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Selected Covers | Courtesy of New Directions, Fitzcarraldo Editions and Penguin Random House
Selected Covers | Courtesy of New Directions, Fitzcarraldo Editions and Penguin Random House

Culture Trip's Favourite Books of 2017

Picture of Matthew Janney
UK Books Editor
Updated: 15 December 2017

Our editors, staff, and contributors note which books published this year most affected them.

It is is easy to look at the news from 2017 and think the world is heading a new dark ages. The velocity of heinous news has increased at such a high rate that The New York Times now has a new column called ‘The Week in Good News’. End-of-year favourites offer much the same thing, a list of things that gave us respite from the woes of the world, or at least helped us to make sense of them. Books, in particular, force our attention away from our phones, making them ideal for necessary daily interruption. This year has been especially fruitful for literature, and so we’ve asked 10 of our colleagues and writers to highlight some of their favourite books published this year.

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Courtesy of Hamish Hamilton

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: In Search of Argentina’s Gaucho Dancers gives an affectionate portrayal of fierce malambo dancers in Argentina. Though journalistic in nature, Guerriero’s prose is tender and loving and full of energy. She creates a world that is both unfamiliar and utterly addictive, leaving the taps of the dancers’ boots echoing in the mind of the reader for days after. Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for its quicksilver prose and myriad of unashamedly human characters. The long-awaited second novel of the Indian author-cum-activist treads a delicate line between war and peace, and life and death, while weaving in and out of complex, intersecting storylines. As a read, it is both invigorating and heart-wrenching. I loved it. Finally, Vladimir Nabokov’s Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time. As a man who despised sleep, believing it to be an embarrassing human frailty, these collected nighttime musings (edited by the notable Nabokovist Gennady Barabtarlo) offer deep insight into the structure of time, the unconscious and the cosmic peculiarly of existence.” —Matthew Janney, UK Books Editor

 

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Courtesy of Graywolf Press

“Once you enter the wild, eerie marshlands of Daisy Johnson’s debut story collection, Fen, it’s difficult to get out of them. Long after reading the book, I still find images from it creeping into my mind: a teenage girl starving herself into the form of an eel, women eating men, incest. Set in the flat Fenlands in the east of England, these are stories clearly inspired by folklore that still manage to accurately depict modern female sexuality and desire. Take ‘How to Fuck a Man You Don’t Know’: a story that breaks down, in nine parts, a relationship that begins with sex in a public bathroom and ends because of a woman’s boredom with her overly-affectionate boyfriend. It’s always refreshing to read fiction that reverses the male gaze, especially when it’s done so strangely, with such skill and such … balls.” —Grace Beard, Senior Commissioning Editor

 

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Courtesy of Faber & Faber

“One of the standout books of 2017 has to be Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. Tender, thoughtful, and engrossing, this endlessly inventive novel tells the story of not one, but four separate Archibald Fergusons, each one the same boy, born on the same day, to the same parents, but each living completely different lives in mid-20th century America. As with any Auster work, the themes of loss, failure, and absent fathers are central to the lives of each Archibald. However, in 4 3 2 1, these issues are explored in a wider, more panoramic landscape, which cleverly re-imagines the grand, social realist novels of the past, while somehow redefining everything we’ve come to expect from the author.” —Reece Choules, Contributor 

 

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Courtesy of Penguin Random House

“When Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators begins, we think we know where are are: a recognizable if exemplary coming-of-age story about two female friends since college working in the boy’s club of independent animation. One is straight, the other gay, one dreamy and repressed, the other wild and self-destructive, both troubled romantically—we suspect the novel will be about their slow disenchantment as adults. Instead, Whitaker serves up curveball after curveball, radically destabilizing our expectations and taking her first novel into devastating emotional highs and lows. An irresistible novel that utilizes the madcap imagery of cartoons to underscore the realities of family secrets, romantic friendship, and death, The Animators is a masterful tour de force and total joy. Speaking of cartoons, I’m not much for graphic novels—which is good, because My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris isn’t one. An underground sensation that sold out its first printing in a matter of days, it’s more like if Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks added up to a narrative about identity, social upheaval in ’60s Chicago, and monster movies. A mystery story drawn in breathtaking ballpoint, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters follows precocious, monster-loving 10-year-old Karen Rayes, who imagines herself as a tiny Wolfman in a trench coat, as she investigates the mysterious death of her Holocaust-survivor neighbor, and is my favorite work of the year in any genre.” —JW McCormack, Books Staff Writer 

 

