As usual, this list is taken from the books I’ve
read during 2017. Who cares what year a good book was published, really? I
believe in buying lots of books and then letting them rise to the surface at
the right time. I also believe in keeping this list to 10 or under, so I’m
being pretty ruthless here (augh, the anguish!). What are the books I relentlessly
urged onto other people? What are the books that haunt me months later?
One difficulty with my list is that I try to keep
it free of books written by my friends, which feels more honest to me, but I am
lucky to have SO MANY accomplished and prolific writer friends! Also, in this
age of social media, is someone I know from Facebook a “friend” or a friend?
What if I met someone once at an event…are they my friend/“friend” and
therefore excluded from my list? (Clearly I have time on my hands to be
worrying about this.)
Anyway, my solution is to keep a separate list of
books I loved that I read this year that were written by my friends (below),
and I allowed two books that blur the “friend”/friend line to sneak onto the
Anyway-anyway, let’s just get to the dang books!
Presented in random order:
MY BEST BOOKS, 2017
Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell: This is the book I recommended the
most this year. Short stories about gritty women in a forgotten corner of
Michigan, written by a master. This one went straight to my “Best Books” shelf,
my highest compliment, FWIW.
Mellow by Katherine Heiny: Smart, funny, insightful stories about
contemporary life. I inhaled this book!
Know Me by Megan Abbott: I recommended this one a lot, too. Sort of billed
as a mystery, but really an exploration of life inside the family of an elite
(Olympics-level) young gymnast. What does it mean, what does it cost to be “special”?
The Sun Also
Rises by Ernest Hemingway: A re-read after seeing “The Select,” an
hours-long theatrical adaptation. The antisemitism is tough to take, obviously…but
this book is a classic for a reason. Lost, yearning, broken, aimless young
people—who are, unfortunately for them, smart enough to recognize their plight.
Half-Known World by Robert Boswell: A craft book about writing based on a
series of lectures given at the Warren Wilson low-res MFA program. I never
write in books, but I scribbled the hell out of this one, marking a thousand
different passages. I also immediately trashed the opening of the story I was
working on and rewrote it, thanks to this book.
by Rion Amilcar Scott: Okay, I’ve met Rion a couple of times. Nevertheless, I’m
compelled to mention these short stories, which all take place in an imaginary
town in Maryland that had the only successful slave revolt in America. (That’s
imagined, too.) Smart and hard-eyed stories, and a great writer to study for
dialogue and voice.
Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, A Study of Genuis, Mania, and Character
by Kay Redfield Jamison: I’m sort of obsessed with Robert Lowell, so obviously
I’m going to love a giant NF book that examines his genius and life through the
lens of mental illness, written by an expert in the mental health field who writes
The Boys of
My Youth by Jo Ann Beard: I’m probably the last writer on earth to read
this fine collection of essays. But if I’m not, YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK. I don’t
care if you don’t like essays/prose/reading/women/whatever. Trust me. Here’s
her most famous essay, about the grad student who shot professors/students
at the University of Iowa physics department, where Beard once worked. You’re
by Michael Knight: I was on a real short story kick this year, and this book is
one of the reasons why I kept looking for more. No gimmicks, no flash. Just
solid, deep, insightful story-telling. These all take place in the Mobile Bay
area of Alabama, which made for an excellent reading experience while I was in
Fairhope, AL. And this is the book I gave as a hostess gift to the lovely
Fairhopeans (?) who hosted me for dinner…until the bookstore ran out.
Problems by Charles Jensen: Okay, I also know Charlie in that “’how are you’
at an event” sort of way. These are prose poems written in the form of (guess!)
math story problems that brilliantly explore loss. I know, I know…you “don’t
get” poetry. Try just this tiny sample and you will be hooked: http://thediagram.com/17_1/jensen.html
by Becky Mandelbaum: Might as well wind up with short stories! This book won
the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, for which I screened
manuscripts. This book was not in my stack to read…and if it had been, I
probably would have stopped right there. (Not really, I’m very responsible.)
Smart, funny, sorrowful, and voicey—all these stories take place in or relate
to Kansas, a geographic place and a state of mind.
BOOKS I READ/LOVED WRITTEN BY MY FRIENDS/“FRIENDS”
Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson: uncomfortable short stories; the first
and the last are especially stunning
Blackness by Clifford Thompson: memoir about growing up in old,
Gospels by Ashley M. Jones: Poems! That send ice through your veins, they’re
that on point!
Day of the
Border Guards by Katherine E. Young: More poems! Remember Soviet Russia?
Here it is, harsh and detailed, witnessed thoughtfully through intelligent eyes.
Melissa Scholes Young: You can’t go home again, or can you? Returning to
blue-collar Hannibal, Missouri, home of Mark Twain, here a muse and an all-encompassing
Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon: A troubled, tricky relationship
between two ex-pat diplomatic wives set in the Middle East during the rising
& Convictions: Adventures of a 50-year-old Rookie Cop by Mark Johnson:
You won’t always like what you read in this account of life on the streets of
Mobile, Alabama, but your eyes will be opened…widely.
by Peyton Marshall: Dystopian novel where boys with genetic criminal tendencies
are incarcerated, and worse. (Really, this all could probably be taking place
right now, beneath our noses.)
by Mandy Berman: How I love great writing about girls at camp! Good one to
study for managing POV in a large cast of characters.
the River by Marlin Barton: Alabama stories by a master story-teller. A
slow burn of a book.
I’m the One
Who Got Away by Andrea Jarrell: A chilling memoir about coming to terms with
an abusive and confusing girlhood.
Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite by R.Mark Liebenow: Memoir and
nature writing winding together with the force of El Capitan itself. I read
this on the plane flying home from California, and it was as if I were still in
Yosemite, treading the paths, gazing at those ethereal granite formations, one
Finally, thank you to ALL writers EVERYWHERE! I would be lost without books and stories. Believe me, I appreciate how hard it is to write, and I am grateful for each hard-earned word you share.