My best books read in 2017

I read War and Peace!

It just seems worth shouting about. It did take almost two months. Anyway, with that notice out of the way here’s my end of year round-up, in no particular order until you get to the very end. As with the last couple of years’ round-ups the image is wholly unrelated to the list, but it is a very good film.

Best not to actually describe it novel: let’s start with what’s possibly the most disturbing read of the year in a year where that’s a hotly contested category. Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods is a novel so blackly satirical that just talking about its core concept gets fairly offensive. A biting argument that actually, on reflection, maybe we shouldn’t accept things as they are;

Best novel that’s actually quite hard to describe: that would be Adrian N. Bravi’s The Combover. It’s funny, it’s clever and it’s the only novella about a man retreating from the world after someone flips his combover that you’ll read any time soon;

Best novel that hardly anyone commented on: The Magician of Lublin, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Somehow I just didn’t enthuse people about this one when I first wrote about it, so here’s another go. This came very close to being my book of the year. It’s exuberant, well written and powerful. Seriously, it’s worth checking out;

(Best disturbing novel with a child protagonist actually proved quite hotly contested this year, so I’ve broken it down into the following two categories.)

Best disturbing and somewhat gothic novel with a child protagonist: Small Hands, by Andres Barba. This has now won the Spanish Herralde prize and it’s easy to see why. It’s marvellously well written and frankly any novel that features the line “Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase.” just has to be celebrated. I know it’s dark, I know it involves harm to children, but it really is very good and another candidate for book of the year;

Best disturbing and terribly sad novel with a child protagonist: I’m late to the party with this one, but Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole. I thought this was clever, funny and yet rather heartbreaking and it’s astonishing quite how much Villalobos manages to pack in by way of off-screen implication;

Best classic Russian novel: Novel is stretching it here, but it’s novel length so why not? Anyway, the winner is the Pushkin Press translation by Anthony Briggs of Alexander Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin. It’s a delightful and sparkling translation which I utterly recommend;

Best novel set in Vienna: another surprisingly hotly contested category this year, but Arthur Schnitzler just can’t be beat and his Dream Story while far from my favourite by him is nonetheless exceptionally good;

Best stylistically innovative novel about a sex-offender: would of course be Anakana Schofeld’s marvellous Martin John. It’s not an easy read either in terms of subject matter or occasionally in terms of style, but a little perseverance more than pays off in what was rightly one of the most widely praised novels of 2016 (but which I didn’t read until 2017);

Best novel featuring an unnecessary supernatural element: The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald. I just loved this rather melancholic tale of the opening of a small town bookshop and its various successes and challenges. One of this year’s gems;

Best science fiction novel to show the scope of the genre: The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley. Non-SF readers often have odd views on what constitutes SF, assuming it has to involve spaceships or aliens or something. None of that is of course true. Whiteley not only interrogates modern ideas of agency and the right to the future but also speaks to past SF conventions and assumptions. I was also very impressed this year past by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and by Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight, either of which on another day might just as easily have won);

Best novel that speaks to the world today: Street of Thieves, by Mathias Enard. I love Enard’s ambition, his language and unfashionably enough for a literary author his grasp of plot and story. Here he addresses the Arab spring but also a personal coming of age tale and wider issues of the relationship between the developing and developed world. Not Zone, but then what is?

DRUM ROLL PLEASE

And finally, my book of the year for 2017 is: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. Probably not a surprise to anyone who read my review. This is a slim masterpiece. An extraordinary achievement and a book that has nestled away inside me and which I definitely hope to reread at some point.

And that’s it! The list was unusually easy to draw up this year which isn’t actually the best sign. Usually it takes me ages to cut down from the 50-60 books I typically read to a list of ten or twelve. This year it was only really the SF category which caused me any issues – everything else was obvious and it only took me about five minutes to work out what my list was. Not ideal and something for me to think about as I choose my reading over the coming year.

Anyway, I never read other people’s lists until I’ve done my own. Now I have and so now I can. I’m interested to see what others liked and largely hope that I either disagree or have already read their choices since otherwise my groaning TBR pile will grow even larger …

Happy new year!

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27 Comments

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27 responses to “My best books read in 2017

  1. Lee Monks

    I should re-read Pedro Paramo then! Great list.

  2. I loved Onegin! I am hoping that this weill be my year for War and Peace. Happy New Year!

  3. Lee, you should! Have you had any thoughts on what your list would look like?

    Melissa, did you read this translation? It’s the second version I’ve read and I distinctly enjoyed both. Good luck if you do read War and Peace – it’s a monster of a book. Personally I need to get back to Proust.

  4. Welcome to the club of those of us who have read War and Peace. T was a big fan of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and my favorite of his is ‘Enemies, A Love Story’. Am also a fan of Penelope Fitzgerald.
    This is a great offbeat list.

  5. I’ll look out for that Singer, thanks. Useful to know where to go next with him as I hadn’t really much of a clue on that front.

    Fitzgerald’s praises are undersung.

    Thanks!

