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The Most-Read Book Reviews of 2017
Dec 26, 2017
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We review more than 8,000 books per year, and these were the 10 most-read reviews of books published in 2017.
10. Into the Water
Paula Hawkins. Riverhead, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1120-9
Jules Abbott, the heroine of bestseller Hawkins’s twisty second psychological thriller, vowed never to return to the sleepy English town of Beckford after an incident when she was a teenager drove a wedge between her and her older sister, Nel. But now Nel, a writer and photographer, is the latest in a long string of women found dead in a part of the local river known as the Drowning Pool. As Nel put it, “Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women.” Before Nel’s death, the best friend of her surly 15-year-old daughter, Lena, drowned herself, an act that had a profound effect on both Nel and Lena. Beckford history is dripping with women who’ve thrown themselves—or been pushed?—off the cliffs into the Drowning Pool, and everyone—from the police detective, plagued by his own demons, working the case to the new cop in town with something to prove—knows more than they’re letting on. Hawkins (The Girl on the Train) may be juggling a few too many story lines for comfort, but the payoff packs a satisfying punch.
9. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
Ta-Nehisi Coates. One World, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-399-59056-6
National Book Award-winner Coates (Between the World and Me) collects eight essays originally published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016, marking roughly the early optimism of Barack Obama's presidency and the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The selection includes blockbusters like "The Case for Reparations" and "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," which helped to establish Coates as one of the leading writers on race in America, as well as lesser-known pieces such as his profile of Bill Cosby (written in late 2008, before the reemergence of rape allegations against Cosby) and a piece on Michelle Obama before she became first lady. The essays are prefaced with new introductions that trace the articles from conception to publication and beyond. With hindsight, Coates examines the roots of his ideas ("Had I been wrong?" he writes, questioning his initial optimism about the Obama Administration) and moments of personal history that relay the influence of hip-hop, the books he read, and the blog he maintained on his writing. Though the essays are about a particular period, Coates's themes reflect broader social and political phenomena. It's this timeless timeliness--reminiscent of the work of George Orwell and James Baldwin--that makes Coates worth reading again and again.
8. Unstoppable: My Life So Far
Maria Sharapova. FSG/Crichton, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-27979-0
In this insightful memoir, 30-year-old tennis star Sharapova details her life from her earliest memories to the present day. Her father, Yuri, whisked six-year-old Maria from Russia to Florida because of her tennis skills, at tennis star Martina Navratilova’s suggestion: “Your daughter can play; you need to get her out of the country to a place where she can develop her game.” What ensued for Maria was a life lived on tennis courts—either playing in tournaments or toiling in academies—partially funded by whatever work Yuri could find. Maria excelled quickly, though at the cost of a typical childhood. After winning Wimbledon at 17, she entered another isolated sphere, one of celebrity and its trappings. “In short,” she writes, “winning fucks you up.” She is similarly blunt when discussing how to lose and her rivalry with Serena Williams, whom Sharapova discovered bawling after Sharapova beat her at Wimbledon in 2004 (“I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment”). Sharapova’s eloquent self-awareness provides a rare glimpse into the disorienting push and pull of a famous athlete’s life. “I know you want us to love this game—us loving it makes it more fun to watch,” she writes. “But we don’t love it. And we don’t hate it. It just is, and always has been.”
7. Fly Me
Daniel Riley. Little, Brown, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-316-36213-9
Flying the friendly skies in the 1970s was definitely an adventure, what with all those skyjackings, as Riley demonstrates in his first novel. Suzy Whitman is a stew working out of Sela del Mar, a coastal community near L.A. The year is 1972, and Suzy, upon graduation from Vassar, has impulsively followed in the footsteps of her older sister, Grace, a stewardess with Grand Pacific Airlines whose husband, Mike, is a magazine writer who wants to be the next Tom Wolfe. Riley employs a Wolfean methodology in bringing to life the stoner vibe of the time through curated period details, marred by some anachronisms. While skateboarding on the 4th of July, Suzy meets Billy Zar, a local weed dealer, who tricks her into using her position with the airline to smuggle harder stuff for him. A family health crisis forces Suzy into a life of crime that, in the end, leaves her with only one desperate way out. Throw in Jim Jones’s nascent religious cult and a backstory involving Scientology, and the result is an overstuffed novel that reads like the fictional equivalent of Brendan I. Koerner’s study of the ’70s skyjacking phenomenon, The Skies Belong to Us.
