In some ways, it’s been a bit of a weird and dark year. For some evidence of that, you can check: this blog’s entire archives. If you don’t feel like doing so, you can just reflect on why you need to pull tight the cloak around your shivering body, nervous with dread at each new dawn, wondering what horrors await. Either way!
But it’s also been a pretty good year for books. I’m usually pretty terrible at reading new things, especially new fiction, but for a few reasons have made more a point of doing so this year, in addition to the usual nonfiction.
So, here’s a totally subjective list of some of my favorites. This isn’t to say the “Best Books of 2017”, since that would be absurdly arrogant, not to mention extremely myopic. Here are the best books I read this year, with no real division between fiction and non. I’m sure there are many I am missing, and will kick myself later on. I really need to start writing this stuff down.
The first list are ones published this year, then a shorter one of books I finally read, whether a few years old or many.
There’s no real order here, except the first one would probably be on top if I did.
Sing, Unburied, Sing. Jesmyn Ward.
As other writers have observed, any story about the South is bound to be a ghost story, where the past comes alive, sneaking its tendrils around the kudzu, rapping at your window. Jesmyn Ward makes this real, in a story that is earthy, fantastical, terrifying, grimly realistic, and sobering. Mixed-race children living in swampy Mississippi go with their black mom to pick up their white dad from prison, but the prison has ghosts of its own. There is no summary that can do this book justice. It rushes you with the weight and blood of history and racism, even while being a perfectly-observed portrait of a family. I was shaking throughout the last 30 pages.
Lincoln in the Bardo. George Saunders.
I reviewed this in full in February. From that…
“While there is hope, this is still a deeply sad, heartbreaking, often terrifying look at loss. At that love which came from nothing, and then was taken away, leaving nowhere for that emotion to go. Saunders beautifully and weepingly captures the terror of how brief our time is, and how fragile our connection is to the things that we love. How it can all be snuffed out, leaving only the spirit of that emotion, which can be distorted and made ugly and bitter. It can keep us chained.”
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan
We’ve talked about some of Egan’s journalistic work around here before, and this book is a full-length example of his talents and determination. He looks deeply at the challenges facing the Great Lakes, from invasive species to man’s interference (which I guess is the same thing) going from the microbial level to the vast engineering projects that reshaped the hydrologic underpinnings of a continent. He also shows the works that has been done to save the Lakes. In the nearly year since this was published, we’ve seen an Administration recklessly attack the Lakes, furthering harming its constituents (and everyone else). Egan’s book is a stolid reminder that we can do great things, but first we have to stop doing terrible ones.
Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right To Move, Reece Jones
OK, this came out in October of last year, but the last three months of that year are a daze. The updated version, which came out this year, talks about the catastrophe of Trump, and that hammers home Jones’s position: borders are not natural, but an extension of state power designed to limit the movement of the world’s poor. I love how he ties them into English lords draining the fens and creating property. It’s the kind of book that makes you look at the world in a different way, and his work has greatly informed my own writing on borders on the blog.
Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly
Politically intruiging, Weimaresque, class-conscious, unabashed about homosexuality and gender fluidity, as well as the forces of reaction that beat it down (and can make people suppress who they are) excitingly sexual, as timely as The Handmaid’s Tale, filled with creative language and a lived-in world, Donnelly’s novel surprised me with how much I enjoyed it. It’s the first of a trilogy, as a wonderfully licentious city falls under the thumb of an oppressive regime, through spycraft and political gamesmanship. What surprised me the most was the depiction of how people made compromises, one after the other, to stave off disaster, while opening the door to it. Some to save their skin, some to save loved ones, others because they couldn’t imagine it could ever get that bad. You don’t have to see the timeliness to enjoy the book, but it doesn’t hurt.
Janesville, Amy Goldstein
Goldstein’s work of journalistic story-telling, which follows around residents of Janesville Wisconsin, after the GM plant closes, is a picture of a community in turmoil. What happens when the life you had planned disappears. Goldstein remains removed, though clearly compassionate, and let’s you understand just what 21st-century capitalism means. The smug sanctimony of Janesville’s least favorite son, Paul Ryan, comes through just via his own words and actions. He pretends to care about his town, while doing everything in his power to make life unbearable for the poor and middle class. It’s not about hime, though: it’s about what happens to a community when his vision wins. As I said earlier, “Really, the book is about, if not fate, then luck, and the breaks that can befall even the best-planned life.”
Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann
Grann’s masterpiece hardly needs more praise from me, but everything it has received is earned. He finds a piece of American history that was once famous, but has since been forgotten, and he tells it brilliantly. It’s a yarn in the truest sense, as you get tied into it, unable to extricate yourself from the world he creates, or look away from its horrors. It is the West even at a time as we were closing up a more wild America, and that might be why the story was forgotten: the murdered were, at the time, just Indians, but we’ve incorporated them into our myths. They were and always have been Americans, so lets not talk about those terrible border times, even when they are the roots of our own.
