Jennifer Egan reportedly wrote A Visit From the Goon Squad, her mesmerizing, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel in stories from 2010, to avoid working on a piece of “bad historical fiction” she’d started. Seven years later, that decidedly not-bad work of historical fiction has arrived in bookstores, a monument to old-fashioned storytelling virtues: appealingly complex characters, a cracking plot, ace writing that ranges from hardboiled to funny to dreamy. This is the only title that appears on both my list and my colleague Laura Miller’s, because we agreed that readers might need a nudge to open a book that on its surface eschews Egan’s signature experimentation. Consider yourself nudged! Manhattan Beach, a gloriously comforting spectacle of gangsters, divers, sailors, and banker-socialite-politicians in World War II–era New York, is as immersive as the ocean that pounds at its mysterious heart.
“What is a friend?” the characters in this hyperverbal debut novel like to ask each other. “What is a conversation?” Rooney poses far more questions than answers in her tart, cerebral book about young anti-establishment poets and writers attempting to transcend their own glibness. Frances and Bobbi are best friends who get involved with an older couple, Melissa and Nick. The tangled dynamics and emotions that result—romantic, professional, platonic, a combination of all of the above—are just the beginning of what these articulate characters can’t find words for. A classic bildungsroman that also comes to terms with the economic uncertainties of post-crash Dublin and the existential uncertainties of illness and the body, Conversations With Friends swings from playful to soulful and dazzles throughout.
Clinton’s campaign memoir has much to recommend it: It synthesizes a prodigiously messy and intense chapter in our country’s history, it delivers the candidate’s voice (both literally and figuratively) to readers anxious for a sense of the “real” person, it depicts Jason Chaffetz being insufferable. But the book also achieves something more traditionally “literary”: a working through of grief and disappointment that feels at once revelatory of Hillary’s psychology and salubrious to ours. What Happened is the therapeutic process set down in paragraphs and offered up as education, entertainment, and consolation—in other words, as something like art.
The first installment of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, which unfolds in the universe of His Dark Materials and features many of that saga’s beloved players, rips a page from Spenserian romance (and countless other sources besides) as it chronicles a child’s canoe journey through a flooded England. Malcolm is fleeing the theocratic secret police with infant Lyra and grumpy scullery maid Alice. World politics are coming apart and nature is rebelling. Pullman’s terrific narrative gifts shine through in his plotting and pacing—and also in his uncanny handle on the emotional live wires that throw sparks across consciousness itself. No boogeyman is more primal or terrifying than a Pullman brute.
Once upon a time, a debut author stitched eight contemporary fairy tales/urban legends into a fierce and unnerving short story collection. Her preoccupations—the female body, sexual horror, domestic violence, and the violence of domesticity—have been explored often but rarely with a vividness that leaves you reading through your fingers. Carmen Maria Machado’s sentences are poison ivy, inflaming the skin; her plots are steeped in queerness and routed through the glistening shantytown of misogynistic pop culture. (One tale, “Especially Heinous,” remixes close to 15 seasons’ worth of episodes of Law and Order: SVU.) At the end, the wicked author is named a finalist for the National Book Award and, fingers crossed, writes prolifically ever after.
The bard of disaffected carnival capitalism pauses his journalistic work for the New Yorker and shuts his book of short stories. He opens a Word document with the intention of writing a novel and dreams up: Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, dead, in a graveyard with disfigured souls who won’t stop blabbering about their time on Earth. The Civil War rages around them. It’s as marvelously weird as it sounds and 10 times as moving, especially when Saunders trains his empathic, scholarly eye on the grieving president.
Few will be surprised to learn that some of the year’s funniest writing can be found in a gleefully blasphemous study of devout Midwestern family life penned by Twitter’s poetry queen, Patricia Lockwood. (At one point, she describes a seminarian “trying to choose between three or four different [chalices], all of which are so crusted with ornament that they appear actually diseased, as if King Midas had contracted an STD and then foolishly touched himself.”) What may startle, though, is the depth of feeling beneath the pyrotechnics, as well as some unutterably beautiful passages about lost faith, love, and grace. Lockwood’s sincerity—these are her parents, after all—has a way of occasionally touching down atop the mayhem like a dove.
Follow the umbilical cord on Her Body and Other Parties back to its electric source: Angela Carter, author of The Bloody Chamber and the woman whose witchy revisioning of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen set the whole feminist fairy-tale ball in motion. Gordon’s supple biography brims with delicious anecdotes and sharp insights; rather than shy away from his subject’s contradictions (Carter was soft-spoken yet outrageous; politically radical yet unorthodox), he leans into them. What’s revealed is not only a life but also the myths that have sprung up around that life—a double celebration that Carter’s fans can only welcome. As Salman Rushdie told Gordon, “She knew that she was Angela Carter, but she wouldn’t have minded a few other people knowing.”
The Odyssey, by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)
One of the most thrilling, gorgeous, capacious, self-replenishing narratives on Earth receives its first translation by a woman. No wonder the Muse is singing! Consuming Homer’s poetry while female can so often feel like trespassing in a man’s house. But The Odyssey, in which most of the monsters are ladies and the path home requires twistier forms of heroism than your average warrior-bro can muster, sucks a guy into a woman’s world. It is impossible to read Wilson’s masterful rendering—spare but lyrical, faithful but modern—without luxuriating in that fact. (The University of Pennsylvania classicist even liberates poor Dawn, allowing her to switch up her rosy-fingered epithet now and then.)
Batuman’s first novel, which draws hungrily on The Possessed, her memoir of traveling through Russia while reading Russian literature, is a story about falling in love. Not with the graduate student to whom protagonist Selin—a Harvard freshman—sends hapless, nocturnal emails. But with words, puzzles, ideas. When Selin goes to Hungary to meet up with her blandly passive crush, an already discursive book loses its way a bit yet never stops strewing the woods with candy. “I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about,” the Batuman stand-in reflects after concluding a particularly charming and loony associative flight on the subject of tissue boxes. How lucky for us.