We asked the staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux to pick the best book published this year, name their favorite titles—old, new, or forthcoming—that they read or reread this year, and to share which FSG books they’ll be gifting during the holidays.
The Best Books Published in 2017
More than 60 books were nominated by the FSG staff as worthy of the “best book of the year” title but the top spot, with seven votes, was claimed by Transit, written by FSG’s own Rachel Cusk. (Transit is the second installment in a trilogy that began with Outline; the final novel, Kudos, will be published in June 2018.)
Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel by George Saunders, came in a close second with six votes.
Other titles that received multiple votes were Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides, Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry, Half-Light by Frank Bidart (also a National Book Award winner), Life in Code by Ellen Ullman, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman, Jr., and Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli.
Our Favorite Reads This Year
Édouard Louis’s Histoire de la Violence (to be published in English in June 2018 as History of Violence): The author’s account of his own rape. A subtle and precise novel that examines shame and guilt, violence and racism, and what it means to tell your own story. Louis’s honesty and kindness, and his willingness to look at all aspects of the event from all angles, are remarkable.
John McPhee, The Survival of the Bark Canoe: I was the production editor of McPhee’s Draft No. 4, and that book’s quotes from his past work sent me on a binge: La Place de la Concorde Suisse, Looking for a Ship, The Curve of Binding Energy, The Pine Barrens, and The Survival of the Bark Canoe. They’re all equally wonderful, and if I put Bark Canoe at the head of the list, it’s only because it made me, for about a week, wish I were an outdoorsy, nature-type person, which is a real testament to McPhee’s descriptive power.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude: To be honest, this drags a bit around the French revolution, but Wordsworth’s descriptions of the splendor of the natural world are just wonderful. Maybe this is a sign that I should read less and spend more time outside. Or just read more books by people who go outside. Probably that.
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In June I said this was my favorite book of the year and I haven’t changed my mind since then— The Plains, by Gerald Murnane. Technically a “fiction,” as opposed to a novel, this book is deeply internal and explores the infinite variations a personal geography can take. Border Districts, another of Murnane’s fictions, is also brilliant—FSG will publish it in April 2018.
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I wasn’t expecting Ready Player One by Ernest Cline to be as good as it was; I checked it out three times from the library before I finally opened it, but then I did not talk to anyone until I’d finished it. There’s the thrill of playing video games combined with the escapism of reading about a future world with a dose of an unparalleled reverence for ’80s culture that all make it exceptional, and it was very pacey.
I’m a tad biased because I think everything Gabrielle Zevin does is perfect, but Young Jane Young has just become more and more relevant in the months since it was published.
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The Mountain by Paul Yoon. It’s an excellent antidote to the grieving world around us. Not that there isn’t grief in this book. But there is so much heart and so much understanding. It’s a seriously beautiful collection.
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For the third time I read and loved Trouble on Triton by Samuel R. Delany. There’s a scene in which the main character, a white man named Bron, travels to Earth for the first time. Having just discovered cash, he throws the bills at the people who labor on his behalf. It’s an attempt, I think, to impress his date, a woman who is also white. I also read and recommend In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe.
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I loved Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado and The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt—both story collections, both poking at weird moments that are mundane and fantastic. These stories evoked reactions in me that I often didn’t even understand—why would a description of a ribbon make me squeamish?—and I’m still mulling them over.
Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth really stuck with me this year—it’s one of the most inventive and collaborative bits of storytelling I’ve read (she wrote it with input from factory workers in Mexico), and the result is absurd and thought provoking, and oddly touching.
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Truth be told (and we know how rare that is!), I have found it hard to read this year. It’s not just that there’s so little time, what with two hours of Morning Joe when I wake up, and two more with Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell before I crash. But the craziness of the world makes my brain skittery; I lose the thread of a storyline easily. I am lost a lot.
How did we get to this terrible moment? When did Americans come to shun reality? One of the few books I read—and I devoured it—was Kurt Andersen’s brilliant and endlessly entertaining Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: a 500-Year History. On every page, there’s a revelation about and a reevaluation of the American spirit and soul that makes you sit up. I was dazzled by it, and by the audio version too, which Kurt Andersen reads with wit and energy. (I alternated between reading it and listening to it.)
