A Year in Reading: Jeff VanderMeer

December 5, 2017 | 15 books mentioned 12 min read

As an omnivore, I define the word “enjoyment” as anything from a heady intellectual excitement at exposure to new ideas or narrative structures all the way to an uneasy/comfortable feeling that lives visceral in the gut and defies analysis. I’m not really interested in imposing my own idea of a good book on what I read—I want the book to imprint itself on me and take me over and change me.

I have left off most of thousand or so books I blurbed in 2017, believing their blurbification gave them an unfair advantage. However, I couldn’t resist including blurbed books by Leonora Carrington, Jac Jemc, and Quintan Ana Wikswo. (Since this is The Year of the Machado, I don’t think I need to draw your attention that way—if you haven’t read Her Body and Other Parties, what’s your problem?) I have also included a couple of 2016 titles that I first read this year.

As for regrets, my current to-read pile includes Clade by James Bradley, Compass by Mathias Énard, Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Chemistry by Weike Wang, and The Inner Lives of Animals by Peter Wohlleben. My regrets also include a half-dozen much-lauded titles that I would characterize as damp sparklers dressed up as a full fireworks display, but the less said about them the better.

Belladonna by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (New Directions) – I place this selection first, out of alphabetical order, because it was my favorite read of 2017 and one of my favorites of this decade. Using as her canvas the life of the elderly ex-psychologist and ex-author Andreas Ban, Belladonna unflinchingly explores the horrors of fascism in Croatia, the break-up of Yugoslavia, World War II crimes against humanity, and the absurdities of aging and of the modern era. Deftly diving into various periods of Ban’s life, Drndić’s accomplishment here is astonishing for several reasons. First, that what easily could be drifty, dreamy, and unfocused is so sharp, structured, and acerbic. Second, that she can deal so nakedly with atrocity and yet say something new and pin the offenders to the wall and somehow not become didactic in the negative sense of that word. To give just one example of the novel’s many strengths, Drndić in chronicling a trip made by Ban to Amsterdam observes of a particularly stupid example of recycling that “people are obedient, they like to separate their trash, to recycle the debris of their own and other people’s lives. Following a diktat, they fly to embrace goodness, which they shift around in their pockets the way men scratch their balls, then they sleep soundly.” Like much of Belladonna, the observation sends up modern life but also has relevance to the terrible history Drndić lays bare. The novel is multi-faceted, sharp, surprising, darkly and grimly hilarious, relevant to our times, and possesses limitless depth. It also bristles with intelligence and defiance in every paragraph, like an exceptionally erudite and alert porcupine. Belladonna deserves major awards consideration, and I don’t mean for “best translation,” although definitely that too—Hawkesworth’s work here is marvelous. (Curmudgeonly aside: Reviewers, please stop comparing authors to W.G. Sebald just because a novel includes a grainy black-and-white photo or two and pays attention to history.)

coverThe Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press) – This first novel chronicling hilarious and sad misadventures on a college campus in 1995, and then in Hungary for a student work program, delights in large measure due to the unusual narrator and the exasperating relationship at the story’s core. Batuman has a talent for exposing the absurdity of how we conduct ourselves in the world and the ridiculousness of societal rituals. It’s a tribute to Batuman’s formidable magic tricks that although the novel fades a bit in the final fifth, I still enjoyed The Idiot more than almost anything I read in 2017.

coverThe Gift by Barbara Browning (Coffee House) – An overlooked gem from the year, The Gift chronicles a woman’s journey through art and experience in the context of the Occupy movement, with observations about our modern attempts to form meaningful connection. As I wrote for Bookforum,The Gift is unusual novel about the performance of life and the life of performance that tells us empathy and passion are deeply political, and that fiction that flips a finger to the boundary between storytelling and the body is an expression of hope and a way toward a different future. In so many ways, Browning’s creation is a beautiful meditation on art, and a balm for readers in these difficult times.”

