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Barack Obama's Favorite Books from 2017

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Barack Obama has always been a voracious reader, as well as being a published author. On New Year's Eve he posted on his Facebook page a list of his favorite books and songs from 2017.

His reading list, published below, reveals a healthy mix of non-fiction and fiction, including Matthew Desmond's timely and important Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (also on Bill Gates' list), Naomi Alderman's 2016 The Power, about flipping the power dynamic between men and woman, Elizabeth Strout's Anything is Possible, much of which focuses on rural poverty, and National Book Award winner for fiction, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, about being Black in Mississippi.

Obama once told author Marilynne Robinson, in a series of conversations held in 2015, that: "When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you."


The Power

What if the power to hurt were in women's hands? Suddenly— tomorrow or the day after—teenage girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman's extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed. The Power won the Baileys prize for women’s fiction in 2017.

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Five-Carat Soul

The stories in Five-Carat Soul—none of them ever published before—spring from the place where identity, humanity, and history converge. They're funny and poignant, insightful and unpredictable, imaginative and authentic—all told with McBride's unrivaled storytelling skill and meticulous eye for character and detail. 

McBride explores the ways we learn from the world and the people around us. An antiques dealer discovers that a legendary toy commissioned by Civil War General Robert E. Lee now sits in the home of a black minister in Queens. Five strangers find themselves thrown together and face unexpected judgment. An American president draws inspiration from a conversation he overhears in a stable. And members of The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band recount stories from their own messy and hilarious lives. 

Anything is Possible

Anything Is Possible explores the whole range of human emotion through the intimate dramas of people struggling to understand themselves and others. Here are two sisters: One trades self-respect for a wealthy husband while the other finds in the pages of a book a kindred spirit who changes her life. The janitor at the local school has his faith tested in an encounter with an isolated man he has come to help; a grown daughter longs for mother love even as she comes to accept her mother’s happiness in a foreign country. Anything is Possible tells the story of the inhabitants of rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, a successful New York writer who finally returns, after seventeen years of absence, to visit the siblings she left behind. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds. Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

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A Gentleman in Moscow

On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov—ecipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt—is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol. But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose. 

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Exit West

Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing—to fall in love—in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it. Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind—when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world.

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Dying: a memoir

At the age of sixty, Cory Taylor is dying of melanoma-related brain cancer. Her illness is no longer treatable: she now weighs less than her neighbor’s retriever. As her body weakens, she describes the experience―the vulnerability and strength, the courage and humility, the anger and acceptance―of knowing she will soon die. Written in the space of a few weeks, in a tremendous creative surge, this powerful and beautiful memoir is a clear-eyed account of what dying teaches: Taylor describes the tangle of her feelings, remembers the lives and deaths of her parents, and examines why she would like to be able to choose the circumstances of her death. Taylor’s last words offer a vocabulary for readers to speak about the most difficult thing any of us will face. And while Dying: A Memoir is a deeply affecting meditation on death, it is also a funny and wise tribute to life.

Janesville, An American Story

A Washington Post reporter's intimate account of the fallout from the closing of a General Motors' assembly plant in Janesville, Wisconsin-Paul Ryan's hometown-and a larger tale of the hollowing of the American middle class.This is the story of what happens to an industrial town in the American heartland when its factory stills-but it's not the familiar tale. Most observers record the immediate shock of vanished jobs, but few stay around long enough to notice what happens next, when a community with a can-do spirit tries to pick itself up. Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Goldstein has spent years immersed in Janesville, Wisconsin where the nation's oldest operating General Motors plant shut down in the midst of the Great Recession, two days before Christmas of 2008. Now, with intelligence, sympathy, and insight into what connects and divides people in an era of economic upheaval, she makes one of America's biggest political issues human. Her reporting takes the reader deep into the lives of autoworkers, educators, bankers, politicians, and job re-trainers to show why it's so hard in the twenty-first century to recreate a healthy, prosperous working class. 

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Evicted, Poverty and Profit in the American City

Arleen spends nearly all her money on rent but is kicked out with her kids in Milwaukee's coldest winter for years. Doreen's home is so filthy her family call it 'the rat hole'. Lamar, a wheelchair-bound ex-soldier, tries to work his way out of debt for his boys. Scott, a nurse turned addict, lives in a gutted-out trailer. This is their world. And this is the twenty-first century: where fewer and fewer people can afford a simple roof over their head. Of Desmond's book, author Zadie Smith said "If I could require the president to read one book it would be Evicted".

Evicted won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. 

Grant

As late as April 1861, when the American Civil War broke out, Ulysses S. Grant was a dismal failure. A competent officer in the war against Mexico, he had resigned from the army over his drinking and had sunk into poverty as a civilian, losing all his money in hopeless investments. He had failed to secure the command of a volunteer unit and was about to return to his abject life working in his family's leather-goods store when he was offered the colonelcy of an Illinois regiment. Less than four years later he was the commanding general of the victorious Union armies and was hailed as a military genius. He later served two terms as President of the United States. This is the epic biography of a very unheroic American hero, a modest, reticent and principled man who surprised the world and changed it for the better.

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Jacqueline is a journalist primarily, but not only, interested in fiction and non-fiction with equal passion.

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