I have a very hard time picking five books that are my favorite of the year, but I can tell you what I loved this year in a lot of different areas.
Fiction: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Simon and Schuster)
My favorite fiction of the past year is Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. This National Books Award winner deserves every accolade it can gather. It's basically a road trip through Lousiana delta country, with characters both living and dead. Ward's gift is giving voices to a range of characters old, young, prisoner, free, lovers, and haters. Ward is one of the best American writers, Southern or otherwise.
Political: Democracy in Chains: A Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean (Penguin Random House)
The title sounds really political, and while the result of this history is a better realization of our present political condition, it's about so much more. It's a history of the Nobel-prize-winning economist who influenced the Koch brothers, and at its heart, it is truly an economic history of American in the last half-century.
Essay: No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
This collection of short essays just published the first week of December has already caused me to reconsider the paradigms I have accepted for a lifetime. The eighty-four-year-old fantasy writer, Ursula Le Guin, has spent her time wisely considering the things that matter.
History: Radium Girls by Kate Moore (Sourcebooks)
The story of the women who suffered the ravages of hell after being told the radium they used to paint the dials of clocks and watches was safe. Radium Girls presents us with some of the most unforgettable heroines of the 20th century.
Young Adult: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
The first installment in the new La Belle Sauvage trilogy, Philip Pullman takes us back to the world of His Dark Materials, and it is so much fun to be back among the residents of Oxford with their daemons. Set ten years before the action of The Golden Compass, we meet Lyra when she was just a baby and needing protection from the suspect Mrs. Coulter (oh, yeah, her mom). It's so good to be back.
Children's Board Book: Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz (Disney-Hyperion)
Feminist Baby "...will pick out her own clothes, thank you." Looks like it is never too young to get these girls to stand up for themselves.
Kids Book for All Ages: Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (Timbuktu Labs, Inc.)
Colorful illustration of women we should all get to know grace the right hand pages, which absorb a child’s attention, while opposite page is a short description of their accomplishments.
Cookbooks: The Lincoln Del Cookbook by Wendi Zelkin Rosenstein and Kit Naylor (Minnesota Historical Society Press), and Smitten Kitchen Every Day by Deb Perelman (Knopf)
The Lincoln Del Cookbook is from the much beloved Minneapolis delicatessen. A mixture of history and recipes it is my favorite because of the wonderful memories. The cookbook I am most likely to cook from is Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen Every Day.
Sports: The First Major by John Feinstein (Doubleday)
John Feinstein’s book on the 2016 Ryder’s cup which, even if it had not happened at Minnesota’s Hazeltine Golf course, would go down in history as one of the best Ryder Cup ever.
Audiobook: The Power, Naomi Alderman (Little, Brown and Company)
Naomi Alderman reads her own novel, and she gives it her all. Until The Power was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times, I thought maybe I loved this tale of how the moral, social, political dynamics change when women discover at puberty they have the power to electrify, because of the performance of the narrator/author.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib (Two Dollar Radio)
I know we aren’t supposed to pick favorites, but this is without question my favorite book of the year. With the depth and versatility of an immensely talented poet and the strong, perceptive wit of a cultural critic, Hanif Abdurraqib shows us his tremendous ability to bend language to his will in this collection of essays. For him, like for many of us, music is an entrance into a larger discussion of our emotions and our collective cultural understanding. Deftly moving from ruminations on Chance the Rapper, Atmosphere, and Future, to Bruce Springsteen, Fall Out Boy, and Johnny Cash, Abdurraqib is able to traverse conversations on black excellence, grief, and hope. This book taught me something fresh about humanity with every turn of the page, and it will stay with me for a long time to come.
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World Publications)
It’s no secret that Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of our most gifted writers, but he is also a tremendous historian. In this collection of his writings that were featured in The Atlantic throughout the Obama Years, he demonstrates a profound understanding the legacy of the Civil War and it’s repercussions on the American experience. You’ve likely read these essays elsewhere, but the combined force of them read in sequence, and the autobiographical bits interspersed which explain Coates’ frame of mind at the time of his writing, provide a powerful insight into our nation’s troubled story. This is absolutely essential reading for understanding the nefarious forces at work within our democracy, and I demand that this be read widely.
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Graywolf Press)
Danez Smith has a remarkable talent for distilling disparate experiences and emotions into powerful and provocative images. Their poems tackle the complexities of being young, black, and HIV-positive. Danez is a keen observer of the human condition, and their words express with urgency the need to understand one another. I loved this collection, and I'm so glad that this born-and-bred St. Paul poet is getting the recognition their talents so richly deserve.
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash (Coffee House Press)
In this superb debut novel, Gabe Habash has fully captured the identity of modern American male adolescence. Stephen's vulnerabilities and insecurities are transcendent and universal. At times you want to grab him by his cauliflowered ears and teach him a thing or two, and at others you simply want to give him a hug. Habash transmits Stephen's fears and loneliness directly into the heart of the reader. I think friend of mine, Mark Haber, down in Houston at Brazos Bookstore put it best: “Stephen Florida is as much about wrestling as Moby Dick is about whaling.” This novel is strange, singular, surprising, and a supremely delightful read.
