The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any previously published reviews linked in (many of these books have already appeared on the blog in some way over the course of the year). You know the drill by now: to keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title. The first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. Across these three best-of posts (see also my Top Nonfiction and Best Fiction posts), I’ve spotlighted roughly the top 15% of my year’s reading.
- As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths: The themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas about encounters with God and the nature of evil. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.
- Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař: The story of Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who leaves his wife behind to undertake a noble research mission but soon realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. A terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space.
- English Animals by Laura Kaye: A young Slovakian becomes a housekeeper for a volatile English couple and discovers a talent for taxidermy. A fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging, this is one of the more striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years.
- Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. This is a delightfully quirky little book, but you may well read it with a lump in your throat, too.
- Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty: In MacLaverty’s quietly beautiful fifth novel, a retired couple faces up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. My overall response was one of admiration for what this couple has survived and sympathy for their current situation – with hope that they’ll make it through this, too. (Reviewed for BookBrowse.)
- Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: An Irish college student navigates friendships and an affair with a married man. This is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality; a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: The residents of Georgetown cemetery limbo don’t know they’re dead – or at least won’t accept it. An entertaining and truly original treatment of life’s transience; I know it’s on every other best-of-year list out there, but it really is a must-read.
- The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw: Shaw travels through space, time and literature as he asks why we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about the smells we encounter every day. If you’re interested in exploring connections between smell and memory, discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is a perfect introduction.
- A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: Tomalin is best known as a biographer of literary figures including Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens, but her memoir is especially revealing about the social and cultural history of the earlier decades her life covers. A dignified but slightly aloof book – well worth reading for anyone interested in spending time in London’s world of letters in the second half of the twentieth century.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The story of a mixed-race family haunted – both literally and figuratively – by the effects of racism, drug abuse and incarceration in Bois Sauvage, a fictional Mississippi town. Beautiful language; perfect for fans of Toni Morrison and Cynthia Bond.
I’ve really struggled with short stories this year, but here are four collections I can wholeheartedly recommend:
- What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)
- Unruly Creatures: Stories by Jennifer Caloyeras
- Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
- The Great Profundo and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (1987)
The Best 2017 Books You Probably Never Heard of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!):
- The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson: The coroner’s career is eventful no matter what, but Marin County, California has its fair share of special interest, what with Golden Gate Bridge suicides, misdeeds at San Quentin Prison, and various cases involving celebrities (e.g. Harvey Milk, Jerry Garcia and Tupac) in addition to your everyday sordid homicides. Ken Holmes was a death investigator and coroner in Marin County for 36 years; Bateson successfully recreates Holmes’ cases with plenty of (sometimes gory) details.
- Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Tasting notes: gleeful, ebullient, learned, self-deprecating; suggested pairings: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler; Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off. A delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
- A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light, edited by Eleanor Brown: A highly enjoyable set of 18 autobiographical essays that celebrate what’s wonderful about the place but also acknowledge disillusionment; highlights are from Maggie Shipstead, Paula McLain, Therese Anne Fowler, Jennifer Coburn, Julie Powell and Michelle Gable. If you have a special love for Paris, have always wanted to visit, or just enjoy armchair traveling, this collection won’t disappoint you.
- Ashland & Vine by John Burnside: Essentially, it’s about the American story, individual American stories, and how these are constructed out of the chaos and violence of the past – all filtered through a random friendship that forms between a film student and an older woman in the Midwest. This captivated me from the first page.
- Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel, Thomas H. Cook: In 28 non-chronological chapters, Cook documents journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. This is by no means your average travel book and it won’t suit those who seek high adventure and/or tropical escapism; instead, it’s a meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (Reviewed for Nudge.)
- The Valentine House by Emma Henderson: This is a highly enjoyable family saga set mostly between 1914 and 1976 at an English clan’s summer chalet in the French Alps near Geneva, with events seen from the perspective of a local servant girl. You can really imagine yourself into all the mountain scenes and the book moves quickly –a great one to take on vacation.
Various Superlatives, Good and Bad:
The 2017 Book Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. (See my Goodreads review for why.)
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, Between Them by Richard Ford and George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Books by Charlie Hill (ironic, that). My only one-star review of the year.
The Downright Strangest Book I Read This Year: An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle.
My Best Discoveries of the Year: Beryl Bainbridge, Saul Bellow, Bernard MacLaverty and Haruki Murakami. I’ve read two books by each of these authors this year and look forward to trying more from them.
The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Laura Kaye, Carmen Marcus, Julianne Pachico and Sally Rooney.
The Best First Line of the Year: “History has failed us, but no matter.” (Pachinko, Min Jin Lee)
The Best Last Line of the Year: “If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.” (Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty)
Coming tomorrow: Some early recommendations for 2018.
