The Best Books We Read This Year

Photo by John Ganiard

The Ribbon presents a series of year-in-review content: best-sellers, staff picks, guest picks, and more. We celebrate the year that was in books, and hopefully provide you with some handy guides to navigate your holiday shopping. First up: the best books Literati booksellers read this year — not necessarily published in 2017, just the favorite things we happened upon this calendar year! Entries are presented in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Click the title to be directed to our online store and purchase the title directly from Literati!

Ballantine Books (3/7/2017)

Ill Will, by Dan Chaon

Satanic cults and Ouija boards, unsolved murders and serial killers: Ill Will has all the horror hallmarks that Dan Chaon fans have come to expect. But beneath these masterfully handled tropes is a gorgeous meditation on questions that have longed obsessed this author: Can we ever truly recover from loss? Can we ever truly be present? Can we ever truly know ourselves? In lieu of answers, Ill Will reminds us that, as one character puts it, “we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden.” Bleak? Sure. But I take an eerie sense of solace in this, for better or for worse. — Sam

Farrar Straus and Giroux (10/3/2017)

Fresh Complaint, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The limited purchasing power that fills many characters in Jeffrey Eugenide’s short story collection, Fresh Complaint, with recognizable dread has — since many of those stories’ original publication — only been further attenuated. They are people caught up in all manner of precarious material conditions — in debt to the instruments they play, running out of food in a snowstorm, on their last property flip. Eugenides is a master of ruthlessly zeroing in on the social / economic minutiae that make up a life. But what is most fascinating is how this collection communicates rather stunningly and directly the anchor unforeseen material conditions cast from the higher idealism of those hoping to be released from its lonely concerns (“Sometimes you thought you heard the music, especially when you were young, and then you spent the rest of your life trying to reproduce the sound,” a character laments). This is what great fiction does: Makes us both understood and discomfited. To have one’s personal and historical conditions be recognized so acutely, whether in the darkly comedic, the subtle and cathartic invective, or the sobering, suffocating realism of those stories is all quite disarming and, these days, quite necessary. — John

Ballantine Books (8/22/1995)

Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Before I ever actually picked up this book, it had been in my periphery: winking, glittering like something precious underwater, guiding me with allusion and reference not just toward its pages but toward something within myself, something dormant and forgotten. This book is an invocation to the Wild Woman. Estes’s background is in Jungian psychology and mythic storytelling — and through her stories, she leads readers to and through the dark recesses of the collective unconscious, where the Wild Woman archetype has slept for so long. Reading this book felt like the deepest sigh I’ve ever released. It answers questions that nearly burned holes through my body. It howls, it cries, it sings. It empowers and it frees. If you feel its call, heed it. — Madison

Transit Books (9/12/2017)

Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Grzegorzewska

In this enchanting first novel by the Polish poet, life in a politically tumultuous 1980’s rural Poland is seen through the eyes of a precocious child, in chapters progressing from her earliest of memories through to those of her teenage years. Grzegorzewska consistently uses the minutest and most unexpected of details, and evocative imagery to suggest a time, a place, a mood, a feeling: “I lay down beside her and watched the sky spin candyfloss out of the clouds.” The beauty and ability of her language to capture a child’s wonder, confusion, and curiosity at the world, and to summon nearly palpable childhood memories in the reader is unparalleled. The captivating and lyrical language simply knocked my socks off; this novel is a magical testimony to the belief that the child in us is universally ever-present, and can be stirred to life by a consummate writer. — Jeanne

Riverhead Books (3/7/2017)

Exit West, by Moshin Hamid

There are some books that when you finish the last page and close the cover, leave you speechless, eomotionally wrecked, and just blown away. Exit West accomplishes all of these at the end of nearly every chapter! The prose is simply gorgeous, the plot compelling, and the characters remarkably true to life. Although set against a backdrop of insurgent, urban violence, and the precarious lives fleeing that violence, the heart of the story remains the deep, personal relationship of the two main characters — the highs and lows of their young romance. It is a familiar tale that could easily resonate if set at any other time period, in any other part of the world, and yet set within the context of the global migratory experience becomes especially powerful for today’s readers. This novel may well be the best book I read in 2017 and I’m forever grateful to the fellow booksellers who strongly recommended it to me.— Matt

