If there's one thing I hate, it's a list, and yet here we are at the end of the year, and it's that time to make lists and think back on what the best (aka our favorite) things were, and celebrate them. Which, well, when I think about it that way, maybe lists aren't so bad, since they're a nice tidy way of promoting some of the many incredible books that came out this year, the work that allowed me, and countless others, to remember, amidst the horrors—banal and otherwise—of this world, that there is much good still to be found.
Let's then celebrate some of the best nonfiction books to come out this year. Although, first: "Best" is a tricky word here, of course, because it's a bullshit word. There are no best books. As mentioned above, there are only my favorites. And even of my favorites, there are only those books that I've read. And I haven't read every book! And so there might be some I've missed, because I'm resolved not to do what, let's face it, many people do—which is put books on these lists because they feel that those books are supposed to be there, that they deserve it, because of who wrote it or who published it or what the subject matter is or... I don't even know. All I do know is that "deserve" is a bullshit concept, too, so I'm ignoring it entirely.
And so: my list. Each of the following works marked a bright spot in my year, a period of many hours in which I lost myself completely, going on trips through time, across continents, inside the hidden workings of the mind, and even to Florida. Each book stands alone, separate from this list. Each should be read for the way it can transport you into learning things, like the deepest, darkest truths about the history of this country, the different ways people find peace, and why sex and arson go hand in hand.
Here, then, are 13 of my favorite nonfiction books of 2017.
Too Much and Not the Mood: Essays by Durga Chew-Bose (available here)
I devoured this gorgeous book over the course of two longish flights recently, and I was struck by how perfect it felt to read these intimate essays, written in such a way that their words wound through my head so resolutely that I now feel like they're permanently embedded in my mind, while sitting still, hurtling through space. It felt perfect because Chew-Bose has a unique ability to render and press pause upon those moments in which we retreat into ourselves, all the better to examine their weight from every angle. It's as if she stops all the madness going on in the world and picks up—and apart—the thoughts we have while standing in the eye of the hurricane. And what is the experience of flight if not one of suspended animation, up above the clouds, where something akin to self-hypnosis can feel like the only way to stay sane? Reading these lyrical essays felt like meditation to me; I turned phrases over and over in my head like mantras, marveling at Chew-Bose's talent and composing a list of all the friends upon whom I would soon bestow this book. It's a long list.
(Read my profile of Chew-Bose, here.)
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard (available here)
Gerard's debut novel, Binary Star, was one of my favorite books of 2015, and her latest collection of essays is absolutely in the running for my favorites list of 2017. In it, Gerard writes beautifully about everything from an intensely close friendship (yes, it involved matching tattoos), that devolves with the same explosiveness with which it once thrived, to a fascinating look at the bizarre founder of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a Floridian bird sanctuary of international renown. Through it all, Gerard demonstrates how the insanities and inanities of Florida serve as a microcosm of America, in all its fractured, complicated beauty and darkness.
(Read my interview with Gerard, here.)
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (available here)
One of the most fascinating, horrific American stories ever told, it's a must-read for every single person who lives in this country, as it explains a good deal about the original sin with which all Americans are born. Grann's book explores a series of murders which took place in the Osage Indian nation in the 1920s, back when the Osage where the richest people per capita on earth, thanks to living on land rich in oil. Grann weaves a narratively strong tale, so much so that there are moments where it's hard to believe that the story is real, so repugnant and widespread are the crimes being committed. But it is all too real of a story, one whose reverberations are still felt today, just as the crimes themselves were echoes of past evils visited on America's native peoples.
Mean by Myriam Gurba (available here)
Don't let its slim profile fool you, this memoir bursts with vitality and humor (however mordant), all while dealing with issues of gender politics, sexual assault, PTSD, and Gurba's experience growing up as a queer, mixed-race Chicana in California in the '80s. Along with telling her own story, Gurba's memoir details the tragic fate of Sophia Castro Torres, another young Chicana woman, who was raped and killed in Gurba's hometown. Torres' story stays with Gurba: "Sophia is always with me. She haunts me. Guilt is a ghost." But that guilt, that haunting, has been used to great effect in Mean, as Gurba uses the tragedies, both small and large, she sees around her to illuminate the realities of systemic racism and misogyny, and the ways in which we can try to escape what society would like to tell us is our fate.
American Fire: Love, Fire, and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse (available here)
What more do you need from a book than dozens of mysterious fires, a sex-fueled crime spree, and a clear commentary on the ways in which this country has always and continues to fail its working-class populace? Not much else! Luckily, Hesse's book has all those things and more. It's a riveting story (I read it in one sitting), and a fascinating microcosm of the ways in which this whole damned nation is one big garbage fire.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (available here)
Besides having one of the season's best covers (this is not the most important thing about a book, but it's not not that either), Irby's new collection of essays is an often riotously funny, unflinching, and never not provocative look into her life. Irby tackles difficult topics, like her estrangement from her father and how growing up in poverty has lifelong repercussions, including making it impossible to understand how to do things like "save for a rainy day." (Read all about Irby's take on this in her recent, excellent New York Times op-ed, "If Every Day Is a Rainy Day, What Am I Saving For?" which is also included in her book.) Irby writes about the ways in which our society is so focused on aspirational living, that it neglects the people who are just trying to survive. But the book is never preachy, rather it is skillful in its ability to reveal the essential realities of how so many of us live and dream and hope and fail in ways that are inimitably our own.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy (available here)
Within the span of a handful of weeks, almost every identifiable structure in Ariel Levy’s life was summarily dismantled. Where once she had been married, a homeowner, five-months pregnant, and on her way to motherhood, in one swift rush, she... wasn’t. When once she had been sure of the direction in which her life was heading, straight and strong as an arrow, over the course of mere days, her certainty vanished; the arrow arced up and into the kind of wide open sky that’s hard to accurately assess. Is it darkening or growing lighter? And does it even matter what color the void is? In one fell swoop, Levy had lost her child, her wife, her house—all key elements of the person she had worked to become, all parts of a life she had intentionally created. This type of loss can seem too much to bear, and sometimes it is. But Levy was, as she’d be the first to tell you, left with some things, chief among them, her ability to write. And the result is this heartbreaking, revelatory memoir.