The 11 stories in Jennifer Caloyeras’ new collection, Unruly Creatures (released on October 3rd by West Virginia University Press), feature characters who find themselves in extreme situations and/or are let down by their bodies. Often, their tentative steps outside their own problematic situations involve making unexpected connections with the animal world: a neglected boy learns from a taxidermist, a trainer at the Institute for Privileged Primates is surprised by the depth of her feelings for one of the gorillas in her care, a woman who has just had a double mastectomy empathizes with a cow stuck in the crater left by a crashed meteor, and two teens realize they can only bond with their father when in animal costumes.
I appreciated the variety of forms and voices here. One story set in a dystopian future has an epistolary element, including letters and memos; two others use second-person or first-person plural narration, respectively. There’s also a lot to think about in terms of gender. For instance, one protagonist frets about out-of-control pubic hair, while another finds it difficult to maintain her trans identity on a male prison ward. “A Real Live Baby” was a stand-out for me. Its title is a tease, though, because Chloe is doing the Egg Baby project in school and ‘babysits’ for her delusional neighbor, who keeps a doll in a stroller. The conflation of dolls and babies is also an element in recent stories by Camilla Grudova and Lesley Nneka Arimah – proof, if we needed it, that modern motherhood is both an enigma and a work in progress.
I’d recommend this story collection to readers of Margaret Atwood and Karen Joy Fowler – and to book clubs. You certainly won’t run out of things to discuss!
Jennifer kindly offered to take part in a Q&A over e-mail. We talked about eco-lit, fairy tales gone wild, and how writing and marketing short stories is different from novels.
Animals take on a variety of roles in these stories: research subjects, art projects, friends. Are you an animal lover? Or was that linking theme incidental? And what did you hope to convey about the ways the human and animal worlds intersect?
I am an animal lover. I always have been. When I was younger I really wanted to be a marine biologist. I couldn’t quite get around the math. Then for a while, I thought, animal psychologist. I’ve always been obsessed with animals and animal behavior and the ways in which humans are constantly distancing themselves from animals and their behavior. We have a bit of an unfair superiority complex when it comes to the animal world. I ended up going down an entirely different path (musician and singer) before applying to graduate school for a MA in English and then a MFA in creative writing.
But to get back to your question, I didn’t set out to write a collection of linked animal stories; that ended up happening organically. I like to use animals as a mirror or lens through which we see ourselves: sometimes at our worst, most instinctive behavior – sometimes at our best. I think an apt metaphor is that of child staring at an animal at a cage in the zoo, internalizing the thought, “I am nothing like that animal. I am everything like that animal.”
Sometimes the humans are the truly unruly creatures – thinking especially of the obnoxious plane passenger in “Airborne” and Ernest, the persnickety postman in “Big Brother.” How does placing them alongside animal characters point up their flaws?
I am a huge fan of unlikable and unreliable narrators. And I think the short story genre lends itself to utilizing these types of narrators, because you don’t have to sustain this for the duration of an entire novel. In “Big Brother”, the reader aligns with everyone else in the story, not the protagonist. Ernest can’t get over the fact that Les, his co-worker, could have such a bond with a parrot, when Ernest has such a difficult time connecting with anyone, yet in the same story, Ernest’s earnest love for his dog is apparent. He has the key to connecting with people, he just doesn’t have the means to put this knowledge to use.
“H2O” imagines a future extreme drought situation in which only the elite can afford fresh water. Does this feel like a plausible scenario, especially where you live in California?
Oh, the water situation is really scary. I don’t think we’re far off from the scenario presented in this story. It’s always absurd to me when we hear about drought conditions and yet, here I am, driving by a huge verdant golf course. And the access for the wealthy in this particular story resonates in terms of access in general in a capitalistic society. In the story, which is a sort of eco-lit satire (I think I just made up that genre), water is the most coveted commodity, yet it’s marketed differently depending on economic status. Living in Los Angeles, there seems to be a production value to everything here, so I wanted to add that twist in the story – the commercialism of a commodity – how it would be talked about on a production set. How to do the perfect “hard sell” when it comes to water.
I especially love the fairy tale-gone-wild mood of “Unruly”: Caroline loathes the Rapunzel-like abundance of her pubic hair, and instead of a glass slipper we get glass shards in Tom’s arm. How does twisting a fairy tale play with readers’ expectations for a story?
I’ve always been obsessed with fairy tales. My second young adult novel, Strays, has a whole component where a high school English teacher introduces 16-year-old Iris, the protagonist, to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (if you’re a fairy tale fan, you have to read this one!), which is a feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales. I love how familiar all the fairy tale tropes are. I love the use of magical realism in fairy tales and I love the idea of playing with a familiar and predictable story and undercutting the reader’s expectations. To that end, I recently read (and loved) A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass – which was a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But instead of waking up as a cockroach, in this version – a black man in Lagos wakes up as a white man, afforded all of the benefits of white privilege. As a reader you’re thinking, “I know the story, but I don’t know this story.”
The story “Stuffed” was also inspired loosely by the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. The witch in the woods is replaced by a taxidermist (who is not evil) and instead, things with the child go dark pretty quickly.
