What makes a book “the best book?”
You may consider this a strange intro for what is essentially an article about the best books of the year. But as I was grappling with the question of which 10, among the dozens of books I have read and reviewed in 2017 would be included in this list, it occurred to me that I didn’t want this piece to have a predictable title.
“The Best Books of 2017.” Undoubtedly you’ve seen this headline repeatedly several times for the past few weeks from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and countless others. The list of best books are also often interchangeable from one publication to the next, which is of course predictable enough.
Some of the books named this year as the best, have been the recipients of the most prestigious literary awards such as The Man Booker Prize and The National Book Award. Novels like Pachinko, Sing, Unburied, Sing, and Lincoln in the Bardo tell riveting and often heart-breaking stories that go from the exploration of a society’s treatment of prisoners to the meaning of family and cultural identity.
What truly makes a book, the best book? I can’t say that it’s the awards, or the sometimes too boisterous hype surrounding it that make it so. Personally, I can only describe the best book as one that is truly unforgettable. The one that helps you through hard times, like the ones our country is currently struggling with. The ones that makes you lie awake at night turning the story over and over in your head. The ones that makes you laugh out loud while on a commuter train or cry quietly over the pages on your lunch break.
It’s the one that makes you love the characters so much that you want to put your arms around them. Or hate them so much that you wish you could give them a good slap. The best book is the one that for whatever reason, strikes a nerve in the deepest corner of ourselves, the one that we want to read multiple times. The one we still think about long after we’ve turned the last page.
So think of these 10 books (and the seven honorable mentions that follow), not as the best 17 books of 2017. But rather, as the ones that made a difficult year, a lot less grueling.
1. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. A young woman attempts to find out the reasons behind her father’s disappearance with the help of a man she met years ago, while the country is submerged in war.
2. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. Fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston lives alone with her father who teaches her about guns, survival in the wild and how to fend for herself if she has to. When Turtle makes a friend in the most unexpected way, she starts to fear the consequences that friendship will bring.
3. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo. Adebayo’s astonishing debut narrates the story of a newly-wed Nigerian couple who in the face of lies, loss and betrayal, must come to terms with what this all means for their marriage and their family.
4. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Eleanor is a 30-something woman with no friends. Her days are filled with an unremarkable job, books, trips to the local Tesco and the weekly hurtful phone calls with her mother. But things change when Eleanor meets Raymond, the shy IT guy from work, and together they rescue Sammy, an old man with a gentle heart. These encounters open the door for Eleanor to begin changing her own life, accepting the new presence of friendship, and even love.
5. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. When Cora Seaborne’s overbearing husband dies, she decides to take her son and his fiercely protective nanny to live in Essex. There, she learns some villagers have sighted The Essex Serpent, a 300-year-old mythical marine monster. As Cora is absorbed with a legend she doesn’t really believe in, she also becomes interested in the village vicar, William Ransome with whom she will strike up a friendship that will both draw them together and split them apart.
6. All Is Beauty Now by Sarah Faber. This captivating story by Sarah Faber follows an upper-class family as they prepare to leave their self-made paradise in Brazil for Canada in the wake of the mysterious disappearance, and presumed drowning, of their eldest daughter a year earlier. The story interweaves past and present as the explanation for the girl’s disappearance, takes an unexpected turn.
7. The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo. Lucy and Gabe, both seniors at Columbia University, meet on September 11, 2001 as they watch in horror the events from that day unfold, along with the rest of the world. This is also when they kiss for the first time. For the next thirteen years, they will lose and find each other time and time again through heartbreak, jealousy, desire and forgiveness. When Lucy and Gabe have to make a life-changing decision, they must wrestle with a onerous question. Is their love born from destiny? Or choice?
8. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed older man marries a 15-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their revered daughter Sunja. But when years later Sunja falls pregnant by a married man, the family could face ruin. Isak, a Christian minister, steps in and offers her the chance of a new life in Japan as his wife. Following a man she barely knows, to a country where she has no friends and unable to even speak the language, is just the start of Sunja’s story of survival, family, love and loyalty.
9. Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay. The women in these short stories by Roxanne Gay are bound together by their differences and similarities, their privilege and their lack of it, by the love that nourishes them and the one that destroys them.
10. The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon one morning and never comes home. With his mother missing, 11-year-old Deming is left abandoned and confused. He is adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. As the years go by, he tries to understand his adoptive parents’ wish that he embrace the memories of his mother and of those he left behind.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker
The Burning Girl by Claire Messaud
The Best of Us by Joyce Maynard
My Last Lament by James William Brown
The First Day by Phil Harrison