Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid — “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class…but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.” Gorgeously written, fast-paced novel about a couple falling in love and then forcing to seek refuge beyond the borders of their country. “The novel feels immediately canonical, so firm and unerring is Hamid’s understanding of our time and its most pressing questions” (Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker).
Archaeopteryx, by Dan Darling — In a moment, all the birds flying over a nature reserve in New Mexico fall to the earth, dead. John Stick, a literal giant of a man who wants nothing more than to be left alone to care for the reptiles at the zoo, is pushed and prodded by a colorful array of characters to find out what happened. This magical realist thriller leads us to a corporation tampering with nature — with echoes of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau — while somehow also tackling Mexico-U.S. border issues. It’s a nonstop thrill ride, full of surprises, with heart (“If you memorized enough of TV, you didn’t ever have to say what you meant.”) and humor (“You’re liquid plumber. Your job is to flush away the evil block up the universe.”), all set in beautiful New Mexico. I couldn’t put it down.
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones — When an African-American man is unjustly imprisoned, what’s the impact on the marriage that he and his wife share, barely a year old? “punishing questions, but they’re spun with tender patience by Jones, who cradles each of these characters in a story that pulls our sympathies in different directions” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post). Heartbreaking.
How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, by Roy Peter Clark — “In the hands of careful writers, a few good words can be worth a thousand pictures.” In the age of twitter and blogs, Clark instructs on how to write all things short. He provides beautiful examples of short writing throughout history (think The Gettysburg Address). “Identify and follow the work of literary men and women known for their ability to write short texts with focus, wit, and polish.” Speaking of wit, Clark provides it (and sometimes borrows it — with attribution — in spades): “As Dorothy Parker explained, ‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie.'”
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor — “I hadn’t told my family about my hair not being hair anymore, that it was now a series of alien tentacles.” After stopping a war in Binti, the titular character returns to earth and begins to unlearn her own old prejudices about the peoples of her homeland. Okorafor explores how we choose new identities, how they sometimes are chosen for us, and how it both alienates us from our old life but opens doors to new lives.
Everything Is Flammable, by Gabrielle Bell — In this meandering graphic memoir, Bell documents her anxieties and day-to-day struggles to help her mother. A few of the panels spoke deep truth to me. This graphic memoir was recommended on at least 6 “best of” lists for 2017.
The Black Monday Murders Volume 1, by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker — Schools of economics date back to ancient days and manipulate society for wealth. Oh, and cannibalism? Or drinking blood?
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, by Adam Grant — A few years ago, I read a compelling profile of Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant in the New York Times Magazine. Grant’s philosophy is that giving generously can be a strategy not just to happiness but also to business success. In this book, he marshals a wide array of social psychology evidence to argue that many of the most successful — as well as the least successful — businesspeople are givers, with strategies for how to be in the former group, not the latter. Essentially, he’s trying to make kindness respectable.
Spinning, by Tillie Walden — A tween grows up and comes out while competing as an ice skater. The stress and fear is palpable. This graphic memoir was recommended on at least 4 “best of” lists for 2017.
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, by Anne Lamott –– “Getting found almost always means being lost for a while.” With witty irreverence, Lamott’s essays explore kindness, forgiveness, and love. Her own reflections are thoughtful, and she selects just the right passages to quote from other authors, like this one from Wendell Berry: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
And before I go, here’s a thought on a particular brand of economics from the Black Monday Murders: