RIF’s Favorite Books of 2017

In this space of tender emotions, we still find comfort—and the will to resist—in literature.

Favorite Books of 2017

This year has been really, really long, and so tough for many of us. Whether it was the natural disasters that struck or the human disasters brought on by political leaders, you’ve likely been feeling both weary and wary. We’re feeling pretty tender ourselves. It’s within this space that we find the most comfort in literature, and it’s from this space of raw feeling that we chose our favorites of the year. These are the books that made us feel, laugh, cry, think, or all of those at once. These are the books that thrilled us, chilled us, and fulfilled us. These are the books we both wanted and needed in 2017, and we’re grateful to their authors and editors and publishers for bringing them into the world. So, start off 2018 with a load of great books in your TBR pile, and let’s keep on resisting and reading.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

After the turn of the last century, a Korean family finds itself in disgrace when their beloved daughter Sunja winds up pregnant by her deceitful, gangster lover. When Sunja gets a surprising marriage offer from a minister, she accepts, and travels with him to Japan to start over. But things aren’t much easier in Japan for Sunja and her family. Over the course of the century, we follow the family’s saga as they open pachinko parlors—a national obsession that became an addiction for many players, and made good money for the parlor owners. The family struggles with their Korean identity in Imperial Japan, but they experience moments of joy, too. A beautiful book that feels somewhat Tolstoyan—profound yet utterly sink-into-able. (Grand Central)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

The first novel by the legendary short story master George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo caught the eye of many this year, present company included. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie died, and Lincoln was known to frequently visit his son’s crypt—a grief-stricken father in a cemetery, rather than an infamous figure leading a country through war. Saunders narrates these visits through ghosts in the cemetery, as well as elaborating on those ghosts’ own troubles and strife. A rape victim, a murderer, a hunter, a soldier: these characters are all outcasts in one way or another, and the chorus of voices they create brings forth a unique and very Saunders-esque version of what American society looked like during the Civil War. A gorgeous, engrossing novel. (Random House)

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s most recent novel is all about the compromises we make, be it for safety or love. Saeed and Nadia meet and fall in love in their home country—never named—and must deal with a relationship that develops amidst the ravages of war and its everyday tolls. They’re both eager to escape, though Nadia is more passionate about getting away, and eventually, they find a remarkable path out. Through a series of magic doors, they emigrate to Greece, Britain, and eventually to the U.S. Both of them are changed by exile and the psychological ramifications of being refugees who know they will never see home again. These changes begin to fray the bonds of their relationship. Will it survive? And will their new lives be better, worse, or something in the gray area of reality? (Riverhead Books)

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

Ariel Levy thought she had it all figured out. She had a wife she loved, a career she was well-positioned in, and a sperm donor eager to help out with the finances of having a child as well. But while on assignment for The New Yorker and at 19 weeks pregnant, Levy’s child was born so prematurely that she held him in her palm as he died. She began interrogating her life and her choices and believed that she’d somehow brought about this tragedy by living too decadently, by wanting too much, by believing the rules of reality didn’t apply to her. Levy’s self-flagellation will likely leave most readers aching to grant her some sort of forgiveness or absolution, to tell her that rules don’t apply to grief or tragedy, which can strike any of us at any time. (Random House)

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Elif Batuman, also a staff writer for The New Yorker, debuted with her first novel this year, and we’re as tickled as the pink on its cover. The book is set in 1995, when Selin, daughter of Turkish immigrants, is attending college. She falls hard for a Hungarian student who looks at everyone as if he’s trying to see into their souls—for the literary and wordy Selin, this is a big turn-on. Eventually, she goes to Hungary to teach English and perhaps see this man on the weekends. Her obsession knows few bounds, and she follows it even as the reader wants to warn her away from this man we know isn’t good enough for her. Beyond her love interest, Selin’s ability to observe the world in keen and clever detail is completely mesmerizing. (Penguin Press)

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Cat is in her 30s and living in Brooklyn, as one does. But that’s not really the important part. Cat spends the novel remembering her adolescence, specifically the year she spent with her beloved friend Marlena. Both poor young women living in Michigan, the girls forge a rare connection. But it isn’t meant to last—we know from the beginning that by the end of the year, Marlena will be dead from drowning in only a few inches of water. How, and what her death will leave with Cat, is what we read the novel to discover. As the two bond over things less innocent than the clothes they share and the Joni Mitchell songs they sing along to, they also find a downward and dangerous spiral and life lessons learned along the way. (Henry Holt) 

