I wish I had something more profound to say about 2017, about my first year as a book reviewer coming to a close, about the state of the world and the power of literature to expose it and to remind us that as dark as it seems there has to be a light on somewhere, but somehow, I don’t. It’s been a rough year, for all of us I imagine, and books have been my lifeline, the inflatable donut in the shitstorm of 2017, the one thing I knew I could always reach out to and find solace, or escape, or pure emotional release. Sometimes it was subject matter, sometimes it was just the sheer talent flitting off the page, but the books that got me this year approached the grim state of things from angles that surprised me, shocked me and somehow, in the thick of so much shit, gave me a little hope.
Best Books of 2017 (in no particular order):
Imagine Wanting Only This / Kristen Radtke (review)
Kristen Radtke’s debut graphic novel is a one-two punch, a beautifully drawn look at the past we try to hold on to and what it does to the futures we’re trying to find. It’s a beautifully drawn book, Radtke’s inky blacks and crystalline whites cutting into the detailed landscapes of ruin and forgetting she invokes.
A Loving, Faithful Animal / Josephine Rowe (review)
I keep telling people that A Loving, Faithful Animal is like Denis Johnson had a lovechild with Stephen King, and I mean it. Josephine Rowe’s tale of a very broken family trying to define themselves in the wake of the departure of their ultra-violent father reads almost like a horror novel, but with the propulsive thrust of Johnson’s shorter work. It’s a brutal book set in an impoverished wasteland, but Rowe manages to mine levity regardless. No debut this year stuck around longer in my mind.
Exit West / Mohsin Hamid
If Exit West is indicative of Mohsin Hamid’s work (past, present and future) then he has all the makings of being a modern master of the form. Set in an unnamed refugee crisis in a near future, Hamid ties the lives of two refugees together, exploring the relationships we build in times of ultimate duress. There’s a sparse, lyrical tone to the novel and even though the subject matter is stark, Hamid manages to infuse it with humor, truth and loving warmth.Also, magic teleportation doors.
Chemistry / Weike Wang (review)
No book surprised me more than Weike Wang’s Chemistry, the story of an emotionally stunted former grad-student falling apart in slow-motion. Wang’s writing is bluntly descriptive, clipped in a way that pulls you forward, but once you’re locked in, she pulls back the curtain, revealing a dramatic heft just beneath the quirkiness.
Sirens / Joshua Mohr (review)
It’s reductive to call Joshua Mohr’s Sirens an addiction memoir. Yes, the crux of the book is Mohr’s battle with drugs and alcohol, but more so it’s about the author circling his past and his present to try and rewrite his future. It’s about Mohr discovering who he is without addiction to hide behind. There’s no padding in Sirens, this is Mohr at his most honest, and it’s a captivating ride.
Universal Harvester / John Darnelle
It makes me angry that John Darnelle – lead singer of The Mountain Goats – is as good at writing books as he at writing songs. A kid finds a weird VHS tape at the small town video store he’s wasting his life away in and slowly pulled down into the darkness of what he sees. Darnelle has a singular voice – somehow warm and vibrantly creepy at the same time – and even in the most harmless of moments, tension crackles in the background.
An Arrangement of Skin / Anna Journey (review)
Killers of the Flower Moon / David Grann
The Flowers In My Mother’s Name / Philip Harris (review)
Borne / Jeff Vandermeer
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us / Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
The Book of Resting Places / Thomas Mira y Lopez (review)
The Misfortune of Marion Palm / Emily Culliton (review)
The Animators / Kayla Rae Whitaker
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause / Shawn Wen (review)
by Noah Sanders
2017 was a shining year for essay collections and short stories by women. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen takes a magnifying glass to the way female celebrities are criticized and punished for crossing over invisible boundaries of behavior. In The Mother of All Questions Rebecca Solnit continues her patient, meticulous exploration of the way that gender shapes and limits women’s lives.
Carmen Maria Machado’s stunning fiction collection Her Body and Other Parties (review) uses fairy tale and horror influences to outline the experience of being a woman today with terror, tenderness, and humor. Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth is filled with short, sharp stories, brutal and funny; check out “Voltaire Night” at the Paris Review for a taste. At the end of 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person,” describing a female college student’s awkward sexual encounter with an older man, generated a huge conversation about the short story as as form and won Roupenian a seven-figure book deal.
Reading these nonfiction collections, I stopped frequently when Petersen or Solnit crystallized some aspect of my experience that had never been described to me or named. Women who read these essays will find themselves setting their books down for a moment and wondering at seeing the secret rules and pressures of their lives suddenly made explicit on the page.
Machado, Unferth, and Roupenian’s short stories feel insistent, uncomfortable, and difficult to pin down. In a conversation with a friend about Her Body and Other Parties, we both acknowledged that there were several stories in the collection that we were unable to summarize, as they ended with no clear sense of what was metaphor and what truth, of which events were delusion and which were real. Wait Till You See Me Dance has stories which I adored and which I can’t stop thinking about, months later, and that I nearly wish I could un-read, so bleak are their declarations about human nature. The experience of reading these books, and the universal female cringe response to “Cat Person,” feels a lot like reading the news in this moment when we are reckoning with the horrifying ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault. In these stories the truth is tricky, and slippery, and often unbearably ugly, but we cannot look away.
In the news, and in their writings, women used 2017 to capture with greater honesty the shape of our world. Hopefully in 2018 the world will continue to learn how to listen.
by Wesley Cohen
This was such a remarkable year for poetry that it’s hard to mention only five books, but the most stunning book of the year was Danez Smith’s second collection, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press). Smith, as Orpheus, travels through various underworlds of poverty, disease, and state-sanctioned murder to enact lush, lyric resurrection. Lessons on Expulsion, by Erika L. Sánchez (Graywolf Press), is another bright spot, a vivid, muscular work that blooms wildly over borders of nation, family, and womanhood, illuminating shifting territories of danger and desire. In Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (Alice James Books), addiction’s voracious appetites are redirected outward to exalt the sensual and spiritual realms with the gift of obsessive, loving attention. Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child (Graywolf Press) is by turns a gutting and hilarious look at motherhood and how the journey through that terrain reshapes the self. Finally, Electric Arches by Eve Ewing (Haymarket Books) is a fitting book to end this list on, as it conjures the future most clearly. Through a hybrid of poetry, prose, and visual art, Ewing’s generous eye enriches all it settles on, surreally enlarging the possibilities of blackness, girlhood, and the city in strangeness and beauty.
by Luiza Flynn-Goodlett