coverThe Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by Leonora Carrington (Dorothy) – The famous surrealist painter and contemporary of Max Ernst also wrote fiction, and this fiction bridged the gap between the surrealists and post-World War II fabulists. Her writings were a huge influence on Angela Carter, and likely allowed Carter to imagine a surrealism wedded to stronger cause-and-effect and something resembling a plot. In short, Carrington is essential to the history and evolution of 20th-century non-realist fiction. Stories like “The Debutante” and “White Rabbits” are strange and timeless and conjure up the universality of fairy tales while being thoroughly modern.

coverThe Green Hand and Other Stories by Nicole Claveloux, text translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYBR Classics) – These heady, surreal, transgressive stories from a forgotten imaginative juggernaut in French comics feature talking vegetables, depressed birds, and imagery that will lodge deep in your subconscious. The art style is like some aggressive mash-up of R. Crumb, Moebius, and Jim Woodring, but utterly unique. Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.

coverThe Trespasser by Tana French (Viking) – My first experience with French’s fiction, The Trespasser is a layered, complex tale that includes the added frisson of the detective narrator’s justified “paranoia” that the murder squad is out to sabotage her because of her gender. The combination of a fascinating case, a deep dive into the history of the narrator’s colleagues, and the fraught relationship she has with her partner create something special. I’ve now read all of French’s novels and recommend everything she’s written. Her work has contributed greatly to my continuing education as a writer.

coverHouses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman (Dorothy) – Gladman continues her utterly marvelous tales of the imaginary Ravicka, this time focusing on the mystery of invisible houses that seem to experience spatial dislocation. The narrator pursues this mystery with an implacable logical illogic that is reminiscent less of Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino than of a fabulist J.G. Ballard. Time and space are compressed and expanded in ways that create beautiful glittering structures in the reader’s mind. By the end, your brain has new secret compartments, which will reveal themselves when least expected.

The End of My Career by Martha Grover (Perfect Day) – An utterly enthralling and sobering tragicomic memoir of job and life experience that showcases Grover’s perfect sense of pacing and her eye for the absurdities of life and of the institutions of the modern world. Highlights include the essay “Women’s Studies Major” and the title essay. Out from a press in Portland, Ore., this collection deserves a much wider audience.

coverExit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books) – The author demonstrates the power of using a slight speculative element—mysterious doors used by people fleeing civil war to pass into Europe—to create a near-perfect novel about love, loss, and displacement. The novel’s most brilliant extrapolation is in not undermining the emotional resonance of the doors, and their effect on the main characters, with pointless explanation. Instead, Hamid creates a sensitive tapestry that comments on our current situation to devastating and beautiful effect.

coverRabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books) – Set in Freedom, Ala., Hartnett’s novel is an exploration of a mother’s death and the lives of animals that manages to be both “funny and heart-breaking” while avoiding the cliché inherent in the bittersweet. The narrator, Elvis Barrett, is endearing and in some ways wise beyond her years—and certainly knows more facts about critters than the average person. Although dead when the novel opens, the mother’s character is vividly portrayed and the family dynamic rather beautifully rendered as well. This is the kind of book I try to resist as a noted curmudgeon, but with not a smidge more sentiment than needed, Rabbit Cake is an instant classic that you could confidently give as a gift to any reader.

coverCrawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Jacobs’s 2014 Safari Honeymoon was a tour de force about contamination and containment, portraying in lush comic panels relationships between humans and the environment that were horrific, hilarious, and unique. Crawl Space, with its psychedelic chronicle of people discovering a hidden world behind mundane reality, warps and rewires the reader’s brain in ways more about control and damage, while exploring a genuinely unearthly ecosystem of creatures.

coverThe Grip of It by Jac Jemc (FSG Originals) – An original ghost story is nearly impossible to write, but somehow Jemc manages to come very close. In part, her clever structure—alternating between the points of view of a husband and wife as they encounter horrors in their new house—helps achieve new effects. But the novel also demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of ghost story tropes in the answers it provides—and doesn’t provide. I found The Grip of It genuinely creepy, in a jaded context in which I’ve been marinating (almost literally, and much to the detriment of my internal organs) in weird fiction for decades.

