I have other places to put stuff like this, or I should have other places to put stuff like this. Because no reason to sully a good run of anecdotes with a fairly drab year-end list, but, for now anyway, the list resides here.
This is what passes for my Best of 2017 book list. I’ve tried to limit to books that came out in 2017-ish (with a few exceptions ). I don’t like ranking things, so in no particular order:
Days Without End Sebastian Barry.
A chatty, romantic young Irish immigrant lights out for the territories with his best friend through the tumult of war and manifest destiny in the tumult of America’s middle 19th century.
Short review: This is a gorgeous book. It’s a western, sort of, and a love story, definitely. Do not be turned away by its Booker shortlist historical fiction white dude pedigree. There’s way more to it than that.
Line I Underlined: “In the darkness as we lie side by side John Cole’s left hand snakes over under the sheets and takes a hold of my right hand. We listen to the cries of the night revellers outside and hear the horses tramping along the ways. We’re holding hands then like lovers who have just met or how we imagine lovers might be in the unknown realm where lovers act as lovers without concealment”(108).
Semi-Related: Grace by Paul Lynch is a dreamy, grim road novel about a teenage girl trying to survive the trials and tribulations of Famine-era Ireland. It has a whiff of early (Tennessee-era) Cormac McCarthy about it and if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll probably like this.
The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry
An unconventional widow and scientist removes herself to a small English seaside town rumored to be visited by a cryptozoological creature and strikes up a friendship with the local minister and his family.
Short Review: If you know me at all, there’s a reasonably good chance I’ve recommended this book to you this year. Months later, it haunts me, and not just because of its smart, sort of steamy collision of science and faith, but for its language, its humanity, its expanse of silvery water.
Semi Related: Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is, depending on who you ask, one of the year’s best books or one of the year’s biggest disappointments. I have my quibbles, but I thought it was a well-researched page-turner. And if you’re looking for a Christmas gift that will delight the member of your family that most loved Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow allow me to give you my unqualified recommendation.
A short novel that vacillates elegantly between the reveries of a 101-year-old dying man and the day to day of his 32 year old occasional mentee, sometime caretaker and good friend, as it grapples with the business of living (and dying) in 2016.
Short Review: In general it takes a few years for novels that process current events to be release, because writing takes a while. That means we’re going to get a lot of books about the absolute horrors 2016/17 in a few years (they’ll be doozies). But the meantime, Ali Smith managed to publish a post-Brexit state of things novel (the first of four, evidently) before most had time to even process it. Ali Smith is a fantastic writer. Her slim novel is not a rant, but a elegiac, sometimes playful, sometimes shattering meditation on loss, displacement and the indifference of the changing world.
Line I underlined: “All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was shipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic . . .”(59, but actually all of 59-61).
Semi-Related: Exit, West by Mohsin Hamid. Hamid’s lyrical, magical realist fable of two lovers and refugees trying to find a home after leaving their unnamed, war-torn Middle-Eastern nation origin will probably end up on syllabi and summer reading lists for the indefinite future. You could cut to the chase and go ahead and give it to your college-bound cousin so she doesn’t have to buy a copy next fall.
The Changeling--Victor LaValle
A contemporary fairytale about a rare book dealer, his librarian wife and their child and a true parenting nightmare.
Short review: Someone described this book to me as the scariest novel they’ve read all year. They weren’t wrong. LaValle weaves myth and legend and the literal supernatural into a book about monstrous children, monstrous parents and, like, actual monsters. Reader: I jumped.
Semi-Related: The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge. In fact, the book that literally concerns itself with famed horror writer (and outspoken racist) HP Lovecraft is not scary at all, but a literary mystery that moves from New England to New York to Florida to avant-garde, post-war Mexico City, in a tale that constantly turns on itself asking questions about identity and the nature of truth. Also a total page-turner, friends. Like, “you could take this on your holiday to the tropics” page-turner.
White Tears—Hari Kunzru
Two young white men produce an ersatz Delta blues record. All hell breaks loose.
Short review: This clever, biting satire on cultural appropriation, race, class and white privilege is the second scariest book I’ve read all year and a breathless, roller coaster of a read. Buckle in.
Bit I underlined: “My memory is a mystical conspiracy of connections. Everything has already happened. I am a man, sitting in a chair, listening to a recording made long ago. The needle is traveling in a predetermined track. Eventually, sooner or later, it will hit the run-out groove at the end.”