6. Chemistry
Weike Wang. Knopf, $24.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-5247-3174-8
A clipped, funny, painfully honest narrative voice lights up Wang’s debut novel about a Chinese-American graduate student who finds the scientific method inadequate for understanding her parents, her boyfriend, or herself. The optimist sees the glass as half-full, the pessimist half-empty, explains the narrator, while a chemist sees it as half-liquid, half-gaseous, probably poisonous. At 27, this aspiring chemist has reached a point in her research at which, seeing no progress, her thesis advisor suggests changing topics. Instead, she has a breakdown in the lab, smashing beakers and shouting until security guards are called. Her romantic relationship also reaches a turning point when her boyfriend takes a job out of state. The thought of relocation elicits the narrator’s unhappy memories of her family’s emigration from Shanghai to Detroit when she was five: her father learned English, worked hard, became an engineer, but her mother, a pharmacist in China, never quite adapted. Caught between parents, languages, and cultures, the narrator devotes herself to academic study. Only after her best friend has a baby does she begin to comprehend love, the one power source, according to Einstein, man has never mastered. Wang offers a unique blend of scientific observations, Chinese proverbs, and American movie references. In spare prose, characters remain unnamed, except for boyfriend Eric and the baby, nicknamed “Destroyer.” Descriptions of the baby’s effect on adults and adults’ effect on a dog demonstrate Wang’s gift for perspective—the dog’s, the chemist’s, the immigrant parents, and, most intimately, their bright, quirky, conflicted daughter.
5. Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter
Scott Adams. Portfolio, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1971-7
Dilbert cartoonist Adams, with his usual adroit touch and sense of humor, offers an enjoyably provocative guide to the art of persuasion. In 2016, Adams predicted that Donald Trump would win the presidency when few others considered him a serious contender. What did Adams see that experts missed? Declaring himself a “lifelong student” of the art of persuasion, Adams offers sharp insights into how Trump persuades people, keeps the spotlight on himself and the topics of his choice, and used these skills to talk his way into the White House. Using examples from Trump’s campaign, Adams outlines the tools and methods he sees as typical of master persuaders. He discusses why it’s effective to create a visual image such as the “big, beautiful wall,” which captured voters’ attention with a simple solution to a complex problem. To improve a social or business reputation, Adams writes, link to a strong “brand,” just as Trump did by borrowing his campaign slogan from Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 campaign. In addition to a highly readable—and persuasive—guide to presenting ideas effectively, Adams has also written an insightful study of how Trump bested seasoned politicians.
4. The Incest Diary
Anonymous. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $18 (144p) ISBN 978-0-374-17555-9
An anonymous author reveals a lifetime of secrets in this unforgettable memoir as she tells the story of her relationship with her father, who raped her over the course of her childhood, until the author was 21. The result is one of the most frank and cathartic depictions of child abuse ever written. The author recalls abusing her Barbie dolls, her sense of being the “other woman” to her own mother, and the mingling of violence with desire, a tendency so crucial to the author’s development that it continues to govern her adult relationships. This is not a story of things getting better, but an unflinching and staggeringly artful portrait of a shattered life. “Sex with my father made me an orphan,” she writes, and the feeling is underscored, pages later, with a fact: “He threatened to kill himself if I told anyone.” Works of art by Fernando Botero and Frida Kahlo are invoked throughout, as are the fairy tales in which the author searches for analogues to explain her condition. But by the end of the book, she has articulated an experience that for many victims remains unspeakable.
