At the end of each year, I share a list of books I’ve enjoyed that year. In 2017 I didn’t read as much as usual, thanks to our national trauma. But I hope you’ll find some good choices for your own reading. Starting with fiction and followed by nonfiction, here is my year in books.
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
This novel got so much acclaim when it first came out 20 years ago that I thought I should finally read it. In the New York City of 1896, a serial killer is preying on young male prostitutes. A team of people, led by a psychologist, decide to investigate and identify the murderer, using the little-known and even less-respected method of figuring out what compels him. This motley team includes a disreputable journalist (who narrates the novel), two Jewish detectives, and an employee of the police force who longs to be the first female detective. They are protected in this unofficial pursuit by the police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt. I enjoyed the book, particularly the detailed descriptions of NYC at the turn of the 20th century. However, I’m tired of serial killers serving as entertainment, and wonder how much this novel’s popularity contributed to that trend.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
In New York City in 2008, two families, the Jongas and the Edwardses, become intertwined in professional and personal ways. Jende Jonga feels like he’s won the lottery when he gets a job as chauffeur for Clark Edwards and his family. Jende, his lively wife Neni, and their young son have come to America from Cameroon to find a better life. Neni aims to train as a pharmacist, while Jende strives to gain a green card. Clark Edwards and his family live the kind of glittering, socialite life the Jongas have only seen on TV. But everything’s about to change: Edwards works for Lehman Brothers, whose bankruptcy will hurl the economy into freefall and pull the two families, with their drastically different circumstances and dreams, ever closer to collision. With its close-up view of undocumented immigrant life and subversive gaze behind the façade of success, the novel brings a compassionate perspective to two families and their fates.
Bertrand Court by Michelle Brafman
This group of closely-linked stories reads like a novel about the power of friendship to nourish and challenge, the unknowable interiority of a marriage, family secrets and connections that resound through generations, and the power of proximity to shape neighbors and communities. I particularly enjoyed the glimpses of familiar landmarks and behaviors in this story rooted in a Washington DC suburban neighborhood.
The Big Bang Symphony by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Every summer, a strange, intense and temporary community of scientists and workers blooms in Antarctica, the most extreme climate on earth. The novel takes you into the daily lives of three women who spend an eventful season on the ice: a line cook perpetually searching for a place to call home; a scientist with a troubled home life who struggles to love humans as much as rocks; and a bereaved composer craving the music of creation.
The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
A gorgeous, gripping novel about a woman who finds lost children, particularly those who, like herself, have been abducted and abused. Despite misgivings, protagonist Naomi takes on the case of a 5-year-old girl who disappeared in the Oregon forest three years ago. From her breath-taking descriptions of the snow-choked woods, to her portraits of frantic parents and soul-weary detectives, Denfeld pulls you deeply into the world of the novel, with its layers of memory, loss, and inventiveness. But this is no detective story; it’s a lyrical exploration of the trauma we encounter in the world and carry in ourselves, as well as the light we stumble into when we least expect it.
Collected Stories by Amy Hempel
A mixed bag of stories from many years of Hempel’s career, showcasing her talents with creating character, incident and sharply honed sentences in the compressed space of a short (and one pretty long) story.
The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon
Cass and Margaret are both Army wives, living in Jordan in the small community of U.S. Embassy families who strive to maintain their American opinions and perspectives as the Arab Spring swirls around them. Cass is an old hand in the embassy world, and her husband has volunteered her to be a mentor to the younger Margaret, who brings her baby and her naiveté to Jordan. The two women develop an intense yet prickly relationship, with Cass trying to mold Margaret into the perfect embassy wife, while Margaret tries to placate the overbearing Cass and at the same time experience Jordan not through the screen of embassy-approved tours, but first-hand. When Margaret goes missing, Cass reads her diary and realizes just how much she didn’t know about her friend, and how thoroughly the two Americans have managed to misunderstand each other.
The Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson
This novel transports readers to a village on the southwest coast of Ireland, in a landscape scoured by wind and made rugged by stone. The wild beauty of the area calls to Annie Crowe, the novel’s main character, even as she prepares to do a job that threatens the Beara peninsula’s ecology and could doom its most endangered residents, a type of crow. Annie is an outsider, an American from Seattle whose marriage and career in public relations have been all but destroyed by her alcoholism. Yet once in Ireland she finds herself driven by local lore and history that she is just beginning to understand. Most mysteriously, she hears “a whisper of Gaelic, like sorrow blowing in the wind.” With lovely writing, the novel spins a tale of a woman finding a home, and then struggling to make herself worthy of it.
