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Lit Thursday

The Best Books We Read This Year

Lenny authors share their favorite books of 2017.

collage of six books

Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three, by David Plante

This year I read the republished Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three, by David Plante (NYRB Classics). I hadn't read it the first time it appeared in 1984. It had since gone out of print but I'm so glad it's back. It's a slim, devastating and deeply funny account of his relationships and interactions with three powerful literary figures, all women — Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer. Difficult Women surpasses the confessional tendencies of some memoir and rises to the level of art. In reviews, it was critiqued for being cruel toward it's subjects, but I actually found the portraits to be loving, the women all charming and fierce. Besides, I had the feeling these women would ascribe to Oscar Wilde's belief that "...the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

—Danzy Senna, author of New People

Motherest, by Kristen Iskandrian

One of my favorite parts of writing is interior monologue. I like to know what my characters are thinking: thoughts that are off-hand, unexpected, inappropriate. This is what I loved about Kristen Iskandrian's Motherest.

I loved Agnes, the protagonist of the coming-of-age novel. (For the record, I love coming-of-age novels. I hope that never changes.) I wanted Agnes to be my friend. I loved the letters she wrote to her absent mother, the way she signed off, "Ha Ha, This Is Not A Joke, Right? Pledged." The story, set at an unnamed liberal arts college, is also wonderful and incredibly familiar. The shock of being in love, sleeping overnight in a boy's dorm room for the first time. Agnes's equally passionate feelings for her new female friend who lives off campus. I remembered that feeling, too. I felt genuinely sad when an accidentally pregnant Agnes moves back home into her childhood room — sad and then scared. But somehow, I knew when Agnes kept the nightgown that she bought as a present for herself, that she would be okay.

—Marcy Dermansky, author of The Red Car

Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado's book Her Body and Other Parties is simply phenomenal. If you somehow missed the news flash, the book was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, and won the Bard Fiction Prize. This book deserves all the prizes, but more importantly, it will rearrange your DNA. These mind-blowingly original stories cross genres and forms and bodies and hearts so deeply and gloriously I felt like I experienced some kind of secular ecstatic state. Dive in naked. There is nothing else like it.

—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan

Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say, by Kelly Corrigan and I Will Send Rain, by Rae Meadows

This was a good year for the sisterhood — kicked off by the march on Washington and concluding with the legions of women who've come forward to back up others' accounts of harassment. My personal sisterhood came through for me with great books: Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say, by my friend Kelly Corrigan and I Will Send Rain, by my actual sister Rae Meadows.

Both of these books succeed because of how the authors were able to capture so much of their own blazing presence as women. It's like literary transubstantiation. Rae's novel, I Will Send Rain, is the story of a dust bowl family improvising survival. Like Rae herself, the book, longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, is all quiet power — the calm and the storm at once. Many months after reading it, I still can't talk to her about what happened to her characters without being moved to tears. Kelly's memoir, which will be published in January, is about her ongoing attempts to get life right — to be a better mother to her girls, to climb out of a vast crater of loss, to negotiate the daily slog. As ever, it's Kelly's steep honesty that closes the gap between us and her. We are with her — and she's the ultimate company.

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—Susannah Meadows, author of The Other Side of Impossible: Ordinary People Who Faced Daunting Medical Challenges and Refused to Give Up

River Hymns, by Tyree Daye

River Hymns, Tyree Daye's debut collection of poetry, is one of my favorites of 2017. In addition to the living, Daye acknowledges the influence of those who have come before, including late poets Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight, and Larry Levis. This idea of legacy — literary and otherwise — moves throughout the book in the most earnest of ways. There are no bells in River Hymns. No whistles. Just a world made more beautiful with language, and its frequent nods to legacy. A world filled with ghosts, rivers, and so much heart that I thought mine, while reading, would explode.

—Nicole Sealey, author of Ordinary Beast: Poems