Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2017” coverage here.
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young
It’s too bad that Bunk, published just last month, had the misfortune to come out during a time that finds hoaxes and lies to be no longer releva—just kidding. Kevin Young’s rich history of fakery could not, in fact, be more urgent: This is a moment of deeply earned anxiety about the fate of truth itself, one in which science and fact and empiricism are threatened by the same choose-your-own-reality impulses that have been presaged by the forces Young outlines in his subtitle.
Young is a poet as well as a critic, author, and professor—he directs the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and recently became the poetry editor of The New Yorker—and Bunk is accordingly deep in its research, profound in its insights, and lyrical in its prose. It begins with the “winged men on the moon” stories published in the New York Sun, the 1835 version of fake-news-y clickbait, and from there offers a wide-ranging biography of B.S., from P.T. Barnum’s “humbugs” to the false fairies of Cottingley to the familiar fakers of the present day: James Frey, Jayson Blair, Lance Armstrong, Rachel Dolezal. While the details of this chronicle are revelatory in themselves—Bunk offers nearly 500 pages’ worth of folly to explore—the book is even more compelling as an argument: that hoaxes, so tangled with stereotype and systemic lies, are inextricable from race, “a fake thing pretending to be real.” As Young puts its, in one of the many sentences I underlined and margin-starred and will keep thinking of for years to come: “The hoax reminds us, uncomfortably, that the stories we tell don’t just express the society of the self.” Instead, “they construct it."
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Feel Free by Zadie Smith
— Megan Garber, staff writer
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The best books are like the best meals. After the last word, the reader must hunger for more, a sensation that always exists in opposition to the fullness of the work. So it is that in subsequent visits to the same entrée, it’s possible to pick out new flavors and subtleties each time, and that in each rereading of a great book there are new morsels to digest and in which to delight.
Three tours through Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, I find myself still delighting, and still digesting. On its surface, the book is an award-winning novelist’s take on the “road novel,” a bildungsroman that uses a trip as a sextant for a character’s development. But Ward’s effort is so much more than that. It’s a whirlwind that manages to dredge up generations of black pain and joy in the Mississippi Delta. It’s a haunted narrative that ventures into the realm of voodoo and ghosts. The protagonist Jojo’s growth through familial trauma in the American South is a story that resonates with me as a black southerner. But Sing, Unburied, Sing is also broadly familiar for all readers in the way that the best coming-of-age novels are.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
— Vann R. Newkirk II, staff writer
The Girls by Emma Cline
Emma Cline’s novel is not about Charles Manson and his electric pull on girls. It’s about those girls themselves and their electric pull, their sexuality, and their desires at a time when any kind of suburban female anarchy was shocking. A 14-year-old Evie first spies Suzanne and her retinue—all young followers of a Manson-esque figure named Russell—at a park and immediately recognizes their power (“sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water”). But more than recognition, Evie is bewitched: How can she be like Suzanne? Forget the neuroses of teenagedom, forget being “pretty,” forget mores, forget the fumbling rites of teenage sex, forget crippling self-doubt—in Suzanne, Evie sees a way to opt out of all of it; she sees pure potential and wild freedom. And she decides to claim some of that for herself.
The inverted expectation here is spectacular. Step aside Manson/Russell—who are these astonishing girls? As the novel spirals toward the inevitable murders, Evie’s flush of passion for Suzanne crescendos. Then slowly, inexorably, the patina wears off and Suzanne and the others are revealed in a more complicated and dangerous light. The girls have traded something for all this freedom, to the point that freedom is not liberating—it’s just chaos. Evie loses Suzanne, but her life will be forever entwined with Russell’s—a lasting insult.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
— Sacha Zimmerman, senior editor
Outline by Rachel Cusk
Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline is spellbinding in a way that’s difficult to explain: It’s not just the plot, which is minimal, and it’s not just the prose, which is lucid and precise and vivid without ostentation. It’s not even, exactly, the characters: The narrator, a novelist on a brief solo trip to teach a summer course in Athens, reveals very little beyond the most basic facts of how she came to be where she is. Instead, the novel is driven by conversations—by the detailed accounts that a range of strangers and acquaintances give to the narrator about their lives, worries, recent failures, and hopes. The result is something thoroughly immersive, an intimate portrait of people stumbling toward truths that are always almost within reach.
