Best Books of 2017: Staff Picks

Melissa Grunow shares 2017’s best essay collections, books of poetry, and books on gender, equality, and craft.


Abandon Me: Memoirs
Melissa Febos

This linked collection of essays grabs ahold of the reader with the first sentence, “We had no television, no god, no family less than a day’s drive away, but we had stories,” and doesn’t release its grip until, well, ever. Febos delves deep into the inherent fear of abandonment in all of us, as well as the occasional desire to bolt from our own lives and the people we presume to love. From her fascination with her sea captain father to her long-distance love affair with a woman whose heart belongs to another, Abandon Me is both intense and vulnerable and woven together with visceral prosody.


Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System
Sonya Huber

Chronic, invisible pain is the beating heart of this essay collection. Never trite or self-pitying, Huber takes the American health care system to task, challenging its double-standard regarding pain management and treatment, general disregard for women’s pain, and perpetuation of a social mindset that equates physical suffering with laziness, and therefore, lack of human worth. Huber’s depiction and personification of pain will tickle your senses, challenge your mindset, and even make you laugh out loud as she ruminates on the realization, “I am perfectly okay with the fact that I may not be fixable.”


Circadian
Chelsey Clammer

Circadian examines what happens to our seemingly natural biological cycles when they are interrupted by physical trauma and emotional loss. Winner of the Red Hen Press Nonfiction Award, this collection breaks all the rules of the conventional essay in both form and approach to subject matter. Her writing appears in lists, graphical representations, mathematical equations, and speculative truths.


Marlena: A Novel
Julie Buntin

Teenage girls of contrasting personalities and ambitions form a close friendship for one year that ends tragically when one of them drowns. Told in retrospect by an adult narrator, Marlena examines the significance and impact of female friendships on small-town girls ambling toward addiction and an uncertain future. Written in controlled, descriptive sentences disguising underlying apathy and reflective wonder, Marlena is as much about a friendship lost as it is a longing for a past that is devastatingly out of reach.


The Book of Joan: A Novel
Lidia Yuknavitch

Dubbed “retrofuturist feminism” by the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Book of Joan exemplifies women’s resilience in an ever-changing, ever-threatening, and ever-oppressive society. The iconic Joan of Arc is rebranded in this futuristic world as both the face of terrorism in the eyes of the police state and a rebel of hope for the people. While the context of the novel is complex and initially tricky, at its core The Book of Joan appeals to the tireless question of the survival of people in a post-apocalyptic world and how the arts and literature will perpetuate humanity.


Her Body and Other Parties: Stories
Carmen Maria Machado

The stories in this collection spin familiar fables (in both narrative and tone) into conflicting binaries of pleasure and despair, a swirling mix of surreal horror. Each story is so definitively different from the one before, yet they all come together to force us to consider how women’s bodies are used, mistreated, given pleasure, and — most importantly — written.


Difficult Women
Roxane Gay

Without question, Roxane Gay is a literary and social media powerhouse. In her short story collection, Difficult Women, Gay pushes the impolite, the unspoken, and the normalized abuse of women into the mainstream. While her characters must endure an inferno of misogyny, these stories blur the divide between abuser and abused, between troubled and troublesome, and between sex for pleasure and sex as violence. The stories in this collection will force you to question your understanding about whom women are (supposed to be) in the world.


Makeshift Cathedral: Poems
Peter LaBerge

Sharp and simplistic language contrasts beautifully with the nuanced complexity of how and why oppression of gender identity, sexuality, and gender expression are normalized. Nine of the poems in this collection were written for or in response to individuals who were murdered or pressured to suicide for their open transgender and queer identities. LaBerge’s poetry should be required reading for every college student, law enforcement officer, parent, and teacher.


Seed
David Eye

Heavily rooted in time and place, Eye’s debut collection of poems explores the intersection of social expectations and queer identity. There is an underlying tenderness and compassion in this collection that is often juxtaposed with the rapture of devastation and risk of ruin through sharp, concrete language conveying intangible wantonness and desire.


The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir
Dinty W. Moore

In The Story Cure, Moore uses his vast experience as a professor and prolific writer to guide both novice and established writers through the perils of completing a book-length manuscript. Although he has published ten books, Moore easily recognizes that writing is hard: it is isolating, often demoralizing, rife with rejection, and self-degrading. However, the tone of this useful and thoughtful craft book is humorous and encouraging while also confronting the struggling writer with the essential truth: “We can’t, no matter how much we sometimes wish that we could, finish our book until we begin it.”