HOORAY! Two nonfiction titles made the New York Times Book Review‘s “10 Best Books of 2017” list and five more (plus two honorable mentions) are New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2017!
LOCKING UP OUR OWN: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.
A former public defender in Washington, Forman has written a masterly account of how a generation of black officials, beginning in the 1970s, wrestled with recurring crises of violence and drug use in the nation’s capital. What started out as an effort to assert the value of black lives turned into an embrace of tough-on-crime policies — with devastating consequences for the very communities those officials had promised to represent. Forman argues that dismantling the American system of mass incarceration will require a new understanding of justice, one that emphasizes accountability instead of vengeance.
PRAIRIE FIRES: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
Fraser’s biography of the author of “Little House on the Prairie” and other beloved books about her childhood during the era of westward migration captures the details of a life — and an improbable, iconic literary career — that has been expertly veiled by fiction. Exhaustively researched and passionately written, this book refreshes and revitalizes our understanding of Western American history, giving space to the stories of Native Americans displaced from the tribal lands by white settlers like the Ingalls family as well as to the travails of homesteaders, farmers and everyone else who rushed to the West to extract its often elusive riches. Ending with a savvy analysis of the 20th-century turn toward right-wing politics taken by Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, Fraser offers a remarkably wide-angle view of how national myths are shaped.
TRANSIT by Rachel Cusk
Faye, the divorced writer who is the narrator of Cusk’s transfixing latest novel, is the same woman we met in the author’s previous novel, OUTLINE. These two short books are part of a projected trilogy, and together they’re already an achievement: dense, aphoristic, philosophically acute novels that read like Iris Murdoch thrice-distilled. We watch Faye move through her days, speaking to friends, old lovers, real estate agents, salon employees, fellow writers, construction workers. Cusk’s writing offers the iron-rich pleasure of voice instead of style.
THE ANSWERS by Catherine Lacey
Lacey writes sentences that are long and clean and unstanchable. They glow like the artist Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light tubes. In this, her second novel, she sweeps you up in the formidable current of her thought and then drops you down the rabbit hole. On a certain level, this is a dystopian project; it borders on science fiction. It’s about a young, underemployed and ill young woman, and how she is slowly drawn into an experiment that involves facial recognition software and electromagnetic pulses that can make a person weep or flush. It’s a warm-blooded yet brooding novel about the neurobiology of love. It casts a spell.
LOCKING UP OUR OWN: Crime and Punishment in America by James Forman, Jr.
This superb, shattering book probably made a deeper impression on me than any other this year. It tells the story, beginning in the 1970s, of how prominent African-Americans played a role in lobbying for more punitive measures to fight gun violence and drug dealing, in the quest to keep their neighborhoods safe. Never once did they imagine that their efforts would result in the inhumane outcome of mass incarceration. A tragedy to the bone.
Not on this list but worth mentioning: Joe Biden’s PROMISE ME, DAD.
HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s debut collection is a wild thing, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link, borrowing from science fiction, queer theory and horror. These eight tales depict women on the verge—survivors of assault, brutal marriages and mysterious afflictions. Machado finds fresh language for ancient horrors.
THE DRY by Jane Harper
Harper’s swift, dazzling debut thriller is set in a desperately parched part of rural Australia, where nothing is what it seems. The book delivers a twist or shocker or sneaky trick on virtually every page. Harper may be the all-time best advertisement for online courses in fiction writing. Her follow-up, coming in February, will be set where there’s mud.
Finally, thanks to Bill O’Reilly for OLD SCHOOL (written with Bruce Feirstein). He’s right about many things, particularly when it comes to the rigidity of thought on college campuses. But the very idea of a morality lecture from O’Reilly made this the best unintended humor book of 2017.