Semi-Related: I’m still trying to decide whether I even liked C.E. Morgan’s Sport of Kings, which technically was out last year, but I didn’t get to until the summer. I have a lot of thoughts that I won’t share here. Suffice to say, it’s a super-ambitious–big, bloody, nasty gothic novel about two families (one white, one black) about race and horse-racing and why heritage sounds like a dirty world. Come for the skeletons in the attic, stay for the worst white people in Kentucky not named Mitch McConnell. If your Aunt Denise is still talking about “Mudbound” and is not afraid of a doorstopper-weight novel, she might like this one.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness—Arundhati Roy
The last half century of Indian history is viewed from the margins by a collection of outsiders.
Short Review: A lot of reviewers famously didn’t like this book. I don’t know what the fuck was wrong with them. I mean, it’s possible that not everyone wants to read a sweeping story about transformation and revolution and politics (in all derivations)and what we talk about when we talk about beauty and the awesome power of created family. But for real, though, why don’t you?
Line I Underlined: Loaned out copy, TBD.
Semi-Related: Hey, you’ve probably already read Roxane Gay’s Hunger, right? It’s a hard book to recommend because it’s a hard book. But it’s bracing and honest, reading it feels like having an intimate conversation with the author. But some piece also feels much bigger, almost universal in how it is to occupy space and grapple with some so simple as inhabiting a female body, no matter its size.
Lincoln in the Bardo—George Saunders
The souls inhabiting the graveyard where young Willie Lincoln has recently been entombed observe the 16th president as he mourns his son.
Short Review: This is maybe the funniest and the saddest book I’ve read all year at the same time and throughout. Written mostly in dialogue (with a few news clippings), the novel is clamorous and naughty and ridiculous and sublimely heartbreaking. Fans of the straightforward (and haters of too much talking) will complain, but I full-throated LOVED this book.
Semi-Related: So now that we’ve addressed the other book with the bawdy theological debate, philosophical conversations, literary allusions and the soul of a child at stake, it’s time we addressed the only actual kid’s book on this list. Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage is the first volume in his Book of Dust series, which will evidently bookend the His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ll go on record as saying that Pullman is my favorite living writer of books for young readers. His worlds are finely wrought, richly imagined and equally entertaining for adults, who like a rich adventure, rife with magic and a touch of finely honed iconoclasm.
A sprawling autobiographical novel that tells the story of the author’s family from (roughly) World War II to present, touching on science, politics, art and culture.
Short Review: I have overrated Chabon in the past, so I get that you’re dubious. But this was a fantastic story and of all the contemporary white male writers that goateed, beanie-wearing blowhard you went out with that one time wouldn’t stop yammering on about, Chabon is the only one I still genuinely like.
A bit I underlined: “Like most wonders, the fire in the hickory tree was of short duration, and when its meal was through, it winked out like a candle snuffed. The suddenness of its departure, my grandfather said, was a measure of how thoroughly it had consumed the available fuel. One minute it was there, a comet plunged to earth, dazzling the January darkness, its heat so intense that it stopped my grandfather in his tracks. The next minute it was gone, along with the tree fort, the tree, and the cult of gentle New Jersey ecstatics who had planted it long ago” (89) .
Semi-Related: I read Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. I think it shows its work a little too much for my taste, but if you’re after another sprawling, not-entirely-linear tale of a family during the middle of the 20th century, give it a go, or, better, give the hardback (pleasingly dense) to your dad or your uncle or whichever member of your family most likes Philip Roth novels
A History of Wolves—Emily Fridlund
In the first, two women reflect upon a horrifying tragedy that occurred in a remote part of northern Idaho. In the second, a young woman, raised on a commune in a remote corner of Minnesota, develops a friendship with her new neighbors and tragedy ensues.
Short review: It’s not fair to lump these books together, but they’re both very good and slightly similar and brutal, especially if you are the sort of person who struggles with terrible things happening to children. The latter got a surprise inclusion on the Booker list this year, which means you’re probably more likely to read about it elsewhere (and possibly find in the Little Free Library, come the new year). They’re both also very good at convincing me that I never want to live out in the country.
Semi-Related: The desperate, self-destructive teenagers at the heart of Julie Buntin’s Marlena have a whiff of “the characters in my rehab memoir” about them, but if you can get past the occasional stretch of grown-up moralizing, this is 100 in a 55mph zone in a busted car with the best, worst friend you ever had. You know the one your mother told you was a bad influence and you knew she was right and you didn’t care? That one.
