Times Critics’ Top Books of 2017

‘MANHATTAN BEACH’ By Jennifer Egan (Scribner). Egan’s immensely satisfying new novel, the follow-up to “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, is a dreadnought of a World War II-era historical novel, bristling with armaments yet intimate in tone. It primarily tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, a young woman who works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where women have been allowed to hold jobs that belonged only to men. This is an old-fashioned page-turner, tweaked by this witty and sophisticated writer so that you sometimes feel she has retrofitted sleek new engines inside a craft owned for too long by James Jones and Herman Wouk. (Read the review.)

‘SUNSHINE STATE: ESSAYS’ By Sarah Gerard (Harper Perennial). Thanks to books by John Jeremiah Sullivan (“Pulphead”) and Leslie Jamison (“The Empathy Exams”) and a handful of other young writers, the essay collection has new impetus and drama in American letters. Gerard’s book deserves to be talked about in this company. One of its themes is the way Florida can unmoor you and make you reach for shoddy, off-the-shelf solutions to your psychic unease. This book’s first essay, in particular, is a knockout, a lurid red heart wrapped in barbed wire. It’s about the author’s intense friendship with a girl who grew up to be a stripper and spend time in women’s shelters, and it has the sinister propulsion of a Mary Gaitskill short story. (Read the review.)

‘STICKY FINGERS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JANN WENNER AND ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE’ By Joe Hagan (Knopf). Wenner is said to regret his decision to choose Hagan to be his biographer, but from this reader’s perspective his bet paid off: Hagan has delivered a graceful, confident, dispassionately reported and deeply well-written biography. It’s a big book, one that no one will wish longer, but its chapters move past like a crunching collection of singles and not a thumb-sucking double album. It’s a joy to read and feels built to last. (Read the review.)

‘THE ANSWERS’ By Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Lacey writes sentences that are long and clean and unstanchable. They glow like the artist Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light tubes. In this, her second novel, she sweeps you up in the formidable current of her thought and then drops you down the rabbit hole. On a certain level, this is a dystopian project; it borders on science fiction. It’s about a young, underemployed and ill young woman, and how she is slowly drawn into an experiment that involves facial recognition software and electromagnetic pulses that can make a person weep or flush. It’s a warm-blooded yet brooding novel about the neurobiology of love. It casts a spell. (Read the review.)

‘CLASS’ By Francesco Pacifico (Melville House). Pacifico’s second novel is as bitter and strange as a glass of Fernet Branca. It’s about young, wealthy, amoral Italian hipsters in Manhattan and Brooklyn circa 2010, and it is the work of a forceful and ambitious writer. The novel is a manifesto of contempt and its deformed twin, self-loathing. It’s about young people who flicker across the globe, tucked under blankets and Beats headphones in first-class airplane seats, coasting on the dwindling remains of their trust funds. This book both attracted and appalled me when I first read it, and those feelings still hold true. But I find this novel has stuck with me in ways that ostensibly “better” ones have not. (Read the review.)

‘HOME FIRE’ By Kamila Shamsie (Riverhead). Shamsie’s new novel, which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is a bold retelling of Sophocles’ “Antigone.” It begins with the airport interrogation of a young Muslim woman who has come to the United States to study, and Shamsie dilates throughout on Sophocles’ themes: civil disobedience, fidelity and the law, especially as regards burial rights. The author is shrewd and funny, but this novel pushes past tragicomedy into darker areas, including the appeal of ISIS for some young men. Hold tight for its final scene, which is the most memorable of any novel I read this year. (Read the review.)

‘AUTUMN’ By Ali Smith (Pantheon). Smith has a beautiful mind. Her new book, the first of an anticipated four novels in a seasonal cycle, is ostensibly about the friendship between a young woman and a very old man. But it’s really about everything: poverty and bureaucracy and sex and mortality and music. Perhaps the most moving thing about it is that it plays out against a certain sense that the world is heading into darker times. Post-Brexit, and with an election looming in the United States, people watch the evening news with their hearts tucked up under their ears. I found this book to be almost unbearably moving in its awareness of what the author praises as the “array of colors of even the pulverized world.” (Read the review.)

