Best fiction books of 2017

by on December 1, 2017 at 1:21 am in Books | Permalink

I didn’t like most of the widely reviewed fiction of this year, but I did have a few favorites, namely:

Domenico Starnone,  Ties.  This is one of the better Italian novels of the last few decades.  It is short, easy to comprehend, utterly compelling, and the basic story line is that of a married couple and their children, to say more would spoil the plot.  The introduction and translation are by Jhumpa Lahiri, also first-rate (by the way, here is my conversation with Jhumpa, toward the end she discusses this project).  This Rachel Donadio NYT review provides very useful background knowledge.

Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak.  This short Chinese noir novel, with a dash of Murakami, is one of this year’s “cool books.”  I finished it in one sitting.  Set in Beijing, the protagonist sells audio equipment, and then strange things happen.  Here is a good interview with the author.

Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.  A strong collection, with two stories by Cixin Liu.  Here is a new article on Chinese science fiction.

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko. An old-fashioned literary drama, unfolds slowly but is gripping, reminds me of Dickens and also Vikram Seth but set in Korea and Japan as an extended set piece running throughout most of the 20th century.  For me, this was clearly the #1 fiction book of the year, and I didn’t include it in my Bloomberg column only because I read it after the column was in the pipeline.  It’s also rich with history and social science, a real winner.  NYT picked it as one of their top ten of the year.

Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, the new translation and edition by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard.

My best fiction reading of the year was Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, though it wasn’t published in 2017.  It is one of the best science fiction classics, ever.  Just to recap, I like volume one the most, and it is the most complex, but for many readers disorienting.  You don’t find out the real plot until p.272, so perhaps spoilers will help you.  Volumes two and three are more in the style of classic science fiction, a’la Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke.

My best “classic I had never read before” gets two picks, the first being James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer (review at the link).  The second is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, though come to it with at least a basic understanding of its Anglo-Catholic milieu.  Sooner or later this novel will be completely unintelligible to even highly educated readers, except for a few specialists.

In Spanish I will pick Juan MarséRabos de lagartija, from 2011, don’t bother with the English translation.  In German it was Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld, Der Briefwechsel, a series of letters exchanged between an author and his publisher, some of them concern money (I haven’t finished it yet but so far it is quite consistent in quality).  As good as a really good Bernhard novel, also from 2011, there is no English-language translation.

1 Ivo December 1, 2017 at 1:36 am

Counterpoint to all the praise dor The Three-Body problem: I liked the book a lot… until page 272.

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2 Albatross December 1, 2017 at 3:27 am

I concur.

***spoilers ****

The aliens are not, in any sense, alien. Just some cutesy sci-fi bodies with utterly human minds, which ruined it for me. Not to mention that the “three body game” has little effort to make if sensical…

***

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3 JWatts December 1, 2017 at 8:15 am

Hmmm, I haven’t made up my mind yet. But I certainly enjoyed the first section more. I finished the 1st book, started the 2nd, and found my interest wandering. I’m not sure it’s worth it to try and pick the second book back up and try it again.

Anybody like me who think the 2nd book was weak, but finished it and the 3rd book and thought it got better?

Or is this a series made for critics who are just speed reading the latest buzz topic?

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4 Derek Lessing December 1, 2017 at 12:24 pm

SF fan here, and I totally agree. Liked “Three-Body” okay, started “Dark Forest,” and gave up after about 100 pages. I tried another 70 pages a month later and stopped again, although I did peek at some later parts of the book to read about an interesting if grim solution to the Fermi Paradox.

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5 DBN December 1, 2017 at 8:54 am

I have the same experience; I thought we were heading for a book about the stability/instability of physical laws and the anthropic principle, but nope, the three body game was all literal, and it was just another alien invasion with a cute backstory. Not even among the best Sci Fi of the year, much less the ever.

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6 clockwork_prior December 1, 2017 at 1:48 am

‘As good as a really good Bernhard novel, also from 2011, there is no English-language translation.’

Someone may have forgotten a title somewhere along the line.

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7 Hoosier December 1, 2017 at 2:27 am

TC, have you read The Dawn Watch on Joseph Conrad? Very much looking forward to diving into this one myself.

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8 Thor December 1, 2017 at 11:00 am

Me too. But please read John Gray on Conrad in the New Statesman. Incidentally I think Gray also reviews her book somewhere. The TLS perhaps.

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9 tjamesjones December 1, 2017 at 5:22 am

“The second is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, though come to it with at least a basic understanding of its Anglo-Catholic milieu. Sooner or later this novel will be completely unintelligible to even highly educated readers, except for a few specialists.”

I hope this isn’t true. I love this book, and I wonder about the trend – is the world it depicts more alien in 2017 than it was in say 1987? The decline of the English Catholic aristocracy was always a niche concern..

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10 charlies December 1, 2017 at 8:55 am

If Brideshead Revisited is mainly about the mood & manners of a particular class in a particular time and place, then yes it probably won’t age well.

