This year has been quite a wild ride: a president who argues that some white supremacists are “very fine people,” those white supremacists marching openly in our streets chanting hateful rhetoric and committing terrible violence, an administration and GOP that would like to limit healthcare access in ways that can only be considered cruel and unusual, the United States’s exit from the Paris Accord despite growing concerns from scientists about the environmental crisis we’re facing, that same president’s nuclear pissing content with North Korea, his tweet rants about banning trans people from serving in our military…
We could go on, but we’d rather not. Just for today, just in time for the weekend, we’d like to focus instead on what else 2017 has brought us: a whole lot of amazing literature. Here is a list of Rumpus editors’ favorite reads from 2017 thus far—the books that have kept us sane, challenged us to work harder and think bigger, and kept us dreaming and hopeful despite, well, everything else.
The Adventures of Form and Content by Albert Goldbarth (Graywolf, January 3, 2017)
Albert Goldbarth’s first book of essays in a decade is about the mysteries of dualities, the selves we all carry inside, the multiverses that we are. A new, ingenious work of hilarity and humanity that reminds us of the capabilities and impossibilities of art.
The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz (Ecco, January 17, 2017)
The characters in Benz’s wildly imaginative debut are as varied as any in recent literature, but they share a thirst for adventure which sends them rushing full-tilt toward the moral crossroads, becoming victims and perpetrators along the way. Riveting, visceral, and heartbreaking, Benz’s stories of identity, abandonment, and fierce love come together in a daring, arresting vision.
The White City by Karolina Ramqvist (Black Cat, February 7, 2017)
With slow-burning psychological intrigue and a seductive atmosphere, The White City is an intimate portrayal of one woman’s struggle to pull herself up from the paralyzing depths of despair and an unflinching examination of what it means to lose control—over your body and your life.
I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960-2014 by Bill Knott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 14, 2017)
An essential contribution to American letters, I am Flying into Myself gathers a selection of Knott’s previous volumes of poetry, published between 1960 and 2004, as well as verse circulated online from 2005 until a few days before his death in 2014. His work—ranging from surrealistic wordplay to the anti-poem, sonnets, sestinas, and haikus—all convenes in this inventive and brilliant book, arranged by his friend the poet Thomas Lux, to showcase our American Rimbaud, one of the true poetic innovators of the last century.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker (Tin House Books, February 14, 2017)
Morgan Parker stands at the intersections of vulnerability and performance, of desire and disgust, of tragedy and excellence. Unrelentingly feminist, tender, ruthless, and sequined, these poems are an altar to the complexities of black American womanhood in an age of non-indictments and déjà vu, and a time of wars over bodies and power.
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury USA, February 28, 2017)
At once a fearlessly vulnerable memoir and an incisive investigation of art, love, and identity, Abandon Me draws on childhood stories, religion, psychology, mythology, popular culture, and the intimacies of one writer’s life to reveal intellectual and emotional truths that feel startlingly universal.
Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello (Sarabande Books, February 28, 2017)
Beginning with Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth recently found in the Siberian permafrost, each of the sixteen essays in this collection investigates a different famous animal named and immortalized by humans. Modeled loosely after a medieval bestiary, these witty, playful, whip-smart essays traverse history, myth, science, and more, bringing each beast vibrantly to life.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books, March 7, 2017)
Exit West follows its remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press, March 14, 2017)
The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. Almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan’s friends. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer.
Marlena by Julie Buntin (Henry Holt & Co., April 4, 2017)
An electric debut novel about love, addiction, and loss, Marlena tells the story of two teenage girls and the feral year that will cost one her life and define the other’s for decades. Alive with an urgent, unshakable tenderness, Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull oneself back from the brink.
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Riverhead Books, April 4, 2017)
In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” a woman desperate for a child weaves one out of hair with unsettling results. In “The Future Looks Good,” three generations of women are haunted by the ghosts of war. And in the title story, in a world ravaged by flood and riven by class, experts have discovered how to “fix the equation of a person”—with rippling, unforeseen repercussions. A dazzlingly accomplished debut collection that explores the ties that bind parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends to one another and to the places they call home.
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen (BOA Editions Ltd., April 11, 2017)
In this ferocious and tender debut, Chen Chen investigates inherited forms of love and family—the strained relationship between a mother and son, the cost of necessary goodbyes—all from Asian American, immigrant, and queer perspectives. Holding all accountable, this collection fully embraces the loss, grief, and abundant joy that come with charting one’s own path in identity, life, and love.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (Doubleday, April 18, 2017)
In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. Based on years of research and startling new evidence, the book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long.
The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir (Tupelo Press, May 1, 2017)
Rajiv Mohabir uses his queer and mixed-caste identities as grace notes to charm alienation into silence. Mohabir’s inheritance of myths, folk tales, and multilingual translations make a palimpsest of histories that bleed into one another. A descendant of indentureship survivors, the poet-narrator creates an allegorical chronicle of dislocations and relocations, linking India, Guyana, Trinidad, New York, Orlando, Toronto, and Honolulu, combining the amplitude of mythology with direct witness and sensual reckoning, all the while seeking joy in testimony.
Crawlspace by Nikki Wallschlaeger (Bloof Books, May 10, 2017)
Crawlspace collects thirty-six pieces built on the foundation of the sonnet, ranging in length from fourteen lines to longer works stacking multiple sonnets into linked sequences. The collection deepens and extends the house metaphor from Wallschlaeger’s first book, while opening up more intimate and sometimes darker intellectual territory. Where Houses explored the mental/emotional/physical sheltered spaces in which we live out and construct our lives, Crawlspace explores the more constricted spaces, the tighter concealed passages running above and below. These sonnets aim to be “very very fraught with you.”
Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie Chaffee (Unnamed Press, May 16, 2017)
A young American woman arrives in Florence from Boston, knowing no one and speaking little Italian. But Hannah is isolated in a more profound way, estranged from her own identity after a bout with starvation that has left her life and body in ruins. She is determined to recover in Florence, a city saturated with beauty, vitality, and food—as well as a dangerous history of sainthood for women who starved themselves for God. A vivid, visceral debut, Florence in Ecstasy gives us an arresting new vision of a woman’s attempt to find meaning—and find herself—in an unstable world.
Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun (W.W. Norton & Company, May 16, 2017)
Inspired by her viral New York Times “Modern Love” essay “The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give,” Calhoun’s memoir is a witty, poignant exploration of the beautiful complexity of marriage. These funny, poignant personal essays explore the bedrooms of modern coupledom for a nuanced discussion of infidelity, existential anxiety, and the many other obstacles to staying together. Both realistic and openhearted, the book offers a refreshing new way to think about marriage as a brave, tough, creative decision to stay with another person for the rest of your life.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (Vintage, May 30, 2017)
A hilarious collection that touches on life’s big and small moments with equal empathy and wit. The essays in We Are Never Meeting in Real Life span topics as varied as living on a budget, explaining why Irby should be the next Bachelorette, a disastrous pilgrimage-slash-romantic-vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father’s ashes, and advice on how to navigate friendships with former drinking buddies who are now suburban moms. What makes her writing so damn good is that despite all the ways that Samantha Irby may (or may not) be different from you, she knows how to relate.
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim (FSG Originals, June 6, 2017)
Playfully blending comic-book villains with cultural critiques, Dear Cyborgs is a fleet-footed literary exploration of power, friendship, and creativity. Ambitious and knowing, it braids together hard-boiled detective pulps, subversive philosophy, and Hollywood chase scenes, unfolding like the composites and revelations of a dream. Through a series of linked monologues, a surprising cast of characters explores narratives of resistance and the extent to which any of these can truly withstand the pragmatic demands of contemporary capitalism.
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash (Coffee House Press, June 6, 2017)
This debut novel follows a college wrestler in his senior season, when every practice, every match, is a step closer to greatness and a step further from sanity. Profane, manic, and tipping into the uncanny, it’s a story of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark.
The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julie Fierro (St. Martin’s Press, June 6, 2017)
Vivid with young lovers, gangs of anxious outsiders, a plotting aged matriarch, a demented military patriarch, and a troubled young boy, The Gypsy Moth Summer is about love, gaps in understanding, and the struggle to connect: within families, among friends, between neighbors, and between entire generations.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (Harper, June 13, 2017)
As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Gay understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her own past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand herself. With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power, Gay explores what it means to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.
The Tower of the Antilles by Achy Obejas (Akashic Books, July 4, 2017)
The Cubans in Achy Obejas’s story collection are haunted by islands: the island they fled, the island they’ve created, the island they were taken to or forced from, the island they long for, the island they return to, and the island that can never be home again. Obejas writes about existences beset by events beyond individual control, and poignantly captures how history and fate intrude on even the most ordinary of lives.
Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto (Curbside Splendor, July 25, 2017)
Written as letters to his unborn child, Tim Taranto’s Ars Botanica describes the infinite pleasures of falling in love—the small discoveries of each other’s otherness, the crush of desire, the frightening closeness—and the terrifying impossibility of losing someone. Through examinations of the ways in which various cultures and religions carry grief, Taranto discovers the emotional instincts that shape his own mourning. Astonishingly personal and even painful, Ars Botanica is also playfully funny, a rich hybrid of memoir, poetry, and illustration that delightfully defies categorization.
New People by Danzy Senna (Riverhead Books, August 1, 2017)
New People is a subversive and engrossing novel about race, class, and manners in contemporary America. Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (Lenny, August 1, 2017)
Narrated by the daughters of Chinese immigrants who fled imperiled lives as artists back home only to struggle to stay afloat—dumpster diving for food and scamming Atlantic City casino buses to make a buck—these seven stories showcase Zhang’s compassion, moral courage, and a perverse sense of humor reminiscent of Portnoy’s Complaint. A darkly funny and intimate rendering of girlhood, Sour Heart examines what it means to belong to a family, to find your home, leave it, reject it, and return again.
Double Portrait by Brittany Perham (W.W. Norton & Company, August 8, 2017)
Each poem in this prize-winning collection links two portraits: lover and beloved, child and parent, citizen and country, spirit and body, living and dead. Each speaker investigates what it means to be in relationship to another: what does it mean to see and be seen, to reflect and be reflected, to address and be addressed? With musicality, grit, and humor, these poems challenge our conceptions of identity and language.
Sargent’s Women by Donna M. Lucey (W.W. Norton & Company, August 22, 2017)
In this multilayered biography based on original letters and diaries, Lucey illuminates four extraordinary women painted by the iconic high-society portraitist John Singer Sargent. With uncanny intuition, Sargent hinted at the mysteries and passions that unfolded in his subjects’ lives. These compelling stories of female courage connect our past with our present—and remind us that while women live differently now, they still face obstacles to attaining full equality.
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo (Knopf, August 22, 2017)
This debut novel, set in Nigeria, gives voice to both husband and wife as they tell the story of their marriage–and the forces that threaten to tear it apart. Yejide and Akin have been married since they met and fell in love at university. They have always agreed: polygamy is not for them. But four years into their marriage, Yejide is still not pregnant. She assumes she still has time–until her family arrives on her doorstep with a young woman they introduce as Akin’s second wife. Yejide knows the only way to save her marriage is to get pregnant. Which, finally, she does–but at a cost far greater than she could have dared to imagine.