I’m a sucker for narrative experiments, and someone who likes to eavesdrop on people on buses, and the form of this book—it’s billed as “a novel in 10 conversations”—was what led me to pick it up. What kept me turning the page, though, was the compulsion toward empathy that Cusk so beautifully captures in her characters and provokes in her readers. Outline is a book that illuminates the persistent need we humans have to reveal ourselves to each other, even as it points to the places where our understanding falls short.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
— Rosa Inocencio Smith, assistant editor
Evicted by Matthew Desmond
“Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare,” Matthew Desmond writes in the prologue of Evicted. “They used to draw crowds.”
Not so for the people he follows through Milwaukee in the following chapters. For them, eviction has become an all-too-frequent occurrence, part of the cycle of impossible choices that arise out of poverty. The book's tenants pay 70 to 80 percent of their incomes to live in disgusting, run-down quarters, hesitant to ask for repairs; they navigate impossible court dates and unpayable storage fees; they avoid calling police lest they garner “nuisance citations”; they find themselves, again and again, without homes to return to. Meanwhile, their landlords usher one family out of a squalid rental just to usher a new one in, and vacation in the Caribbean on the profits.
Evicted offers a powerful account of conditions that once caused riots and now don’t even cause a stir, that are both a calamity and an expected fact of life for too many people in American cities. Months after turning the last page, I still feel like I can’t put it down.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
— Annika Neklason, assistant editor
Ask the Dust by John Fante
Ask the Dust is best remembered as a canonical Los Angeles novel—but its appeal extends far beyond any kind of California regionalism. Fante writes semi-autobiographically through Arturo Bandini, an aspirant writer who’s come to Los Angeles in pursuit of literary greatness. He spends much of the novel agonizing over his work, staving off poverty and starvation (barely), and pining for a waitress who will have nothing to do with him. Standard fare for a writer, but the book is undergirded with a humorously adolescent vacillation; Bandini is given to extreme changes in mood on topics ranging from love to Catholicism to prostitution.
The novel is funny and brief, but it has an outsized vitality that defies its narrative scope. Take this wondrous passage, where Bandini wanders beneath the palm trees of Bunker Hill, considering Los Angeles’s place in the sands, and human insignificance before nature: “The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilizations to flicker and pass into the darkness. Then men seemed brave to me, and I was proud to be numbered among them. All the evil of the world seemed not evil at all, but inevitable and good and part of that endless struggle to keep the desert down.”
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
— Kevin Vokl, editorial fellow
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
When the New Yorker scribe David Grann writes something—anything—you should read it. Whether searching for a lost civilization in the Amazon, chasing giant squid, or probing the horrific possibility that the state of Texas executed an innocent man, Grann has a rare gift for wrapping meticulous, deep-dive reporting in gorgeous prose and spinning out a compulsively readable narrative. A little secret, too: Grann is an old friend—and he’s a bit of an obsessive. Having bitten into a topic, he cannot stop until he has consumed everything there is to know about it. This is central to how he does what he does.
Grann’s latest offering, Killers of the Flower Moon, is the engrossing product of years of digging into one of this country’s more chilling episodes: the murder of dozens of members of the Osage Indian nation in the untamed Oklahoma of the 1920s. Grann tells this murder mystery from the perspective both of the Osage victims and of the FBI agents sent in to investigate. (This was back when the still young bureau was struggling to become a modern law-enforcement agency.) Along the way, as he often does, Grann lets readers watch him at work, laying bare the nuts-and-bolts reporting required to bring this story to life. Put this at the top of your holiday reading list. You’re welcome.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
— Michelle Cottle, contributing editor
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
“The death … of a beautiful woman,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in “The Philosophy of Composition,” “is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Maggie Nelson inserts this quote midway through The Red Parts, her account of experiencing the trial of a man who was accused of murdering her aunt, Jane, several decades earlier. Jane was in law school when she was shot and strangled in 1969, and the investigating detectives assumed she was the victim of a serial killer who was subsequently arrested. But in 2004, a DNA match implicated another suspect, forcing Jane’s family to come to terms with her death all over again.