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Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“I recommend Eleanor Chai’s debut collection of poetry, Standing Water, which appeared in paperback this year, because it’s proof that poetry doesn’t need fireworks or gimmicks to be subversive and original. At a quick glance, a lot about the book may seem quiet and safe. The ideas and themes explored throughout (such as family, Greek mythology, and art), are hardly new. The language is mostly plainspoken, and linear in its progression. But a deeper reading of the book reveals the author’s insatiable curiosity, which is sharpened by her learnedness. One of Chai’s muses is Little Hanako, a Japanese stage actress whose expression of death agony in a performance inspired sculptor Auguste Rodin to create masks in her likeness. In resurrecting Little Hanako, the poet reveals the vast scope of her ambition, taking on personal and political subjects as fraught as mother-daughter relationships, gender norms, the male gaze, and Asian American identity. She is relentless in her examination, sometimes to the point of devastation. I find the book beautiful for what I imagine was the same reason that Rodin and Chai found Little Hanako fascinating: the paradox of life and death that is central to making art. If you like Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha—all radical in their own ways—you’ll enjoy Standing Water.” —Rosanna Oh, Commissioning Editor

 

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Courtesy of New Directions

“In the novel Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck offers us the perspective of Richard, a classics professor living outside Berlin. Years ago, he took a trip to Italy, where he developed a taste for cappuccino. But now, recently retired, he finds he’s unable to drink the cappuccino in front of him. Seated across the table is Osarobo, a refugee from Niger whom Richard has invited to the local bakery to hear his story. He doesn’t hear much. The young man shrugs, says, ‘Many, many people died’, but is unable to offer details. They both sink into silence. And then, in a curious imaginative leap, the foamed milk suddenly strikes Richard as ‘utterly inappropriate’. Go, Went, Gone is one of the most important books of the year—a novel that creates in the reader a visceral connection between the ongoing refugee crisis and the tastelessness of our uninterrupted lives.” —James Copeland, Contributor

 

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Courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions

“Though I’ve already probably written too much on it, Mathias Énard’s Compass is my favorite novel of the year, at once for the depth of its learning, the breadth of its scope, and Charlotte Mandell’s meticulous translation. It is a loving portrait of academia, orientalist history, and, well, love itself, full of clever arguments and esoteric details. All of this to say that there’s something in it for everyone, obviously. I should also mention Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution, quite possibly the best book I’ve read on the Syrian Civil War: a thorough, theoretical analysis by one of the Syrian opposition’s most respected intellectuals. An invaluable work for those who want to understand its ongoing tragedy.” —Simon Leser, UK Books Editor in Emeritus 

 

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Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“One of the things that made Susan Sontag so profound a writer is her incredible capacity for introspection. While her diaristic writing tends to embrace domestic and daily mundanity (eating of soft-boiled eggs, lunch dates with editors, constant trips to the Met), it also shows the murmurings of some of her most prolific ideas, later expanded upon in her best known works. For the most part, these were essayistic, but Sontag never abandoned a passion for fiction writing, which for many years, had been dismissed by critics as subordinate to her non-fiction. With new volume of short stories, Debriefing, published earlier this year, and an authorized biography due out next year, Sontag is returning to the literary map and just in time. Hers is a voice we desperately need in these times: a cultivated, acute mind wrangling with morality and loss, never satisfied with the surface, obsessively serious, and relentlessly questioning.” —Amber Snider, Home and Design Editor

 

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Courtesy of Hamish Hamilton

“The words and actions of elected officials in the United States and overseas have made immigration a subject that many have pondered this year. What responsibilities does a nation have to those whose lives are in danger overseas? What is a national identity, and how should it evolve? While questions like these have been debated by pundits and politicians with increased fervor this year, they’ve also led to some of the year‘s most gripping books. Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends tautly and movingly illustrates the hazards faced by those looking to immigrate to the United States, reminding readers of the human effect of regressive immigration policies. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West used a magic-realist device to illustrate the malleability of borders, and deftly utilized specificity and generality to demonstrate the global scope of this issue. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone told the tale of a retired academic working with a group of refugees to illustrate the ways in which German identity has shifted over time, and the ethical obligations humans have to one another. And Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s The Gurugu Pledge movingly channels the fears and hopes a group of people who have traveled from various African nations in the hopes of finding a better life in Europe. These writers take vastly different approaches to their subjects, but the result is an increased awareness of the issues at hand, and the innate humanity of all involved.” —Tobias Carroll, Contributor

 

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Courtesy of Penguin Press

In a year where almost every moment felt dominated by a breaking news push alerts, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World guiltlessly tells absurd stories, turning the everyday into momentous occasions. Reading her first-person, short sentenced prose feels similar to delivering a polished recollection of an embarrassing occurrence to a friend who knows you well enough to see the blemishes in the buffing. There is a haunting expectation within every story that leaves you scanning for a tragic or twisted ending that never quite comes. Homesick for Another World is a quick read—and one that doesn’t necessarily stay with you past the last sentence—but it is all-engrossing while you remain lost in the pages. —Amanda Suarez, Photography Editor