Well, another shitty year is behind us. Remember when we all thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse than 2016? Oh, to be that naive again. I did get married and travel to Norway this year, so it wasn’t all terrible. And at least I had my books.
Like last year, I’m splitting my list of favorites into two categories, and picking a top 10 for each: Books Published in 2017 and Books Published Before 2017. The books featured in each category are listed in no particular order. As always, these are not necessarily the definitive “Best Books of the Year.” They simply happen to be the ones I loved the most.
BOOKS PUBLISHED IN 2017
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
I devoured this book in a frenzied state of awe, feeling grateful each moment to be experiencing something so beautiful. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s a dazzling and deeply moving work of speculative fiction that delicately confronts the most profound topics: death, grief, love, sorrow, loss of a child. It’s tender, humane, funny and wildly inventive, written in prose that flows like poetry. I ached for the characters and felt such deep compassion for them, as Saunders clearly did, too. I can’t think of a more beautiful and affecting meditation on love, life and death.
IDAHO BY EMILY RUSKOVICH
This gorgeous debut by Emily Ruskovich contains all the quiet, somber beauty of an Elizabeth Strout or Michael Cunningham novel. I was consistently stunned by the layers of complexity within—nearly brought to tears by a small but poignant revelation. Ruskovich’s insights into fundamental aspects of humanity—love, loss, guilt, forgiveness, memory—are incredible, and the compassion she feels for her characters allows us as readers to deeply sympathize with all of them.
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
This book is absolutely mesmerizing and unlike anything I’ve ever read. And yet it’s not the kind of book I would recommend to just anyone. Stephen is one of the strangest and most disturbing characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. He has just recently begun his senior season on the college wrestling team and he is obsessively focused on one thing and one thing only: winning. There’s a pervasive sense of menace throughout as Stephen loses his grip on reality—an uncanniness that Habash writes with perfect subtlety. I’m hesitant to recommend Stephen Florida to just anyone, but I imagine it will have a dedicated cult following among other weirdos like me who live for these kinds of characters.
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patti Yumi Cottrell
When Helen Moran learns of her adoptive brother’s suicide, she returns home to her adoptive parents for the first time in years and launches her own metaphysical investigation into his suicide. What you need to understand here is that Helen is one of the oddest characters you will ever meet. (Yes, she even gives Stephen Florida a run for his money.) No amount of explanation could properly convey just how strange and quirky she is. To be inside her brain for 263 pages is an experience—an experience that I happened to love.
THE ANIMATORS BY KAYLA RAE WHITAKER
Every now and then I read a book that really hits me deep in my gut, so hard that I can feel a physical ache. I never would have guessed that this would be one of those books. I had approximately 0 interest in reading about animators. I’m stunned that this is a debut novel. It’s not often that I feel this affected by a book. I have little in common with either of these characters on the surface, yet there was so much about them that felt familiar and comforting to me: the loneliness and yearning, the sarcasm and dark humor, the love and heartache—that constant ache to fill a void.
FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD BY LOUISE ERDRICH
One day, evolution stops. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar is a few months pregnant, putting her in constant danger. There’s something so realistic about how this book portrays the potential end of the world. Much of it is about Cedar trying to evade capture, but it’s also more simply about her relationship with her family (biological and adoptive) and the father of her baby. (One of my favorite side characters is Eddy, her biological mother’s husband, who is writing a 3,000-page book about why he hasn’t kill himself.)
NEW PEOPLE BY DANZY SENNA
This book was so strange, so compelling and so uncomfortable, I could have read another 200 pages and never grown tired of it. While a large part of this book is a dry social satire about race and identity, it’s also a deep dive into Marie’s psyche: her ambivalence about her upcoming marriage, her infatuation with a local poet, her dissertation on the Jonestown massacre, and her increasingly odd behavior as she faces the expectations of a seemingly perfect life she may not even want.
HISTORY OF WOLVES BY EMILY FRIDLUND
I’m in awe of this book. It’s ceaselessly enthralling from the opening sentence, like a puzzle that demands to be solved despite your knowing, deep down, that it’s not going to be pretty. There’s a relentless sense of foreboding throughout the entire thing. Something is wrong—but what? Who is predator, and who is prey? This is such a brilliant, thought-provoking, uncomfortable, deeply layered novel. Fridlund writes with precision and purpose, delivering a dark, gorgeous, beguiling debut.
A BOOK OF AMERICAN MARTYRS BY JOYCE CAROL OATES
This powerful, sprawling novel begins with the murder of an abortion doctor by a right-wing evangelical Christian, then goes on to provide an in-depth character study of the families on both sides, examining the legacy of “martyrdom” and the effect it has on those left behind. With a relentless pace that moves quickly in spite of the carefully detailed prose and 700+ pages, Oates delivers a profound, raw and achingly intimidate novel—a visceral and stunning portrait of grief and consequences amid the backdrop of a contentious social issue.
DIFFICULT WOMEN BY ROXANE GAY
These are stories about people (mostly women) seeking to fill their hollow spaces however they can. They’re gritty and direct and real and utterly devoid of sentimentality. Gay’s characters accept life for what it is—all its ugliness, all its complexity—and there’s something strangely refreshing and comforting about that. The subject matter is demanding and unrelenting; this is not a happy collection, though it’s by no means maudlin. Being human isn’t pretty, but there’s beauty in that. If that statement resonates with you, so too will these fierce, gutting stories.