Feeling doomed, I also fell in love with a stunning and original book of art history called Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past by Zoe Lescaze, with a preface by the artist Walton Ford. I’ve never seen anything like this. It was in 1830 when an English scientist named Henry De la Beche painted the first piece of paleoart, a spectacular, macabre vision of prehistoric reptiles battling underwater. Since then, artists the world over have conjured up visions of dinosaurs, wooly mammoths, and other creatures shaping our understanding of the primeval past through their exhilarating images. Lescaze traveled around the world pulling these paintings, prints, drawings, and mosaics out of museum basements, and it’s a treasure trove. It’s a huge book; it lists at $100. Ask someone to give you a copy for Christmas.
What I want for Christmas is A Meeting of Land and Sea: Nature and the Future of Martha’s Vineyard by David R. Foster, who is an eminent ecologist. I’ve flipped through this book on friends’ coffee tables and I covet it. It is beautifully illustrated, and also clearly a deeply thoughtful analysis of how my favorite place on the planet, the Vineyard, has been shaped by nature and human history, and how its glorious landscape can be protected. I hope someone gives it to me. And maybe they’ll loan me a house to read it in. A house with a big fireplace—and no TV.
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Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: A masterpiece, and not for all the geopolitical reasons one so often sees cited: this is more Nabokov than Unabomber, thanks.
George V. Higgins, Cogan’s Trade: Hot damn but Higgins could write. There’s a plot, sure, but what this novel is really about is simply “listening” to Higgins’s lowlife characters talk at one another.
Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial: If, like me, you’ve been inexplicably uncurious about the works of Shirley Jackson preceding her two final and most famous novels (The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle), I can now testify that this is a big mistake. The Sundial is about the funniest and nastiest and strangest novel I’ve read in recent memory.
Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country: Late to the party, again. But what a party.
Michael McDowell’s Blackwater and The Elementals: Blackwater is a five-volume Southern Gothic tale of an Alabama family’s rise and fall. Which occasionally features immortal, omnipotent sea monsters who can take human form. Oh, and a few ghosts. McDowell’s great strength, however, is in relating the little day-to-day details—feuds and business deals and courtships—that fill out these books between the occasional intrusion of the supernatural.
More focused, concise, and frightening, his The Elementals is probably the better book, but the smart reader should just indulge in both. These aren’t guilty pleasures but real books—or, rather, are both at once, and are better for being so.
Ricardo Piglia’s The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Piglia died this year, still largely unread in English. A sad state of affairs for one of Argentina’s greatest post-Borges writers. “Emilio Renzi,” a recurring character in Piglia’s oeuvre, provides the author with a semi-fictional lens through which to view (one assumes) his own life. Fans of Bolaño (stop rolling your eyes!) owe it to themselves to check this out.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel: There’s plenty of fiction out there about tortured novelists, but few about absolutely terrible novelists too self-deluded even to torture themselves properly. While the eponymous Angel is a monster, Taylor manages to make her a charming and even tragic figure without undercutting her curdling awfulness in the least.
Donald E. Westlake’s Memory: One of the greatest American crime writers produced a classic existential novel, with a program belonging more to the nouveau roman than the pulps, and wound up being unable to publish it because of it being too “literary.” One is apt to despair, some days.
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Stoner was the most enjoyable reading experience I had this year. A blurb on the book calls it a “perfect novel,” which seemed like hyperbole to me. That is, until I read it and agreed.
Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped about the early deaths of her brother and her friends is a necessary book about poverty, race, and growing up in the South. Her writing is beautiful and powerful. A great book.
Lincoln in the Bardo was one of the more inventive and touching novels I read this year. It wasn’t until the last twenty pages that I knew Mr. Saunders had done something incredibly special with his book.
Last year, one of my favorite books was Donald Antrim’s amazing story collection, The Emerald Light in the Air. This year, I read The Afterlife, his devastating memoir about coming to terms with his mother after her death. The book is so truthful, it would be hard for me not to include it here.
