The best books of 2017
From hysterically curmudgeonly essays to raw novels about love and loss
With just a month left of this year, we’re reflecting on the best books we’ve read so far in 2017. From hysterically curmudgeonly essays to raw novels about love and loss, here are our picks for your bookshelf.
We are never meeting in real life by Samantha Irby
Samantha Irby’s new essay collection, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, has all the candor and humor of her indie-published first book, Meaty (currently in development at FX, co-written by Irby and Inside Amy Schumer head writer and executive producer Jessi Klein, with input from Jacobson). In this no-holds-barred account of sexual experimentation, life with Crohn’s disease (a chronic bowel condition), and what it’s like to move to the suburbs, Irby’s writing exudes equal parts anxiety and glee at the sheer weirdness of life, whether she’s describing the stress of writing in public places (“I am unfamiliar with coffee shop etiquette. Since I let the dude texting across from me hog the outlet, is he morally obligated to make sure no one runs off with my wallet while I’m in the can?”) or her internal debate about what to do with her dead father’s remains. —Keziah Weir
Purchase We Are Never Meeting in Real Life here.
Salt fat acid heat by Samin Nosrat
If you’re only going to buy one cookbook this year, let it be this so-much-more-than-a-recipe-book by Chez Panisse alum Samin Nosrat and illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton, guaranteed to turn even the most culinarily inept among us into kitchen proficient. Broken down into what Nosrat contends are the four key elements to cooking—salt, fat, acid, and heat—the book provides an at once whimsical and no-nonsense look at the science of food prep, interspersed with lively narrative sections on Nosrat’s own experiences in the kitchen. Want to know how to dress any dish, from steamed artichokes to garden lettuce? Or how to perfectly boil an egg? Break down a whole chicken? Make a perfect six-ingredient pie dough or gluten-free beer-battered fish? It’s all here, and Nosrat makes it easy as pie. (Classic apple à la mode, chocolate pudding, or pumpkin—your choice.) —Keziah Weir
Purchase Salt Fat Acid Heat here.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
No millennial-pink book cover has ever been so sneakily deployed. Batuman’s follow-up to acclaimed non-fiction collection The Possessed could never be described as delicate, sweet, winky, or prim. Rather, it’s the dwelling place for one of contemporary literature’s most endearing lummocks to date. Surrounded by charming oddities in her first year at Harvard, Turkish-American undergraduate Selin falls in love with the lanky Ivan, relying on hilariously ’90s technology and her limited social nous to eke out romantic progress. If this sounds like elite-ish bellyaching to you, then fall back. But if you scrutinize human bonds as confusedly as you might study chemical ones, feeling like insight will forever elude you, you’ll guzzle The Idiot‘s sardonic wit and drawn-out quotidian tragedies. —Estelle Tang
Purchase The Idiot here.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
It seems off-brand to not introduce this book in the parlance of the author’s father and titular man of the cloth, whose signature exclamations range from “GAD” to “NAW” to the appropriately Christ-centric “JIMINY CHRISTMAS.” Poet Patricia Lockwood has crafted one of the year’s most singular memoirs with this account of her father, who, after watching The Exorcist on board a submarine in the deeps of the ocean no less than 72 times, converted to Christianity. Then, of course, he became a priest—but only after he was already married, making him one of a select crew in the clergy: a “Priestdaddy.” Lockwood’s prose has the lyricism and perfect peculiarity of her poetry, diffusing the sometimes-darkness of her own life in a brilliantly observed kaleidoscope of kook. —Estelle Tang
Purchase Priestdaddy here.
The Rules Don’t Apply by Ariel Levy
“I wanted what we all want: everything,” writes Ariel Levy in The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir, which expands upon her powerful New Yorker personal essay about miscarrying, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” “We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers.” Levy’s story is about getting everything she wants—an exciting wife, her dream job, pregnancy—and then losing almost all of it over the course of a few short weeks. Brilliantly written, and soaring on Levy’s signature eye for detail, the memoir conjures grief, success, love, anger, addiction, and betrayal at a rapid-fire clip that feels very much like the thing it describes, which is, of course, life. —Keziah Weir
Purchase The Rules Do Not Apply here.
Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro
From the literary voyeur’s annals of What It Really Looks Like Inside a Marriage comes this slim, impressionistic memoir, Dani Shapiro’s ninth book to date. At the ages of 52 and 59 respectively, Shapiro and her husband have a lot to recall, and plenty still to come; this account couples run-of-the-marriage-mill travails like tracking down the culprit who bored a hole into the side of the house (a somewhat elusive woodpecker) with more reflective tasks like revisiting a honeymoon diary, only to wonder how much one’s past iteration has changed or remained. A perfect addition to the oeuvre of a writer and thinker who has put to the page ruminations on faith, family, creativity, and loss, Hourglass is an infinitely readable, wonderfully relateable paean to the unpredictable nature of life with the person you love. —Estelle Tang
Purchase Hourglass here.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
The life of the single woman is a contested subject: nominally her own, but unendingly claimed for scrutiny and critique by family, friends, and society at large. All Grown Up‘s Andrea Bern slogs through a job she disdains, disdains the art that she loves, and loves the family she ignores. But avoidance is the key when others’ ideas of you are totally fixed and persistent. “Why is being single the only thing people think of when they think of me?” she asks, but defining herself otherwise—given those peskily intrusive social norms and her own conflicting desires—really isn’t all that easy. Pent-up rage fuels this fizzing novel, Attenberg’s sixth, and you’ll likely burn through it in one greedy day. —Estelle Tang
Purchase All Grown Up here.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay has written a searing novel about sexual assault (An Untamed State) and Bad Feminist, the enduringly popular essay collection about the trials and tribulations of modern feminism, but the bestselling author calls 2017’s memoir Hunger “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write.” With her typical clarity and an honesty that eviscerates existing taboos, she explains what it’s like to live in her body: “I am trapped in a cage.” The result is an extraordinary book: an account of a person in progress, encompassing being raped at the age of 12, and the resulting trauma, which inextricably entwined her body, her day-to-day life, and her concept of self. —Estelle Tang
Purchase Hunger here.
Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After by Heather Harpham
There are so many kinds of love stories, and Heather Harpham’s affecting new memoir, Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After, tells two: Her maternal love for her daughter born with a chronic, debilitating blood disease; and her romantic, scattershot, passionate love for the man who fathered the girl—but didn’t want to be a father. On Harpham’s first date with him, her soon to be on-again off-again partner told her that, as she writes, “he’d read recently that everyone has a personal ‘happiness quotient,’ that your happiness in life is essentially set, regardless of circumstances. He reckoned his was low, and guessed mine was high.” Here, an at times achingly painful, ultimately feel-good book for those who cringe at mawkish sentimentality. —Keziah Weir
Purchase Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After here.
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
With its inclusion of hand-drawn diagrams, blog excerpts, and other ephemera, Clemmons’ debut novel leans experimental—but it reads elemental. In searingly direct passages, narrator Thandi grapples with her racial identity: When she was young, her South African family moved to the paler plains of Pennsylvania, giving her an insider’s view of and an outsider’s discomfort in both. After cancer claims her mother, Thandi mourns in tandem with her father, yet drifts away from him: a refraction of family that may transform her entire future. What We Lose sustains a light touch while feeling out the weightiest parts of life and loss. —Estelle Tang
Purchase What We Lose here.
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
The truth is I liked Nicole Krauss’s Great House better than her iconic and universally beloved The History of Love. But whatever your attachments, you’ll find that Forest Dark, her latest novel, is her finest yet. Oddly, then, given its near-transcendent prose and the clip of its pace, it turns on a novelist with writer’s block and a wealthy man who has decided to divest himself of his every worldly possession. Both travel from New York to a brutalist hotel in Tel Aviv and the depths of the desert wilderness. Only one finds her way out.
Forest Dark is reverential in its treatment of faith and the divine. It’s a meditation on why we believe what we do and how myths are made. And it leaves you delusional in the way the best narratives do: Who might you have been if you’d let yourself transform? What does reinvention even mean, and is it possible or worthy? Not since The Leftovers has a work of fiction made me feel so full, despite its steadfast unwillingness to answer any of the questions it poses. Oh my god, read it immediately. —Mattie Kahn
Purchase Forest Dark here.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
Gosh, I thought, I wish someone would write a wry, subtle, chaotically sexy novel about a hyper-intelligent yet troubled young woman. And it appears that the god of literature, or at least debut novelist Sally Rooney, heard my weirdly specific wish and delivered Conversations With Friends. Being inside the head of Frances, an unmoored college student who is as tentative about the finer points of relationships as she is reckless in igniting them, is messily entertaining. Yet the depths of her feeling for erstwhile girlfriend Bobbi and mysterious actor Nick turn this Irish novel into a strikingly human tangle. —Estelle Tang
Purchase Conversations With Friends here.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Wonder not that Carmen Maria Machado happened to publish a book so pertinent to this exhausting political moment—one in which women’s social gains are being dangerously undermined, and their efforts being drawn every which way by new indignities and punishments—but that we didn’t already see the world as the violent trap she presents here. Machado’s short stories illustrate the subtle estrangements that women in the west still experience in everyday life, relationships, pop culture, and communities. One story retells the complete story arc of Law and Order: SVU in what seems like a nonsensical manner, but gradually becomes weighty with the burden of female victims’ pain; another imagines sinister fairy tales playing out in contemporary times. —Estelle Tang
Purchase Her Body and Other here