Nelson is a lyrical writer but a surgical critic, and her target in The Red Parts swings from a culture cynically fixated on the deaths of young, beautiful white women to herself. The book’s most searing moments, though, consider how fragile safety is for women and how easily ruptured, and the strange freedom that can come from not just accepting but also owning danger. “For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings,” she writes, of walking to a railroad track, drunk and in darkness. “To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating. … To make your claim on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive.”
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
— Sophie Gilbert, staff writer
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
The political, cultural, and economic distortions of America circa-2017 have given me an insatiable hunger for chronicles of how the country fared during its previous debauched and dissatisfied Gilded Ages. So this year I have read my way (or listened, via Audible) through the works of Theodore Dreiser—Sister Carrie, The Financier and its sequel The Titan, Jennie Gerhardt, and then the ponderous, fabulous masterpiece An American Tragedy.
Like everything Dreiser wrote, Tragedy is too long overall (some 900 pages), and sentence-by-sentence is full of weird and clumsy expressions. The extreme view of the book (and author) was that of the famous critic Edmund Wilson, in a review: “He writes so badly that it is almost impossible to read him.” But the shagginess of Dreiser’s prose in a way underscores the enormous power of his social and moral imagination. The drama of the flawed, dreaming, grasping, and wholly American anti-hero of the book, Clyde Griffiths, has stayed with me since I was first assigned to read it in high school English, and is the more compelling on reexposure.
Class and ambition, opportunity and injustice, sexual passion and sexual inequality, crime and punishment, religious sincerity and hypocrisy—these and other big themes of national life ring through a jolie-laide version of the great American novel. I don’t regret a minute I spent with this book.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
— James Fallows, national correspondent
Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan
Jann Wenner was born in the same year as Donald Trump, and Joe Hagan’s fabulously irreverent biography of the Rolling Stone founder (and avowed Democrat) argues that Wenner’s “preposterous confidence and bottomless need for affirmation” is like the president’s. Hagan’s yet-more-withering assertion, though, is that Wenner’s image-driven, morally ambivalent cultural entrepreneurship helped create the conditions for Trump’s rise. This is one of many analytical provocations in what would have already been a splashy book, thanks to reported tidbits about Wenner ogling the naked Allman Brothers Band and sustaining a one-sided jealous rivalry with Paul Simon.
Entertaining and unflinching, Hagan’s tell-all doesn’t so much debunk the myth of rock and roll as spotlight how the liberation it offered also enabled very regressive behavior. On every page, you find foreshocks of our current era’s more depressing phenomena. Sexual harassment in the media office? Vendetta-settling masquerading as truth-telling? Social upheaval defanged and resold, corporation-style? Journalistic derring-do applauded by its funders and then exploited? Bono’s continuing ubiquity seeming like a conspiracy of middle-aged white men? All on Wenner’s sticky fingers.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: 33 Revolutions Per Minute by Dorian Lynskey
— Spencer Kornhaber, staff writer
Recitation by Bae Suah
There’s something deliciously audacious about a novel with a gaping hole at its center. In Bae Suah’s Recitation, a striking and ambitious work that was published in the U.S. this year, the hole is that the person who appears to be its protagonist, a peripatetic traveler named Kyung-hee, may not, in the end, exist at all. Readers catch glimpses of Kyung-hee through the eyes of a group of South Korean expats: The book opens with these unidentified narrators recounting their memories of meeting and talking with her, reporting dialogue that is by turns mundane and esoteric. But Recitation takes the kinship expats so often feel upon meeting people from the same country or town (a faded place, Bae writes, “whose precise location has grown uncertain over time”) and turns it into something strange and new. Gradually, Bae introduces slippages in perspective, making the reader less and less certain of who is doing the talking, and whose story is really being told.