coverThe Answers by Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I love the conceit of Lacey’s second novel, which allows the author to tackle so much that is so relevant about relationships and power structures. A rich creative seeks to have his personal life so structured that different women perform different roles for him. The narrator of the first part of the novel, whose own life is fraught, is hired for one of the roles and from there Lacey pursues the idea about as far as it can go. The novel then opens up to include other points of view. The real genius of the novel is how the central conceit allows Lacey to structure scenes in ingenious ways, creating narrative drive and reader investment for what, on the face of it, might otherwise seem a purely intellectual exercise. The differences between The Answers and her wonderful first novel suggest that Lacey will continue to surprise and is unlikely to repeat herself.

coverBlack Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (The New Press) – Author of the infamous African Psycho and Memoirs of a Porcupine, Mabanckou’s Black Moses is less formally inventive than prior translated works, and perhaps an easier entry point for readers unfamiliar with his fiction. But it is nonetheless riveting and powerful stuff, set in the 1970s and 1980s in Congo-Brazzaville. Tokumisa, whose full name means “Let us thank God, the Black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors,” lives in an orphanage run by a jerk and abused by his fellows. Following his escape, Tokumisa joins a gang and thus begins a dark journey through a criminal underworld, with tragic consequences.

coverHumankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People by Timothy Morton (Verso Books) – Considered by many to be among the top philosophers in the world, especially among those tackling issues related to human effects on our environment, Morton herein provides an important, spirited, and sometimes frenetic analysis of the foundational assumptions of Marxism and other -isms with regard to nature and culture (whilst also wanting to redefine those terms). Morton makes a compelling case for how our existing ideologies must adapt or change radically to repatriate ourselves with a world in which we are entangled physically but which we have convinced ourselves we are estranged from, or stand apart from, in our minds. If that sounds wordy, it’s because this is a complex topic and Morton is better than I am at expressing complex concepts in ways that are useful to a layperson.

coverSourdough by Robin Sloan (MCD/FSG) – This satire of the tech industry manages to be both sweet and savory, in telling the story of a woman who inherits the possibly sentient starter for a sourdough recipe. More fairy tale than incisive critique, Sourdough epitomizes the heart-warming story that isn’t saccharine and as such it’s a rare novel indeed in a landscape dominated by more weighty books. But lightness is much more difficult to pull off (without devolving into the trivial), and Sloan manages the magic trick handily.

coverI Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (Wednesday Books ) – Like a relic from a simpler time, Smith’s novel, originally published in 1948, is a bit of a time capsule, but no less enjoyable for that reason. In charming and disarming prose, 16-year-old Cassandra Mortmain chronicles her family’s life in a crumbling castle. The place was bought by her father at the height of his literary success, but the death of their mother has given him writer’s block. Now they’re penniless and trying to eke out a spartan existence in their huge empty palace (complete with moat). Then Americans buy a neighboring farm and by extension become the Mortmain’s landlord, creating complications. All of the characters—from Cassandra’s siblings to her step-mom and her dad—are expertly drawn and the novel has lovely pacing and astute observation of human behavior.

coverMy Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston (Pantheon) – By turns subtle and explicit, Statovci’s first novel focuses on the mysteries of a love story across two countries narrated by Bekim, a displaced Yugoslavian living in Finland with a boa constrictor as his sole companion. Investigating his mother’s life (and loves) brings him back to Kosovo, which he hasn’t seen since he was a young child, and the novel opens up to become a haunting and beautifully written exploration of identity, father-son relationships, and history. Did I mention that a sarcastic talking cat also figures prominently? I’ve never read anything quite like this novel, expertly translated, which draws equally on fabulist and realist influences to create a unique tale.

coverFever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books) – If environmental pollution and climate change require new approaches to narrative, then Schweblin in Fever Dream has hit upon one potent approach. At the crossroads of the surreal and the real, her story about a dying woman and a boy who is not her son manages to convey the confusion and pain of the modern condition in a way I haven’t seen before. A short read, utterly riveting and poignant.

