Best Books of 2017
It’s been a big year for big books and our Editor, Erin Spens, is here to tell you which ones she recommends you don’t miss.
Exit West By Mohsid Hamid
“And so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”
This novel was the surprise of the year – a love story set in an unnamed city racked by war and held in the grip of fear that only the risk of bombings and snipers can create. Two young lovers decide they need to leave, and this is where a little bit of magic comes in, but not at the expense of how real and risky the story feels throughout. 2017 has felt about as surreal as any year I can remember, and this book had the same effect. When nothing is predictable, why not throw a little magic in the mix and see what happens? Hamid’s writing is wonderful, his grasp on the issues of today is sharp and knowing, and this book is absolutely one not to miss.
In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.
Exit West follows these characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
Pachinko By Min Jin Lee
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
This epic novel completely and utterly captivated me, and the characters (especially Sunja and her mother) have stayed with me all year long. The novel follows one Korean family in Japan as they try to work their way out of poverty with some semblance of dignity in tact. Spanning about eight decades and four generations, through three wars, the book is a sweeping tale that at times is devastating, and yet always inpiring. The struggles of this immigrant family feel all too familiar while reading it in these modern times of mass migration. I find it no surprise that both Pachinko and Exit West have made it onto my list of favorite books this year. They each tackle the subject in different times and different places and in much different ways, but both with a deep humanity that I won’t soon forget.
“Luminous…a powerful meditation on what immigrants sacrifice to achieve a home in the world. This story confirms Lee’s place among our finest novelists.”
From Grand Central Publishing:
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.
So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.
The World Broke In Two By Bill Goldstein
I know for many it can get old, but I personally can’t get enough of the thoughts, processes, relationships, and inspiration of writers behind the books that I love. The World Broke in Two throws you into the thoughts and fears of four of our greatest literary giants. Without realizing it, the book traces the beginnings of Modernism, but not through history lessons. It’s the letters and diary entries of the writers, and Goldstein’s piecing together of 1922 that does it. He allows these writers to speak for themselves and it is so much fun to read.
From Henry Holt and Co.:
The World Broke in Two tells the fascinating story of the intellectual journey four legendary writers, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence, make over the course of one pivotal year. As 1922 begins, all four writers are literally at a loss for words, confronting an uncertain creative future despite success in the past. The literary ground is shifting beneath their feet, as Ulysses is published and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is translated into English. Yet, dismal as they felt in January, by the end of the year Woolf has started Mrs. Dalloway, Forster has returned to the pages that would become Passage to India, Lawrence has begun Kangaroo, and Eliot has finished The Waste Land.
As Willa Cather put it, The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts, and what these writers were struggling with that year was in fact the invention of modernism. Based on original research in libraries and archives, The World Broke in Twocaptures both the literary breakthroughs and the intense personal dramas of these beloved writers as they strive for greatness.
Janesville: An American Story By Amy Goldstein
“She is reminded that you never know when one unexpected event will transform you into ‘the person on the other side.’”
This narrative nonfiction book by reporter Amy Goldstein has an eerie feeling of foreboding for America as a whole. She follows about a dozen former employees of the General Motors’ Janesville Assembly Plant after it closed at the end of 2008. Generations of local Wisconsin families had worked at the plant, and Goldstein lays out the despair and determination felt by the laid off workers she follows. It’s a hard book to swallow, much like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted was last year, but is nonetheless an interesting read with a great narrative drive. Your pride in this country will be tested, but not in its people.
From Simon & Schuster:
A Washington Post reporter’s intimate account of the fallout from the closing of a General Motors’ assembly plant in Janesville, Wisconsin—Paul Ryan’s hometown—and a larger story of the hollowing of the American middle class.
This is the story of what happens to an industrial town in the American heartland when its factory stills—but it’s not the familiar tale. Most observers record the immediate shock of vanished jobs, but few stay around long enough to notice what happens next, when a community with a can-do spirit tries to pick itself up.
Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Goldstein has spent years immersed in Janesville, Wisconsin where the nation’s oldest operating General Motors plant shut down in the midst of the Great Recession, two days before Christmas of 2008. Now, with intelligence, sympathy, and insight into what connects and divides people in an era of economic upheaval, she makes one of America’s biggest political issues human. Her reporting takes the reader deep into the lives of autoworkers, educators, bankers, politicians, and job re-trainers to show why it’s so hard in the twenty-first century to recreate a healthy, prosperous working class.
For this is not just a Janesville story or a Midwestern story. It’s an American story.
Calling A Wolf A Wolf By Kaveh Akbar [MY FAVORITE BOOK OF THE YEAR]
I devoured this book of poetry like an addict overdue for a fix. The second time through, I forced myself to read more slowly, to take breaks and chew on the words and strings of words and let them sink in or rise up or whatever they wanted to do. I loved this book of poetry from the first few pages on the first frantic pass, but even more so after reading it again. As someone close to addicts and former addicts, as someone who knows the call of the bottle when life is just too damn much to handle, I cannot recommend it highly enough. My favorite book of 2017, and what a year for it to be published.
From Alice James Books:
This highly-anticipated debut boldly confronts addiction and courses the strenuous path of recovery, beginning in the wilds of the mind. Poems confront craving, control, the constant battle of alcoholism and sobriety, and the questioning of the self and its instincts within the context of this never-ending fight.
The Burning Girl By Claire Messud
“With someone you’ve always known and have loved without thinking, there’s the strangeness of knowing everything and nothing about them at the same time.”