DANIEL DEL VALLE
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Confessions by Kanae Minoto: I wish I could remember how I first came to pick up Confessions at my local bookstore. All I know is that I had been looking for a different title among the precariously stacked books in my house and stumbled across it, wondering, What is this? I cracked it open and read a few pages. And then a few more. And suddenly it was an hour later, and I was late for . . . something. It didn’t matter because I was lost in a delicious, smart, sharp puzzle of a book. Haunting and gripping and twisted and perfect.
A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab: I was vacation-book-browsing when I picked up A Gathering of Shadows. That cover blew me away, and I wanted some fantasy to round out my list. On my trip, maybe 50 pages in, I realized I was reading book two of a trilogy (whoops), but it didn’t matter, it was spectacular. Such a rich, vivid world with characters you fall in love with and just know deep in your bones. I loved it. I plan on reading book three next (gasp!), and then going back to book one.
Any book by Louise Penny: I am a relatively new fan of Louise Penny, and I am utterly, completely in love with her world. Her series is the balm to my beleaguered, frustrated, cynical soul. Whenever this bizarro world we’re living in gets to be too much, I know that I can turn to Chief Inspector Gamache (the patient, wise, kind lead of her series) and everything will be alright.
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Pachinko: Pachinko absolutely deserves its place on the many end-of-year lists where it has appeared. In a conversation that appears at the end of my paperback copy, Min Jin Lee writes, “My subjects are history, war, economics, class, sex, gender, and religion. I think my themes are forgiveness, loss, desire, aspiration, failure, duty, and faith.” Expect all of that and more.
Sentimental Education: I think I still prefer Bovary, but a novel taking place partly during the Revolution of 1848 seemed vaguely relevant. I nurtured the obsession by reading Peter Brooks’s Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Perpetual Orgy.
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Cesar Millan’s book How to Raise the Perfect Dog: Through Puppyhood and Beyond. A luminous, masterfully wrought and compelling—OK, not really. But it’s a great, very helpful book that I highly recommend. I know there’s some controversy surrounding his techniques asserting dominance over large and aggressive dogs, but thankfully I didn’t have to use any of them in dealing with a six pound puppy. When it comes to that size range, he nails pretty much everything.
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I finally read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which was so rich, relatable, and insightful that I can’t believe I put off reading it until this year. It speaks as much to the queer experience in 2017 as it does to 1956.
I deeply enjoyed Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, too—funny, understated, and so intelligent, it took me straight back to college, and to every awkward, unrequited crush I’ve ever had.
I absolutely adored Lindsay Hunter’s novel Eat Only When You’re Hungry. I think Lindsay is so brilliant, and this novel is overflowing with flawed but lovable characters whose attempts to make sense of their lives are framed with precision, sympathy, and eloquence.
Finally, I read and loved, in no order, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, Frank Bill’s The Savage, André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, Katherine Faw’s Ultraluminous, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jon Pineda’s Let’s No One Get Hurt, and Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami.
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They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib: I didn’t think I needed an(other) essay tracing the rise/demise of emo pop-punk band Fall Out Boy, but I did. I also needed essays on what Chance the Rapper means to white people, Bruce Springsteen’s deluded America, and respecting the roots of a religion you no longer practice (and that the country you live in largely rejects). There’s all of that (and more!) in poet, essayist, and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (published by one of the best small presses in the Midwest, Two Dollar Radio). Abdurraqib is a natural critic—his eye is sharp, multi-dimensional, and restrained—but distills an emotionality he manages to maintain throughout the book; we never forget he’s a poet, too. Abdurraqib has been writing for over a decade, so it’s hardly fair to call him a “fresh voice,” but with the publication of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Abdurraqib should emerge as a prominent cultural essayist of the post-aughts, post-fact, post-Obama America.
Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford: This novel was the escapist fiction I needed over the summer, in the midst of threats made to my rights to my body and the rise of white nationalists and our president provoking nuclear war. Following her husband’s suicide, the titular character recollects the forty years she spent sailing the open seas with her husband aboard a garbage barge turned “garden of Eden with very little joy and not one dose of shame.” The sea craft features a mature arbor beneath a greenhouse fitted with a geodesic dome, flocks of tropical birds, and impressive feats of salvage and architecture, and is the most original book I’ve read in years. The garden, the birds, the trees—all of it is only backdrop to a powerful meditation on the complexities of long-term love, and what binds the Mrs. and Mr. Unguentine, or any persons, until death.
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I reread Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry because it’s my favorite book of all time and it makes me want to drink too much, throw my life away, and move to Mexico.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, because I lost a friend this year and it gave me immense spiritual comfort.
The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehlrich: just because my body was stuck in a 90 degree apartment didn’t mean my mind couldn’t be snowed in in Wyoming.
Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond by Denis Johnson—RIP to an unhinged legend.
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Things That Are by Amy Leach and Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello: I’m mentioning these together because this year’s publication of the latter sent me (joyfully!) back to the former, one of my all-time favorite essay collections, and because both bring together nature and art, human and animal, electric prose and catch-you-off-guard humor, loneliness and the inevitably communal, the mundane and the transcendent. They are both delightful escapes from our everyday.
This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe: In one of the early chapters of this memoir, Sidibe describes herself as someone “sneaking in on a conversation I wasn’t meant to hear about sneaking into a world I wasn’t meant to be a part of.” You might feel that way, too, sneaking into her now starry Hollywood life through this book, if she weren’t so fundamentally engaged and engaging and funny and smart. This is not the usual celebrity fare. She zooms around topics, uses her own Twitter feed for epigraphs to guide your way, unpacks the complications of social media and the way it plays with who we are even to ourselves. Her life finding solace (and, for better or worse, solitude) in books will resonate with any bookworm. And her willingness to lay bare her feelings and fears about taking chances and making art are nothing less than demandingly inspirational.
Monk Eats an Afro by Yolanda Wisher: This poetry collection was published in 2014 and I haven’t put it down for a whole month since. It’s been particularly heartening to have at hand in the past year, because it’s just so very much alive and reminds you in every line that you are, too. I can’t begin to do justice to the vibrancy and transcendence and surprising turns in these poems. So I’ll just let you have a bit from her “Tin Woman’s Lament”:
i’d rather have
a heart born of the lust
between a sonnet & a blues song
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Alia Malek’s The Home That Was Our Country: It is a fabulous read.
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I have been a long-time fan of E. B. White’s essays and novels, and this past summer finally read his collected letters. It’s a very entertaining chronicle of his life in Maine with his animals and in New York City with a variety of other New Yorker writers, and always with his wife Katherine. A dream life from the golden age of magazines and cocktails at lunchtime, with a certain New England crankiness and plenty of dry humorous observations on the people in his world.
I reread A Room with a View, which was even funnier and more entertaining than I remembered, and more nuanced and detailed than the film, great as that was.
The Joyous Season by Patrick Dennis: Dennis is best known for creating Auntie Mame, but I found this book much funnier. The entire story is told from the perspective of Kerry, the ten-year-old son of parents who decide to get divorced on Christmas Day. I know this doesn’t sound like a set-up for comedy, but it’s a hilarious read, with many entertaining characters.
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L.A. Son by Roy Choi: This isn’t where I expected to find one of my favorite reads of the year—I picked this up at a friend’s house in LA last December—it was the most used cookbook in the kitchen. Then another friend recommended actually reading it, claiming it was a hidden classic of LA lit, disguised as a cookbook but really an unrivaled story of contemporary Los Angeles in all its crazy energy and surprising glory. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for hidden classics and LA lit (and delicious tacos), but, purely objectively speaking, damn if my friend wasn’t right.
Sneakers by Rodrigo Corral, et al.: I own all the books about sneakers and have published a few of them too, but leave it to Rodrigo and friends to upstage us all. They talked to all the right people—a couple highlights for me were Virgil Abloh, Tinker Hatfield, and Kobe Bryant—but of course it’s the design that steals the show—as expected, it’s beautiful and brilliant and full of surprises. Design-wise, it was a rare year for books—I’d call out This Book Is a Planetarium by Kelli Anderson, Field Study Handbook by Jan Chipchase, and, if I weren’t so modest, our own Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin as extraordinary examples of design and content working together to create something near sublime—but Sneakers is still special because . . . Rodrigo.