Jennifer Senior

How else to put it? This was a corkscrew of a year. Its exceptionalness — the sheer blinding drama of it all — seems to have determined my reading preferences, repeatedly guiding me toward topical subjects. Not on this list, but worth mentioning: Joe Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad” and Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened,” two strong political memoirs, a true rarity (the genre’s generally a dud, an excuse to peddle bromides dipped in chloroform). Not everything on this list is political, of course, and neither are some of my honorable mentions. I particularly enjoyed the thriller “Fierce Kingdom,” by Gin Phillips, and the lively true-crime procedural “American Fire,” by Monica Hesse.

Because this is my final month on the job, I ask one minor indulgence: While my fellow staff critics have done the customary list of 10, I’ve added one more for the road. It’s “Cork Dork.” We can always use a good glass of wine, perhaps especially this year.

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Patricia Wall/The New York Times

‘CORK DORK: A WINE-FUELED ADVENTURE AMONG THE OBSESSIVE SOMMELIERS, BIG BOTTLE HUNTERS, AND ROGUE SCIENTISTS WHO TAUGHT ME TO LIVE FOR TASTE’ By Bianca Bosker (Penguin). Ordinarily, I loathe thousand-yard subtitles, but I’ll concede that here, where I have so little room to write, this one at least does some of the work for me. Bosker, once an editor at The Huffington Post, quit her day job to become a certified sommelier, and her adventures in this sodden universe of fanatics are a combination of rigorous — 20,000 different wines to memorize? — and raucous. (Read the review.)

‘RICHARD NIXON: THE LIFE’ By John A. Farrell (Doubleday). The tests for a good Nixon biography, given how many exist, are fairly simple. One: Is it elegantly written? Two: Can it tolerate paradoxes and complexity, the spikier stuff that distinguishes real-life sinners from comic-book villains? The answer, in the case of this book, is yes on both counts. Farrell’s work also happens to feel eerily relevant. The parallels between Nixon and our current president leap off the page like crickets. (Read the review.)

‘LOCKING UP OUR OWN: CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN BLACK AMERICA’ By James Forman Jr. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). This superb, shattering book probably made a deeper impression on me than any other this year. It tells the story, beginning in the 1970s, of how prominent African-Americans played a role in lobbying for more punitive measures to fight gun violence and drug dealing, in the quest to keep their neighborhoods safe. Never once did they imagine that their efforts would result in the inhuman outcome of mass incarceration. A tragedy to the bone. (Read the review.)

‘JANESVILLE: AN AMERICAN STORY’ By Amy Goldstein (Simon & Schuster). A magnificently well-researched ethnography of an ailing Wisconsin town after a General Motors plant shuts down. That it happens to be the home of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan adds to the political drama, but the real tensions are on the ground, where families contend with declining incomes and itinerant dads. The author deserves a medal for her data-driven work on the limits of job retraining. (Read the review.)

‘THE WATER WILL COME: RISING SEAS, SINKING CITIES, AND THE REMAKING OF THE CIVILIZED WORLD’ By Jeff Goodell (Little, Brown). An immersive, mildly gonzo and depressingly well-timed book about the drenching effects of global warming, and a powerful reminder that we can bury our heads in the sand about climate change for only so long before the sand itself disappears. (Read the review.)

‘TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN’ By John Green (Dutton). He may have a gift for screwball comedy, but Green has always had a serious streak too, and this book, his first since “The Fault in Our Stars,” is his most personal and serious yet — more Paul Thomas Anderson than Wes Anderson. The protagonist, Aza, suffers from an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (as does Green), and her rogue thoughts threaten to overwhelm her life. One needn’t be a fellow sufferer to be moved to tears. (Read the review.)

‘BLACK EDGE: INSIDE INFORMATION, DIRTY MONEY, AND THE QUEST TO BRING DOWN THE MOST WANTED MAN ON WALL STREET’ By Sheelah Kolhatkar (Random House). A modern version of “Moby-Dick,” with wiretaps rather than harpoons. Kolhatkar, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former hedge fund analyst, gives a captivating account of skulduggery at SAC Capital Advisors, and of the failure of the Feds to indict its founder, Steven A. Cohen. It would be an uncomplicated pleasure to read if the story weren’t true. (Read the review.)