Henry Holt & Company (7/11/2017)

Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong

I spent all day in bed with this book and it was like having a beautiful, otherworldly cat deign to sit in my lap for hours. At times her prose is elusive and evocative; other times it is right up in your face, daring you to flinch. How do you forgive a father who no longer remembers his trespasses? How can you protect a mother who blames herself (too many home-cooked meals in aluminum pans) for her husband’s Alzheimer’s? How can you be a better daughter, a better person, when your life falls apart at 30? Khong and her magical debut give the answer in its only satisfying iteration: You just do, you just can, you just are. — Lillian

Penguin Press (8/22/2017)

Autumn, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I tried to tackle Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir, My Struggle, but the struggle of six volumes proved too difficult. But I love this little book. It reminds me of a more memoirsh, modern version of A Sand County Almanac. Knausgaard has a unique way of seeing the world; these short essays written to his unborn daughter immerse you in both the changing seasons and fatherhood. A perfect fall read for new parents who appreciate nature (and don’t have time to tackle a six-volume memoir.)— Mike

Farrar Straus and Giroux (6/6/2017)

The Answers, by Catherine Lacey

Here is Catherine Lacey’s sophomore success: a beautifully dark, bitingly-observant, thoroughly haunting investigation into fraught relationships between science and love, technology and reality, and the ever-complicated notion that we could ever really know another person. It is nearly impossible to accurately articulate the strange genius of this entirely original novel, so I’ll just say that Catherine Lacey is that rare gem of a writer who sucks you in so quickly and completely — I felt myself become breathless in the midst of a kind of prose that startles and convinces, that punches and whispers. It was incredibly difficult to part with this book. — Claire

Phaidon (10/9/2017)

America: The Cookbook, by Gabrielle Langholtz

I buy few huge compendium cookbooks,but this is a big cookbook to cherish. Reading through the recipes I travel back in my mind to where or with whom I first had the dish: lobster rolls at the NMAI with my sister, New Orleans style pralines that my father brought home from a business trip, a frisbee-sized pork tenderloin sandwich in Missouri last spring. When we road trip, I look for regional specialties. This book combines the ease of the Internet search (it has an exemplary index), the armchair dreams of a Rick Steves book, and a large cast of James Beard Award chefs giving you recipes they feature in their restaurants, but that you can also recreate in your kitchen. This is a book I can cook from and that I’ll return to after each new trip. I’ve got 7 states left on my bucket list, and Clam Pie, West Indies Salad, and Knoephla Soup, too. — Carla

Tor Books (9/19/2017)

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

The best science fiction stretches our ingrained concepts of humanity and civilization into a series of questions that entrance and electrify its’ readers both by the nature of the questions, and by the contextual reality the author has created. Annalee Newitz shows her mastery of the genre with Autonomous, posing questions relating to ai, consciousness, and ownership, against the backdrop of Earth in 2144; where patent property law rules social order, and indentured people and bots are the new lower class. Autonomous follows Jack, a drug pirate desperately trying to fix a deadly mistake she made while racing against agents Eliasz (a temperamental military agent) and Paladin ( a newly conscious, indentured military bot). The story unravels as it progresses, revisiting Jack’s past to illustrate the evolution of her ideology, and showing a unique relationship blooming between Paladin and Eliasz. Newitz forces you to empathize with every character, while pondering the implications of each one of their choices. Autonomous is a true masterpiece.— Charlotte

Minotaur Books (8/29/2017)

