Our Favorite Books of 2017

  • December 1, 2017

So many great reads, so little time...


With all the wonderful books out there, it would be presumptuous of us to declare any "the best," don't you think? Instead, we offer here a rundown — in no particular order — of our favorites from 2017. We hope you enjoy these picks as much as we did!

*****

Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River by David Owen (Riverhead Books). “Owen’s true gifts to his readers are his clarity and careful reporting. He can take the vertigo-inducing complexities of water use, politics, and hydrology, break them into digestible fragments, and then add human faces. Faces like Burton Mendez, a farmer on the Mexican side of the border, or Bob Gripentog, whose family owns the Lake Mead Marina.”

Transit: A Novel by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “What could be excruciating navel-gazing by a cast of mostly upper-middle class white Brits is instead a revealing, gently sardonic glimpse into the emotional lives of intelligent, articulate, yet stultified adults.”

The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World by James Barron (Algonquin Books). “In the end, the stamp becomes almost incidental. That dull, ultra-rare one-cent magenta remains captured in amber. However, Barron’s layered, complex genealogy-of-motivations for the stamp’s suitors becomes the narrative’s yeasty and compelling attraction. After all that, I’ve come to hope Barron and I might go for a beer, so that I can hear even more of this engaging backstory.”

Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books). “By removing the melodrama inherent in a refugee’s plight and replacing it with quotidian incidents picked out in vivid, evocative and highly astute prose, Hamid elevates this tale from a self-pitying weeper or a heart-wrenching invective into a sympathetic, beautifully wrought story of two people propelled by events outside of their control who seize their own destinies. While offering a dim view of the future, it also comforts with a portrait of humanity’s resilience.”

Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson (William Morrow). “In his introduction, Henderson writes that he is honored to tell ‘the true story of these little-known heroes.’ There is no way to compensate them for their losses — of their families, of their homeland — even though they were able to exact some measure of retribution as U.S. soldiers. But in telling their largely forgotten story so eloquently, Henderson has done them proud.” 

Anything Is Possible: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout (Random House). “A rich and intricate tapestry of tales, the chapters are tightly woven together: Pick at a single thread, and it will lead through the entire book. Small details echo throughout, glinting and winking off each other, and yet each chapter is a perfect, standalone jewel box, narrated in a distinct voice.”

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay (Grove Press). “Difficult Women, as its title suggests, is not easy or precisely pleasant reading. The collection is often dark and disturbing, but also deeply empathetic. In Gay’s attention to damage, she highlights survival, strength, and humanity. In her deliberate and often exquisite attention to detail, she crafts stories that will haunt the reader long after the book has been put away.”

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs: A Novel by Janet Peery (St. Martin’s Press). “As America grapples with a growing addiction crisis, The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs offers a candid and compassionate portrait of a family challenged by drug abuse whose members feud, scheme, argue, and resent, but who always love and forgive. It may be an unhappy family, but it is a loving one, and that saves it from the tragic fate of the Karenins.”

Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli (Riverhead Books). “Rovelli clearly prizes the opportunity to communicate with the public. He wants to convey his enthusiasm not just for his field but for all science, scientific thinking, and the scientific method. He wants to show how science connects with philosophy and the arts.”

Manhattan Beach: A Novel by Jennifer Egan (Scribner). “Ultimately, the demanding reader might seek more profundity in a work from a Pulitzer winner, but that is just lit-crit nitpicking. Manhattan Beach is a ripping good yarn, bursting at the seams with evocative historical details, well-versed in the nomenclature and mechanics of WWII-era nautical and diving practices, brimming with memorable characters and thrilling action, all described in resplendently vivid prose.”

The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage by Jared Yates Sexton (Counterpoint). “We know how the election turned out, and now we’ve been living in Trumplandia for eight months. Sexton observes, ‘The schizophrenia that’d characterized the Trump campaign had evolved into everyday existence in America.’ You may not be looking for a reminder of these days, but if you’re unwilling to keep your head in the sand, Sexton’s book will help you see and understand them better.”

The Women in the Castle: A Novel by Jessica Shattuck (William Morrow). “The cumulative effect of these hopeful, outraged, misled, and guilty humans is stunning. In a narrative that bounces back and forth in time, Shattuck contrasts the nearly incomprehensible horrors that Germans committed (or half-knowingly ignored) with the impulses of grace and forgiveness. It’s a miracle Germany recovered as well as it did from its post-war wasteland; it’s an indictment against us all that wartime Germany fell as far as it did.”