American War by Omar El Akkad (Alfred A. Knopf)
Omar El Akkad has delivered a stunning debut. He imagines a world in a not-too-distant future where Americans are at war with each other once again. The characters in this story are fully developed and individual, yet their histories—their stories—extend into the histories of all those displaced and affected by the forces of war. The title, American War, is a shape-shifter. At once, it means that America is again at war, but at times reflects the ways in which the true, actual wars that America has perpetrated on Earth have affected the lives of millions of people. This is a book that transforms the ways in which readers think about and understand the impact, both seen and unseen, war has on the mind of those affected by it.
Honorable Mention: I Hotel by Karen Yamashita (Coffee House Press)
Despite the fact that this book was published in 2010, I couldn’t leave this off my list for best books of the year. I’ve spent the last few weeks with this book and I’ve fallen more and more enamored with each turn of the page. Karen Tei Yamashita is an absolute gift, and the fact that she isn’t mentioned in the same breath as other great American novelists is a travesty. I Hotel is the story of San Francisco during the most transformative years in American history. It’s a story of protest, of the anti-war movement, of anti-capitalist instigators. It is truly innovative in its form, a testament to the mission at Coffee House, and is unlike any other reading experience I’ve ever encountered. I cannot recommend this book enough and I hope you’ll read it and want to discuss it with me at our next meeting of my Freestyle Book Club in January.
In my stack: Some Hell By Patrick Nathan (Graywolf Press, Feb. 2018), The Future is History by Masha Gessen (Riverhead), Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, April 2018), Brown by Kevin Young (Alfred A. Knopf, April 2018), Trenton Makes by Tadzio Koelb (Doubleday, March 2018)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press)
The Idiot is a hefty novel, but Batuman’s writing is so witty and funny that you’ll be hooked until the end. It’s full of multiple layers, intelligent jokes, and references to Russian literature (the very first being the title). Batuman deftly captures the the awkwardness of young adulthood, when you want so badly to live your life to your fullest but can't seem to get out of your own way. It’s a wonderful coming of age story.
Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose (FSG Originals)
Part memoir and part cultural critique, Too Much and Not the Mood is a sweeping and lyrical collection that I find myself returning to again and again. In one of my favorite essays, a mediation on an emoji (the building with the letter “H” on it, with a floating heart above) leads to an exploration of nostalgia, beauty, and wonder. Throughout the collection, Chew-Bose masterfully explores the facets of the human experience, both large and small, both public and private. Chew-Bose writes with wisdom, attention, and emotion, and so often I found myself thinking “I thought I was the only one,” as she gracefully described things I could never quite find my own words for.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press)
Her Body and Other Parties is a taut, spooky, and intimate collection. Machado explores the power of the body with pure honesty, and each story takes the reader on a journey through bizarre twists of reality with a subtle mix of magical realism thrown in. It’s rooted in the physicality of the body, and the stories deal with sexuality, queerness, and being female in such a remarkable and original way. I haven’t read anything quite like it. It's hard not to marvel at Machado's precision, gracefulness, and generosity. She's a genius.
Hunger by Roxane Gay (Harper Collins)
When I first finished Hunger, I couldn’t find the words to express how I felt besides pure awe. And now that more time has passed, I still find it hard to describe just how stunning it is without simply listing other adjectives. Gay precisely illuminates the issues of food, weight, and self-image while offering an incredibly honest and vulnerable account of her life. I will read anything Gay writes, but Hunger is truly exceptional and deserves to be on all best-of lists, always.
Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz (Counterpoint Press)
Sex and Rage is alluring, captivating, and full of sharp observations. It offers a glimpse into the glittering worlds of Los Angeles and New York in the late 70s/early 80s, as Jacaranda tries to find herself and her place in the world. Babitz writes with a wonderful dreamlike quality, and it’s refreshing to read a novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously but also has substance and quality. Babitz utterly charmed me with this effervescent and pleasurable novel.
Looking ahead: Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby (Catapult, January 2018)
Neon in Daylight is everything I wanted it to be and more. Unlike other coming of age stories set in New York, Neon in Daylight is bracingly honest, sharp, and gritty, all without trying too hard or coming off as cliched or overdone. The flawed characters are somehow rendered redeemable in Hoby's extremely intelligent voice, and it’s a joy to watch how she weaves everything together. It’s remarkable and entirely unique.
In my stack: The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (Catapult, March 2018), Tomb Song by Julián Herbert (Graywolf Press, March 2018), And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O'Connell (Little, Brown and Company, April 2018), The Man from the Train by Bill James (Scribner), The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Hogarth Press, May 2018)