As is tradition for, well, all book blogs ever, we compiled a list of the best books we each read in 2017.
The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt
A tour de force of female anger, Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World explores the mythology of the “Great Artist,” and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which that mythology is tied to whiteness, straightness, and especially maleness. The protagonist, Harriet “Harry” Burden, is the wife of a deceased prominent art dealer whose own artistic career has languished in obscurity. She decides to conduct a subversive “experiment” in which she creates under the names of real male artists, who then take credit for her work. The obvious effect is, of course, that her art is better-appreciated, but also that the fusion of her identity with a male identity takes on a life of its own. Beautifully and fiercely written, the novel builds a thesis about gender that extends far beyond the art world, and offers a poignant solution to the age-old question of why there are “no great female artists.”
[I got The Blazing World for you! Glad you liked it! –Nerdy Spice]
Lilith’s Brood – Octavia Butler
An unsettling, uncanny, and strangely sensual science fiction allegory about slavery and colonialism, Spencer’s seminal trilogy (which is about to be adapted by HBO) follows a black American woman named Lilith—a reference to Adam’s devil-worshipping first wife—who unwittingly and/or reluctantly leads humanity into subjugation by cooperating with powerful aliens who have taken them hostage. The novels are remarkable not only for their allegorical potency, but also their moral ambiguity; the aliens are undeniably trying to help the humans, who have destroyed their own world with nuclear weapons, but they are also toxically arrogant and parasitic, trying to soak up everything interesting and exotic about human culture while tamping down all that’s “uncivilized.” As Nerdy Spice said in her review, the trilogy is a fascinating and profoundly uncomfortable read, one that challenges the very notion of consent in a colonialist society and renders the reader complicit in that particular type of atrocity committed for a people’s “own good.”
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine – Alexandra Kleeman
Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel has been billed as “Fight Club for girls,” which simultaneously feels true and something of a disservice to this bleak, complex, and very adult book. The unnamed protagonist, referred to simply as A, is a disenchanted 20-something who feels alienated from her own body and is obsessed with the notion that her lookalike roommate, B, is trying to replace her in all aspects of her life. The novel at turns satirizes everything from health food culture to cultlike religions, but still feels like a cohesive thesis, an indictment of society’s morbid preoccupation with every particle of the female body.
The Neapolitan Quartet – Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s four-volume tome has already become a modern classic, and with good reason. The first novel, My Brilliant Friend, is like a modern-day Jane Austen—a sharply observed and deeply felt depiction of a full-of-fire young woman and a complicated female friendship. But it’s the second novel, The Story of a New Name, in which the personal becomes political and the “fiery” women are finally allowed to burn with rage. As The Australian wrote in their review, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry.”
Magdalene – Marie Howe
This slim book of linked poems takes the fraught symbolism of Mary Magdalene and turns it on its head, reimagining her as a put-upon modern-day woman who faces both extreme dehumanization and the most banal of everyday concerns. One of the highlights of the book, “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” reframes the biblical seven devils cast out of Mary Magdalene as distinctly female problems: “The first was that I was very busy. / The second—I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that. / The third—I worried.” Like all great poetry, the poems of Magdalene create worlds within them with sharp and resonant detail.
Mrs. Caliban – Rachel Ingalls
Originally published in 1983 and re-printed this year, Mrs. Caliban is an unfairly overlooked novella that is finally (maybe) getting its due. In a trim, elegant plot that is eerily similar to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, an unhappy housewife named Dorothy falls in love with a humanoid sea creature who has escaped physical and sexual abuse in a government lab. The strange, highly allegorical premise has been compared to everything from Shakespeare to King Kong, but to me, it was most reminiscent of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Dorothy is the very embodiment of Friedan’s apparently privileged, yet terminally dissatisfied housewife–a woman who is trapped in a loveless, borderline abusive marriage and utterly unable to think of herself and her desires as separate from the men in her life. She finds sexual liberation and a kindred spirit in sea creature Larry, whose literal imprisonment mirrors her more abstract domestic confinement, but the novel offers no easy answers for the ever-present and seemingly intractable “woman problem.”
The Year of the Runaways – Sunjeev Sahota
Earlier this year I wrote, “Sunjeev Sahota’s heart-wrenching Booker-nominated novel The Year of the Runaways, which follows four young Indians in England over a year filled with tragedy and struggle, is one of the most beautifully written books I have read all year, and also the most sensitively observed work of social realism.” It may have been my favorite book I’ve read all year.
The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
I read this early in 2017, as part of a post-election binge on novels about fascism. Because the premise–that the devil comes to visit the USSR–didn’t seem particularly interesting, I read it without particularly expecting to like it and found myself unexpectedly moved and inspired. It both portrays the devil’s visit (and the confusion and, in some cases, strange liberation it brings people) and has interludes focusing on Pontius Pilate at Jesus’ death; it’s funny at times, but also intimate and unsettling and emotional. I highly recommend it even if it doesn’t sound like your thing–it didn’t sound like mine.
Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado
In elegant, playful, luminous prose lacerated with searing images and ideas, Carmen Maria Machado tells feminist horror stories in this collection. It opens with the story, originally appearing in Granta, that motivated me to buy the book, “The Husband Stitch,” a retelling of the story of Jenny and the green ribbon, which was featured in a book called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that rivaled the Goosebumps books in popularity in my elementary school library. In it, a young woman marries a man and tells him he can never ask about the green ribbon she wears around her neck. He finally persuades her to tell him his secret, so she unties it, and her head falls off. Machado’s retelling shows how a kind and loving husband gently demands ownership of Jenny’s body and secrets, until she literally dies of his unconscious sexism. Another high point of the collection is a staggeringly long supernatural novella inspired by, of all things, Law and Order: SVU.
Dark Money – Jane Mayer
This carefully reported book about the role of ultra-rich donor money in moving American political discourse to the right changed how I understood the last twenty years in this country, and in particular showed exactly how destructive the Citizens United decision has been. This book proves with a truly impressive marshalling of evidence that we’ve let our country and our political system be bought.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
I can’t believe I’d never read this before, but I hadn’t, so of course like any millennial who fancies herself literary, I had to read the book before watching the TV show. (And it also went nicely with my novels-about-fascism reading project.) As you probably know, it’s a terribly frightening and convincing book about America becoming a theocracy in which women are used as reproductive slaves. After reading it I felt as if I were waking up from a nightmare I’d really lived through, almost surprised to be able to walk around freely and control my own reproductive system. Keets wrote a post on why the book is so much better than the show (though personally I love the show too): “The awful insight of the novel is its reification, in Offred, of a defeated member of a dehumanized underclass.”