The Dark Flood Rises by Dame Margaret Drabble
A fictional exploration of aging, class, our responsibilities to one another, and the surprise of who, in the end, we consider family. We are introduced first to Francesca, a woman in her 70s who works for a charity to improve housing for the elderly. But the author’s gaze soon expands to Fran’s grown children and ex-husband, and then to friends and their various friends and exes, and then to British culture as a whole and the way it deals with age and the inevitability of death. Dark matter, yes, but told with Drabble’s characteristic dry wit.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
In the 1890s, strange events take place in Aldwinter, a seaside village in England, and the residents believe a sea monster has emerged. This is enough to bring Cora Seaborne running from London to see if she can discover a new kind of dinosaur skeleton or living lizard. Cora is a widow, newly freed from her abusive husband and liberated by his money. She’s opinionated, stubborn, smart, and has no concern for propriety or her appearance. Cora moves to Aldwinter with her autistic son and her socialist friend Martha, where she discovers all kinds of flora and fauna, including the most surprising: love. Against her will, Cora falls in love with the local pastor, although the two disagree and debate about everything except their fascination with each other. Cora also develops a close friendship with the pastor’s wife, Stella. The novel is full of such interesting and generous friendships: Martha loves Cora; Cora’s rejected suitor is cherished and cared for by his wealthy friend, who loves Martha; etc. This human warmth suffuses a story that at its heart is about ideas – the nature of God, women’s freedom, the cruelty of capitalism – as much as relationships.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
This engrossing and entertaining novel draws us close into the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who in 1922 is deemed by the Soviets to be a former person, and sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest. His house, however, happens to be the Metropol Hotel, Moscow’s finest, and over the next several decades, life comes to Rostov since he cannot go out to meet it. The upheavals of the 20th century, the Stalinist purges, WWII, the dawn of the atomic age, the Cold War between the USSR and the West all send their ripples through the elegant world of the Metropol and the confined yet expansive vision of the Count.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
In this witty and wacky retelling of “The Tempest,” an avant-garde theater director who ran a Shakespeare festival finds himself reduced to mounting a production of “The Tempest” in a local prison. The play is intended not only to provide training in literature and theater arts to the prisoners who serve as actors and crew, but also to exact revenge on the people who have wronged the director. Atwood creates a couple of indelible characters in the possessed director and a self-possessed actress and dancer. The outlines of the prisoners, with their nicknames, was less clear to me, although their dialogue – bristling with Shakespearean curses like “poxy awesome” and “whoreson ugly” – was sharp and funny.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
A historian looks back at her youth when she discovered that Dracula – not the caricatured movie monster but the 15th century historical figure who battled, conquered, and ruled with extraordinary cruelty – might still be at work in the world, and that her own family might be trapped in this living history. The compelling tale is told in many layers, from the unnamed historian’s memories of her father’s stories, to her own shocking experiences, to the journals, tomes, scrolls and historical accounts through which the scholars who populate the novel uncover the truth about Vlad the Impaler. I am no fan of horror novels, and this is not one. It is erudite literary fiction that roams across Europe to explore a historical horror, and extrapolates it into the present. But I still read the first several chapters only in daylight.
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi
In a modern-day Afghan village, a man is brutally murdered. His wife, Zeba, until now an ordinary neighbor and mother, is imprisoned to await trial for this murder. In prison she grows deeply connected to many women, most incarcerated for social crimes such as getting pregnant despite being unmarried or even being seen eating a meal with a man unrelated to her. Zeba is defended by her extraordinary, magical mother and a young Afghan-born male lawyer who grew up in the U.S. and doesn’t really understand the power of the traditions, perceptions and prejudices that entrap women in Afghanistan. The questions of whether Zeba committed the murder, and if so why, thread through the story, but they are almost beside the point in this depiction of a deeply patriarchal society lurching toward modernity.
