The Paris Review Staff’s Favorite Books of 2017


Best of 2017

Danez Smith.

It turns out that the books that top my reading list this year are, in one way or another, about intimacy. First, biography: Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker and Sam Stephenson’s Gene Smith’s Sink (which, full disclosure, I worked on as posts for the Daily). Kraus and Stephenson have written unconventional lives, approaching their subjects askance and with varying degrees of subjectivity. The lesson these books offer is twofold: no matter how much we nose around in another’s life, it is impossible to know that person fully; and the story of our lives is never really ours alone—the telling comes, in large part, through the words, observations, and experiences of those with whom we’ve shared time. Which brings me to Barbara Browning’s The Gift, a novel that incorporates discussions of music, dance, performance art, writing, and correspondence in order to describe collaboration, not just in the artistic sense but as a community of intimates—friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. Browning’s prose is open and unpretentious; I read her book deliberately, soaking up the fullness of each sentence. Last, a book that knocked me over: Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, a collection of poems about the deaths of black men and boys, about love and sex, about hope, and, above all, about bodies. The form each poem takes, particularly in the various ways the lines break (or don’t), creates an especial urgency, heightens the rhythm and emotion: “we say wats gud meaning i could love you until my jaw is but memory, we say yo meaning let my body // be a falcon’s talon & your body be the soft innards of goats / but we mostly say nothing, just sip // some good brown trying to get drunk / with permission.” Another kind of recommendation: I’ve dog-eared nearly every page. —Nicole Rudick

I spent the last two years working retail, toiling away as an indie bookseller, and in that time I read plenty of books but learned the stories of many, many more. The business of bookselling requires its worker bees to stretch beyond the limits of their own preferences, to slot into place season after season of titles and authors and blurbs and buzz—and then to step back, assess the amassed galaxies of information, and zero in on which exact book best suits a particular customer. It’s a wonderful way to stay in the know, but it’s exhausting. I’ve been happy to spend most of 2017 letting the new books stream past me like schools of fish. It means I’ve been able to go back and nudge stones I haven’t touched yet: the mind-warping nightmares of Kenzaburo Oe; the haunting agony of Han Kang; Joy Williams’s dead-eyed, disquieting brushes with the beyond; and the peppy charm of Haruki Murakami (whose running memoir, to my doctor’s dismay, did not turn me into a pro athlete or even a casual jogger, but I’m getting there). And after all this buildup, I’m still going to tell you that the best thing I read this year is Lincoln in the Bardo, the hottest, tenderest ghost chorus I’ve ever witnessed. Relative unknown George Saunders knocks it out of the park with his debut novel, and then the park dissolves into ectoplasm and the pitching mound sings a shanty. Enough has been said already about Saunders’s latest; I don’t have much to add. I’ll just say that prior to reading Lincoln in the Bardo, I had left the contemporary novel for dead, and Saunders—with his characteristic heart and funny bone—showed me just how deeply wrong I was. Looking back at a strange, terrible year, that discovery is enough for me. —Brian Ransom

Still from Lady Bird.

Confession: there is an Ian Parker profile of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach I read when I’m down; it’s called “Happiness.” There’s the line—“In the time that it took Gerwig to drink two beers, Baumbach weighed the case for ordering a glass of wine.” I’m a Noah who wishes she was a Greta, and never more so than when I saw Gerwig’s triumphant Lady Bird. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Baumbach’s movies, too, but I want to quaff the beer of life, while I more often deliberate.) Both Gerwig and Baumbach make films and a life together, but Lady Bird is Gerwig’s solo debut. It would be hard to overstate the pleasure of watching it. The young female protagonist is given the license to be egotistical, ambitious, absolutist, sentimental, and impulsive. It is so clear a portrait of adolescence as I knew it (and wished I’d known it) that it would take a second viewing to report on other aspects of film as work of art. As I rose from my seat at Manhattan’s Angelika Cinema, I could hear, as well as feel, the young women around me saying, My sister has to see this. —Julia Berick

From the cover of Conversations with Friends.

This year, I found myself swept away by Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. The jealousy-inducing story behind the book (Rooney wrote the first draft in three months, at the the age of twenty-six) is difficult to reconcile with the tight grace of this novel, though all of the volatility and speed is there. Rooney so expertly captures what it’s like to be young today: the conversations that flow seamlessly from email to text message to unspoken glance, the sexual and creative confidence, the admiration for older men who write emails written in all lowercase. Her first-person narrator, the twenty-one-year-old Frances, is a constant, careful observer, and yet Rooney leaves room for the reader to see all the things Frances herself does not. Frances’s deceptively deadpan tone encases moments of revelation; among the many sentences I underlined: “She made us all laugh a lot, but in the same way you might make someone eat something when they don’t fully want it.” I also loved Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other PartiesMachado plays with the oldest archetypes of myth and genre in ways that feel wholly new. And, when composing this list, I was delighted to remember that Emil Ferris’s graphic novel, My Favorite Thing Is Monsterswas also published in 2017, albeit at the very beginning, which now feels very long ago. It’s a stylistic wonder, dark and beautiful and form-bending, and a profound exploration of monstrousness, both female and otherwise. —Nadja Spiegelman