But I’ve always thought of it as a fairly classic presentation of some timeless themes about memory, regret, the past, etc. Similar to Proust, who also describes a social world that is very odd to contemporary readers.

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11 dearieme December 1, 2017 at 5:56 am

“reminds me of Dickens”: not for me, then. Grotesquely over-rated, Dickens.

“understanding of its Anglo-Catholic milieu”: how odd. I have always read it as being about English Roman Catholics not Anglo-Catholics.

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12 clockwork_prior December 1, 2017 at 8:23 am

‘Grotesquely over-rated, Dickens’

A common opinion concering authors whose massive and long running appeal can be demonstrated through readership, not the critical opinion of those who are unconcerned with what the unwashed masses read.

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13 efim polenov December 1, 2017 at 10:28 pm

clockwork: Dearieme has posted on Dickens before. On this website, he wisely chooses to almost never defend himself, so I will help out. His problems with Dickens are (I could be wrong ) as follows: the author is a phony (Wodehouse said the same thing, said that he could see the author sweating as he tried to be funny) and a mountebank (there have not actually been any real mountebanks for the last 100 years, but in today’s terms, think of one of those rich but sad and ultimately unloveable late night hosts who love the sound of their own voice while they pretend to “create” characters who make us all feel that ” we care about each other.” – if we do, those late night hosts wouldn’t know it, sadly – I hope I am wrong, but there is no evidence out there that would make anyone think I am, is there?). That being said, while I more or less agree with Dearieme (the Brothers Cheeryble, for God’s sake !!! – and the insufferable portraits of Americans, who Dickens decided, on a whim, he did not like; and the absolutely vicious descriptions of the rather nice ‘Miss” Havisham, viciously slandered by Dickens: not tp mention his frequently repeated descriptions of unrealistic women who fall in love with Mary Jane men, who just happen to be similar to Dickens, and/but who did nothing to deserve that love besides being poor unfortunate (albeit eloquent) lazy self-styled artistic types with an idealistic and selfishly arrogant unChrisitan view of the world … well, all that being said, Little Nell was well written, and so were Scrooge, and Tiny Tim’s father, and Pickwick, and Copperfield’s cold-hearted mother, and about a hundred or two hundred others: but Dickens, himself, was an ambitious and resentful person who meretriciously claimed to be one of the poor his whole life even though he spent, at most, a few months or years in poverty – and the blackguard made money off making fun of fat people while fathering about a dozen people, mostly unloved, off an unloved fat wife. Is there anything worse than dishonestly pretending to be one of the poor when one is rich? The question answers itself. That is just too sad, and as much as one likes the books, one would rather not have the books if only the author could have been someone who was likable and kind. I would be horrified if he married a daughter of mine, sad to say. A genius, though: when he wrote about traveling at night through the woody back roads of an England that was very real 150 years ago, or when he described people who were even phonier and bigger losers and more comical caricatures than himself, or when he described the ocean or the forests or the tall stark buildings of large shadowy towns or described what he otherwise thought about London, after he was rich and London was to him what big cities are to rich people, i.e., mysterious and fascinating, at his proud and most bogus and comedic best, instead of what London had to have been to the poor people he pretended all his hypocritical life to be one of (and mysterious and fascinating are not the words one would look for in this context, unless one has prayed for years to understand why God loves the poor): when he wrote these things, and wasn’t pretending, he was a real writer. Well, in spite of all the negative things I have said, he was a great guy, who worked hard. He had a lot to be proud of. Glad he is not related to me, though. Well, I would not mind if he were, say, a son, or a grandfather, or a great-grandfather, and I would be proud of him, of course – but a son-in-law, the husband of a beloved great-grandmother, or any similar relation? Absolutely not, of course. Not in this world.

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14 efim polenov December 1, 2017 at 10:45 pm

if my 10:28 pm comment seemed incoherent, please read it again after reading this: Paul McCartney would have been happier if he stayed with the woman he loved first, and who was the mother of his first child (google Paul McCartney’s first son, this is a real story) instead of dumping her because she could not help him to be a rock star. Dylan said he would rather have led the life his obscure brother led. Tom Brady’s dad does not think of Tom as the great quarterback but as the failed son who did not raise his first grandson as one of the family, as he should have done. And who, in their right mind, would trade being a good father to his first-born child for any version of weird CTE or non-CTE football fame? Don’t questions like that answer themselves? The Rahner brothers (Hugo and Karl), when teenagers, spent some time with Karol Wojtyla. And I quote, from someone who knew them back in the day: they were all so bright … but …. (I do not have the heart to finish the quote, I like them all….). God loves us all and loves us all the way we are but loves us too much to let us stay that way. Applies to almost everybody you have ever known or heard about. Well, not to my friends Ines Anastasia and Phillip – there’s that – and not to some of your friends, you who are reading this …. thanks for reading.

