The best books of the year, plus recommendations from the authors of those books.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
White Tears? That is a provocative title.
As the saying goes, all tears matter.
So what kind of tears are we talking here? Tears of joy?
It’s a phenomenal book that changes shape. The first section will make you cry from laughter, as it sends up music hipsterdom. Then you’ll cry tears of sadness after those hipsters start to suffer real consequences. And in the stunning final act, you’ll cry tears of fear when the novel transforms into straight up horror. It’s the rare book that does everything — a vital story that reckons with American history in an extraordinarily modern way.
Hari Kunzru Recommends:
“Of all the books I read last year, the most mind-bendingly futuristic was one I can’t believe was published over twenty years ago. Greg Egan’s Permutation City imagines a future in which the human mind can be scanned and uploaded into virtual worlds, offering a kind of eternal life. Like all the best science fiction, it explores philosophical territory that would be impossible in any other form. As the world around us gets weirder and more unstable, Permutation City feels like it’s getting closer.”
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Let me guess, this is a book about Kim leaving Kanye.
Wow. Just… wow.
I had to go there.
Exit West is a novel about two people emigrating from an unnamed country. There are fantastical elements — doorways that allow the two main characters to travel from place to place with ease. So whereas most stories about refugees are about the difficulty of movement, Mohsin Hamid has written a book about the difficulty of place. Also, the writing is really stunning, almost fable-like in its lyricism.
Mohsin Hamid Recommends:
“I reread Jorge Luis Borges’s Fictions this year. If you haven’t read it, you’re very lucky. Do. His writing is exquisite, compressed, beautiful, funny. His short stories manage to contain bigger ideas than the biggest novels. He is utterly global in his knowledge and influences. And I think he is the best writer we have on the online world and the internet, even though he died well before such things actually existed.”
American War by Omar El Akkad
You know how whenever there’s a mass shooting, people are reluctant to call it terrorism? Especially if the shooter is white?
Well, in Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, he imagines a second Civil War in 2074 that erupts after the government passes a ban on fossil fuels.
We start with the rebellion in the South with a young girl named Sarat. After her father is killed, she and her family are sent to a refugee camp where her hatred of “the Blues” festers, and slowly, Sarat is radicalized into a violent rebel. Even outside of American War’s obvious timeliness and real-world parallels, its just a tremendous exercise in empathy in fiction.
Omar El Akkad Recommends:
“The best thing I read in 2017 is This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a book that has taken up permanent residence in my heart. It is a beautiful collection of stories and songs concerned with the fragility and resilience of heritage, connection and love—all at once a scream and a whisper, a work of perfect quietness and overwhelming volume. It’s also, in many parts, funny as hell.”
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Do you like true crime?
I like American Vandal.
Close enough. Killers of the Flower Moon is chronicles the “Reign of Terror” — a five-year span in the 1920s when over two dozen Osage people were mysteriously killed.
I’m guessing it wasn’t a coincidence.
Yes, detective. People were after the Osage people’s oil money. And in tandem with that horrifying story is the rise of the FBI, which J. Edgar Hoover created as a means to muscle his way into power. This book is incredibly researched and stunningly written.
David Grann Recommends:
“I have long been a compulsive reader of detective novels, but, somehow, I only this year discovered the remarkable works of Ross MacDonald. I pored through The Underground Man, Sleeping Beauty, The Moving Target, The Galton Case, The Drowning Pool, The Chill, and, perhaps my favorite of the bunch, The Blue Hammer. Their plots are wildly intricate, but what sets these books apart, and makes MacDonald a worthy heir of Dashiell Hammett, is their psychological depth. Rarely has a simple probing question been deployed to such devastating effect.”
Meet Me in the Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman
Because I haven’t listened to new music since college, I know that Meet Me in the Bathroom is a Strokes reference.
Yes! And among other bands featured in this wild portrait of early ‘00s New York: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend, among many others. The book is basically a big, long oral history of the rise of indie rock over a decade. It really encapsulates a moment.
Okay, but I want to know how much gossip is in it.
There’s a lot of it in here. The Strokes stall out when Albert Hammond Jr. gets addicted to heroin — which leads to a confrontation between the band and Ryan Adams, who apparently supplied Hammond Jr. with the smack. James Murphy comes across as an opportunist. Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was disparagingly nicknamed “midget Elvis.” The book is full of spirit and shade.
