Literary Hub’s Favorite Books of 2017
From Campus Novels to Cult Leaders and Beyond
Emily Temple, Senior Editor
Amelia Gray, Isadora: I am not someone who reads historical fiction, particularly. But I am someone who reads everything Amelia Gray writes, and I can tell you that Isadora is the most impressive thing she ever has. Every skill she has—a sharp wit, a sense of surreality, a violent candy-coating to her prose—is refracted and reflected in this gorgeous novel, itself a window into the weird and extravagant mind of Isadora Duncan after the accidental death of both her children.
N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky: No one is writing more relevant fiction in 2017, but also no one is writing more entertaining fiction in 2017. The Stone Sky is the final novel in Jemisin’s visionary Broken Earth trilogy, in which humanity is locked in a battle with the planet—which turns out to be rather holding a grudge. All three books are brilliant and wholly captivating, and worth reading even for those who imagine they don’t read speculative fiction.
Ottessa Moshfegh, Homesick for Another World: Moshfegh may be the best short story writer of her generation. She is widely hailed as the master of unpleasantness, but her stories are not unpleasant to read, rather the opposite: they are dark and funny and expertly built, little mirrors held up to our humanity—or lack thereof.
Victor LaValle, The Changeling: I heard Victor LaValle read a scene from this novel back in 2014, and it was so existentially disturbing that I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I got my hands on the book, whole and actual. When I did, I wasn’t disappointed: the novel is a compulsive fairy tale, a love letter to books and stories, and an expert literary fantasy for the modern age.
Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead: I started reading this collection on the subway home one evening, and somewhere in the middle, I had to take off my coat. Next, I almost missed my stop. I read it walking down the street, and then I finished it before remembering to take my shoes off. What I mean to say is: I liked it. Smith’s poems are formally inventive—sometimes thrillingly so—and rich and roiling with hurt and sex and anger and hope. If you read one book of poetry this year (and you should, you know, read more than that), make it this one.
Jess Bergman, Features Editor
Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place: The first book on my list is something of a cheat: Hughes’ novel was originally published in 1947. But NYRB released a beautiful new edition this year, with an insightful afterword by Megan Abbott that historicizes the post-war masculine resentment the book depicts. In a Lonely Place is an LA noir told from the POV of its villain, Dix Steele: an Air Force veteran, charming grifter, and serial strangler of women. Incredibly forward-looking, the novel dissects rather than glorifies this misogynist violence. And it’s been a hit with everyone I’ve recommended it to—including my grandmother, who is often not a fan of my picks (don’t ask me what she thought about Elena Ferrante).
Elif Batuman, The Idiot: There is no better place to set a novel of interiority than on a college campus (where self-actualization still reigns supreme), except perhaps within the mind of a language- and meaning-obsessed college student. Elif Batuman’s fiction debut The Idiot pulls off a near-impossible trick: dramatizing 18-year-old Selin’s grappling with what it means to be a person in the world (and in love) without resorting to clichés or inviting the reader to ridicule. Which is not to suggest the book isn’t funny: Batuman juxtaposes Selin’s turbulent inner life with the more mundane and absurd facets of the college experience, often to hilarious effect.
Eugene Lim, Dear Cyborgs: Not to flog the dead horse of political relevance too much, but I appreciated the way Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs felt a lot like 2017: surreal, unpredictable, and filled with protest. Lim packs an impressive range of topics into one slim and absorbing novel; everything from comic books to the avant garde to revolution gets its due. This constantly shifting ground seems to transmit a warily hopeful message: any number of possible futures are within our grasp—if not better, than at least different.
Danzy Senna, New People: Danzy Senna’s New People centers around an engaged biracial couple in late 90s New York who may or may not actually make it down the aisle—protagonist Maria’s obsessive crush on a poet in the outer reaches of their social orbit threatens to derail the proceedings. The novel’s preoccupation with the slipperiness of racial and cultural identity is brilliantly echoed by its form. By turns a satire, novel of manners, and social thriller, the ending felt to me like straight-up horror. I found myself wanting to shout that familiar refrain: “Don’t go in there!”
Ali Smith, Autumn: Autumn uses one woman’s intimate relationships—primarily a friendship with a much older and slightly eccentric neighbor—to explore issues of world-historical scale. Written in the wake of Brexit, Smith’s sly and lyrical novel gestures towards crises of climate and migration without making any grand pronouncements or offering any easy solutions. Rather, as in real life, environmental disaster and reactionary nationalistic thinking wrap themselves in the guise of the ordinary. I can’t wait to read the rest of this planned quartet.
Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor
Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban: Mrs. Caliban—the slim, surrealist tale of a grieving housewife who begins a passionate affair with a humanoid sea creature named Larry (recently escaped from a government lab)—is among the most remarkable books I’ve read in years. By turns sweet, sorrowful, and ultimately horrific, this dreamlike suburban fable is a straight-up masterpiece.
Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown: How does a man go from being a beloved preacher of socialism and racial equality in small town 1950s Indiana, to presiding over a 900-person murder-suicide deep in the jungles of Guyana? Jim Jones is the only person who can truly answer that, and he’s dead, but investigative journalist Jeff Guinn comes pretty close. Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown is a crisply written, brilliantly researched chronicle of a troubled, ultimately monstrous figure, and the flock he led astray.
Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream (trans. Megan McDowell): Another short, creepy, hallucinatory gem, if Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s atmospheric debut doesn’t fill you with a terrible sense of dread and unease with every passing page, then you’re reading it wrong. A woman lies dying in a rural clinic, poisoned by an unknown toxin. An eerily calm little boy, not her own, sits next to her bed; or is he there at all? Through their fragmented conversation, a terrifying picture of ecological collapse and familial disintegration emerges. If Pedro Páramo and The Twilight Zone had a baby, it would look like this.
Karl Geary, Montpelier Parade: A subtly powerful story of the doomed love affair between a damaged 16-year-old boy and a troubled older woman in 1980s Dublin, Montpelier Parade is also a beautiful depiction of adolescent sorrow and yearning, set against a backdrop of economic and cultural decay. One of the most quietly devastating Irish novels in recent memory.
Kristen Radtke, Imagine Wanting Only This: Kristen Radtke’s incredible graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Part meditation on the psychological pull of abandoned places; part quiet accounting of grief, loss and death; part haunting visual travelogue, Radtke’s debut is a stark, moving, and utterly transporting blend of the intimate and the post-apocalyptic. This one will stay with you.
John Freeman, Executive Editor
Layli Long Soldier, Whereas: Rubbing her language up against English, Long Soldier creates a new sound in poetry to talk back to the lies the American government has told about American Indians and how their land was taken. She plays the role here of inquisitor, eulogist, lexicographer. Like all great debut volumes of poetry, Whereas finds and creates its own language. Open the book and fire and beauty pour forth.
Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How it Ends: Using the intake questionnaire given to migrant children once they are brought into custody as a backbone, this powerful short book re-draws the bodies that document so often fails to see. They are as young as five; they are fleeing gangs who threaten their safety. They are running with aunts or uncles’ phone numbers stitched into their dress labels. Luiselli heard theses stores and more working as a volunteer translator in immigration court, and her book shows how little the questionnaire accounts for, and how much misunderstanding is applied to children so vulnerable.
Svetlana Alexievich , The Unwomanly Face of War: This book is a choral psalm to the memories of the million plus women who fought for the Soviets in World War II. Moving from a former sniper to a tank commander to a woman who flew bombing missions, Alexievich restores to the record the voices, stories, and—unexpectedly—the joy of women edited from history by men. Alexievich takes you into their kitchens and weeps with them as the pain of this time fills the room.
Xialou Guo, Nine Continents: Xialou Guo grew up in a fishing village on the East China Sea, raised by her ailing grandparents, in the days before the One Child Policy. For entertainment there were the Soviet and other communist era propaganda films, and the kelp-choked shoreline where the fisherman went out to sea for swordfish. This heart-stopping collection of essays take us back to this place and time and tells the astonishing story of how it raised her, before Xialou left for Beijing and film school and a life of writing. After moving to London in 2002 with virtually no English, she becomes one of Britain’s best novelists, writing eventually in her adopted language. Here is what she left behind.
Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire: This fabulous retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone gives us three siblings driven apart by the age we live in—one has become a lawyer, another an Academic, and the third is slowly lured into jihadism. Playing them off each other, Shamsie reveals if betrayal sits like an obedient dog in the heart, waiting to be called, it is whistled at very often by forces outside us, in this case, the state. How a book so current manages to say such profound things about the many edges of our desire to be seen and heard is a marvel.