American War by Omar El Akkad

In his stirring debut, Omar El Akkad brings to life the United States in 2074, when the Second Civil War breaks out between the North and the South, based on the current American “war on terror.” We follow the lives of the Chestnut family as the war begins. Twins Sarat and Dana are only six; their brother, Simon, is nine. Soon after the war breaks out, their father is killed by a suicide bomber, and the children and their mother are relocated to a refugee camp in Louisiana. Narrated by Benjamin, Simon’s son—who survives a plague in the early 22nd century—the story revolves around his heroic aunt, Sarat, a defiant girl and young woman who becomes the leader of a resistance. She witnesses and overcomes much along the way, and the verve with which her story is told will sweep you along. (Vintage)

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

David Grann is already known for spinning incredible tales that, as Dave Eggers wrote for the New York Times, also happen to be true. In this incredible book, he turns to the sickening mistreatment of the Osage Indians. Tracing the lies of white men and the government back to the beginning of the colonial arrival to the Americas, he brings us to the Osage tribe in the early 20th century. Having already been hounded out of the land they’d rightfully owned, they were inhabiting oil-rich land that was legally and contractually theirs, and many Native American Osage folks got very, very wealthy. Until, that is, they started being murdered. Following the harrowing tale of the deaths of Osage members from mysterious wasting diseases or outright murder with guns, Grann uncovers a conspiracy that will spear your heart. (Doubleday)

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

Patrick Rafferty loses control of his car, and he dies. J. Courtney Sullivan’s engrossing novel takes place in the few-day span between Patrick’s death and when he’s laid to rest, but in that space, we get the entire history of the Rafferty family, with a focus on Nora, Patrick’s mother. Nora left her Irish village in the 1950s to remake her life in the U.S., but she couldn’t escape herself. As the man she married turns out to be different than she expected, as her children grow up and become creatures she barely recognizes, and as her sister whiles away her hours at a convent in Vermont, Nora attempts to maintain control of her reality, which involves pretending certain things are true when they aren’t. Her son is sober (he’s not), her daughter is straight (she’s not), she herself has no sister (she does). A gorgeous family novel, Sullivan drills down into the decisive moments that seem like mistakes in hindsight. (Knopf)

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Deming Guo’s life hasn’t been easy. When his mother discovered she was pregnant with him while living in China, she knew she didn’t want to marry the father, and when she arrived in the U.S., she realized she was going to have to keep the baby as well. Deming is shuttled back and forth between China and America, but he finally has a home in the Bronx with his mother, his mother’s boyfriend, the boyfriend’s sister, and her son. But when Deming’s mother disappears one day, he’s separated from his community and given a different name. Lisa Ko’s gorgeous debut is about family, yes, but also about how we position ourselves in relation to our families, and what losing that context can do. (Algonquin Books)

White Fur by Jardine Libaire

Jamey Hyde has it all, yet some part of him has always yearned for more. More proves itself to be the kind of girl and experiences someone like Jamey was never supposed to have: Elise, the girl whose life hasn’t had room for ambition and overflowing bank accounts because she’s been too busy living it. The two of them have a mad dash of a romance, supremely intense and bathed in the neon glamor of the 1980s. Jamey doesn’t doubt Elise, except when she’s not around, and he has to reckon with what the hell he’s doing. Elise doesn’t doubt Jamey because it’s not her way to doubt—she just does instead. But we all know something’s got to give. This incredibly written novel is well-worth your time.  (Hogarth)

Hunger by Roxane Gay

What happens to a body that has learned its own vulnerability? This is one of the many questions that Roxane Gay grapples with in her memoir, Hunger. Master of the nonfiction essay as well as an acclaimed fiction author (who’s also expanded into comics), many of us already know Gay for her various cultural criticism pieces. She’s typically kept things close to the vest, and this memoir also keeps you at a distance, even as it explains exactly why and how Gay created that distance for herself in the first place. Her body was first a safe place of childhood until it was attacked mercilessly. Food became part of how Gay turned her body into a fortress, which eventually became an unexpected cage. Trauma makes for tricky coping mechanisms, and Gay explores the long-lasting ramifications of hers in spare and searing prose. (Harper)