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It’s been three days since I finished André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name and I haven’t stopped thinking about it—it was the first book to ever make me cry. Read it, see the film, cry through the credits, etc.
Other crucial 2017 reads were Goodbye, Vitamin, in which Rachel Khong made me laugh about terminal illness, Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, which gave me chills on multiple occasions, and Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth, which is (aptly) about moving to New York and pursuing publishing.
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So many memorable books entered and reentered the world this year: Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile, Eileen Myles’s Afterglow, and Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead were among my favorites. But the one that’s haunted me most is a lost classic of queer fiction from the mid-1970s, Terry Andrews’s The Story of Harold, now out of print and mostly forgotten (despite Edward Gorey’s cover art and illustrations for the first paperback edition!).
Terry Andrews is the pen name of FSG’s own George Selden, who wrote the beloved children’s book The Cricket in Times Square. It’s also the name of this autofictional novel’s protagonist, who’s written a beloved children’s book that’s also titled The Story of Harold. In diary entries full of urbane wit and gallows humor, Terry narrates his double life as a celebrated author for young people and a closeted bisexual who spends his nights cruising New York’s less wholesome underbelly. This tension torments him until he meets his #1 fan, a listless little boy named Bernard, who responds to no one but the characters in Terry’s book. At wit’s end, Bernard’s harried mother recruits Terry to chaperone her son and cheer him with more stories of Harold and friends, and the peculiar bond they form buoys them both in unexpected ways.
Set in New York in the late ’60s, a few years after Cricket’s publication and just before the Stonewall riots, The Story of Harold sheds light on a much darker time in queer history, when folks like George Selden needed hidden passages to seek each other and secret codes to signal their deviant desires. It’s a sobering reminder of the risks many queers face in balancing their public and private lives, even in 2017, but also a weirdly jolly account of the unconventional kinship with which all kinds of misfits have helped each other survive. The story of how I found the book and why it’s meant so much to me is a long one for another time—but if you get yourself a copy, I might tell you! I hope Harold gets its long-overdue revival soon.
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Human Acts by Han Kang: The sneaky, lyrical horror of Kang’s The Vegetarian gives way here to horror of a different nature: the devastating wounds inflicted by the South Korean state in the aftermath of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. Beautiful, absolutely shattering. I will read anything Kang writes.
Transit by Rachel Cusk: The trilogy kicked off by 2015’s Outline is unlike anything I have ever read, and in Transit Cusk is funnier, warmer, and more personal than ever. Her sentences are marvels of insight and clarity. I am lucky enough to know that the third and final volume represents another evolution in this form Cusk has inaugurated—the most political of the three, it will startle and satisfy. The ending is crushingly good.
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg: A hilarious family memoir of art, language, and anti-fascism. The translation by Jenny McPhee is note-perfect.
The Return by Hisham Matar: The author narrates the audiobook version of this 2016 Pulitzer winner for Biography & Autobiography, and I couldn’t recommend it more. The pain Matar’s family has suffered and the loveliness of his words are even more evident in his (gorgeous) reading. Lines from this book made me gasp aloud while listening and many still haunt me, including Matar’s description of a photograph of a deceased loved one: “the skin is clean, the eyes are shut, and the lips open. It cannot be described as an expression but rather as the absence of one. An infinite rest that was always there, behind all of the other faces of his life: the boy sitting proudly by the window on an aeroplane, the young graduate in a suit and tie, the freedom fighter in a beard and red beret . . . It makes me think that we all carry, from childhood, our death mask with us.”
The Future Is History by Masha Gessen: I was thrilled that this year’s National Book Award went to such a worthy book by an author I so deeply admire. Gessen, undoubtedly one of the most important journalists of our time, delivers in The Future Is History a compulsively readable account of Russia’s reversion to totalitarianism, one with the scope and humanity of a tragic novel.
