Thursday, November 30, 2017

Best Books, 2017

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 first list.

Anyway-anyway, let’s just get to the dang books! Presented in random order:


Mother, Tell 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.

Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny: Smart, funny, insightful stories about contemporary life. I inhaled this book!

You Will 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.
The 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.

Insurrections 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.

Robert 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 poetic sentences.

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 welcome.

Eveningland 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.

Story 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:

Bad Kansas 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.


Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson: uncomfortable short stories; the first and the last are especially stunning

Twin of Blackness by Clifford Thompson: memoir about growing up in old, pre-gentrified D.C.

Magic City 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.

Flood by 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 tourist industry.

The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon: A troubled, tricky relationship between two ex-pat diplomatic wives set in the Middle East during the rising Arab Spring.

Apprehensions & 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.

Good House 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.)

Perennials 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.

Dancing by 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.

Mountains of 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 with nature.


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.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.