The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War by James McGrath Morris (Da Capo Press). “On the whole, this volume is thoughtful and engaging, and it will likely become an important part of the critical conversation about these two magnificent writers. The Ambulance Drivers will do for Hemingway criticism what Scott Donaldson’s vigorous Hemingway and Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship did in 1999: offer a complete post-mortem analysis of a critically important friendship that had a part in shaping a literary movement.”

The Ninth Hour: A Novel by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “Rebel McDermott is here again, this story narrated by an even more captivating ‘we,’ signifying the children of Sally and her husband, Patrick Tierney, who grew up together. The Tierney children — how many? boys? girls? — tell this story in intimate detail, describing their grandfather’s last solitary moments, Sister St. Savior’s internal considerations of God, and countless other hidden moments. It’s a delicious little twist of narrative expectations that McDermott pulls off effortlessly.”

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday). “With exacting detail, Applebaum shows how the early Soviet leadership’s two greatest insecurities — its inability to properly feed the industrial working base that brought it to power, and the Ukrainian people’s yearning for an independent state — drove its radical push to forcibly rearrange the Soviet economy and society.”

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press). “Machado’s short stories have appeared in a host of big-name venues and garnered numerous awards, including a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, which is why folks have been awaiting this first collection. Her work is brazenly unapologetic, or perhaps unapologetically brazen. Her fearlessness, combined with some spellbinding writing, delivers stories that are at once discomfiting and revelatory.”

Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink, and Evolution by Jonathan Silvertown (University of Chicago Press). “Silvertown takes us on a deep dive into molecular biology, genetics, cultural and physical anthropology, biochemistry, anatomy, ecology, climate science, geology, botany, taxonomy, and a wealth of other subjects. His guiding focus throughout: the evolutionary engine that drives genomic alterations in plant, animal, and human realms, the process responsible for species’ adaptation. This may sound overwhelming to the non-specialist, but trust me: This book will uplift rather than smother you with detail. This reader couldn’t come up with a single question that Silvertown hadn’t anticipated and answered in his encyclopedic survey.”

The Atlas of Forgotten Places: A Novel by Jenny D. Williams (Thomas Dunne Books). “This is an extraordinary debut, written with a masterful sense of plot and pacing and a keen understanding of the thorny world of western intervention in the developing world. Her prose calls to mind the exquisite Francesca Marciano — another contemporary Western writer with personal experience in Africa — with its clarity, precision, and beauty.”

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (W.W. Norton & Company). “Tyson concludes the volume with a chapter on what he terms ‘the cosmic perspective,’ a connectedness and humility in our daily lives that emerges from recognizing our place in the universe. Such a perspective isn’t new. Forms of it trace back at least to Darwin’s unforgettable closing of On the Origin of Species (‘There is grandeur in this view of life…’). But it is worth revisiting, and Tyson’s articulation may especially resonate with contemporary readers. It did with me.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner). “Southern black poverty, with all its fraught nuances, is the central force of the book, and through its matrix of hardships, the characters confront their passions, fears, and familial bonds. Contemporary life thrums with an intense heat in Ward’s exquisite depiction of an impoverished Black South. The book is an ode to the South, but also an indictment of it.”

The Sagrada Família: The Astonishing Story of Gaudí’s Unfinished Masterpiece by Gijs Van Hensbergen (Bloomsbury Publishing). “Some of the most interesting chapters of Hensbergen’s book deal with the decades after Gaudí’s death. Domènec Sugrañes i Gras, one of Gaudí’s loyal assistants, took over direction of the project. Hensbergen notes: ‘Gaudí had struggled hard to arrive at the perfect synthesis of science, the decorative arts and architecture, interwoven with Catholic liturgy, the history of the Catalan Church and the mystical geometry of the heavenly spheres.’ Sugrañes pondered the master’s words and notes to establish a guiding rationale.”

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt (Algonquin Books). “Our fascinated horror with cannibalism goes back a long way; it might even seem innate. On the other hand, Schutt says, it may be merely cultural. Herodotus tells the story of the Persian king, Darius, who asked some Greeks if they would eat their dead fathers: They were horrified at the idea. Next, he asked some Callatians, an Indian people who engaged in just that practice, whether they would burn their fathers' bodies on a pyre (as the Greeks did). They were similarly horrified.”

