THE YEAR IN ARTS 2017
Liuna Virardi for the Boston Globe
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“Borne’’ by Jeff VanderMeer (MCD)
In a city destroyed by drought and biotech gone beserk, a young woman named Rachael adopts a possibly living thing, resisting the adage that, during the apocalypse, kindness is a weakness.
“Blameless’’ by Claudio Magris, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (Yale)
The unnamed hero of this gorgeous columbarium of a novel is assembling a Museum of War, complete with howitzers, submarines, and a director who is herself the descendent of victims of war crimes.
“The Burning Girl’’ by Claire Messud(Norton)
If your copy of “My Brilliant Friend’’ has fallen apart, give it a break and read this slippery, rivetless novel about friendship and youth and the stories we tell ourselves in the aftermath.
“The City Always Wins’’ by Omar Robert Hamilton (MCD)
After the jubilation of Tahrir Square, a man and a woman must confront what they’ll commit to when dreams fall apart.
“Cockfosters’’ by Helen Simpson (Knopf)
Taking its name from the London tube station that still produces giggles in grown adults, this sixth collection by England’s best living short-story writer spangles with day-lit satori on the big stuff — aging, love, death, and sex.
“The End of Eddy’’ by Édouard Louis, translated from the French by Michael Lucey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This short, beautiful, and brutally honest novel about growing up gay and poor in a homophobic rural village in France is a profound act of retrieval, depicting the author’s family and neighbors with dignifying complexity, rather than shame.
“Exit West’’ by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead)
In this future classic by the author of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,’’ a man and woman flee an unnamed city during war through a series of miraculous doors, beginning a life on the go, one that upends all our assumptions about immigration.
“Fever Dream’’ by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Riverhead)
In a rural hospital a dying woman has a conversation with a young boy about an infestation that, if you read this uncanny book too near to bedtime, well, you can forget about sleeping.
“Frontier’’ by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping (Open Letter)
This prismatic novel by the playful and mysterious pseudonymous Can Xue follows a dozen or so characters “Canterbury Tales’’-style to Pebble Town, where they’ve all traveled to work for the mysterious Design Insitut, doing what they’re not sure yet.
“Go, Went, Gone’’ by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)
A retired widower and classics professor takes an interest in African migrants staging a hunger strike in Berlin and finds himself tumbling into a world of harrowing stories and men who share a common sense of loss.
“Her Body and Other Parties’’ by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf)
Just when George Saunders graduates to the novel, a new voice like Machado comes along proving just how much potential lies within the story in these strange, ferocious, and deeply feminist tales.
“Home Fire’’ by Kamila Shamsie (Riverhead)
This immensely poised rewriting of “Antigone’’ conjures a family torn in three directions by a world that constantly criminalizes their identity: one child becoming a lawyer, another an academic, a third a jihadi.
“House of Names’’ by Colm Toibin (Scribner)
A deep exploration of the great Greek myth of Clytemnestra, Toibin’s latest novel makes the reader feel the savagery of what she faced with fresh and terrifying intimacy.
“Lincoln in the Bardo’’ by George Saunders (Random House)
This tale of Shakespearean woe unfolds on the night before the weary president buries his dead son, as a series of undead souls fret about how to get the boy safely over to the other side.
“The Lonely Hearts Hotel’’ by Heather O’Neill (Riverhead)
Two foundlings share a gritty youth in an orphanage, then spiral away from each other, one into a life of near-crime, the other into music and heroin in this Tim Burton-like fable about innocence and the cost of femininity.
“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’’ by Arundhati Roy (Knopf)
This swerving, energetic, and often deeply sad second novel by the Booker Prize winner interrogates the erasures necessary to maintain some of the fictions of the modern Indian state, especially those involving who gets to be a citizen and what parts of Kashmir are allowed to be seen.
“My Cat Yugoslavia’’ by Pajtim Statovci, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston (Pantheon)
Like a “Master and Margarita’’ of exile, this marvelous and frequently hilarious debut novel conjures a talking cat who soothes the soul of a lonely gay man in Helsinki and also possesses the secret for how he can go home to his ancestral Kosovo and find out what happened to his family in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Four generations of a Korean family cross continents and weather Japanese prejudice and fight for survival in this hugely rewarding epic, no doubt a future classroom standby for all the right reasons.