Kintu—Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
A multi-generational, centuries-spanning magical realist epic concerning the plight of a supposedly cursed Ugandan family from the middle of the 18th century to present.
Short review: Makumbi is a marvelous writer and this big story full of history and mythology and enough characters to require a chart (fun fact: I made one) deserves the positive comparison to 100 Years of Solitude . Kintu flew under just about everybody’s radar this year, which is a shame because it’s a hell of a book. Don’t let it fly under yours.
Line I Underlined: (Loaned Out, TBD)
Semi-Related: Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is another big, sprawling, multi-generational family tale set in Korea, through much of the mid-late 20th century. It’s a fast read for a big book, full of engaging characters, even though it struggles in its conclusion to find its footing. Go ahead and get your Mom a copy for her book club.
The Hearing Trumpet—Leonora Carrington
An elderly woman is shipped off to a most unusual nursing home in Mexico. Chaos ensues.
Short Review: Unlike all the other books on this list, The Hearing Trumpet was not even written in this century. I just got around to it this year though. And what an absolute joy! If you’ve ever sat back and thought to yourself, “God, I wish there were an uproariously hilarious, surreal novel about richly imagined, capable old ladies on an adventure with angels and demons and transgressive nuns and other magical creatures through time and space to the end of the world and beyond,” I have some fantastic news for you.
Semi-Related: Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God is the sort of dystopian novel that even someone like me (who doesn’t really like dystopian novels) can get behind. Come for the trenchant commentary about reproductive rights in an end-of-the-world situation, stay for the Goth teenagers and the jovial, hyper-educated Ojibwe convenience story owner and tribal council member who writes down daily, often witty reasons to keep going in the face of the void.
Things That Happened Before the Earthquake—Chiara Barzini.
An Italian teenager is relocated to LA in the early 90s by her filmmaker parents.
Short Review: I really do try to avoid coming-of-age novels, but this one really is worth your time. Barzini’s heroine is a total disaster area in a lot of familiar teenage ways, and her story almost has a bit of a seedy picaresque quality as she shuffles from friend group to friend group from Italy to America to Italy and back. There are tragedies. There are triumphs. There are hippies in Topanga Canyon. There are drive-bys at the mall. And there’s an extended summer vacation in Siciliy that is almost reason enough to read the whole book. Don’t be scared off by the godawful cover art. It’s great.
Semi-Related: Kiese Laymon’s Long Division is one of the best books I read all year. Even though it did come out in 2013. And I read it then too. This year’s re-read proved that it holds up. Its subjects are still painfully relevant, if anything in the #blacklivesmatter era, its even more so. And besides, who doesn’t love an odyssey through post-Katrina Mississippi in a time machine with a failed Spelling Bee champion and his crush? That’s what I thought.
Other Recent or Recent-ish Fiction I read and enjoyed this year:
House of Names—Colm Toibin
The Idiot—Elif Batuman
Homesick for Another World—Otessa Moshfegh
The Kindness of Enemies—Leila Abouela
The Lesser Bohemians—Eimear McBride
Man Tiger—Eka Kurniawan
The Vegetarian–Han Kang
The Refugees—Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail—Oscar Martinez
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys—Viv Albertine
The Unruly City: London, Paris and New York in the Age of Revolution—Mike Rapport
The Rules Do Not Apply—Ariel Levy
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City—Matthew Desmond
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (Edited by Jesmyn Ward)
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America—Nancy Isenberg
Still on the To-Read* list:
The Leavers—Lisa Ko
Five Carat Soul—James McBride
Home Fire—Kamila Shamsie
Sing, Unburied, Sing—Jesmyn West
Mrs Osbourne—John Banville
The Ninth Hour—Alice McDemott
Reservoir 13–John McGregor
Happy Reading, friends! See you in 2018.
If you’re interested in the rest of the stuff I read this year (fiction, non-fiction and otherwise), you can check it out here.
And as a total anecdotal sidenote: I have finally nearly finished every single book I bought at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway back in fall 2015, when a couple of the employees explained that if I didn’t stop myself I’d have to rent a container to get all of the books I bought home with me. A fair point. And while we’re on the subject, you should absolutely find an excuse to go to Ireland just so you can visit Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop. It’s the best.