Mr Iyer Goes to War: A Novel by Ryan Lobo (Bloomsbury Publishing). “But the jacket copy and promotional material for Ryan Lobo’s debut novel make no mention of a retelling. Though at first blush the silence feels misleading, it is instead quite appropriate. Iyer’s story should be taken as more than a retread of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic tragedy. It seems blasphemous to say so, but Lobo’s novel vibrates with more energy than the original, and modern readers will probably more naturally root for the indefatigable Iyer, who may or may not actually be a reincarnation of Bhīma. That uncertainty gives this novel more narrative urgency than Don Quixote.”

Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper (Simon & Schuster). “Sirleaf, along with two other women, was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2011, ‘for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work.’ Thanks to Helene Cooper, the world can now better appreciate Sirleaf’s extraordinary role in that struggle.”

Judas: A Novel by Amos Oz (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). “Judas documents the lives after brutal attacks, as well as the insidious assaults-by-neglect from compatriots. When such lives are reduced to a continuous round of oatmeal and tea, it begs the question: Which is the greater murderer of talent and energy? Nonetheless, like A Tale of Love and Darkness, this powerful work ends by pointing the individual to a life of hope, ironically away from books and academia.”

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes (Da Capo Press). “The strength of this particular account lies in Hughes’ focus on the totality of the city’s inhabitants, not just the powerful ones. She introduces the reader to emperors and sultans, but also to slaves and refugees. She gives emphasis to the roles women played in the city over time. Empresses and queens get their due, but so do lower-class women, nuns, and female slaves, whose voices are too often obscured in historical accounts. The result is a more complete presentation of the city’s history.”

A Separation: A Novel by Katie Kitamura (Riverhead Books). “With the propulsive force of a thriller, A Separation ponders the death of a marriage, the enigmatic bond between author and reader, and the imbalance of power of unequal relationships, whether they be literary or romantic.”

Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Frémont and the Violent Election of 1856 by John Bicknell (Chicago Review Press). “Describing Frémont’s role in Lincoln’s election, Bicknell quotes John Bigelow: ‘A wedge may be useful in splitting a log but useless in converting either of its parts into a chest of drawers.’ Frémont, according to Bicknell, ‘split the log in 1856. The Railsplitter would build the chest of drawers.’ This is not, in short, a dense, academic book; it is a readable, lively one.”

A Horse Walks into a Bar: A Novel by David Grossman (Knopf). “Grossman’s most impressive feat in this novel, his 11th, is a kind of neatly turned double-play. For while Dov’s performance sags beneath a labyrinth of digressions, the novel remains independent — at times buoyantly so — of those same digressions which are the book. In the middle of Dov’s alleged ‘act,’ someone in the crowd shouts down a disgruntled heckler: ‘Let him tell his story already!’ I agree.”

American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution by A. Roger Ekirch (Pantheon Books). “Off the western coast of Puerto Rico in 1797, the mutineers of HMS Hermione were more ruthless. Brandishing swords and axes, they struck at the heart of Britain's military authority and hierarchical social order by killing Captain Pigot and all 10 officers from the frigate. These swashbuckling tales of mutiny and the subsequent manhunt throughout the Caribbean, during which British naval authorities exacted grim justice (or revenge) upon the mutineers, make American Sanctuary a real page-turner.”

Beast: A Novel by Paul Kingsnorth (Graywolf Press). “But Kingsnorth is too clever for that. He is not one to provide easy answers. Or, in some cases, any answers at all. Beast is one of those books that I feel like I could read over and over and find different answers every time, different pieces of the puzzle. It is the sort of novel that sinks in deep, making a home for itself in your psyche. Edward Buckmaster may not be my favorite fictional character, but his thoughts will be a part of my own for years to come.”

Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution by Jonathan B. Losos (Riverhead Books). “For those of us who aren’t evolutionary biologists, it may come as a surprise to learn that there is such a field as experimental evolution. (Is now the time to admit not knowing about evolutionary biologists, either?) This and other surprises both fascinating and a bit discomfiting await the non-expert reader of Jonathan Losos’ Improbable Destinies, a thoroughly accessible analysis of whether evolution is one big crapshoot or rather mundanely predictable. No spoilers here, but the evidence presented on both sides makes for some thought-provoking reading.”

The Burning Time: Henry VIII, Bloody Mary and the Protestant Martyrs of London by Virginia Rounding (St. Martin’s Press). “Rounding presents this chronicle with authority and admirable, if occasionally distasteful, attention to detail. She relies consistently on contemporary records, not just secondary commentaries from modern times. The Burning Time opens two decades or so into the regime of Henry VIII. Henry authorized fewer than a score of burnings during his reign, although scholars charge him with thousands of political and religious executions via other means.”

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