“The Power’’ by Naomi Alderman (Little, Brown)
In this gripping moral fable of our times, women the world over obtain the power to conduct electricity with their bodies, upending the balance of power with men.
“Savage Theories’’ by Pola Oloixarac, translated from the Spanish by Roy Kesey (SoHo)
This debut novel announces a huge, rambunctious talent, with its hilarious and ribald glimpse of intellectual and sexual politics in a post-post revolutionary Argentina.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing’’ by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner)
A biracial teenage boy in Mississippi dodges his mother’s veering moods as they await his father’s release from prison in this shatteringly powerful third novel by Ward, winner of the 2017 National Book Award.
“Things We Lost in the Fire’’ by Mariana Enríquez, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Hogarth)
Violent and cool, told in voices so lucid they feel spoken, these 12 tales present a gothic portrait of a country tilting uneasily away from the memory of horrific traumas, as new ones lurk around every corner.
“American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land’’ by Monica Hesse (Liveright)
The suspenseful, often heartbreaking true-crime case of dozens of arsons in rural Virginia that delves into the tangled thickets of love and family, place and history.
“The Blood of Emmett Till’’ by Timothy B. Tyson (Simon & Schuster)
The true story — and one fateful lie — behind the 1955 lynching that horrified a nation and helped galvanize the civil rights movement, rendered with cinematic vividness.
“Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years, 1898-1940’’ by Jed Perl (Knopf)
In the first of a planned two-volume biography, veteran art critic Perl grounds our understanding of Alexander Calder’s kinetic, energetic work in the influences of his artist parents and a childhood steeped in invention.
“The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick’’ selected and introduced by Darryl Pinckney (New York Review Books)
A welcome and well-curated collection of one of midcentury America’s most astute literary and social critics, writing on everything from Melville to Vietnam and beyond.
“The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America’’ by Richard Rothstein (Liveright)
Rothstein builds a convincing case, buttressed by mounds of evidence, that segregation in this country has never been accidental, and that we have far to go in addressing it.
“Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast’’ by Megan Marshall (Mariner)
An intimate and eloquent account of Bishop’s life, from a difficult childhood in New England and Canada to a tumultuous romantic life; Pulitzer-winner Marshall, a former student of Bishop’s, brings her own experiences of the poet’s later life into the story, to rich effect.
“The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It’’ by Joanna Scutts (Liveright)
A sparkling blend of biography and cultural history introduces readers to midcentury lifestyle guru Hillis, who championed and guided women creating lives on their own terms.
“The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia’’ by Masha Gessen (Riverhead)
Told through the lives of everyday Russians, Gessen’s masterful chronicle of how post-Soviet optimism turned to disappointment amid the return of repression and corruption is a book as fascinating as it is urgently relevant today.
“Grant’’ by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press)
A beautifully written and deeply moving portrait of the general and president, for generations misunderstood and unloved; Chernow urges us to reexamine a man whose quiet heroism was overshadowed by scandal.
“Janesville: An American Story’’ by Amy Goldstein (Simon & Schuster)
What happens to a factory town when the plant closes? In this intimate portrait of a place and its people, Goldstein gets at the human drama that attends economic collapse in the hometown of US Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek’’ by Howard Markel (Pantheon)
A delicious and sometimes bizarre family saga of the health nut and businessman who built one of America’s most successful companies. You’ll never look at corn flakes the same again.
“Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI’’ by David Grann (Doubleday)
This story of oil-money greed, racism, a deadly conspiracy, and the development of modern crime fighting is as compelling and textured as any novel you’ll read this year.
“Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China’’ by Xiaolu Guo (Grove)
Orphaned, adopted, reunited with an unloving mother, Guo writes of her triumph over a difficult and often violent childhood into a life of art and creativity.
“Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder’’ by Caroline Fraser (Metropolitan)
A look at the harsh reality of the life of the woman who wrote some of our most beloved childhood books, as well as the strange family relationship between her and her difficult daughter.
“Priestdaddy: A Memoir’’ by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead)
Poet Lockwood, known for her Internet-friendly mix of sex and humor, writes about her family, headed by her father, a Catholic priest, with strength and tenderness.
“Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A study of Genius, Mania, and Character’’ by Kay Redfield Jamison (Knopf)
Jamison, who has written powerfully about her own bipolar disorder, argues in this gorgeous and unsettling book that the poet should be lauded for heroic attempts to maintain his work and relationships in the face of devastating mental illness.
“We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy’’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World)
Coates blends the personal and historical in these essays on race, politics, and power, proving once again that he’s an essential voice in today’s conversation.
“What Happened’’ by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Simon & Schuster)
Despite the unfair image that often dogged her on the campaign trail, Clinton shows here a blend of humor, intimacy, and unguarded emotion in her account of the campaign for the 2016 presidential election.
“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir’’ by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown)
Braiding poetry and prose, Alexie reckons with his personal history and that of his brilliant, powerful, and damaged mother, with searing honesty, compassion, and hard-won humor.
“Blame’’ by Jeff Abbott (Grand Central)
A deadly car crash, amnesia, anonymous notes, sinister suburban secrets, a clutch of finely-delineated characters, and a highly unreliable narrator all add up to one of the year’s most enjoyably twisted psychological thrillers.
“Bluebird, Bluebird’’ by Attica Locke (Mulholland)
This tale of Darren Mathews, black Texas Ranger, tackling a murder mystery in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town in East Texas, is lyrical, elemental, and pulls no punches, exposing racial tensions past and present while a killer blues soundtrack plays perpetually in the background.
“Conviction’’ by Julia Dahl (Minotaur)
Brooklyn reporter Rebekah Roberts is in her element when she learns of a decades-old murder of a family that may be a case of wrongful conviction, and her integrity-infused approach is a shining, engaging example of investigative journalism at its diligent, honest, empathetic best.
“The Dark Net’’ by Benjamin Percy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
A truly terrifying game is afoot in downtown Portland, Ore., and Luddite journalist Lela is determinedly on the case, pursuing the answer to a mystery that pits true evil against a motley crew of unlikely heroes in this fantasy sci-fi thriller.
“Dead Woman Walking’’ by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur)
Adventurous crime fiction at its finest, kicking off with a very scary balloon ride and morphing smoothly into a cunning game of cat-and-mouse, involving the police, a killer, a woman on the run, and a bevy of forensically-savvy nuns.
“Fallout’’ by Sara Paretsky (William Morrow)
Paretsky’s terrifically twisty thriller takes Chicago’s V.I. Warshawski deep into rural America in search of a missing film student, features a wonderfully rich cast of characters, and shimmers with political fury. Beautifully done.
“Glass Houses’’ by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
A sinister figure suddenly appears on the village common of remote Three Pines, and Detective Armand Gamache has a most unusual case on his hands, one steeped in a dark, historical myth as well as utterly contemporary social issues.
“Insidious Intent’’ by Val McDermid (Atlantic)
This new Carol Jordan-Tony Hill firecracker of a mystery picks up right where the last one left off and, as part of a newly-formed regional investigation team charged with tackling the most heinous of crimes, DCI Jordan and profiler Hill have their hands full with an alarmingly clever killer who is targeting single women at weddings.
“The Last Hack’’ by Christopher Brookmyre (Atlantic)
When journalist Jack Parlabane becomes a partner-in-forced-crime with 19-year-old Samantha, a hacker with everything to lose, the stage is set for a thrilling roller coaster of a techie-heist tale.
“A Legacy of Spies’’ by John le Carré (Viking)
An entertaining and downright nostalgic return after more than 25 years to the world of George Smiley in the safe, professional, knowledgeable, cunning hands of British spy fiction’s master chronicler.
“The Long Drop’’ by Denise Mina (Little, Brown)
A lovingly-detailed fictional retelling of the murders of a mother, daughter, and the mother’s sister that scandalized 1950s Glasgow, Mina’s slim novel encompasses a harrowing picture of the social issues of the time — many of which still prevail — packing a truly powerful punch.
“Persons Unknown’’ by Susie Steiner (Random House)
Steiner’s follow-up to last year’s excellent police procedural, “Missing, Presumed,’’ more than holds its own: Detective Manon Bradshaw’s personal life is as compelling as the mystery surrounding the killing of a young man near the police station — especially when it turns out that the two are connected.
“Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly’’ by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street)
Sean Duffy, a police detective — and newly-minted father — battling crime in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, has his work cut out for him when local drug dealers keep turning up on the wrong end of a crossbow.
“Rather Be the Devil’’ by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown)
A pleasurably complex set of mysteries involving murders old and new drives Rankin’s latest almost as much as the deepening relationship between two old (semi-) retirees, former cop John Rebus and former gangster Big Ger Cafferty.
“Spook Street’’ by Mick Herron (Soho)
In the latest offering in Herron’s brilliant spook-related series, British intelligence agent River Cartwright’s grandfather, a former spy himself, may be succumbing to age-related memory loss and endangering MI5 — or is there something more sinister afoot?
“Two Kinds of Truth’’ by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown)
Connelly’s second offering this year — after the ace “The Late Show,’’ which introduced Detective Renée Ballard — features a chilling contemporary mystery, the welcome return of former hot-shot lawyer “Legal Siegel,” and searing indictments of the political landscape under the current administration.
“Ali: A Life’’ by Jonathan Eig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Eig has written perhaps the most ambitious and thorough account of Ali’s oft-chronicled life.
“The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World’’ by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Kids Can)
This children’s book about how divided young people in a refugee camp in Tanzania find companionship and community through playing soccer together is simply told, beautifully illustrated, and encouraging.
“The Best American Sports Writing’’ edited by Howard Bryant and Glenn Stout (Mariner)
Every year, this is the most dependable and indispensable anthology of sportswriting available anywhere, this year including pieces by Rick Telander on William “The Refrigerator’’ Perry, Ruth Padwer on the disgraceful practice of gender-testing female athletes, Bomani Jones on Colin Kaepernick, and others.
“The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside’’ edited by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra (University of Chicago)
This is one more book demonstrating how boxing inspires extraordinary stories (like that of business executive and MMA fighter Donovan Craig or fight fixer Charles Farrell) and wonderful writing.
“Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character’’ by Marty Appel (Doubleday)
Check this out if for no other reason than just the joy of hearing the voice of this beloved, stand-up act again (“I can make a living with my face’’) — and his wife, Edna, has some excellent stories as well.
“Coach Wooden and Me: Our Fifty-Year Friendship On and Off the Court’’ by Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Grand Central)
Jabbar’s story of his friendship with UCLA coach John Wooden is a celebration of mutual devotion, understanding, and love.
“Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women’’ by Roseanne Montillo (Crown)
Montillo provides compelling stories of the first women track stars in the early years of the Olympics, including Americans Helen Stephens, Babe Didrikson, Stella Walsh, and Betty Robinson who won the 100-meter gold in 1928, was gravely injured in a plane crash (initially thought dead), and returned to medal in the 1936 Games.
“The First Tour de France: Sixty Cyclists and Nineteen Days of Daring on the Road to Paris’’ by Peter Cossins (Nation)
In this history of a colorful and dangerous competition, readers may be surprised to learn that the guy who won the first Tour de France was a cheater . . . but maybe not, eh?
“God and Starbucks: An NBA Superstar’s Journey Through Addiction and Recovery’’ by Vin Baker with Joe Layden (Amistad)
The preacher’s son traces the story of his struggles with drug and alcohol addictions while playing in the NBA, hitting rock bottom, and his recovery from same to a new life as a Starbucks manager and youth minister.
“Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son’’ by Paul Dickson (Bloomsbury)
Durocher, served well in this biography, was a flamboyantly complicated character, whether as a hard-driving shortstop, a hard-nosed manager, or a hard case about the disapproval of various baseball commissioners over the unsavory company he kept.
“Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of An NBA Freedom Fighter’’ by Craig Hodges with Rory Fanning (Haymarket)
If people who think athletes speaking out began with Colin Kaepernick read this memoir of Chicago Bulls star and activist Craig Hodges, they’ll learn that they were wrong.
“The Lost City of the Monkey God’’ by Douglas Preston (Grand Central)
OK, OK, this isn’t strictly a sports book, but this Indiana Jonesian saga about the discovery of ancient cities in the jungles of Latin America is on the list because of some fine descriptions of the games Mayans played and their nasty consequences.