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15 efim polenov December 1, 2017 at 10:54 pm

Ines Anastasia and Phillip were not my good friends back in the day – they were friends, but not quite “good friends” – but, years after we met and parted, they did everything they could. The fact that they were not my good friends when we were all younger is sad for me. Well I am used to that. It is what it is, and I am still as happy for them as I could be, given the circumstances. You often hear people say, typically about parents, but often about other people, that “They did their best”. It is almost always untrue, although God bless anyone who tries to live up to that, I am not criticizing anyone here. As for Ines Anastasia and Philip – they did their best. Not “they did their best, given the circumstances”: but “they did their best”. If I had the talent of Dickens I could write a novel about them that would be so very good. Well, I live in a world that they made better. So there’s that.

16 efim polenov December 2, 2017 at 1:21 am

my name is life? night of the battle? end of the road (Christmas and friendship renewed)? Ines Anastasia de Gallipoli de Los Angeles, graduated high school 1981 …. Phillip (Phil), Christmas, graduated high school, 1975. Thanks for reading. God is gentle and we need to be gentle too. No words of mine can express how important it is (as if I knew what the word important means) that we all understand how gentle and kind God is. God will bless anyone who truly wants to live in a world where that is true. And it is true.

17 E. P. December 2, 2017 at 8:36 pm

“In the world of words imagination is one of the forces of nature”
“The way through the world is harder to find than the way beyond it”
– Wallace Stevens
Thanks for reading!
(I would have preferred to post a comment later on, when fewer people would see it. If you read this comment long after the post, long after all the other comments: in an ideal world, one waits as long as it takes to say what needs to be said.)
(Y si al resto de este pueblo le parece imposible que suceda esto en aquellas días … de Oriente a Occidente … Dios en fidelidad y justicia….” “y proclamar tus alabanzas en tus angeles y arcangeles” – (from the prayers for October 2, the Feast of the Guardian Angels).

18 Aylok December 1, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Note for Tyler: Anglo-Catholics are Anglicans, not Roman Catholics. I don’t understand why he thinks the book will eventually become incomprehensible if e.g. secular American Jews can understand it today. You just need a couple of footnotes to explain how RC doctrine intersects with half-a-dozen plot-points.

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19 rayward December 1, 2017 at 7:14 am

Contrast the Catholic/Anglican divide pre-WWII in the book Brideshead Revisited – including allusions to homosexuality as well as divorce – with the Christian/Jewish divide post-WWII in the film Chariots of Fire (Chariots of Fire being an updated version of Brideshead Revisited – including allusions to homosexuality – with the Olympics thrown in for homosexuals as well as a Jew and a Protestant to show their athletic ability). Now, closer to home, contrast the Anglican/Episcopalean divide today (for readers who are not Episcopaleans, Episcopaleans are revisiting the Anglican Church because the Episcopal Church is too permissive with homosexuals and divorce). Notwithstanding all the hand-wringing about rising inequality, it seems we (including me and Cowen) are all suckers for the gilded age. For the grace of God, there go I.

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20 rayward December 1, 2017 at 7:23 am

Of course, Chariots of Fire was also set in pre-WWII, not post-WWII.

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21 Jonathan December 1, 2017 at 8:57 am

+1 for both Ties and The Invisibility Cloak. Thanks for both suggestions.

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22 Johnny A December 1, 2017 at 9:08 am

I read the Three Body Problem on your recommendation. It is traditional science fiction and therefore has all the faults of that genre: Excessive drama paired with plot elements that bear little resemblance to real life. Too artificial for my taste.

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23 Slugger December 1, 2017 at 10:08 am

I liked Pachinko but was a little frustrated by it. It is a bit too sweeping across the generations. Just as it starts to get under the skin of one generation it moves on to the next. It is as though we had a quick recounting of Anna Karenina’s life in order to shoe in the story of her child, grandchild, and great grandchild.

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24 Dan December 1, 2017 at 10:24 am

Any thoughts on Exit West?

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25 JFA December 1, 2017 at 11:10 am

I’ve read Three Body Problem, Invisibility Cloak, Unfolding Beijing, and a few other works of Chinese fiction, and if these are indicative of the best China has to offer (at least what’s available in English), I don’t think I’ll be reading much more Chinese literature in the near future.

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26 Caspar Chiquet December 3, 2017 at 3:27 am

Maybe try some older stuff – they do have great contemporary writers. Try Mo Yan and Li Er if you can find a translation.

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27 Roger Sweeny December 1, 2017 at 11:19 am

I loved “Tongtong’s Summer” but wasn’t impressed by the two Cixin Liu stories.

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28 Kevin- December 1, 2017 at 6:55 pm

Tyler, do you read any fiction that is typically classed as fantasy? You’ve written about both classic and recent science-fiction often, including here, but I don’t think I’ve seen you mention a fantasy novel that’s been published in the last 50 years (unless it’s the kind of fantasy written by mainstream writers).

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