Must-Reads for 2017

Book cover for "The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead" by Chanelle Benz which is a yellow background with a blue birdcage. Book cover for "A Separation" by Katie Kitamura which has an abstract blue, orange, and red fire. Book cover for "The Hearts of Men" by Nickloas Butler which is a blue background with a headless scout saluting. Book cover for "Rabbit Cake" by Annie Harnett which is a yellow background with a white rabbit.

Every new year gives us the chance to be swept away by new books, and here are some of this winter’s best.

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead
Chanelle Benz
January 17

I’ve never read a story collection with as much range and imagination as Chanelle Benz’s debut, The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead. Each of the ten stories operates as a found document of an unknown and yet extraordinary life–and together, these tales create their own history, complete with editor’s notes, footnotes, and personal testimony.

In “West of the Known,” estranged siblings reconnect when they become thieves, and a group of neighborhood kids in “Adela” plot to reunite their elderly neighbor with her lost love. In “The Peculiar Narrative of the Remarkable Particulars in the Life of Orrinda Thomas,” a poet writes an account of her own slavery in the 1880s, and a scholar finds something he recognizes at an archeological dig in the desert in “Recognition.” There are monks and diplomats, snake doctors and criminals–and above all, there are seekers.

Each story in this collection has a twist, a shock, and a gut-punch epiphany. Reading is firstly an act of discovery, and Chanelle Benz proves how startling and satisfying that journey ought to be.

A Separation
Katie Kitamura
February 7

It’s often said that divorce is like a death, but author of Gone to the Forest Katie Kitamura proves in her new novel that divorce is more aptly a disappearance. When the book’s narrator–who goes unnamed–receives an unexpected call from her mother-in-law, she agrees to travel to a remote area of Greece in order to find her husband, Christopher, who’s gone missing. What she doesn’t tell Christopher’s mother is that she and her husband have separated, neither of them are living in the London flat they once shared, and she’s fallen in love with someone else.

Her trip to Greece poses more questions than answers, and as she retraces Christopher’s steps, the narrator begins to meditate on the ritual of grieving. Not only did Christopher travel to Greece to research the rites of mourning there, but his wife also finds herself exploring the enigma of her husband’s multiple infidelities and the open-ended sorrow they invite. She’s not searching for an apology she knows she’ll never receive. Instead, she hunts for evidence of her estranged husband apart from her–both the man he’s become, and the man he’s always been.

Slim and hypnotic, A Separation lays expert claim to the loose ends of a lost relationship and the endless frays they create.

The Hearts of Men
Nickolas Butler
March 7

I want to live in Nickolas Butler’s Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The celebrated author of Shotgun Lovesongs doesn’t romanticize his homeland, but rather he dissects it, challenges it, and–in the end–knows it and is known by it. Butler’s second novel is one of fathers and sons, friends and foes–and the ways they go to war with each other.

In 1962, young Nelson rises early each morning to sound his bugle through the grounds of Camp Chippewa. When he becomes the other Boy Scouts’ target for a cruel joke, an unlikely friendship sparks between Nelson and his self-appointed defender, Jonathan. As time passes, Nelson goes to Vietnam while Jonathan marries, has a child, and builds his father’s trucking empire. The friends become the men they’d once both admired and despised, and Camp Chippewa remains a place where boys become men, for better or worse. When Jonathan’s daughter-in-law arrives at the camp with her son decades after he and Nelson met, the question that’s always haunted them still remains–whether any virtue can be found in becoming a man at all.

The Hearts of Men redefines what it means to father a son. Butler reaches past that split-second moment of creating a life and explores what it means to shape it with a man’s presence, his absence, and his pain.

Rabbit Cake
Annie Hartnett
Tin House
March 7

Elvis Babbitt lives in a family of sleepwalkers, and for a ten-year-old, animal-loving scientist, this is nothing out of the ordinary. But when her mother dies mysteriously while sleepwalking one night and Elvis’s sister takes the habit to dangerous lengths, Elvis finds herself mourning the loss of her mother while trying to protect the family she has left.

In the year and a half following Elvis’ mother’s death, each member of the family tries to find the right way to move on. Elvis charts her progress on her grieving chart and investigates a few intriguing leads about the secret life her mother led. Her sister Lizzie bakes a series of cakes, each of them shaped like a 3-D rabbit. Her father wears his wife’s bathrobe and her lipstick, and the family parrot, Ernest Hemingway, calls out in a voice that’s a dead ringer for the woman no one will ever forget.

Darkly funny and endlessly smart, Rabbit Cake chases down the quivering heart of familial loss and reminds us there is no right way to grieve. There’s only showing up for it, and showing up for each other.

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