Best Books of 2017: Staff Picks
Al Kratz shares 2017’s best books dealing with humor, loss, craft, and even a little horror.
Homesick for Another World
My favorite writer of 2017 is Ottessa Moshfegh. I read all three of her books this year including her new release, Homesick for Another World, published by Penguin Press. This short story collection is full of unbridled humor and intensity wrapped in perfectly constructed narratives. I knew I was all in on these stories after the second sentence:
“My classroom was on the first floor, next to the nun’s lounge. I used their bathroom to puke in the mornings.”
This exemplifies the tone for the collection. She’s a master of first-person fearlessness and unique perspective. Exploring this work reminded me of being a kid and reading through Vonnegut or Douglas Adams. I didn’t know people could write like that. I worked through all their books because I wanted more. It’s the same now with Moshfegh. I’m a lifelong subscriber to this voice:
“Whenever anyone talked about Ukraine, I pictured either a stark, gray forest full of howling black wolves or a trashy bar on a highway full of tired male prostitutes.”
The Sarah Book
Another incredibly fearless and funny writer is Scott McClanahan. This summer, his 2015 novel, The Sarah Book, was re-released by Tyrant Books to wider exposure. This book is somewhat experimental or metafiction in form. It tells the fictional story of his actual divorce and changes no names. Scott narrates the humorous story of Sarah facing an ex-husband who’s writing a novel about their story. It’s the funniest book you will ever read about divorce. Okay, it’s also one of the funniest books about anything. It’s written in a brave, unforced way that magically turns laughter and sadness into the same thing.
The Missing Girl
For flash fiction chapbooks, one of my favorites of 2017 was Jacqueline Doyle’s The Missing Girl published by Black Lawrence Press. This book, dedicated to missing girls, shows the expansive power of condensed fiction. These stories almost have to be flash. This is how people go missing. The conflict is fast and intense. The facts are fleeting and mysterious. The truth often hides in the spaces these eight short-short stories exclude. Doyle uses the second person to speak directly to the predators, to bring us just as close as we can bear. She uses the first person to force a predator to speak. To force him to be honest. These girls remain missing, but Doyle finds their stories. It’s twenty-eight pages you might read in one sitting, but will never forget.
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story
In nonfiction, one of my favorites of 2017 was Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. It was published by Graywolf Press as part of their wonderful The Art Of series. This one is so much more than a craft book. Sure, the book is helpful to a writer exploring death in fiction, but it’s an even more powerful tool for anyone wanting to process the idea of death and the experience of losing a loved one. Danticat’s experiences in Haiti and the eventual loss of her mother are beautiful and sad. Her thoughtful examination of how great writers have addressed the topic of death is inspiring.
The Grip of It
My final pick for 2017 is Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It, a literary horror novel about a young couple who has moved into what is essentially a haunted house. I say essentially because what is happening is intentionally left ambiguous. That’s part of the horror. One thing that is not unclear is the intensity of the narrative. Jemc fully commits to that and never lets her foot off the pedal. The book alternates between the husband’s and wife’s first-person perspectives. Seeing their different interpretations of the same events only magnifies the mystery. This is a brilliant example of form following function. The shape of this house is intense and mysterious, and so are the characters, and so is the novel. I’m still not exactly sure what happened, but I know it worked.