(Read my interview with Levy, here.)
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (available here)
Riotously funny and perversely beautiful, poet Patricia Lockwood's memoir is a fascinating look into her incredibly unique upbringing as the daughter of a Catholic priest. Yes, that's right: Lockwood's father (definitely one of recent literary history's most memorable creations) is a gun-loving, Rush Limbaugh-listening, "feminazi"-hating Catholic priest who got a special dispensation to be ordained following an epiphanic experience watching The Exorcist while in a submarine ("the deepest conversion in history," he calls it). You kind of have to read it to believe it, and while you read it, you'll undoubtedly find yourself thinking that poets can kind of do anything they want with words, and we're all the lucky beneficiaries.
(Read my interview with Lockwood, here.)
After the Eclipse by Sarah Perry (available here)
In 1994, 30-year-old Crystal Perry was assaulted and murdered in the home she shared in a rural Maine town with her then-12-year-old daughter, Sarah; it would be another 12 years before Crystal’s murderer was arrested. After the Eclipse is a powerful accounting of those years, a time in which Sarah was shuffled from house to house, considered a possible suspect in her mother’s death, and worked to rebuild her own life following its utter devastation. The latter might seem an impossible task considering what Sarah had experienced, but what becomes clear while reading is that the foundation Crystal built for her daughter was one of inestimable strength, and would stand Sarah in good stead.
“I always try to say the book is about my mother who was murdered, not about the murder of my mother,” Perry explained to me recently over the phone. And that's exactly what the profoundly moving After the Eclipse feels like. Because while the memoir also ably explores the systemic misogyny and classism in small-town America, as well as the effects that trauma has on an adolescent girl, it truly revolves around the life of Crystal, who shines from the borders of this often unbearably dark story as bright as the sun on a summer day.
(Read my interview with Perry, here.)
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke (available here)
In her exquisite, soul- and mind- and, yes, heart-shattering graphic novel, Radtke explores life’s big questions surrounding things like grief, mortality, and the impermanence of the things—the people—we love most. Centered around the untimely death of her beloved uncle, who falls prey to a strain of heart disease which runs in the family, Imagine Wanting Only This is Radtke’s delicately rendered journey across the world as she finds herself “consumed by the question of how something that is can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.” Not content to internalize this question, of what to do when we know destruction is imminent, Radtke explores far-flung places which have become ruined—devastated Midwestern towns, a town in Iceland covered in volcanic ash—all in an attempt to better understand the potential for her own heart to become a new and sudden site of disaster. That Radtke can deal with such timeless and oft-explored topics as death and loss without ever veering into cliche is impressive enough, but that she does it with an extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence uniquely her own, makes this debut a stunning reminder of the power of art to make us feel hopeful as we confront existential terror, to greet the abyss with eyes clear and open.
Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray by Rosalind Rosenberg (available here)
Not enough people know about the incredible Pauli Murray, who is one of the most important civil rights figures in American history. Murray was a groundbreaking activist and lawyer, co-founder of the National Organization for Women, a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and an ordained priest. It was as a law student in the 1940s that Murray came up with the legal argument that would ultimately lead to the end of segregation (focus on the problem with the "separate" part, not the "equal" part).
Murray's life story is remarkable no matter what, but, as Rosenberg explores in this sensitive, provocative new biography, it's all the more so considering that Murray, hailed as a feminist icon, actually did not identify with being a woman at all and sought hormone therapy in a time long before the word "transgender" was used with any regularity.
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (available here)
Each of the essays in this book emphasizes the importance of music in understanding not just identity, but also our humanity. Abdurraqib writes about everything, from his experience as one of the only black kids in the almost-all-white punk scene to what it really means to be an outlaw in music and how some of our most beloved "outlaw" musicians are really just performing the role. It's a fascinating look at the interplay between culture and life, and it will give you a new way of listening to music and of seeing the world.
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young (available here)
The perfect book to read around the holidays, because it will lead to a rousing dinnertime conversation about how America has always been a land of hucksterism and bullshit, and so it's kind of no surprise we're in our current ultra-messy situation. Young weaves a fascinating—if disheartening—history of the hoaxes in America, and makes clear that as laughable as some of them seem in retrospect (much in the way Donald Trump's Twitter rants about "fake news" seemed darkly funny at first), they're actually serious business, revealing disturbing truths about this nation's systemic problems with racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. Bunk is a fiercely intelligent account of the lies public figures tell us and the lies we tell ourselves, and it's one of the most important books you'll read all year.