New York Times Top Books of 2017
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New York Times Top Books of 2017

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    The New York Times’ critics have made their choices of the best fiction and nonfiction books of the year.

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“Selection Day”

By Aravind Adiga (Scribner)

This is Adiga’s third novel, and it offers proof that his Man Booker Prize, for “The White Tiger” in 2008, was no fluke. He is not merely a confident storyteller but also a thinker, a skeptic, a wily entertainer and a thorn in the side of orthodoxy and cant. This is a cricket novel that maintains a running critique of the sport, and a moving novel about fathers and sons. It’s a book about religion and its tribal cruelties, and it bears bad tidings. Adiga’s take on the world makes you consider what the apocalypse might sound like as reported by the BBC’s Hindi service.

“The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded: Poems”

By Molly McCully Brown (Persea)

This is Brown’s first book of poems, and it is part history lesson, part seance and part ode to dread. The title refers to an actual place, a government-run hospital that, in the early part of the 20th century, sterilized many of its patients without their consent. The author grew up near the institution, and it has long haunted her. Brown’s blank verse is supple yet restrained; it contains all its essential oils. In its formal design, and in its interest in art and history, the book resembles a slender ghost version of James Agee’s text for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

“Transit”

By Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Faye, the divorced writer who is the narrator of Cusk’s transfixing latest novel, is the same woman we met in the author’s previous novel, “Outline.” These two short books are part of a projected trilogy, and together they’re already an achievement: dense, aphoristic, philosophically acute novels that read like Iris Murdoch thrice-distilled. We watch Faye move through her days, speaking to friends, old lovers, real estate agents, salon employees, fellow writers, construction workers. Cusk’s writing offers the iron-rich pleasure of voice instead of style.

“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 had 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.

“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.

“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.

“The Answers”

By Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Lacey writes sentences that are long and clean and unstanchable. They glow like 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.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

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