What else but corn and soy could greet me in Iowa, or more specifically, Iowa City? A lot, I’ve since learned, including inspired and exceptional writers, a progressive and intelligent community, and the friendliest of neighbors, to say nothing of the town’s rich history. I earned my MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program in May of 2012, and while the program was certainly the best and most rigorous writing program I’ve ever attended, I found myself educated in equal measure by the program’s exceptionally dedicated faculty and its students. For over 40 years, the Nonfiction Writing Program has encouraged writers to explore new approaches to creative nonfiction through small, aesthetically diverse courses, from Radio Essays to Literary Journalism to Travelogues. In the past five years alone, alum from the program have published 79 books and won 31 literary awards, including Pulitzer and Pushcart Prizes. While it’s difficult to pick just a few, here are my 7 favorite classics and recent releases from my alma mater, including one I can’t wait to get my hands on:
The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard
Consider this the roadmap to reach for when your childhood abruptly ends and you realize life is complicated, often messy and nonsensical. You’d once hoped to marry that long-term college boyfriend and own a modest, well-decorated apartment, but now you’ve got a squirrel infestation in your attic, 400 dead armadillos littering your asphalt, and distant dispatches from a husband who, it seems, no longer loves you. The Boys Of My Youth is all of this rendered with heartbreaking lyricism. At times both cringe-inducing and endearing, The Boys Of My Youth is not a chronicling of Beard’s many lovers—as the title and cover image may suggest—but a register of moments that have mattered the most. While her often anthologized “Fourth State of Matter”—concerning the 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa—is the undisputed heavyweight, the essay is cushioned on either end by exceptionally visceral, lyric prose that tugs at heart and mind. Shorts like “Behind The Screen” and “In The Current” are worth revisiting again and again, while the longer work “Out There” offers something new each time you read it. The recipient of awards and scholarships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Whiting Writers’ Foundation, Beard has twice been included in The Best American Essay series for works in this collection.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now, by Ryan Van Meter
This is a book every junior high and high school in America should adopt as required reading, and you can quote me on that. In this collection of essays on his upbringing in the Midwest and subsequent adulthood, Meter seems to ask again and again, how do we learn to be in love? Brave, self-deprecating, and clear, this book is like the childhood best friend you’re so grateful you still talk to; no matter how many years have passed, you share the same familiarity each and every time. I’ve repeatedly pulled, dog-eared, underlined, and photocopied excerpts of this book, and my reasons are varied; as a writer, I find they motivate me to write intimately and with increased accessibility, and as a teacher, I feel they inspire courage, enhance awareness, and motivate my students into unprecedented mental movement. Essays like “If You Knew Then What I Know Now” and “Things I Will Want To Tell You On Our First Date But Won’t” question form and subvert narrative, while shorts like “First” and “Discovery” linger.
About A Mountain, by John D’Agata
What to say about a book that combines—beautifully, with impressive fluidity—the suicide of a Las Vegas teen and the government’s once popular (now defunct) plan to store nuclear waste inside Yucca Mountain? While perhaps overshadowed by D’Agata’s most recent release, The Lifespan of A Fact, which poses controversial and thought-provoking notions on the nature of truth, About A Mountain depicts a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of life for America’s young and disenchanted. It’s not a book on waste or politics, but is instead a greater conversation on the future of our society and the sanctity of human life. After all, writes D’Agata, “Sometimes the essay is where we end up when everything that we know must change.”
Other Kinds, by Dylan Nice
If I was on a long, long road trip, and I worried my car might break down before its completion, this is the book I’d want to find in my glove compartment. Released last year from Short Flight/Long Drive, a division of the award-winning journal Hobart, this debut collection from Pennsylvania native Nice combines visceral portraits of small-town America with the ever-present and overwhelming sense of disillusionment that comes with age and experiential stagnation. Nice’s work blends the boundaries between fiction and narrative essays and draws influence from such literary luminaries as Hemingway and Carver; the resulting prose is as evocative as it is sophisticated, carefully rendered and refined. The women our narrator encounters are lithe, well-versed, and articulate, and just distant enough to feel foreign, out of touch, and unobtainable; the narrator flounders, again and again, the stakes seemingly elevated with every attempt. Other Kinds is as essential on a road trip—from home or from reality—as an atlas and a roll of quarters, and Nice is one of the most talented storytellers I’ve ever encountered. Best of all, the collection’s closing (and perhaps most lovely) essay, “Flat Land,” is available online from Dzanc Books’ The Collagist.
