As 2017 draws to a close, the Vox staff is once again sharing some of the best books we’ve read over the past 12 months. Some of them were published a long time ago, others just earlier this year. They all have one thing in common: In a year with countless news stories, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and other books vying for our attention, these nine titles captured our minds and our imaginations.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Helen Oyeyemi writes darkly shimmering fairy-tale-like books that linger in the back of your mind for a long time after you read them. 2016’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is her first collection of short stories, all loosely organized around the recurring image of a key, and the question of whether it should ever be used to open a forbidden lock. The epigraph urges caution — “Open me carefully,” it says — and so do the titles of the stories: “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” one admonishes.
If you choose to open What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, you’ll find yourself reading stories so precisely and exquisitely written, so elegant and shiver-inducing, that they’re worth picking locks for.
Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo
This book was published in 1963, and its title is straight out of 1863. Also, it’s an intensely Hungarian novel, in translation.
But can I win you over with accolades? Magda Szabo, the celebrated Hungarian author who wrote Iza’s Ballad, earned a spot on pretty much every American critic’s “best of” list in 2015. The accolades for Ali Smith’s translation of Szabo’s The Door, long unknown to English readers, quickly elevated Szabo's status in literary history. If you can only stomach one book in translation, it probably should be The Door, which turns a novel of obsession (think Rebecca) into an intimate exploration of class boundaries.
But Iza’s Ballad, an earlier work, is perhaps even more vital. Its question is as pressing as ever: What place do the aged have in modern society? The book’s singular achievement is Szabo’s refusal to stray from the perspective of her true protagonist, forcing the reader to empathize with a nameless old stubborn, provincial woman, instead of the Iza of the title.
Iza is more relatable to many readers, as the old woman’s urbane daughter who’s trying to care for her mother while keeping a hard-fought place in society. But when Iza goes off to work, leaving her mother in a tiny, cramped apartment in a strange city, it’s the mother’s attempts to simply pass the time that feel all too human.
Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
I wanted to read André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name before I saw the new film adaptation, which came out at Thanksgiving. Both works are excellent, but what Aciman does so well in the novel that’s so hard to achieve in the movie is capture the ache of losing someone. The book makes your heart drop, as its main character, a gay teen named Elio, says goodbye to his first love, Oliver, and then returns home to find that everything is seemingly “normal,” despite its new significance in Elio’s memory: The sheets he and Oliver shared, the spots they sat in, and the paths where they rode bikes all serve as painful reminders of the sorrow in Elio’s heart. Call Me by Your Name isn’t a novel about coming out so much as it is a novel about growing up, and those moments that, for better or worse, remind you of being alive.
Version Control by Dexter Palmer
Dexter Palmer’s Version Control is near-future science fiction, but it’s so near-future that when its protagonist has a flashback to 15 years ago, when she was fresh out of college, she’s recalling what seems like the early 2010s. It’s a big doorstopper of a book with a lot to cover, from the ways Big Data is slowly consuming our lives to the divide between our online and physical selves (if there even is one) to the history of race in America.
But because it’s science fiction, there’s also a time machine — one that our protagonist’s husband would insist we call a “causality violation device” — and the creeping sense that something is wrong in the narrative, that reality is broken and can’t be put back together.
The result is a puzzle, meant to be assembled by the reader, but Palmer smartly uses its inherent narrative fragmentation to reflect how shattered our existence can feel. His approach makes for my favorite kind of book — one that takes place in a mundane, normal world but always has one hand on the curtain between that world and some other one, ready to pull it back at a moment’s notice.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
The neatest trick Gail Honeyman pulls off in her debut novel is to make readers love a character who goes so far out of her way to be unlovable: Eleanor Oliphant has no friends and seems to like it that way, reserving any affection she may bestow on other human beings for the bottles of vodka she relies on to drink herself to sleep at night. She’s as likable as unlikable protagonists get, a prickly loner who never met a person she couldn’t quell with a scathingly hilarious insult, but whose judgmental nature is clearly hiding a wounded core.
Despite what both she and the book’s title will tell you, Eleanor is far from fine, and in a neat twist on the unreliable narrator trope, Honeyman subtly but methodically unpacks her protagonist’s mysterious traumatic past, adding shading and nuance to Eleanor’s unpleasant and occasionally obsessive behavior. It’s a tonal balancing act that she pulls off with aplomb, and makes Eleanor Oliphant the kind of book you’ll want to devour in a single sitting.
Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald
Spineless is a book about jellyfish; there's a new and delightful jellyfish factoid on every page.
It's also a book about author Juli Berwald's rediscovery of her former fascination with jellyfish, of her love for science, and of the sheer joy of learning.
But most impressive of all, it's a book that weaves those two identities together, so that a chapter about jellyfishes’ ability to cycle between their adult and juvenile stages (and the potential that ability holds for human health research) ties into Berwald's attempts to reclaim her science-filled youth.
This book uses descriptions of briny tide pools full of nudibranchs and sea anemones to say, "No, really. It's never too late."
The Danger Within Us: America's Untested, Unregulated Medical Device Industry and One Man's Battle to Survive It by Jeanne Lenzer
There’s a good chance that you either have a medical device — be it an IUD, a pacemaker, a joint replacement, a stent, or any number of others — in your body, or know someone who does. Given their ubiquity and the fact that they typically require a doctor’s help and often surgery to remove, you'd think there would be extensive and rigorous medical testing to ensure each one’s safety.
In The Danger Within Us, Jeanne Lenzer shows this is not the case. She breaks down the history of policies and court cases that created the underregulation problem we now face around these devices. And she does it all by telling a gripping and frustrating story about one man's struggles with a poorly tested device intended to treat his epilepsy ... and with the company that made it.
The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World's Most Coveted Fish by Emily Voigt
The Dragon Behind the Glass is part sober-minded science journalism and part global safari. The reader follows author Emily Voigt, an accomplished writer and reporter, as she discovers, dislikes, and becomes obsessed with the Asian arowana, the most valuable aquarium fish in the world. (That’s an important distinction, Voigt notes, while sharing a delightful anecdote about how the lowly carp evolved into the flamboyant koi, the most expensive pond fish.)
In her journey to see a Super Red (one of the most elusive types of arowana) in the wild, Voigt meets fellow enthusiasts in Indonesia, Singapore, Borneo, and the Amazon, all the while exploring the complicated realities of conservation and black markets. The characters are unforgettable, from fish dealers to explorers to ichthyologists to pet detectives.
Because it’s a true story, everyone involved in this sometimes wacky, sometimes deadly trade is fundamentally human and flawed, including Voigt herself. Sometimes you lose academics in Panama. Sometimes you change your name to sneak into Myanmar to catch a glimpse of a fish you don’t even like. Sometimes you just want to go to an international fish conference called Aquarama and say hi to a person known as Kenny the Fish, because he’s a fun guy to hang out with. And sometimes, sometimes, you get to discover and name a brand new species. Between the fish facts I later found myself repeating at parties and the surprisingly harrowing narrative, this book is the most fun I’ve had reading in ages.
Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz
It is inexcusable that it took me so long to get to know Eve Babitz, but reading Slow Days, Fast Company during a vacation in Los Angeles this year turned out to be the perfect call. This book of essays might have been published in 1977, but I’ve never witnessed anyone express their insight into and love for LA quite like Babitz does. As she describes her life in a city that many people write off as hopelessly superficial, Babitz is exactly the kind of narrator I love most: as sharp and funny as she is slyly scathing.