PBS Books Best Books of 2017
Lincoln in the Bardo, the long-awaited first novel from American short story master George Saunders, delivers a heartbreaking and profound story of love and loss involving Abraham Lincoln, and his beloved son, Willie, who succumbed to typhoid at age eleven. The story that unfolds, and the struggle for Willie’s soul among the ghosts and apparitions that occupy the cemetery in Willie’s afterlife, is unforgettable — and also the winner of this year’s Mann Booker Prize for fiction.
Salman Rushdie’s latest book, The Golden House, marks a wonderful return to realism for acclaimed novelist, a winner himself of the Mann Booker Prize for his 1981 novel, Midnight’s Children. In his new book, Rushdie is among the first wave of authors to react to the Trump presidency—a moment rich with eccentricities and odd quirks that Rushdie mines brilliantly.
In a wonderful conversation, Saunders and Rushdie sat down together with Jeffrey Brown of PBS Books at the Miami Book Fair to talk about their work and share their thoughts about historical references, and influences both real and magical in their work.
Watch our interview above with George Saunders and Salman Rushdie at the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, is both ghost story and travel novel, a heartbreaking story rendered with beauty and quiet emotion. Speaking with PBS Books at the 2017 National Book Festival in Washington, DC, Ward—who also won the NBA for her 2011 novel Salvage the Bones—spoke movingly about living and growing up in DeLisle, Mississippi. “I was always aware of the history of the south, of what my family had gone through to survive, about what my community had gone through to survive and to remain and to flourish. So when I was home, I felt heavier. It was almost as if I could feel the history of that place. It weighs you down.”
Watch our interview above with Jesmyn Ward at the 2017 National Book Festival.
In Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann uncovers one of the most monstrous crimes in American history, a twisted, riveting story of oil greed, racism and serial murder targeting the Osage Indians in Oklahoma. Along the way, in Grann’s detective novel style, the author details how the story essentially launched the FBI, as well as the career of the bureau’s young director, J. Edgar Hoover. In our interview from the 2017 Miami Book Fair, Grann tells Jeffrey Brown how a missing panel in a photograph at the Osage Nation Museum in Oklahoma led him to dig deeper into the disturbing, mostly forgotten American crime story.
Watch our interview above with David Grann at the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a sprawling, beautiful novel chronicling the cultural struggles of four generations of a Korean family, beginning in 1910 during the time of Japanese colonialization. In our interview with Lee at the 2017 Miami Book Fair, she reflected on the opening lines of her book, “History has failed us. But no matter.” Lee explains, “People who are powerless are affected by history and yet have to carry on because so many of us don’t sit at the tables in which decisions are made.”
Watch our interview above with Min Jin Lee at the 2017 Miami Book Fair
With Her Body and Other Parties, author Carmen Maria Machado delivers a wonderful, wholly original debut collection of stories. Mixing psychological realism with sci-fi, fantasy, sex, horror and comedy, Machado boldly refuses easy categorization, evoking much-deserved praise and comparisons to contemporary fabulists including Karen Russell and Kelly Link. In our PBS Books interview at the 2017 Miami Book Fair, Machado talked about not trying to fit neatly into any one genre box—and the freedom that gave her to create original stories.
Watch our interview above with Carmen Maria Machado at the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
In Elizabeth Strout’s latest homage to rural life, Anything is Possible, the beloved author returns to the small-town stories of Amgash, Illinois, the fictional home of the protagonist from Strout’s previous novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. In this lovely, meditative collection of intertwining stories, Strout unfolds the quiet heartache and triumphs that combine to form the deep bonds of family. In our interview with Strout at the 2017 National Book Festival in Washington, DC, the author opened up about the years and years she put into honing her craft and all the different ways she went about finding her voice, including a stint as a stand-up comedienne.
Watch our interview above with Elizabeth Strout at the 2017 National Book Festival.
Manhattan Beach marks the return of Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit From the Goon Squad. Broad in scope and story, Manhattan Beach shares the lives of an Irish family in Brooklyn, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and then the second World War—a New York story populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men. In our PBS Books interview with Egan at the 2017 Miami Book Fair, she spoke with Jeffrey Brown about her deep research and decision to follow up Goon Squad with a more traditional historical novel.
Watch our interview above with Jennifer Egan at the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
Hunger, Roxane Gay’s searingly personal narrative on food and body was a story not easily told. “It took me 6 months to write Hunger, but three years to start writing Hunger.” Gay said in our 2017 interview at the National Book Festival. “It was just a terrifying thing to write a book about my body. People have preconceived notions about fatness and I wanted to challenge those notions, but I also knew it was going to require a level of vulnerability that was going to be uncomfortable.” Gay’s candor and bravery is our gain, and a thing of raw beauty itself.
Watch our interview above with Roxane Gay at the 2017 National Book Festival.
In All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg has created a smart, introspective protagonist in Andrea Bern—single, on the cusp of 40 and contentedly childless. Andrea’s sharply observed story underscores the notion that really, nobody knows exactly what it means to be an adult. In our interview at 2017 AWP Conference, Attenberg talked about the shifting definition of grownup, and the tribe of independent women who often feel misunderstood on the other side of society’s conventions.