Class A: Baseball In The Middle of Everywhere, by Lucas Mann
“This is not a book about baseball,” complained one commenter in a starred review’s comments feed, and thank God for that, because while I care very little about baseball, I care deeply about this book. Mann’s stunning and lyric debut evidences that while yes, he cares for baseball, that interest is not exclusive to scoreboards or players or rivalry. His investment is in the people: the often underrepresented fans sitting in blistering stadiums, the mascot and driving coaches, the players swinging dusty bats and dreaming of future fame, not for their own quality of life but that of their loved ones back home (some as far away as Nicaragua). As Mann points out, Clinton, Iowa, was once a community with more millionaires per capita than any other in America, but it exists now as an all-too-common American metaphor: industrially down and out, but still alive for those who love it. What makes Mann’s book insightful, lovely, and worthy of rumination, in fact, is his intimacy with this community. It’s no wonder Mann was selected as part of Barnes & Noble’s own Discover Great New Writers Program; in a recent interview, he explains, “I’m definitely not a sportswriter—I don’t think I have any of that expertise. I love baseball in a vaguely knowledgeable way and I was a dedicated, if mediocre, player into college, but I couldn’t explain why the game was still so fascinating, or important, to me. I’ve always been drawn to writing that tries to trace and understand its own motivations…the tradition of Clinton, the look and feel of it, the people that I met—it all captivated me. It felt like this hidden, complex reality behind all the nostalgic baseball books that my father read me as a kid. I wanted to know why it was so vivid for me. So I just kept showing up.”
Dear Sound of Footstep, by Ashley Butler
I read Butler’s debut collection from start to finish in a bed that was not mine with a fever so high and demanding it made the words move around the page. And yet I couldn’t put that book down. Three years later, Dear Sound of Footstep, released by exceptional nonprofit press Sarabande Books, is still as compelling each and every time I read it. It’s lovely and surprising, alternately charming and hard to take. While ostensibly an exploration of Butler’s mother’s death, Dear Sound of Footstep mimics the way a mind processes grief and trauma by dipping into such varied topics as the fastest man on earth, Harvard University’s anechoic (without echo) chamber, wind farms, and even Harry Houdini, hanging high above Times Square. A beautifully strange and wistful collection—and I mean that as the highest of compliments—Butler’s Dear Sound of Footstep establishes nonfiction as not merely truthful text, but inspired and poignant art.
Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, by Jennifer Percy
What I want most for Christmas is Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, but unless I strike a deal with Santa Claus, I’ll have to hold out for mid-January. Haunting and unsettling, Percy’s book chronicles the true story of machine gunner Caleb Daniels, who was aboard the 2005 Chinook helicopter that crashed in rural Afghanistan during a daring rescue mission. Daniels was the only one to survive, but back in America, it became very difficult to feel any sense of gratitude; instead, he began to see an omniscient figure he refers to as the “Black Thing,” or the “Destroyer,” an ever-present symptom of his PTSD that he repeatedly refers to as “a demon.” Through her own increasing dedication and interest in his story, Percy learns of a Christian camp in Georgia that promises to alleviate such symptoms and grant soldiers deliverance from war. Simultaneously thought-provoking, poignant, and political, Percy traces the aftermath of war and battle through the men who reach it first. Likely a soon to be best-seller, the book is also the benefactor of recent well-deserved awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the University of Iowa, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She’s also twice listed as an honorable mention in this year’s Best American Essays, edited by Cheryl Strayed.
Will you add any of these books to your to-read list?