Lizzy Goodman Recommends:
“There is no author on the planet who has a more versatile vision than Jennifer Egan. We are talking about a woman who wrote one of the most genre defying, experimental, truly punk novels ever, with A Visit from the Goon Squad, and has now followed up that weirdo work with a seemingly straight forward piece of historical fiction — Manhattan Beach — that turns out to be just as compelling. This novel unfolds with all the delicious, absorbing pleasure of a great, almost trashy mystery, but resonates on the deep, profoundly human level that makes for Serious Literature. Brava.
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting
Describe this book with emojis.
Because it’s 2017.
Hmm, ok: 🙍 👨💻 👫 ➡️ ❌ 🖥 📱 🕵️ 🙅 😏 👉 👌 🐬
So this book is about a woman who hates her nerd husband, but when she tried to leave him, he used a myriad of technologies to surveil her, and also there is a random guy who wants to have sex with a dolphin.
Wow you… actually nailed that. That’s exactly what Made for Love is about.😎
Alissa Nutting Recommends:
“Wrenchingly sad comedic fiction is my year-round love language, but I find it especially necessary during the holidays. Patty Yumi Cottrell’s peerless debut novel Sorry to Disrupt the Peace crushes me into fetal position every time, and I’m so masochistically thankful. While investigating a suicide, the book’s sharp philosophical humor delves straight into the mystery of suffering and the abyss—it’s a perfect, aching antidote to “the season.”
Ghosts of the Tsunami – Richard Lloyd Parry
Ghosts of the Tsunami? So it’s like 👻 of the 🌊.
This book is about the 2011 tsunami in Japan and all the people it killed. And, more to the point, all the people it didn’t kill.
Well, now I feel like bad for using emoji.
Richard Lloyd Parry spent six years collecting accounts from survivors, the culmination of which is this intimate portrait of calamity. There’s a lot to take in, but the most remarkable idea is that Japan is better prepared for disasters than any other country in the world, at least in terms of training and infrastructure. But nothing really prepares people for tragedy.
That sounds unbearably sad.
It’s actually written in a way that’s measured, never overdramatic. But… yeah, it’s pretty heartbreaking all the way through.
Richard Lloyd Parry Recommends:
“At a literary festival in Bangladesh earlier this year, I encountered a tall, ex-patriate Englishman in a linen jacket named Lawrence Osborne. Out of curiosity, I started reading his first novel, The Forgiven. On the face of it, it’s a mildly thriller-ish satire about upper-class foreigners who come a terrible cropper in Morocco. But its greatest qualities are in its beautifully controlled language and merciless, multi-layered irony. Osborne’s like a grown-up version of Graham Greene, an Evelyn Waugh or Edward St Aubyn without the snobbery and cruelty. I immediately ordered everything else he has published, including his latest, the widely praised Beautiful Animals.
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
Is this a sci-fi book?
The title and cover might relay that, but this is not science fiction, though its tone is otherworldly. Homesick has a lot of damaged people: meth addicts, alcoholics, people who rub crystal skulls. You know, the usual suspects.
Love to read about my exes!
Moshfegh’s work hinges on the strength and strangeness of her voice. And each story here is strange, some even weirdly moving. The perfect Christmas gift for the English major in your life.
Ottessa Moshfegh Recommends:
“I recently read Aghori: At the Left Hand of God, by Robert Svoboda. It’s mostly the words of the Aghori teacher, Vimalananda. A book has never made me feel so happy: affirming that experience is happening beyond the material world reminds me, for one, to shut out all the bells and whistles of capitalist brainwashing. My life is way more interesting with this in mind, and I can laugh at the absurdity in myself and others instead of blaming it for my misery.”
Life in Code by Ellen Ullman
As someone who learned the basics of HTML from editing my Xanga template in middle school, I feel like I can relate to a book called Life in Code.
Ellen Ullman is maybe the best tech essayist we have. She’s built a career dissecting, through personal experience, the ways people must act to move through the tech sphere. The title is a double entendre.
Two entendres, got it.
It’s about, among other things, being a woman in tech.
That sounds… timely.
It is and it isn’t. Each essay captures a different year of Silicon Valley, dating back to 1994.
I didn’t realize Uber had been around that long.
If 2017 has proven anything, it’s that the misogyny of technology predates Uber and will outlive Uber.
Ellen Ullman Recommends:
“I found I had to re-read Djuna Barnes’s The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings. From the poem “Seen from the ‘L’”: “Ravelling grandly into vice / Dropping crooked into rhyme. / Slipping through the stitch of virtue, / Intro crime.” From “Twilight of the Illicit”: “Lips long lengthened by wise words / Unsaid.” Readers can find the short book online on UPenn’s Digital Library, which had the temerity to post it under “A Celebration of Women Writers.” Women writers, women writers, women writers. It’s time that we be celebrated as writers.
