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Maureen Corrigan Picks Books To Close Out A Chaotic 2017

Dec 12, 2017
Originally published on December 22, 2017 6:23 am

For a chaotic year, I'm offering a chaotic "Best Books" list — but I think my list is chaotic in a good sense. These books zing off in all directions: They're fresh, unruly and dismissive of the canned and contrived.

You can't go wrong with any of these books. As one of Dashiell Hammett's dangerous dames might have said: They're all the bees' knees.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has looked back on a year's worth of reading and decided what books she thinks belong on the top of the pile. Here's Maureen's list of the best books of 2017.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: For a chaotic year, I'm offering a chaotic best books list, but I think my list is chaotic in a good sense. These books zing off in all directions. They're fresh, unruly and dismissive of the canned and contrived. Jesmyn Ward's gorgeous and bleak novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," takes readers on the great American road trip. But unlike Jack Kerouac's carefree roadster, Ward's junker is loaded down with a baby in a car seat, a couple of ghosts, a package of crystal meth and the oppressive weight of racism, past and present.

George Saunders's ingenious novel, "Lincoln In The Bardo," is also a ghost story with origins in fact. When 11-year-old Willy Lincoln died of typhoid fever in 1862, his body was interred in a borrowed mausoleum in Georgetown. Newspapers reported that President Lincoln visited the crypt to open his son's coffin and hold his body. Saunders makes charged connections here between a president stranded in grief and a nation mired in the blood and gore of the Civil War.

Three of my choices for top novels of this year are set in New York City. Alice McDermott's stunner, called "The Ninth Hour," takes place in early 20th-century Brooklyn, mostly in the basement laundry room of a Catholic convent. Out of this confined situation emerges a sweeping cautionary tale about the pitfalls of female self-sacrifice. Jennifer Egan's "Manhattan Beach" is an atmospheric and adventurous historical novel that centers on women's work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. And Francis Spufford's "Golden Hill" brilliantly riffs on the 18th-century novels of Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne. It opens in 1746, when a man disembarks from a ship in lower Manhattan and soon finds himself besieged by con artists in this city of dark alleys and twisted virtue.

This year's best nonfiction is a grab bag of genres and tones. Richard Ford's small gem of a memoir about his parents is called "Between Them." Ford's father was a traveling bleach salesman in the American South during the 1930s and early '40s so a bonus with this little book is that it takes readers on an unsentimental but enchanted journey through that vanished landscape.

David Grann's fascinating book, "Killers Of The Flower Moon," transports us to Oklahoma in the 1920s. Back then, members of the Osage Indian Nation had struck it rich when oil was discovered beneath the land they'd been exiled to by the U.S. government. But the wealthy Osage, whom the newspapers playfully dubbed red millionaires, attracted more malevolent notice, and a rash of murders via poison, arson and bullets brought the newly formed FBI to the area. In "What She Ate," Laura Shapiro follows the food trails of six prominent women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Eva Braun and discovers fresher narratives lurking beneath their familiar life stories. Shapiro slyly likens her method of biographical research to standing in line at the supermarket and peering into the other carts.

In the sizzling category of young adult fiction, Erika L. Sanchez's novel "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter" is a standout. Julia is a 15-year-old Mexican-American girl living on the South Side of Chicago. She's restless, angry and uncomfortable in her own skin, always feeling secondary to her perfect older sister Olga. But when Olga dies in an accident, Julia becomes weighted down by obligation to her grieving parents. Smart and unpredictable, Sanchez's story delves into the vexed subject of female ambition.

I could rattle off 10 recommendations for best books in the mystery category alone, but I'll end this list by bowing to a heavyweight of a hardboiled collection that's just been published. It's called "The Big Book Of The Continental Op," and it gathers for the first time ever the 28 short stories, two novels and one unfinished tale starring Dashiell Hammett's first series detective known only as The Continental Op. The name Op derives from slang for a detective. Hammett's hero is an operative working for the Continental Detective Agency.

In the early 1920s, Hammett revolutionized the figure of the detective and the language of detective fiction through the Op, whom he referred to as a little man going forward day after day through mud and blood and death and deceit. I can't imagine a more pleasurable way to close out this chaotic year than by following the Op through the fogs of a bygone San Francisco. But you can't go wrong with any of these books. As one of those dangerous dames the Op falls for might have said, they're all the bee's knees.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find her list of the best books of 2017 on our website at freshair.npr.org. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, infidelity. Why do people cheat? Does it count as cheating when your spouse no longer knows your name because they have Alzheimer's? Is looking at pornography cheating? We talk with psychotherapist Esther Perel about her work with couples dealing with infidelity. Her new book is called "The State Of Affairs." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "I COULD WRITE A BOOK")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "I COULD WRITE A BOOK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.