themselves and others. There are two sisters who make drastically different decisions about their lives; a grown daughter who longs for her mother’s love; a school janitor whose faith is tested when he tries to help another; and Lucy Barton (the heroine from MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON), who visits her siblings after almost two decades of separation.
The winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, Matthew Desmond’s in-depth exploration of the economic exploitation of eight Milwaukee families is both a page-turner and an eye-opener. Through their personal stories and an incredible (but easily readable) amount of research and data, Desmond showcases a side of American society and politics that often goes unacknowledged, revealing a cycle of hurt and an undermining of the one thing everyone should have—a home.
Declared as this generation’s HANDMAID’S TALE (with a blurb from Margaret Atwood!) this speculative novel brings us into a recognizable future, where a vital new force—teenage girls with the power to cause pain and death—drastically disrupts and resets the status quo. The result is a thrilling, thought-provoking, and timely read that we’re not surprised self-proclaimed feminist Obama enjoyed.
We’ve been longtime fans of Amor Towles’ novels, and this one didn’t disappoint. In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest by a Bolshevik tribunal. Forced to watch some of the most tumultuous decades of Russian history unfold outside the doors of the hotel he’s confined to, he suddenly finds a side of himself he has never seen before and a side of the world he never had the chance to experience. It’s a sweeping, gorgeous novel with moments of humor and insight that we’re sure the former president loved.
Read with a Moscow Mule
Maybe it’s the copper cup or the alliteration in the name that attracts us to this beverage again and again. And the perfect companion is A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, set in the beautiful Metropol hotel in Moscow. Amor Towles spins the immersing story of Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest after being deemed an unrepentant aristocrat.
A natural companion to books like HILLBILLY ELEGY and WHITE TRASH, JANESVILLE is an on-the-ground look at the titular Wisconsin town, and the fallout of its primary provider of jobs—a General Motors assembly plant—being shut down in the midst of the Great Recession. Taking the reader into the lives of Janesville citizens as they try to lift themselves up in the face of economic upheaval, it is an honest, insightful, and important look at how the political affects the personal.
Aside from his excellent taste in books, our former commander-in-chief has proven that he has equally good taste in music. The two come together nicely in James McBride’s brilliant story collection, which explores identity in a world that’s often difficult to comprehend. Featuring a wide range of unforgettable characters, from an American president to members of the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band, McBride writes with humor, insight, and perspective.
Like Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Mohsin Hamid’s latest has hit many of 2017’s best-of lists—and deservedly so. The novel follows two remarkable characters, Saeed and Nadia, as they meet in a country threatened by civil war, and decide to leave it together. As they settle in a new place, they struggle to hold onto one another, to their past, and the loyalty they feel to their homeland.
At the age of 60, Cory Taylor knows that her life is at an end. Diagnosed with a terminal melanoma-related brain cancer, she resolved to document the experience, and wrote this remarkable meditation on life, courage, pain, anger, and acceptance in just a matter of weeks. A clear-eyed account of what death can teach us, it is also a powerful story of reflection and the beginnings and endings we face as humans.
President Obama has always proudly declared his love of basketball, so it makes sense Shea Serrano’s bestselling illustrated guide to the what-ifs, stories, legends, and greatest moments of the game made his 2017 favorites list. It’s the perfect pick for any obsessive, asking crucial and comical questions like “Who’s in the Disrespectful Dunk Hall of Fame?” and “What season was Michael Jordan the best Michael Jordan?” and we can just about hear former POTUS’ charming chuckle as he pages through it.