It’s noteworthy that the Germany-based Bae is a translator of books by Robert Walser, Fernando Pessoa, and W.G. Sebald, because she clearly belongs in this cohort of experimental writers who pushed at the boundaries of time and memory. She tugs at the unreliability of recollections, the perpetual strangeness of passing minutes and years, the frustration of yearning for something that cannot be returned to. When the narrators eventually return home and try to look up Kyung-hee, Recitation makes its most entrancing argument: that the realm of memory is just as banged-up and dusty and real as the buildings in the city where you grew up. And simultaneously, that the most concrete of notions—place—can be as surreal as the mind’s greatest fantasies.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes
— Jane Yong Kim, senior editor
Incarnations by Sunil Khilnani
Nearly 20 years ago, Sunil Khilnani wrote The Idea of India, a sustained meditation on what was then and is now the world’s most populous democracy. I haven’t read that book, but its reputation moved me to buy a new one by Khilnani, a history of India told through 50 short essays about individuals who have defined human life on the subcontinent across 2,500 years. There are the obligatory, but fresh, assessments of figures like Buddha and Ghandi, but also explorations of artists like Amrita Sher-Gil, who worked in the 1930s, painting intimate, richly colored self-portraits, out of which she stares, as though toward the future. Another essay takes up the legacy of Basava, a 12th-century mystic poet who used his skill with language to disperse the radical idea that humans are equal across caste. Khilnani shows us these people in motion within larger worlds. Each of his artful, compressed essays talks to the others, hinting at unseen historical webbing between them. Khilnani deploys his prismatic technique at a moment when India’s dominant political forces are pushing a much simpler story about its history, a moment when even the Taj Mahal is regarded as an affront to Hindu nationalists. Incarnations is a corrective, a reminder of how very many kinds of lives have been lived on the subcontinent since civilization took root in the Indus Valley. As a show-don’t-tell defense of pluralism, the book achieves a quiet, steady power early on, and never lets up.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Less by Andrew Sean Greer
— Ross Andersen, senior editor
Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose
Durga Chew-Bose’s collection of personal essays Too Much and Not the Mood should be pondered and savored—its lines read and reread, underlined and returned to. You might, as I did, find yourself pondering half the book on a gloriously bright Saturday afternoon, sprawled across the sun-submerged corner of a gray IKEA couch. Then a short paragraph, at a two-top, waiting for a friend to arrive to breakfast. Most recently, I savored chapters on the train home from work, looking up only when motion sickness finally took over and realizing I had missed my stop.
The collection invites the reader on an intimate, meandering journey that weaves together deep pop-cultural knowledge, immigrant family memories, and a big-hearted examination of the self. Ephemeral feelings—first-love haze, first-grade friendship, first-generation déjà vu—are observed and painstakingly detailed. At a time of particular unease and distrust, Chew-Bose’s words encourage readers to notice, to ponder, and perhaps to interact with the banality and wonder of the surrounding world.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee
— Emily Jan, associate editor
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
I have an iPhone and can get around an error message or two, but I’m not what you would call a geek. So when I got to the bullet on my reading challenge that said “read a book about technology,” I chose one I thought would take me as far away from technology as possible: a biography. But just a few chapters into Isaacson’s masterpiece, I was completely engrossed by the fairytale of early computing. I was born in 1986 and, embarrassingly, had pretty much assumed personal computers sprouted up alongside me. I learned, instead, that the Macintosh was released two years before I was even born. Soon I was managing to work this book into everyday conversations. A friend would mention the new Lizzo album. I would reply, “Did you know that the iTunes store completely upended the way songs and albums are marketed?” The worst part of this book is the same as with any biography of a life cut short: Now that I understand the incredible vision and accomplishments of Steve Jobs, I’m all the more saddened at his early departure.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Startup by Doree Shafrir
— Caitlin Frazier, senior editor
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
You cannot exactly read Fates and Furies, though you may try. Lauren Groff’s third novel is something you gulp down. It is a plans-canceling book, the kind that dissolves time and reality with such rare and unrelenting momentum that it’s difficult to know which force to marvel at—the snowballing plot! The astonishing structure! The dazzling prose! (My colleague Ross Andersen, who recommended it to me, recounted his experience reading the first 100 pages as “being shot out of an aesthetic cannon.”)
Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage and its mythologies, told in halves, first by the husband, Lotto, and then by the wife, Mathilde. It is a masterpiece of splintering perspectives, emotional crescendo, and existentialism—every bit the epic its title suggests. (“Tragedy, comedy. It’s all a matter of vision,” says a narrator’s bracketed aside, just before Lotto’s section ends and Mathilde’s begins.) The novel is also a puzzle, one that becomes more complex even as it becomes more clear. If the first half is a gathering storm, the second is a downpour. It’s not only that Groff immerses the reader in the world she so vividly makes, it’s also that she creates a full life—two full lives—for the reader to experience. The effect is disorienting and kaleidoscopic.
Sentence by sentence, page by page, Fates and Furies offers an awe-inspiring view of the simultaneously sweeping and intimate textures of living. Again and again, Groff pinpoints the extraordinary in the mundane—how every millisecond is meaningful when you examine it, and how rarely two people arrive at the same meaning. This insight turns out to be more dark than it is depressing: There is rage and manipulation just under the surface of so many scenes, made visible only as the book unfolds, and in ways that are at times genuinely shocking. Given all this, I found myself surprised that the novel—or the feeling left by it—wasn’t more melancholy.
Fates and Furies ends up being a meditation in how little we actually control, and a reminder that any life, even a long and happy one, unspools far too quickly. A favorite line describes Lotto luxuriating in an ordinary kind of joy, but it could just as easily be an elegy for the experience of reading the novel: “Happiness stretched out its wings and gave a few flaps.”
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: American War by Omar El Akkad
— Adrienne LaFrance, editor
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
What I admire most in writing is nuanced empathy: an author’s ability to transform an idea or body or experience that might seem foreign into something relatable and human. Andrew Solomon has mastered this skill. His mission in Far From the Tree is building bridges into lives that are unimaginable for most people (parenting a teenaged sex offender, say, or caring for a child with multiple severe disabilities) and guiding readers into those worlds. The diversity and breadth of the topics he covers are incredible; each chapter could be multiple newspaper feature stories. But by taking on such an ambitious project, compiled over a decade or more, Solomon is able to show the commonalities among these extraordinary lives—and just how common extraordinary lives are.
I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in disability studies, mental health, criminal justice, the abortion debate, or gender and sexuality, to name just a few of the many themes Solomon explores. This list is itself a testament to Far From the Tree’s level of complexity and insight.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Blessed by Kate Bowler
— Emma Green, staff writer
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
A few pages into Exit West, the scene is this: A woman is sleeping at home alone, her husband away and her house alarm disabled, when a strange man appears in her closet doorway. He makes his way into her bedroom, writhing on the floor. A reader might cringe, fearing violence to follow. But the man leaves as quickly as he arrived, sliding out a window onto the street below.
It’s the first time readers encounter the magic doors that move characters through Mohsin Hamid’s novel. The book mostly centers around a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who begin seeing each other while their city is on the edge of war. Their intimacy is accelerated as the pair become refugees, moving around a conflict-ridden world.
It’s practically required that any review of this book mention that it’s timely (and it is), but it’s also deeply moving. At just over 200 pages, Hamid’s story is a quick read, but you’ll want to block out some time to process it after finishing. This is one book I’ll continue to recommend to friends and family regardless of their reading habits: Most readers will walk away with their hearts a little broken.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: History by Elsa Morante
— Caroline Mimbs Nyce, associate editor
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” So begins Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, and so begins the reader’s journey into one of the most uncomfortably funny satires I’ve read on race in America. The speaker of that line is the titular “sellout,” who is currently facing the Supreme Court for committing a crime in which he, as he puts it, “whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world”: He’s trying to reestablish his hometown of Dickens by bringing back slavery and segregation, which he hopes will remind its inhabitants and neighbors of the city’s identity and curtail the creeping effects of gentrification. (His last name being Me, the case itself is aptly titled Me v. the United States of America.)
