Leah Angstman talks about the best books of 2017, from historical fiction to poetry to memoir, that tackled issues great, small, personal, & universal.
Although it’s always hard for me to choose favorites, The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill, might be the top slot on the list this year, simply for the fact that it wrecked me for months. It broke my heart, lingered long and sullenly, yet lifted me to a place that few books take me. O’Neill’s prose reads like poetry, and her characterizations are so in-depth that you’ll feel like the protagonists live inside you. So highly recommended.
After years of editing odd, non-mainstream hybrid works with Rose Metal Press, Kathleen Rooney knows how to craft a sentence that bites you. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is an extraordinary achievement, full of humor, heart, compassion, and truth, and written with elegant poetry that just hums. It’s a book about connections: between the past and the present, and between the minds and hearts of humans one to another.
Taylor Brown is one of our current national treasures of fiction. His voice is flowery yet true, and his books are historical adventures that read like epic tales in the span of a normal-sized novel. The River of Kings is a love letter to his home state of Georgia and a river that runs there, creating the state’s forgotten coastline. The book explores the history and lore of the river in segments that vacillate between a 1564 French expedition, the 1970s, and modern-day brothers who must find the truth about what happened to their father. Amidst all this is a terrifying commentary about overfishing, poverty, and the wasting of natural resources we can never get back again.
Ashley Shelby is a gem of a human being, and her thoughtfulness, intelligence, and humor come out in her book of climate change, family, and isolation, South Pole Station — a laugh-out-loud look at our relationship to nature and to each other. The writing is at-once charming and important, and Shelby’s characters are real and quirky enough that you’ll actually believe banding together is all it takes to fight the denialists once and for all.
Felt in the Jaw by Kristen N. Arnett is one of those rare collections that hits you in both the heart and the funny bone. Always dark and funny, the collection explores queer women in Florida in a light that you don’t get to see very often: as humans — with drives, happy endings, quirky quirks, families, deep vulnerability, odd and normal lives, and a desperate need to connect. Arnett is a current forerunner of writers putting Florida on the literary map.
Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability addresses disability with grace, compassion, and endless humor, letting you into the most important heart of the matter: that those living with disabilities are not throwaway members of society. This collection of essays details Davio’s progressive nerve disorder, and acts as both therapeutic tell-all and a how-to lesson in treating those with disabilities with the respect they deserve.
After becoming a Twitter sensation by live-tweeting Drumpf rallies in the Deep South, Jared Yates Sexton chronicled his findings in a painful, truthful look inside what happened to our humanity in the 2016 election. The People Are Going to Rise like the Waters upon Your Shore is a smack in the face, and it is essential reading for understanding the cultural forces that got us where we are today, and the underlying factors that put a dangerous narcissist in the White House.
One of the greatest joys of reading books is discovering something truly new and original, something that defies convention and bucks all the lies your MFA tells about what constitutes a great story. Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, is one of those books. It essentially reads like a bizarre short story that is chopped up by newspaper and archive clippings that support the narrative, but it somehow manages to be so charming, endearing, and so full of humanity and compassion that I couldn’t put it down. This book made me feel, for the first time, like I knew Abraham Lincoln.
Steph Post is the queen of Southern noir in a category largely dominated by men. She’s one of the standout voices of tough characters, thrilling crime sprees, and badass women in the genre, and Lightwood is no exception. At the heart of her books is always a character who wishes he could just be good, but who is somehow forever led astray by forces just beyond his control, all wrapped into a thrilling, fast-paced rural world of dark humor and Florida lore.
I’ve been a fan of Kevin Catalano’s work for years, so when Where the Sun Shines Out came out this year, I couldn’t wait to dive in. Full of beautiful, lyrical prose, Catalano takes us on a mindtrip through his hometown stomping grounds and the harrowing disappearance of two young boys. When only one of the boys returns, everyone must face the consequences and emotions of the aftermath. A psychologically thrilling story of family, guilt, grief, and redemption that will have you up all night turning the pages.
