As others (like Libby Anne and Adam Lee) have already done, I’m going to offer some recommendations from the books I read in 2017. It was a year where I set myself a challenge to read Big Books of all sorts, and encountered a lot of great ideas from various authors.
Elizabeth Arthur‘s novel Antarctic Navigation tells the story of a woman’s lifelong obsession with recreating Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. Arthur dazzles with descriptions of the near-magical phenomena at the South Pole; what she wants us to imagine is a world of possibility, where what we’ve learned since Scott’s day about women, society, and the environment could reinvent how we conceptualize civilization, inquiry, and reality.
Péter Nádas composed a vast literary history of the twentieth century in Hungary made up of the everyday lives of orphans, gypsies, soldiers, politicians, architects, lovers, priests, and assorted other characters in the ever-shrinking nation that has long been going from disgrace to disgrace. The result, Parallel Stories, is a witty, intricate narrative puzzle that makes you rejoice for literature and curse civilization.
Richard Slotkin describes the Myth of the Frontier in Gunfighter Nation, and how it has influenced American social policy and pop culture since the “Closing of the Frontier” in 1890. With an extremely assured and incisive imagination, Slotkin explores the mythic space of America and shows how we’ve defined our conflicts (whether they deal with immigration, unionism, or foreign policy in Vietnam) as zero-sum battles between civilization and savagery.
The Tunnel was the masterwork of recently deceased American author William H. Gass. In it, a historian who has just written an objective work on the Nazis has to write an introduction to his book of research. This immense novel is supposedly that introduction, a series of disturbing, nihilistic anecdotes about an abusive childhood and digressions on sex and history, written by someone as bitter about his own life as he is about the human ability to trivialize atrocity. It’s a testament to a writer who was dedicated to literature’s abiding power to address social concerns as well as lay claim to the artistic imagination in an age of popular entertainment and high tech gadgetry. Gass’s subject matter may have been bleak, but his command of language was astounding.
So these were the best of a very good lot, and I recommend any of them to adventurous readers. What books did everyone read this year that we should all know about? What are you reading these days?