No one has time to read everything. If you work full-time, perhaps you read 50 books a year. And that’s if you manage to read on the bus or the subway.
After a certain age, I wanted to emulate Thomas Hardy, who, I believe, spent six hours reading every night. And the more I read, the fussier I became. In my forties, it seemed that either (a) much worse books were suddenly being published, or (b) my taste was so honed that fewer books passed my standards. (N.B. The less exhausted you are when you read, the pickier.)
Here’s the good news: I have read some outstanding new books in 2017. And here’s some curious news: I happened upon some stunning new books that were published with little fanfare. So here are four great finds you may have missed in 2017.
Ellen Klages crafts one perfect sentence after another in her dazzling new collection of short stories, Wicked Wonders. Published by Tachyon, a small press in San Francisco, this extraordinary collection is introduced by PEN/Faulkner Award winner Karen Joy Fowler. Klages has a reputation for eclecticism: she won the Nebula Award in 2005 for her novelette “Basement Magic” and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2007 for her Y.A. novel, The Green Glass Sea. This pitch-perfect, genre-crossing collection demonstrates her diverse gifts: magic realism, retold fairy tales, and some smart homages to Ray Bradbury’s brilliant work. (You can read my entire post here.)
GENRE: HISTORICAL NOVEL/POP FICTION
Crystal King’s clever, entertaining historical novel, Feast of Sorrow, was my favorite pop fiction read of the year. Set in ancient Rome in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, who is the gourmet cook (coquus) for the household of Apicius, a Roman gourmet after whom an actual Roman cookbook was named. In King’s novel, Thrassius is the author of the cookbook, though Apicius takes credit for it. It is great fun to read about the dinners (cenae), but there are also fascinating political intrigues and personal feuds. And King is a witty writer, she creates believable characters, and has a great sense of humor. The pages fly.
The award-winning writer John Crowley’s new novel, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, is brilliant and beautiful, a perfect book for lovers of myths, legends, and epic poetry. In this novel about a crow who learns human language and steals immortality, there are allusions to Dante and Virgil. On one level, I love the bird’s-eye view of history, and the mythic journeys of the crow Dar Oakley over 2,000 years. On another level, it explores the meaning, or lack thereof, of life and death. And the crow’s autobiography is occasionally interrupted by a dying human narrator, who is reconstructing the story from his own conversations with Dar Oakley. I found this an enthralling read, really hypnotic. It reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary fantasy, The Buried Giant. You can read my entire post here.
GENRE: NONFICTION/CLASSICS/LITERARY CRITICISM/WOMEN’S STUDIES
The best nonfiction book I read this year was Yopie Prins’s Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of Tragedies. It is the story of Victorian women writers, poets, and classicists who fell in love with Greek and translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Amy Levy, and Edith Hamilton.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was very keen on Greek, and the phrase “lady’s Greek” comes from her novel/poem, Aurora Leigh. The heroine of the poem, Aurora Leigh, is a passionate reader of Greek who hopes to become a poet. Her cousin Romney, who proposes to her on her 20th birthday cannot resist teasing her, i.e., denigrating her education. He mocks her Greek marginalia in a book of poems.
I adored this book, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the education of Victorian women and the role they played (or were allowed to play) in reading and promoting classics. You can read my entire post here.