Beginning this week, we’ll be looking back at some of the books that we enjoyed most in 2017. First up: nonfiction. Whether they were providing us with a greater understanding of the world around us, taking us on a deep dive into the mind of their authors, or offering a wry take on everyday life, these books gave us something to savor this year.
Bunk, Kevin Young
Fake news isn’t simply a product of the Trump era. In this deeply researched and unflinching history that looks at some of most famous and infamous figures in American history who gained notoriety, money, and power through finding new ways to deceive the public. If you’re looking for a book to add to your high school curriculum, this might be a good one to consider. Fake news is an American weed that Kevin Young has pulled up for all of us to look at, and we should thank him for it.
Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli
(Coffee House Press)
It’s hard to say what’s important and helpful in these days of every bit of bad news flashing across our screens before disappearing and the next bit of news takes its place. Yet we can say in no uncertain terms that this, Valeria Luiselli’s account of discussions with undocumented children from Latin America facing deportation from the U.S., is a vital book.
Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
(Two Dollar Radio)
Hanif Abdurraqib explores America through its popular culture. The emo bands, rappers, and Bruce Springsteen all offer him an opportunity to look at larger issues. He does it in such a way that – if we can double down on our claim that this is a“Great American Essay Collection” – gives us hope for the future of the essay and maybe America as well.
Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy
On paper, the story of a young artsy weirdo in the middle of the country and her Catholic priest father, might not sound like it’s for you. Yet Patricia Lockwood, through humor, warmth, and a lack of fear, makes this memoir for everybody. It’s about family and growing up, but dig deeper and you find that Priestdaddy is about coming to a common understanding. It’s about understanding ourselves as much as it is other people and what they might believe.
Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life
To write a truly great personal essay collection you can’t hold anything back. Few have followed this one simple rule as well as Samantha Irby’s hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking book. We all lead messy lives no matter how hard we try and hide it. Irby admits everything, but never wallows in the mess; she explores it. It’s humorous, yes; but it’s also damn cathartic. We should all set out to write an essay or two on our own lives the way Irby does in this wonderful book.
Megan Stielstra, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life
As much a lifeboat in the middle of a story ocean as it is a great essay collection, every essay written by Megan Stielstra carries a deeper message. You come away from reading this book thinking that, yes, there’s plenty to be frightened of in this world. That circumstances, institutions, and people will let you down, but that you should keep moving and creating. Stielstra probably didn’t set out to write an essay collection that doubles as a self-help manual, but that’s what she ended up doing.
Roxane Gay, Hunger
Everything you heard about Roxane Gay’s powerful “Memoir of (My) Body” is true. While the story itself is why you pick this book up, it’s the risks Gay takes as a writer that leave you stunned. It is not your conventional memoir, and that’s what makes it all the more engaging and unforgettable. With Hunger, Gay does what we’ve come to know from her puts her head down, and writes and writes and writes. She gives the reader just about everything in this candid look at her own life, and the pacing and energy of her prose serve as yet another example of just how capable the tireless Gay is of showing you something new.
David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
Simply the most riveting true crime book you’ll read this year. The history of the birth of the FBI, murders of members of the rich Osage Indian nation, and dusty Oklahoma in the 1920s all come together to earn David Grann’s book the cliched label of ‘Impossible to put down,’ because, well, it is.
Jessica B. Harris, My Soul Looks Back
(Simon & Schuster)
Jessica B. Harris’s areas of expertise are numerous: she has a background in journalism and history, has been honored by the James Beard Foundation, and hosts the radio program My Welcome Table. In her memoir My Soul Looks Back, she recalls her newspaper jobs in the 1970s and her interactions with friends like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison – a winning immersion in cultural history.
Matthew Newton, Shopping Mall
Part memoir and part history, Matthew Newton looks at a childhood stuck in Pennsylvania, and how the mall impacted his life. Yet this entry into the “Object Lessons” series connects with anybody that grew up anywhere where the Hot Topic or Blockbuster Music was their salvation. Whether you’re Gen. X or an older Millenial, there is something instantly familiar you’ll notice in Newton’s lovely look at our temples to late capitalisim.
Scott Esposito, The Doubles
(Civil Coping Mechanisms)
Scott Esposito expertly wove references to films–both in terms of their stories and of the act of watching–into his stunning 2016 book The Surrender. So it’s not surprising that The Doubles moves cinema even more to the forefront: it’s a kind of aesthetic memoir, using one film per year to chart Esposito’s own personal and artistic evolution, and its structural risks pay off massively well.
Melissa Febos, Abandon Me
Melissa Febos’s brilliantly-structured Abandon Me initially seems to be structured as a series of vignettes, each of which explores a complex series of relationships–some familial, some romantic, some historical. But by the end, Febos has brought everything together, creating a haunting map of her own life along the way.
Ann Powers, Good Booty
(Dey Street Books)
Ann Powers’s writings about music and pop culture have long been essential reading for those seeking nuanced, unexpected takes on an array of subjects. For Good Booty, she brings in a historical perspective, examining a century’s worth of popular music and how it has reflected and shaped questions of race, gender, and sexuality.
Sarah Gerard, Sunshine State
At this point, we’re convinced Sarah Gerard is incapable of writing a book that isn’t a total knockout. With this, the followup to her debut novel, Binary Star, Gerard explores her home state of Florida. That weird, wild place that none of of can totally understand, but are fine with making jokes about. What she gets at, through a mix of personal and historical, is that the Florida experience is about as much of an American experience as you can get. She does it in a way that shows – if there was any doubt – that Gerard is a voice you must pay attention to.
Jeremiah Moss, Vanishing New York
(Dey Street Books)
It’s always a risk when you pick up a book based on a great blog. It’s easy to worry you’re just going to end up paying a bunch of money for posts you can read for free if you haven’t already. Yet Jeremiah Moss, in this history, love letter, and lament for New York City, gives readers new and old something that’s very much worth the cost of admission. It’s about “How a great city lost its soul,” and it’s also a warning about how others can and will follow suit. But it’s also a beautiful meditation on what draws us to cities, and why cities end up pushing us away.
Carina Chocano, You Play The Girl
A book that comes complete with comparisons to Rebecca Solnit and Roxane Gay isn’t playing around, and Carina Chocano’s doesn’t disappoint. By examining how pop culture creates and enforces gender norms in a voice that is relatable, funny, and obviously brilliant, Chocano gave us one of the strongest essay collections in a year that had more than a few of those.