As we draw to the close of 2017, the year that looked at much-reviled 2016 and said, “Hold my beer,” right before it killed the “hold my beer” meme dead, we do have at least one thing to be thankful for: books. 2017 brought us books of rage and comfort and resentment and grief and joy, books that helped to explain the world we’re living in and books that helped us escape from it.
I did not read all 1 million books published in the US this year, but I did read a little bit more than my fair share. And of all of the books I read, these 11 were the ones that best helped me make sense of the world, and the ones that helped me leave it all behind when I needed to. I’m listing them here alphabetically by author’s last name; I hope they do the same for you.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
When I reviewed The Idiot this March, I only gave it 3.5 stars: it was such a chilly, distant book that while I admired its elaborate linguistic games, I couldn’t get close enough to prickly, thoughtful protagonist Selin to feel deeply about her thoughts on semiotics. But I’ve found myself thinking of The Idiot long after I’ve forgotten books I gave better ratings to this year.
The Idiot is about language, and about what a strange, artificial, and constructed thing our language is. Selin is a freshman at Harvard, and she finds herself completely alienated from the linguistic and social codes that everyone else seems to know instinctively: which posters of Albert Einstein communicate whimsy versus which ones just suggest that you’re a weirdly big Einstein fan; why you always have to pretend you can’t resist chocolate; whether a Spanish-English hybrid that an ESL teacher creates with a student is a real language or a pedagogical failure.
Reading The Idiot, you begin to feel again like a very small child encountering words for the first time, and you see anew all of the quirks and oddities of our language that you have learned to take for granted. It’s a quietly haunting book that works its way into the back of your mind and stays there.
Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
Jane, Unlimited is a book about mourning, but it is also a joyful book. It’s interested in the way the death of a loved one renders the world unrecognizable and bewildering, and it simultaneously revels in all the possibilities offered by the venerable old genre of YA fantasy. Refusing to confine itself to a single plot or trope, it gallops gleefully through every last one of them instead.
Plucky, penniless orphan Jane, mourning the death of her guardian, has come to an old Gothic manor house filled with mystery upon mystery: Who is the child hiding in the corners? Is the master’s first wife really dead? Why did his second wife vanish? Who is stealing from the house’s art collection?
Jane dutifully follows the thread of these mysteries until she comes to a moment in which she must choose a single one to investigate. At this point, the narrative splits off into separate timelines, one for each mystery. Each timeline becomes a new genre, either space opera or gothic horror or spy thriller or something else entirely; each timeline is utterly bewildering and unfamiliar, because each of them lacks Jane’s beloved guardian.
The timelines pile one on top of the other in a gorgeous heap, and in the end the whole thing feels like exactly what Diana Wynne Jones would write if she were on an acid trip — which is to say, completely delightful.
The Locals by Jonathan Dee
The Locals is a story of white American resentment, and of the way it developed and flourished in the years between 9/11 and the Occupy movement, as exemplified by a small Berkshire town and the people who live there year-round. Its politics are prescient, with some strands eerily paralleling the outcome of the 2016 election (Dee says he started the book in 2013 and completed it a few months before the election), but the part of The Locals that has stuck with me most since I read it this summer is the elegance of its structure.
The Locals is told in a tight multiple third-person voice, with each character’s pet grudges and outrages zooming to the front of the text as they take over the narrative. Their priorities jostle uncomfortably next to each other — which is what makes it so stunning when, halfway through the book, Dee begins to transition from one perspective to the next without a break in the text. We are in one person’s mind, and then they walk past someone else and we hop over to their mind, seamlessly and neatly. It’s like a film that switches its POV characters without ever cutting, and then does it 50 times over the course of an hour. It’s quietly stunning.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Priestdaddy is a funny and perverse and melancholy memoir, a terrific accomplishment from poet Patricia Lockwood. It chronicles the time that Lockwood and her husband had to move back in with Lockwood’s family — including her father, who is a Catholic priest. (He converted to Catholicism late and got a special dispensation allowing him to keep his marriage.) Which means that for Lockwood, her father embodies the literal patriarchy.
Lockwood’s sense of humor is dirty, but her sensibility is tender, and the resulting tension powers the book. She mocks her family lovingly, and then she heads off into a long discussion of the problem of pedophilia in the Catholic Church, or how she thought about abortion as a Catholic teen. And she does the whole thing in her irreverent, lovely, assured poet’s voice, weaving between dirty joke and resonant image with no apparent effort.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Carmen Maria Machado is an Angela Carter for 2017: Both of them have a distinctively gothic, bloody, dark fairy tale sensibility, but unlike Carter, Machado is overtly queer, feminist, and body-positive.
What’s most striking about Machado’s first book, the short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, is how insistently her women are embodied, and how clearly their oppression manifests itself on their bodies. In “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator’s husband lays claim to every aspect of her body, from her genitals to the ribbon she wears around her neck, even as she protests that it “is not a secret, it’s just mine.” In “Eight Bites,” the protagonist who gets gastric bypass surgery is haunted by her old body and all the ways in which she betrayed it. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” women are infected by a mysterious illness that causes their bodies to fade away, leaving them naked and insubstantial.
