Our Contributors’ Favorite Books of 2017


Best of 2017

Fleur Jaeggy


This past July, I read Fleur Jaeggy’s most recent collection, I Am the Brother of XX (New Directions, 2017) with a mix of envy and admiration. While it may not qualify as holiday reading, this slim volume combines all of my favorite fictional things: a touch of cruelty, the comitragedy of the absurd, and a reverence for the domestic. I am a firm believer in the idea that in everyday household objects we find the magic, menace, and violence of our world distilled, a notion Jaeggy extrapolates to great and unsettling effect. In these strange, dark tales, photographs and paintings frequently come alive. Tea cups and spoons converse with spinsters. A lonely diner finds companionship in the fish she is about to eat (“He is already a friend”), while nihilistic children harbor sartorial obsessions with a “certain blue coat” or “eggplant-colored penny loafers.” As with all of Jaeggy‘s work, I Am the Brother of XX is menacing, moving, and disturbingly comic—austere, but without ever losing its sense of play. I recently shared my favorite story in the collection, “Agnes,” with a poet friend of mine. Her response sums up my feeling exactly: “It’s perfect. I wish I’d written it myself.” —J. Jezewska Stevens (“The Party)

My revelation of the year was the writing of Joan Silber. When I was asked a few months ago to review Improvement, her new novel, I had never heard of her. But I was immediately captivated by her fictional method, a cross between the novel and linked stories, in which a minor character in one chapter will become a major figure in another. This connect-the-dots narrative structure makes possible wide leaps over time and space, while still offering that sense of connection and emotional depth that makes the best fiction so satisfying. In the space of a few weeks, I tore through five of Silber’s eight books. I especially admired Fools (2013), which starts with a group of anarchists in 1920s New York and spirals out from there, and The Size of the World (2008), a meditation on the themes of immigration and expatriation. But my favorite was Ideas of Heaven, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2004. The characters range from an aging dancer to an Italian Renaissance poet, an American missionary in China, a French goat farmer. All are driven by love or longing, the desire to submit themselves to a person, a discipline, a god. Silber finds the commonality beneath these different kinds of yearning, paradoxically locating in the wish to lose ourselves the essence of what makes us most human. I know this is a book I’ll return to again and again. —Ruth Franklin (Stacy Schiff, The Art of Biography No. 6)

Lucia Berlin

Rereading an author whose work once blew you away is always a risk. What if the work doesn’t hold up? When this happens—and to me it seems to be happening more and more with age—the effect can be quite disheartening. But rereading Lucia Berlin’s stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women, a selection edited by her friend Stephen Emerson and published in 2015, has been a thoroughly pleasurable and inspiring experience. Berlin, who died in 2004, was a fine prose stylist and a master of the short-story form. She wrote mostly about women, many of them down and out, many in bad, even catastrophic, relationships, many of them victims, as was Berlin herself, of child abuse and of severe alcoholism. But though her stories were taken mainly from her own hard life, they are notable for an absence of resentment and self-pity. Instead, these pages are suffused with compassion, empathy, and a sense of wonder at ordinary human experience. I am reminded of the distinction once made by John Cheever, writing about John O’Hara, “between a fascinated horror of life and a vision of life.” As clear-eyed as any writer about human nature and the suffering that makes up so great a part of life, Berlin also saw beauty, tenderness, and comedy everywhere she looked. Now I don’t think there will ever come a time when her unique, meticulously nuanced stories, which reveal not only large literary gifts but also a truly good heart, will fail to reward rereading. —Sigrid Nunez (“The Blind”)


This year, I read two unusually excellent new poetry books from Greece, in unusually excellent translation. Both were published by World Poetry Books. They were: Homerica by Phoebe Giannisi, translated bv Brian Sneeden, and Rose Fear by Maria Laina, translated by Sarah McCann. — Anne Carson (“Eddy”)

Susan Howe. Photo: courtesy of Ruth Medjber

Here are my favorite books of theory I read this year, in no particular order: In Nature as Event: The Lure of the PossibleDidier Debaise revises the modern conception of nature by rereading Alfred North Whitehead. He says, “Being and manner are intermingled … ” Object as mannerism. Debaise doesn’t throw his lot in with object-oriented-ontology, but there is some overlap. In Reality Is Not What it SeemsCarlo Rovelli, one of the pioneers of quantum gravity theory argues that space is an emergent property arising from relations between “neighboring objects.” In The Fire and the TaleGiorgio Agamben explores the internal resistance that he says characterizes art works. He has a lot to say about poetry.

