A Scenic Drive Through My Favorite Books of 2017

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Los Planes de Renderos, San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo by Oswaldo Martinez.

I’ve been away from this blog for a while, but I want to get it rolling again and start off 2018 right. And what better way to do that than by sharing my personal top picks from books I’ve read in 2017?

I read a lot of translated literature, so to avoid confusion, I’ve cut the following list into two parts: original works published in English in 2017 and translations published in English in 2017 (and in the U.S., if it comes to that, because that’s what determines when I can get stuff).

While Lit All Over has a special focus on literature all over the globe, and I read in French (while working on a couple other languages), I haven’t yet made a point of writing about foreign literature that’s not available in English translation. (For that, see the The Untranslated.)

This list includes prose collections of various kinds and novels. As far as poetry goes, I just unfortunately haven’t read enough full books of it from 2017 to be able to include anything specific on this list. As always, I have books on my reading list that I haven’t gotten to, and I feel that I haven’t read enough.

This is a fairly casual and short list, but I hope it serves its intended purpose of helping anyone enjoy something they wouldn’t otherwise have found.

My Favorite Books of 2017

Books Written in English

Through the Sad Wood Our Corpses Will Hang by Ava Farmehri (Guernica Editions)

I’m putting this first because it’s probably the “smallest” book on this list in terms of press. It’s also a debut. Through the Sad Wood Our Corpses Will Hang is (maybe not so reliably) narrated by a twenty-year-old Iranian girl who has been jailed for the crime of murdering her mother. It charms the reader with its soft, vivid depictions of nature and family life while making profound cuts into politics and philosophy. The cover art and title are intriguing and the book does not disappoint. You can read my full review of it here. You can also read an excerpt here.

So Much Blue by Percival Everett (Graywolf Press)

Percival Everett’s So Much Blue covers three alternating timelines in the life of Kevin Pace, a painter who questions the validity of both his career choice and his art.

In one timeline, Kevin is being swept up in the troubles of a friend whose brother may have gotten himself into a bit of a pickle in war-threatened El Salvador. In another, Kevin is a known artist on the brink of having an affair with a much younger watercolorist in Paris. In the third, he’s still married to his wife of some years, Linda, and he has something he keeps from everyone—including, to a certain extent, the reader: a secret painting locked in a shed.

As the timelines progress, their subject matter begins to intersect. So Much Blue explores the relationship between life and art, but like Kevin himself, it’s suspicious of sentimental or easy answers. It’s more straightforward than some of Everett’s previous work, but it’s incredibly well crafted, and may be my favorite novel that uses alternating timelines. In true Everett fashionSo Much Blue simply nails the format.

Transit by Rachel Cusk (Macmillan)

Transit is the second book in a trilogy from writer Rachel Cusk that, according to The New Yorker, “gut-renovates” the novel. It continues the interwoven first-, second- and third-hand accounts that spider outward from Faye, the ever-present but often nearly invisible first-person narrator. In the first book of the trilogy, Outline, Faye meets with a variety of strangers on a trip to Greece to teach a writing class, and stumbles into the back alleys of their lives through conversations that merge the personal and philosophical.

Transit follows Faye through the ill-advised purchase and nightmare renovation of a barely habitable home in London, also worming its way into quick, limited depictions of people’s experiences. It ranges from sad to very, very funny, whisking the reader through the negative spaces of life, through moments of hiding, exhaustion and transformation.

Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill (Penguin Random House)

This, a gathering of non-fiction pieces—from personal essays to book reviews—written by Gaitskill for various publications over the years, is my most fan-girlish pick. It can’t really be compared to more deliberately formed creative works from last year, it definitely has its highs and lows, and it’s more of a collection of odds and ends than any sort of cohesive whole. All the same, I think this collection reinforces the fact that Gaitskill has been doing not just good but important work from Day One. You can read my full review here.

Another essay collection from a known fiction writer from 2017 that’s worth checking out is Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, which includes the essay “To Speak Is to Blunder,” originally published in The New Yorker.

Translations

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye (translated from the French by Jordan Stump) (Two Lines Press)

The world of My Heart Hemmed In, Marie NDiaye’s latest novel in English, is like the one we live in, but just enough not like it to make us feel doubtful about how much we should sympathize with its main character, Nadia, who finds herself at odds with others in her neighborhood for reasons she doesn’t understand.

We aren’t given enough information to know if Nadia is a victim, having drawn the wrath of her neighbors for assuming her place in a community where she’s viewed as an outsider due to her background or appearance, or if she’s guilty of inflicting her own prejudices, power or privilege on others. At various times, either or both situations seem possible. Despite keeping the reader on edge, My Heart Hemmed In has an underlying warmth and humor that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected from a book so fraught with tension. You can read my full review of it here.

The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun (translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell) (Arcade Publishing)

This slow, subtle novel is about a man recovering from a car crash in what come to seem like threatening circumstances. Exposed to his thoughts, we begin to understand how his previous relationship with his wife colors his current relationship with his mother-in-law, in whose questionable care he’s been placed. The story has elements of horror, but most of it happens underground, so to speak. Its main strength lies in its ability to slowly shift the reader’s point of view. It’s quiet enough to creep up on you, and ambiguous enough to make multiple readings produce different perspectives. Read my full review here.

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami (translated from the Japanese by Lucy North) (Pushkin Press)

If someone had summed up some of the weirder parts of this book to me before I read it, I probably would have come to it pre-annoyed. But I’d like to think that even in that case I’d have come around. Record of a Night Too Brief is three stories in one volume. Surreal with plenty of verve and punch, it has an Alice-in-Wonderland-for-adults quality to it.

One story follows a character having strange encounters in a world where objects and people spontaneously materialize and change form; in another, shifting family dynamics run alongside physical vanishment; the third involves snakes that take on human characteristics and insinuate themselves into people’s lives. Despite its fantastical flourishes, what mainly draws me into Record of a Night Too Brief is a kind of spontaneous, ambling movement that endeavors to doggedly narrate what’s beyond explanation—this reminds me of Beckett. In fact, the opening of the first story immediately made me think of the opening of Company, and shares some even more obvious traits with it.

Not One Day by Anne Garréta (translated from the French by Emma Ramadan) (Deep Vellum Publishing)

This may be my favorite book of 2017, a surprise since it springs from what first seemed to me a rather pretentious idea: Garréta, a member of the French literary group Oulipo, undertakes to recount an “alphabet” of times she desired a woman or a woman desired her. Well, sort of. Let’s just say that’s the way the work is initially presented. But the project doesn’t adhere to its stated intentions, nor does it manifest as some sort of poseurish tribute to previous sexual conquests.

In one of the narratives in Not One Day, a woman remarks to the “author-protagonist” (as we’ll briefly call the person understood to be Garréta but who for being written in the second person and other reasons gradually gets hazier) that a young girl who appears to have a crush on her must be mistaken about her gender, a comment that seems absurd for multiple reasons. In another, our hero is informed by a friend that a fellow student in her self-defense class is infatuated with her. Having no clue who it is, she spends the remainder of the class’s duration reading intensely into her physical interactions with everyone.

Not One Day refuses to take its place as either a sociological essay, a memoir or a work of fiction. It explores the relationship between desire and conformity while pulling the reader close to the subject matter through its persistent “you”s and impromptu mood. It’s a bittersweet excursion into the irrepressible and often perplexing matter of human longing.

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