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

1. “Too Much and Not the Mood” by Durga Chew-Bose: A feverish collection of essays and intricacies, Durga Chew-Bose’s “Too Much and Not the Mood” takes its name from a note Virginia Woolf scrawled to herself in 1931. Inside, find a focused, wandering breadth of writing touching on subjects of art and culture, relationships, identity—of teen years and growing up, of the writer’s own name, of sacrifice and bowing-to, of living alone, of summertime and movies and observations on white girls getting tans. It is too much, in that my offering a brief synopsis of what the book’s about does nothing to express how it might make you feel. Listen to the writer, at the end of the first essay, ‘Heart Museum’: “Because is there anything better, more truthful and sublime than what cannot be communicated? The marvelous, hard-to-spell-out convenience of what’s indefinite.” (Rebekah Kirkman)

2. “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” by Roxane Gay: Gay’s mediation on weight and food as response to childhood sexual violence is a devastating plunge into the relationship between body image and trauma. The brutally honest eye that Gay displays in her indispensable cultural criticism and essays is even sharper when she turns her attention to herself, and her personal reflections about being unskinny allows her to focus her formidable mind on our culture that psychologically commodifies thinness—and does so in disarmingly arrestingly prose. (Bret McCabe)

3. “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia” by Masha Gessen: Masha Gessen’s frequent essays in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere have made her one of our most important writers over the course of this deeply fucked up year. She has been confronting many of the issues that have only recently become existentially urgent to others for years. Her biography of Putin is a masterful portrait of corruption and power. But her most recent book, “The Future is History,” is of an entirely different order. The multi-directional book follows seven different characters from the 1980s up through the present, weaving narratives of characters ranging from Evgenia Dobryanskaya, one of the country’s first gay rights activists, and Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right ideologue associated with Putin, to show how Russia returned to—or never really left—the totalitarian mindset of the Stalin years. (Baynard Woods)

4. “The Raincoats” by Jenn Pelly: Among all the uncertainty and fucked-upness in the world right now, one of the best things you could do to extricate yourself from misery would be to read Jenn Pelly’s essential book about The Raincoats’ first album, the punk masterpiece “The Raincoats.” The book, from the 33 1/3 series, dwells in the English band’s DIY origins and self-made sound, and expertly situates the Raincoats’ four-women lineup in terms of their contemporaries, personal histories, politics—their music “is the rare sound of women destroying isolation together,” Pelly writes—and how this all filtered into the legendary music they made together. (Rebekah Kirkman)

5. “South and West: From a Notebook” by Joan Didion: Let’s consider ‘Notes on the South’ and ‘California Notes,’ the two notebook excerpts that make up “South and West,” separately. The latter is a brief, very loosely sketched prelude to Didion’s essay ‘Girl of the Golden West’ from 1982 and her 2003 biographical collection “Where I Was From.” For the (far more fulsome) former, in summer 1970, New Journalism’s coolest customer spent a month traveling through the American South. What she observes, penetratingly, is a genteel, sunstroked United States daydreaming about its past, where a fitfully modernizing region is nonetheless surrendering to wilderness, where racial desegregation advances at a snail’s pace, where gender equality is a fantasy. “Death is still natural and ever present in the South, as it is no more in those urbanized parts of the country where graveyards are burial parks and relegated to unused or unusable land far from sight,” Didion notes. (Raymond Cummings)

6. “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” by Mark Bray: The vanguard of protest in America is anti-respectability, and like all vanguards, it has been met with middle-of-the-road wet sandwiches dismissing it, tradition-touting serious types decrying it, and some saying that it isn’t what it says it is at all—in particular, the anti-fascist movement, always around but back with a vengeance post-Trump because, you know, Trump’s a fascist. All of this makes Mark Bray’s “Antifa Handbook,” a quick, dry history of antifacism mixed with a guide to antifa controversies, so vital. Bray is something of a wonk, only his politics don’t suck, so he gives a straightforward and clear-headed evaluation of the movement. And there is an urgency here: Cranked out quickly post-Trump and released the week of the Charlottesville white supremacist attack, “Antifa Handbook” is hard history, a call to action, and an even-handed and reasonable explanation as to why we need to be way less damned reasonable. (Brandon Soderberg)

7. “Sunshine State” by Sarah Gerard: Every Floridian for some reason must answer for the viral oddities that come out of our state: the alligator in the drive-thru, the murderous bath salts crazes, etc., so I’m glad for—and in a way, feel seen by—my fellow Floridian Sarah Gerard’s book of discursive essays set in or near our hometown. Our country’s problems of evangelical delirium, widening equity gaps, and so on get the local treatment in Gerard’s essays—see, for example, “Mother-Father God,” on cult-like sects of Christianity in Clearwater; and “Going Diamond,” on wealthy McMansion-like Pinellas County communities and Amway, the pyramid scheme started by Betsy DeVos’s father-in-law. (Rebekah Kirkman)

8. “No Wall They Can Build” by Crimethinc: Subtitled “A Guide to Borders and Migration Across America,” this hybrid how-to, explainer, memoir, and manifesto from noted anonymous anarchist collective Crimethinc explores the whats and hows of crossing borders in Central America, with dispatches from those doing work to help people cross along with stories from the undocumented that are tragic, encouraging, and occasionally hilarious. All of it adds up to a sober argument for why there should be no borders at all, and leaves room for the small nuances of moving forward at an especially fraught political moment while admitting there are no easy solutions (a tour de force essay breaks down why the legalization of drugs, even just weed, while good, would also have devastating effects on Mexican labor, which now depends heavily on the American drug trade). (Brandon Soderberg)

9. “Animals Strike Curious Poses” by Elena Passarello: Don’t be put off by the idea of a collection of biographies of famous animals—including Koko the signing gorilla and the late Cecil the Lion. Passarello is a bottomless inventive writer, and her mix of prodigious research, natural history, and her own incandescent imagination concocts 17 essays that document an animal’s life but tell us so much more about the humans they touched. The result is a myth-like book and, as Claude Levi-Strauss notes in “The Raw and the Cooked,” myths operate in the same intuitive air as music. And, my word, does this author’s writing sing. (Bret McCabe)

10. “Universal Harvester” by John Darnielle: A low-level mystery stymies video store clerks in late 1990s Iowa: Someone is splicing seemingly random footage into VHS rentals. And, eventually, John Darnielle’s glacially-paced follow-up to “Wolf In White Van” supplies readers with a purpose and a perpetrator. Yet those specifics sometimes seem besides the point. “Van” was suffused with a depressed, agreeable aimlessness that subsumed the raw tragedy at its core. Likewise, “Universal Harvester” excels when its narrative transforms into the prose equivalent of a wayward cameraperson: digressing down alleys, considering exchanges from odd angles, zooming in on the minutiae of small-town Midwestern existence with a stoner’s fastidiousness. What will linger with you? Those moments suspended between dread and tedium, where nothing much is happening, but it feels like anything could happen. (Raymond Cummings)

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