We asked writers, editors, and booksellers to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition last year. Here are their 10 suggestions.
Writer and critic, former Editorial Director of Book of the Month Club
There’s nothing I love more than an unreliable narrator, and the protagonist of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel is a doozy. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is the story of Helen, a school teacher from New York City, who casts herself in the role of lead detective on a very tough and personal case — her adopted brother’s suicide. When Helen returns to her childhood home of Milwaukee to investigate, truths about Helen and her family are slowly revealed, and we begin to realize that Helen may be worthy of scrutiny herself. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is both a clever and poignant exploration of the distance between how we imagine ourselves to be and who we truly are.
I so loved the quiet melancholy and quirky charm threaded through the stories in this collection. Katherine Vaz, author of two novels (Saudade and Mariana) as well as two prior short story collections, has created characters and worlds in this book which form a marvelous tapestry that I felt lucky to see. Through her lyrical snapshots of the lives of these people — a widowed DMV worker dealing with an angry stalker, an aging ballerina, a maker of melting ice sculptures, a Hollywood assistant animator with his own obsession — we see both the frissons and the fractures that carve up our daily lives. And we’re left the richer for it.
Bookseller, Powell’s Books
The novelist and short story writer Mary Gaitskill’s first collection of nonfiction gave me reason to rejoice, as many of these pieces, especially the early pre-internet ones, are a bit hard to track down. She writes extraordinarily well about the mysteries of human behavior, especially as to how our two primary genders relate to each other. She seems to understand masculinity without being an apologist for our worst behavior. She occupies a space that doesn’t seem to fit snugly into any particular wave of feminism, but which feels somehow trans-feminist. Her essays’ subjects range from Bjork to Elizabeth Wurtzel to date rape to Nabokov (twice), revealing a mind at work that is truly singular.
Robert Coover is one of those Great American Writers whose New York Times obituary is probably already written and whose death will reveal to America’s cultured classes what they’ve been missing, causing his books to sell out in every bookstore in America. He is that rare highbrow who doesn’t shirk the duty of saying something about this twisted land, and in Huck Out West he has written an utterly accessible and astoundingly worthy sequel to Twain’s classic. He nails Huck’s voice as Huck and Tom Sawyer traverse antebellum America in a hilariously satirical picaresque that savages the, well, savagery of this country on the cusp of our most quintessential paroxysm of mass violence. Had you told me that the old bitter Twain had written this himself and withheld it from publication because of its incendiary qualities, it would not have surprised me.
I don’t know if this book technically qualifies as an overlooked book from 2017, since it was originally self-published in 1914 in France, but it did languish out of print in English translation until New Directions republished a 1970 translation last year. The story is basically a guided tour through an estate that contains the most singularly bizarre tableaux vivants imaginable (or in one case, an “un”-living tableau) constructed by the most convoluted means imaginable (I cannot even begin to describe them here, but Roussel himself did in a work called How I Wrote Certain of My Books). Roussel was convinced that his magnum opus would make him more famous than Balzac. Instead he died in total obscurity, his work unread and only published because he himself paid for it. When the Surrealists discovered him a decade after his death, they realized that a prose Mallarme had lived and died without the knowledge of anyone who could make anything of his most unconventional oeuvre.
Literature’s self-destructive monomaniacs tend to be intellectuals (see Bernhard, Hamsun), so it was refreshing to encounter Habash’s titular narrator, a college wrestler in wintry South Dakota. Florida’s goal of winning his division’s annual championship is an end-all, be-all, self-obliterating desire, and never has athletic pursuit been so nightmarishly rendered. What is the difference between extreme dedication and madness? Can you have the former without the latter? I don’t know. I do know every sports fan should read this novel.
Bookseller, Powell’s Books
Rosson’s beach town of Riptide is no vacation paradise; instead, it’s full of terrible occurrences, bad feelings, and a sense of dread. Mutilated animals are appearing, there’s worry about the legend known as the “low walker,” and a dead body is unearthed. The story sounds dark, and it is, but the absolute beauty of Rosson’s book is his incredible characters. One is full of conflict, prejudice, and vitriol; one is panicked, worried, and nervous; a couple are so full of pain they can barely function. I don’t know how Rosson pulled this off, but it was one of my favorite reads of 2017.
I’ve never read anything like Mammother. In a tiny town, people are dying from a curse known as “God’s Finger,” where the victims are found with a perfect hole all the way through their chests, and inside each hole is an object. Why is this happening? What does it mean? Schomburg’s story is mesmerizing; the writing, the plot, the characters, all of it. Insanely talented and absolutely genius, Schomburg writes a debut novel that is something truly original.
Audience Development Editor, Longreads
Structured around the 40 questions Luiselli translates for undocumented Latin American children facing deportation, this slim, affecting book lays out a lucid, open-hearted case for immigration reform. Luiselli’s own status becomes more and more poignant as the book progresses: she is waiting for her green card as she writes it, and while her husband’s and children’s finally arrive, hers gets lost in the mail.
It is impossible to read Luiselli’s writing without glimpsing what a terrible, senseless loss it would be to turn away such talent, and what an equally senseless policy it is to cross-examine innocent children. In just one hundred pages, Tell Me How It Ends offers an invaluable perspective on the role America is playing in determining so many futures. We may not know how all of these families’ stories end, but we can at least ask ourselves if our role in those endings is right, good, or remotely enough.
Books Editor, Longreads
In a genuinely invigorating book for these times, L. A. Kauffman positively reassesses the efficacy of leftist protest movements since the ’60s, beginning with a re-examination of the ’60s itself. She argues that rather than the spirit of the ’60s “dying” in ’69, the movement peaked once the movement’s “big personalities” had been sidelined, once gay and feminist activists became involved in grassroots planning, and once participation became nearly ubiquitous, with disruptive anti-war actions happening all over the country.
The movement’s apotheosis was, in Kauffman’s view, and contrary to received wisdom, the 1971 antiwar Mayday march on Washington, which managed to shut down the Capitol for a few hours. The action was widely dismissed at the time by critics on the Left and has been nearly forgotten by the public. However, the action rattled that Nixon administration and plausibly hastened the end of the war in Vietnam. Moreover, the tactics and planning for Mayday, which emphasized working with local groups to achieve national goals, engaged and inspired thousands of new activists in the LQBTQ and feminist communities, who continued to mount successful actions in the ’70s and ’80s. This book is a must-read for anyone looking for a way forward. Read an excerpt here.