Something about this year made reading books feel not just crucial, but a little bit transgressive. Maybe it’s the assault on education and freedom of the press, or maybe it’s just that between reading new reports of abusive men and Trump’s latest attempt to chokehold the nation, simply reading for pleasure feels especially crucial. From fantasy novels and postmodern experiments to feminist manifestos and collections of immigrant stories, these are the books that struck a chord or just helped us get through 2017.
Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose
Zinzi Clemmons uses a poetic style, rich imagery, and fervent introspection to delve deep into the heart of racial divides, economic guilt, and the severe desperation of loss in her debut novel, What We Lose. The story not only thematically and structurally changes the usual story of loss, but also highlights a hardened subject matter with new and original attention. Thandi, a young woman growing up on the East Coast, struggles to find balance in her life after the slow and heartbreaking death of her South African mother. In her journey to accept that which is beyond loss, Thandi searches for who she has become and what is left when nothing else seems to remain.
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Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage: The Book Of Dust, Volume 1
In this installment it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters, and Pullman crafts a singularly thrilling adventure for his young hero to embark on. Malcolm and a compellingly complex adversary-turned-ally flee an evil man with a ghoulish dæmon while trying to understand the unknowable forces acting around (and sometimes upon) them. Theirs is a classic coming-of-age story set in the world Pullman brought lavishly to life in His Dark Materials.
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Catherine Lacey, The Answers
Sitting in a small, white room, a woman spies what she believes is a two-way mirror. “It depressed me to think that I might have been looking at another person but seeing only myself,” remarks Mary Parsons, the protagonist of Catherine Lacey’s complex and haunting second novel, The Answers. She is applying for a job in the Girlfriend Experiment, a project wherein a team of women will serve as girlfriends to one man, an egotistical New York actor-filmmaker named Kurt Sky, to help measure and maximize romantic love. In the sterile, satirical manner of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, the novel considers whether love is merely a “willful manipulation” and presents this solipsistic idea: People looking for love only wind up finding themselves.
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George Saunders, Lincoln In The Bardo
Lincoln In The Bardo is a postmodern masterpiece. About half the novel is told through dozens of characters contributing to the narrative, which reads more like a tumbling conversation than a traditional single-character voice. The other half’s piecemeal approach is accomplished through an assemblage of real historical documents, mostly letters and memoirs from 1862, one year into the Civil War.
Saunders’ genius in Lincoln In The Bardo is the culminating effect of the disparate parcels of information that, taken together, create a spellbinding story of love and loss. Abraham Lincoln’s son has died. The entirety of Lincoln In The Bardo takes place over the course of a single night in the bardo—the Tibetan concept of the astral soul’s state after death, before rebirth, and combined here with a Christian idea of purgatory. Willie Lincoln is there, dead, in a ghostlike state with all the others who have died but not gone on. He’s visited by his father, still living, who returns to the cemetery after his son’s funeral. Saunders is best known for his satirical bite, but Lincoln In The Bardo is a deeper examination of life, explored through the dead, unable to move on for various reasons. He’s never written anything quite so poignant and moving as this story about death.
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Rebecca Solnit, The Mother Of All Questions
In her essays, she captures a feeling or a behavior or a practice that many, many women feel but can’t always articulate. With her essay “Men Explain Things To Me” and, eventually, the coining of the term “mansplaining,” Solnit put in (beautiful) prose what was only a vague, yet pernicious, sense of degradation women so often feel at the hands of men who talk over us, assume expertise, and explain to us subjects that we are actually the authorities on. By identifying and lucidly writing on these experiences, Solnit does the invaluable work of solidifying something understood but unnamed into something real and legitimate. So it is with Solnit’s new book of collected essays, The Mother Of All Questions. A selection of her work from 2014 to 2016, the essays all have to do with feminism as it stands today.
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Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
In an astonishing synthesis of political commentary and vivid imagery, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is a commanding yet fanciful outlook of the current climate of global immigration and international xenophobia, as told through the poignant love story of those caught in between. The story follows Saeed and Nadia, curious and drawn together through likeness and wonder, thrown into a domestic war between their reigning government and rebel forces. As their love and relationship grows, their city begins to crumble around them. Hamid’s point is that Saeed and Nadia’s story could be that of many. They come from a city of war, destroyed, unrecognizable, and broken. And now, they move west.