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One of my favorite books I read this year was Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. Each chapter alternates between a world that seems more or less like our present reality and a dream world removed from markers of time and space, but as the book goes on, more and more links between these worlds emerge. The writing is surreal and beautiful and leaves openings for readers to imagine these spaces in ways that resonate with them.
Another favorite is To Die In Spring by Ralf Rothmann, which was haunting and beautiful and painful all at once. I really liked its concept of a son filling in his father’s WWII memories and its questions of how trauma moves through generations and how the process of confronting the past is ongoing and necessary.
Point Omega by Don DeLillo was a book that slowed things down and focused on the small moments and the process of looking, which seemed especially important when set against our world that feels all too fast-paced.
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In January, in quick succession, I read three of Clarice Lispector’s novels: The Hour of the Star, Near to the Wild Heart, and The Passion According to G.H. Then I read Why This World, Benjamin Moser’s biography of Lispector. Her writing is often about humans at the brink of their humanness, or thrust up against it, and is hypnotizing, crystalline, probing, and eerie. The story of her life is equally as fascinating. I’ll be reading more of her work.
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The inauguration steered a lot of my reading in the early days of 2017, but I can’t say the 1,000-page book on Hitler’s ascent or the longreads on the alt-right were my favorite reading experiences of the year. I want to give all the glory to the books that made me forget the push alerts. Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy made me laugh so hard that a nearby flock of pigeons took flight. I loved how seamlessly Robert Moor blends science, philosophy, history, and nature writing in On Trails, a fascinating book on paths of all kinds. I was also charmed by Sally Rooney’s smart debut novel Conversations with Friends and Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking.
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I’ve loved all of Alan Hollinghurst’s novels—not equally but all well (and my favorite is unlikely in the universe of Hollinghurst fandom: The Folding Star). What I admired especially about The Sparsholt Affair is that the reader gets dropped smack into each new section of the book and has to re-orient himself—where are we and when and what’s going on and how does this connect to where we’ve been before? It’s structurally like a literary Outward Bound. The prose and settings and cast are all great, and the fragments add up to a panoptic view of how gay life in Britain has changed over three generations.
John Jay Osborn wrote The Paper Chase before I was in publishing, a very long time ago. I read the manuscript for his new novel, Listen to the Marriage, on a plane trip home from the Wordstock Festival. It’s as streamlined as can be: three characters—a husband and wife, and a marriage counselor, and one setting—the counselor’s office. I tore through it, and at the end of many of the chapters—each one a session with the counselor—found myself in tears. I wouldn’t say I liked it or loved it so much as that I was overwhelmed by its grasp of the complex emotional truth of a relationship.
And on vacation this summer, I visited two old friends: Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love and Some Tame Gazelle. They are comfort food and the times seemed to call for something shrewd and funny and sharp but also, ultimately, kind.
And two more books in this apparently mostly English series for me, one old and one new: Edward St. Aubyn’s hyperkinetic live action retelling of King Lear, Dunbar, a departure for him—and who better suited to rewrite this classic of disinheritance?—and Henry Green’s eccentric Loving, a novel I can’t believe it took me this long to arrive at, but one which my younger self is unlikely to have appreciated, or even tolerated, for that matter. It’s a “caviar for the generals” version of Downton Abbey.
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The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: This novel took my breath away.
An Uncommon Reader by Helen Smith: I couldn’t put this book down. Reading about Edward Garnett, whom I’d never heard of before, and his work with Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, T.E. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, and others was absolutely fascinating.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: What a gift from Dr. Kalanithi.
• • •
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: This novel by the Pakistani author contains the single most resonant sentence I’ve read this year: “We are all migrants through time.”
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Two of the best books I read in 2017 were Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. The first is about how to understand everything and the second is about how to experience nothing.
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I read the collected works of Jane Bowles (the FSG Classics edition, of course) earlier this year. The humor and strangeness in Bowle’s work—especially the novella, Two Serious Ladies—felt refreshingly contemporary to me. I’d like to learn more about her life; February House by Sherill Tippins and A Little Original Sin by Millicent Dillon are both now on my list of things to read someday.