No writer disorients reality quite like Renee Gladman. Or maybe that’s not the right way to put it. Her expert handling of language is not so much a disorientation as a reorientation. The fact that I can’t quite pin it down speaks to Gladman’s particular mastery. Her Prose Architectures is a captivating (and beautiful) book of ink line drawings in which words inhabit extended physical manifestations that hum energetically on the page. For Gladman, language does not just construct our reality, it exists alongside it in space and time. Language as a form of architecture is also a preoccupation in Gladman’s Houses of Ravicka, the fourth of her Ravickian novels. These novels are set in a fictional city, Ravicka, and Houses follows the city’s comptroller as she obsessively seeks a house that has been lost. What I love about Gladman’s world is that it’s not quite dystopian, not quite science fiction, and not entirely removed from our reality–but it’s not entirely a part of it either. In Ravicka, names of streets are impossible for the reader to pronounce (Czorcic, Flvoder, Monstastrajen, Vibja), as we don’t really know the rules of language in this fictional city. Gladman also peppers her prose with invented words such as feleedpur and tij. Since we can’t pronounce them, we’re left with only the visual comprehension of letters on the page and are confronted with the questions: How can something exist if you cannot speak it into existence? Are these literal prose architectures enough to build a world? Gladman’s artful consideration of linguistic limitation is quietly smart, thrillingly unique, and, perhaps most impressively, translates into an thoroughly absorbing narrative. —Lauren Kane

It has been more than a year since I last read a novel quite as winning, and so warmly poignant, as Andrew Sean Greer’s fifth, Less. Endearing, hapless Arthur Less is a writer of tepid reputation—a  “midlist homosexual”—on the brink of his fiftieth birthday, and, as such, “the first homosexual ever to grow old.” Rather than suffer through an ex’s wedding, Less strings together a series of literary engagements—also midlist—in seven countries and embarks on a prolonged junket around the world. But half a century is not so easily outrun: his journey, like his memory, is littered with stray assignations and lost connections, all of which threaten to tow him back into the past. “What was it like to live with genius?” someone asks Less at a symposium, in Mexico, about another, more famous ex’s work. “What is it like to go on knowing you are not a genius, knowing you are a mediocrity?” Less waves off the question, but, like the rest of his life, it insists on coming back, unbidden: “The work, the habit, the words, will fix you,” he tells himself on a flight. “Nothing else can be depended on, and Less has known genius, what genius can do. But what if you are not a genius? What will the work do then?” There are flashes here of To the Lighthouse’s Mr. Ramsay, and—not surprisingly—The Hours Clarissa Vaughan: much like those characters, Arthur Less cannot stop mourning the loss of his former and forgone selves.

The risk of misfire in such a story would seem formidable: if aging is a singular tragedy, it is also a general affliction; all of us will at some point have youths misspent, or not misspent but, in any case, gone. Yet in Less an awareness of pain’s banality leads not to mawkishness—the predictable destination—but to a kind of wry world-weariness. The author—the real as well as the fictional—becomes free to explore the soberest of topics. Chief among them is how suddenly a life’s center of gravity can appear to shift, as it always does, away from the future and toward the past, so that one day the mind wakes and finds itself stuck—if not tragically, then at the least inescapably—in memory’s orbit. —Spencer Bokat-Lindell

From the cover of House Full of Females.

I like my reading to be as ironic as possible, that’s why Robert Coover’s Huck Out West was my favorite novel this year. Coover’s sequel to Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to the edge of “sivilization,” through the Civl War up to the centennial year of 1876. Huck Out West is hilarious and pointed in the way only Coover can be. If you’re left wanting to stay in that era, then Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870 is an impressive history. I’ve long appreciated Ulrich’s view of history as a chorus of singular stories. A House Full of Females isn’t your typical history pulled from headlines, memoirs of “important white men,” or official records; it’s a history gleaned from individual journals, personal stories, and heirlooms, putting us as close to the real story as possible. —Jeffrey Gleaves

Camille Bordas.

This year was filled with great new books, I’m sure—admittedly, I didn’t read most of them. Much of my year was spent with the Russians; I lived for months in Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov. A few new books that I read and loved, however, were Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd, Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance, and Ben Loory’s Tales of Falling and Flying. How to Behave in a Crowd, Bordas’s first novel, enticed me with its eleven-year-old narrator, puzzled by the world he encounters, all the while facilitating the healing his family so badly needs. Another first novel, In the Distance did something new, subverting the Western genre and, in so doing, raising important questions about cultural attitudes made evident by assumptions we make about art, particularly toward guns and immigrants. It’s also just a great story. Tales of Falling and Flying was the most fun I had reading a book in 2017. Loory’s playfulness with language is infecting; he writes like a boy playing with a new puppy. In his hands, language is a conduit of life and liveliness, an insight into what our imaginations could do if we let them. Finally, my favorite piece of writing from this year was an excerpt from George Saunders’s introduction to The Grace Paley Reader, published in The New Yorker. As he praises the writing of Paley, Saunders shows what makes him so beloved: the deep feeling with which he writes, the intent to get to the heart of the matter. In a year from which many of us stumble with dogged weariness, bits like the following are rejuvenating, giving me a new hunger for the year to come: “All of Paley’s work is marked by heart, precision, and concern for others, and surges with real, messy life, and the way life, lived, actually makes us feel: outgunned, befriended, short on time, long on regret, so happy we can’t stand it, so in love we become fools.” —Joel Pinckney