Watch our interview above with Jami Attenberg at the 2017 AWP Conference.
In The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch fearlessly reimagines Joan of Arc set against a stark, futuristic version of an earth ravaged by eco-disaster and ruled by a TV-celebrity millionaire-turned-dictator. Yuknavitch spins a resistance novel for our times, at once speculative and immensely current. In our PBS Books interview, Yuknavitch explained why Joan remains perennially relevant: “I think she is the kind of figure that does come up at different points of history, especially at times of national crisis, when we are struggling internally in different countries with the power systems. I think she recurs to people because she said no…It’s a storyline that people can turn to when the story they are being fed by the powers that be feels wrong or feels like a violence.”
Watch our interview with Lidia Yuknavitch at the 2017 AWP Conference.
Leonardo Da Vinci, the newest deep-dive biography from Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.) Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Isaacson brings the eclectic, creative tour-de-force da Vinci to life in this exciting new biography. Speaking of Da Vinci’s deep curiosity, Isaacson said in our PBS Books interview, “It’s actually the type of things you and I thought about when we were 10 years old, all of these things that a kid would want to know, but Leonardo stayed a curious kid for 67 years. He’s the most insatiably curious man, I think, in history.”
Watch our interview above with Walter Isaacson at the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
The Force, Don Winslow’s intoxicating crime thriller, follows the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite division of the NYPD. Like The Cartel and other Winslow books before it, The Force reads like it might well be true crime, a revelation that adds urgency and poignancy to this taut, quintessential cop novel. “Balance has become a dirty word in our society, because we are so polarized,” Winslow said in our PBS Books interview. “You are supposed to take one side or the other. I don’t think there are any sides in this thing. We all have a human interest in getting good policing and stopping some of the things that have been happening and that same time having a realistic and balanced view of police the way we’d have of a balanced view of any institution.”
Watch our interview above with Don Winslow at the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
With The Refugees, Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer) gives voice to Vietnamese lives affected by the shock of sudden departure from one’s home, of lives lived between the adopted homeland and the country of birth. This beautiful collection examines the varied stories of culture shock, dislocation, fractured families, hardship and triumph that are testament to the dreams and hardships of refugeeism. In our interview, Nguyen made clear his desire to provide cross section of perspectives. “I think that when I say Vietnamese to Americans or to other people, there might be this idea that there is one type Vietnamese and I am going to speak for them. But Vietnamese are just like everybody else, they are diverse,” he explained. “This a collection where I wanted to talk about the young and the old, the straight and the gay, the conservative and the radicals, the ones who stayed and the ones who went back to give people a sense of how heterogeneous and contradictory these people are.”
Watch our interview above with Viet Thanh Nguyen from the 2017 AWP Book Fair.
Far from the Tree by Robin Benway, this year’s National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature, is a touching, funny story about the strength and love of unconventional families, the power of siblings, and the different definitions of family. In our PBS Books interview at Miami Book Fair, Benway talked about the excitement of her lightning-in-a-bottle moment when the idea for Far From the Tree first stuck — and the Florence and the Machine song lyric that changed her life.
Watch the interview above with Robin Benway from the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
Ibi Zoboi’s wonderful debut, American Street, is the story Fabiola Toussaint, a Haitian teenager adjusting to a new life in Detroit without her mother and the world she grew up in. Blending mysticism and love of family with a new American life with her cousins in new Detroit neighborhood Fabiola discovers is every bit as dangerous as the one she left behind in Port-au-Prince. American Street is a powerful story of family and dislocation, of the challenges of fitting in and looking within to find bravery and fierceness needed to turn your life upside down and find your way through to the other side. In our interview, Zoboi discussed some of the parallels to her own experiences moving from Haiti to Brooklyn as a child.
Watch the interview above with Ibi Zoboi from the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
Pashmina, the dazzling debut graphic novel by Nidhi Chanani, is part adventure story, part girl power-infused magical realism, part colorful work of art. Through the eyes of her Indian American teenager protagonist, Pryianka, Chanani explores the mysterious—and sometimes uncomfortable—truths of her family’s past, as well as the mystic elements of Indian culture that ultimately help Priya navigate the two worlds that make up her life. In our interview at the Miami Book Fair. Chanani talked about creating the immersive world of Pashmina that allows readers to join Pri’s journey of discovery, learning about India at the same time the character learns about it herself.
Watch the interview above with Nidhi Chanani from the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
With Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, Frank Bidart took home the 2017 National Book Award in Poetry for his wonderful collection culminating a long and rich career in poetry. Accepting the well-deserved award, Bidart said that his was not just a life of poetry contained in this book, but also a life made by poetry. "I realized during the past month that I'm almost twice as old as any of the other finalists,“ he said. "Writing the poems was how I survived. I hope that the journeys these poems go on will help others to survive, as well." Bidart spoke with Jeffrey Brown of PBS Books at the 2017 Miami Book Fair.
Watch the interview above with Frank Bidart from the 2017 Miami Book Fair.