The 10 Best Books of 2017

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The Invention of Angela Carter

BY Edmund Gordon

Angela Carter was a pathbreaking English novelist and story writer. She was the one who brought magic realism into the language with brilliant novels like The Magic Toyshop, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and Nights at the Circus. Her masterpiece, The Bloody Chamber, reinvented the fairy tale as a feminist form. She died young, of cancer, at age 51, but her influence now extends from her friends Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie to a generation of younger writers like Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, and Evie Wyld. Gordon tracks Carter from life with her overbearing mother, into a stifling marriage, across Siberia to Japan and back, through divorce, and from obscurity to a fame that’s only grown since her death. He pulls off the rare biographer’s feat of turning a novelist into a character worthy of her of her own novel.

Moving Kings

BY Joshua Cohen

Cohen’s sixth novel — he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists last spring — tracks a pair of young Israeli men just discharged from the IDF to New Jersey, where they join a moving firm and become foot soldiers in the grind of tristate area gentrification. Trained in the methods of displacement, they are now charged with uprooting evictees in Bed-Stuy, abetting another occupation. The novel wears its politics on its sleeve, but Cohen’s true gift isn’t for analogy, but for metaphor, and all the other possibilities that emerge when style is king.

Notes on a Foreign Country

BY Suzy Hansen

Since last year’s election, America has been looking inward, wondering what’s wrong with us, searching out the Nazis hiding in our suburbs, mesmerized by the president’s every burp-like utterance on Twitter. Occasional glances are thrown toward the meddling Russian bear or the rocket-testing North Koreans, but the election’s effect has been to make a narcissistic nation more narcissistic. Hansen’s book — informed by deep reading in the history of U.S. foreign policy and CIA-engineered regime changes, as well as the writings of James Baldwin — chronicles her awakening to the way the world sees America after she moved from New York to Istanbul and became a freelance foreign correspondent: “Our American dreams have come at the expense of a million other destinies.” At a time when our wrenching politics have turned our gaze on ourselves, her book is a necessary tonic.

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

BY Joe Hagan

Perhaps the best book about the magazine biz this side of Harold Ross’s Letters From the Editor, Hagan’s exhaustively reported and grippingly told biography of the William Randolph Hearst of the rock press led to a falling out with his previously solicitous subject. Wenner as editor is Dionysus playing Jove, a trickster impresario of the bohemian boomers who went jet set instead of Bible Belt. Come for the wild ride into the ditch with Hunter S. Thompson and stay for the petty feuding with Paul Simon. And don’t forget: Selling out was always the point. Read the full review.

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick

Selected BY darryl pinckney

Across more than half a century, the novelist Hardwick was one of America’s greatest literary critics, reshaping the landscape of book reviewing with her 1959 polemic against the shabby state of the art and co-founding the New York Review of Books. In her reflections on Martin Luther King, Selma, and the Watts riots, she brought her tragic sensibility to bear on the civil-rights struggle. A consummate stylist, she was also a clear-sighted chronicler of American life, with all the comedies and dramas transpiring on what she called, in her last essay on Nathanael West, “our transmogrifying soil.”

Sour Heart 

BY Jenny Zhang

Sentences of spiky virtuosity follow one after the other in Zhang’s first collection of fiction. The loosely connected stories of Chinese immigrant families in Sour Heart are told by daughters with one eye on their struggling parents and the other on the micro-dramas of New York City adolescence. Zhang brings the vanished Brooklyn and Queens of the 1980s and ’90s alive on the page. What emerges is a kaleidoscope bildungsroman, a mosaic of the author’s alternate younger selves, as well as heartbreaking portraits of the poverty and humiliations of the parents who sacrifice their dreams for their children’s. Sour Heart is a work of acerbic nostalgia, and one of the funniest books of the year. Read the full review.

The Schooldays of Jesus

BY J.M. Coetzee

The second book in a projected trilogy, The Schooldays of Jesus follows three refugees — an old man, a young woman, and an orphan who form a makeshift family — as they settle in a strange city and see to the boy’s education at a school of music and dance. Bach, Dostoevsky, and Cervantes are invoked in a heady allegory that suddenly veers into a tale of murder and punishment. Just what Coetzee is choreographing his symbols to say is hard to parse, but that’s part of the pleasure of entering a land the Nobel laureate has conjured outside of time.

The Idiot

BY Elif Batuman

The American novel has yet to absorb fully the email revolution that transpired in the mid-1990s, but Elif Batuman’s autofiction about a Harvard freshman hung up on a rather dense older Hungarian mathematician (which one is the idiot?) captures the moment when teenagers first learned we could come close to beaming our thoughts into each other’s brains. The Idiot is an exquisitely droll tale of unrequited love and a stylistic tour de force. A student of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Babel, Batuman follows her Russian heroes into territory most contemporary novelists fear to tread — the chaotic zone where plots and meaning break down and the heroine has no one to talk to but herself.

Priestdaddy

BY Patricia Lockwood

Before she turned to prose, Lockwood had already made history as the profane, absurd pioneer poet laureate of Twitter. No surprise then that she has a fascinating origin story. Through a loophole in Church doctrine, her father became a priest when as a Protestant minister he converted to Catholicism. He’s the sort of priest who strums Led Zeppelin covers in his underwear when he’s not administering last rites. A medical crisis sent Lockwood and her husband to a Missouri rectory. The awkward homecoming is the frame for Lockwood’s memories of growing up by a toxic waste site, her father’s pro-life protests, misbegotten hunting trips, and much else that’s by turns tragic and farcical. Read the full review.

So Much Blue

BY Percival Everett

Here is a major novelist working in a minor key — sometimes the best books are like that. Everett is known for satire, but in So Much Blue he keeps his comic gifts in check. Three narrative strands entwine in the life of a melancholic painter in middle age: the memory of a misbegotten and death-haunted youthful journey to war-torn El Salvador; the echoes of his affair with a younger woman in Paris; and fractures in his family life as he works on a secret conceptual magnum opus he may never finish. This is a cool, restrained novel that gradually accumulates force. Class and race in America, the violence done by Americans abroad, romantic exploitation, faithlessness, artistic ambition — all come under ambivalent scrutiny and lead to a series of understated heartbreaking reckonings. It’s the sort of book only a master of the form could write.

*A version of this article appears in the December 11, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

The 10 Best Books of 2017