While I’m more often reading poetry than anything else (see the post coming this Thursday), I do make an effort to keep my reading list varied, to bring in as many fresh approaches/ideas as possible. Memoirs, novels, essays, graphic novels, and detailed nonfiction takes on a variety of topics; if it’s well-written, and it’s interesting, I’m there. Especially if it tries something new with the page or the language, something a lot of the books on the list below exhibit.
In making this list and looking at the stack of fiction compared to nonfiction I’d read through this year, it was interesting to see how much more the nonfiction side spoke to me this year. That’s not to say I didn’t care for the fiction; Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake is one of my favorite novels in at least the last five years, for example. But more than just an evolution of my personal tastes (though that certainly accounts in part), I think it’s a reflection of the current cultural climate around us. Partly because many of us are looking for works to help make sense of how we got to this particular American moment (Snyder’s On Tyranny breaks authoritarianism down pretty concretely, Butler’s Parable of the Sower is astoundingly relevant 24 years after its publication, and Kim’s Without You, There is No Us looks at the way information is controlled and seeded in North Korean elite, with a shocking number of parallels to our own brand of nationalism back home), but also because it feels more important than ever to engage with the world around us. To learn and see what’s out there even as forces in our country do their best to distort what we see and think.
Although, sometimes I still need to simply laugh my ass off (see Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life).
So these are my favorite 15 nonfiction and fiction (so, basically everything but poetry) books I read in 2017. They’re not necessarily ones published this year (most were not, and a couple are quite a few years old), but they’re what I read January through December 2017 that stood out the most to me, and that I think you should check out.
In alphabetical order by last name, my favorites of 2017 are:
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (Four Walls Eight Windows)
Hard to believe this came out 24 years ago; Butler’s sharp eye foresaw many of the problems we face now, or are about to face: the staggering wealth divide, a resurgence of racism and tribalism in the face of economic downturn, weather extremes due to global climate change…albeit we aren’t as far along the road to ruin as is depicted in the novel, all the seeds shown sprouting there have already been sown in our real world. Someone said that, despite the spike in sales of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 following the latest turn in our politics, The Parable of the Sower is the dystopian novel closest to our present and near future, and it’s hard to argue that. This is a bleak, precise, and genuinely felt warning to us all.
It’s Just Nerves by Kelly Davio (Squares and Rebels)
Kelly Davio has written an incredibly important book. In an intensely visible internet age where racism, sexism, and homophobia are being called out more clearly than ever before, the conversation on ableism and ways we as a society, knowingly or not, exclude or otherwise try to make invisible those with disabilities has not been taken up with the same intensity (indeed, as if to confirm this in the most on-the-nose way possible, my browser has red-underlined “ableism” as I write this review). Why is this?
It’s Just Nerves tackles the many ways our understanding of disability and the ways we act toward disabled persons are sorely lacking. From a staggering level of ignorance about the difficulties those with visible or invisible disabilities face to the rise of radical political factions in the U.S., Europe, and beyond, Davio places readers in a variety of contexts that anyone can appreciate and, hopefully, understand better how they can be true allies and help dismantle the systems that are stacked so heavily against those who live with disabilities. Her arguments are clear, well-researched, and built from an emotional core that gives them weight and fire.
Underpinning many of these essays on how disability factors into the healthcare system, pop culture, and more, as well as a number of memoir-like sections that are written with a poet’s attention to detail and musical language, is the same basic foundation on which the socially conscious are building their attacks on the structure of racism, sexism, and homophobia: the “default” person in the Western imagination is white, male, straight, and without disability, and thus anyone who does not conform to these categories is considered “other.” And the power of “we” and “us” vs. the “other” is the fuel that keeps discriminatory policies and structures self-sustained. With works like It’s Just Nerves shedding light on the world from a perspective that is sorely missing in our broader cultural discussions, the groundwork is continuing to be laid for meaningful and lasting change toward real equality and care for one another—if we make sure to hear and share voices like Davio’s.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Knopf)
A carefully threaded series of stories and lives that weave an image of how we are built—or undone—by our passions, our callings, and our responsibilities; and how these things react to the passing of time. Everything in this book seems so perfectly placed and executed, it almost baffles the mind to think it came from one person’s imagination.
Also: There is a chapter in this book presented in PowerPoint slides, which is also one of the best stretches of storytelling I’ve read in awhile. A Visit from the Goon Squad is most impressive when it takes the reader to places they have no idea they’re being led—and lets them get just comfortable enough there before taking it away and moving on to the next perspective.
Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books)
This is a wonderful, sad, remarkable book. It’s also clever, engaging, funny, and tender. Rabbit Cake deals with loss, love, family, and inter-/independence in a way that never felt hackneyed. It’s all as weird in here as it is in real life.
I might have teared up for the last 20 pages. I heard someone say this is funniest sad story they’ve read, and that sounds about right. Go read this book, now.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (Vintage)
Just damn funny. Samantha Irby has an ironic and tonal sensibility that manages to hit the perfect note at an unbelievable ratio. Is it possible to read something breathlessly? If so, I did that for this book. Irby is vulnerable, wry, and bombastic in the best possible way, and these essays have a stream of consciousness quality to them that feels so vital to our age.
Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim (Crown)
This is a tense, insightful book that gives readers a glimpse into one of the most secretive corners of the most secretive country in the world. In Kim’s hands, the youth growing up among the North Korean elite are shown to be not unlike the youth in the rest of the world, still compassionate and curious and eager to discover the world, but stunted in their growth thanks to a society that gives them next to no opportunities to attend to those emotions.
Knowing that she could be sentenced to a work camp, or worse, for her act of going undercover as a missionary teacher at a university for Pyongyang’s elite, makes the experiences described during her stays through most of 2011 all the more harrowing—every conversation and action she took was probably being recorded and scrutinized, and she describes the effects of needing to constantly monitor yourself as truly exhausting.
Given our current political moment, the way the N. Korean regime holds on to power through essentially orchestrating a nationwide cult of worship toward a supposedly infallible leader (and his line), and tightly controlling what knowledge and disinformation reaches the citizenry, should be studied as a warning: it is the same tactic that is being attempted by elements of our radical politics here at home.
Clearly-written, with wisdom from her almost unfathomable experience well-distilled into these pages, this is a gripping read that I recommend highly.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead Books)
Full of Lockwood’s trademark wit and cutting insight, something interesting happens as a reader, familiar with her irreverent poetry, experiences Priestdaddy: it becomes clear the actual reverence Lockwood has for the art of faith and its intersection with both the human body and language.
Chapters volley from searingly-funny anecdotes of growing up in a religious Midwestern sphere (and returning to live with her parents for a time as an adult) to poignant, moving ruminations on the nature of faith, collectives, influence, art, politics, identity, childhood, and unexplained Rags that appear in bathroom sinks as if summoned as an inscrutable message from the Lord himself. Highly recommended for both those looking for a crisply-written memoir with an emotional and intellectual bent and those who like religiously-themed sex jokes.
Here by Richard McGuire (Hamish Hamilton)
This graphic novel is phenomenal. McGuire takes an interesting concept and knocks it out of the park. The way he translates visual space into story and recurrence is nothing short of magic; this book feels like it was perfected in a laboratory so as to be able to know which neurons in our brains it needs to light up and which it knows we will fill in on our own. Writing about Here feels ineffective at best, it’s the kind of art that really needs to be experienced as so much of what it does goes beyond language.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson (Wave Books)
Bluets is full of blistering language and fierceness of mind; Nelson’s analytic- and aesthetically-driven missives are as unique as they are stunning. Unlike anything else out there.
The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap (Fence Books)
This should be required reading; a diverse group of poets and writers discuss how race is approached or avoided in our work, in our lives, and the areas where they intersect. A frank discussion on “whiteness” and how it manifests, erases, or frames so many interactions and expectations, and what we can do to move away from the “whiteness-as-default” mindset in writing and in life, as well as do a better job supporting and listening to non-white persons. An impressive roster of writers and thinkers on a crucial topic.
King of the World by David Remnick (Vintage)
Remnick does a terrific job laying out the significance of Muhammad Ali’s rise and career, politically, racially, and in the sports world, with incredibly detailed reporting and terrific writing. He shows Ali in a light that is fair but also not overly flattering (his flaws and contradictions are on display here), and provides a nuanced discussion of Liston, Patterson, and the boxing world in general during its heyday. A great read for sports fans and otherwise.
Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins (Bantam Books)
Just, wow. I have no idea how Robbins manages to thread so many themes and images and ideas so tightly and satisfyingly together, but this is the second book I’ve read of his and I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered writing that is more joyous, unabashed, and plain fun.
Robbins is a sap who can carve one hell of a sentence. Still Life with Woodpecker reads like a love letter to one specific sensation of life, and revels in dancing with it.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier (Harper)
Schreier takes us inside the stories of some of the biggest or most interesting video games of the last decade. His well-researched, thorough writing on the many forces at play when a game is coming together (or failing to) will give readers a new appreciation for the interactive medium, and the people who make them.
Blood, Sweat and Pixels is written in a way that even those who aren’t avid gamers can follow and appreciate, with enough detail and good storytelling that even those well-versed in these genres and games will enjoy the trip through crunch time, technical snafus, economic and cultural changes, and more. All of the chaos that must be wrangled into an impeccable product for the most picky consumer imaginable is portrayed here, enjoyable and eye-opening.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones)
Far different than what I expected, which says a lot about how Frankenstein’s monster has been altered in the landscape of popular culture since this book debuted 200 (!) years ago. But the prose is lush, gorgeous, and eloquent, and the multiple layers of remove the story is told through well echo the themes of craft, ambition, distance from creation, reportage, and responsibility that the book is concerned with. I read this in a feverish haze, and unlike many classics I’ve read because one should read them at least once, I plan to return to it with pleasure in the future.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books/Crown)
In this slim volume, Snyder breaks down the tactics and goals of authoritarian regimes, shows how they reflect in our present, and offers suggestions on preventing fascism from further flowering.
An important read, and one we should all send to certain people in our lives who seem to be enabling this kind of future, or at least, don’t see it coming (though, as the book makes the point of demonstrating, these are often one in the same).