BOOKS PUBLISHED BEFORE 2017
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME BY ANDRE ACIMAN
This is as much a coming-of-age story about discovering one’s own identity as it is a beautiful and aching love story. Aciman’s prose is nothing short of exceptional. In the unforgettable Elio, he infuses such intellectual, emotional and sexual curiosity. Elio is both arrogant and precocious, playful and innocent. For all the eroticism in these pages, there’s just as much intellectualism; the balance between the two is exquisite and rewarding. Reading this book made me feel like I was part of Elio and Oliver—much like they were part of each other. I’m grateful to have experienced such a profound bond between two characters.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (re-read)
On the front cover of my edition is a blurb from Harper Lee: “Catch-22 is the only war novel I’ve ever read that makes any sense.” I couldn’t agree more. The irony, of course, is that nothing in Catch-22 makes sense. Each character and each situation is rooted in profound absurdity—a satirical critique of the military, war, authority, capitalism, patriotism, bureaucracy, institutions, and above all the human condition.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Salvage the Bones is a brutal and beautiful novel about a family living in rural Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina is about to strike. This is a deeply visceral novel, written in the kind of prose that makes you feel like you can taste and smell and feel everything that 15-year-old Esch is experiencing. There’s violence and harshness within, but also beauty, loyalty and tenderness.
The PALE KING BY DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
David Foster Wallace’s final, incomplete novel is literally a book about boredom, dullness and the IRS. Why would anyone ever bother reading about that? Well, partly because Wallace had an knack for making anything transcendent. But the main reason, perhaps, is one that Wallace presents as one of the books main theses: there’s virtue in enduring dullness. If you’ve ever read or listened to Wallace’s commencement speech, “This Is Water,” it’s sort of a hyper-condensed version of the solution offered in The Pale King. We’re each tasked with constructing meaning out of experience and choosing what and how we pay attention to the world around us. What Wallace seems to be suggesting is that we must have the self-discipline to deliberately endure the inevitable tedium and dullness of day-to-day adult life without succumbing to endless distraction.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
This is a collection about the downtrodden. About people living on the fringes of life. Although Saunders’ settings are sometimes surreal or even dystopian, they’re always firmly rooted in reality—critiques of modern American life verging from hilarious to emotional to disturbing. His characters confront difficult situations, doing what they believe to be best for themselves and their loved ones, often to the point of absurdity. Because navigating happiness and prosperity in modern America is nothing if not absurd. A few of the stories juxtapose two characters, each in their own heads, whose lives overlap in striking ways. It’s a sobering reminder of the inherit loneliness of the individual human experience and the inevitable limits of our empathy. When it comes down to it, we’re all just bumbling around doing our best, and Saunders’ prose cuts to the heart of that reality.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a totalitarian theocracy where men rule everything. (Sound familiar?) In this new version of America, Offred, the story’s protagonist, is a slave with one purpose and one purpose alone: she must bear children for the Commanders. Throughout the novel, which Offred narrates in first-person, we gradually learn about her own personal past and some of the circumstances that led to this new society. Atwood’s prose, as always, is impeccable. She writes with urgency, purpose, and humanity—and delivers an ending more brilliant and deliberate than I ever could have imagined. (Seriously…THAT ENDING.)
1984 by George Orwell
Remember the days of yore when dystopian fiction didn’t feel like real life? That was nice. I fully understand why this book is experiencing a resurgence: the parallels are chilling. Orwell is a phenomenal writer with a brilliant mind. This book would’ve disturbed the hell out of me even if didn’t so ominously reflect our present.
THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT BY GEORGE STEINBECK
The Winter of Our Discontent is a brutally pessimistic commentary on the American Dream and the lengths to which one must go to attain success. Ethan Hawley, a small-town grocery store clerk, is known for being a decent man of virtue. Under pressure from his family and those around him to gain wealth and status, he convinces himself to take a brief hiatus from his morals. Through Ethan, Steinbeck makes a deeply cynical case for moral consequentialism, suggesting that man must inevitably “tromp on each other” to get ahead and that ultimately it’s worthwhile since western society values strength and success over virtue and decency.
UNDER THE SKIN BY MICHAEL FABER
Under the Skin is a grotesque, disturbing, surreal, and unusual novel that bends genres. Equal parts satire and allegory, speculative fiction and horror, it raises thought-provoking moral questions about speciesism, classism and sexism, challenging us to reevaluate what it means to be human.
A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD BY JENNIFER EGAN
This book was so much different than what I expected. I certainly wasn’t expecting a narrative told in separate connected stories (think: Olive Kitteridge, The Tsar of Love and Techno), that’s for sure. It’s a bold approach, and it works. With captivating characters and intellectually stimulating prose, Egan kept me fully engaged and eager to read each succeeding story. She even plays around with form in an exhilarating way; one story (one of my favorites) is told as a sort of PowerPoint presentation from the perspective of a young girl.
What were you favorite books you read this year? Did any of these make your list?