Molly Odintz, Editor
Denise Mina, The Long Drop: Like the film M, Mina’s latest is both a tale of a twisted killer and a searing condemnation of hypocrisy. Set in mid-century Glasgow, a brutal, decaying metropolis about to be razed for post-war redevelopment, The Long Drop follows serial killer Peter Manuel on a pub crawl through the city with the father and husband of some of his victims, and then on trial for his crimes.
Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird: In Locke’s incendiary new thriller, African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is thinking of quitting the force and returning to law when he stumbles upon two suspicious murders in a small town—one a local white waitress, the other a prosperous black lawyer from Chicago. Matthews must defy a corrupt sheriff’s department, a cheerfully monstrous local land baron, and his politicking superiors in order to fight his way towards a truth more complicated than any involved want to admit, all against a classic blues soundtrack and a backdrop of East Texas pines.
Elizabeth McGuire, Red at Heart: How Chinese Communists Fell In Love with the Russian Revolution: Like Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, McGuire’s Red At Heart explores the real, romantic love we can experience for ideas, helping to break down the perceived barrier between feeling and thought. McGuire organizes her history of Chinese communism and the interactions of key figures in Soviet and Chinese politics as the story of a romance, from first encounters between exchange students in the 1920s, entranced by internationalism and revolutionary zeal, to halted cultural collaborations and left-behind love children in the paranoid 1930s, and finally the machismo-based post-war friendship between the two nations and its slow and steady dissolution.
The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir, ed. Gary Phillips: Conspiracy theories are, for the most part, patently absurd, and can make for rollicking good entertainment when taken to their illogical conclusions. Each of these 15 tales crafts a clever, searing parody of some truly ridiculous conspiracy theory about President Obama. Highlights include a conservative talk radio host who finds out his bosses are the true lizard people, Michelle Obama’s secret life blackmailing pharmaceutical execs into charging appropriate amounts for childhood disease medications, and a trip back in time by Star Trek-inspired versions of Obama and Biden to stop the Klingon invasion of Earth.
Sarah Pinborough, Behind Her Eyes: Like the film The Sixth Sense, Pinborough’s shocker has a paradigm shift of an ending that allows you access to a completely different rendering of the plot—but unlike The Sixth Sense, Behind Her Eyes can be happily consumed over and over again. A single mother starts a new job only to discover she made out with her new boss the night before. If that wasn’t awkward enough, she’s befriended by the boss’s wife. Sinister agendas and dark secrets abound in this twisty thriller.
Dwyer Murphy, Editor
Santiago Gamboa, Return to the Dark Valley (trans. Howard Curtis): Gamboa’s worldview is a strange mix of the dark, twisted, raucous and urbane, and he’s writing novels as ambitious as anyone around today. In his latest, he recounts the rise of paramilitary forces in Colombia, describes the vicious beating and jailing of his fictional avatar, Santiago Gamboa, and tells the life story of the poet, Rimbaud. Somehow it all fits together perfectly.
Joe Ide, Righteous: Ide is quickly proving himself the heir to Elmore Leonard, with an added knack for Sherlock-style deduction. His hero, Isaiah Quintabe, still works out of South Central LA, but in Righteous he heads to Vegas for a tangle with a Hong Kong-based triad. This is one of the most innovative PI series in recent memory, and Ide is rightfully earning a devoted following of readers.
Katie Kitamura, A Separation: Kitamura’s third novel is a bleak, soulful search in the spirit of l’Avventura or Modiano’s noirs. The chiseled-down prose matches the landscape—the hard beauty of the Greek isles. Her narrator goes in search of an estranged husband, a journey that leads her to dwell on past mistakes, the course of a relationship, and the nature of grief.
Leonardo Padura, Heretics (trans. Anna Kushner): Padura’s Heretics takes on the complicated history of Jewish refugees in Cuban society, a story not many North Americans are aware of, here told by a master craftsman with as much insight into and love for the Cuban people as any writer alive. Padura’s longtime detective, Mario Conde, is a familiar face, but his investigations always lead us to new territory.
Monica Hesse, American Fire: One of the most surprising, thought-provoking true crime books to come along in years. Hesse investigates a series of arsons on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and turns up an absolutely twisted and unforgettable love story, as well as some valuable insight into the country’s evolving urban/rural divide.
