From the Lit Director Desk: 2017 Books

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Thinking hard and long about exactly how to organize my TBR piles, which are as unwieldy as the Atlantic at this point.

Here at the end of 2016, my TBR list for 2017 is already 400 books long. Oh, how I wish quiet reading time over this winter break had allowed me to read and report on every single title on that list. Alas; time is not magic (or it is, but it is a dark magic that evaporates upon delivery). As I dig deep into 2017 reading and begin to prepare for next year’s Texas Book Festival, here is a collection of forthcoming titles, mostly fiction and all publishing in the first few months of the year, that have caught my eye. The highlights are followed by what has amounted to organized lists of my TBR pile in a manner that may be more useful to me than to anyone else, but there you go. This is by no means a comprehensive list of all that will be worth reading in 2017; it’s simply a representation of what I’ve enjoyed based on the pages I’ve turned so far and which books I’m aiming to read next.

(P. S. The submission period for the 2017 Texas Book Festival will open in January. We’ll announce the date soon. Stay tuned! In the mean time, if you have questions or want to toss a few more books on my early TBR pile, send me an email: julie (at) texasbookfestival.org.)

 

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History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
On Sale January 3

Set in the woods of northern Minnesota, this debut novel spun from the rich internal life of a teenage girl quickly won me over with its beautiful language and mounting suspense. When a young family moves into the cabin across the lake with a four year old son, fourteen year old Linda watches them through her window. It’s deep winter when they arrive; by summer, Linda has folded into their rural forest life, caring for the son and becoming something of a confidante and companion for his mother, Petra, a city woman unused to the wilderness who awaits her husband’s arrival. An uneasy aura surrounds the family, particularly once the father appears. Fridlund’s descriptions of the Minnesota woods in its shifting seasons, and Linda’s relationship to the wild world, are a mesmerizing under story to the captivating strangeness of the family with which Linda becomes entwined. The story of their undoing is as shocking as it is inevitable; Fridlund has crafted a unique and unforgettable novel that made me both long for a walk in the woods and had me casting wary glances over my shoulder at the neighbors.

 

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Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
On Sale January 3 (but really you can already find it on shelves)

Technically, this book wound up hitting shelves before the official on sale date, so it’s possible some of you opened this story collection over the holidays. I loved Gay’s 2014 novel, An Untamed State, for its vivid language and unflinching portrait of the physical and emotional experience of a woman enduring extraordinary circumstances. In these stories, Gay once again writes of women in difficult, unusual, often extreme situations who seek new fates in unconventional ways. Roxane Gay doesn’t back away and she doesn’t deliver the expected. She isn’t afraid to make a reader squirm, which is as exciting as it is uncomfortable, and a big part of why I pick up her work in the first place. These stories are a powerful way to start 2017. Grab this collection from your bookstore now. In fact, grab two copies and give one to your best friend. You’ll want to discuss this book with someone when you’re done.

 

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
On Sale January 10

I loved this strange, intimate, masterfully-inventive narrative. Impending dread suffuses every line with irresistible tension as a woman on her deathbed rushes to recount what happened to her and her daughter while on vacation, all into the ear of a boy who may know far more about all of it than she does. The stakes are set high from the beginning; a disturbed and suspicious neighbor; poisonous waters; damaged children; the possibility of dark magic; and an eerie mystery seething beneath it all. The story unfolds in urgent memory and dialogue, keeping the reader in sharp suspense as Amanda draws ever closer to the end of her life and to the truth of what happened. This story at turns reminded me of a Bergman nightmare; haunting, unpredictable and adhering to its own logic. I loved every moment of it, even as I dreaded to know what might come next.

 

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Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller
On Sale January 10

I loved Last Days of California and had been eagerly anticipating Always Happy Hour. This collection reads like a darker, boozier Lorrie Moore, but with a hard scrabble ennui that sits on each story like a thumbprint. The women at the center of these narratives are in and out of various versions of love, looking for more, looking for a drink, looking for the moment when it could have gone another way. Make no mistake, however; while these women may be flawed, they are not all sad sacks passively complaining for a different destiny. What makes these stories compulsively readable is the agency at the heart of each character and the clear-eyed view that she has the potential to live life a different way, if she really wants it. Add a Southern setting and these stories sing right off the page (though be ready to hear a little bit of the blues along the way).

 

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A Separation by Katie Kitamura
On Sale February 7 

When a translator visits a Peloponnese island in search of her husband, an overtly charming academic who has disappeared while researching his next book, she discovers more about him than she wanted to admit she knew. Kitamura’s seductive debut novel about the end of a marriage reminded me of early DeLillo, particularly The Names; there is an obsession with language and communication, how we speak to one another in familiar and foreign languages with our bodies, words and deeds, and how our translations can distance us as often as they join us. Kitamura’s cold, precise delivery of the island setting, the narrator’s memories of their marriage, the life of the hotel and the watchful eyes of its staff, and the wife’s dawning awareness and emotional strife make this a taut and compelling read.

 

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Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
On Sale February 28

Sensuous, intimate and charged, Abandon Me is a heart-gripper. Febos writes of desire, obsession, love, absence and the self in searing images and mesmerizing sentences. Raised the step-daughter of a sea captain, Febos grew up in his here-and-gone lifestyle, her childhood marked by worry for his safety, longing for his return and anxiety over his affection. As an adult, she plays out a similar story when she embarks upon a long distance love affair with a married woman. Their relationship is passionate and aching, overwhelming and never enough. It’s a challenge to portray any romantic relationship honestly, particularly a relationship that veers into toxic territory. One of the strengths of this book is Febos’s ability to lay this relationship bear in all of its dimensions, without apology or excuse. She isn’t afraid to let the reader in, to examine and cross-examine herself and reject pat summations of meaning. She tells it like it is, in other words, in lyrical and lifting prose that had be turning pages well past my bedtime.

