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Hugo House’s Best-Loved Books of 2017

Posted Thu, 12/07/2017 - 8:00am by  |  Category: ,

Plan your 2018 reading with these picks from the writers and readers of Hugo House. These books are what kept them up late, turning pages, all year long. Which will you start with?

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Luiseilli is a Mexican writer living in the US. This book is an extended essay about her work as a translator for undocumented child refugees mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador who were facing deportation, a result of an Obama administration crack down on migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. It was released just after the 2016 election and during this highly sensitized moment I was grateful for her lyrical, intimate narrative about the violence of borders.

–Corinne Manning, teaching Desire as Craft

Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure by Eli Clare

Cure is such a compelling response to body-mind less precisely because it promises us our imagined time travel. But this promise can also devalue our present day selves […] It can fuel hope grounded in nothing but the shadows of natural and normal.”

As someone who has been dealing with chronic illness, I’ve been reading everything I can find to help me develop a deeper analysis of disability and what it means to be sick in ways that are personal, and full of texture and heart. Eli Clare is a disabled genderqueer poet and activist and this book, which is part memoir, part critical disability studies, offered the warmth of another body (such heat and sensitivity in the writing) and showed me that there is more than just yearning for cure, but a way to “bear witness” to my body and illness as it hums and breathes, “so different from the desire to repair.”

–Corinne Manning, teaching Desire as Craft

Conversations With Friends: A Novel by Sally Rooney

I’ve read so many excellent books this year, but I was perhaps most pleasantly surprised by this one, which I read most recently. The plot, when I read a summary, didn’t seem especially fresh: two 21-year-old white women befriend a rich older couple. An affair ensues, along with fraught, late-night conversations about art, some conducted via text messaging (which, fair enough). But from the first pages, I was gripped by this novel.

Finishing it felt like emerging from a fever dream. I’m still trying to put my finger on why, but I think it’s because of the intimacy and propulsion of the narrative voice. Given the topic of my Hugo House course, I wanted to highlight this book because of Rooney’s crisp, witty dialogue. Can’t wait to see what this woman writes next, and then after that. (Oh and also, after being told to read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets approximately 800 times over the past eight years, I finally read it, and, um, it’s good. If you haven’t read it yet, trust me: Better late than never.)

–Alex Madison, teaching Writing Dialogue 

An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton

If you believe words are meant to be celebrated, this book could be the best 323-page party you’ll ever experience. I found this wonderful collection of terms of venery (“pride of lions,” “gaggle of geese,” “skulk of foxes,” etc.) on my mom and dad’s coffee table as a kid, and was instantly fascinated by the etymological research poured into every paragraph. A few months ago, I acquired the latest edition, expanded considerably since the original printing with many more terms, explanations, and illustrations. Lipton describes his work as a journey towards “found poetry,” and I couldn’t agree more. His love of words—and more specifically, his love of using proper terminology—is an inspiring tribute to the beauty of language. From “a charm of finches” to “an iamb of poets,” this book is a delight for readers and writers alike.

—Brian Callanan, teaching Understanding Audiobooks: A New Chapter for Writers 

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard

A Hugo House student recommended this novel to me and I’m crazy for it! This narrative tour de force grips you from the first word to the last. The entire novel is an interior monologue, delivered by a man, a former pianist and a “friend” of the genius Glenn Gould and another pianist named Wertheimer, while he’s standing in the lobby of an inn, remembering the fraught relationship of these three fellow students of Horowitz. Nothing (or nothing much) happens in the present of the story: The narrator moves one foot in the lobby, waits for the innkeeper to show up, shifts to another position—that’s it for pages and pages. All the action, all the conflict, all the drama, takes place in the past and in the narrator’s consciousness—and there’s a lot of it! This narrative strategy is the appropriate vehicle for a story about obsession with perfection in art, hatred of mediocrity, lethal competition among artists, and what it means to succeed. In the novel, Gould nicknames Wertheimer “the loser,” but the novel leaves the reader with these questions: Who is the loser? What does it mean to lose?

—Mary Lane Potter, teaching Writing Stories Through Revision and Breaking the Narrative Mold

Lost Wax by Jericho Parms

I love it when essayists infuse their work with their own preoccupations even (or especially) when these obsessions seem to relate not at all to the subject matter of the essay. Such juxtapositions often produce a moment when what seemed like free association transforms into a necessary union. Jericho Parms’ new collection, Lost Wax, contains so many essays that surprise in this way as she brings her interest in visual art to bear on memory. In one of my favorites, “Still Life with Chair,” an essay recounting a personal tragedy that occurred during her college years, she weaves back and forth between the main narrative and the history of the chair as depicted in art. Only briefly does this history collide with the personal tragedy, but that moment suffuses the entire essay with new meaning.

–Jennie Goode, teaching Ways of Seeing: What Can the Photo Tell Us? 

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

This book kept me up at night reading. This is the story of two couples, one struggling immigrants from Cameroon, and the other a wealthy couple. Their lives become intertwined during the financial downturn of 2007. I also loved Joan Frank’s “All the News I Need,” a short, wonderfully engaging story of two aging friends who are at loose ends and grieving. It is beautifully written, honest, and spunky.

—Patricia Henley, teaching The Country You Come From: Exploring Your Sense of Place

The Grip Of It by Jac Jemc

This harrowing novel tells the story of a married couple that moves into a new house that they soon learn is equal parts condemned, cursed, haunted, and just plain terrifying. There are hidden rooms and compartments, objects move around disappear, strange noises and voices call out to them, and bruises began appearing on their skin. As the couple learns more about the troubling history of the house, they do their best not to go insane. Jemc is a talented literary writer with a flair for the dark and unsettling (and a Hugo House teacher). A writer after my own heart, The Grip Of It was one of my favorite books of 2017.

