2017 was a tough year in many ways, but there was one good thing about it. The books.
Authors gave us plenty of profound, thoughtful and wonderful things to read this year, so if you feel like spending the last few days of 2017 holed up with a book — go for it. And you might consider including the latest work of one of these writers who visited the KUOW studios.
Sherman Alexie: “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”
Alexie’s memoir focuses on his complicated relationship with his mother, as well as his early years growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alexie writes that his mother was a strong spiritual leader for the tribe. But she was also cruel, manipulative and violent.
“I tried to present the full, complex portrait of her,” Alexie said. “And I don't spare myself either … She was a bad mother for many, many years. But at some point, as I became an adult, I chose to continue to be a bad son.”
Writing and promoting the book took a toll on Alexie’s health, so much that he paused his book tour this year. In a letter to supporters, he wrote: “I don't believe in the afterlife as a reality, but I believe in the afterlife as metaphor. And my mother, from the afterlife, is metaphorically kicking my ass.”
Nancy Pearl: “George and Lizzie”
Seattle’s favorite librarian regularly recommends novels we love, and now she’s written one of her own. The idea for “George and Lizzie” came to Pearl while she was high on pain medication after foot surgery — “it was not bunions”, she said — and she spent years thinking about the concept before finally sitting down to write.
Pearl’s debut novel tells the story of a complicated marriage, and she said it’s a deeply-personal work (though not autobiographical). “These are my characters. They feel like they’re my children,” she said.
NPR music critic Powers explored how music allows us to talk about tough topics like sex and race, and how those topics are woven throughout the legacy of American music.
“In the first chapter of ‘Good Booty,’ I really try to explore how Africans who had been enslaved preserved their legacies and made a new culture by creating a language of music that felt like a secret…” Powers said. “That’s really why I think American music became such a conduit for what everyone has trouble talking about. It was this way that things were carried on.”
Claire Dederer: “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning”
The latest work of this Seattle writer is a memoir of midlife. But it’s not the kind of memoir we’re familiar with — the kind where a woman leaves everything behind to start a new life. Instead, Dederer’s book tells the story of a woman who weathered a period of restlessness and decided to stay.
Dederer said it’s a common story, but one that isn’t often told by women.
“When women write this — first of all it happens very rarely, and second of all, it always gets called menopause,” she said. “It becomes a biological story. And for me, that there could be midlife despair that is basically a universal human experience of, like, oh crap — I’m coming to the end. I felt like it was really important to talk about that from a female point of view and let women who are going through that know it’s happening to other women.”
Wolfe is a Seattle-based writer and land-use attorney who has a simple solution to navigating Seattle’s love-hate relationship with rapid growth: keep an urban journal.
Wolfe said that humans aren’t rational, so we have to work to process our anxiety about growth and change in a rational way. That’s where the journal comes in.
“It could be a sketch pad,” he said. “It could be auditory, you know it could be sounds. The idea is get out there and understand why you respond the way you do.”
Claudia Rowe: "The Spider and the Fly"
Seattle Times reporter Rowe knew her life was forever changed when she started to report on serial killer Kendall Francois, who was convicted of murdering women in Poughkeepsie, New York, in the 1990s.
Rowe corresponded with Francois for years, seeking to understand traumas from her own past.
“I thought that maybe he would be able to put the pieces together for me,” Rowe said. “And in somehow understanding the roots of his rage, I might be able to kind of divine a parallel of the rage that had propelled people in my own life and my own past.”
John Hodgman: “Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches”
Hodgman, a Daily Show veteran, released a collection of personal stories this year. He said the stories are largely about aging, feeling uncomfortable about his white privilege, becoming irrelevant and having a beard that looks terrible.
“In life, we grow the beards we can — metaphorically speaking of course,” he said.
Celeste Ng: "Little Fires Everywhere"
Ng’s sophomore novel is about a town that strives to be idealistic, but that goal breaks down in the face of social issues. Ng said it’s a story familiar to many so-called progressive cities around the nation — Seattle included.
“The problem is that ideals are very neat,” Ng said. “Real life, and humans, are very messy. And I think that’s where you run into trouble.”
She finished the book in 2015, but she says it has new meaning following the 2017 election: “The words on the page are the same, but we read them in a really different light now. There’s a conflict between idealism and action; we hold tight to our principles, until they run into our discomfort.”
Blaine Harden: “King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America's Spymaster”
Seattle journalist Harden has written about Korea for much of his career, and now he’s telling the story of American spy Donald Nichols. Along the way, Harden paints a vivid history that explains how we got to where we are with North Korea.
Harden said North Korea’s leaders need an enemy to keep the population in line with its regime. “They live in isolation, and they’re constantly reminded of the suffering of the population during the war … The United States came in and then punished North Korea, severely, for the invasion.”
Daniel Handler: “All the Dirty Parts”
Handler’s latest novel tells the story of a teenager consumed with sex and pornography — a topic Handler has had to think about as a father. Handler said his goal is to have open, honest and uncomfortable conversations with his son about sex.
“My mantra is, it’s embarrassing,” he said. “Instead of saying ‘There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, let’s just talk about it,’ I say, ‘Obviously this is going to be embarrassing, extremely mortifying, so let’s just talk about it.’ Own that it’s going to be mortifying. And for me, to face discomfort is one of the most powerful things you can do.”
Produced for the web by Amy Rolph.