Much ink was spilled about post-9/11 literature and how the attacks changed writing, largely around the tragedy’s 10th anniversary. The book world eagerly lauded novelists who best captured America after 2001.
The New York Times reports that early 2017 will see a flurry of nonfiction books making sense of President-elect Donald Trump’s rise and what it means to live in the America of his presidency. I expect fiction and poetry to follow shortly.
So here’s a list of notable, mostly local books of 2016 — the last of what we’ll come to call pre-Trump literature.
Beth Macy’s “Truevine” is the kind of reporting that makes you appreciate good journalism in the age of fake news. It’s exhaustively researched and meticulously crafted to tell an obscure story within a larger, underreported history. Two albino brothers were kidnapped from their farm near Roanoke in the early 1900s and forced to work in the circus. Their mother eventually won them back, no small feat for a black woman in Jim Crow Virginia.
Katy Resch George’s “Exposure” is a slim volume of short stories that packs a lot in. And it’s the best work of fiction to come out of Richmond in a while. George is a poet, but I hope she’ll continue to expand her repertoire in the coming years.
Nell Zink’s Virginia connection may get more tenuous as years pass. And if her 2015 book, “Mislaid,” is any indication, memories of her childhood state are none too kind. But this year’s “Nicotine” is a great reminder of her incisive, humorous take on America — as a current expat in Germany.
There’s nothing like a big-studio movie version coming out to motivate a reading. Get the full story of the black women who worked at NASA’s Langley in the ’50s and ’60s with Margot Lee Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures” before Hollywood adds forced romances and slow-motion walking to the equation in the January film version. The book is always better.
I didn’t get a chance to write about John Gregory Brown’s “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” but the Sweet Briar College professor has written a quiet, reflective novel that’s worth your time. A man fleeing New Orleans as Katrina approaches finds himself waylaid in a fictional Virginia town and drawn into a web of characters.
Belle Boggs’ “The Art of Waiting” is the kind of book you pass along when you’re done, because everyone knows someone it will speak to. Written by a King William County native about her experience with infertility, the message is universal — about society’s expectations for childbearing and preconceived notions about what parenthood means. Boggs’ devotion to the natural world is reminiscent of Annie Dillard in its care.
Kelly Kerney’s “Hard Red Spring” has stayed with me since reading it this summer. It’s as much a history lesson of America’s disastrous involvement in Guatemala as it is a novel. I expect to read more from and about Richmond resident Kerney in the future. Same with Kenny Williams’ “Blood Hyphen,” one of many, talented Richmond poets toiling away in semi-obscurity. His poetry is full of memorable imagery and references to the city that will follow you around.
Outside of central Virginia, Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” doesn’t need my endorsement — it has Oprah’s. But this award-winning novel of American slavery and the escape of Cora is both easy and difficult to read. Whitehead comes to Richmond in February for Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries’ Black History Month lecture, so you have your deadline.
For something completely different, the lush theater of Alexander Chee’s “Queen of the Night” pairs well with a comfortable winter chair. I read this almost a year ago and visions of its heroine, a 19th-century Parisian opera singer, still spring to mind when someone’s skirt rustles near me, which doesn’t happen nearly enough. Please send word to Baz Luhrmann that I’m waiting for his film version.
If you want some nonfiction to help make sense of the political year we had, Emory professor Carol Anderson wrote “White Rage: the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” in May, but it somehow seems even more relevant. Don’t forget its unofficial companion piece, Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash: the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.”
And with that: Get lost, 2016. S