Photo of Baroque bookshelves in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, via Wikimedia Commons
I couldn’t confine my favorites to one year end best list. I need three! First, here’s the companion to my midyear best-so-far-titles published in 2017 list. Next week, my favorites read but not published this year, plus a final roundup of my favorites from the whole year’s new releases.
I’m calling these my favorites, not “the best”, although I’ve seen several from my lists popping up frequently on best of 2017 compilations. As much as I read, I never read as much as I hope to, and I never cover all the topics and genres I feel I should. So that’s a sort of disclaimer – these are personal, limited and influenced by my own interests and preferences.
I know I didn’t get to some big ones, but these are the titles from the second half of the year that I enjoyed most and recommend wholeheartedly.
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land (Monica Hesse, Liveright,July 11) Washington Post reporter Hesse covers the bizarre string of arson crimes, trial, and background stories of mechanic Charlie Smith and his girlfriend Tonya Bundick in this artful “true crime love story.” I don’t know why I’m so drawn to stories about decaying parts of America, but this one is the best that that small genre can be: a page-turningly written, descriptive work of narrative nonfiction about a troubled part of rural Virginia and the ripple effect those problems have, over generations, on its population. Don’t be turned off by the true crime label if you’re not a genre fan, this book is so much more.
Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe (Inara Verzemnieks, W.W. Norton, July11) Half memoir and half history, Verzemnieks writes absolutely beautifully, about her trip to her family’s native Latvia, seeking her relatives there and the roots of her grandmother’s life and a kind of peace with the past. Her family’s story is rooted in the Second World War, and all of the complications of this time, and this is a smart, unbelievably richly written account of a country, a family, and the link between past and present. I can’t really do it justice in a short description – it’s a moving must-read.
The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage (Jared Yates Sexton,Counterpoint, September 12) Journalist Sexton describes what he sees from the 2016 campaign rallies and conventions of Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and Green Party. Observational, descriptive, and a little bit menacing, it was a well written standout for me in this year’s big wave of political commentary.
Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White HouseYears (David Litt, Ecco, September 19) Funny, honest, self-deprecating, and hopeful account of a young graduate who found himself working peripheral to, and eventually in the heart of the Obama administration as a speechwriter. He touches on a lot about writing and DC life, a little about politics and politicking.
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II (Liza Mundy, Hachette, October 10) Smoothly written history of the American women recruited into the war effort to train as cryptanalysts, working to break enemy codes during the Second World War. A sort of group biography, Mundy highlights several of the influential women and their lives, including before and after the war, shedding light on their work, relationships, and incredible wartime contributions.
After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, a Daughter’s Search (Sarah Perry, HoughtonMifflin Harcourt, September 26) Perry writes eloquently and in great detail about her childhood before and after her single mother’s murder, which she overheard from another room in their home. Her coming of age story includes her shuffle through relatives’ homes and her slide into adulthood, always haunted and followed by her mother’s memory, the hole left by her loss, and the lingering question of who took her life. It’s gorgeous, compelling writing, hauntingly beautiful despite the grim subject matter.
Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City (Kate Winkler Dawson, Hachette, October 17) A dual history from London, of both a smothering, blanketing fog that claimed thousands of lives, and the dirty doings of a murderer operating around the same time, sometimes taking advantage of people’s fog-related respiratory difficulties to lure them with the promise of a breathing cure. He claimed less than ten victims and the polluting fog thousands, but the serial killer captured the public’s imagination and headlines. Still, the fog helped usher in the game-changing Clean Air Act, and Dawson writes a page-turning social history of the times.
Vacationland: True Stories From Painful Beaches (John Hodgman, Viking, October24) I loved this charming, funny, and surprisingly poignant memoir told through connected essays by comedian Hodgman. It’s a great example of having little in common with an author who’s writing so much about their life and personal experiences, but still getting so much out of their storytelling. Hodgman has a unique gift in being able to reach across gender and social lines that way. I laughed so much and was deeply touched as well. A gem of a book about getting older, hopefully wiser, and confronting the realities of life, work, and family, centered in personality-heavy communities in Maine and Massachusetts.
Convenient Suspect: A Double Murder, a Flawed Investigation, and the Railroading of an Innocent Woman (Tammy Mal, Chicago Review Press, November 1) This is my idea of a true crime lover’s dream. It’s an immersive page-turner, exploring a potential and shocking miscarriage of justice. Thoroughly researched and well told, despite some difficulties like many important figures in the case and investigation refusing to grant interviews. It gives you a lot to think about long after it’s finished, and is a great addition to the recent, scary flood of wrongful conviction accounts and histories.
Now two cheats, which were actually published in the first half of the year. I read these as advance copies last year and totally forgot about them when making my first list. Oops! My blog, my rules, so better late than never.
Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge (HelenRappaport, St. Martin’s Press, February 7) Technically this is about a major historical event from October, so shouldn’t it really be in this part of the year anyway? Anyway, Rappaport is a renowned historian of Russia, and this history shows the progression of revolution through the eyes and impressions of outsiders. It captures the chaos, confusion, and conflicting perspectives that were everywhere at the time. Journalists, businessmen, and expats tell their experiences in this pivotal moment in history, now 100 years past, in their own words.
The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing (Damion Searls, Crown, February 21) We all know his test and what it’s purported to be able to show about the human psyche (pseudoscience is a topic covered here), but little about Rorschach’s life is known in the popular conscience. It’s a fascinating study of the man and his times, and the presence of the test in psychology and culture.
What were your standout nonfiction reads this year? Did any of my picks make your list too? Let me know what your favorites were!