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Ottessa Moshfegh, Homesick For Another World
“If he gave her an opportunity to reject him, he was sure she’d take it,” reasons Mr. Wu, the lonely title character of Ottessa Moshfegh’s story. He is in love with the woman who works at his neighborhood arcade. By way of courtship, he sends the woman an insulting text message, intended to incite her insecurities and make her vulnerable to his advances. The story descends from there, ending, like so many other pieces in Homesick For Another World, in grim irony. If the characters in Moshfegh’s stunning debut short story collection have anything in common, it’s that they’re after some kind of life improvement, yet they go about achieving it in all the wrong ways, often deceiving or mistreating others in the process. Moshfegh displays a preternatural ability in short fiction, her stories impeccably shaped, her sentences sharp, and her voice controlled and confident; the stories of Homesick For Another World are near perfect examples of the form.
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David Sedaris, Theft By Finding
At first glance Theft By Finding looks like a cash-in. In this first of two books, essayist David Sedaris prints selected diary entries made between the years 1977 and 2002. But like much of Sedaris’ deceivingly simple prose, the enjoyment in Theft By Finding comes not from its very basic conceit but its sharp observations and bone-dry humor. It’s easy to read the diary pages contained in Theft By Finding as Sedaris’ first draft to some of his most celebrated works—the initial observation, joke, or insight that will later be fleshed out, put down here in the present tense. By book’s end, Sedaris’ entries read like mini essays. They’re often as enjoyable as anything in Holidays On Ice and Me Talk Pretty One Day, the last published book that can be matched to Theft By Finding’s entries.
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Katie Kitamura, A Separation
To say the nameless narrator of A Separation isn’t one for emotional confessions would be to understate the case. Chapter after chapter, the reader waits for backstory to be revealed, for opinions to be laid out, for some easy connection to the woman who is relaying the details of her circumstances with such low-key detachment. But those expectations remain unfulfilled. The buried grief and emotional distance that first seem so off-putting are what ends up lending A Separation its haunting force. By turning the commonplace event of a breakup into the means of diagnosing something honest and true about how we live now, Katie Kitamura achieves a much more timeless feat. She has made emotional distance painfully close, and alienation—that all-too-common state, that antonym of “to marry”—of a piece with self-knowledge.
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Tom Cox, 21st-Century Yokel
Like a British David Sedaris dedicated to a rural way of life, Tom Cox crafts funny and poignant stories out of observations and interactions—except his observations are of trees and his interactions are with squirrels. The landscape and its non-human inhabitants are the supporting characters to Cox’s countryside tour guide, and he spins them into fully alive entities as only a true nature lover can. Both the book’s tenor and style revel in leisure. It’s a rejuvenating exercise just to read it, not unlike the result of a particularly good country walk.
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Emily Ruskovich, Idaho
Poetic and razor sharp, Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is a mystery in more ways than one. The decades-spanning narrative is scaffolded on the question of why a mother would murder her child, seemingly randomly and without the intent to do so, and on a central mystery: When the mother kills one daughter, the other daughter runs away through the trees and disappears. No one knows if she died in the woods or still lives, undiscovered by her remaining family. Idaho opens years after this event, when the girls’ mother is in prison and their father has remarried Ann, the character that Idaho spends the most time with. Living in the home where this other family spent nine years, she finds clues, pieces together hints of information, and spends time in the truck where the daughter died. Her husband, Wade, meanwhile, is in the beginning stages of early-onset dementia, further blurring the truth as his memories become tangled.
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Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities: A Tour Of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, And Everywhere In Between
While the book does address real-life cities, as well as unbuilt plans, it largely focuses on the work of totally fictitious spaces—from the worlds of J.G. Ballard and Ursula K. Le Guin to those of comics like Akira, Judge Dredd, and Batman. And while that may seem like the makings of a light and leisurely read, in Darran Anderson’s hands it’s anything but. The book invokes an incredible array of architects, authors, and theorists to help interpret these cities: What do they say about the people who yearn for them? What collective anxieties and aspirations can be inferred from certain trends and motifs? How can we better wield future fictional places? These questions and more take us from the utopian Just City of Plato’s Republic to the Tower Of Babel and Blade Runner’s use of the Bradbury Building.