Stages of Rot by Linnea Sterte (PEOW) – This first graphic novel by a talented Swedish artist depicts an alternate Earth in which up is down and the small have become the mighty. From giant moths ridden by post-humans to orcas that cruise through the sky, Sterte up-ends the order of the natural world and in doing so makes that world more visible to us. The panels are largely wordless, the story told through the lifecycles and everyday existence of the fantastical creatures on display. The ecosystems she’s created are monstrous and magnificent.

coverOrgs: From Slime Molds to Silicon Valley and Beyond edited by Jenna Sutela (Garrett Publications) – This slim glossy expose of slime mold organization as applied to a (not always subtle) critique of capitalism is oddly charming and especially relevant in how it attempts to map organic systems to the human world. Diagrams and maps along with full-color photos of various weird slime-molds jostle for dominance along with fascinating main text that discusses “Sublime Management” and the biological metaphors inherent in corporate-speak. As a writer who tries to get beyond the human and is invested in exploration of soft tech like mushrooms, I found Orgs very interesting. However, I must point out that a supposedly progressive or leftist approach to the topic might have come in a more eco-friendly container: the glossy paper of this booklet stank of chemicals when I rescued it from the unnecessary shrink-wrap. (Thus, we all live with hypocrisy.)

coverBlack Wave by Michelle Tea (Feminist Press) – This skillful, sui generis, and bawdy intertwining of climate change anxiety and queer feminism has no equal or parallel in my experience. Set in a future of impending environmental doom, Tea’s narrator attempts to carve out a life, career, and relationships in a crumbling San Francisco. In a series of brilliant and hilarious set-pieces, sex and drugs and gender issues figure prominently, but also a complex awareness of the precariousness of our modern times. Although the environmental movement has in some ways lagged behind on social justice issues, Tea demonstrates the value of non-cis-gendered voices in this space, and how deviating from predominantly straight white male experiences can radicalize and make new the whole idea of the apocalyptic or mid-apocalyptic novel. Messy, poignant, funny, sad, visionary—Black Wave is pretty much everything.

coverThe Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad) – If everything is political and nothing about our foundational assumptions should remain unexamined, then The Cooking Gene helps hasten the process in an interesting direction, coming at racism, gender, and faith from a different vantage. Twitty’s thorough and thought-provoking book uses recipes for West African Brisket, among others, and trips to Civil War battlefields, synagogues (Twitty is Jewish), and plantations to tell the story of his family’s own personal history and the origins of Southern cooking. He also explores our relationship with animals, where our food really comes from, and how we’ve become disconnected from the natural world. Much of the history of food preparation he uncovers concerns survival and necessity. The author’s loss of his mother while writing the book adds a sadness but also a kind of strength.

coverA Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo (Stalking Horse Press) – Taking on all kinds of issues with regard to history and the marginalized, this deep and ultimately cathartic novel, replete with anchoring photographs by the author, chronicles the attempts of a midwife abandoned by her husband to establish a sanctuary for the downtrodden in a deserted plantation. This location, the secrets of the small town nearby, and the lives of those who seek sanctuary come together to create a powerful story about the damage of the past and the power of community. But, honestly, until you live within the intimacy of Wikswo’s prose, you can’t really understand A Long Curving Scar; it tends to defy summary.

coverThe Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper) – This transformative and ecstatic retelling of the Joan of Arc story in a future dystopian setting of environmental collapse and fascism challenges the reader to confront the iniquities of the present day. This is a phantasmagorical literary opera full of dramatic moments but also quiet scenes of intense realism, and Yuknavitch has created a timely tale that is always disturbing and thought-provoking. Nor, as in some dystopias, does she neglect an searing examination of the role of animals in our lives. I also highly recommend her nonfiction book The Misfit’s Manifesto, released late in the year.

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’s bestselling Southern Reach trilogy has been translated into 35 languages. His most recent novel, the critically acclaimed Borne, tackles climate change, biotech, and ecology.

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