3. Before We Were Yours
Lisa Wingate. Ballantine, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-0-425-28468-1
Wingate’s tightly written latest (after 2015’s The Sea Keeper’s Daughters) follows the interwoven story lines of Avery Stafford, a lawyer from a prominent South Carolina family, and Rill Foss, the eldest of five children who were taken from their parents’ boat by an unscrupulous children’s home in the 1930s. With her father’s health ailing, duty-driven Avery is back in present-day Aiken, S.C., to look after him. She’s being groomed to step into his senate seat and is engaged to her childhood friend, Elliot, though not particularly excited about either. Though her dad is a virtuous man, his political enemies hope to spin the fact that the family just checked his mother, Judy, into an upscale nursing home while other elder facilities in the state suffer. At an event, Avery encounters elderly May Crandall and becomes fascinated by a photo in her room and a possible connection to Judy. While following a trail that Judy left behind, Avery joins forces with single dad Trent Turner, with whom she feels a spark. This story line is seamlessly interwoven with that of the abuse and separation that the Foss siblings suffer at the hands of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a real-life orphanage that profited from essentially kidnapping children from poor families and placing them with prominent people. Twelve-year-old Rill bears the guilt of not having been able to protect her siblings while also trying her best to get them home. Wingate is a compelling storyteller, steeping her narrative with a forward momentum that keeps the reader as engaged and curious as Avery in her quest. The feel-good ending can be seen from miles away, but does nothing to detract from this fantastic novel.
2. Manhattan Beach
Jennifer Egan. Scribner, $27 (448p) ISBN 978-1-4767-1673-2
Pulitzer-winner Egan's splendid novel begins in 1934 Brooklyn as Eddie Kerrigan struggles to support his wife and two daughters, one of whom is severely disabled. He finds work as a bagman, ferrying bribes for a corrupt union official. One day he brings his healthy daughter, Anna, to the Manhattan Beach home of Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner with underworld partners. The 11-year-old can't comprehend their business, but she senses that the two men have become "friends." By the time Anna is 19, Eddie has inexplicably vanished and America is in the Second World War. Working a dull job inspecting ship parts at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna seizes the opportunity to become the first female civilian diver there. Around the same time, a second encounter with Dexter Styles raises hopes that he can help untangle the mysteries of her father's disappearance. As the stories eddy through time, Egan makes haunting use of shore and water motifs to balance dense period detail and explore the liminal spaces–between strength and weakness, depth and surface, past and future, life and death–through which her protagonists move. More straightforwardly narrated than some of Egan's earlier work, including the celebrated A Visit from the Goon Squad, the novel is tremendously assured and rich, moving from depictions of violence and crime to deep tenderness. The book's emotional power once again demonstrates Egan's extraordinary gifts.
1. What to Do About the Solomons
Bethany Ball. Atlantic Monthly, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2457-9
Respected leader at his kibbutz, founder of a thriving construction business, 75-year-old patriarch Yakov Solomon is fed up with his children in Ball’s debut novel about a prosperous, beleaguered Israeli family. Yakov no longer speaks to eldest son Ziv, who lives in Singapore with another man; middle son Dror suffers from severe sibling envy; rich and successful Marc’s California investment firm faces criminal investigation; daughter Keren’s husband, Guy, cannot control his artistic impulses; and daughter Shira, whose acting career peaked with a bit part in a Harry Potter movie, leaves her 11-year-old son, Joseph, home alone while she visits Hollywood. Money can’t solve their problems, and medication—prescribed or illegal—only makes them worse. Marc returns to the kibbutz, his wife stoned, his childhood sweetheart suicidal, his future uncertain, while Joseph assists his half-brother’s attempt to run away from army service. Clearly, the Solomons have come a long way from the ideals of the kibbutz in early years. Ball switches points of view for a mosaic of family members and associates in crisis and adrift. Her terse, sharp-edged prose captures settings ranging from an American jail where highest bail is king to a French military post where they haven’t won a war since Napoleon, but they sure know how to live. For all its humor, penetrating disillusionment underlies Ball’s memorable portrait of a family, once driven by pioneer spirit, now plagued by overextension and loss of direction, unsure what to do with its legacy, teetering between resentment, remorse, and resilience.
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