‘THE FAR AWAY BROTHERS: TWO YOUNG MIGRANTS AND THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN LIFE’ By Lauren Markham (Crown). An intimately reported and beautifully rendered work of nonfiction about a pair of 17-year-old boys — “unaccompanied alien children,” in the chilly parlance of the law — who come to the United States to escape the gang brutality of El Salvador. An education in the realities of immigration, which, not surprisingly, are more complicated than sound bites from the left or the right would allow. (Read the review.)

‘THE ESSEX SERPENT’ By Sarah Perry (Custom House/William Morrow). This Victorian-era novel is one of almost insolent ambition — lush and fantastical, brimming with ideas. The premise is that a giant sea monster is haunting a small English town, but Perry uses it only as an excuse to riff on faith and science, friendship and solitude. Have I mentioned there are enough love triangles here to confound Euclid? It’s the kind of book that’s so involving you read it as you’re walking down the street. (Read the review.)

‘ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE’ By Elizabeth Strout (Random House). You pick up a book by Strout for the same reason you listen to a requiem: to experience the beauty in sadness. That was the joy of reading her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,” and it’s the joy of reading this novel too, which once again focuses on an interconnected cast of broken souls in a small town. (Read the review.)

‘DYING: A MEMOIR’ By Cory Taylor (Tin House). An electrifying book about dying that’s part dreamy reminiscence, part philosophical monograph. The author, reckoning with Stage 4 melanoma, demystifies the final experience of our lives, exploring questions of control, fear and regret. My copy is underlined like a composition notebook. “For what are we,” Taylor asks, “if not a body taking a mind for a walk, just to see what’s there?” (Read the review.)

Parul Sehgal

As it turns out, nearly every book on my list is a history of violence. More than half are stalked by monsters — real or imaginary. Several are tinged with elements of horror, science fiction and the gothic.

None of this was by design but it feels appropriate. It’s been that kind of year. But these books haven’t stuck with me just because they mirror the mood of a moment. Every book puts a new spin on a classic form: the biography, the short story, the campus novel. Old stories, new strategies. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. (A note on my selections: Since I only began as a staff book critic in July, a few of my picks are books I reviewed or assigned earlier in the year as an editor at The New York Times Book Review.)

‘THE IDIOT’ By Elif Batuman (Penguin Press). Batuman describes the heroine of her first novel, Selin, as “the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person”: an American teenager. She’s also irresistible — a clever, almost appallingly innocent 6-foot-tall daughter of Turkish immigrants who arrives at Harvard in the mid-’90s and begins wooing a reluctant love interest over email. Every page is thicketed with jokes, riffs, theories of language. It’s a portrait of an intellectual and sentimental education that offers almost unseemly pleasure. (Read the review.)

‘THE COMPLETE STORIES’ By Leonora Carrington (Dorothy). This year is the centennial of the birth of the British Surrealist, who died in 2011. Her short stories are marked by a strange, spectral charm — women undress down to their skeletons; a sociable hyena ventures out to a debutante ball, wearing the face of a murdered maid — but they’re also a form of oblique autobiography. Carrington finds ways to tell her own story — of exile, harrowing institutionalization, reinvention — in code, and with dark mirth. (Read the review.)

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Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

‘MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS’ By Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics). Drawn with Bic pen on lined notebook paper, this moody and ravishing graphic novel takes the form of a sketchbook diary. Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, 10-year-old Karen Reyes investigates the suspicious death of her glamorous neighbor and finds troubling clues lurking close to her own home. The densely crosshatched pages pay homage to Otto Dix’s psychologically shaded portraits and the classic monster magazines of the 1950s. An eerie masterpiece of the monsters around and within us. (Read the review.)

‘THESE POSSIBLE LIVES’ By Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor (New Directions). The Swiss Italian writer’s unconventional biographies of three writers — Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and Marcel Schwob — contain some of my favorite sentences of the year. “His sister Jane lived three years,” she writes of De Quincey. “When she died, Thomas thought that she would come back, like a crocus. Children who grow up in the country know about death; they can, in a manner of speaking, see their own bones out the window.” Jaeggy finds a new way to tell the story of a life — to pluck out “human characteristics amidst the chaos,” as Schwob described the biographer’s art, and to distill her subjects’ essences onto the page. (Read the review.)