  6. I think having read War and Peace deserves shouting about too – well done!! 😁

  7. Some great choices (and categories!) – well done And Other Stories with three winners, all of which I’ve read and all of which I’ve loved.

  8. Lightning Rods is so brilliant; couldn’t be more different that Last Samurai. Both very worthwhile. I think Enard is very special and looking forward to another next year. One year I hope to be able to proclaim that I have finished War and Peace.

  9. Happy New Bookish Year! I like the Briggs translation of Onegin too.

  10. Some great books agree about combover I read it and couldn’t get to write a review a truly odd book

  11. Have you seen Elena from the same director? I just watched Loveless (same director). For the version I watched the subtitles were a travesty and the film was really depressing.

  12. I love this list–lots of intriguing titles, including a couple I’ve enjoyed: Dream Story and, especially, The Bookshop. I confess I found Enemies: A Love Story a slog. I hear the best writers in the Singer family were his brother and sister.
    Anyway, the book here I most want to read is The Arrival of Missives. Sounds so interesting.
    And I’m intrigued that although you are rightly proud of finishing War & Peace (I hope to be able to say the same one day), you didn’t list it as a year’s best.
    Thanks for another year of your fine blog. Happy reading in 2018.

  13. Great list! I do want to know, however, just how many stylistically innovative novels about sex-offenders you read to pick a “best” one? I have a Juan Ruflo book called Plain in Flames lined up in my intended collection of soon-to-read books. Do you know that one?

  14. Thanks all!

    Regarding Plain in Flames, the comments against my Rulfo review helpfully shed some light upon that. It’s a retitled reissue of The Burning Plain (a 2012 imprint) and is a collection of short stories set in the same region apparently. I intend to pick it up myself.

    Regarding War and Peace, I am pleased to have finished it but it’s not an accident that it’s not on the list. The history asides (eventually essays) are just awful, and as the book continues they get longer and longer until you get the frankly near-unreadable second epilogue which should simply have been cut in its entirety.

    There’s some other issues like the treatment of Natasha in the first epilogue but they’re minor compared to the history essays. For me they did huge eventual damage to the flow of the book and made parts of it (particularly the later parts) an utter chore. It’s a shame as the first quarter or so is magnificent, but I think there’s a reason most people don’t finish the book and it’s not length.

    Length is overstated as an issue anyway. People have no trouble with say Game of Thrones each of which is an absolute doorstop – the third novel in that series is almost a 1,000 pages in its own right for example.

    Basically, and at risk of being pelted with stones and hardback novels, it really needed a good editor. All that aside, if you do read it I do strongly urge not just reading the war sections or the peace sections as some people apparently do. They fit together and reflect each other and you’d be missing a lot.

    Haven’t seen Elena yet. I don’t think the director does other than utterly depressing – that seems to be his territory. Leviathan is very good though.

  15. Sendra

    What can I say about War & Peace and its essays? Helps to have a slight warning beforehand. I found that the good will Tolstoy bought earlier on propelled me to carry on even though there was a hard and growing sense of ,’Stop this, stop this please.’ On the second reading, nothing on Earth made me feel bad about skipping them.
    Your point on length sounds right. I once had this weird determination to finish a novel even when I wasn’t enjoying it. And there is that familiar anti-drumroll when the book is 500 pages plus and you know it is bad around the 50 page mark. Still, I would push on. As I got older, I became much less self punishing. Didn’t you once write something similar? That ‘finish your greens’ approach that can’t really be justified. I’ve had 200 pagers drag on and 1000 pagers skim by. For me, The Code of the Woosters is a pamphlet.

  16. I always love your lists, but this one really took the cake – “Best stylistically innovative novel about a sex-offender”. I’m glad I wasn’t drinking coffee at the time I read it, otherwise I might be looking for a new computer now instead of writing this comment.

    I’ve started War and Peace twice – and both times was enjoying it – but time got the better of me both times. I have a Schnitzler in my pile now – bought as the result of Guy’s review. Now I have to try to read it!

    Anyhow, thanks for your list. And I wish good reading to you in 2018.

  17. Interesting list, Max. I’m a recent discoverer of Fitzgerald. haven’t yet read the Bookshop, so don’t know why you consign its supernatural element to the ‘unnecessary’ category; is there a necessary one, too?! Read W and P long ago and don’t recall finding it too much of a drag, though I do remember some of those ‘essays’ you mention.

  18. I seem to recall one of the essays going on for about 70 pages. Even short of that they often rather killed the pacing, and they weren’t always skippable as sometimes they were interspersed between actual novel. I’m not saying to anyone not to read the book but it did affect my enjoyment enough that it didn’t make my end of year list.

    Nowadays I’m find abandoning a book. Years back I read one that was over 650 pages. I got to page 600 and decided that I couldn’t stand any more, even if there were only fifty or so remaining. Since that I’ve had no qualms.

    Which Schnitzler do you have WG? Late Fame is very good if it’s that one.

    Re the supernatural, I think it’s necessary if it’s what the story is about (so a ghost story or horror novel or whatever) or if it exists to somehow underline or parallel more naturalistic story elements. I think it’s unnecessary if it’s just there but isn’t a core element of the novel.