This book is full of the vast range of emotions that flow through adolescent friendships: acceptance, love, adventure and then the longing, betrayal and loss that can result from the end of them. The Burning Girl stands as a testament to how intensely and deeply these friendships can affect our lives, even years later. I love coming-of-age stories, especially when they aren’t all carefree joyrides and daisy-chains. Messud doesn’t stray away from the edge here, which makes it feel honest and nostalgic in a good way. I didn’t expect the story and characters to resonate as much as they did, which was a pleasant surprise. Oh, and trust me, you want to read this to the very end.
From W.W. Norton & Company:
Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge and Cassie sets out on a journey that will put her life in danger and shatter her oldest friendship. The Burning Girl is a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about youth and friendship, and straddles, expertly, childhood’s imaginary worlds and painful adult reality—crafting a true, immediate portrait of female adolescence.
The Rules of Magic By Alice Hoffman
“This is what happens when you repudiate who you are. Once you do that, life works against you, and your fate is no longer your own.”
This prequel to Hoffman’s Practical Magic is a fantastical trip back in time to watch as the aunts, Frances and Bridget, along with their brother, Vincent, grow up on the Upper East Side of New York City. Discovering and developing their extraordinary powers together in secret, they try (and fail) to heed their mother’s warning to avoid falling in love at all costs. Set in 1960s New York, the book is dreamy and enchanting with a magic edge that makes it hard to put down.
From Simon & Schuster:
For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.
Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse.
Thrilling and exquisite, real and fantastical, The Rules of Magic is a story about the power of love reminding us that the only remedy for being human is to be true to yourself.
The Lost Words By Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris
The 2007 version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary hit the shelves with some new words inside: analogue, block graph, and celebrity. Space was made for these new, more “modern” words by striking off almond, buttercup, and crocus. The 2012 edition lost catkin, cauliflower, chestnut and clover in favor of cut and paste, broadband, and database. Writer and naturalist, Robert MacFarlane, along with illustrator Jackie Morris set out to restore these lost words into children’s vocabulary by making a big, beautiful illustrated book of poetry meant for both kids and adults. MacFarlane’s enchanting poems and Morris’ beautiful illustrations make the book an absolute joy from beginning to end and is the book I find myself talking about the most.
The rich landscape of wild imagination and wild play is rapidly fading from our children’s minds. The Lost Words stands against the disappearance of wild childhood. It is a joyful celebration of nature words and the natural world they invoke. With acrostic spell-poems by award-winning writer Robert Macfarlane and hand-painted illustration by Jackie Morris, this enchanting book captures the irreplaceable magic of language and nature for all ages.
Sex And Rage: A Novel By Eve Babitz
“People go through life eating lamb chops and breaking their mother’s hearts.”
A perfect novel, first published in 1979 but reissued this year, I couldn’t ^not^ put it on my list of best books of the year. Just allow it to sweep you up in the dreamy haze of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, not unlike you might allow yourself to sit with eyes open facing a TV screen that has the Kardashians on. It chronicles a life that’s been painted by the same “unreality” brush Los Angeles has been colored in with. It’s not real life, but it’s not not real life either, and it’s so damn fun to imagine.
The popular rediscovery of Eve Babitz continues with this very special reissue of her novel, originally published in 1979, about a dreamy young girl moving between the planets of Los Angeles and New York City.
We first meet Jacaranda in Los Angeles, a beach bum, part-time painter of surfboards, sun-kissed and beautiful, semi-involved with a married man, glittering among the pretty creatures, blithely drinking Pink Ladies with any number of tycoons, unattached and unworried in the pleasurable mania of California. We follow her as she rises from the mists to the discovery that she’s twenty-eight, jobless, with no sense of purpose; that her wild friendships with Gilbert and Max and Etienne might not be as real as they seem. So she pries herself away from this immensely seductive place and moves to New York, to seriousness and work, to meet the agents of her new world.
Sex and Rage delights in its starry, sensuous, dreamlike narrative and its spontaneous embrace of fate, and work, and of certain meetings and chances. We witness Jacaranda moving beyond the tango of sex and rage into the open challenge of a defined and more fulfilling expressive life. Sex and Rage further solidifies Eve Babitz’s place as a singularly important voice in Los Angeles literature — haunting, alluring, and alive.
Before The Earthquake By Chiara Barzini
“Shooting people and celebrating Christmas: Everything in LA could be done from the comfort of one’s vehicle.”
This book was a delight. I, a walking cliché, read the entire thing sitting on the beach in Malibu wearing a huge pair of sunglasses and time-traveling in my mind back to Los Angeles in the 1990s. The characters are funny and flawed, even familiar, and Barzini’s observations of Los Angeles in that awkward decade feel close to the bone in the best kinda way. With a slightly bohemian vibe, Before The Earthquake is a fun coming-of-age story with culture, immigration, language barriers and difficult families all heaped on top.
Mere weeks after the 1992 riots that laid waste to Los Angeles, Eugenia, a typical Italian teenager, is rudely yanked from her privileged Roman milieu by her hippieish filmmaker parents and transplanted to the strange suburban world of the San Fernando Valley. With only the Virgin Mary to call on for guidance as her parents struggle to make it big, Hollywood fashion, she must navigate her huge new public high school, complete with Crips and Bloods and Persian gang members, and a car-based environment of 99-cent stores and obscure fast-food franchises and all-night raves. She forges friendships with Henry, who runs his mother’s movie memorabilia store, and the bewitching Deva, who introduces her to the alternate cultural universe that is Topanga Canyon. And then the 1994 earthquake rocks the foundations not only of Eugenia’s home but of the future she’d been imagining for herself.