Glass Houses, by Louise Penny

Louise Penny’s are always good, but some, like Glass Houses, are great. A mysterious, masked figure appears on the village green of tiny Three Pines. The figure stands, unmoving for a time and then disappears, leaving villagers to discover a body in a most unusual place. Meanwhile, Armand Gamache is finally Chief Superintendent of the Surete, and comes to understand that he must follow a course of action that could cost him his career, his friends, his family, and his life. Carve out a few undisturbed hours before you sit down to read this, because you won’t want to put it down. — Deb

Harper (10/17/2017)

The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1: 1940–1956, by Sylvia Plath

This book isn’t about that cold February morning in 1963. It isn’t about Teddy. It has little to do with posthumous mythology — be it useful for a particular cause or constructed for subjective gains. Don’t open the cover if you’re longing for clues as to how to best read “Daddy,” or “Lady Lazarus,” or “The Colossus.” Read this book because you want to hear the story of a young woman falling in love with the playful, yet duplicitous natures by which words bend, break, bother, and beckon — read it because you want to hear a story about a young woman realizing her life’s calling, not its inevitable demise. — Bennet

Random House (2/14/2017)

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Saunders’s first novel resounds with the author’s talent for pure voice, familiar to readers of his short stories, but this novel takes a magnifiscent and capacious form. The content — the sudden death of Lincoln’s son Willie at the beginning of the Civil War — feels both elemental and strangely topical. A collage of historical texts are excerpted, cited, and disavowed in turn, while a trio of ghosts narrate grief from the Bardo — an “in-between” realm of Tibetan Buddhism, or, simultaneously, the crypt where Willie Lincoln lays dead. I thought of Anne Carson’s poetry and the absurd humor of Beckett, a Buddhist Koan or two, and as astonishing as the writing is from a craft perspective, the power of its emotional resonance knocked me sideways. We sit with Lincoln as he grieves his son, the present and future losses of the Civil War, and the monstrous, murderous institution of slavery. A timely and welcome affirmation of the necessary importance of compassion and spiritual work of cultivating empathy. (Personally, it restored my faith in what a novel can do. — Gina

Prospect Park Books (5/2/2017)

Mothers and Other Strangers, by Gina Sorell

This book grabs you at the opening lines and won’t let you go. Elsie dreams of fire and doesn’t fully understand how deep her mother’s ties to a group called the Seekers was until her mother’s death. The discovery of a bundle of photos & a priceless ring take Elsie from her home in Canada to Africa on a journey that leads her to the past she never knew she had. A stunning, rich and heartfelt debut of suspense. — Shannon

Random House (4/25/2017)

Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout

Anything is Possible merges the interlocking story form of Olive Kitteridge with the characters from My Name is Lucy Barton. No one captures both the decency and cruelty of small towns the way that Strout does: the kindness of a school janitor or guidance counselor bestows on an impoverished child, but also the merciless taunts that child must endure. Mothers and daughters are a frequent theme, too, and Mississippi Mary, a story near the center of the book, about a woman visiting her mother in Italy, just might break your heart. In fact, every story in this amazing collection is about the events that can make or break us- war, abuse, poverty, illness- and how the characters are able to respond. Some choose kindness, some just act in their own self-interest, and some don’t seem like they have any choice in the matter at all. I loved this marvelous book and you should absolutely read it.— Jill

Balzer & Bray (2/28/2017)

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

16-year old Starr Carter attends a suburban prep school but lives in a poor, inner-city neighborhood. When her childhood best friend, Khalil, is killed by a police officer, the two worlds she has tried to keep apart threaten to blend together. Starr Carter is a living, breathing protagonist and her struggle to do what is right instead of what is easy rings through to the last page. — Atti

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

My favorite book of the year. A meditation on the people, ideas, and history that haunt us. We see generation after generation of a family endure loss. Witness not just with eyes, but with heart, the hardship of those that came before and how it reverberates in those here today. But the novel is equally adept at showing us love, no matter how subtle. We see how that love can be carried, no matter how small, and can be a tiny gem, allowing characters to bear what life brings. Ward shows us, with gorgeous prose, what it is to live, to love, to die. — Hilary