And, again in no particular order, my favorite books of poetry: In The End of Something by Kate Greenstreet, every line/sentence is both complete and incomplete. I have never read anything quite like it. It’s a good example of the kind of resistance Agamben was talking about. Debths by Susan Howe feels like a culmination of Howe’s long project. She makes us experience loss through, paradoxically, examining what people have attempted to preserve. In Explosion Rocks Springfield, Rodrigo Toscano rings the changing language of a news article about an accidental explosion in a strip club. The book asks hard questions and also explores the creative potential in destruction. This year, I also reread The Unfollowing by Lyn Hejinian. It’s a series of fourteen line elegies, a formal exploration of lives broken off. It is somehow both riotously alive and melancholy. —Rae Armantrout (Five Poems)

Jesmyn Ward © Beowulf Sheehan

Here are three books that affected me this year, all by women, and all about loss, community, and the damaged, damaging natural world. I went back and read the earlier work of Jesmyn Ward (who just published Sing, Unburied, Sing), and was devastated by Salvage the Bonesa novel that interweaves Euripides with Faulkner, and shows how Hurricane Katrina was only one of a sequence of disasters to hit impoverished families across the South. I finally read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and I feel changed by a new awareness of how exactly we are messing up the planet. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it’s even better than I remembered: a terrifying, heartbreaking rewrite of Paradise Lost that meditates on the pain of social exclusion, and the costs of shutting out the monsters we have made, whoever they may be. —Emily Wilson (“From the ‘Odyssey,’ Book I”)

Mary Gaitskill

What a terrible year it’s been! And my reading has been hugely affected by what’s swirling around the country, the world. It’s not so much affected what I’m reading—I’m reading mostly fiction, apparently—but how I read what it’s front of me. Last spring, when everyone was marching all day every day I was scheduled to interview Mary Gaitskill on stage, whose work I knew in that casual but very adoring way—I’d read Veronica and several of her stories, as well as her essay “Lost Cat.” But I found myself delving deeper into her stories, and marveling at everything I found in Because They Wanted To, Don’t Cry, and Bad Behavior. I was struck by how she might drop a little bomb on the reader, just some dangerous sentence in the middle of a paragraph, and then the story would carry on as if nothing had happened. In the summer, I found myself reading more and more short stories, revisiting Sam Lipsyte’s “The Climber Room,” which is howlingly, and painfully funny, and worth a reread, and everything in Z. Z. Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, but so much more. This whole year I was supposed to be writing a novel, but I kept getting distracted by writing these long short stories, including the one that appeared in the Winter issue of The Paris Review. There’s something about the enormity of a book, and of the news in 2017, that made me only want to focus on the smaller frame and seek order there, where it seemed somewhat manageable. Maybe I wasn’t alone? This was the year, after all, when a short story ended up trending on Twitter. I’m sure you know I’m talking about the fabulous and painfully apt story “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian, which went viral earlier this month. So it was, for me, a year of reading fiction, mostly, always shorter, and more troubling, always arresting and alive. —Peter Mountford (“Pay Attention”)

Olivia Clare

Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno. My husband never stopped talking about how great it was, and since I had agreed to begin with, I also reread it. It’s astonishing. I’m a big fan of Damon Galgut, and The Impostor scared and overwhelmed me. Also, Willy Vlautin’s Northline, partly a (posthumous) pas de deux with Raymond Carver. Short-story collections: Disasters in the First World, by Olivia Clare; Twenty Grand: And Other Tales of Love and Money, by Rebecca Curtis; and I loved the Library of America’s John O’Hara: Stories, with an excellent introduction by Chip McGrath. —Ann Beattie (“Ruckersville”)

Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk’s Transit was one of my favorite reads this year. Hyperintelligent and deeply strange, Transit is the second of a trilogy (Outline being the first) that obscures the narrator in a cloak of dialog and second-hand stories. We discussed Transit on my podcast, Fan’s Notes, in a stretch that also included Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station—a triptych of modern first-person storytelling that eschew novelistic conventions like plot and stakes and conflict. In a larger sense, immersing myself in these books was the highlight of my reading year; as a writer, they challenged my thinking about what a successful novel requires, both in its constituent elements and on the part of the reader. —Adam O’Fallon Price (“A Natural Man”)

From the original cover of The House in Paris.

Last week, I discovered Elizabeth Bowen, and The House in Paris (1936) has, at the last minute, topped my reading of 2017. The drama of this slim novel occurs within the confines of some familiar structures—oppressions of marriage, questions of honor—with matters of life, death, and love whispered about in drawing rooms and back gardens. Among all this “traditional” narrative furniture, Bowen’s wild sentences strike vibrant, violent chords. “Between the tamarisks passing the rainy window and this lamp-invaded darkness, nothing remained … The weight of being herself fell on her like a clock striking.” —Isabella Hammad (“Mr. Can’aan”)

1. Inferno, Eileen Myles
2. Black Wings Has My Angel, Elliott Chaze
3. Total Chaos, Iggy Pop
4. Jubilee City, Joe Andoe
5. Prussian Blue, Philip Kerr
6. Old Filth, Jane Gardam
7. My Face for the World to See, Alfred Hayes
8. Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby
9. The Man with the Golden Typewriter, letters of Ian Fleming
10. Reunion, Fred Uhlman
Duncan Hannah  (“Diaries, 1970–73”)