14 really great books to read over the holidays

Unputdownable reading material from 2017, to gift or keep for yourself.

Illustration Sharon Gong
December 13, 2017
14 really great books to read over the holidays

We spent a lot of our time this year — like every year — on the internet. But when we just couldn't take the unceasing shit storm anymore, we turned to books. Not only for a respite from the screen but to learn about the world, or escape it. Turns out we collectively loved bafflingly good comics, short stories that played with form, photo books, and Gucci Mane's autobiography. Books are good. These are our favorites from 2017.

1. Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, a realmless novel about multiple generations of a Mississippi family, Jesmyn Ward treats characters like they’re actually human and places like they’re actually home. It’s a little magical, while being impossibly, overwhelmingly real. Not long after the book’s release, Ward was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.” I can’t think of many authors as worthy. —Rawiya Kameir

2. Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach

I confess: I had no previous desire read a deep dive into the naval yards of 1940’s Brooklyn. But I'd go anywhere that Jennifer Egan’s perfect sentences take me. She won a Pulitzer Prize for A Visit From The Goon Squad and this one is just as mind-blowing. Manhattan Beach is an evocative, gripping thriller with insane twists, emotional grit (I cried!), and the no-fucks-giving central character of Anna Kerrigan — the most memorable heroine I’ve read in fiction since, well, Egan’s last book. —Owen Myers

3. Jenn Pelly, The Raincoats

It’s been awhile since there was a 33 ⅓ that really wowed people. The last one that shook me was Gina Arnold's on Exile in Guyville. The brilliant Jenn Pelly did the damn thing with her deep-dive on seminal British post-punk group The Raincoats’s 1979 self-titled debut record — if you're unfamiliar, you may have heard "The Void," or at least Hole's cover. It's an unusual story that hadn't really been told before, and Pelly's writing deftly captures the history and the mood. —Leah Mandel

4. Tillie Walden, On a Sunbeam

My favorite book of 2017 was a webcomic. On a Sunbeam is an intricately illustrated, emotionally complex teen sci-fi drama set in a universe without men, written and drawn by 21-year-old Tillie Walden and published in weekly 30-page installments on her Tumblr. Someone smart should give her the budget of Star Wars. —Duncan Cooper

5. Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties

The opening story of Her Body and Other Parties is a retelling of the folktale “The Green Ribbon,” only it's called "The Husband Stitch," which is a misogynist term for when the doctors tie up the torn or cut perineum post-pregnancy, supposedly making the vagina “tighter” for her husband. And that's just the tip of that story's iceberg — within it, the housewife protagonist breaks the narrative and does her own folktale retellings, apologizing for their lack of conclusion. The rest of the book is a mind-boggling, unsettling whirlwind: there's an SVU-themed novella starring Benson and Stabler, their doppelgangers Henson and Abler, and ghost girls with bells for eyes; a story about an encroaching, world-ruining virus, told through sexual encounters; and one about women who simply, gradually, disappear into nothingness. Carmen Maria Machado is an expert world-builder who loves "creeping people out," and now she's a National Book Award finalist. If you don't read this one, you're a fool. —Leah Mandel

6. Sean T. Collins and Julia Gfrörer, Mirror Mirror II

My selection for this list was a tossup between Ottessa Moshfegh's short story collection Homesick For Another World and this. I like reading stuff that makes me squirm. What pushed Gfrörer and Collins's heretical collection of salacious and brutal comics over the top was the element of discovery. For every personal favorite that contributed something — Uno Moralez, Lala Albert, Johnny Negron, and even horror legend Clive Barker — there were four or five new names each offering something different. I should emphasize the uniqueness as well: each comic or illustration feels like a peek into the mercurial depths of the individual artists, never just sex and horror for provocation's sake. That honesty can be revealing for readers as well — when was the last time a horror/sex anthology taught you something about yourself? —Jordan Darville

7. Dian Hanson and Ren Hang, Ren Hang

"Photographer Ren Hang was magic," our photo editor Emily Keegin wrote February this year, after the boundary-pushing artist passed away at 29. "In the photography community we talk a lot about magic. Photography is magic. The stopping of time is magic. The capturing of light is magic. The flattening of the world into two dimensions is magic. And in a world full of magicians, Ren Hang was Houdini." Taschen published this collection of Hang's works in March. It's stunning and necessary. —Leah Mandel

8. Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood: Essays

More than anything, I love getting knocked on my ass by a good essay collection. Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood dizzied me, but when I regained consciousness I felt like I had 20/20 vision. Chew-Bose’s observations on love, being brown, and writing pull off that wonderful trick of putting into words a sensation you have always felt. When Durga said writing will never be “as satisfying as the pop! I anticipate when twisting open a Martinelli’s apple juice...Writing is a closed pistachio shell,” I felt that. —Olivia Craighead

9. Jillian Tamaki, Boundless

Award-winning cartoonist Jillian Tamaki is a favorite of mine, and her thick, beautiful collection of mystical, parable-like graphic short stories is truly gripping. She focuses on moments and moods and emotions within narratives about MP3 desert cults and a dystopian app called "mirror Facebook." Not to mention her softly colored style is subtly experimental, with profound, knockout spreads. —Leah Mandel

10. Alison Roman, Dining In: Highly Cookable Recipes

Dining In is more than just a long list of super interesting recipes — it's a book that will probably fundamentally change the way I cook. Recipes with unfussy new techniques like her Anchovy-Butter Chicken with Chicken Fat Croutons (with some radishes on the side!) produce ridiculously pleasing results that have inspired me to always take that extra little step. The book is filled with sneaky gems meant to steal the show at dinner parties. Make her Salted Butter & Chocolate Chunk Shortbread for dessert and you'll never be mad again. —Myles Tanzer

11. Darcy Eveleigh, Dana Canedy, Damien Cave, Rachel L. Swarns, Unseen

Unseen, a collection of hundreds of unpublished images from The New York Times’s archive, reveals stunning photos of black musicians, writers, politicians, and activists from the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Authors Darcy Eveleigh, Dana Canedy, Damien Cave, and Rachel L. Swarns provide context for each uncovered photo and share compelling stories behind the visuals. Flipping through the book, it’s hard to believe the striking photos have been buried for this long. —Juliana Pache

13. Jenny Zhang, Sour Heart

This summer I talked to breakout author Jenny Zhang about her debut story collection Sour Heart and found out we're kind of kindred spirits. She was a shy New York older sister, like me, and she has no issue talking about bodily functions. Right off the bat, she's writing about pooping and eczema. Each chapter is about a different young Asian-American girl, and there's no shying away from the way girls' bodies work, or their freaked out puberty minds, for that matter. “Being someone is terrifying,” she writes in “The Evolution Of My Brother," one of my favorites from the collection. “I long to come home, but now, I will always come home to my family as a visitor, and that...reverts me back into the teenager I was, but instead of insisting that I want everyone to leave me alone, what I want now is for someone to beg me to stay.” Dare you not to cry. —Leah Mandel

14. Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane

From time, and even more so since his May 2016 release from prison, Gucci Mane’s story has been told by many. It’s taken the form of oral histories, cover stories, on-camera interviews, even plain old word of mouth. Which is why it was so incredibly important and special to hear about his life and career in his own words, with detail and context (about his family history, personal relationships, label madness, internal reckonings) one might never have known before. The man has lived many lives, and changed the course of music since the day he decided to release some of his own. —Nazuk Kochhar

14 really great books to read over the holidays