Judenstaat by Simone Zelitch
The novel is an alternative history (with a little magical realism thrown in) that imagines a Jewish homeland was carved out of Germany immediately after WWII. Forty years later this nation of survivors has to struggle with its history and destiny, its ghosts and guilts, its decisions about what to preserve, what to erase, and what, exactly, constitutes a people.
Kingdom of Women by Rosalie Morales Kearns
In a near-future world very much like our own, Averil Parnell would have been among the first class of women to be ordained as Catholic priests. Instead, she is the world’s only female Catholic priest, and the lone survivor of the massacre of her sister seminarians by a man who hates women. Across the U.S., women have grown so sick of male violence that they secede and create a country of their own, called Erda, in the now-depopulated North Dakota. Even as Averil struggles with unwelcome religious visions and her compulsive affair with a man who embodies all she despises, the women of Erda reckon with questions of vengeance, justice, and what kind of country they want to create. In this they are led in part by Averil, who becomes the seer of the nation (or, as she herself thinks, “a slightly up-market version of the village idiot,”) and her close friend Catherine, who becomes the general of the women’s army Erda must mount to protect itself. Despite the deep questions of spirituality, violence, gender, race and power the novel explores, the writing is light on its feet and filled with wit. People are going to be talking about this book. You will want to be one of them. (Full disclosure: the author is a friend and the publisher of Shade Mountain Press, the feminist press that published my latest novel.)
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
A beautiful, warm-hearted and multi-layered novel about an Ojibwe family and a white family, friends and neighbors in the Ojibwe territory of North Dakota, who are forever connected through a tragedy. While hunting, Landreaux Iron accidentally shoots the 5-year-old son of his neighbors. After consulting the ancestors in their sweat lodge, the Irons decide to give their own 5-year-old son, LaRose, to the other family. The novel’s compassionate and acute vision encompasses the two grieving families and their shared community, sweeps through the history of all the previous LaRoses (all women), and illuminates the grim legacy of Indian boarding schools which, until far too recently, sought to strip students of their Indianness through deprivation and brutality.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
When I read Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye in 1998, I was struck by her description of a fiber artist whose medium was dryer lint. Since then, I have thought of that character virtually every time I’ve used a clothes dryer – thousands and thousands of times. I may have that same experience with Little Fires Everywhere, which contains one of the best descriptions of the creative process I’ve ever read. And that isn’t even the heart of this sensational novel. There are two questions at the novel’s core. What happens when outsiders disrupt your perfectly planned world – whether it’s a suburb or a family? And where does the moral compass point when a baby is claimed both by her impoverished Chinese mother and by the wealthy white couple that has fostered her? The novel is full of pitch-perfect moments that reveal the blindness of well-meaning liberals to their race and class privilege. For instance, when the baby’s mother misses an appointment with the foster parents because she must work at her waitress job, the foster mother fumes about how a woman who cannot manage her schedule will be able to manage raising a child. This novel has received much acclaim, and deserves it.
No One is Going to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts
In the black community of a working-class North Carolina town where there are more “Closed” signs than jobs, two women, a mother and a daughter, live with daily disappointment. Sylvia, the mother, has survived poverty and the Jim Crow era, and still struggles for economic security. She has lost her adult son in ways all too familiar in their community, and now tries to steer her daughter Ava away from her despair at being unable to have a child. The two women have a close, testy relationship; they are both married, but their husbands are unreliable and unfaithful. Then Ava’s childhood boyfriend, JJ, comes back to town and builds the largest house in the area while he tries to convince Ava to revive their past. Yes, the echoes of the Great Gatsby are intentional, but the power of the book is not the clever riff on that novel, but the author’s creation of characters who crackle with life, and a narrative voice rich with wisdom about poverty, family and perseverance.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Across the world, women and teenaged girls have discovered the power to shoot electricity from their hands. The novel shows us how personal and political power shifts, how women expand within this new physical dominance, while men bitterly resist and resent it. The book is tense, gripping, and has a sharp-edged wit, offering us many opportunities to see how ridiculous our unquestioned social expectations look when turned upside down. I particularly loved the moments of discovery: when a woman, realizing she could easily overpower her male boss, feels free for the first time to tell him to stop talking and do some work; when a man recognizes for the first time that he is afraid to walk down a dark street. But for my tastes, the book missed a good opportunity to consider how newly powerful women might have rethought and rebuilt society, rather than simply reversing the same old dynamics. Or perhaps that was Alderman’s point.