—Jarret Middleton, teaching Literary Horror

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Every time I read this book, I fall in love with it. Escape artists, comic books, WWII romances, soul-searching in Antarctica, and a magical leap from the top of the Empire State building—how could you not? What I love about Michael Chabon is the way that he so seamlessly unites the magical and the mundane, the artistic and the fanciful. In his own words, Chabon says, “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain”—which Kavalier and Clay certainly does, even as its prose is elegant and its historical explorations are unflinching. It’s little wonder the book won the Pulitzer Prize, though what I’ve realized more recently is what a great structural model it is for how to create energy and hold a reader’s interest. Falling in love with Kavalier and Clay all over again, I’ve decided to use it as a central text in my upcoming class in long-form narrative, Jumpstart Your Story, which is aimed at helping writers develop their own novel and memoir projects.

—Susan Meyers, teaching Jumpstart Your Story and 3-D Storytelling

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Hands down, Sherman Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, was the most powerful and moving book I read this year. I could not put it down. I loved the way he wove together prose and poetry in a non-linear collage of short chapters that explored his connection to his family, his mother, his childhood, his tribe, his faith (or lack thereof), and his identity as an urban Native American who left the Spokane reservation where he was raised. The death of his mother and his complex, strained relationship to her is the central thread of the book, as is the trauma that Alexie experienced as a youth and beyond. I loved how Alexie’s voice could move from being deeply earnest and sorrowful, to funny, irreverent, and crass. But more than anything, I loved how extremely vulnerable Alexie allowed himself to be, giving us readers a huge gift as we are allowed to witness his most intimate questions about lineage, love, and loss.

—Anne Liu Kellor, teaching Body of Memory: Writing Innovative Nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction II

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

There is nothing as fresh as this collection of stories. Every piece is magic, raw, and inviting. When you turn that last page, you’ll find yourself standing at the crossroads of horror, science fiction, queerness, feminism, urban legends, and more. It is a riveting examination and complete undressing of what it is to be a person, a woman in this world. And, it’s all accomplished with the most delectable handling of language. As a reader, it is pure delight. As a writer, it is a light you want to make.

—Wancy Cho, teaching Autobiographical Fiction Workshop

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

My favorite book of 2017 is Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. A sprawling narrative that speaks of heartbreak and hope in contemporary Indian politics, Roy’s novel has a cast of brilliant characters who live on the margins of Indian society. Roy’s second novel, nearly 20 years in the making, compels us to examine the dark side of India’s postcolonial political landscape.

—Nalini Iyer, teaching Imagining the Other: Writing and Reading Inclusively

Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis de Veaux

This is my favorite book because it has been more of a sacred text for me this past year. When I need writerly lessons, Lorde has it. When I think maybe I’m overreacting or hyper sensitive, Lorde reminds me I’m not. When I need strength, Lorde’s got it. From the dead and on every page Audre Lorde consistently affirms my writing and activist life. Thank you Lorde.

—Anastacia-Renee, teaching Poem Generator and Effective Allyship in Writing

Death by Sex Machine by Franny Choi

As someone who spends a lot of time experiencing the specific ways in which dystopia is swallowing our society, I found this little book of poems to contain a lot of truths. Focused by the experience of the android Kyoko in the film Ex Machina, these poems find wildly varying ways to get at fundamental questions of technological change. What is the significance of a body? Who gets to speak and who gets to silence? When does nonsense make sense? Choi is never afraid to take the narrative to a deeper place, whether with gender, ability, carbon-vs-silicon, intelligence, or any number of other complications. She creates electric worlds of grief, sadness, possibility, and darkness, and invents entirely new languages along the way. I was along for the whole ride.

—Shankar Narayan, teaching Techwashed! The Language of Data, Surveillance, and Technology

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

There is something special about the latch yielding to the domain of a book that has previously eluded one. My favorite book of 2017 was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the opening pages of which had struck me as tedious on my first attempt. I thought that my understanding of Frankenstein would be forever limited to Boris Karloff’s poignant interpretation of the monster.

The good news is that Karloff’s characterization is so in keeping with Mary Shelley’s depiction of Prometheus gone wrong. The monster’s self-education and subsequent humiliation and fall from grace tap into a signal vein of poignancy in both film and book. I must say that I hadn’t realized what utter creep Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the monster is; he allows a young woman, Justine, to go to the gallows rather than confess that his ungainly creation has, in his hellish existential loneliness, offed someone. I’ve decided to teach Mary Shelley alongside Percy Bysshe Shelley next fall. Husband and wife and two views of the Romantic imagination, here we come.

—Deborah Woodard, teaching Museum as Muse: Writing at the Frye

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu

In August, I was lucky to receive a galley copy of Francisco Cantu’s masterpiece The Line Becomes A River, which will officially be out in February 2018. It’s not an exaggeration to say this memoir is likely to be the best debut of the year. The book is the story of Cantu’s four years as a border patrol agent, a job he took because he wanted to understand the border better, as a lifelong Arizonan and a Mexican-American. And it’s the story of the years afterward, in which—long after he’s left the Border Patrol—a friend of his is deported and he experiences the immigration conversation from another side. The book animates the border in ways both haunting and beautiful, adding much-needed nuance to the conversation. If you’re like me, at the end you might weep into your fist at your kitchen table, and promptly look up volunteering opportunities at No Mas Muertes. (For a teaser, you can hear Cantu read a section on This American Life, and read my recent interview with him in The High Country News.)

—Katherine Standefer, teaching The Telling Itself: Illness Narratives as Healing and Craft