Year In Review: The Beat’s top 10 Baltimore books of 2017

1. “A Beautiful Ghetto,” by Devin Allen: Devin Allen is both a poet and a documentarian. His images capture all of the particular details that make up a life, a time period, a moment. But all of those details add up to something universal—something that all people of all times could understand. A kid squinting underneath the bill of a too-big baseball cap sitting in the dappled shadows dancing off the stoop. In the same way that the details in each individual image add up to create something larger, each of the photographs in “A Beautiful Ghetto” adds context—conversation—to the others. Haymarket Books did a great job; they beautifully produced the book as a physical object, and stayed out of Allen’s way. Three close-up images of a man contorting his face are offset against a young man with one foot on a curb, looking at a makeshift memorial, a teddy bear strapped to a tree, flowers at its base. The black and white images bounce off each other creating multiple narratives, glimpses overlapping—like life in the city. (Baynard Woods)

2. “She Named Him Michael” by Heather Rounds: Building off the true story of a chicken nicknamed Miracle Mike who lived for 18 months with its head cut off, Heather Rounds creates a small family deeply affected by grief and guilt. These feelings manifest differently and slowly shift in this novella, as Michael, the chicken, becomes a focal creature for Claire’s love and attention and a source of financial growth for Claire’s husband, Shotgun Foot—and a shot at freedom and escape, for the both of them. And underneath all this, the book reminds us of a peculiar, troubling human dilemma: We think we can control things, so we resort to violence and aggression to do so. (Rebekah Kirkman)

3. “The Future Generation: The Zine-Book for Subculture Parents, Kids, Friends & Others” by China Martens: China Martens’ “The Future Generation” zine, which she started in 1990, two years after her daughter Clover’s birth, was an unconventional but necessary radical parenting guide. Less of a “how-to” and more of a “how-I-did-it,” this second-edition anthology of 16 years of “The Future Generation” issues offers Martens’ firsthand insight as a young single mother, pushing against the solitude of both parenthood and childhood, advocating for collective, nurturing environments for kids, taking a closer look at how society influences or provides for kids—and how it doesn’t quite do enough. (Rebekah Kirkman)

4. “Raw Wounds” by Kondwani Fidel: Fidel’s viral essay “How a young boy has been decaying in Baltimore since age 10: A Death Note” catapulted him into national attention, but his debut novel is the more confident and powerful piece of writing. Equal parts essay, memoir, and poetry chapbook, “Wounds” gathers Fidel’s early life and thoughts about being young and black in a city and country that don’t acknowledge his humanity. D. Watkins is the typical comparison point here, but Fidel is less stylish—though that’s OK. Fidel isn’t afraid to voice his unfiltered vulnerability, putting him in closer conversation with the early works of Chester Himes. (Bret McCabe)

5. “Mediations” by Aurora Engle-Pratt: In this six-poem chapbook, Aurora Engle-Pratt offers a quick respite: poems with a continuous sense of motion that call on senses of home and childhood and family lineage, roads and travels, skies that open up like “a parachute” (as Engle-Pratt describes in the opener, ‘Check In’), and memories of touch (“tucking the concrete under my toes”). ‘Homeward,’ in particular, slings us from intimate snippets of the speaker’s old white home, to the seemingly more transient place she currently resides—and back to that white home, in a field, again. In brief moments of concreteness Engle-Pratt lets us land our feet even while floating through the problems and voids of memory and reckoning with mortality. (Rebekah Kirkman)

6. “The Middle of the End” by Suzanne Doogan: Sometimes a line of thought ends abruptly and begins anew elsewhere, making it hard to follow the writer’s logic. Suzanne Doogan admits as much in one poem: “It’s said good writing is clear thinking/ my problem is my thinking is not too good.” Just past the middle, ‘When the Morning Gathers the Rainbow’ acts as a funny analogue to this point: Amid an elementary school recollection—playing football and not knowing all the rules, exactly—the speaker describes being distracted by the dirt, “internally singing Fatboy Slim’s Bob Marley remix,” more or less an absurd techno-obliteration of the original, Bob Marley’s ‘Sun is Shining,’ from which the poem takes its title. The logic is there in patchwork, just go with it. RIYL: Carrie Lorig, Kleenex (the band), dogs, Frank O’Hara. (Rebekah Kirkman)

7. “Missing Persons (Poems)” by Hilary Jacqmin: A 1923 image by German photographer August Sander captures a showman with his performing bear on a street in Cologne, people milling about, observing. The bear’s hunched posture and right paw to the restraint piercing his snout is heartbreaking, and it’s the reference point for one of Jacquin’s many discomfiting poems gathered in her compact debut collection. The poems bounce between autobiographical reveries of growing up in Ohio and narratives sparked by historical figures like the one captured in the Sander photo, forming a meditative connection between intimate personal experience and the larger historical arcs in which they take place. (Bret McCabe)

8. “From Head Shops To Whole Foods” by Joshua Clark Davis: “Activist entrepreneurs’ harnessing of small businesses for political purposes illuminates a forgotten dimension of dissent in the 1960s and 1970s,” University of Baltimore assistant professor of history Joshua Clark Davis explains early on his book, “From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs,” a compelling uncovering of a frequently forgotten element of radical culture. Davis spends the rest of the book laying out the histories of natural food stores, head shops, and black bookstores (it makes an especially nice read when paired with Lynn Comella’s “Vibrator Nation,” a history of feminist sex-toy stores) and gently linking their come-up to our current political moment where corporations crib woke platitudes, and we wonder if capitalism and radicalism can comfortably converse at all. (Brandon Soderberg)

9. “Strange Practice” by Vivian Shaw: Anybody even slightly entertained by speculative tales of Gothic supernatural stories should post haste grab this briskly paced and wittily conceived novel. Dr. Greta Helsing, granddaughter of the vampire-hunting Abraham Van Helsing from “Dracula,” is a 30-something London doctor to the “differently alive,” those mummies, ghouls, vampires, and the like who might not be treated by the National Health Service. She just wants to be a GP, but she’s forced to call on the detective-y tools of her family legacy when someone, or something, starts serial killing humans and the undead. Obnoxiously entertaining. (Bret McCabe)

10. “What Counts as Love” by Marian Crotty: This affecting story collection from Loyola University assistant writing professor Crotty was recently and deservedly longlisted for the 2018 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. The vast divide separating love from sex haunts these nine stories, and the details with which Crotty sketches her characters make their desire to leap from sex to love, or even something close to it, all the more crushing. A couple spies on their neighbor’s sex lives and wonder about their own. A man ponders if it’s time to stop being a nice guy and let his inner monster out. At each turn, you hope for the best, knowing full well that life is rarely so kind. (Bret McCabe)

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