The book revolves around the narrator, whose efforts are received with varying degrees of disapproval (and, surprisingly, some approval) from those around him. The intertwining stories of Dickens and the narrator are centered around race, but they also force contemplation of, more generally, what it means to exist and the extent to which one’s existence is dependent on outside actors. That a novel dealing with these weighty subjects—along with those of police brutality and strained familial relationships—can simultaneously be so humorous is a testament to Beatty’s prose, which is effortlessly light-hearted while also carrying an implicit burden one can’t shake off after turning the last page.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
— Tori Latham, editorial fellow
Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
In Eros the Bittersweet, the poet Anne Carson writes, “Desire moves. Eros is a verb.” Perhaps no novel better illustrates this idea than Call Me by Your Name, André Aciman’s account of first love as it unfolds between Elio, 17, and Oliver, a 24-year-old postdoc who comes to live with Elio and his family on the Italian Riviera one summer.
I decided to read Call Me by Your Name before watching the film adaptation, which debuted this fall to widespread acclaim. It was the right choice. As narrated by Elio, Aciman’s novel is so tender and thrilling as to be almost painful—much like the experience of first love itself. Aciman matches the intensity of Elio and Oliver’s emotional bond with vivid descriptions of their physical relationship, which is buoyed by an attraction strong enough to transform the banal (a peach, a pair of swim trunks) into objects of erotic devotion.
It’s clear from the beginning, however, that this fateful, idyllic summer will eventually come to an end. As Elio remarks some 15 years later, after the pair briefly reunites, the two of them “can never undo it, never unwrite it, never unlive it, or relive it.” Lucky for us, however, a great book can always be reread.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose
— Sarah Elizabeth Adler, editorial fellow
Autumn by Ali Smith
“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” Ali Smith’s Autumn begins. “Again.”
That single word—again—tells you what you need to know about Smith’s story of historical chaos and continuity and intergenerational friendship. Set in post-Brexit England (yes, it is possible to write a great novel that quickly), Autumn centers on Elisabeth, a 32-year-old art history lecturer, and the centenarian Daniel, who’s nearing the end of his life in a residential care facility. As a child, Elisabeth lived next door to Daniel, who shaped her understanding of the world. Once a lively interlocutor, he is now a “sleeping Socrates.”
As Daniel drifts in and out of consciousness and Elisabeth reads Brave New World at his bedside, Britain itself seems lost in a muddle of very different versions of reality. “All across the country,” Smith writes, “people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.” Sound familiar? In a year where the news seemed, not infrequently, to be stranger than fiction, reading fiction inspired by the news proved oddly comforting. Smith’s stunning writing, and her own sense of art’s role in history, make this fast read nothing short of exhilarating.
(Bonus: Pair this book with Exit West, which my colleague Caroline Mimbs Nyce has written about here. Both novels ask what it means to be a young person in a world of shifting borders, and their meditations on nationality and belonging take on new dimension in dialogue with one another.)
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
— Amy Weiss-Meyer, associate editor
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Unlike most Catholic capital-F Fathers, Father Greg Lockwood is also a lowercase father; he got a special dispensation from the Pope to convert after having already had children. His daughter is the derangedly hilarious poet Patricia Lockwood. (Asked to describe what Catholics believe, she recites: “First of all, blood. BLOOD. Second of all, thorns. Third of all, put dirt on your forehead. Do it right now.”) Priestdaddy is Lockwood’s memoir of growing up as the child of a priest, and what happened when, as an adult, she moved back into the rectory with her parents: her father, the guitar-shredding priest who never wears pants, and her mother, who is obsessed with myriad urban-legend dangers. (Also living with them is the seminarian who believes “a priest should smell SO nasty” to keep women away.)
But the fact that life has blessed Lockwood with such a perfect elevator pitch for her book is merely the icing on the cake. The great joy of this story is how she tells it. It is the funniest book I read this year, and also the most beautiful. On Christmas, for example, Patricia gets drunk with her husband and the seminarian on martinis that taste “like being thrown through a window.” She and the seminarian stumble outside into the snow, their footprints weaving together, and she makes an “it was then that I carried you” joke. And then: “I think blurrily of how forms are destiny: how the rain is destined for its torrents and the snow for its drifts, and the poems for their sheafs and me for the poems.”
