What stood out most about Baltimore’s literary scene in 2016 was its depth. Not only did we have two authors—D. Watkins and Laura Lippman—receive national acclaim for a memoir and a novel, respectively, but we had fascinating political and social analysis in non-fiction and poetry, an illuminating read about a murder case that gripped the nation, and excellently crafted novels from well-known local writers. (Anne Tyler also released her second book in two years, which was a treat). As we look ahead to increasing social and political turmoil, we can only hope that Baltimore’s literary scene will respond, and that this year’s successes have built momentum for 2017.
The Cook Up
D. Watkins (Grand Central Publishing)
Watkins’s memoir is an important one, showcasing a gifted writer who has much to contribute to our understanding of our city. From the first pages, he plunges us into a world of heartbreak and violence, where life hangs in the balance. After his older brother is murdered, a disillusioned Watkins takes over for his brother in the East Baltimore drug business after a short stint in college. In his telling of this period of his life, Watkins weaves together characters and situations that are equal parts hilarious, painful, unforgettable, and uniquely Baltimore.
Laura Lippman (HarperCollins Publishers)
Laura Lippman thinks this is one of her best books, and we agree. It’s a novel rich in the examination of truth and memory with a feisty, independent main character who’s not afraid of who she is or what she represents. Her story, set in Columbia and told in a braided narrative style that alternates between her childhood and the present day, has all the elements of a great, page-turning crime novel, and has tons of twists and turns that will keep you along for the ride.
The Summer She Was Under Water
By Jen Michalski (Queen’s Ferry Press)
Jen Michalski has proved herself a timeless storyteller again and again, and her latest book is no exception. We take a deep dive into the main character, Sam, her blue-collar Baltimore family, and how a secret has defined her adulthood. To illuminate how much this secret is weighing on her, Michalski braids Sam’s story with a companion narrative, which is a story Sam has written herself and tells of a man who discovers that he’s pregnant. This fantastical slice of magical realism, along with Michalski’s insightful writing, make this an excellent read.
Rabia Chaudry (St. Martin’s Press)
Two years after the start of the podcast Serial, we are still wondering, “Who killed Hae Min Lee?” This book takes us beyond the podcast to examine what this case has done to the life of Adnan Syed—the man convicted of the crime who was granted a new trial on June 30—and the lives of those close to him who maintain his innocence. .) Family friend Chaudry—who has her own podcast devoted to investigating what she believes are wrongful convictions—takes us through the events leading up to the disappearance on Jan. 13, 1999, presenting the evidence of the case, how Serial got involved, and the Syed family’s mission to overturn the verdict. It’s a riveting read that will draw you deep into its depths.
Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall
James Magruder (Queen’s Ferry Press)
James Magruder takes us back to our college days with this romp that showcases all their ambitions, travails, and promiscuity. The setting is the Yale University residence Helen Hadley Hall during the early 1980s, where an eccentric crew is in the throes of life changes—questioning majors, careers, sexualities, and relationships—while the news of the AIDS virus hovers ominously in the background. Magruder never makes you feel as if he doesn’t understand each of his characters completely, and you’ll celebrate and sympathize with these characters, while, perhaps, remembering your own college years.
Tariq Toure (self published)
Tariq Toure’s pen is mighty. In his poetry, he attacks white supremacy and systemic racism with poignant arguments, but it is the beauty of his phrases that make his words heartbreaking and most deeply felt. His love for his community is felt in each stanza and each carefully selected adjective brings his people to life.
Ron Tanner (Ig Publishing)
Tanner’s fascinating novel transports us to the Marshall Islands, an island-nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that was once an American testing ground for nuclear bombs. Tanner—who teaches writing at Loyola University Maryland and has won a Pushcart Prize—weaves together four stories that introduce us to this exotic place and the culture clashes that define it. His characters experience guilt, frustration, and confusion in their dealings with one another, giving us a better understanding of the complexities of foreign relations and the atmosphere surrounding the world’s superpowers and developing countries. Quite illuminating work for a novel.
Knocking the Hustle
Lester K. Spence (Punctum Books)
Spence’s enlightening, thought-provoking book might make you think twice the next time you hear someone talk about the “hustle”—the constant grind that is necessary to find success. But in the eyes of this associate professor of political science and Africana studies at The Johns Hopkins University, that mentality demonstrates an unfortunate turn in pop culture and politics and instead of highlighting power and control, it shows “black men who are forced to work incessantly with no way out,” he writes. His arguments are a welcome change in a debate where the opinions are tried and true.
Anne Tyler (Hogarth)
Anne Tyler proves just how masterful she is is in this retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most problematic works, The Taming of the Shrew (let’s just say gender politics were different in the 1590s). She sets it in her usual North Baltimore and bypasses some of the gender issues—instead of Kate’s father forcing an arranged marriage, he asks her to wed his lab assistant for immigration purposes. Though it might not be her original story, Tyler tells it in her customary beautiful prose.
The Mechanical Horse
Margaret Guroff (University of Texas Press)
Shame on us, but we didn’t realize the history of the bicycle was this fascinating. Guroff’s book shows us how this seemingly simple invention became a worldwide phenomenon, bringing change to many facets of our history—women’s liberation, exercise, and warfare among them. Plus, we also didn’t know Baltimore played a role in its development. An education all around.