After the third or fifth day of watching me stagger blearily over to the carbohydrates and drag them back to my lair, my father knocked on my door. We needed, he said, to have a talk.
“Reading isn’t real life,” he told me. “You’re missing it.”
The older I get, the more vigorously I suspect he was wrong.
So in honor of a real and vital reading life, and in no particular order, I hereby present the five liveliest, most crackling, most consuming books I read in 2017.
Best family drama: Commonwealth, Ann Patchett. I love a good family drama! So many dynamics! So much pettiness! But they are difficult to execute- often either too sprawling or too small-minded. Commonwealth managed to be simultaneously sweeping and finely drawn- a luminous spiderweb of a novel, with a trace of venom at its core.
Honorable mentions: Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout; Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan; The Nix, Nathan Hill.
Best utopia gone wrong: Arcadia, Lauren Groff. Who doesn’t love a utopia gone off the rails? The collision of idealism and reality always makes for good plot, and I’ve read dozens of variations on this theme. This one managed to surprise me. It’s beautifully written, to boot.
Honorable mentions: The Girls, Emma Cline; Euphoria, Lily King.
Best dose of reality: Evicted, Matthew Desmond. A thoroughly dispiriting, yet absolutely riveting, account of poverty and those who take advantage of poverty. Evicted won a Pulitzer this year, so it doesn’t need my plaudits. It has them, nonetheless.
Honorable mentions: Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild; Shrill, Lindy West.
Best book I really didn’t want to like: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders. Boy do I hate Celebrated Male Writers using Craft to Talk About Big Things. Unfortunately for me, this book was fantastic.
Honorable mentions: Swing Time, Zadie Smith; Within a Budding Grove, Marcel Proust
Best book to pass the Bechdel Test: The Animators, Kayla Rae Whitaker. It's not often that a book catches me out, because there are only so many stories writers tend to want to tell. But the animators surprised me consistently, even relentlessly. It also awakened me to the disturbing rarity of the female work narrative- a story in which women are working for the sake of work (as opposed empowerment or self-actualization or love or family or identity or world-bettering), and in which work forms the backbone of the narrative. This is a big, sloppy, overstuffed, hardworking novel- and 100% worth the mess.
Honorable mention: I only wish there were more in this category.