Angel Nafis, Editorial Fellow
Charif Shanahan, Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing: It’s hard to find a book of any genre that does the white-knuckle work of telling the whole truth the way Charif Shanahan does in his debut poetry collection, Into Each Room. Whether dealing with the body and the self forced into otherness by or the family and the world at large, Shanahan’s poems are electric with forgiveness as their weapon. All hyperbole aside forreal: If I am a better person in 2018 then I was in 2017, it will in part be because of the time I spent with this critical book.
Morgan Parker, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé: Morgan Parker’s second collection of poems descended upon my bookshelf like a prodigal child come home to smoke clove cigarettes and outshine all the rest of its siblings. Each poem uniquely negotiating that crucial, endangered, fly space of Black Womanhood in this here supremacist Nation/Globe. Part list of demands and part love song, where would I even be without this damn book? Parker’s lyric is ferocious, impatient, brazen, and right on time.
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing: I’ve loved Jesmyn Ward’s books all of my adult life and clearly she has no intention of loosening her grip on my adoration with her latest triumph. I mean, we all knew it would be good, but this was . . . beyond. The multi-voiced narrative! The ghosts! The frothing Mississippi landscape! I often found myself on the bus just shaking my head and looking for affirmation/comfort from my fellow passengers who were very decidedly not interested in my longing looks and emotional unraveling. Luckily this book builds you up as it humbles you down to size, and the characters may as well be flesh and blood as they are all the company you could ever want.
Bill Knott, I Am Flying Into Myself: If you haven’t yet heard of Bill Knott, fret not, there is no wrong time to stumble upon the deeply weird, perfect, jagged, tender little poems he wrote. His style, vast and refusing a label moves from French surrealism to the avant-garde to the mundane. His contribution to American letters is unmatched and with this new selection of poems written between 1960-2004, finally there is a comprehensive collection for us to discover and admire his incomparable body of work.
Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties: Grateful as ever to be a dark-skinned lady so no one could tell how intensely I was blushing whilst reading nearly every story in this collection. Machado is not out here playing games, friends. This books is actually as good as everyone says it is. It reads like a candy-encrusted page turner but has the effect of a brainy layered Lispector text. This is the perfect book to by ten of and just hand out to all your brassiest, most cynical friends. No skepticism forged against this sexy, terrifying, lush book shall prosper.
Blair Beusman, Associate Editor
Mary Gaitskill, Somebody With a Little Hammer: Mary Gaitskill’s first nonfiction book collects her essays and cultural criticism from 1994 to 2016. The range of subject is wide—from fetishistic foot photography to lost cats—and each piece bristles with keen intelligence. Revisiting the collection recently, I was particularly struck by the prescience of “The Trouble With Following the Rules,” a probing and personal piece about sexual assault and its aftermath—and, sadly, by how little seems to have changed in the 23 years since it was first published.
Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy: Poet Patricia Lockwood’s memoir one would expect: profound, hilarious, and filled with strangely beautiful metaphors. Focusing on the period of her life when circumstances forced her to move back in with her parents, Lockwood offers a window into her past growing up with, as the title would suggest, a priestdaddy. She takes apparent delight in both language and her eccentric family, but the book isn’t singularly characterized by levity; beneath the surface of humor, there is both suffering and depth.
Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses: In a series of 17 essays focusing on animals that have figured prominently in the human imagination, Elena Passarello traces the relationship between man and beast from 39,000 BP (ruminating on the remains of Yuka, a wooly mammoth killed by a Paleolithic hunter) to 2015 (RIP Cecil the lion). Throughout the collection, Passarello draws from folklore, theory, art history, religion, and literature to represent our evolving understanding of animals and ourselves. The most heart-rending essay weaves together the history of electricity and elephant captivity in America and is one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve read about elephants (which is really saying something, considering how many pieces I’ve read about elephants).
Rachel Khong, Goodbye, Vitamin: Rachel Khong’s debut novel follows 30-year-old Ruth as she moves home after breaking up with her fiancé, both to get back on her feet and tend to her father. There is so much subtle beauty, humor, and sorrow in this slim volume, which is most pointed in the moments Ruth and her father capture of each other—hers documenting his descent into Alzheimer’s and his recording shockingly tender moments from her childhood.
Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How it Ends: Drawing from her experience working as an interpreter in an immigration court, Valeria Luiselli captures the perilous journey undocumented minors undergo to arrive in America—and the callousness with which they are met. She uses the 40-question survey the children are made to answer to determine whether or not they are deported as scaffolding to create this book-length essay, heightening the disparity between the lived reality of the migrants and the narratives created around them. Vividly, she illustrates the devastating human cost of policies often made abstract.