‘Round Midnight by Laura McBride
Set in Las Vegas, the novel introduces us to four distinct and multi-faceted women who appear to have little in common. Then the book shines its light on the web of history and destiny that binds them together. At the center of this web is June Stein, the passionate and charismatic woman who, with her secretive husband Del, runs the El Capitan casino and launches a nightclub called the Midnight Room. The club is a blazing success in the growing Las Vegas of the 1950s and 1960s, due largely to its talented but troubled headline singer, an African American man named Eddie Knox. In a city built on luck, June has the bad luck to fall in love with Eddie, at a time when a romance between a black man and a white woman could mean death for them both. Eventful as it is, the primary pleasure of this is novel is not its plot, or even its captivating characters. What I enjoyed most is the way the narrative glows with a generous wisdom about the forces that shape our lives, forces as formidable as race and class, and as intimate as our own decisions and desires. From its evocative cover to its four braided storylines, ‘Round Midnight is simply luminous.
Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler
A sly and beguiling novel about the lives of women (and children) in late-19th century San Francisco. The city has so recently evolved from a Gold Rush frontier town that many of the streets are unpaved, and the most respectable districts are just steps away from the tawdry underside. The protagonist of the novel, the rich and perpetually single Lizzie Hayes, comes from the former but keeps being drawn to the latter, particularly through her consequential acquaintance with the enigmatic Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was born into slavery and steered herself into wealth and a mysterious sort of power.
Shadowland by Elizabeth Kostova
A young American woman named Alexandra Boyd flies to Bulgaria to teach English. The day she arrives, dazed with jet lag, she accidentally ends up with a piece of luggage belonging to an elderly Bulgarian couple and discovers, to her horror, that it holds someone’s ashes in an urn. With the help of an English-speaking cab driver who has secrets of his own, she tries to track down the couple to return the ashes. The quest takes them all over Bulgaria, tumbling through its tempestuous history and uncovering the spreading stains left from domination first by Nazis, then Communists and now, perhaps, a populist strongman running for office. The writing is stunning. Along with Alexandra, the reader is drawn more and more deeply into knowing and mourning the man whose ashes she lugs from city to village, and appreciating the people who, at great risk, share parts of his story.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
A strange and hallucinatory novel about family relationships in modern-day South Korea. The first voice we hear is a husband who chose his wife because she was ordinary in every way. But she’s not ordinary at all; she decides to become a vegetarian because of a blood-filled dream that visits her repeatedly. What starts out as an annoying inconvenience for the husband upends an entire family of siblings, parents and in-laws, and reveals the dark power of repression in a society, family and psyche.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
The book takes place in Ireland in 1859, when an 11-year-old girl seems perfectly healthy although she has apparently not eaten in four months. The town hires two nurses, one a local nun and one an Englishwoman who trained under Florence Nightingale, to watch the girl 24 hours a day and figure out whether she is a miracle or a fraud. The story is told from the English nurse’s point of view. Haunted by her wartime nursing experiences and blinded by her disdain for the Irish and their Catholicism, she fatefully misreads every situation until it is almost too late.
Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin
A smart and delightful novel about a young woman who works as an intern for a congressman, and has an affair with him. The affair is discovered, and the scandal enthralls their state of Florida. Of course, the public considers the villain to be not the married, middle-aged congressman, but the slutty young intern. It’s the dawn of the Internet age, and the young woman cannot find a job anywhere, because the first thing that pops up when prospective employers google her is the scandal. So she legally changes her name to Jane Young, moves to Maine, starts her own business as an event planner, and gives birth to a daughter who, as a teenager, also discovers her mother’s past. The novel explores not only how Jane Young feels about all this – she refuses to be shamed, despite the world’s best efforts – but how her mother and daughter feel, and the perspective of the Congressman’s wife, who is perhaps the most interesting character among a host of them.
Code Girls by Liza Mundy
Lively and engaging history about the thousands of American women who did astounding and important work during WWII breaking codes that were crucial to the Allies’ victory. This was America’s Bletchley Circle, highly classified at the time and kept secret until recently. Mundy, a former Washington Post reporter, uncovered research, unearthed stories, and interviewed surviving code breakers who had never before dared to speak about their wartime service.