No one wields the English language like Lockwood. Her writing is a boomerang—it has a silly shape, and it whizzes by easily, but it’ll zip back at you and smack you in the face.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Chemistry by Weike Wang
— Julie Beck, senior associate editor
Political Fictions by Joan Didion
This summer, before I moved to Washington, D.C., and amidst a particularly fraught political moment, I turned to Joan Didion’s writing, hoping it would give me some guidance, as it always seems to do. Political Fictions, one of the only essay collections of hers I had not yet read, turned out to be startlingly relevant. In her introduction, Didion concedes that she was flattered when the editor Robert Silvers approached her in 1988 to write about the upcoming presidential election, a “serious” story; no one had ever asked for her opinion on one before.
But the “serious” stories that follow—on subjects ranging from Bill Clinton’s improprieties to compassionate conservatism—are in no way departures from Didion’s usual essays. In “Insider Baseball,” her first work of political journalism, she writes in the first person, opening the piece by saying that, after watching the 1988 national conventions, she realized “it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations.”
Ultimately, it is her unfailing attention to language (one essay features a pages-long close reading of Newt Gingrich’s speeches) that renders the collection quintessentially Didion. And this approach lays bare the truth always lurking in politics: The world of Washington is more a story, a function of language, than anything else. In today’s political realm, replete with tweets and “alternative facts” and “fake news,” no revelation could be so relevant.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
— Lena Felton, editorial fellow
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
In a year that spilled news events like spiders from a crushed sac, Barkskins looked to me like an escape: a classic multigenerational family epic. Instead, I got a 700-page dunk-tank of a novel that catalogues three centuries of spats, horrors, jealousies, and petty crimes as if to say, It’s America. What did you expect? Proulx plays with time like putty, crossing the globe in one sentence before spending years, and pages, over a company negotiating table. And the body count! People die almost as soon as they’re introduced, most in ways you’ve heard of and some in ways you haven’t. (A few are red herrings: One character complained of an ominous cough and died in a shipwreck a page or two later.)
Unlike Moby-Dick, an inevitable comparison for its mishmash of spirituality and business, Proulx’s story of two logging families offers its allegiances up-front (pro-trees). Right off, the epigraph pits two ideologies against each other, the manifest destiny of Christian capitalism versus a question from the philosopher George Santayana: “Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together.” For Proulx, events plinko down through history less like the flap of butterfly wings and more like a club over the back of the head. Nothing started nowhere; everything has consequences. One can only wait for them.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: City Gate, Open Up by Bei Dao
— Steven Johnson, editorial fellow
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Elif Batuman’s The Idiot isn’t a book you read for the plot. Its narrator is a Harvard freshman named Selin, who, like Batuman, is Turkish American, and has a crush on an older Hungarian math student named Ivan. But it’s Selin’s voice and wry observations, rather than her attempts to win over Ivan, that set this book apart. In her interactions with other students, teachers, family members, and strangers in the Hungarian countryside where she spends the last third of the book, Selin evinces a unique—and hilariously discerning—world view. When she goes to a club and hears a song whose lyrics consist entirely of “I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain,” she asks, “Why would a desert miss rain? Why wasn’t it okay for a desert to be a desert?” When asked what she brought for host families in an exchange program she attends in Hungary, she replies, “I’m afraid I’ll accidentally eat it all before I get there, I said, following the rule that you had to pretend to have this problem where you couldn’t resist chocolate.”
Selin, who wants to be a writer, studies Russian and linguistics, and yet can’t seem to find a way to communicate with other people, which ends up being funny, rather than sad. So many novels I read this year were heavy and filled with sorrow (thanks for nothing, My Absolute Darling)—The Idiot was a nice reminder that fiction can be playful and smart and a little absurd.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Moonglow by Michael Chabon
— Alana Semuels, staff writer
Human Acts by Han Kang
Anyone who has read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian will be at least somewhat prepared for the violence of the author’s novel Human Acts. In both works, Han coaxes the reader to stare long and hard at bodies that have known brutality, in physical and psychological forms. And though her words may shock and at times nauseate, Han’s corporeal investigations appear in service of a less horrifying goal: stealing a glimpse at the gentler, sturdier stuff that has no form—the soul.