Emily Firetog, Managing Editor
Richard Lloyd Parry, Ghosts of the Tsunami: This is perhaps my favorite book this year, a masterful piece of journalism that takes the most devastating location of the 2011 Japanese tsunami—Okawa, the community where an entire school washed away—and delves into the families, ghosts, and landscape of a place that will never be the same again. Lloyd Parry gives a voice to the survivors that shows the painfully individual fallout of a national tragedy. It is an unmissable book.
Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban: Thank god New Directions reissued Rachel Ingalls’ 1982 Mrs. Caliban, a short but impactful story of Dorothy and her lover, the human-like sea creature, Larry, who is on the lam after killing some caretakers at the lab where he was being experimented on. Part surrealism, part domestic romance, it’s a beautiful and sad story that lingers.
Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose: Full disclosure, Zinzi is a dear friend and contributor to Lit Hub, but I have yet to find someone who hasn’t been floored by this devastatingly beautiful debut. Awarded the National Book Foundation 5 under 35 and profiled in the L.A. Times, New York Times, and Vogue, Clemmons has crafted a new type of narrative on grief. Her narrator Thandi copes with the death of her mother, but issues of race, class, and gender are weaved through the short, innovative narrative.
Sarah Sentilles, Draw Your Weapons: An essay collection in the loosest of terms, this book is a meditation on art, critical theory, and war. Sentilles, a would-be-priest who dropped out of divinity school to pursue the study of art history, searches for the role of art in an age of perennial warfare. I read it soon after returning from leave, reentering the world of work and adult conversation, a moment at which I was ready to absorb lessons about art and war, life and death, good and evil.
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing: Ward’s National Book Award-winning book is one of those unputdownable novels, language-rich with characters so fully rendered you feel they are living, breathing people. Magical realism sits alongside descriptions of drug-abuse, racism, and death, as a Mississippi family comes to terms with the ghosts of the past. It’s one of those books that you keep the light on to finish.
Jonny Diamond, Editor-in-Chief
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo: At his best, George Saunders keeps just this side of sentimentality. For some, he crossed that line in Bardo, but in the dark January of 2017, this odd collage of grief and grace and presidential vulnerability was a glimmer of human light in an otherwise bleak midwinter. Also, one of the best last pages I’ve ever read.
Mohsin Hamid, Exit West: There have been an awful lot of “books of our time” lately, but “our time”—maximalist, northern hemisphere late-capitalism siphoning resources from the southern hemisphere before the world catches fire!—has actually been going on for awhile. So. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s disorientingly playful, super sad serious love story set against the Escherian puzzles of trans-national migration, is a book for our time (and all the other times).
Nate Blakeslee, American Wolf: Here is evidence of the way in which government intervention can restore an ecosystem ravaged by greed and shortsightedness: in this case, the introduction of Canadian wolves to Yellowstone National Park, after a 75-year absence, catalyzed a rapid restoration of ecological balance across thousands of square miles. Everyone’s happy, right? Nope. Here, too, is evidence of political shortsightedness: just over 20 years after the program began in 1994, state and federal politicians began a campaign to reopen the wolf hunt, and, surprise, succeeded. Another book for our times? Yeah, it’ll make you sad.
Steven Stoll, Ramp Hollow: Is this getting repetitive? In this erudite work of nonfiction FOR OUR TIMES, historian Steven Stoll goes deep on agrarian Appalachia and tells a story of rampant corporate pillaging (of land and earth), the systematic dismantling of a way of life, and the generational immiseration left in its wake. But the story’s not finished: the same robber baron strategies for extracting smash-and-grab profit from otherwise sustainably husbanded land are at work around the world, today, in the 21st century.
Layli Long Soldier, Whereas: There are moments (often, and particularly with regards to poetry) that the writing does a better job speaking for itself than any year-end gloss could. So, just to bring this full circle (excerpted in part):
You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of it, you might wonder, “What is the Dakota 38?”
The Dakota 38 refers to thirty-eight Dakota men who were executed by hanging, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln.
To date, this is the largest “legal” mass execution in US history.
The hanging took place on December 26, 1862—he day after Christmas.
This was the same week that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis.
There was a movie titled Lincoln about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was included in the film Lincoln; the hanging of the Dakota 38 was not.