02 January 2018

My favorites from 2017

I didn't read anything by Barbara Pym this year! That must be the nagging emptiness I was feeling...

But I did read a lot of really terrific books. Usually when I sit down to compile these lists, I find that it actually isn't that hard to settle on a top 10 out of everything I've read. This time I almost gave up and decided to do a top 20. How could I possibly have a top 10 that didn't include A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I would unhesitatingly rank as one of the most important formal innovations in novelistic form of the last 15 years? Well, because while it may well have been one of the best works I read, when you get down to the awful business of quantifying your love, you find that you might have just a smidgin more of it for something like a slender little novella by Arthur Schnitzler, perhaps because you read it at just the right moment, or because something about its particular droll voice endeared it to you in a special way, or because I love Schnitzler, and there is a particular thrill in reading a new book by someone whose work you adore and finding that it delights you just as much as their other books. On the other hand, while A Little Life completely undid me emotionally in a way that very few fictions have, reflecting back on it I found that it didn't leave as much of a trace as I might have expected (unlike Yanagihara's People in the Trees, whose meditations on science and modernity still echo occasionally through my mind).

I was thinking to myself that my list this year had a lot more contemporary authors than have graced it in previous years, but when I actually checked, this proved to be incorrect (for 2015 and 2014; apparently I didn't make a list in 2016. Really, self? Ugh.). I think the illusion was produced in part by the fact that I fully expect that works by some of the authors listed below will appear in my favorites list next year -- I'm really looking forward to reading Jesmyn Ward's Sing Unburied, Sing and Marie NDiaye's My Heart Hemmed In, for instance. And I recently finished Yuri Herrera's Kingdom Cons, and while I didn't love it as much as Signs, it further entrenched my sense that Herrera is one of the more interesting writers working today, and someone I'll definitely be keeping an eye on. I guess I actually read a pretty good amount of contemporary writing, and it's nice to be reminded that there are great new books coming out all the time.

Without further ado, alphabetically by title, my top 10 favorite books of 2017:

Ladivine, by Marie NDiaye -- Haunting, raw, slightly surreal; I was mesmerized by the gorgeous prose (beautifully rendered by Jordan Stump's phenomenal translation).

Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler -- I have a great weakness for Schnitzler, and this melancholic, humorous little meditation on art, aging, and celebrity was no exception.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders -- This dazzling multi-vocal novel has all the emotional power of Saunders' short fiction. A riveting, playful exploration of the mythos of American history that resonates with some of the more painful conversations happening in contemporary culture in really interesting ways.

Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin -- These stories are every bit as good as everyone says they are. Wrenching but also, often, very funny, or sweet. Read them.

Notes on a Foreign Country, by Suzy Hansen -- Few books so fully live up to the promise of travel literature. Seeking to better understand Turkey, Hansen discovers, instead, America; the legacies of its foreign policy, and how they figure into American identity. Revelatory.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler -- I don't even usually like sci-fi, but wow. In a year when everyone was really excited by the dystopian visions of The Handmaid's Tale, 1984, and The Power (which I'm almost done with), it was this novel that seemed the most terrifyingly to me like a prescient vision of an increasingly probable future.

Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera -- A mesmerizing modernization of the epic form played out on the US-Mexican border.

Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg -- Brave and beautiful, this is an important work of historical testimony, but also a powerful, searching exploration of gender identity.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie -- Absolutely stunning. Moving, wry, tender, intricate.

You Should Have Left, by Daniel Kehlmann -- I was absolutely delighted by the delicious terrors of this little book, which reminded me of Danielewski's House of Leaves (another favorite) in its visceral rendering of a mind-bendingly horrifying premise.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan; Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward; A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara; The Door, by Magda Szabo; 10:04 by Ben Lerner; A Greater Music, by Bae Suah; Not One Day, by Anne Garreta; Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, by Eka Kurniawan; A Horse Walks into a Bar, by David Grossman; The Iliac Crest, by Cristina Rivera Garza.

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