Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 67 books in 2017, a significant drop from 2016, but one that I was expecting.  More importantly, that drop in quantity was by no means accompanied by a drop in quality.  2017 was easily one of my best reading years, so much so that I've had trouble narrowing down this list to a manageable number of titles.

If I have a problem with 2017's reading, it is that for various reasons, including my New Scientist column, most of the books I read this year were recent ones, and nearly two thirds of them published this year.  Which means that my best of the year list looks a lot like many other lists I've seen published in the last few weeks.  It's been fun feeling up-to-date with the latest hot thing this year (and I'm probably never going to be as well-prepared for voting in the Hugo novel categories as I am now), but I'd like to get back to striking my own, more idiosyncratic path, even if it leaves me out of the ongoing conversation.

As usual, this list is presented in alphabetical order of the author's surname:
  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris

    It's amazing to think that this long, dense, expertly-crafted volume was Ferris's first published work.  It feels like the grand capping-off of an illustrious career, not an introduction of an exciting new artist.  The book itself, however, is very much about the emergence and development of a young talent.  In pen-stroke drawings meant to evoke a child's sketchbook, Ferris introduces us to Karen Reyes, a ten-year-old girl growing up in a seedy 1968 Chicago neighborhood.  Karen's life is troubled by her mother's illness, her father's absence, her older brother's emotional problems, and the death of her beloved upstairs neighbor, the Holocaust survivor Anka.  She is also, however, struggling with her own identity--as an artist, as a working class woman of color, as a lesbian, and, as she thinks of it, as a monster, straight out of the schlocky horror movies she loves so much.  Her drawings dash between fantasy and reality, between Chicago in the 60s and Germany in the 30s, as she listens to Anka's recorded testimony of the things she did to survive, which went on to haunt her and may have gotten her killed.  The result is a mystery story, a coming of age tale, a narrative of artistic growth, and a major art object in itself.

  • Human Acts by Han Kang (English translation by Deborah Smith)

    Kang's second novel to be translated into English takes as its focus the Gwangju Uprising, in which pro-democracy activists took over the South Korean city for several days in 1980 before being brutally suppressed by the military dictatorship.  Its perspective, however, is oblique, visiting various participants in the uprising, both dead and alive, in the months, years, and decades following it.  Kang finds them struggling not just with trauma and PTSD, but with knowledge that shatters their ability to participate in society.  These people know what human beings are capable to doing to one another, and that these acts are not a violation of human nature, but an extension of it.  That realization is the subject of the novel, and its force is overpowering precisely because Kang refuses to sensationalize it.  It's a reminder that most of us walk past and accept violations like this in our own countries, and leave the people who have been exposed to them to cope as best they can, and try to make their lives in a world that doesn't value them as it should.

  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

    As I wrote in my short review of this collection, I couldn't experience Her Body and Other Parties the way readers new to Machado's writing have been doing since its publication in October, because I already had the top of my head taken off by her skill several years ago.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that this is a major and necessary work, one that expands the boundaries of what slipstream literature is capable of while making pointed (and sadly timely) observations about how female bodies are viewed, felt, commodified, and abused.  The women in Machado's stories are sometimes at war with their bodies and sometimes in harmony with them, but in every story their physicality is at the forefront.  In a world that so often alienates women from their bodies--whether by making us hate them, or by keeping us ignorant of them, or by expecting us to tolerate violence against them--Machado's approach feels radical, and unlike what any other author is doing.

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

    Saunders has become so associated with the short form over the course of his storied and much-lauded career that many readers were both fascinated and uncertain when he announced a novel-length work.  What he produced, however, stretches the definition of the novel almost to the breaking point.  Lincoln in the Bardo is more like a play, a polyphonic performance by dozens of characters who constantly break into each other's narratives, speaking over, in response, and in complete ignorance of one another.  The novel is made up of their intercutting voices, as the ghosts in a Georgetown cemetery tell us about their lives and afterlives, and narrate the night after the interment of eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln, the president's son.  As the ghosts try to persuade the new arrival to move on from the limbo they've been caught in, and to influence the grief-stricken president to leave his child's body behind, they reflect on their own choices, and on their own reasons for refusing the next stage of existence.  It's a performance like no other; a masterful experiment in what the novel is capable of.
Honorable Mentions:
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - Hamid's tale of refugeeism is both a love story and a fantasy of borderlessness, a gentle and surprisingly hopeful tale about a world in which people can start over from even the worst calamities.

  • New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson - The most necessary work of 2017, Robinson's novel is funny, erudite, hopeful, and enraged.  It is a vision of both the best and worst possible worlds we can look forward to as the last chances of mitigating climate change slip away.

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon - A radical reworking of the generation ship story, Solomon's debut rejects realism in favor a pointed contrast between its futuristic setting and a social order resurrected from one of the darkest chapters of history.  It's a reminder that not only is progress sometimes an illusion, but that even the most degraded people can be bold and inquisitive about their world.

  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford - After writing semi-novelistic nonfiction about economics, Spufford has produced a historical novel in which money and the power it confers bump up against social mores that are so fundamental, they can barely even be spoken.  Golden Hill is a puzzle novel, and when the key to its puzzle is revealed, one is shocked by how meaningless it should be, and how powerful it actually is.

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