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Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face Of War
Gang rapes, limbs amputated with carpenter’s saws and no anesthetic, partisans drowning their own bawling babies, prisoners of war being stabbed and brained to death, suicides dangling from village trees—the revised edition of the Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich’s landmark book about the experiences of Soviet women during World War II, newly translated as The Unwomanly Face Of War, is as much an oratorio of horror as an oral history. It begins, more or less, with a cacophony of nameless, faceless voices: pages and pages of out-of-context interview material, the worst of the worst, censored from the original Soviet edition or cut by Alexievich herself. By the time The Unwomanly Face Of War gets to the place where one might expect an oral history to begin—that is, a chapter where dozens of interviewees recall enlisting in the Soviet war effort in paragraph-sized chunks—the reader has already been led deep into the dark regions of the war, its psychological and social aftermath, and the Soviet psyche.
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Grady Hendrix, Paperbacks From Hell
Paperbacks From Hell, the new foray into nonfiction from horror novelist Grady Hendrix, opens with an image that will be familiar to voracious readers, or pop-culture obsessives of any sort: The thrill of discovering a piece of media that you know is about to send you down a fanatical rabbit hole. In Hendrix’s case, that piece of media was a paperback novel called The Little People about S&M-obsessed Nazi dwarves (really). That discovery eventually led to this book, which weaves together social history and outrageous plot descriptions to form a portrait of the horror paperback boom of the 1970s and ’80s. Written quickly by insanely prolific authors and destined to become pulp within months of their release, these books (and their publishers) valued sensationalism and timeliness, which resulted in wild premises, wilder cover art, and lots and lots of sex.
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Kory Stamper, Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries
Behind every dictionary definition is a lexicographer, and it’s their curious, somewhat strange world that’s lovingly uncovered in Kory Stamper’s Word By Word. Stamper is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary.
The book’s subtitle—“the secret life of dictionaries”—aptly sums up what you’re getting yourself into when you crack open the book, and while that may sound dry, this world is a compelling, peculiar one, well worth getting lost in for a while. Thanks to Stamper’s assured prose, Word By Word is educational but also entertaining and surprisingly funny, never more so than when she describes the office culture at Merriam-Webster.
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Laini Taylor, Strange The Dreamer
Laini Taylor, bestselling author of the Daughter Of Smoke & Bone trilogy, likes to play with her readers. Early in her latest fantasy novel, Strange The Dreamer, a group of people with an eclectic mix of skills is recruited to help the city of Weep with a mysterious problem. When one of the travelers, Calixte, starts taking bets on what that problem is, she’s effectively asking the other characters and the reader to guess the book’s plot. The title character, Lazlo Strange, is hesitant to weigh in but is cajoled by his gambling friend. “‘Dream up something wild and improbable,” she pleads. “Something beautiful and full of monsters.” That’s exactly what Taylor has done with Strange The Dreamer, the first in a planned duology. She’s abandoned the fantasy spin on the real world she used in Daughter Of Smoke & Bone and her National Book Award finalist Lips Touch: Three Times in favor of a wholly original setting.
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Jesús Carrasco, Out In The Open
A breakout success when it first struck the Spanish literary scene back in 2013, Jesús Carrasco’s Out In The Open tells a very simple story: danger hot on his heels, a boy flees across the arid plains of an unknown country toward hardship and pain. Carrasco’s style is terse and direct, and he omits all but the most necessary of details. As a result, the novel reads more like a parable or a fable, replete with iconic locations like a medieval castle, a vast desert, a sparse forest, and an abandoned village. The boy is simply “the boy,” the friendly mentor “the goatherd,” the villain “the bailiff.” Carrasco reduces his story to a series of abstractions and archetypes, grounded by violence, pain, and the relentless, blistering heat of an unforgiving sun.
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Jenny Zhang, Sour Heart
Jenny Zhang’s characters and scenic precision stand out in her debut collection of short stories, Sour Heart: Stories, a book that illuminates the lives of six young Chinese immigrant girls wrestling with what defines their history, family, womanhood, friendships, and themselves. Each story is woven together with brief past encounters or relationships, giving way to individual journeys diverging within an exploration of these themes and struggles. Women, young and old, are the focus of Sour Heart. Motherhood; sexuality; matriarchies; the roles of a wife, daughter, and sister; and the misunderstandings that can come from these identities rise up again and again in Zhang’s stories.
