“The 12 Books of 2017”

It’s a reading guide, not a carol...


It’s my favorite time of the year again. No, not the hyper-commercialized, gaudy mess that has become Christmas (brought to you this year by Star Wars and Amazon), to which I say, "Bah, humbug."

I mean that very special time of year when I make a “best of” list (or “worst of,” depending on my mood) from the books that I read over the last 12 months.

Inspired by a blog posting by the inimitable Carrie Callaghan (I can’t wait to read her debut novel, A Light of Her Own, due out in 2018!), I have started to log the books I read. Like a fortune-teller deciphering tea leaves, I have obsessively analyzed and categorized that list to reveal important and exciting data.

In 2017, I read 34 books (so far!), 29 of which were fiction. They include (and be sure to sing this to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas”):

“One biography; two collections of essays; three short-story collections; a four-part (duh) quartet; volume five of In Search of Lost Time; six translations; seven debut novels; eight indie-press publications; nine books by men; 10 works by Asian or Asian-diaspora authors; 11 paperbacks; and 12 books for review.”

To see some of the best books that I reviewed for the Independent, check out the lovely, eclectic list of Our Favorite Books of 2017. A special shout-out to Rachel Cusk’s Transit and Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, two powerful, important novels “narrated by smart, sharply observant women who take great care not to reveal themselves as they observe with an eloquent yet clinical precision the people and the world around them.”

And notable for their exquisite prose and inventive narrative technique are Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible.

Also among this year’s finest offerings:

Memoir: The Button Thief of East 14th Street: Scenes from a Life on the Lower East Side 1927-57 is Fay Webern’s vivid account of life during the Great Depression in a working-class neighborhood teeming with recent arrivals. The child of unhappily married Russian-Jewish immigrants, Webern conjures in rich detail her experiences growing up a New World daughter to Old World parents in a New York City that has all but vanished.

Translated Work: Korean authors are capturing the literary world’s attention with daring, dark works, primarily by women. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, is a strange, uncompromising novel of one wife’s rebellion against her restrictive life using the only weapon she has: her own body.

Literary Criticism: Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is the eye-opening analysis of Toni Morrison, arguably America’s greatest living writer, on the Africanist presence in canonical works of American literature.

Short Stories: Viet Thanh Nguyen once again masterfully portrays the immigrant experience with The Refugees, a timely collection of stories on the painful plight of those who are forced to flee their homeland for a new life in a strange world.

Beach Read: Your idea of a beach book may be different than mine, but I like a beautifully written, lightly literary novel with a compelling story and strong characters that fully immerses the reader in a richly rendered setting. Min Jin Lee’s sweeping historical novel, Pachinko, which depicts the struggles of a Korean family in Japan, is just such a book.

Classic: I am a fan of Dorothy Reno’s illuminating “Considering the Classics” column and jumped at the chance to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment along with her. This seminal novel will never fall into irrelevance as long as humans continue to be human, and in fact, seems even more urgent in this turbulent era of rising inequality and confused morals.

Debut Novel: Jessie Chaffee’s luminous Florence in Ecstasy is a late-bloomer’s coming-of-age story of a woman in crisis who flees to Italy to sort out her life. A moving meditation on art, beauty, and the female struggle to own her life by any means necessary, the novel is also a lovely guide to the churches of Florence and the Tuscan countryside, a primer on female Italian saints, and an initiation into the art of rowing.

Light n’ Fluffy: Somehow, Amor Towles manages to make the grim and bloody history of the first decades of the Soviet Union into a charming, James-Bond-meets-Jeeves caper in A Gentleman in Moscow. It’s escapist literature at its finest.

Alice Stephens is a frequent book reviewer for the Independent. She is leading a workshop on “How to Write a Book Review That’s Not Boring” at the Writer’s Center from Jan. 25 to Feb. 22, 2018.

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