 

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All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
On Sale March 7 

This story was pitch-perfect. Attenberg recounts the life of a single woman in a style that is honest, poignant, and (for this reader) reaffirming. All Grown Up is about far more than the romantic ups and downs of a single woman, of course, which is why I’m giving this novel to my friends and not Bridget Jones’s Diary. Via chapters titled after central female figures in each section, Attenberg explores big questions about what it means to hit the middle of your life with a job you’re good at, but don’t love; haunted by creative dreams you never saw through; in a home environment that is comfortable in its predictability, but sometimes lonely in its execution; in a family dynamic that’s changing as parents and relatives age; and, of course, as a woman. What actually matters, in the end, when constructing a life? That this novel did not center around one woman’s strident search for love (and therefore meaning) in the big city, but, instead, grappled with the real joys, pains, resignations and opportunities facing a woman on the distant outskirts of middle age made me feel, as a reader, that I had a confidante in the main character and, perhaps, a sage guide in the writer who imagined her. (Oh, and the writing itself was a joy to read.)

 

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South and West: From A Notebook by Joan Didion
On Sale March 7

An opportunity to read Joan Didion’s notebook? Yes, you bet. Sold. These writings, previously unpublished, document a trip Didion took through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970, rich with her depictions of Southern culture and travel; the second half of the book follows her coverage of the early stages of the Patty Hearst trial for a Rolling Stone piece that was never finished. As a reader, I spend a lot of time considering a writer’s process and very much enjoyed this glimpse of ow Didion recorded the world she would transform into prose.

 

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
On Sale March 14 

The early bookseller buzz on this book has been big and so well-deserved. Hamid has crafted a lyrical, poetic love story set against the very real backdrop of political violence and the refugee experience. Most remarkable about this story is how he at once brings to poignant, shocking life the post-apocalyptic reality of violent displacement while delivering, miraculously, an ultimately hopeful narrative. I was swept up by the tenderness of Nadia and Saeed’s relationship, from their early days listening to records and smoking joints beside a lemon tree to their nitty gritty struggle for survival and sanity in uncertain new surroundings. The deft magical element by which they transition to new lands and the deliberate, matter-of-fact manner in which Hamid delivers the harrowing details of watching home and family fall to radical violence bind this powerful novel in expert metaphor and powerful realism. This is the number one book I’m recommending in early 2017 and is easily already one of my favorite reads of the year. This is exactly the kind of book we need right now.

 

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White Tears by Hari Kunzru
On Sale March 14 

This beguiling new novel by the author of Gods Without Men moves time, memory and music in syncopated, eerie chapters steeped in the history of the blues. Seth and Carter, young friends bound by collecting rare blues records and creating their own new songs from the found sounds of New York City, tumble into a mysterious hunt for Charles Shaw, a 1920s blues musician who may or may not have existed, when they post what they believe is a new and original recording to the Internet. A dealer identifies it as Shaw’s Graveyard Blues, sending them on a hunt for the truth and music of Shaw that turns dangerously violent. Seth ultimately strikes out on a trip to Mississippi, in search of the heart of the man and the music, that pushes readers back and forth through time. Staring squarely at race, white privilege and American music, Kunzru crafts a compulsively readable ghost story and murder mystery that dissolves the boundaries between time and space and reminds readers of the inherent power of music to merge histories into overlapping realities. I can’t quite shake this book.

 

Currently Reading:

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Selection Day by Aravind Adiga (1/3/17)

O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno (1/17/17)

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2/7/17)

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker (2/14/17)

Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Lin (2/21/17)

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (3/14/17)

Sunshine State: Essays by Sarah Gerard (4/11/17)

Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill (4/4/17)

The History of the Future: American Essays by Edward McPherson (5/2/17)

 

2017 Books On The TBR Shorlist:

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Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang (1/17/17)

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2/7/17)

Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders (2/14/17) (I’ve been holding on to this ARC since June! For shame!)

The Skin Above My Knee by Marcia Butler (2/21/17)

Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth (3/21/17)

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (5/2/17)

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan (5/2/17)

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy (6/6/17)

What We Lose: A Novel by Zinzi Clemmons (7/11/17)

Made for Love: A Novel by Alissa Nutting (7/4/17)

 

2017 Books Recommended to Me by Trusted Friends and Readers:

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2/7/17)

Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin (2/21/17)

Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello (2/28/17)

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hanna Tinti (3/28/17)

What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (4/2/17)

American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad (4/4/17)

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (4/18/17)

So Much Blue by Percival Everett (6/13/17)

 

The 2017 TBR Longlist (which is technically much longer than this, but we all have lives to live):

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Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh (1/17/17)

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead by Chanelle Benz (1/17/17)

Autumn: A Novel by Ali Smith (2/7/17)

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (2/7/17)

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Remulak (2/7/17)

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez (2/21/17)

The Nearness of You by Amanda Eyre Ward (2/21/17)

Celine by Peter Heller (3/7/17)

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (4/18/17)

Woman No. 17: A Novel by Edan Lepucki (5/9/17)

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan (5/23/17)

Isadora by Amelia Gray (5/23/17)

Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris (5/30/17)

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (8/25/17)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (9/5/17)