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Donia Bijan, The Last Days Of Café Leila
For her debut novel, The Last Days Of Café Leila, Donia Bijan remains in that familiar territory, whipping up a new batch of stories of escape and self-discovery. There’s a whole host of characters and protagonists, and Café Leila shifts among their perspectives throughout. But the book regularly circles back to Noor, a heartbroken Persian-American woman with something of an identity crisis. While in the middle of a divorce from her cheating husband, Noor packs up their teenage daughter, Lily, for a trip back to Tehran, the first she’s made in 30 years. The novel is composed like an extravagant meal, starting with a bracing aperitif of a prologue before serving samplings of Noor’s longing, Lily’s discontent, and Zod’s desire to give his children a better life. Bijan’s culinary background once again informs her writing, fueling her comparisons between the satisfying simplicity of Spanish cuisine with the ease of courtship in its earliest stages. Her separation features more spartan fare, while her change in scenery is followed by all the complex dishes of her homeland. The story loosens its belt as it goes on, with chapters growing longer and meatier to allow Noor to confront her past and future.
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John Hodgman, Vacationland
John Hodgman’s latest book tackles such varied, very real topics as the secret perils of municipal garbage delivery and the strange social gauntlet of boat ownership, describing them with the same lyrical, digression-filled warmth he once applied to presidential dream thieves and planet-cracking Century Toads.
The subject matter is vastly different from his previous fake trivia books—give or take a story here or there about internet troubadour Jonathan Coulton being devoured by witches—but the mind producing it is unmistakably the same, albeit in a more weathered, grounded, and sometimes sadder form.
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Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk The City In Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, And London
Flâneuse is a book about a woman walking through cities. But it is also about reading and writing, seeing and being seen, youth and age, architecture, urban planning, rebellion, protest, romance, heartbreak, longing, and belonging. The idea of the flâneur was born in Paris, in the first half of the 19th century. But the term—and the act—applied to men only. The female flâneuse would have to wait until the late 19th century, when women of all classes braved public spaces unaccompanied by a man. With the arrival of the “new woman” in the 1890s, the flâneuse could be seen regularly on city streets walking between home, shops, cafés, and offices. Elkin, living firmly in the 21st century, writes that for her, walking “is like mapping with your feet.” She herself walks because it can help her solve a problem (“solvitur ambulando, as they say”), “because it confers—or restores—a feeling of placeness,” and because walking is “like reading.” As we keep reading though her words, we see these different kinds of walks in action.
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Jessa Crispin, Why I Am Not A Feminist
While short on advice for concrete action, Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not A Feminist couldn’t come at a better time. The fist-pumping feminist manifesto—don’t let the title fool you—relates self-reflective criticism of contemporary feminism, which, if turned into action, could make the movement worlds stronger. What was once a radical cause, Crispin argues, has become a toothless designation more concerned with whether someone calls herself a feminist than whether her actions benefit all humans, instead of only people who look like her (Crispin centers white, middle- to upper-class women here).
Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments
“The smallest and shortest pieces of art strive for perfection; the largest and longest strive for greatness,” writes Sarah Manguso in her slim nonfiction book 300 Arguments, an assembly of brief passages that often read like aphorisms or, yes, arguments. The author of six books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, Manguso indeed achieves a kind of perfection throughout, many sections as short as a single sentence, none longer than half a page, all polished to a high shine. Not one word is out of place, as Manguso’s linguistic logic is so sound as to seem unassailable.
John Green, Turtles All The Way Down
The latest novel from superstar YA author John Green is about something that many adults will find hauntingly familiar: anxiety and OCD. Protagonist 16-year-old Aza has severe OCD—she especially obsesses over C. diff bacteria—and Green’s narrative captures both the particularities of her mental illness and the commonalities and annoyances of being a teenager. As Aza spirals out of the control of her own mind, she’s also trying to solve the mystery of a local billionaire who’s disappeared, date a boy, and maintain relationships with her best friend and her mom. The granularity of Aza’s life and the cosmic unfairness of being a teenager is perhaps best captured in the first sentence of the book:
At the first time I realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time—between 12:37 p.m. and 1:14 p.m.—by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them.
Aza’s mental illnesses are written responsibly but also realistically, and against a perfectly enjoyable murder-mystery plot. Green has long been open about mental illness (he also has OCD), but this is his first book that really foregrounds it, and many adults reading it will find themselves wishing they’d had a book like this as a kid.