The Driftless Reader, ed Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley.
Natural and cultural history, geology, poetry, travel stories, memoirs, reflections, and more. In this anthology, Meine and Keeley look at a barely-known region of America: the Driftless. Located in Southwest Wisconsin (and thereabouts), it’s a wild mountainous craggy region, seemingly Brigadooned from the rest of the Midwest, which for reasons of primordial geology, was spared the leveling wrath of the glaciers (and their drift, hence the name). It has its own culture and incredible feel, and this anthology captures that. I confess to not having read it all yet, because like the region, it is something to be savored and explored, not rushed over. Even before reading this, Allison and I have spent a few months dreaming of moving there, and this certainly helps make the case.
Water is for Fighting Over, John Fleck (2016)
Fleck looks at how we have used water in the west, and how we have learned (and sometimes forget) to share it. It’s an optimistic book, one that demonstrates that it is possible not to turn our lives into desiccated wastelands, but one that also shows the enormous work involved in doing so. Not just work, but good faith, something that is often entirely lacking. What I like is how much of this good work is done outside the volatility of our politics as commonly understood, but what politics are: people actually working together for the common good.
Blood on the Forge, William Attaway. (1941)
You want an uplifting book about people overcoming the grinding pressures of racism and poverty? This isn’t it. Attaway’s novel reminded me in some ways of James T. Farrell: he refused to pretend that poverty and cruelty were in any ways ennobling. His three brothers, who fled from the dying hills of their sharecropping home to the fiery nightmare of slag-heap Pittsburgh, are not intelligent. They can’t articulate their pain. They don’t give stirring speeches. It is unflinching in what unfettered capitalism and pervasive racism does to the human heart and the human spirit.
Melville, Jean Giono (1941)
Originally written as the introduction to the first French translation of Moby-Dick, which Giono partially translated, this is a fictional meditation on a brief romance Melville had when the novel of the whale was stirring inside of him. None of this happened, of course, and it seems more about Giono’s experience when he was wrestling with the great work, but it captures, I think, how we feel when reading Moby-Dick. There is something magical and impossible happening, a great beast within us, a whole universe banging into existence. This is weird and charming little work, and if you love Melville, it is worth the delightful evening you’ll spend reading it.
The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark, 2012
Do you like in-depth looks at Balkan politics? Do you like deep dives into Serbian succession? Do you like seeing just how the European powers manuevered, thought, plotted, and panicked, leading into the catastrophe of WWI? This is an incredibly dense, comprehensive book, looking at the role of personality and history, of mistakes and miscalculations, and more. Clark demonstrates how heavy-medaled masters-of-all tried to plot the world, but how an argument in some distant Balkan land can show the folly of that.
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2016)
In March, I said that Dunbar-Ortiz’s book wasn’t “so much a telling of the US from the native point of view, but rather looking at US history as essentially being about Indian removal.” That was sort of glib, I think. It’s deeper than that: it is a history where everything the Indigenous had or did was removed to foster the idea of the United States, and to be turned into capital. It’s a story that continues, as Dunbar-Ortiz tells the story up to the present day. The US is still robbing the Indigenous, and still occupying and stealing from the land, our national myths notwithstanding.
Eve’s Hollywood, Eve Babitz, 1974
Eve Babitz, the go-to literary sexpot of 1960s Los Angeles, could write. Her memoirs are secretly weighty beneath the parties, the lunches with famous people, the drugs and the drink and the sex. The weird artificiality of it blows through like the Santa Ana, revealing a city that was ultramodern but balanced on the precipice of something terrible. Also, it is a fun book, and if you want a guide to a very specific time and place, Babitz should be your first choice.
The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan, 2016
Except for maybe Sing, Unburied, Sing, this is the best book I’ve read this year. Generational but not “sweeping”, shocking but grimly determined, as comfortable at making you uncomfortable on the horse farms of old-boy Kentucky as in the slums of Cincinnati or the path of an escaped slave, what makes Morgan’s book so unsettling is that it takes place essentially now. So many of these southern sagas about race and rape and violence have a remove, some antebellum plantation fantasy, or at least a Jim Crow sheriff we can disdain as a relic. But in Morgan’s book the calendar flips to the 2000s, showing again how the past is never the past. Brilliantly written, deeply moving, often harrowing, and you learn a ton about horse breeding, raising, and racing. An absolute classic, which will be read and re-read in our household for years.
So that’s mine! What are yours? What should I pick up to start the New Year?