I also enjoyed Samuel Zipp’s Manhattan Projects, about big mid-twentieth-century urban renewal projects in New York. And, more recently, I got a lot from Sarah Gerard’s essay collection, Sunshine State. It brings together beautifully written pieces of personal memoir and more journalistic pieces of reportage and history, but despite the wide range of the material, it reads great as a whole.
The FSG Books We’re Giving This Year
Eugene Lim, Dear Cyborgs: I read this over the summer, and when I finished it I had no idea what the heck I’d just read (I mean that as a very high form of compliment), and I gave it to my wife and to my good friend from childhood so that we could all figure out together its competing realities and multiple narratives.
Kirsten Bakis, Lives of the Monster Dogs (reissue): Another offbeat story; this one is going to my wife’s best friend, who appreciates good science fiction (and probably talking dogs, too, if I had to guess, because who doesn’t appreciate talking dogs?).
Adam Zagajewski, Slight Exaggeration: This insightful essay collection is going to my dad, because reading it was like reliving one of our conversations about books.
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I’m looking forward to giving my mum a copy of Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I’ll also give it to various high school friends from San Francisco, who will find it rather odd, but they’ll enjoy it and appreciate the moments that reminded me why the city is lovely. Hopefully afterwards someone will feel compelled to bake bread with me.
I’m going to casually slip Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer into the hands of another friend—she doesn’t need to know what it’s about until she’s already sucked in—and I also want to give the fabulous Cartoon Introduction to Economics to one of my political science major friends who could never quite understand the economy.
• • •
I’ve already given the timely and important Ramp Hollow, by Steven Stoll, to a few people and will keep giving it.
The Joan Didion reissues with the original covers are perfect gifts—all of my friends want them!
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I’ll be giving Ghosts of the Tsunami to my sister and her new husband. They just returned from their honeymoon in Japan and are longing to return. This book locates the reader in that beautiful, broken place with such a powerful grip—it’s essential reading for anyone who considers themselves a Japanophile.
Speaking of grips—I’m giving Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It to my aunt who says she never reads. I will put it in her hand and watch with glee when she’s unable to put it down.
And I will be giving Isadora to my father. Actually I won’t, because he’s already read it. And he said it was a masterpiece. This from a man who reveres Updike and Kafka. Amelia Gray just may be their love child. So I’ll be giving it to my father-in-law. And every other older white man I know.
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Caleb Scharf and Ron Miller’s The Zoomable Universe, to my most meticulous family members.
Bill Knott’s I Am Flying into Myself, to friends who think they don’t like poetry.
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My mom, a rabid Laura Van Den Berg fan, already has her galleybrag copy of The Third Hotel. My dad, who, like me, is vainly trying to read his way out of our current political moment, will get Age of Anger. My parents will share in the gastronomic pleasures of The Gourmands’ Way. I hope my grandmother hasn’t already gotten to The Ninth Hour, but I’m doubtful. My grandfathers will each get something by John McPhee.
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Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw: A primer on the inevitable female world takeover, for all my friends who are feeling bleak about the general state of everything in the world.
Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin: I’ve found myself sending this one not just to my friends who design or illustrate, but to people I know who possess a particular fondness for cities, storytelling, and irreverence.
Sourdough: Possibly the only book I read this year that’s suitable for my pie-baking grandma and my friend who refuses to participate in unencrypted communication.
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The Bughouse by Daniel Swift: For everyone looking for a break from thinking about politics who would feel guilty if they weren’t thinking about politics. But also poetry lovers and history lovers and anyone who has ever wondered about the line between art and madness.
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee: For the many who want to be writers.
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer: For the budding sci-fi readers around and the many, many people who argued over “Westworld.”
New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore: For the poets and perfectionists, to meditate a while on the sacred duty to improve and on the beauty of precision.
Reckless Daughter by David Yaffe: For all the music lovers and secret artists, to read while they listen to some kind of restorative music in the weeks that will end this crazy year.
A Grace Paley Reader: For every New Yorker. And everyone struggling with how to maintain the necessary pace of activism.
