Top 12 books of 2017
As you get older, you start to do the things you promised you’d never do: like sell out, or work for the man, or buy a garlic press.
I always promised myself that I would never make a ‘best of the year’ list that didn’t contain a single book published in that year. Newspapers and magazines do it every year, and what (I always screamed to myself) is the point?! Who cares what you read this year Margaret Atwood – I want to know what the best books *of* 2017 were.
Well now I’m older, and I’ve come to realise three things:
- the only people that care about publishing dates are publishers
- a book published in 1817 can be much more modern and relevant than one published in 2017, and
- I’m a grown-ass adult and I can do as I please.
So, without further ado: with an arbitrary limit of 12 because that felt right, the best books that I read in 2017:
Eric Ormsby – The Baboons of Hada (2011)
Poetry may be the artform about which I am fussiest. I dislike a bad novel, but I hate a bad collection of poetry. It’s like listening to an incompetently-performed rock song, versus watching an incompetently-performed ballet. One of those you can clap along to. The other makes you wish you’d spent your money on grain alcohol and an all-night bus ticket around the M25.
Ormsby’s collection was the best I read in 2017 (excerpts here). Collecting 30 years of poetry from the Canadian, The Baboons of Hada ticks all my boxes: it is historically and geographically anchored; with dense, earthy and visally-potent language; and it is chock-a-block full of funny animals.
In 2017… I read a lot of awful poetry
Mario Vargas Llosa – Who Killed Palomino Molero? (1986)
Vargas Llosa had been on my to-read list for so long, so when I found an English translation of one of his early books in Peru, I had to pick it up. A detective story set in the northern desert wastes of Peru, it’s like Agatha Christie meets a nihilistic Jorge Amado.
It’ll be my “book of Peru” with a full review to follow soon.
In 2017… I know who killed Palomino Molero, but I’m not telling.
Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita (1955)
The first half could be a grotty erotic paperback from the 1950’s. The second half could be infuriating postmodern American nonsense from the 1960’s. Together… it’s brilliant. There were as many things I hated about this book as I loved about it – but there’s still enough of the latter to send it into the top 12.
In 2017… Still a classic for good reason, even if the number of misjudged internet citations has shrunk since Reddit banned r/jailbait.
Thomas Hardy – Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
I’m still working my way through Hardy’s novels one-by-one, having purchased a vintage set off eBay after a few late-night drinks. This one was less depressing (Jude) and less epic (Tess) than Hardy’s best. But still a wonderful read, with caddish baddies and homely goodies. And the early twist with the sheep is better than the later twist with the marriage.
In 2017… I finally had the opportunity to watch the film adaptation with Carey Mulligan, but instead I watched The Terminal with Tom Hanks.
Claribel Alegria – Ashes of Izalco (1989)
My “book of El Salvador”. This forgotten book (from an often-forgotten country) has stuck with me more than I ever expected at the time. A bleak novel that could easily be an example of 1920’s English modernism if it wasn’t for all the volcanoes and army massacres. My full review is here.
In 2017… beloved hippopotamus ‘Gustavito’ was beaten to death at El Salvador zoo. I didn’t mention it in the article, for fear of bumming everyone out.
Stefan Zweig – The Post Office Girl (written 1942, published 1982)
One of Zweig’s books that became the influence for The Grand Budapest Hotel, this is Zweig’s posthumous unfinished novel. Its story, of a poor clerk working in a rural Austrian post office, and her swift decline into bitterness and post-war ressentiment following a brief taste of upper class life. The plot is unfinished, and even sadder for it.
In 2017… Zweig expresses the anger of the post-recession disenfranchised in a way that helps to understand Brexit and Corbyn.
E.L. Doctorow – Homer and Langley (2010)
Every member of the Swedish academy who never voted for Doctorow for the Nobel Prize while he was still alive should have their name put on a list, and be blacklisted from somewhere unobtrusive (like a small regional branch of Pizza Hut or something). It’s surely what Doctorow would have wanted.
I’m running out of new Doctorow books to read, and now he’s dead and there’ll be no more. Homer and Langley is set in 20th century New York, and based on the true story of the Collyer Brothers (with significant historical liberties), and is one of his best.