Occasionally ersatz creatures are on display: doll babies, taxidermied animals, or animal costumes. What are we to make of that gulf between the real thing and the false one on display?
Surrogates are some of my favorite things to explore! I took a deep dive into the world of taxidermy while doing research for “Stuffed”. I really couldn’t get enough. I remember as a child getting lost for hours in the Hall of Mammals at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. I think, for me, it’s the idea of creating something to replace something, but the replacement is complete artifice. In terms of taxidermy, essentially, you are replacing death or recreating death to imitate life. A real dead animal is ugly, sunken, decayed. But we have these artists who take death, stuff it with synthetic material, replace eyeballs with beads and you have a recreation of an animal that sometimes looks better off than a live version of that animal. A lot of what is explored in these stories is a stripping down to raw human behavior. People hide behind the masks and costumes and artifice, but placed in certain situations, their animal instincts will always emerge.
[See also my review of the taxidermy-themed English Animals by Laura Kaye.]
Can you remember what the seed was for some of these stories? A particular line, scene, image, or character? Do you start writing a story with a title in mind, or does the title usually suggest itself later on?
Titles always come last for me. Always. I can’t name a thing until I know what that thing is. Writing is such a process and oftentimes I won’t end up where I think I’m going when I’m writing a story. They always surprise me. “Unruly” (the story of the pubic-haired Rapunzel) came directly out of this vivid dream I had when I was pregnant with my first child. I dreamed that I was naked with long flowing hair everywhere and a squirrel came out of a tree, nipped off a chunk of my hair and ran back to her nest and wove the hair into the nest. I remember waking up hysterically laughing. In hindsight it was such an obvious fertility dream; for the sake of the story, I made it a representation of coming-of-age/adolescence – a time where one’s body feels out of control, but I took it to the next level.
“The Sound of an Infinite Gesture” came directly from Koko the signing gorilla. It’s amazing that a gorilla can use sign language and communicate, but there was also something odd about people putting these very human ideas on a gorilla (remember they got her a pet kitten? And now I see they have her signing PSAs to save the environment?), so I started ruminating on what if we took this idea further – the gorilla communicates so well with her trainer that they begin to develop intimate feelings for one another.
Stories will often come out of an article I read (how leeches are being used in modern medicine led to “Bloodletting”) or from a friend, “Hey, did you know that people go to furry parties where they dress up in costumes and hug one another?” which led to “Plush” and I start playing around with what that might look like. It’s a lot of imaginative play involved. That’s my favorite part of writing – that dreamy time before I actually sit down to type – when it’s all just floating around my head and I’m trying to make a movie of it in my mind.
You’ve previously written YA novels. How different was the experience of writing these short stories? Do you see this work finding a dissimilar audience?
Writing a short fiction collection is not for the faint of heart. I was actually shocked at how slim the collection looked when it arrived in the mail. I kept thinking, “but I did all that work!” Each story, in a way, is treated like a novel. And I’m not talking just about the structure from beginning to end. Every word in a short story is precious; you have to economize. And, in order to get momentum for the collection, you want to publish stories from the collection in literary journals, which takes the same amount of energy and query letters that sending out your novel to an agent or publisher takes!
The audience for this book is completely different than the 13–17 demographic of the two other books. I have had a few people say, “Oh I bought your latest book for my child” and I’m quick to say, “it’s not for kids!” But read at your own risk.
Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has inspired your prose style or your story strategies?
I have so many favorite writers! And I read across all genres. It’s hard to say exactly who has influenced my work, but I will share my favorites! I love Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. I think she is the best at synthesizing humor and pathos in the same space. I strive to do this in my stories. Pastoralia by George Saunders is another favorite collection. He is a master storyteller, satirist, humorist and his stories bring me to my knees from emotion in unexpected ways. I love Aimee Bender’s use of magical realism. I recently read Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World and loved it! There are so many amazing and varied voices when it comes to contemporary short fiction! The faculty member I worked closely with at the University of British Columbia when I was working on my MFA in creative writing was the Giller-nominated writer, Zsuzsi Gartner. In addition to being an incredible writer herself, she opened up the world of endless possibilities in short fiction, which was incredibly liberating.
What are you working on next?
Last year, I was selected as the writer-in-residence at the Annenberg in Santa Monica and I began working on a contemporary novel about expectations and parenthood. I’m still working on it and hope to be finished by the beginning of the new year. (Now that it’s in writing, maybe I will be further motivated!) I was pretty sure that I was done with short fiction for a while, but then ideas started coming to me again, so it’s my job to listen.
I also teach writing at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. I will be teaching a new course, “Writing the Young Adult Novel”, in the winter and my usual “Intro to Short Fiction” in the spring. The classes are online, so if any of your readers are interested, sign up!
I spend a good amount of my time editing and helping to develop manuscripts and stories for clients. So it’s a nice balance between writing, editing and teaching.
My father, screenwriter Ron Clark, and I are toying with starting a podcast. Stay tuned!
Other places to reach Jennifer on social media:
Facebook Author Page: Jennifer Caloyeras