The Windfall by Diksha Basu

Mr. Jha is a serial entrepreneur, and he’s finally managed to hit it big. When he sells his company for a cool eight figures, he decides to make some changes that befit his new status. From the comfortable middle-class housing complex he lived in with his wife and son (although said son has just left for Ithaca College to study business like his father), Mr. Jha moves to a wealthier neighborhood of New Delhi, the kind of place where wealth is both hoarded and flaunted in equal measure. As Mr. and Mrs. Jha try to adapt to this new way of living with greater or lesser success, their son is having two romances and wishing dearly that he could study film instead of business. All three of them are trying to figure out what makes a person truly wealthy—monetary value or a sense of community. (Crown)

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique is a journalist, and she has no idea why she’s been chosen by the well-known actress Evelyn Hugo. Chosen, that is, not only to conduct an interview with her, but to write a biography that Hugo wants published only after her death. Monique doesn’t really care why Evelyn picked her because she needs this boost, and she needs it now. But this is just the beginning—it’s once Evelyn starts spilling about her complicated and difficult life history that we start to see the fascinating character we have here. Her secrets include hiding her Cuban roots for years by dyeing her hair blonde in order to pass as white in a cruel 1950s Hollywood and huge part of herself she kept hidden in order to achieve fame. A relevant and riveting read. (Atria)

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

This debut novel by powerhouse Zinzi Clemmons is relatively slim, with brief chapters, images, and graphs—that is, it holds the outer markers of an experimental novel. But the prose is clear and beautiful, and in a series of vignettes, Clemmons unfolds the life of Thandi, a young woman losing her mother to cancer and learning how to reckon with that awful loss. Clemmons deftly handles the subject of grief so that it becomes a kind of main character, its shape changing and growing and waning over time, as Thandi falls in and out of love with men, the world, and her mother. This is the kind of novel you sink into for several hours and wake from with a warm stone in your belly, both weighing you down and making you feel secure and understood. (Viking)

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Cyril can’t remember his birth, of course, but he’s heard the story of his mother’s shame. At 16 and unwed, she was brought to the front of her church to be publicly shamed, chastised, and then ejected from her parish. Soon after, she gave Cyril up for adoption, and his new family considered his stay with them a tenancy rather than a familial connection, so Cyril grew up feeling unwanted in all sorts of ways. On top that, he’s always known that he’s gay, including during the years that Ireland was an almost de facto theocracy in terms of the strength the Catholic Church held in everyday life. Through the years, Cyril finds the people who will teach him how to love himself, but it’s a journey. A warmhearted one—often funny, sometimes harrowing, but altogether enchanting to read. (Hogarth)

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

An incredible debut novel, A Kind of Freedom follows the lives of three generations of a family in New Orleans. In 1944, Evelyn, the daughter of a Creole mother and a well-to-do black doctor, falls in love with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to study medicine but is stuck working menial jobs. Years later, Evelyn’s daughter, Jackie, is trying to decide whether or not to give her partner another chance to live with her and their son, but she’s concerned he’ll lose himself to crack, as he has before. Years later still, Jackie’s son T.C. has to reckon with a post-Katrina New Orleans in which he’s become a weed grower who loves the craft and biology of the growing far more than any high. Through their eyes, we see a changing New Orleans, as well as all the things that have stayed the same. Gathering these strands and investing readers in several characters couldn’t have been easy, but Sexton has mastered her storytelling. (Counterpoint)

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s sophomore novel is compulsively readable. The Richardsons are a perfect family living in Shaker Heights near Cleveland, Ohio. At least, that’s how they seem to Pearl, who has just moved to town with her artist mother, Mia. As Pearl integrates herself into the lives of the four Richardson kids, Mia works for the family, as well as at a Chinese restaurant. When Mia hears about her coworker Bebe’s daughter, whom she’d placed at a fire station during a deep depressive episode, Mia wants to help—especially as she happens to know where Bebe’s daughter is. She’s nearby, adopted by a family that’s close to the Richardsons. Exploring class, race, privilege, and the secrets we keep to protect those we love, Ng’s book doesn’t disappoint.  (Penguin Press)

