What was it like to read in 2017? This was the year I had to turn off all notifications on my phone, when I had to make the little machine absolutely silent so I could build myself back up through a book, through the thrill of a narrative, through the truth of a well-written line. Reading in 2017 was a balance between reading to deeply understand the world around me, and reading to escape.
These are five books that showed me a new way, and brought me back to myself fresher.
'Don’t Call Us Dead' by Danez Smith
I saw Danez Smith perform in Philadelphia this year and I can tell you he brought a whole auditorium to tears. His latest poetry book, Don’t Call Us Dead, is the most stunning poetry I have read all year. It is incantatory, breathtaking, powerful. The poems — touching on blackness, queerness, gun violence, and history’s oppression — burst forth from the page with visceral, unsettling, and yet uplifting truths. Smith has an alchemical way to reimagine tragedy, putting language to our aspirations as well as underlining the shortcomings of our reality. In "summer, somewhere," for instance, Smith imagines an afterlife for black boys shot by police:
...but here, not earth
not heaven, boys can’t recall their white shirt
turned a ruby gown. here, there is no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.
'Priestdaddy' by Patricia Lockwood
After a medical emergency, Patricia Lockwood and her husband find themselves moving into her very religious, very conservative parents' house. This, after years of — in the words of Lockwood — “tending the pigs of liberalism, agnosticism, poetry, fornication, cussing, salad-eating, and wanting to visit Europe.” It's hard to imagine how a liberal daughter going back home to move in with her conservative family can be funny, but I beg you to pick up this book. Lockwood is a true magician. At the center of this memoir is a father and a daughter, the patriarch and the feminist, and how these two opposites meet. Lockwood gets at deeper truths, too, observing her family with a profundity that perhaps comes from her feeling like an outsider:
All my life I have overheard, all my life I have listened to what people will let slip when they think you are part of their we. A we is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency. Its mouth is full of received, repeating language. The we closes its ranks to protect the space inside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. It protects its own shape.
'The Dark Dark' by Samantha Hunt
In this perfect short story collection, Samantha Hunt inspects life under the glaring lights of suburbia. In her stories, women court madness, danger, and at the edge of this courting, Hunt's characters brush with the supernatural. These are stories with talons dipped into the eerie and the supernatural. In one story, for example, a town is thrown into disarray by the simultaneous pregnancy of 13 mysterious teens; in another, a woman trying to convince herself that death is uncomplicated watches her dog come back to life. The writing in The Dark Dark is swoon-worthy, and craft-wise, there is not one hair out of place. You'll love this collection too for its ability to dredge up our intense desire and deep inability to connect with one another:
"Unlock the door?" he asks.
This family is an experiment, the biggest I've ever been part of, an experiment called: How do you let someone in?
"Unlock the door," he says again. "Please."
I release the lock. I open the door. That's the best definition of love.
'Killers of the Flower Moon' by David Grann
David Grann is one of my favorite longform journalists. In his latest book, Grann turns his attention to 1920s Oklahoma, where white settlers steal the tribal lands of the Osage and forcibly relocate them to the driest, most barren property. The land, of course, turns out to be teeming with oil. The Osage become the richest people per capita in the nation; they then begin to die in shocking numbers and under mysterious circumstances. Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of a shockingly underreported conspiracy and the beginnings of the FBI. The book centers around one Osage matriarchal family, the Burkharts, and the plot to murder each member. The painful history of white settlers against first nations is not only a history you should know, but also a predecessor to Standing Rock.
There was one question that the judge and the prosecutors and the defense never asked the jurors but that was central to the proceedings: Would a jury of twelve white men ever punish another white man for killing an American Indian? One skeptical reporter noted, “The attitude of a pioneer cattleman toward the full-blood Indian…is fairly well recognized.” A prominent member of the Osage tribe put the matter more bluntly: “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals."
'Baking With Kafka' by Tom Gauld
Wry, imaginative, disdainfully humorous, Baking With Kafka is a bibliocentric comic book you’ll absolutely wolf down and then wish it wasn’t quite over yet. I myself turned to the last page, and began it all over again. I am absolutely in love with Gauld's humor—not to mention his minimalist aesthetic and bleak color palette. Baking With Kafka is the smart, charming, pure delight of a comic book every book lover has been waiting for. These are cartoons bent at picking on literary anxieties, pretensions, and pedantry. Gift liberally to all the book lovers you know:
The Spine is a biweekly column. Check us out back here in two weeks.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.