    In the case of The Bookshop the poltergeist is just there. The book’s not about a haunted bookshop – the bookshop just happens to be haunted and it’s a hassle much as a problem with damp would be. Equally the poltergeist doesn’t in any way parallel or shed light on the main story.

    None of that is an objection incidentally – I like the poltergeist bit in The Bookshop. Apparently the inclusion of it is an element taken from life – Fitzgerald based the novel on her own experience of running a bookshop and that appeared for whatever reason to have a poltergeist. So, unnecessary, but not for that reason bad. Not everything in a book need be necessary – sometimes unnecessary material helps keep the book fresh and avoids it becoming too arid and too much an exercise in technique.

  19. Fine list Max – I have read quite a few, so great to be reminded of them and get your thoughts. I haven’t read that Enard, though I have Compass on the shelf.

    I loved Pedro Paramo as well, I must reread it. Thanks to the discussion under the review I have found The Golden Cockerel online, and slapped it on the wishlist.

    Happy reading 2018!

  20. Thanks for the explanations. I didn’t mean to sound impertinent with my comments on the supernatural. I like the sound of The Bookshop – some of those I’ve visited did seem to have…an aura of some kind. Like the spirits of all those long-gone authors lingering to see who’d pick up their work again. I too am now able to give up on a book I don’t get on with, though it doesn’t happen often.

  21. A wonderful list. I loved Pedro Páramo and Dream Story as well. The bookshop is on my piles but there are many others I wouldn’t mind reading.

  22. Except for War and Peace, I think I had never heard of any of the books that are on your list before reading your reviews or seeing this list. (I have a few of your reviews in my inbox)

    Thanks for expanding my horizons and I wish you a Happy New Year, a healthy one with a lot of good books.

  23. Lee Monks

    A little bit, as part of the Mookse thing on Goodreads. I mentioned Solar Bones, Transit, Homesick for Another World on there as books from the last year or so, and I’d add Lincoln in the Bardo, Reservoir 13, Our Mutual Friend, theMystery.doc, Vineland, Days Without End and Winter as making up the others that spring to mind as very notable. But I’ll have forgotten a few.

  24. Ian, I think the common view is that it’s not top Enard (and that’s probably fair) but I still really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to Compass.

    Caroline, I often find that a review encourages me to read something but it still has to take its place with many other things I’m keen to read. I think you’ll enjoy The Bookshop when you do get to it and it’s not a demanding read which can be welcome at times.

    Emma, I definitely think you’d like The Bookshop. The Lublin and the Schnitzler might also work well for you (though there’s better Schnitzlers).

    Lee, I don’t know Homesick so I’ll look that out. I need to reconsider Reservoir since lots of serious readers seems to really rate it.

    Happy new year to all of you!

  25. Just dropping by briefly to say how pleased I am to see The Bookshop on your list. Such a wonderful novel; everything is so carefully observed. I think it’s my favourite of the Fitzgeralds I’ve read so far. That said, I doubt she ever wrote a bad book, not a word out of place. Human Voices is definitely worth considering at some point. While not as polished as The Bookshop, it features some very interesting characters – as ever with her writing, it feels as if you can see right into her world.

    I have a lovely old Penguin copy of Dream Story tucked away somewhere so I ought to dig it out. Interesting to see that it made your list even though you feel it’s not his best.

    Re: Leviathan and this director – yes, unremittingly bleak is his territory, he certainly doesn’t do cheery. Have you seen his first one, The Return? I think it’s one of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen. Very good, but a really tough watch. Elena is my fave of his, so I would definitely recommend you give it a whirl at some point. Just be sure to have something joyful lined up as an anecdote for later…

  26. Eric P.

    Congrats on finishing War and Peace! It’s on my TBR stack, but pretty far down. I do try to get through one doorstop novel at the end of each year. A couple of years ago it was Vanity Fair, last year Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and probably it will be Musil’s The Man Without Qualities at the end of 2018.
    I’ve not heard of The Combover. I’ll see if the library carries it.
    My favorite books of 2017 tended to be short — Carr’s A Month in the Country (also about a man in retreat from the world), Gide’s The Vatican Cellars and Narayan’s Malgudi Days (probably his best short story collection if you had to choose only one, though why need you?).

  27. Jacqui, it’s excellent so thank you for tipping me over to reading it. I’m sure I’ll get to Human Voices eventually, though her Russian one is my next by her.

    Even Schnitzler’s weaker outings are still impressive. For me he has a narrow range – from very good to great.

    I have seen The Return. It makes Leviathan look positively jolly. Haven’t seen Elena yet but I do have a copy. He’s an impressive director but not exactly chirpy.

    Eric, good luck with the Musil, that’s a daunting tome on a number of fronts.

    I wrote up that Carr here, and I think it made my book of the year in the relevant year (honestly if I had a books of the blog list it would be on that). It’s superb isn’t it? I don’t know the Gide but will look it up. I’ve read a Narayan but will look into his short stories too, I can see how he’d be a good short story writer.

    All, updates may be a bit slow for a while as I’m extremely busy at work.

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