In 2017… Encourage your local Swedish Academy member to vote for Doctorow in 2019. Rules be damned.
Stephen Schlesinger – Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (2005)
The history of the United States’ involvement in Central American politics is not a happy one, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the area will tell you. This record of the CIA operation to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Jabobo Arbenz in 1954 is an incredibly well-told account of what is, sadly, just another tawdry chapter in the story of US abuses in this part of the world.
Schlesinger’s particular brilliance is to make the history seem, not bigger, but smaller. The key protagonists don’t feel like they’re just actors of some impersonal “grand history”, but real people who made stupid real-people mistakes, and did horrible real-people things.
In 2017… Guatemala has an ex-comedian as a President who previously posed in blackface and keeps provoking neighbouring Belize with a decades-old territorial dispute. But, good to be reminded that things have been worse.
Emilia Pardo Bazán – The House of Ulloa (1886)
A largely-forgotten classic of 19th century Spanish literature, dusted off for a new publication by Penguin a few years back. I found a tatty paperback of it in some back-alley bookshop in Colombia, and devoured it happily.
Wonderfully merging the gothic and the farcical, the novel rotates around a naive priest trying to claw order from a crumbling mansion in rural Spain, with feral children and evil gamekeepers. Midway-through a slapstick local election takes place, with all the appropriate caricatures of stupid and venal local politicians. Nicholas Lezard called it “a bit like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but with jokes”, which is spot on.
In 2017… Ask yourself how many female 19th-century Spanish authors you can name. If none, buy this book.
Royall Tyler (ed.) – Japanese Tales (2002)
This collection of folk tales from medieval Japan is just a total delight. Aimed halfway between Japanese literature specialists and total newbies (of which I am one), it’s beautifully packaged, well-translated and includes a great introduction by Japanophile Royall Tyler.
The tales themselves are often totally madcap, full of shapeshifting gods and severely unfair turns of fate. They’re full of… not exactly wisdom… but something approaching wisdom, packaged in such a way as to make you think they could just be totally random. Frequently I’d settle into a tale thinking “I see where this is going, that evil emperor is going to get his comeuppance”, and then he wouldn’t, and the innocent pauper would get cursed by a river demon for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In 2017… I will be reminded never to turn ugly old women away from the door of my castle. Or do. It’s unclear.
Graham Greene – The Quiet American (1955)
This week the Nobel Committee opened the 1967 archive (50 years on, as they do every year). We learned that Graham Greene was in contention for that year’s Prize, which was eventually awarded to Guatemalan author Miguel Asturias. Cue lots of people who haven’t read Asturias calling it a terrible decision, and bemoaning the Academy’s lack of taste, because Graham Greene is “such a great author” and was completely overlooked for the Nobel.
Just coincidentally, in 2017 I did (finally) read Miguel Asturias, and I also read some Graham Greene, as is my wont. And… Graham Greene is better. Sorry.
The Quiet American was the best of Greene’s I read this year. It depicts the conflict between US and French colonialism in Vietnam in the 1950’s, and like most of Greene’s overseas novels, it’s a sensitive and ultimately-heartbreaking analysis of the broader patterns of colonialism and international relations built on dodgy foundations. And it probably should have earned its author a Nobel.
In 2017… I did not read the 1967 Nobel Prize candidate Konstantin Paustovsky. Lazy.
Paul Kingsnorth – The Wake (2014)
The best novel, and best book, that I read in 2017.
Imagine if Robin Hood was real, but was a member of the 1066 version of British National Party, and instead of stealing from the rich, he just murdered a couple of French soldiers and spent most of his time trying to survive winter in the Lincolnshire Wolds.
Then imagine if this story was written in a daring approximation of Old English, excluding all modern and French-derived words, and was the first crowdfunded book to be longlisted for the Booker Prize.
I loved everything about this book, and the news that Mark Rylance has bought the rights for a potential film felt like the literary equivalent of finding £20 in an old pair of trousers.
In 2017… Want to understand angry, disenfranchised, British men? Then read this, especially if those particular men happen to have been born before the Edward the Second.