This has been quite a year for Frank Bill, with a film being made of his wildly popular Donnybrook, and the follow-up novel, The Savage, released earlier this year. The Savage picks up with the same dirt and grit of its predecessor, but raises the stakes, painting a picture of a periapocalyptic America-gone-wrong that’s a little too close to home in our current environment. Bill’s prose is as sharp as ever, and his world is everything brutal that you’d expect from him.
Mike Scalise’s The Brand New Catastrophe is one of the wittiest and most touching memoirs I’ve read in a long time. Tackling his life story of a ruptured pituitary tumor that left him with the hormone disorder acromegaly at age 24, this memoir weighs in on disorders, family drama, offbeat catastrophes, and courage, with endearing optimism and candor, and humor so charming that you’ll be right there smiling and applauding as Scalise reinvents himself for an unexpected life.
Kaveh Akbar is at the forefront of modern poetry, and not without reason; Calling a Wolf a Wolf should be on everyone’s best-of list this year. It dives headfirst into the world of addiction, suffering, remembering, and coming to terms with the self. It’s a book of memory and a book of forgiveness, and each line is like biting into a juicy, ripe fruit until you hit the razorblade.
I had the pleasure of hearing Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib read some of his poetry at an AWP reading event in February, so I had this debut collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us until They Kill Us, on my early radar. Willis-Abdurraqib has proven himself a true, essential pop culture voice, and this collection goes much deeper than simply rock music, bundling into the pop culture all the politics and societal issues that plague life today, especially for the marginalized and underrepresented. These essays read like a collection of protest songs for a movement that needs a new, enthusiastic leading voice, and has found it in Willis-Abdurraqib.
I’ve sung the praises of Michael Schmeltzer’s and Meghan McClure’s A Single Throat Opens many times this year, and I’ll sing them again. This fragment/poetry narrative focuses on addiction, understanding the self, and forgiveness of those we cannot change. It’s a look at family, guilt, what-ifs, and the molding of the self into/away from something evolved from the pain and suffering of others. It’s lovely, haunting, and creates a hole right in your center.
Theodore Wheeler’s Kings of Broken Things is a WWI-era story of the end turmoil of the war, including cities run underground, PTSD soldiers, racism, prostitution, and desperation, in Wheeler’s local Omaha. Revolving around the 1919 Omaha riots of mob boss Tom Dennison, the novel is well-researched and resonant in today’s hostile racial and corporation-centric environment.
This was a pretty good year for nonfiction, and among the better titles is Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Very apropos and important for our times, this moving account talks about freedom and a black woman’s resourcefulness from the pursuit of the most powerful man of the time, and weaves an eye-opening tale of the Founding Family that will make you think twice about the very fabric of this country’s origins and ideals.
Among the standout nonfiction titles is the inimitable Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant. Of a deeply flawed and controversial man, this biography dives into all sides, and brings him to light in a way that hasn’t previously been done. Chernow is a rare gem of a historian, and his works are dense, generally unbiased, and extremely eye-opening. This biography is no exception, and it reads less dry than I initially thought it would.
Jesmyn Ward’s prose sings like poetry, and she is one of today’s most important voices bridging the gap between marginalized communities and mainstream readers. Her importance cannot be emphasized enough, and the commendation is justly due. Sing, Unburied, Sing travels through Mississippi’s past and present to weave together a tale of family, struggle, ugly truths, and ultimately: forgiveness, hope, and what it means to be not only a man, but above all, a human.
Ah, what to say about Roxane Gay that hasn’t already been said by every female of our generation? Her frankness and honesty are brutal and refreshing, and in Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, we get both, mixed with the important topics of food, body image, female safety, and confronting fear, all polished off with Gay’s incredible, bare, in-your-face prose. This is a story of self-worth, acceptance, and understanding, told with such sensitivity and vulnerability as to be completely relatable on every level — whether you’ve been there or not — and it lets the reader in on Gay’s life with both a magnifying glass and a mirror.