‘HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES: STORIES’ By Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf). Machado’s debut collection is a wild thing, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link, borrowing from science fiction, queer theory and horror. These eight tales depict women on the verge — survivors of assault, brutal marriages and mysterious afflictions. Machado finds fresh language for ancient horrors. (Read the review.)

‘DIFFICULT WOMEN: A MEMOIR OF THREE’ By David Plante (New York Review Books). Plante’s recently reissued memoir of his friendships with three literary icons — Jean Rhys, Germaine Greer and Sonia Orwell — is a tart and complicated pleasure. First published in 1983, the book horrified some with its frank portrayals of the women at their most unguarded, vulnerable or drunk, but there’s no denying its power. Each scene burns with dark excitement, and Plante’s honesty is exhilarating. It’s an indelible book about friendship, isolation, ambition — and what it means to make a religion out of literature. (Read the review.)

‘THE EVOLUTION OF BEAUTY: HOW DARWIN’S FORGOTTEN THEORY OF MATE CHOICE SHAPES THE ANIMAL WORLD — AND USBy Richard O. Prum (Doubleday). Prum, an ornithologist and museum curator, resurrects Darwin’s provocative theory of sexual selection, which argues that animals select mates on the basis of beauty, not just genetic fitness. His elaborations are elegant, persuasive and come to a surprisingly feminist conclusion — that female desire shaped evolution. (Read the review.)

‘BEHAVE: THE BIOLOGY OF HUMANS AT OUR BEST AND WORSTBy Robert M. Sapolsky (Penguin Press). Sapolsky, a neurologist and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, offers a masterly cross-disciplinary scientific study of human behavior: What in our glands, our genes, our childhoods explains our species’ capacity for both altruism and brutality? This comprehensive and friendly survey of a “big sprawling mess of a subject” is leavened by an impressive data-to-silly joke ratio. It has my vote for science book of the year. (Read the review.)

‘GHACHAR GHOCHAR’ By Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur (Penguin). There’s a whole universe folded into this slender, spiny novel. It’s a parable of rising India and of violence against women, and a sly commentary on translation (it’s one of the first books written in the Indian language of Kannada to be published in the United States). Shanbhag is an heir to Babel, and this story of a family’s moral unraveling and descent into cruelty after it comes into sudden wealth — capped by a hair-raising ending — already feels like a modern-day classic. (Read the review.)

‘SING, UNBURIED, SING’ By Jesmyn Ward (Scribner). Ward’s National Book Award-winning third novel sings America. A death-haunted, drug-addicted woman and her children take a road trip to collect her white husband from prison, picking up a mysterious hitchhiker on the way: the ghost of a 12-year-old boy who’s on a quest of his own. Delving into the long aftershocks of a hurricane, the ties between slavery and the mass incarceration of black men, and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America, this is a searing, timely novel inspired by classics of American literature, notably Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and it takes its place among them. (Read the review.)

Janet Maslin

Mine is the strangest of these lists. I left The Times’s staff two and a half years ago, but apparently I won’t go away. I write intermittently about books with the potential to be popular.

The good ones are hard to find. So rather than stick to books I actually reviewed this year, I drew on favorite things I read in 2017, even though one dates back to 1993 and another was reviewed by Dwight Garner. One criterion for this list is: “Is this something you’d give to a friend?” Everything on my list meets that standard.

I’ve left out major titles, like Ron Chernow’s “Grant,” that I reviewed but hardly need attention here. I’d like to mention two first-rate books by actors: Tom Hanks’s “Uncommon Type,” a short-story collection that offers him a second career path if this movie thing doesn’t work out, and Alec Baldwin’s frank memoir “Nevertheless.” Finally, thanks to Bill O’Reilly for “Old School” (written with Bruce Feirstein). He’s right about many things, particularly when it comes to the rigidity of thought on college campuses. But the very idea of a morality lecture from O’Reilly made this the best unintended humor book of 2017.

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Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

‘STICKY FINGERS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JANN WENNER AND ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE’ By Joe Hagan (Knopf). You need not have the slightest interest in Wenner, his magazine or even the music it celebrated to find this a terrifically astute work of pop-cultural history. Hagan chronicles the 50-year arc of longhairs turned climbers turned power brokers, and he does it with insight and flair. A great read, mixing wall-to-wall dish with long-view acuity. This is the book I gave to friends most often this year. (Read the review.)