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

When an aristocrat is deemed “unrepented” in 1922 Russia, he gets punished. But then again, Count Alexander Rostov’s punishment is somewhat ironic: he’s sentenced to house arrest, for life, in a tremendously fancy hotel in the heart of Moscow. Instead of dwelling in isolation under harsh conditions, he gets to live in the lap of luxury. Okay, he’s in the attic, and the servants aren’t exactly at his constant beck and call, but it’s close enough to seem like a cozy life. Which is exactly what it is—a cozy and fascinating life, too. We watch as Count Rostov makes friends, gossips, and sees the people who come and go from the hotel reflecting the state of the Russia he’s still in but no longer part of. Charming, funny, and an instant favorite. (Viking)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward won her second National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, so you’re likely to see this title on every Best of 2017 list out there. And for good reason—the novel is full of pathos, pain, and a kind of deep understanding that reaches not only into our nation but into every one of us. Leonie and her two children, Jojo and his 3-year-old sister, are on a somber road trip: they’re going to pick up the children’s father from prison. On the way, in alternating narration, Jojo and Leonie tell us about their broken family, in which Leonie is only sometimes around due to her struggle with addiction, and in which Jojo has taken on a care-taking role for his sister. Distrustful children and a resentful mother don’t make for a happy road trip, but the points of contact shine with potential, especially as they remark on a world that’s still so cold to their humanity. (Scribner)

Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters

Alice Waters is well-known as the creator and head chef of Chez Panisse. But how did she become that Alice Waters? Where did her passion for the sensual pleasures of food come from? In her memoir, Waters describes her early years, the time that came before Chez Panisse opened in 1974. She grew up in a ho-hum household in New Jersey and enjoyed few fresh foods. College was unremarkable, so she left and fell in love with Berkeley during the height of the Free Speech Movement. From there, she ended up in Paris, where she came to adore the way French people ate: the full-bodied, sensorial quality of it. On her return to the U.S., she began to figure out what she would need to replicate in order to have a full French experience—and finally, Chez Panisse was born. (Clarkson Potter)

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the most respected writers of our time, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been deemed a voice of his generation. In this essay collection, he releases some of his most well-known pieces that originally appeared in The Atlantic, with added context about the writing and a reflection from his current vantage point. The years he references in the title are, of course, referring to the Barack Obama presidency, which Coates doesn’t treat as a simple win for the black community, but rather sees Obama in all his complexities as a president who couldn’t and didn’t do enough. With Coates’ added material, this is a volume worth investing in—the sheer intelligence and urgency of his writing launches into our psyche. (One World)

American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee

The Rocky Mountain gray wolf was almost extinct in the continental U.S. by the end of the 20th century, until they were reintroduced in 1995. O-Six is one of these wolves, a she-wolf living in Yellowstone Park, where she and her kind have plenty of prey in the form of elk and other smaller animals, as well as safe places to sleep and den together. But her peace is constantly threatened by other packs, as well as the machinations and foibles of humanity, this species of ours that seems to know only destruction. Ranchers around Yellowstone have their complex political battles regarding wolves, as do hunters, lawmakers, tourists, and the folks who cater to tourists. Through a few main characters, Nate Blakeslee draws us into the plight of the wolf, and through it, to the plight of animals and the planet as a whole. (Crown)

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

One of the most lauded short stories collections released this year was this much anticipated book from Carmen Maria Machado. The author looks at fairy tales that are old—a ribbon tied around a wife’s neck, and her insistence that her husband never untie it—and fairy tales that are new—like the procedural television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The people in her stories often undergo anguish, but they’re also strong, nuanced, and refuse to succumb to their reality. Although there are several fantastical or eerily unreal moments, there’s so much reality in terms of emotion and mood that it’s hard to remember our lives don’t include the elements Machado brings into her stories. We’re living in such strange times that a book like this almost feels like a manual for how to handle the world. (Graywolf)

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Cedar Hawk Songmaker is the narrator of Louise Erdrich’s newest, beautiful novel. Adopted by white parents and proud all her life of her Native American background, Cedar is deeply disappointed to learn her birth family is bourgeoisie and lacks connection to the natural world, which she believed she’d inherited from them. But she’s four months pregnant, and she doesn’t want to give birth under the controlled circumstances set in place by the government. This is all taking place in a future during which evolution runs backwards—babies are born as earlier versions of the human species—not to mention apocalyptic weather changes and the collapsing of banks and the internet. In a letter to her unborn child, Cedar explores the ravages of the world around her as she seeks out her medical history by searching for her birth family. (Harper)

Featured images: Sergio Speroni

About Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.

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