The Fire Next Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, edited by Jessmyn Ward Powerful collection of essays and poetry about race and racism, by writers and thinkers who inherited James Baldwin’s words and world. Edited by the excellent fiction and nonfiction writer Jessmyn Ward, who includes an essay of her own.
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist
If you ever thought slavery was just a painful footnote in American history, this book will disabuse you of the notion. Slavery was the engine of the U.S. economy, from the cotton fields in the South, to the cotton mills in the North, to the creation of a credit-based economy. It was an engine fueled by brutality. Baptist writes, “The… commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the Unites States powerful and rich…” – and he proves it with irrefutable data and unforgettable personal stories. A harrowing read, but a must-read, especially for white people.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
In the 1920s, the wealthiest people in America were the Osage Indians, who had been ousted from their own land and exiled to un-farmable territory in Oklahoma that turned out to contain oil. And then Osage women and men began to get murdered, starting with one and then numbering in the dozens. Living in terror, they bought guard dogs for their houses, and the dogs were poisoned. After local law enforcement proved powerless, the fledgling FBI stepped in to try to solve and stop the murders, led by a young J. Edgar Hoover. Grann’s research revealed that the murders and the conspiracy reached farther and higher than anyone realized, and that mysteries about the Osage killings persist to this day.
Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber
This set of fresh, sharp-edged essays is about living with the chronic pain of Huber’s rheumatoid disease, a life-altering condition that is for the most part invisible to others. She describes pain in ways that are lyrical and utterly original: “Pain folds the minutes into fascinating origami constructions with its long fingers.” And, “Pain is a windshield with nerves, and I have to scrape it raw to see beyond myself.” Huber cogently discusses the politics of pain, the way the medical profession does not know how to treat or even to hear chronic pain sufferers, the majority of whom are women. In a list of facts, she tells us, “Specialists I have visited for a condition whose primary symptom is chronic pain who did not ask me a single question about how I coped with chronic pain: 7.”
Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
In the early 1900s, America fell in love with a magical new substance called radium. Painted on clock and watch dials, it made the numbers glow in the dark. In New Jersey and Illinois, factories hired young women to paint radium onto dials, shaping the brushes to a point by twirling the delicate bristles against their lips between each stroke. This was a well-paid and glamorous job for working-class girls, most of them in their late teens. When they walked home at night, covered in radium dust, the dial-painters themselves glowed in the dark. The advent of WWI made the demand for illuminated clocks and instruments soar, and with it, the number of young women who worked as dial-painters. It was baffling when these workers began to develop gruesome and agonizing medical conditions, and die in their twenties. Few knew, and many refused to believe, there was such a thing as radium poisoning. It was up to the suffering dial-painters themselves to demand recognition that they were dying from work-related illnesses, and to fight for compensation from the radium companies – who, it turns out, were well aware that radium was deadly and went to great lengths to hide that fact. After all, radium was so profitable, and women so expendable. The novel describes in fascinating detail this years-long struggle for workers rights, led by dying women, which gave rise to a body of medical knowledge and workplace safety regulations and agencies that affect our lives today.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
A stunning collection of oral histories based on interviews that the author, a Nobel Prize winner, conducted over many years with people who had spent their lives in the USSR, only to find themselves adrift in a strange new capitalist country after the fall of the Soviet Union. Alexievich interviews people ranging from survivors of the Gulag labor camps, to veterans of the war in Afghanistan, to nurses, teachers and factory workers, to young people gleeful about their new freedoms, to a former KGB official. They all have fascinating, and often wrenching, stories to tell. One surprising theme of the book was the grief people felt over the loss of socialism – the sense of being part of a grand collective enterprise, and their despair at being stranded in a new world where all that matters is the things money can buy. Even some survivors of the Soviet Union’s worst cruelties felt that loss. Others, of course, reveled in the burly, competitive capitalism of an old country trying to rebirth itself. I highly recommend Secondhand Time. I listened to it as an audiobook, and the talented cast brought the diverse characters to life, including the discreet author.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Hope you’ve found some tempting titles here. Let’s make 2018 a bookish year.