“Sting Like A Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America’’ by Leigh Montville (Doubleday)
Montville’s examination of the travails by which Ali eventually transcended boxing is riveting and pertinent to our time.
“Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer’’ by Gwendolyn Oxenham (Icon)
What a fine thing that a superb writer has found these “untold stories,” some undeniably famous (Mia Hamm and Marta Vieira da Silva), most a little less so (like Afghan-Danish Nadia Nadim and American Dani Foxhoven), and remedied that situation.
“Unstoppable: My Life So Far’’ by Maria Sharapova (Sarah Crichton)
The story of how a little girl from Russia with a tennis-loving father came to Florida and became a player good enough to beat everybody but Serena Williams.
“The Best We Could Do’’ Thi Bui (Abrams)
Bui’s memoir explores the impact of war, migration, and economic distress on three generations of a Vietnamese-American family with sensitivity and grace.
“Boundless’’ by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly)
A sinewy collection of graphic short stories from one of the breakout stars of 21st-century cartooning.
“A Castle in England’’ by Jamie Rhodes and various illustrators (Nobrow)
Five short works of historical fiction inspired by the author’s residency at Scotney Castle, with artwork by cartoonists who are mostly unknown in this country.
“Crawl Space’’ by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama)
Tale of a group of kids seeking refuge from their mundane lives in a world of fantastic creatures employs psychedelic imagery in the service of surprisingly substantive cultural insights.
“Everything is Flammable’’ by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized)
In her much-awaited memoir, Bell expertly explores her complicated relationship with her chosen career path and her oh-so bohemian mother.
“The Flintstones,’’ vols. 1 & 2 by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh (DC/Hanna-Barbera)
Hanna-Barbera meets Karl Polanyi as Fred, Wilma, and the denizens of Bedrock confront hipsters, alien invaders, and the great Paleolithic transformation.
“Hostage’’ by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly)
A haunting work of journalism tells the story of Doctors Without Borders administrator Christophe André, who spent nearly six months in captivity in Chechnya.
“Johnny Appleseed’’ by Paul Buhle and Noah Van Sciver (Fantagraphics)
The “St. Francis of the Frontier” comes alive in this winsome history of utopian agitation in antebellum America.
“A Land Called Tarot’’ by Gael Bertrand (Image)
Bertrand’s wordless project features arcane puzzles, manga-esque characters, and gorgeous visuals.
“My Favorite Thing is Monsters’’ by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics)
A murder mystery, an homage to monster magazines, and a bildungsroman in the form of a diary of a 10-year-old girl in 1960s Chicago: One of the best books of the year, in any format or genre.
“Spill Zone’’ by Scott Westerfeld, illustrated by Alex Puvilland (First Second)
Engaging YA graphic fiction with a sci-fi twist about an orphaned teen who ventures into a toxic wasteland to photograph its horrors for a collector offering a rich bounty.
“Threads: From the Refugee Crisis’’ by Kate Evans (Verso)
A heartbreaking account of Europe’s migration crisis told from the standpoint of mostly Middle Eastern and African men, women, and children trapped in a makeshift encampment in Calais, France.
“Tunnel to Hell: The Lake Erie Tunnel Disasters: Tale of Heroism and Tragedy’’ by Scott MacGregor, illustrated by Gary Dumm (EOI Media)
As left-wing activist and culture critic Paul Buhle notes in his introduction, this “model study in the world of work and its perils” captures “the corruption innate to the political-economic system of the burgeoning Gilded Age metropolis.”
“The Unquotable Trump’’ by R. Sikoryak (Drawn & Quarterly)
Cleverly repurposed comic book covers that envisage the current president as a bombastic supervillain.
“You & A Bike & A Road’’ by Eleanor Davis (Koyama)
Two books in one: The first is an engaging account of long-distance bike riding (specifically a cross-country trip by Davis), while the second is an unsettling portrait of contemporary expressions of alienation, polarization, and social disaggregation.
A prior version of this piece listed Simon & Schuster as the publisher of Ali: A Life’’ by Jonathan Eig. Simon & Schuster UK is the publisher in the United Kingdom.
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