‘THE DRY’ By Jane Harper (Flatiron). Harper’s swift, dazzling debut thriller is set in a desperately parched part of rural Australia, where nothing is what it seems. The book delivers a twist or shocker or sneaky trick on virtually every page. Harper may be the all-time best advertisement for online courses in fiction writing. Her follow-up, coming in February, will be set where there’s mud. (Read the review.)

‘THE FORCE’ By Don Winslow (William Morrow). Steel yourself for this brutal, gut-punching story of an elite Manhattan police task force trying to maintain some semblance of decency. Winslow’s New York cop story brings to mind Sidney Lumet, Richard Price and other stars of the genre, but he is strictly his own man. Procedural at its start, this story of trapped, corrupted, once-clean Detective Denny Malone is a killer by the time it’s over. (Read the review.)

‘WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE: ESSAYS’ By Samantha Irby (Vintage). Here’s a madly hilarious blogger who really came into her own this year. Food is her ostensible subject, but she can get anywhere from there. The book is dedicated to Klonopin, and its essays include “I’m in Love and It’s Boring,” “Thirteen Questions to Ask Before Getting Married” and “A Case for Remaining Indoors.” (Read the review.)

‘DEVIL’S BARGAIN: STEVE BANNON, DONALD TRUMP, AND THE STORMING OF THE PRESIDENCY By Joshua Green (Penguin Press). A fair and fascinating portrait of Steve Bannon that explains two crucial things: who he is and how he got that way. Green traces the formation of Bannon’s basic beliefs, and finds the roots of the bellicose worldview that helped get President Trump elected. Filled with candid Bannon commentary about Bannon, it’s required reading for anyone interested in the future. (Read the review.)

‘SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS’ By J. Courtney Sullivan (Knopf). Reminiscent of both Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn” and Matthew Thomas’s “We Are Not Ourselves,” this enveloping novel follows a fraught Irish family through unimaginable trials. It introduces its two main characters as young sisters ready to emigrate from Ireland to America, and follows them through the rest of their lives. All of Sullivan’s characters leap off the page. You don’t read this book; you breathe it. (Read the review.)

‘THE MIDNIGHT LINE: A JACK REACHER NOVEL’ By Lee Child (Delacorte). It was a great year for the usual suspects, the big-name crime writers who always publish in mid-fall. After a brief period of the doldrums, a reinvigorated Child bounced back with an unusually impassioned story. The book’s first half feels like business as usual. Then it takes a sudden turn toward something important and genuinely wrenching. Child’s finales can be crazily far-fetched, but the last part of this one really matters. (Read the review.)

‘TWO KINDS OF TRUTH’ By Michael Connelly (Little, Brown). Connelly had a banner year. This summer, in “The Late Show,” he introduced a youngish new series heroine, Renée Ballard, who’ll come in handy as Harry Bosch moves through his late 60s. But Bosch is a ball of fire in this exceptionally good police procedural that tackles the opioid crisis — a ubiquitous plot point this year — head-on. And Harry gets to go undercover as a “pill shill.” Dive into this tightly plotted detective story for details. (Read the review.)

‘CAMINO ISLAND’ By John Grisham (Doubleday). Every now and then Grisham tries something new. This year he hit a bull’s-eye with a beach book featuring a bunch of writers, not a bunch of lawyers. There’s a huge sense of fun to this little experiment, which is good enough to be worth continuing. And for fans rattled by novelty, Grisham also delivered “The Rooster Bar” this year, a sharp-clawed attack on student debt and the for-profit law school racket. Good idea; good, vengeful execution. (Read the interview with Grisham.)

‘LOST TYCOON: THE MANY LIVES OF DONALD J. TRUMP’ By Harry Hurt III (Echo Point Books). When president-elect Trump booted the author of this 1993 unauthorized biography off one of his golf courses, I sensed that Hurt’s book might be of interest. Yes, indeed. It’s a prescient account of Trump’s business ethics, calculated manipulation of his inner circle, flair for fact-free hyperbole and nascent political ambitions at a time when anyone who knew him thought he was joking. P.S.: It’s filled to the gills with gossip. Read with caution.

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