The persistence of the soul is central to Human Acts, which revolves around the student protests that gripped the South Korean city of Gwangju in 1980, leading government troops to kill scores of civilians. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, and takes place in a different year, stretching to 2013. Han begins with a teenage boy who volunteers to watch over the unclaimed, decomposing bodies of the victims. Then comes the boy’s dead friend, who narrates as a spirit trapped next to his corpse. Other survivors follow: a book editor, a former factory girl, an ex-prisoner, a victim’s mother. Most are trying to do the impossible work of wanting to forget but needing to remember.
In this beautiful and difficult novel, Han pays tribute to those who were slaughtered by their own government, and those left behind (she herself is from Gwangju). But even when considering the ugly fact of the body’s vulnerability—to bullets, to bayonets, to clubs, to guilt and grief—the author pauses to peer at “that fluttering winged thing” that, at least for a time, animates us all.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: The Mothers by Brit Bennett
— Lenika Cruz, associate editor
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
Erik Larson tells the story of William E. Dodd’s year in Berlin as the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany in 1933. Given the subject, it’s not hard to see why Barnes & Noble placed this 2011 book on prominent display in its New York bookstores in the first months of 2017, when the bluest pockets of the U.S. seemed to be in a state of near-panic over the threat of a fledgling autocracy at home.
Yet independent of any comparisons to the modern day, In the Garden of Beasts is riveting history. Its focal point is much broader than Dodd; it looks at how his whole family and the Roosevelt administration—then just as new to power as the Nazis in Germany—watched Hitler’s consolidation of power and persecution of the Jews with growing alarm. A family that at first viewed dire warnings about Hitler with skepticism came to see, over the course of several months, that they were more than justified. Larson does an excellent job of juxtaposing the Dodd family’s fascinating personal story with the Roosevelt administration’s delicate efforts at diplomacy, during a time when the outbreak of war was still years away.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
— Russell Berman, senior associate editor
The Art of Topiary by Jan Wagner
The Art of Topiary is a poetry collection of indescribable wonder. Each poem is a force unto itself, evoking reverence for the most common animals and household objects. Jan Wagner’s bright bursts of sometimes surreal, sometimes “just as it is” imagery never linger too long, but break away into newness with grace and clarity. Each metaphor is shocking in its revelation, yet demands the response, “But of course!” Of course an elk’s antlers are the champion’s hands grasping the prize cup. Of course koi are “a firmament of coins.” These poems ask that the world be rediscovered, lest readers overlook what is here to be noticed.
The formal restraint of these poems, with their soft end rhymes, never undermines the tenderness with which each is saturated. In fact, the contrast between the openness of Wagner’s words and the tight adherence to form only makes each more beautiful. David Keplinger’s care in translating these from the original German never demands to be felt, and yet is inescapable. The Art of Topiary will stick with you long after its poems have been thoroughly devoured.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Blud by Rachel McKibbens
— Jordan Bissell, editorial fellow
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
In her debut novel, Angela Flournoy follows one family in their Detroit home of three generations. The house on Yarrow Street has seen 13 Turner children grow up, the loss of a father, and now a mother ailing from cancer forced to move out of the declining neighborhood. The Turner siblings have to decide what to do with the family home, which is now only worth a sliver of what’s owed on its mortgage. The Turner House is, in one sense, about the history of Detroit, from the Great Migration through white flight and early gentrification. It is, beyond that, about a family negotiating the ways that its members have haunted each other, and determining how the secrets they’ve kept will affect their future. Cha-Cha (the eldest of the Turner children) deals with the questionable reappearance of a ghost from his youth. Lelah (the youngest) struggles with a gambling addiction that fractures her relationship with her daughter and leaves her without any money.
By the novel’s end, both siblings end up back on Yarrow Street, contemplating the bonds that the house created and the ones it tore apart. I walked away feeling like I had gotten to know this family as well as any real family, with all of the complications of history and the compromises made in the name of getting along.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
— Adrienne Green, assistant editor
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