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
Tom Perrotta, why does that name sound familiar?
He wrote The Leftovers — both the original novel and its TV adaptation.
I didn’t watch that.
It’s really good!
I get it.
Anyway, the entire novel is predicated on the titular Mrs. Fletcher receiving an errant text from a friend of her teenage son, declaring her a MILF.
What is a MILF?
I’ve seen your search history. You know what a MILF is.
I just wanted to see if I could get you to spell it out.
In some ways, that’s sort of what Mrs. Fletcher attempts to do: hilariously trick its readers into confronting the social mores of sex. Perrotta is a satirist of the suburbs, and Mrs. Fletcher is nothing if not constantly hilarious.
Tom Perrotta Recommends:
“I’d been meaning to read to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for years, but for some reason kept putting it off. When he won the Nobel Prize this fall, I finally stopped procrastinating, and I’m glad I did. Never Let Me Go is a sneaky masterpiece — what begins as a melancholy coming-of-age novel slowly morphs into one of the most convincing dystopian nightmares I’ve ever encountered. This is a book about what it means to be human in a society that systematically denies the humanity of some its members. It will haunt you.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Speaking of the suburbs, Little Fires Everywhere takes place in what was supposed to be a utopian community outside of Cleveland called Shaker Heights.
What makes a suburb utopian? Like, nine malls?
It followed Shaker ideals — equality, diversity, planning, that good stuff. Basically all the Shakers died out and now the town is just a regular old suburb full of well-meaning people who don’t know all that much about how racism works, which makes it a rich setting for Celeste Ng’s book. After a white family attempts to take custody of a Chinese baby, seemingly abandoned at a fire station, people in Shaker Heights become divided on whether the cross-racial adoption is okay.
And is it okay?
Little Fires doesn’t really offer any easy answers! But we do get, through a handful of well-drawn characters and voices, a smart and often sincere glimpse into all the ways people delude themselves.
Celeste Ng Recommends:
“Weike Wang’s Chemistry is a story about love and family and expectations of all kinds — from parents, from partners, from yourself — told in little gemlike sections that combine to be much more than the sum of those parts. It’s slim enough to be wolfed down in one sitting, yet rich enough to merit an immediate re-read.”
Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-Sik Hong
Is it a comic or a graphic novel?
What is the difference to you?
One is… more pretentious sounding.
Well, this Korean comic is a memoir about leaving the city for the rural life. Hong and his wife buy a place in the idyllic mountains outside of Seoul. In a lot of ways, what follows is mundane and fairly predictable. Living away from the city isn’t as easy (or as inexpensive) as they’d hoped. But the comic’s simplicity and buoyant nature gives the story a universal feel. Besides, who can’t relate to money-related anxiety?
You know, sometimes I think the rich worry about money the most.
Hellen Jo (Translator) Recommends:
“In this neon collection of Anna Haifisch’s weekly VICE comics, The Artist, we follow a fragile young bird-being who struggles as an artist in the big city: he clumsily navigates the art party scene, his Tumblr work is misunderstood by gallerists and parents alike, he languishes alone and uncelebrated on a bare mattress on the floor. But Haifisch imbues him with an anxious optimism fortified by beer and not knowing any better, and asks that we regard him with nothing but love and mercy.”
Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.
This one’s gonna be a doozy, isn’t it?
Sure is! Locking Up Our Own is a clear-eyed history of the mass incarceration of black men in America. It’s thorough, but focuses on a central tragedy: that most of the policies that put black men in jail didn’t come from inherently racist policies. From the ‘70s through the ‘90s, black activists and policymakers lobbied for stronger sentences for drug and gun possession as a means of combating local crime. The inadvertent result was harsher punishments and more black men in prison.
And the name James Forman sounds familiar.
Yeah, his father was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement. Forman Jr. is accomplished in his own right — a professor at Yale, which definitely gives him the background to write this book. But it’s maybe the six years he spent as a public defender that give Locking Up Our Own its most potent ideas. Essential reading.
James Forman Jr. Recommends:
“I can’t stop talking about A Stone of Hope, written by Jim St. Germain and Jon Sternfeld. St. Germain suffered childhood trauma that would break most people. He sold drugs, fought, and was repeatedly arrested. But he also found people in a group home who treasured him, and helped him reclaim himself. Imagining alternatives to America’s monstrous criminal system requires that we listen to people who have been inside — people like St. Germain.”