There’s a striking physicality here that’s hard to walk away from, and it brings the half-joking ironic twist of the title into full view: There’s her body, and then there are all of those other parties who’ve decided they should get a say in what happens to it. These stories are twisting and elliptical and will haunt you for a long time after you read them.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
What’s most charming about The Essex Serpent is how deeply its characters love knowledge. They are all staunch citizens of post-Enlightenment Victorian England, and they are obsessed with scientific inquiry. Cora, our main character, is an amateur anthropologist/paleontologist who jaunts about the countryside in mannish overcoats, digging up old rocks, looking for an ichthyosaur. Another character is a doctor who is working toward performing the world’s first open-heart surgery; another is a rector who studies theology with an eye toward integrating it with reason and science. These are people who care about amassing knowledge for its own sake, and they are profoundly endearing.
But for all of their love of reason, the characters of The Essex Serpent can’t quite escape their repressed desires: for sex, for freedom, for violence. So when the small country town of Colchester is plagued by rumors of a massive sea serpent, Cora and her fellows can’t quite escape the sneaking suspicion that the serpent has tempted them into sin — or else that it’s been sent to punish them for sinning in the first place.
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of a new companion trilogy to Philip Pullman’s beloved His Dark Materials trilogy, has enormous shoes to fill. And it manages with aplomb, skirting away from its predecessors’ flashy “Paradise Lost for teens” format to become instead Faerie Queen for teens.
The full Book of Dust trilogy as whole will take place before, after, and all around His Dark Materials, but La Belle Sauvage is a straightforward prequel. In an eerie bit of 2017 synchronicity, it focuses on how the authoritarian arm of the church begins the process of consolidating its power to create the theocratic dictatorship we see in His Dark Materials, relying on the indoctrination of children and secret, chilling tribunals. Here, the church’s most terrifying servant is a madman with a hyena daemon, who manages to be creepier even than Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey.
La Belle Sauvage is a rich, thrilling prequel that enriches the already detailed and immersive world of His Dark Materials while setting the stage for new stories to come.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo is a beautifully empathetic book, polyphonic and funny and achingly melancholy. It takes place in the Bardo, the Tibetan liminal space between life and afterlife, just after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie.
Willie’s quest to move from the Bardo to the afterlife is told by dozens upon dozens of voices, 116 in all: some of them historical sources, some pastiche historical voices constructed by Saunders, but most of them the ghosts who inhabit the Bardo, refusing to admit they are dead. They hunger for life and for the chance to resolve their unfinished business — marriages that remain unconsummated, revenges untaken — and above all they hunger for empathy, which will make them feel again like humans worthy of respect and dignity. Lincoln, in his grief for his dead son and for his war-torn country, is able to offer them that empathy.
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne Valente released two books in 2017, and it was hard to choose between them: Her hyper-stylized voice and her elegantly remixed stories hit my soft spots as a reader with devastating accuracy. But while I loved the Brontë-siblings-in-Narnia whimsy of The Glass Town Game, the sheer rage of Refrigerator Monologues felt right for the end of this particular year.
Refrigerator Monologues is about all the women of comic books who died so that the male heroes had something to fight for: Gwen Stacy, who died so that Spider-Man would feel sad; Karen Page, who became a drug-addicted stripper and then died of AIDS so that Daredevil would feel sad; and Alexandra DeWitt, murdered and stuffed into a fridge so that Green Lantern would feel sad.
Valente creates a detailed comic book world, peopled with analogues to both the Marvel and DC universes — and she gives its dead women their voices back. One by one, they speak out about what it’s like to live a life that you think is for yourself, and then die as part of someone else’s tragic backstory. It’s a book filled with visceral, immensely cathartic rage.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing won the National Book Award this year, making Jesmyn Ward the first woman ever to win two National Book Awards for fiction. It’s the consensus pick for book of the year — and there’s good reason for that.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a beautiful, harrowing book. It tells the story of Jojo, a 13-year-old black boy who sets off with his neglectful mother and beloved sister to retrieve his white father from Mississippi’s Parchman prison farm. Along the way, the reader learns about the violent atrocities that have routinely taken place at Parchman, and how the prison essentially became a form of legalized slavery. Meanwhile, Jojo’s travails along the road become ever more harrowing and deadly, in ways that feel increasingly mythic as the story goes on. (Reading Sing, Unburied, Sing right next to the new Odyssey translation discussed below would create some interesting resonances.)
The story is so bleak you could choke on it, but Ward’s prose is honey-sweet and smooth, resulting in a book as lyrically lovely as it is disquieting.
The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson
I never liked The Odyssey as a child: I was very rule-oriented, and the idea of devoting an entire epic poem to celebrating someone like Odysseus who was so clearly a dick made me furious. Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey — the first published English translation by a woman — is exciting to me in part because it seems to invite this kind of fury and discomfort, even to revel in it.
Wilson works to make explicit the power dynamics of The Odyssey that other translations have elided. Where certain characters are often described as “handmaidens” or “servants” or “companions” or “chambermaids,” Wilson insists that they are “slaves,” and that the protagonists of The Odyssey are slave owners, and that as readers, we should acknowledge and explore the discomfort this fact creates within us. In a particularly uncomfortable moment, Penelope’s slaves are raped by her suitors; later, Odysseus orders the slaves’ murder, which is gleefully carried out by Telemachus. Wilson is unflinching in translating this brutal fate into English, and a result, you feel as though you are grasping the whole bizarre and bloody moral system of The Odyssey — the moral system that still, on some level, operates in our own culture — and seeing all its hidden and uncomfortable corners.