It’s time to join the chorus of “year-end” lists. While much of my time in 2017 was spent on research and writing, I managed to sneak in a few books for pleasure. These are not necessarily books published in 2017, just books I read during the year.
Here’s my top 5 list:
5. Lost Empire – Clive Cussler
My teenage obsession with Cussler novels continues well into adulthood, regardless of how much he is actually writing the books (vs. co-author Grant Blackwood). This series is a fun read for times when I don’t want to think too much about plot or characterization. The husband-wife team of the Fargos fills the pages with witty banter, the setting races to and from interesting locales, and a semi-plausible plot line strings it all together. Maybe flickers of the old Cussler keep me going – little flashes of Sahara, Inca Gold, and Treasure dotting these books here and there – and characters lock into their roles with little development, but hell. This isn’t National Book Award material. It’s just fun reading.
4. The Lost City of the Monkey God – Douglas Preston
A nonfiction account by Preston of a search for a lost city in Honduras. From the time the pre-pub hype came out, I was excited to read this book. Old maps, multiple attempts by explorers in the past to find the White City, and Preston there to chronicle the modern day attempt to locate the legend. Hell, if LIDAR can’t find this place, it’s probably just a myth. Preston uses all of his successful fiction techniques to engross the reader in the story. The setting itself becomes the villain, with snakes, bugs, and poisonous plants aplenty. No spoilers, but Preston does an excellent job mixing history along with his real narrative (as David Grann did in Lost City of Z) and the story is propelled right to a proper finish.
3. Devil in the Grove – Gilbert King
“Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” is a dead giveaway for the quality of this non-fiction account about race in Florida in the 1940s-50s. It’s disturbing as hell on so many levels. Call it a modern era To Kill a Mockingbird. Living not far from these places, I couldn’t help feel a certain Southern Gothic terror in the place names and people involved. King’s meticulous research makes this a taut read. It’s never preachy. His scenes terrify with their details of how racism worked in Florida after WWII. His choice of Thurgood Marshall as protagonist and Sheriff Willis McCall as antagonist propel the story forward. Under the propaganda of Florida oranges, sandy beaches and palm trees, and Disney World lies this dark history. King deserves the award for its deft retelling.
2. Storycraft – Jack Hart
How to write books flood the bookshelves. I’ve read close to a hundred of them in my effort to improve my writing skills and seek publication. None have been as effective for me as this book. It isn’t flooded with examples, but enough to see his concepts put in action. The biggest lesson I learned was structuring a non-fiction story – stepping back and identifying a narrative thread, themes, and characters. When writing non-fiction (and historical at that) it’s easy to dump every detail in and tell every scene. Hart shows writers how to winnow out the unimportant parts, use fictional techniques to tell true stories, and engage readers in the growing narrative nonfiction genre.
1 – Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann
My father-in-law heard an interview with Grann on NPR and asked me, “Aren’t you writing about the FBI? There’s a new book about it.” I waited with dread to see if an accomplished journalist like Grann had covered the same territory I was working on. When I finally found time to read it, I marveled at not only the story itself, but Grann’s crafting of it. The three part story structure is organic to the story itself and masterfully handled. Grann has a knack for holding details until the right payoff moment. This isn’t playing loose with facts – the story is presented as the people who lived it experienced it. I think part of the success of the book is that the story has such chilling plot twists. I read this once as a reader, then came back as a developing writer and took notes everywhere I could. A lot of nonfiction writing advice says never to inject authorial viewpoints into the narrative because it rips the reader out of the story. What’s the first rule of writing advice? Ignore writing advice. Grann successfully accomplishes this – small dollops of modern perspective inserted to give additional context – to the point he becomes a character in the story by the third act. I guess I am most impressed at how Grann crafted this story from a mass of detail, was able to find a small group of characters whose story represented the entire story, and work in three different acts as the story unfolded. I’ve become a student of his techniques in this book and in his New Yorker pieces (some of which are collected in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes) and my writing has become better because of it.
As writers, we’re all trying to improve our craft, to tell stories the best way we can. There’s good examples in this list of how to do that – if you’re paying attention, a book like Grann’s is a master class in narrative nonfiction. Here’s hoping some of the other masters – Erik Larson, Daniel James Brown, Laura Hillenbrand – might publish in 2018!