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The Rail's Best Books of 2017

Selections from our Books Editor

Ordinary Beast:
NICOLE SEALEY with Alex Dueben

Nicole Sealey had an eventful 2017. Ordinary Beast, her debut collection of poetry, was published by Ecco in September, which caps off a year that began when she took the helm as the executive director of Cave Canem in January.

In Conversation

Vengeance: ZACHARY LAZAR with David Winner

Every Zachary Lazar book since Sway (2008), his hypnotic study of chance connections between the Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger and the Manson Family, creates its own genre.

In Conversation

KATHERINE FAW with Sean Madigan Hoen

Katherine and I have been friends for a little while. I met her at an ill-fated book sale where we were both stationed behind tables on which our recently published books were stacked, and no one was buying.

In Conversation

My Cousin A.J.:
A.J. JACOBS with Meg Kissel

A.J. Jacobs is an author known for conducting social experiments—on himself.

In Conversation

Really Any Desert Creature: CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS with Allison Field Bell

Claire Vaye Watkins was born in Bishop, California in 1984. She was raised in the Mojave Desert, in Tecopa, California and across the state line in Pahrump, Nevada.

Naomi Alderman’s The Power

The nightly news has become a flood of narratives of sexual harassment and the rape of women and young girls by men in positions of power which lends a decided appeal to Naomi Alderman's tale of young girls suddenly getting "the power"—an ability to zap others with their own self-generated electrical charges.

Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions

“My vocation,” writes the narrator of Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions, “has all the features of a vacation for most people.” The narrator is enrolled in an American Studies Ph.D. program at NYU, where she is given a small but livable salary, which enables her to devote herself to the pursuit of her intellectual interests.

Gil Fagiani's Logos

I’ve always been a fan of poetry that tells a good a story. A human story. When I opened a book of poems I received in the mail the other day, Logos by Gil Fagiani, it didn’t take me long to know I was in the hands of an honest storyteller.

Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest

Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest is both a novel of ideas and one of visceral emotion written with language so precise and rich that at times it can feel overwhelming.

Eyes Without a Face: Christine Hume and Jeff Clark’s Question Like A Face

The first time I read Question Like A Face I mistakenly omitted the “like” in its title.

Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl

The young female narrator has become incredibly popular particularly in American Young Adult fiction. YA is big business with a plethora of formulaic narratives and often mediocre writing.

In Conversation

The Lonely Scrivener:
GAY TALESE with John Domini

Gay Talese tells me it feels strange not to begin a Monday morning in “the Bunker.” By this he means his Manhattan workspace.

In Conversation

Time-Trails and Travelled Roads: GALE RENEE WALDEN with Rod Kessler

In her recently released Where the Time Goes, Illinois poet Gale Renee Walden moves the reader in various ways, including along the time-line.

Beyond Violence: Paul Yoon’s The Mountain

Paul Yoon’s story collection, The Mountain, is an important book for many reasons, and yet what will likely draw readers back again and again is Yoon’s language, the potent beauty of its sentences.

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility

For those who haven’t succumbed yet to resentment or despair, a feeling of impotence might be peeking out from behind their weary consciousnesses. While the neoliberal fairytale of eternal prosperity hardly lulls anyone to sleep, our waking hours don’t seem to offer much of an alternative.

In Conversation

with David Winner

Adam Braver’s haunting and mysterious novel, The Disappeared, plays with the notion of terrorism and its aftermath. Both of its two protagonists have had loved-ones disappear. Both disappeared-ones may have been lost in terrorist events...

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

The day after Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s new essay collection We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy was released, Coates appeared on CBS This Morning to promote it. Towards the end of the segment, Gayle King addresses him. “You’re being called one of America’s best writers on race,” she says. “…I heard you gagged when you heard that.”

Anthony DeCurtis's
Lou Reed: A Life

A teenage Lou Reed wrote under his High School yearbook photo that he had “no plans, but will take life as it comes.” It sounds like a Lou Reed song already. Young Lewis also wrote that he liked basketball, music, and “naturally, girls.”

Fathers and Daughters: Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach

The poet Philip Larkin famously wrote: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” Anna Kerrigan, the protagonist of Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan’s new novel, might well nod at Larkin’s sentiment, certainly as it relates to her father.

D. Foy’s Absolutely Golden

An essay I return to often is Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a piece renowned for its central image: the Angel of History, witnessing the past not as a series of separate events, but as a chaotic singularity—an infinite trainwreck piled atop itself, unto the end of the world.

On the Impossibility of Teaching Writing: Rainald Goetz

Given the author’s fame and the controversy surrounding his work, it was clear that his lecture would inevitably be received both as a diagnosis of the methods by which literature is currently taught in German universities and as a statement on the predicament of the written word today.

Patrick McGrath's
The Wardrobe Mistress

The Wardrobe Mistress is Patrick McGrath’s ninth novel, and he is top form as he paints a grim portrait of grief, fascism, and madness in post-war London.

Structures in Service to Wonder: Ivy Pochoda's Wonder Valley

A naked runner barrels down a hot, embittered stretch of roadway in Los Angeles, causing a traffic jam. We’re told we “might envy him,” and that he looks like “a superhero, but not one of the cool ones.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard: Autumn and Winter

Like many readers of My Struggle, I came to the series with plenty of doubts that only fueled my curiosity. How could a book that sounded so self-absorbed and boring be described as compulsively readable? I too was taken over by it, and read the first three volumes in the span of a month, astounded by its power.

In Conversation


There is a group of people around the world who are oppressed regardless of race, class, economic status, country of origin or religion: women.


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