1. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
In this beautiful, compact novel, Offill traces the rise, fall, and rise again of a marriage through fragments of glittering, exquisite prose. Offill touches on art, gender, unfulfilled expectations of adulthood, and the ongoing emotional consequences of miscommunication and infidelity. She writes sentences that will linger with you for weeks, like these, when the protagonist meets the man who will become her husband: “I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.”
2. Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio
D’Ambrosio has long been one of the better kept secrets of the literary community, a “writer’s writer” with a mastery of the essay form that ranks with heavyweights like John Jeremiah Sullivan and David Foster Wallace. Loitering concentrates the power of D’Ambrosio’s incisive prose into one collection in which he explores everything from his desire to become a father to the work of J.D. Salinger, often covering a dizzying array of subjects in the same paragraph. As our own Phillip Pantuso wrote in his review, D’Ambrosio “constructs sentences… of such sustained insight and fluency that you can’t help but feel a little fraudulent as a fellow user of the same mother tongue.”
3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A gripping post-apocalyptic tale that involves a troupe of Shakespearean actors, a global flu pandemic, and a series of slowly unraveling mysteries, Station Eleven is one of those hypnotic stories that you can’t bring on the subway, lest you miss your stop engrossed in it. Mandel is a deft stylist and an absorbing storyteller. In this book, she told us earlier, “I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world.” In that, it’s certainly successful.
4. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
It has been a good year for essayists, that pocket of under-loved writers. Suddenly, essay collections, even those by non-celebrities, are a fixture on the Times bestseller list, Bad Feminist amongst them. Gay’s measured voice and clear prose has earned her an enormous following online, where she cuts through the melee of reactionary hot takes with cool and calm.
5. Nobody Is Ever Really Missing by Catherine Lacey
We read Lacey’s debut novel over the summer—the perfect time of year, really, to delve into a world of loss and abandonment—and haven’t been able to stop thinking about how lyrically she brought to life the quiet desperation of Elyria, a young woman who is as restless on her spontaneous journey across the world as she is in her own mind. Elyria vibrates on a frequency recognizable to anyone who has ever known profound loss, anyone who has ever struggled to be understood even by the people with whom they are most intimate. So, really, a frequency recognizable to everyone.
6. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
In this intense, aching examination of the way that we understand the pain experienced by other people, Jamison, like Susan Sontag before her, looks at how we distance ourselves or don’t from human suffering. The book is a rangy, varied collection, but Jamison’s voice, strong and assured, is the star here; she’s proven herself one to watch.
7. Redeployment by Phil Klay
This year’s winner of the National Book Award for fiction, Klay’s debut story collection is a vivid, unflinching look at the world of soldiers serving in Iraq, both while they’re serving and when they come home. It also has a stunner of an opening line: “We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and called it Operation Scooby.” It’s a book that’s sometimes moving and sometimes purely funny. It’s a delight, but it still has teeth.
8. Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
This funny and often heartbreaking memoir is a book of misunderstandings and family squabbles and disappointments, but also one of self-discovery and literary ambition, told in Shteyngart’s trademark self-effacing style. It’s a rollicking read, and one that added many members to the author’s already considerable following.
9. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Ostensibly, James’ book is about what the title indicates: several violent incidents revolving around a plot against Bob Marley in the late 70s and early 80s. But actually, James’ novel paints a portrait of Jamaica under the influence of global politics, gang attacks linked to an influx of guns from the CIA, Colombian drug cartels, and others. It’s a stunning, brave book.
10. 10:04 by Ben Lerner
“I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously… a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid,” says the unnamed narrator on page two of Ben Lerner’s 10:04. The narrator is a refracted avatar of the author—hyper-literate, liberal, middle class; a successful author and a professor at the local college, preoccupied with the problem of turning life into art in a world that seems increasingly surreal. The novel wends its way through the liminal zones between fiction and meta-fiction, irony and sincerity, creation and recreation, the present and the remembered past, in search of a solution.