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Best books of 2017 list leans toward nonfiction

| Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, 10:27 a.m.
“Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel” (Random House), by George Saunders.
“Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel” (Random House), by George Saunders.

Most of my favorite new books of 2017 are nonfiction. Many are short. More than a few emphasize writing that's either graceful or pointedly concise. This suggests that the books that spoke to me cut through the high noise-to-signal ratio of this anxious year to remind me of what really matters.

They're listed in alphabetical order by title.


"All Grown Up: A Novel" (HMH), by Jami Attenberg. A woman turning 40 takes stock of her unconventional, often messy life. In a sharp, accessible voice, Attenberg writes about the challenges of living single while also questioning the assumption that being married is a superior state.

"The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story" (Graywolf), by Edwidge Danticat. The novelist analyzes death scenes and writers' reflections on mortal moments from Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston to Albert Camus and Haruki Murakami, while also writing eloquently about the final days and death of her mother.

An image from "Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York.

Photo by Bloomsbury


"Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York" (Bloomsbury), by Roz Chast. The great New Yorker cartoonist salutes Manhattan and mocks her own anxiety in these celebratory cartoon-essays. She claims this isn't a guidebook, but she explains getting around the city in a helpful and entertaining fashion.


"Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body" (Harper), by Roxane Gay. The author of "Bad Feminist" discloses how she began eating compulsively and gaining weight after being gang-raped at age 12. Her courageous book fits no preconceived template about weight, weight loss and eating disorders.


"Janesville: An American Story" (Simon & Schuster), by Amy Goldstein. Washington Post reporter Goldstein chronicles how individuals and the community have tried to bounce back after General Motors closed its Janesville plant in 2008. Like Matthew Desmond's "Evicted," Goldstein's "Janesville" reminds us that many working Americans are only one or two bad breaks or decisions away from disaster.

"Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel" (Random House), by George Saunders. Two troubled souls in the afterlife resolve to enter President Lincoln's living body to persuade him to accept the death of his son, so the son's spirit can move on. A brilliant, empathetic and wonderfully weird novel, both emotionally and technically stirring.

John Waters at home in Baltimore.

Photo by AP


"Make Trouble" (Algonquin), by John Waters. A subversive yet genuinely inspiring commencement address by the director of "Hairspray" and "Pink Flamingos," with droll, sketchy illustrations by Eric Hanson. A sample: "Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh."

"Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy" (Harper), by Michael Perry. Wisconsin humorist and memoirist Perry ("Population: 485") finds common ground (and shared afflictions) with the great French essayist. Perry writes with joy and tension about being both a proud rural American and a culture-loving, writer-quoting public-radio dude.

"300 Arguments" (Graywolf Press), by Sarah Manguso. A biting collection of aphorisms from a master of the form. "Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book's quotable passages," Manguso writes. A sample: "Parental love is a one-way, all-consuming love, like a crush that asks nothing of its object. You can inhabit it totally, and no one will try to heal you of it."


"An Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett, Mentor and Editor of Literary Genius" (FSG), by Helen Smith. A compelling biography of the pugnacious Garnett, a coach and confidant of Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, D.H. Lawrence, T.E. Lawrence and other important writers, who put the interests of literature ahead of any publisher he happened to be working for.

Jim Higgins is a writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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