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Kristi Coulter’s Nothing Good Can Come From This is perfect for that family member that drinks one too many glasses of wine, Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art for the cousin that pulls too hard on your dog’s tail (textbook sociopath behavior deserves a gruesome literary outlet), and I almost always give Freedom by Jonathan Franzen to one family member or another because the drama is delicious.
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I’m looking forward to gifting Sourdough! My brother is an aspiring chef and I think he would appreciate how weird but enticing the story is.
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Cartoon County by Cullen Murphy for the great art and totally charming story. The Zoomable Universe by Caleb Scharf and Ron Miller, also for the great art, and for a very interesting tour of the universe (I am a huge fan of the Eames’s Power of 10, part of the author’s inspiration). Keeping On Keeping On, for Alan Bennett’s entertaining stories and reminiscences.
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This holiday season, I will be gifting multiple copies of the vintage reissues of Joan Didion’s The White Album, Play it as it Lays, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Also, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Fresh Complaint, because he’s quite the celeb in my home state of Michigan. ALEXIS NOWICKI
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I have several expansive anthologies for the poetry lovers in my life to savor, including Frank Bidart’s Half-light, August Kleinzahler’s Before Dawn on Bluff Road / Hollyhocks in the Fog, and Marianne Moore’s New Collected Poems. I’ll be giving Lawrence Joseph’s gorgeous new collection of poems, So Where Are We?, to readers at a loss for words in response to the present moment’s political turmoil. And readers just as fond of prose filled with brilliant insights about poetry will be getting Alan Fishbone’s Organ Grinder; Louise Glück’s American Originality; August Kleinzahler’s Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs; and Adam Zagajewski’s Slight Exaggeration.
To fans of experimental fiction addressing serious concerns in playful forms, I’m giving Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, and Gunnhild Øyehaug’s Knots. To admirers of moving and beautifully crafted nonfiction—chronicling timely subjects like mass incarceration, natural disasters, and identity theft—I’ll be giving James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own, Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami, and Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life. And I’ll be giving Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On, a generous collection of diary entries documenting both the quotidian pleasures of the writer’s life and the outrage provoked by political corruption, to readers looking for a cozy fireside companion with fierce claws.
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Rachel Cusk, for anyone who hasn’t yet been indoctrinated. Notes on a Foreign Country by Suzy Hansen, for Americans (in particular, white Americans) trying to be more conscious of their place in the world.
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I’m going to give Locking Up Our Own by James Forman, Jr. to friends and family—it’s a fantastic book and especially timely. And I am going to give Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla to the memoir lovers I know. I’ve already given Fresh Complaint to some friends who are big Eugenides fans who were very excited to read his short stories.
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Locking Up Our Own by James Forman, Jr. for my aunt, a criminal justice activist.
Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe for my parents.
The Gourmands’ Way by Justin Spring for my best friend who is in culinary school in Paris.
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Reckless Daughter by David Yaffe: A portrait of Joni Mitchell for the boomers on my list.
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I’ve already given Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin to a dozen friends and family members, so I can definitively declare it the home run of gift books. The memoir, about growing up in a pre-gentrified Greenwich Village in the ’70s, is hilarious, sweet, and profound. You can give it to anyone interested in living an unconventional, creative life, especially designers, artists, and illustrators like Shopsin herself. A New Yorker of any stripe—young or old, new or life-long, current resident or displaced—will love it too.
I’ll also be handing out Lauren Elkin’s brilliant chronicle of women, cities and walking, Flaneuse; Durga Chew-Bose’s ambitious and compelling debut Too Much and Not the Mood; Lindsay Hunter’s masterful novel Eat Only When You’re Hungry; the beautiful, inventive story collection Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor; and two page-turners, Catalina by Liska Jacobs and Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw.
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A favorite FSG gift book will be The Zoomable Universe by Caleb Scharf and Ron Miller. These days, the realms of the very large and the very small often seem more appealing than the world at hand.
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Justin Spring’s The Gourmands’ Way would be perfect for anyone interested in food, French culture, or just really good nonfiction writing. The Chicago Cubs by Rich Cohen would make a great gift for any sports fan. I’ll likely give David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell to my mom. And Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants is also a prime all-purpose candidate; I want everyone to read it.